Alabama Crimson Tide: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

What to watch in the SEC: Week 2

September, 5, 2013

The second week of the college football season is upon us.

Some exceeded expectations in Week 1, others fell short. In the SEC, a few coaches made debuts at new programs, a few key players suffered injuries that will affect their teams and there is buzz, both good and bad, surrounding some of the league’s most visible stars.

Here are 10 things to keep an eye on in the SEC in Week 2:

[+] EnlargeClowney
Gerry Melendez/Getty ImagesAfter his lackluster showing in the season opener, all eyes will be on Jadeveon Clowney when South Carolina faces Georgia.
1. What will Clowney do? South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has endured much criticism after a pedestrian performance in the Gamecocks' season-opening win against North Carolina. After a three-tackle, no-sack performance, some observers questioned Clowney's conditioning and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Clowney was definitely affected by the heat. This week, the No. 6 Gamecocks meet No. 11 Georgia and you can bet people will watch Clowney even more closely as the stakes are raised as each team opens SEC play.

2. What's next for Manziel? Johnny Manziel's return to the field for Texas A&M yielded terrific on-field results (6-of-8 passing, 94 yards, three touchdown passes) as well as a firestorm of media criticism as a result of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he committed and a few celebrations. Whether he likes it or not, all eyes are on him and as Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said, "people want to make a story out of anything that happens on this team right now." Will there be more non-football conversation circulating Manziel after the Aggies play Sam Houston State on Saturday?

3. Jones returns for UF: Sophomore running back Matt Jones returns to the Florida lineup this weekend as the Gators travel to Miami. The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones missed three weeks of practice while recovering from a viral infection and offensive coordinator Brent Pease said Jones will see plenty of touches in his return, perhaps as many as 25 carries.

4. Familiar foe for Malzahn: Auburn and new coach Gus Malzahn are hosting a team that he's quite familiar with -- Arkansas State. Malzahn spent last year as the Red Wolves' head coach, leading them to a 9-3 record and a conference championship before departing for Auburn prior to the Bowl. Arkansas State's new coach is former Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who led the Red Wolves to a 62-11 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff in his debut. Meanwhile, Malzahn's new team escaped with a 31-24 win over Washington State behind new starting quarterback Nick Marshall.

5. Prescott likely to start for Mississippi State: Starting quarterback Tyler Russell sustained a concussion in the Bulldogs' loss Saturday to Oklahoma State and is doubtful to play this weekend against Alcorn State. That means coach Dan Mullen will likely turn to backup Dak Prescott, a 6-2, 230-pound sophomore, to fill in. The dual-threat quarterback brings an ability to run the football to the Bulldogs' offense, recording 131 yards on 32 carries in spot duty last season. Mullen said he's confident in Prescott.

6. Adjustments to be made for Georgia: A season-opening 38-35 loss to talented ACC foe Clemson yielded an injured receiver (Malcolm Mitchell is out for the season after an ACL injury suffered while celebrating a Todd Gurley touchdown) and displayed a struggling offensive line. Quarterback Aaron Murray rarely had time to throw against Clemson and the Bulldogs are facing a talented South Carolina defensive front. But the Clemson loss can be easily forgotten if the Bulldogs open SEC play with a win over a top-10 team and fellow SEC East squad.

7. Can Stoops and Kentucky bounce back? There was a lot of buzz surrounding the debut of new Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops but it was killed by a season-opening loss to Western Kentucky. The Wildcats host Miami (Ohio) and are double-digit favorites. It's imperative to erase the taste of last week's loss with a win this week for UK.

8. Intriguing matchup in Knoxville: Tennessee cruised to a win over FCS foe Austin Peay in the opening week but now get a little bit of a tougher test in Bobby Petrino's Western Kentucky squad, which is fresh off its upset of Kentucky. The Volunteers are favored and rightfully so, and they're a higher caliber opponent than Kentucky. It would be a tough task for the Hilltoppers to pull off in Neyland Stadium, but it's worth at least keeping an eye on as Petrino tries to start 2-0 against SEC foes while Tennessee's Butch Jones looks to keep positive momentum going.

9. Ole Miss looking for others to emerge: The Rebels lost guard Aaron Morris to a season-ending knee injury and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche for 4-6 weeks because of a meniscus tear. Though they have an FCS foe in Southeast Missouri State, the Rebels will need others to step up in their absences.

10. Mettenberger looking to build on Week 1: In his first game under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger did enough to guide the Tigers to a 37-27 win over TCU. This week against UAB, he told reporters he has to be a little more accurate than his 16-for-32 showing, which was otherwise solid, yielding 251 yards and a touchdown pass.

