Saban: “After looking at the last game, I felt like our players did a really good job of competing in the game, executed very well. Probably the best we’ve played overall all year long. I think everybody was sort of unified in the fact that this was one of those trips where everybody accepted the challenge to defeat the opponent, and that was their focus and that’s why we made the decision on offense and defense, everybody that played in the game was the player of the game because everybody bought in and did exactly what we wanted to do. It was great that Damien got recognized as SEC offensive player and Ross as SEC offensive lineman. Those are great honors for those guys, and hopefully we can build on some of the improvements that we made, continue to improve as a team. We look forward to the SEC home opener this week against a very good Ole Miss team.
“This is a team that has beaten us two out of the last three years, and we’ve played some really shootout kind of games with them. They’ve had two really good wins this year, fourth nationally in passing. Make a lot of explosive plays. Really good quarterback. Probably the best group of receivers collectively we’ve played against all year. Very disruptive on defense in terms of the way they play. Create a lot of negative plays and tackles for losses, so it’s going to be important that we do a good job of communicating and try to minimize that as much as we can. This will be a real challenging game for us in a lot of different ways and we’ll try to do the best we can to get our players ready to play even better this week.”
What kind of challenges are there for preparing for an interim coach? What have you seen from Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke and his new offensive coordinator?
Saban: “We have a lot of respect for the coaches who have been at Ole Miss. We also have a lot of respect for Matt Luke and his capabilities as a head coach and the way their team is playing right now. The success that they’ve had so far this year. I think the offense is a little different than what it’s been in the past. Certainly make a lot of explosive plays. Lots of RPOs with all the runs. Very, very challenging offense to try to defend. Everybody’s got to try to do a really, really good job in this offense to be able to execute the way you need to not to give up explosive plays as well as to be able to stop the run, control the quarterback. This is a very, very challenging, spread out, very good skill player. Very good utilization of their skill players, offensive scheme that their new offensive coordinator employs.
There’s been a great deal of conversation over the weekend about politics and football. How do you handle that with your players and what’s your opinion on it?
Saban: “I’m just a football coach. I don’t keep up with all that stuff as much as maybe everybody else does, especially during the season, especially when we’re playing games. To me, some of the things that we do in our country when I grew up, they were unifying events and it’s a little painful to see that those things are not so right now. But I also respect everyone’s rights not to censored in terms of the way they express their beliefs. I’m just a coach. I don’t have the answers to all the questions. I know that most good things come out of love and respect and compassion and unifying people. Most bad things come out of hate and dislike and deceit. Hopefully we can focus on the above and not the below.”
Minkah Fitzpatrick is real versatile. Ole Miss spreads it out a lot. What does a player like that do in this game?
Saban: “Having a guy like Minkah really in a game like this really helps it because there are a lot of matchup issues. When they have four or five receivers on the field, if you play five defensive backs that’s probably not enough. If you play six, maybe you match up a little bit better. But maybe you have some other issues when it comes to other things you want to defend. So when you have players like Minkah, it gives you the diversity to do some of these things. He’s very good at it because of the adaptability. He’s smart, he can learn multiple tasks with minimal reps. So when you don’t have players like that, that’s when you have lots of problems.”
What have you seen of Ole Miss’ defensive front, and the job Freddie Roach has done coaching those guys up?
Saban: “They do a really good job up front. They’re very aggressive. They attack. They attack you up front. They use their quickness to their advantage. That’s why they create a lot of negative plays. They play hard. That’s always a positive reflection on the coach.”
You’re outscoring opponents 55-3 in the first quarter. What’s behind that?
Saban: “I guess the first thing I would think of is that the team is well prepared, gets off to a fast start, that’s the first thing I think of. But you execute well in the beginning of the game. The big focus in the last game was to start fast and finish strong. The starting fast part we got right. The finishing strong we hadn’t gotten right, but I thought we got it right in the last game and hopefully that’s what it’s going to take not to let good teams that have high octane offenses like this team and quite a few other teams we’ll face that have good quarterbacks, good skill guys. You allow them to get the ball enough and you don’t keep sort of pushing and being aggressive on offense, they end up taking advantage of it and get back in games and score quickly on you with explosive plays. That’s something that’s important for us to continue to do.”
How has Damien played in the first three or four weeks?
Saban: “He’s player of the week, that’s a pretty good reflection. He’s had good performance, good production, he’s been very consistent in his play. I really like the roles that these guys have played at running back and embraced and been very productive in all regards. I think it helps them long term to be healthy for the season, stay fresh. Damien has been our most productive guy so far. He practices well. He’s a good receiver. He’s a good blocker. So he plays well without the ball, which probably goes unnoticed by most people but is very important to the rest of the offense.”
