December 27, 2007

Ask the Expert Q&A: Alabama Crimson Tide

Each week throughout the football season, we run a story previewing Colorado's upcoming opponent through the view of a beat writer covering that team. This week, Chase Goodbread from BamaOnline.com was kind enough to take time out to give CU fans insight into their next opponent, the Alabama Crimson Tide.

What are Alabama's strengths and who are their top playmakers on the offensive side of the ball?

"Alabama hasn't had a strength offensively this season, at least not a consistent one, and that is why it lost its final four games and plummeted from contending in the SEC West to a 6-6 Independence Bowl team. The running game started the season strong, but sputtered down the stretch as running back Terry Grant (185 pounds) began to wear down physically. His explosiveness should be back after so much December rest, but he still needs holes to run through. The passing game has been dynamite one week (Arkansas, Ole Miss, Tennessee) and dreadful the next (FSU, Mississippi State, Auburn). The offensive line struggled with injuries and suspensions over the second half of the season, but will be at full strength for the bowl game.

"The playmaking on that side of the ball begins and ends with receiver DJ Hall. The senior now holds most school receiving records and needs 53 yards against Colorado to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the second year in a row. The most surefire NFL player among UA's senior class, Hall has dropped only three balls all season (though one was critical), and has a great feel for the jump ball at 6-foot-3. He absolutely lit up Arkansas (7 for 173) and Tennessee (10 for 185). However, Alabama's last four opponents (all UA losses) double-teamed Hall and dared UA to find other receivers, and QB John Parker Wilson rarely made defenses pay a price for it. The strategy has derailed UA's offense, so Colorado will undoubtedly follow the blueprint."

What are Alabama's strengths and who are their top playmakers on the defensive side of the ball?

"Stopping the run has been the most consistent strength this team has had all year. It's not a great run defense, but it's a good one (tied for fifth in the Southeastern Conference at 128.5 yards per game). More impressively, its 3.5-yard average is the SEC's third best. Alabama held LSU under 100 total rushing yards, less than half of the Tigers' average, and hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher since Ole Miss' BenJarvus Green-Ellis gained 136 in the seventh game of the season.

"Defensive end Wallace Gilberry is the closest thing Alabama has to a star on its defense (he led the SEC in TFLs with 22 and led UA in sacks with nine). He is Alabama's only legitimate pass rusher, and got off to a slow start with no sacks through the season's first five games. Starting with a two-sack performance against Houston for Homecoming, Gilberry racked up nine sacks over UA's last seven games. Other than Gilberry, it's mostly a blue-collar bunch. DB Simeon Castille was a preseason All-SEC pick but made fewer big plays as a senior than he did as a junior. LB Ezekial Knight is one of the best athletes on the UA roster, but was hobbled by a high ankle sprain late in the season. He will be full-go in Shreveport."

In what areas did the Crimson Tide struggle during the regular season?

"Pass defense and punting. Although Alabama's pass defense improved over the last quarter of the season, the three QBs it faced in that stretch weren't very good either (Miss. State's Wesley Carroll, Louisiana Monroe's Kinsmon Lancaster, Auburn's Brandon Cox). Safety Marcus Carter struggles in coverage and UA's nickel package has been unsettled personnel-wise for much of the year. The bright spot has been safety Rashad Johnson, a former walk-on who had an All-SEC season with six interceptions and exceptional run support. He was named a team captain as a junior. An inconsistent pass rush has contributed to problems in the secondary. For the most part, teams that have been able to handle Gilberry in pass protection have had plenty of time to throw. Punter P.J. Fitzgerald, simply put, is a below average punter. He occasionally booms one for 50-plus, but much more often comes up short. He averages 38.5 per attempt."

Nearing the end of year number one under Nick Saban, are Alabama fans generally optimistic about the direction of the program?

"Saban projects a strong sense of leadership and obviously has a fine track record as a college head coach, two things former coach Mike Shula lacked. That alone would be enough to keep things positive among the fan base, but the real groundswell of excitement comes from Saban's recruiting efforts. With a signing class sure to be ranked in the nation's top five, and enough top prospects still within reach to challenge for the No.1 spot, Alabama fans can't wait for 2008. Truth is, the Crimson Tide is short on talent right now and will probably need two or three such signing classes to return to the SEC elite. But in time, fans are convinced it will happen."

In your opinion, what are the key's to this Sunday's game from Alabama's perspective?

"Outside of the aforementioned punting woes, Alabama's special teams have been strong all season and will need to make a big difference in the Independence Bowl if the Crimson Tide is to win. Punt returner Javier Arenas is as explosive as they come with a 15.4-yard average, and is equally dangerous in the kickoff return game. Kicker Leigh Tiffin has steadily improved all season and is 2 for 2 from distances of 50-plus. Despite short punts and short kickoffs (Tiffin has only four touchbacks all year), the coverage units have been excellent. A second key, without a doubt, will be Wilson's performance at quarterback. He looked devoid of any confidence in struggling over the last three games of the season, and will need to rediscover his groove for Alabama's offense to move the chains."

Do the Crimson Tide have any injuries of note?

"The aforementioned Arenas suffered a high ankle sprain in the 11th game of the season and missed the finale against Auburn. He is expected to be back at full speed against Colorado, but he worked in a non-contact jersey during the team's pre-bowl practices on campus. Other than that, there are no injury concerns."

Lastly, what is your predition for this Sunday's game?

"A low-scoring game. Alabama 16, Colorado 14."

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