Coveted OLB names a top five 

March, 14, 2013
ATHENS, Ga. -- Outside linebacker Jacob Pugh (Tallahassee, Fla./Godby) isn’t exactly sure of how many offers he has. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior has not counted them. Once he had received over 30 offers to the top programs in the nation, there really seemed no point in doing so. Pugh is more concerned about the five that he has on top.

Watch List DT Shaw meets with Richt 

December, 16, 2012
ESPN Watch List defensive tackle Elisha Shaw (Tucker, Ga./Tucker) did not get to meet with Georgia defensive line coach Rodney Garner when the 6-foot-5, 292-pound standout dropped in on the Bulldogs' junior day on Saturday. He had to settle for a different coach.

“Coach Garner wasn’t there but I talked to Mark Richt,” Shaw said. “He was just telling me to stay focused. He was talking about how good Georgia is and how they are a family up there and how they take care of you.”

The strong defensive lineman took in one of Georgia’s bowl game practices, toured the facilities and checked out the meeting rooms.

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Juco Spotlight: Northeast Miss. 

October, 25, 2012
Good friend or not. Fellow Louisiana native or not. Ed Orgeron had to go.

That's just how Ricky Smither operates. The head football coach at Boonesville (Miss.) Northeast still smiles when he remembers when the Southern California coach stopped by to recruit a prospect who was already committed to Alabama.

[+] EnlargeNick Thomason, Logan Stokes, Lavon Hooks
Dave Hooker/ left) Nick Thomason, Logan Stokes and Lavon Hooks of Northeast Mississippi.
It was nothing personal. Just business for Smither. Committed players stay committed. Placed players stick with the school they originally signed with. It's practically code in Mississippi when it comes to junior colleges. So, Orgeron was asked as politely as possible to leave.

"I had to," said Smither with a smile in his south Louisiana draw. "He said, 'Coach, you know I'm going to see him. You know me.' I said, 'Ed, if you go to that dorm, I'm going to have you escorted off. We don't do that. We don't work like that.' "

Orgeron decided to avoid being removed and the prospect ended up where he was originally committed. Now, Smither, who is from Thibodeaux, La., has taken the same approach with tight end Logan Stokes, who committed to LSU this summer. Afterwards, Alabama came calling. That didn't get too far. Smither shut down the Crimson Tide like no team has been able to do this season.

Stokes won't be the last prospect Smither will have to defend. The next will likely be Lavon Hooks, a former basketball player who has turned into a standout interior defensive lineman.

"We moved him inside and, man, he has just been blowing it up," Smither said. "He's playing tackle and nose guard for us. Very, very athletic kid."

Smither said every school in the SEC besides Alabama and LSU has inquired about Hooks, but most of his double-digit offers have come from smaller schools. That's likely to change when a bigger school realizes it needs immediate help on the defensive line.

Defensive tackle tends to be where junior college players can provide some of the biggest, quickest impacts at four-year schools. Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Kentucky and Tennessee have shown the most recent interest in Hooks.

Northeast's next big-man on campus will likely be Anthony Kibler. Well, in fact, he already is. The 6-foot-6, 350-pound offensive lineman should be eligible in 2014 after off-field issues led to his dismissal from South Florida. If Kibler can prove such discretions are behind him and he can drop some weight, Smither said he'll likely be a top junior college prospect as well.

"He's had some issues," Smither said. "A lot of people are just waiting to see how he responds. He's an NFL guy."

Smither should know. He coached NFL standout receiver Julio Jones in high school and has been around plenty of big-time college and professional-level prospects. Here are his thoughts on two more prospects at Northeastern who have received college interest:

  • Jonathan Harrison -- Smither seems completely shocked when asked why Harrison doesn't have more college interest. "He's a 6-5 kid that's killing it.. I think he's averaging about 46 (yards per punt)," Smither said. Harrison said he believes more four-year schools are using walk-ons to handle kicking. Still, there should be a place for Harrison somewhere, Smither said.

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Josh Malone to revisit Tennessee 

September, 21, 2012
Loss or not, Josh Malone saw enough of Tennessee to know he'll make a return visit.

The receiver from Gallatin (Tenn.) Station Camp said he'll make a return trip to Knoxville to see the Vols play this season. Malone was on hand last Saturday as Tennessee lost to Florida 37-20. Despite the defeat, Malone came away impressed the vibe on campus.

“Great college atmosphere,” Malone said. “It's really an eye-opening place.”

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- In 2011, Alabama's defense was nothing short of dominant. It finished No. 1 in all four major defensive categories: passing, rushing, scoring and total defense.

The defense was a stone wall many tried to scale and others tried to break through, but eventually all failed.
[+] EnlargeKawaun Jakes
AP Photo/Dave MartinThe Alabama defense forced Kawaun Jakes and Western Kentucky into four turnovers.

