Two great traditional football programs are set to meet for the first time in twenty years this Saturday evening. The University of Alabama plays host to Penn State University. The 2010 Crimson Tide is a blend of mature, championship caliber talent on the offensive side of the ball and young, inexperienced talent on defense with a few well positoned defensive leaders.
Seven key players must step up the intensity of their play and exert their leadership on the field this weekend in order for the Crimson Tide to decisively defend the home turf against the Nittany Lions. With exception to the quarterback, Greg McElroy, these players are first year starters.
Julio Jones, Trent Richardson, James Carpenter, William Vlachos, Barrett Jones and Marquis Maze are expected to perform well and have not let their level of performance drop from the 2009 peak performance. They are proven winners and timely playmakers. Same goes for key defenders like Donta' Hightower, Luther Davis and Mark Barron.
But in order for this team to have success against Penn State, others will have to contribute in meaningful ways.
Intelligent play from senior quarterback, and team leader, Greg McElroy.
This is a given for any team. The quarterback must lead the offensive unit with confidence and conviction on every drive. Offensive possession of the ball is simply the best opportunity to exert your dominance and put points on the board. It starts with ball control and intelligent distribution of the pigskin to the talented offensive playmakers.
The hopeful Rhodes Scholar is football smart as well as book smart, has the confidence of his coaches, team mates and fan base. He has to continue to make good choices and advances the ball toward the goal with the mindset to score on every series. Greg McElroy has hit his bumps and had to adjust his thought process more than once as leader of the Crimson Tide. In nearly every game he has played for the Tide, his second half performance has outshine the first half.
McElroy must prove that this offense is capable of putting 35 points or more on the board against a quality team. He needs to prove that this weekend against a Joe Paterno defense. Mistakes must be at a minimum.
He must continue to make intelligent halftime adjustments and control the ball in both halves of this game. Red zone scoring must be at 80% or better less the Lions gain confidence in a close contest on the road. Nothing short of a 10 point lead going into the fourth quarter will suffice. In my opinion, if the game is close in the fourth quarter, Penn State has a distinct advantage.
Success of the passing game will surely depend on the contributions of established playmakers Julio Jones and Marquis Maze. They are both accomplished playmakers and when they are on the field, both garner attention by adjustments in the defensive alignment. At times, both Jones and Maze will draw double coverage.
Their success directly depends on the success of the third option, Darius Hanks.
If McElroy drops back to pass, he must establish a threat at every receiver position or as the game progresses, options will be taken away. Moreover, if Hanks doesn't get the looks from his quarterback or if he drops catchable balls, his confidence will be shaken and he will become an ineffective option.
While the tight end is a viable option for a check down receiver, the skill of a slot is more likely to advance the ball further down field.
When WR's Julio Jones and/or Marquis Maze are double covered by the same side cornerback and safety, the option on defense is to cover the slot receiver with a linebacker or an extra defensive back. In addition, with double coverage on the WR, deep routes by Jones and Maze will open up routes underneath, 7-10 yards off the line of scrimmage.
This is the ground that must be exploited by the slot receiver (or the tight end).
The advantage of getting the ball to the slot receiver (as opposed to a tight end) is that this athlete usually possesses speed and quick feet that will allow him to separate from a linebacker. Hitting the slot receiver on a timely route, in stride, will allow him to gain at least 7-10 yards, generally more than 10 yards on a well timed play.
Darius Hanks can get it done in this department. Now getting it done on a regular basis will open up other options in the passing game.
First downs come easier when chunks of yardage are eaten up play after play.
With deep routes and double coverage on wide receivers, every play to this speedy playmaker turns into a potential score provided that downfield blocking available.
Hanks has breakaway speed and is savvy enough to separate from midrange coverage. If he establishes a threat over the middle, the safety will have to compromise on his double coverage of the wide receiver or the defensive scheme will require an extra defensive back (nickel or dime package).
Once this happens, the wide receiver is put in the position to make plays against one-on-one coverage or the power running game can take advantage of the exchange of a linebacker for a smaller, quicker defender.
If that happens, all bets are off as to how many points the Tide can post, and sustained drives will chew up valuable game time. If time of possession favors the Tide, PSU is doomed.
