CECIL HURT: Crimson Tide putting opposing defenses in the briar patch

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News
9/26/20 MFB Alabama vs Missouri
Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban 
Team
Photo by Kent Gidley

It was one of the last chores of a long day for Nick Saban. Having coached his team (while wearing a mask for four hours) to a 52-24 win over Texas A&M on Saturday, then fulfilled his postgame Zoom obligations with the media, taped a segment for his television show and presumably made his socially-distanced contact with recruits who had found a way to take unofficial visits or, if necessary, talked to recruits via telephone, the Alabama head coach sounded exhausted when he joined Chris Stewart for a sponsored “Play of the Game” segment that appears on Alabama’s website.

Nothing invigorates Saban more than drawing up and discussing football plays. His press conferences, when those were more informal in the pre-COVID-19 days, were never more illuminating when he talked X’s and O’s. He combines a Ph.D. level of subject knowledge with the rare ability to explain plays in layman’s terms that even a sportswriter can understand.

So when Saban went to the video board for the segment, he was tired (one way to measure that is the number of “a’ights” with which he peppers his presentation) but engaged. The chosen play was Jaylen Waddle’s 87-yard touchdown reception, certainly a highlight. Saban pointed out how the receivers who lined up to the right of Mac Jones had a variety of routes they could run. To Jones’ left were DeVonta Smith and, offset next to Smith, Waddle. No one in football is intentionally sadistic, but that is a pick-your-poison moment for a defense. The Aggies chose to bracket Smith with two defenders (and who could blame them?) but that left a lone safety with the unenviable task of covering Waddle on a go route.

Saban’s reaction? 

”You can throw me in that briar patch any time you want,” Saban said.

The description is perfect. I assume you don’t have to be in the same approximate age bracket as Nick Saban and myself to get the reference, but sometimes that’s not a good assumption. The phrase “throw me in the briar patch” comes from Joel Chandler Harris (no relation to Jim Bob Harris, as far as I know). It’s from a tale of Br’er Rabbit, who is captured by Br’er Fox. Br’er Rabbit tricks the fox into thinking that he is he is deathly afraid of being tossed into a sticky, thorny briar patch. Of course, rabbits are “born and raised” in briar patches and when Br’er Fox falls for the plan, Br’er Rabbit scoots off, never to be caught again. Sort of like a safety isn’t going to catch Jalyn Waddle on a go route. 

The problem for opposing defenses is that Alabama can create so many bad matchups of that sort. It’s not a new dilemma. After all, with Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs, Alabama created all sorts of mismatches last season. But it has to be frustrating to see in preparation. 

Lane Kiffin, the head coach at Ole Miss, this Saturday’s Alabama opponent, is a master at creating mismatches himself, and his quarterback choice, Matt Corral, has thrived in two games so far. But Kiffin pointed out following the Rebels’ 42-41 win at Kentucky on Saturday that Ole Miss “allowed about a thousand yards rushing.” So the question isn’t whether Kiffin can dial up plays. It’s whether he can dial up enough to stay out of the briar patch.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt

Sports columnist Cecil Hurt.