An in-depth look at Alabama vs. Wisconsin
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It is time to breakout the helmets, shoulder pads and cleats, as the stage is set for college football. The passion returns Thursday, but all eyes will be on AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas for Alabama vs. Wisconsin. The Crimson Tide eyes a chance at a 16th national title.
Alabama Crimson Tide: Head coach Nick Saban
“Finish” is Alabama’s goal this year, after suffering two consecutive postseason losses.
Blake Sims excelled in 2014, but now a new face will start under center for the Crimson Tide. Senior quarterback Jake Coker is expected to start once again for a second straight year.
The 6-foot-5, 232-pound Coker saw action in seven games last season, completing 38 of 59 passes for 403 yards and four touchdowns. A former Florida State transfer, Coker is coming off a strong week of practice and is starting to play with more command.
Coker may start, but redshirt junior Alec Morris is on his heels. He is getting extensive reps in practice, as head coach Nick Saban wants both guys to be prepared for Wisconsin.
Junior running back Derrick Henry enters this season under a lot of hype.
He’s been named to multiple preseason All-American, all-conference and award watch lists. Henry recorded 990 rushing yards with 11 touchdowns on 5.8 yards per carry in 2014.
Ole Miss knocked him out last year, but Kenyan Drake is out for blood.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior totaled 112 rushing yards, 159 receiving yards and six touchdowns, prior to breaking his leg. Fully healthy, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin looks to use Drake more at receiver, but will see carries in the backfield.
The lights will be on Saturday night for true freshman running back Damien Harris, but is he ready? Harris will see carries late in the game, to get him in the feel for the action.
Alabama is without Amari Cooper, Christion Jones and DeAndrew White; however, a talented crop of receivers still remain. Redshirt junior Chris Black and graduate transfer Richard Mullaney are the veterans, while sophomores ArDarius Stewart and Robert Foster will be vertical targets. Black caught 15 balls for 188 yards in 11 games last season.
True freshmen wideouts Calvin Ridley, Daylon Charlot and Deionte Thompson will be worked into the offense against Wisconsin, but Alabama fans will focus on tight end O.J. Howard.
He finished fourth on the team in receptions last year with 260 yards on 17 catches, yet Howard was underused in marquee games. Kiffin’s will try to create opportunities for him.
Senior center Ryan Kelly and sophomore left tackle Cameron Robinson return as anchors on the offensive line. Senior Dominick Jackson will start at right tackle, and redshirt freshman Ross Pierschbacher lines up at left guard. For now, Alphonse Taylor appears to be the starter at right guard over Bradley Bozeman. He has played in 20 career games.
Defensively, Alabama returns experience and depth to its front line.
Defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson tallied 49 stops last season, including 6.5 for loss. He collected three pass breakups, four quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.
Senior Jarran Reed carried the defensive line for much of 2014. The former junior college transfer led all defensive linemen in tackles (55) and totaled a sack with five pass breakups.
Defensive end Jonathan Allen is the smallest of the three (6’3″ 283 pounds), but he’s an underrated pass rusher. Allen totaled 33 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 2014.
Robinson, Reed and Allen are the three-headed monster, but look for the Crimson Tide to rotate D.J. Pettway, Dalvin Tomlinson, Darren Lake, Joshua Frazier, Da’Shawn Hand.
The baton wasn’t handed safely from C.J. Mosley to Reggie Ragland, but Ragland took it anyway. He chimed in 95 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries, three pass breakups, a forced fumble and an interception. Ragland is the captain on defense.
Junior Reuben Foster will play beside Ragland. Neck injuries limited Foster to 11 games and 22 tackles in 2014, nevertheless he has avoided health problems all summer.
Dillon Lee has been the biggest surprise for Alabama in fall camp. The 6-foot-4, 242-pound senior can play at either inside, outside, strong side or weak side linebacker positions.
Senior outside linebacker Denzel Devall is back healthy, after playing only eight games last season (ankle). His diversity allows him to stand up at jack linebacker or drop down at defensive end. Devall has logged 59 career tackles, nine for loss and five sacks.
Alabama is deep at both inside and outside linebacker with players like Shaun Dion Hamilton, Rashaan Evans, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams, Keith Holcombe and Adonis Thomas.
Alabama hired Mel Tucker in the offseason as its defensive backs coach. He’s brought high energy, enthusiasm and a fresh perspective on how to create more turnovers.
Cornerback Cyrus Jones and safety Geno Matias-Smith both return as senior leaders in the secondary. Jones put in 46 tackles, 13 pass breakups and three interceptions last year.
Tony Brown, Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick are all battling for the second starter role at corner. Brown has the most experience, but Fitzpatrick is pushing both guys.
Expect to see a lot of Eddie Jackson in one of the safety roles, and a rotation of Maurice Smith, Ronnie Harrison and Jabriel Washington. Smith and Washington both have experience.
Wisconsin Badgers: Head coach Paul Chryst
Paul Chryst becomes Wisconsin’s fourth head coach since 2005 (Barry Alvarez, 1990-05).
He is a native of Madison, Wisc., and was a standout at quarterback from 1986-88. Chryst was the Badgers’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2005-11, under head coach Bret Bielema. He produced a lot of those heavy run Wisconsin teams that had success.
The Badgers lost 2,587 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns to the National Football League, as former Heisman finalist Melvin Gordon is a running back for the San Diego Chargers.
Corey Clement returns as a junior this season and will get a lion’s share of carries.
He collected 949 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 6.5 yards per carry in 14 games.
Balance will be crucial for Wisconsin against Alabama, whether the quarterback is Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy. Regardless of classification (junior), both guys were inconsistent in 2014.
Stave threw for 1,350 passing yards with nine touchdown to 10 interceptions. McEvoy, a converted safety, tossed for 709 yards with five touchdowns and six interceptions.
Senior Alex Erickson returns as Wisconsin’s primary receiver. He brought in 55 passes for 772 yards and three touchdowns last season. Erickson averaged 14.04 yards per catch. Jordan Fredrick, 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, came down with 13 balls in 2014 for 126 yards. Junior wideout Reggie Love is another big target at 6-foot-3, 206 pounds.
Seniors Ray Ball and Tyler Marz anchor the Badgers’ offensive line.
Juniors Logan Schmidt, Dan Voltz and Walker Williams join them. The five must impose their will upfront to protect and provide run lanes for Clement.
Experience reigns supreme for Wisconsin on defense; however, its secondary create much of the action. Senior outside linebacker Joe Schobert captains the Badgers front seven.
He was fourth on the team in tackles (69) and put in 13.5 stops for loss in 2014.
Senior safety Michael Caputo anchors Wisconsin’s secondary. He led the team in tackles with 106, and recorded six tackles for loss with an interception in 14 games last season.
Senior Darius Hillary and junior Sojourn Shelton are both sound cornerbacks. Hillary finished with 41 tackles, including three for loss, while Shelton had 31 stops with one for loss in 2014.
Impact Players for Alabama
- RB Derrick Henry
- LB Reggie Ragland
- DL A’Shawn Robinson
Impact Players for Wisconsin
- RB Corey Clement
- OLB Joe Schobert
- S Michael Caputo
Keep your eyes on Alabama’s redshirt sophomore quarterback Cooper Bateman. He may be used some in an option package. ABC will air the game Saturday at 7:00 pm CT.
Stephen M. Smith is a senior analyst and columnist for Touchdown Alabama Magazine and SB Nation. You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @ESPN_Future.