But it wasn't perfect. Like a stone wall, it was inanimate at times. It was effective without being affective. It kept offenses from moving the ball but rarely ever took it away.

The Alabama defense was No. 1 at a many things in 2011, but turnovers wasn't one of them. UA finished 77th overall in turnovers gained with 20.

This season, it appears the Tide are ready to change that. Through two games, Alabama has forced seven turnovers and recovered them all. Against Western Kentucky on Saturday, UA recovered three fumbles that led to two touchdowns on offense.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said creating turnovers is something he's preached since coming to Tuscaloosa in 2007.

Every day in practice, players work on stripping the ball and intercepting passes. The defensive coaches go into meetings and the first thing they do is put up who has caused turnovers as a way of positively reinforcing the action.

Saban said that, for whatever reason, the practice didn't pay off in games last year.

"As good as we were on defense, we didn’t cause many fumbles," Saban said. "But it was a pretty good trade-off for as well as they played. This year, I think if we can be a really good turnover team and have a great turnover ratio, that would probably be very beneficial to us.”

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Watch: TideNation recaps win over WKU

September, 8, 2012

TideNation reporters Greg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough recap Alabama’s 35-0 win over Western Kentucky.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Barrett Jones was not happy after his team beat Western Kentucky 35-0.

The starting center for the University of Alabama didn't like what he saw on the field Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. While fans saw AJ McCarron tie a career high with four touchdown passes and thought it was a good day for the offense, he noticed the six sacks from the defense. He saw a lack of execution from the offensive line and a number of missed opportunities because they couldn't keep the backfield protected.

"A lot of missed assignments," Jones said. "A few times we just got beat, poor technique. I'll have to look at the film, but again, just not really pleased with the execution."

Jones, who said McCarron might have set career marks had it not been for the poor play from the line, added that the offensive line, which is hailed as one of the best in the country, is just as capable of being mediocre as they are being great.

"We learned that anytime we don't bring our best we're pretty average," he said.

"I think we had a rough day."

Coach Nick Saban was in total agreement with Jones. While the energy was there, the final results were not. Western Kentucky ended the day with eight tackles for loss and forced a fumble with right tackle D.J. Fluker let the defensive end run by him and smack McCarron in the back, jarring the ball loose.

"We didn't do a very good job today in pass protection, having six sacks," Saban said. "Three or four of those guys just got beat. A couple of them were pressures we didn't pick up properly. That's something we definitely need to get better on."

Injuries mount for Alabama

September, 8, 2012
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The University of Alabama's 35-0 win over Western Kentucky will look good on paper -- that is, unless you scroll down to the injury and participation report.

[+] EnlargeChristion Jones, AJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama had plenty to celebrate against WKU, but the injury bug bit again.
No. 1 Alabama didn't escape its home debut Saturday without a few players getting dinged up. Junior running back Jalston Fowler had a scare late in the fourth quarter, injuring his knee. The Tide's No. 2 tailback had to be helped off the field and sat in pain on the trainer's table for several minutes. Players crowded around him and offered their support after seeing how serious the injury looked.

After the game, coach Nick Saban had no update on Fowler's knee and said he would get an MRI in the morning. Fowler left the game on a stretcher, emotionally distraught.

"It's really tough when you see a player, no matter what it is or who it is, go down," said receiver Christion Jones. "But one thing you have to do, is figure out what you can do to get him back right."

Sophomore linebacker/H-back Brent Calloway had to leave the game after injuring his shoulder. True freshman linebacker Reggie Ragland didn't dress out after injuring himself during last Saturday's game against Michigan.

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- One of the main question marks for this University of Alabama football team entering the season was who was going to rush the passer now that Courtney Upshaw and others departed for the NFL.

In the spring game, it looked like outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard would fill the void, but on Saturday, it was redshirt freshman Xzavier Dickson, playing opposite of Hubbard, who wreaked havoc in the backfield against Western Kentucky.

Dickson recorded just one tackle in the game, a sack that caused a fumble and resulted in a turnover, but he came close on a number of other plays, forcing the Hilltoppers’ quarterback to throw it sooner than he wanted.

“Xzavier Dickson has always been a good pass rusher,” Hubbard said. “It helps with me and him pass rushing on both sides because it’s kind of hard for them to double team when they want to.

“He has come along a lot. He’s learning the defense. I’m teaching him a lot more of what the older guys, Courtney [Upshaw], Jerrell [Harris] and Alex Watkins, taught me.”

For both Dickson and Hubbard, it’s been a slow start to the season.

Against Michigan, the gameplan was to control quarterback Denard Robinson rather than rush him every play. On Saturday, the two outside linebackers blitzed more, and it resulted in three sacks and four quarterback hurries.

Fellow linebacker Nico Johnson believes they have yet to be fully unleashed.