How important is is that you’re doing such a good job protecting the football on offense? How much of a credit is that to Jalen, and the ball carriers for proper technique?
Saban: “Well, it’s good but the ball was on the ground three times in the last game. So they didn’t get them so we didn’t turn it over. The difference is is that the ball wasn’t on the ground any in the other games and I think when you’re playing against an aggressive ball-hawking type team which Vanderbilt was and what Ole Miss will be, you have to have great attention to taking care of the ball. The ball, the ball, the ball. We have to attack the ball. We finally got a fumble, caused a fumble in this last game but we have to do a better job of taking care of the ball because the ball was on the ground this last game. That’s really really important. That ratio is one of the most important things statistically in winning and losing and that’s something we want to continue to emphasize.”
It seems like locker rooms sometimes do a better job of having civil discourse than society as a whole. What’s behind that?
Saban: “Respect and trust are two things that make a team what it is. People respect and trust the principles and values of an organization, but they also respect and trust each other. And I think that because everybody has sort of bought into the same things — you have the same goals, you have the same spirit in terms of what you’re trying to accomplish and what you’re trying to do. I think it is a very unifying factor when everybody respects — and because you respect the people you respect the individual differences as well. So I think that’s why they call it team. That’s where you get togetherness from. Everybody is sort of trying to work toward the same standard. Everybody is trying to support the other guy and help him be able to do that. So a lot of the things that make a good team are the very things that create a lot of togetherness, and I don’t think you have very good team unity and team spirit if you don’t have that kind of unifying force in the locker room. But I think it comes from respect and trust that gets developed because of everybody buying into the same goals and having the same aspirations for what they want to accomplish and what they want to do and how they support each other.”
You ran a lot of jet sweeps last year. How come that play hasn’t been featured this year?
Saban: “We have run a few, but not many. We do some of the motions off of it, run some plays off of it, compliment some of the things that we did last year with some other things that we’re doing right now. Some of those things you kind of read. When the guy goes in motion, how is the defense adjusting? Sometimes they don’t leave enough players backside, sometimes they rotate and really have the sweep stopped. Sometimes it’s what the defense does that determines whether you want to hand the ball off to the guy or not, or pitch it to him. But we feel that we’re a little more proficient in other areas that maybe we don’t have to depend on that quite as much.”
How has your opinion of this team changed in the last month, since the preseason?
Saban: “Well, we were very positive with the players last week in terms of how we approached what we wanted to try and accomplish and what we wanted to try to do. But we also challenged the players in that we hadn’t really, what I call defeated a team. Winning a game is one thing but defeating the other team is entirely different. I felt that in this last game, it was the first time we did that. We played for 60 minutes, we stayed focused on what we were doing, we didn’t lose our sense of urgency or intensity at any time during the game. That’s really what we wanted to accomplish because I think that’s important to being successful in our league because of the quality of opponents that you have week-in and week-out. That’s kind of got to become who you are. That has to become the personality. I was concerned about that but feel much better about it. But now the challenge is, can we sustain that?”
Often in games, when the defense is off the field you communicate with Minkah. How does he take that and use it on the field?
Saban: “I communicate with really all of the defensive guys. Sometimes I communicate with the offensive guys. Sometimes I communicate with Jalen about certain things. I think it’s how you approach a player. I never, ever want to approach a player and have a player think that I’m disappointed. I think players sense that. I think it affects their confidence. I’m always approaching players on ‘They did this. This is how we need to react to that, or we need to adjust to it this way, or they’re playing this, or to go back to the jet sweep, they’re spoking the safeties every time, so this or that may be a better play against that.’ You’re really just constantly teaching during a game for the next situation in the game. I think the way our players are sort of geared, because if you notice our coaches are with our players, coaching them, what happened in the last series, what plays they ran, what we did well against the plays, how well we fit the run, how we matched that pattern on that pass, whatever. Or something that we didn’t do exactly right or we made a mental error on. Most of the time, in the first 15 plays of the game we get something that’s entirely different than what we practiced or see. It’s not at all uncommon for anyone I guess, but we seem to see it just about every week. Being on the same page in how we’re going to adapt and adjust to all that, and I think our players are used to that. But what I do in the game is no different than what I do in practice or in meetings or whatever. So it’s not out of character that all of a sudden, ‘Coach is talking to me or telling me something.’ They know what’s going on. I think they think I know what’s going on.”