We have made it to game week for Alabama football.
Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide will face Duke on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga., to open its season.
Each team under Saban has a different identity and per senior cornerback, Trevon Diggs, this year’s group is focused on getting its respect back.
Regardless of Duke not being the caliber opponent that Alabama is used to scheduling for a neutral site season-opener, this matchup is more about the Tide than the Blue Devils.
Saban exited a season in 2018 where his players were not always disciplined and the ideal leadership was lacking at various positions.
For a program that is known for finishing, the Tide did not finish well at all versus Clemson and it allowed Oklahoma to make the Capital One Orange Bowl interesting in the second half.
With a squad of veteran coaches and hungry players returning, this week will provide the blueprint on how bad does Alabama want to win.
In this two-part series, Stephen Smith of Touchdown Alabama Magazine will dissect five important keys offensively and defensively for the Tide against Duke.
Let’s start on offense
Mindset of Tua Tagovailoa, Steve Sarkisian
He had a preexisting relationship with the Tagovailoa family and recruited Tua Tagovailoa to Alabama – prior to his move to the Atlanta Falcons – but Saban reunited the marriage of Tagovailoa and Steve Sarkisian during the offseason.
While the offensive mind and quarterback savant has a plan to get the Tide back on top, the Heisman finalist and All-American from 2018 is ready to define himself as the most efficient signal-caller in college football.
Despite owning the Heisman Trophy race through seven to eight games last year, injuries and stiff competition caused Tagovailoa to struggle down the stretch.
Although he won’t turn down his desire of wanting big plays every time, Sarkisian and Saban have gotten the native Hawaiian to understand the value of protecting his body.
The returning junior will have a better offensive line; however, it is his job to control the flow of the game and find ways to make Alabama as effective as possible.
In coming off an 8-4 season, David Cutcliffe will have the Blue Devils’ defense showing Tagovailoa different looks.
Duke lost one of its 24 sacks from a season ago, as Victor Dimukeje returns as its leader in sacks (3.5) and tackles for loss (nine). Other playmakers on the Blue Devils’ defensive front include Chris Rumph II, Drew Jordan, Terrell Lucas, Leonard Johnson and Derrick Tangelo.
All of these combined for 11.5 sacks.
For Tagovailoa, he has to make sure he checks into the right calls in pass protection and run blocking to keep the team ahead of schedule. Creating favorable matchups is the big thing for Sarkisian, where isolating this group of talented wide receivers are concerned.
Both guys must remain on the same page.
Alabama’s running backs
“The more things you do well, the harder you are to defend.”- Steve Sarkisian
It’s the second time around for Alabama’s offensive coordinator and according to what he told local reporters at Open Practice/Fan Day, Sarkisian is committed to running the football.
Seeing how Kyle Flood came with him from the National Football League, it is only right for Sark to boost the confidence of the Tide’s offensive line as well. It will not have Trey Sanders, true freshman (five-star) this year, but Najee Harris, Brian Robinson, Jerome Ford, Keilan Robinson (freshman) and Chadarius Townsend (converted receiver) are more than capable.
The combination of pounding the rock and taking calculated shots with Tagovailoa provides a balance that Alabama did not have in 2018.
Saban wants to get back to controlling games, having a mixture of quick-strike and soul-crushing drives, and watching his team impose its will.
All the backs desire the same as well.
Left side of O-Line
The left side under Saban has served as the strong side of Alabama’s front line.
This season looks to be nothing different as Duke will see Alex Leatherwood and true freshman, Evan Neal.
After playing right guard last year, Leatherwood is back at his natural left tackle spot. At 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, the native Floridian and five-star comes in a lineage of left tackles that includes Andre Smith, Barrett Jones, Cyrus Kouandjio, Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams.
Leatherwood has the potential to be the next great one.
As for Neal, the five-star in the 2019 class from Florida is an imposing presence at 6-foot-7 and 360 pounds.
He was a standout throughout spring practice, summer workouts and fall camp.
Neal has worked with the first-team group at left guard all offseason.
If he and Leatherwood create opportunities, it will be a long day for Duke.
Alabama returns a fleet of receivers, but tight end is area that has Saban scratching his head.
He graduated both Irv Smith and Hale Hentges to the NFL, and does not have much experienced depth at the position. Even with this, Miller Forristall is prepared to end all of Saban’s concerns.
A three-star from Cartersville, Ga., Forristall came in the 2016 class and impacted the game as a freshman.
He caught five passes for 75 yards that year, but a knee injury crept in the following year and Smith’s rise in 2018 forced Forristall to the sidelines. The 6-foot-5, 242-pounder looks to bring massive production.
Field goals have been Alabama’s kryptonite for a long time.
In fact, the program missed nine extra point tries in 2018.
Will Reichard, true freshman, is looking more like the individual that will end the run of inconsistent kickers for the Tide. Following a strong high school career at Hoover (Ala.), he nailed a 43-yard try on A-Day and made all four of his extra points.
Joseph Bulovas is improving, but per sources, nothing rattles Reichard and he finds ways to stay loose.
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