Alabama head coach Nick Saban met with the media on Monday as the Crimson Tide began its preparation for facing Tennessee in its annual rivalry game.
“Reviewing the last game, I’d just say that we showed that when we play with discipline, execution and give effort, physical, finish plays, play with the kind of toughness that we’re looking for to create the identity that we want as a team, we’re a pretty good team. Obviously the key to that is to do that with consistency, play in and play out, in the game as well as game out and game out during the season.I think that’s going to be the point of emphasis that we want to try to show our players, good plays that we did very well. Those things were apparent and on some plays we didn’t do so well, it wasn’t apparent.
“Obviously this is a rivalry game. It means a lot to a lot of people, including the people in this organization and the people that play in this game. We’ve had some real struggles at times with this team and this team, we have a lot of respect for. Butch Jones has done a nice job there. This team could be very easily 5-1. They lost two games on the last play of the game basically or they came down to the last play of the game, whether they scored or gave up a score. They’ve got good players. They’ve got a really good running back in Kelly, who’s one of the top rushers in the SEC. Their defense and especially the secondary has played really well. One of the top-ranked pass defenses in the country.
“They do a good job with the scheme on both sides of the ball and on special teams. We have a lot of respect for this team and what we have to do and how we have to play to be able to have success against this team.
“Rivalry games, you can pretty much throw out the record book, throw out the records of the teams, throw out what happened last year, throw out what’s happened so far this year. Make sure that you’re ready to play your best game when you’re playing in these types of games.”
On the opening play Damien had a long touchdown. That’s happened before with other players. Is that pre-called, that you’ve seen what the defensive alignment will be on film? What was that play and how did it work?
“We actually called the play three or four times in the game, where we didn’t block a down lineman because they were in 3-4 defense, and that guy had to take the quarterback. We gave him the ball on a sweep, so when that guy takes the quarterback and we sort of push everybody, there’s a place to cut back. It just so happened that we executed the play perfectly. A couple of other times in the game, Jalen pulled the ball and made successful plays on the same play. But I think you’re always trying to sort of come up with what is the best play, what’s the play that has the best opportunity to be successful so that you have a positive play to start with and you gain a little momentum in the drive. We felt good about that play.
“The play you mentioned against Florida a couple of years ago, they like to play a lot of Cover 1. When the back went out there, Kenyan Drake, the linebacker went out with him so we were going to throw a slug-o and it just happened we hit it for a touchdown. Every week, we try to come up with an opening sequence of plays that we feel best about where we have the best chance to get a hat on a hat and have a successful play. We don’t expect it to be a 75-yard touchdown but we do want to have a successful play and get off to a good start and create momentum in the game, positive momentum.”
How has kickoff coverage been this season and how important is hang time?
I think that kickoff coverage has been pretty good for the most part. I think it’s tops in the league in terms of the way we’ve covered but this team that we’re playing also leads the league in kick returns, so this is going to be a real challenging game for that particular unit on special teams, in terms of what they do and how they do it. I think ball placement and hang time are really important depending on the coverage pattern that you use and how you’re sending your guys down the field and how they’re dodging blocks. When you don’t get the ball placed the right place or you don’t get to a certain yard line before the guy catches it, it makes the coverage more difficult. JK’s done a pretty good job of that throughout the season and we’ve got some guys that have done a really good job of covering.
When guys have issues on punts do you try and get them more reps in practice?
“Well we practice catching the ball on punts every week. I think we try to identify what the issue is if a guy is struggling and try to fix it. I think the guy wants to catch the ball as much as we want him to catch it. So we’re going to practice as much and he’s going to want to practice as much until he gains the confidence to be able to do it correctly. I think the issues that our players had are fixable in terms of some of the things that we can do to help them maybe improve their technique or keep a little better focus on the ball and not worry so much about the coverage so that we gain possession of the ball, No. 1. That’s the most important thing.”
As an older receiver, how has Calvin Ridley stepped into a leadership role?
“Calvin has had an outstanding season. He’s one of the leading guys in our league in terms of production and performance. He sets a great example for the young guys and has been a really good leader in that regard. I think that’s helped those younger guys on our team this year who have made a significant contribution be able to do that and show a little more maturity, at some point sort of manage their frustrations better so they can continue to play at a high level. We’re pleased with Calvin’s performance and we’re very pleased with his leadership role; the example he’s set and the time that he’s taken to try to affect the other guys in a positive way.”
On the first 15 plays you kind of rotated the receivers out with the freshmen in one group. What’s the philosophy behind getting the freshmen on the field at the same time?
“Well there really isn’t a philosophy behind it. We want to play all 6 players and we can mix and match them or we can play them by series. We have confidence in all 6 guys. We feel good about however they play in whatever roles we put them in. There really isn’t a philosophy other than by doing it that way, you make sure that you get everybody some turns and they’re all playing positions that they’re familiar with.”
What have you seen from their quarterback, his first start last week?
“I thought he did some really good things. The guy is a very good athlete. I think he can make plays with his feet, as he did in the game with some rushing yards. I think that he’s certainly talented enough as a passer to make all the throws. I think both quarterbacks have shown when they’ve played that they have the ability to be good players at that position. So whoever they play, whichever guy plays, we’re certainly going to know that they have a good offensive scheme, they do a lot of things that are difficult to defend and both quarterbacks have the capability of executing those things really well. It’s going to be up to us to try to take those things away with how we play.”
How much have the young receivers developed? Seems like Jalen has spread the ball around quite a bit in the last few weeks.
