With two weeks to prepare for a trip to College Station, the Alabama Crimson Tide will be looking to No. 42, Adrian Hubbard, the Sam linebacker, to be the major cog in stopping Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
It will require a team defensive effort to shut down the Aggies, and Manziel, but Hubbard is going to have to play a critical role. Against the run, against the pass and, most importantly, against the freelancing Manziel, the redshirt junior from Lawrenceville, Georgia will have to play a sound game for the Tide.
This is not about Hubbard being the best candidate to operate as a spy on Manziel; that award would likely go to inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. Mosley is a versatile player who can run well, play against the run and cover.
However, a spy is not going to be what wins this game.
In fact, do not expect a lot of true spy technique from the Crimson Tide. A spy had to shadow Manziel in the pass game. As the quarterback moves laterally, the spy's mirroring will create seams in the defense.
Unlike other run-first quarterbacks, Manziel can take advantage of these seams with his arms. So with that in mind, expect more team defense from Nick Saban's squad. Especially since the spy not only is a coverage liability, but also takes away a possible rusher.
The reason Hubbard is the key is his versatility.
He is a big-bodied kid at nearly 250 pounds. He can run and play multiple positions. Hubbard can line up on the line at defensive end, he'll stand up as an outside backer, and in smaller packages, he can slide inside to linebacker and play coverage. Look for him also to start inside standing up before looping outside for stunts to show different looks.
In the run game, Hubbard will be tasked with Manziel responsibilities against the zone-read. As Tra Carson and Ben Malena bring power to the interior, the first step for Hubbard will be to avoid crashing down inside, playing responsible football to ensure that Manziel does not keep the ball and get loose on the edge.
For Hubbard, that will also mean staying under control in checking for Manziel on the keeper. Flying to the quarterback out of control, when that quarterback is as elusive as Manziel, is as big a misstep as the Sam 'backer flying down inside to the running back.
Control will be the key for Hubbard in the pass game as well. Versus a stationary quarterback, the key to the rush is running the hump, hoping to beat the tackle to the edge and get to the quarterback at the top of his drop.
Against a quarterback like Manziel, the key to the rush is squeezing him into the pocket, constricting him from all sides, and not flushing him up or out of the pocket. That means Hubbard, along with Jack linebacker Xzavier Dickson and the entire defensive line, will have to work in concert to close the defensive fist around Manziel.
The Tide has to get pressure on Johnny Football, but that pressure has to come under control. Hubbard, when added to the rush, cannot get deeper than the quarterback or overrun the play. Maintaining his outside leverage and keeping containment will be paramount.
A controlled pass rush and responsibilities in the run game all are created to avoid the third and most critical element of Manziel's game, improvisation.
His improvising is what has hurt opponents in big spots. It hurt Alabama in 2012.
Alabama is going to work to limit the opportunities for Manziel to improvise. That is the reason for the controlled rush and playing sound fundamental football. However, when Manziel does see daylight, the most important thing for Alabama to do is tackle the ball-carrier.
Certainly it is easier said than done, as defenses showed on Johnny's campaign to the Heisman.
Tackling has to happen when Manziel breaks or is about to break contain. That means coming to balance, securing the tackle by wrapping up, and driving the quarterback to the ground. More importantly, it means not diving at legs, lunging for a big hit or ducking the head in the process.
Johnny Football is slippery, and Hubbard is going to play a big role in reducing the opportunities the quarterback has to get loose.
The junior Sam 'backer likely does not have the stat game people look for to identify someone as playing a quality game. In fact, if Hubbard does his job, he won't be the one making the tackles; it will be his teammates. And that is a good thing.
The junior needs to make Manziel hand off in the run game, squeeze him in the pocket in the pass game and limit the scrambling opportunities for the reigning Heisman winner.
If Hubbard can do those things, Alabama will be in good shape.