That would be redshirt freshman, D.J. Fluker. Fluker was expected to start as a true freshman by many fans but a surprise redshirt was available because of the excellent play by the offensive linemen in 2009. The Tide ended up with two First Team All-Americans and three garnering All-SEC accolades at year end.
And thank the Lord for that unexpected blessing because the young man was not ready to take hold of a starting position. While Fluker possessed excellent athleticism and speed as a true freshman, his footwork was a little clumsy and his body was more flab than fab.
The young man listened to the great teacher, Joe Pendry, studied hard during his redshirt year and learned the keys to playing on the offensive line and playing it well. In addition, Fluker lost nearly 60 lb and hit the weights, transforming his soft body into a chiseled and powerful force to contend with from the right tackle position.
The footwork part has been slow to come. In fact, as recent as last spring it was evident that he had a ways to go before he would become a master technician. In the months that followed and during fall camp, D.J. made great strides in becoming the skillful lineman that the coaching staff knew he could become.
On Saturday, he will likely line up opposite senior defensive end, Eric Lattimore. Lattimore is 6'6" and 280 lb. He is experienced and hungry. He is a skillful pass rusher, scoring 3.5 sacs in 2009 and had numerous quarterback hurries. While Fluker surely matches up with Lattimore, physically, it's time to put the freshman to the test and determine if all the hard work will pay off.
Fluker must be dependable on the strong side of the Alabama quarterback. The young right tackle must be able to hold his blocks long enough for McElroy to find an open receiver and unload the ball. Preferably, that would happen in a protected, wide pocket behind his offensive line.
If Lattimore bests Fluker time after time, and Fluker can't make adjustments, it will be a long day for Greg McElroy. Any hurried quarterback has a lower percentage of pass completions and is more likely to throw interceptions.
As stated in the previous slide, the passing option is essential to open up the running game for the Crimson Tide. Closing down the pass option by collapsing the pocket and putting McElroy in harms way could spell doom for the Tide.
Fluker's contribution will be extremely important during this critical game. He must have a passing score in his first big test of the year.
While collectively, the defense will have to ratchet-up their intensity level for this game, four key defensive players must make meaningful contributions on Saturday to pressure the Penn State offense into mistake prone play.
Luther Davis is the senior leader on the line, particularly in the absence of his junior partner, Marcell Dareus. Davis is a warrior with a renewed passion for success on the gridiron. Last weeks exhibition showed those watching the Louisiana native that he is indeed ready for prime time.
The replacement for the suspended Marcell Dareus will either be Darrington Sentimore (DS) of Damien Square (DS). Both will play. If not starting, the other will play in a backup role. One of these men, if not both needs to rise to the occasion and dominate their more senior opposition and provide intense pressure on the freshman quarterback, Robert Bolden.
In the 3-4 scheme, the nose tackle is key in drawing a double team. Kerry Murphy and Josh Chapman have no trouble drawing the attention of the center and at least one of the offensive guards. Additional pressure from the defensive end position causes the pocket to collapse on passing downs and closes off creases that the running backs cherish on every given Saturday.
Depending on the kind of pressure applied by the defensive line, stunts from the linebackers and blitzes by the defensive ends wreak havoc on the quarterback protection and cause mistakes to happen by inciting panic. It is exactly this kind of pressure that a true freshman quarterback simply cannot handle.
Youngstown State did not prepare true freshman Robert Bolden to handle defensive pressure. His line gave him the time and provided a comfortable environment in the pocket to have a successful debut. The Alabama Crimson Tide defense has been given the opportunity to properly indoctrinate this young man into the ranks of Division-1 competition.
There is no penalty for hazing and harassment on the gridiron. That is exactly what this defense need to do to this freshman QB, and DS (take you choice as to which one) will have the distinct pleasure to participate in the ceremony before 101,000 screaming fans. What an honor.
Harris and Lester in the SECCG, Dec 2009
Collectively, this combined unit has more experience than given credit by the national media, not only in the role of substitution players but also as special teams players. The most important aspect of the special teams contribution is developing the ability to track the ball and tackle in the open field.
