Young players produce rare smile from Saban
The Alabama-North Texas matchup was an uninspired, sloppy game full of more position experiments and nonexistent game-planning. The Crimson Tide had too many athletes for the Mean Green to deal, with and the final score should have been much worse.
Nick Saban has been less than impressed with Alabama's second- and third-team defense all camp, and in the fourth quarter of Saturday's SEC warm-up contest, fans were treated to a look at Alabama's future.
Alabama had nurtured an always rare goose-egg. The starters retired for the day and handed the game to the younger players. It was clear what they and Nick Saban wanted: They wanted to keep the zero.
Alabama lined up with a defense that was a mixture of a few second- and third-team players.
Veteran lineman Undra Billingsley and Nick Gentry were joined by freshman Jeofrey Pagan and Brandon Ivory
Several young linebackers took the field, such as true freshman Xzavier Dickson and Trey DePriest. Together with veterans Tana Patrick and Jonathan Atchinson they formed the linebacker group.
In the backfield were Jarrick Williams and Hasean Clinton-Dix at safety along with Vinnie Sunseri, with Phelon Jones and John Fulton at corner.
The Mean Green backed the young players up with rushes for nine, four, four and two yards, consecutively. Quarterback Brent Osborn then got a first down on a slant pass for six yards. The tackle was made by Sunseri.
Sunseri has become practically a folk hero for his play on special teams. He was rated only a 3-star player in high school. The results of his on-field play were 5-star all the way, but at 5' 11" and below 200 lbs, he was not considered a major prospect.
Alabama converted him to a safety, and he has taken to the position like ticks to a hound dog. His 12 tackles thus far show an active roll on special teams, and he is appearing earlier and earlier in games as the season wears on.
Three plays later, the Mean Green once again gained first-down yardage passing for 15 more yards. North Texas was now in scoring position. It looked as if the shutout is about to be lost.
Saban wasn't about to send the veterans out to preserve it. He wanted to see how his young players would respond when backed in a corner in front of a still vocal crowd, something you cannot reproduce in practice.
The Alabama pass rush responded with a forced fumble and a 3-yard loss. The ball was recovered by North Texas.
Quarterback Andrew McNulty's next pass was broken up by true freshman Clinton-Dix with some assistance from an on-rushing Quinton Dial.
"HaHa" Dix, as he is called, was rated a 5-star prospect by Rivals and considered the No. 1 safety in the nation last year and seventh player overall. It became clear early in fall camp that Clinton-Dix was definitely not going to red shirt.
From Orlando, Florida, Clinton-Dix played on the same high school football team as 5-star running back Dee Hart. Until his unfortunate knee injury, Hart was considered the most exciting of the true freshmen at Alabama.
Quinton Dial was a huge lineman from Clay, Alabama, who signed with the Tide in 2009. He did not qualify but eventually did so after two years of junior college. Dial seems to be getting better with every snap.
Alabama defended the next play into the end zone but drew a pass interference penalty that put the ball at the 1-yard line. At this point, it looked like that elusive shutout was going to slip away.
On the fresh set of downs, true freshman Dickson made the first big play by stuffing running back James Hamilton for a 2-yard loss.
Dickson was the third rated defensive end in the country last year according to Rivals. At 6' 3" and 238 lbs he was smallish for Alabama's 3-4 defense. His size and quickness fit Alabama's Jack position which is a combination of outside linebacker and defensive end.
Most expected Dickson to red shirt this season, but he has exceeded expectations and is currently Alabama's third team Jack ahead of some older players.
On the next play Ha Ha Dix and Quinton Dial combined to bring down Hamilton for an additional yard loss.
McNulty's final two passes fell incomplete due to pressure and coverage to secure the shutout.
The young Alabama players stormed off the field with hands raised in victory.
It was a small victory in the scheme of things and will be a forgotten part of history. But it will loom large in the minds of these players as they go forth. Years from now many of those same players will likely be in this situation again.
Only then it will be a big SEC contest with the season in the balance, and in their minds they will know, "we've been here before."