“We’re pleased with how they’ve developed and they’ve done a good job and been productive. We have confidence in them and they have confidence in what we’re doing. They’re not going out there and making a lot of mental errors. They’re actually improving their ability to be better players without the ball, which means they’re blocking better and making less mental errors on the perimeter in terms of what they should do and how they should do it. We’re very confident in those guys and we know we’d like for all of them to have a chance to be productive, all six of the receivers that we’ve been playing.”
What did you see from Josh Jacobs on Saturday? What kind of different things can he provide?
“I think he’s a really good change of pace guy. He’s a guy to create roles for because he has a lot of diversity as a player. He’s a very good receiver. He’s an inside runner, he’s an outside runner. But I do think he’s a little bit of a change of pace guy relative to the other two guys, Damien and Bo, when they play. We’re glad that he’s healthy and hope he can continue to stay healthy and play well. I was really pleased with the contribution that he made and some of the plays that he made in the game and hopefully we’ll be able to build on that.”
What do you feel like this team’s identity is right now? How much more do you need to see?
“I think identity is something that you do on an ongoing basis. I don’t think you’ve ever really arrived, because at the end of the day, who you are is based on the entire body of work and your ability to be consistent throughout the entire body of work. How that continues to develop and where it is is based on the consistency of how we do it, not how we did it the last 10 minutes relative to how did we do it a week ago. This is the challenge for everyone, to be committed to buy in to do the things that they need to do to play at a high level all the time, when it comes to discipline, toughness, effort, finishing plays, finishing games. So I don’t think you’ve ever arrived at that. I don’t think that’s something you can say ‘OK, we’ve got it down now, we can just take it for granted that we’re always going to have it.’ I don’t think it works that way. I think it’s a psychological disposition that is something that has to be there for you to play with the intensity that you need to play with, every time you go out and play, every play that you go out and play and that’s the challenge of being a great competitor.”
Once you get out of training camp and into the season, is there a part of the season when you see more improvement? How important is it to keep it going?
“It’s important to keep it going, there’s no doubt. You want everybody to show improvement. You want everybody to get better. I think it’s probably different with different guys. Some guys improved a little bit more as time goes on. Other guys struggle a little bit more and it takes them a little bit longer. I don’t think there’s necessarily a formula that says everybody progresses as the same pace. But it’s important that guys that have more experience probably should play at a higher level on a more consistent basis because of their knowledge and experience and knowing what it takes to be able to do that. Younger players probably have a greater opportunity to improve and develop consistency in what they do, which we need to monitor their success and failure. We have a multitude of guys at varying levels of that on our team on both sides of the ball and on special teams and we continue to try to work with each one of them to help them get where we’d like for them to be and where we’d like them to go.”
Butch Jones is going through a tough time right now. Think the criticism is fair or unfair of him?
“That’s not for me to say. I’ve watched their team play. They compete hard, they play hard in games, they put themselves in position to win every game they’ve played this year but one, so we have a tremendous amount of respect for the games that we’ve had in the past, what we’ve had to defend, how they play, the toughness that they play with, what it’s going to mean to them in this game. Because they’re in the situation that they’re in, you could make a case that they’ll come in here and play great, play really really well and try to prove something. So I don’t think that we should worry so much about what they do but really worry about what we do in terms of how we prepare, how we play and make sure we’re going to be at the best of our game and not take all these external factors of what they’re going through and think it’s going to have some impact on the game in a positive or a negative way, but focus on what we need to do.”
Earlier this year we spoke to players about Ole Miss feeling like a rivalry because it’s been close as of late. Do games need to be close to be considered rivalries?
“Well I think if you’re talking about this one, it’s been very competitive. I can remember two games that we’ve had here. One in a year when we won the national championship, we had to block a field goal at the end of the game to win the game, and the last time we played here we had like a 7-point game or whatever, a very close game right down to the end. So I don’t necessarily… I think that players get up for games because of the competition and maybe the games that they’ve had in the past. I think maybe when you’ve had rivalry games that have tradition associated with them for many, many years, there’s a different kind of motivation for those kind of games. But I also think the last 2 games we’ve had here lately… Same kind of situation. Their team is pretty much a .500 team and we’re pretty much where we are and we struggle to beat them. I think you all, like always, you’re always looking for all these assumptions that you make because they have issues, they have problems in some kind of way. Why can’t that be a great motivating factor for them and they come and play their best game of the year? Did y’all ever think of that, or just… So you can look at the glass half empty or half full. Not to get to the Coke bottle.”
We’ve seen 6 teams in the top 10 lose to unranked opponents in the last couple weeks. In your career, what has kept teams focused regardless of circumstance?
“I think that’s the challenge. And not to belabor or beat a dead horse, but the rat poison that we talked about, the external factors that are out there that talk about what you all talk about, like they have all these problems, so it should be we just show up and flip the coin, and I don’t know why we even play the game because of all the assumptions that get made. Well if our players think that way, how are they going to play? Are they going to play to the standard that they need to play to? That’s the challenge. I think, you know, when you listen to Washington State’s coach talk after the game, that’s what he’s talking about. You have to give the other team credit, you have to respect your opponent and you have to play to a high standard all the time and that’s the challenge. What people don’t really understand is that it’s not the human condition to be that way. The human condition is for everybody to survive. That’s how we all got here, that’s how we all started. That’s what we all want to do. It wasn’t to be the best that you can be or to win the championship. That’s special. To get a group of people to be special all the time, in every situation, with all the noise and external factors, and all the stuff that’s out there, it’s a real challenge. That’s why people in the top 10 get beat every week, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid by having the right psychological disposition for what we have to do to play to a high standard regardless of what anybody else’s circumstances are, and to block out all the noise that gets created. Which we appreciate because it creates interest in our game. So I really do respect and appreciate every one of you. Do I agree with you? Not always. Is that it?