Look for four player, maybe five new faces on defense to make significant contributions against PSU that allow Donta' Hightower and Mark Barron freedom to do what they like to do. And that is to punish the opposition ball carriers with full speed contact.
DeQuan Menzie and Dre Kirkpatrick have arrived as starters on defense. Provided they remain healthy throughout the year, they have the ability to replace the talent that departed in 2009 without fail.
Menzie is a JUCO transfer who started every down last year as a first year starter. He does not lack for experience, he only needs to transfer that experince to a bigger stage against a higher level of talent. As a freshman, Menzie recorded 28 tackles, five interceptions and had nine pass break-ups while at Mississippi Copiah-Linclon Community College.
Dre Kirkpatrick played on nearly ever special teams play last year and was allowed valuable playing time a a corner back substitute in 2009. As a gunner on punts, Kirkpatrick recorded six tackles. He added two solo tackles as a defensive back and one assisted tackle in the BCS national championship game.
If Penn State had a veteran quarterback in 2010, this game would have the potential to be much more of a challenge for the young Alabama cornerbacks.
Not to downplay the potential contribution of a true freshman quarterback, but because he his a true freshman and he will be playing before a hostile crowd, the pressure is on Bolden. Both corners have the capacity to shut down big time players. This will be their first opportunity to achieve that task.
As for Kirkpatrick and Menzie, the same goes for safety Robert Lester. These men have been in the system and know what is expected. Lester displayed his big play ability last week with an interception and quarterback sack.
Now he needs to transfer the momentum from game one into confidence and execution on a much bigger stage. Confidence leads to comfort on the field and faster play. As long as comfort does not lead to complacency, Robert Lester can learn what it's like to "hit his stride" from the safety position.
Taking cues from the offensive alignment and staying in communication with his partner in crime, Mark Barron, Lester will be a key contributor for pass protection.
If Barron can rely on Lester to hold the line, he will likely to be more aggressive in run support. If you have ever seen Mark Barron lay the wood at full speed, you will realize how important his contribution will be in containing Penn State's featured running back, Evan Royster. And containing Royster will be key to shutting down the Penn State offense.
If these seven first time "regular" starters (if that term can be applied at this point) can perform at their expected level of play with consistency against the Penn State opposition, Alabama will have more success than expected. If any one player drops below an average performance, the impact of their subpar play has the potential to spell doom for the Tide.
This is the kind of game that proves to anyone watching that football is a team sport. You must do your job in order for the team to have success. Success by the playmakers can only come when the men in the trenches get it done. On the corner, it is feast of famine, fame or shame.
Success on the defensive side of the ball will allow the Alabama defense to stunt often and keep the quarterback confused on pre-snap reads. As in the game against Texas in the national championship, a base defense will not be enough to keep this team from having success on the road.
This is a true test for the young Alabama team in this early phase of the season. Failure is not an option. A loss to Penn State would drop Alabama out of the top five and they would probably land in the 7th or 9th position. On the other hand, a win by Penn State would move them into the Top 15 teams in America.
Don't think that fact is lost on the Penn State players. This game will make or break the season for either team, yet will not affect the outcome of conference play.
Alabama's offense must get on track early and stay on track the entire game. There will be no score high enough to allow the team to relax in the fourth quarter. A game of this magnitude calls for the players to compete on every play from start to finish. Momentum can swing on any particular play or set of down.
I have intentionally bypassed any discussion of special teams. After last week, my concerns are not a great as before the first game. Punting could be an issue if the offense does not score big. But again, I don't expect it to be an issue. Greg McElroy will figure this one out, and the playmakers will respond favorably. It may come down to the second half, but as I stated before, I hope PSU isn't hanging around in the 4th quarter.
This is a game to look forward to in any kind of season. It's the kind of game a player comes to Alabama or PSU to participate in during their collegiate career.
Both team deserve our applause before and after the game. As a fan show class and respect the opposition. Particularly a team with a coach that exudes class and legend on every level.
Joe Paterno, Alabama fans love and respect you. But on this Saturday, in all due respect, we want to beat the hell outta you and your team!
Rammer Jammer, Yellow Hammer, Give 'em hell Alabama.