“They’re working hard,” he said. “Right now, they’re being patient, taking what’s given and ready to work whenever their name is called or their number is called. They’ll be ready.”

They might have to be ready next week as the Crimson Tide facest its toughest test to date next week, a road game at Arkansas.

Instant analysis: Alabama 35, WKU 0

September, 8, 2012

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama head coach Nick Saban didn’t want his team taking Western Kentucky lightly, and although it might not have looked exciting, the Crimson Tide cruised to a 35-0 win as they get ready for Arkansas next week.

Quarterback AJ McCarron finished 14-of-19 for 219 yards and matched a career high with four touchdown passes. Freshman sensation T.J. Yeldon had just 25 yards rushing but caught four passes for 47 yards. Fellow freshman Kenyan Drake added a 32-yard touchdown run late in the game.

The defense gave up 224 yards to the Hilltoppers, but the unit forced four turnovers to keep the shutout intact. Junior college transfer Deion Belue made the first interception of his career at UA.

It was over when: You could make a case it was when Western Kentucky got off the bus, but the Hilltoppers made it closer than the experts predicted. Still, when McCarron connected with Christion Jones on a 22-yard touchdown pass to make it 21-0 with 6:53 remaining in the first half, there was no coming back.

Game ball goes to: The easy choice would be to give it to McCarron, who tied a career high with four touchdowns, but wide receivers Christion Jones and Kevin Norwood each caught two scores and gave the Tide the big play ability they lacked a year ago. Now a junior, Norwood has emerged into a playmaker and one of McCarron’s favorite targets.

Stat of the game: Alabama committed just one penalty all game. This has to make Saban happy after the Tide committed seven penalties for 55 yards last week against Michigan.

Unsung hero: The Alabama pass rush looked to be more effective against the Hilltoppers and leading the way was redshirt freshman Xzavier Dickson. The outside linebacker seemed to be in the backfield all game. His biggest play came midway through the second quarter when he sacked the quarterback, forced a fumble and kept WKU off the board.

What it means for Alabama: Regardless of what head coach Nick Saban says, this was just a tune-up for next week’s showdown at Arkansas. Alabama’s offense looked efficient and McCarron keeps improving. The defense didn’t give up the big play, but WKU showed it could move the ball. Turnovers were key and will be key again next week.

What it means for WKU: Nobody expected the Hilltoppers to win or even keep it close for that matter. They didn’t look scared, though. This is a good football team who has the talent to compete in the Sun Belt this year. Playing in this type of environment can only help down the road.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- University of Alabama coach Nick Saban wanted players, fans and the media to respect Western Kentucky on Saturday afternoon. The team he called the best in the Sun Belt didn't do much to earn the high praise, though, falling behind to No. 1 Alabama 21-0 in the first half.

Stat of the half: Saban demanded focus from his players against Western Kentucky, and he got just that in the first half. Alabama committed no penalties and did not turn the ball over.

Player of the half: AJ McCarron has been lethal at quarterback, completing 8 of 10 passes for 161 yards and three touchdowns. He's averaged more than 16 yards per pass attempt.

What's working for Alabama: The Alabama defense hasn't been a stone wall against WKU, but it's been opportunistic, forcing three fumbles. Two WKU turnovers led to Alabama touchdowns.

What's not working for Alabama: The offensive line is having no trouble getting push in the running game, but pass protection is another matter. D.J. Fluker was beat badly on the rush that caused McCarron's fumble in the first quarter.

Statistical breakdown: WKU-Alabama

September, 7, 2012
WKU 2011 statistical leaders
Passing: Kawaun Jakes threw for 1,854 yards, 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions
Rushing: Jakes was second on the team with 161 yards rushing. Running back Bobby Rainey, who ran for 1,695 yards, graduated last season. Keshawn Simpson is their most experienced tailback. He ran for 134 yards on 32 carries in 2011.
Receiving: Jack Doyle led the team with 52 receptions for 614 yards. He averaged 11.8 yards per catch and had no touchdown receptions.
Tackling: Linebacker Andrew Jackson had a whopping 109 tackles in 2011, 17 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and an interception.
Interceptions: Young Kiante had two interceptions from the safety position. WKU lost its two leading defensive backs who combined for seven interceptions in 2011.
Punting: Hendrix Brakefield averaged 41.6 yards per punt, 24 landing inside the 20-yard line.
Kicking: Jesse Roy had just one touchback in 2011. He was 2-for-6 on field goal attempts, 1-of-3 from 40-49. He did not attempt a kick longer than 50 yards.

WKU head coaching file
Willie Taggart
Born: August 27, 1976
1999: WKU (Wide Receivers)
2000: WKU (Quarterbacks)
2001-02: WKU (Co-Offensive Coordinator / Quarterbacks)
2003-06: WKU (Assistant Head Coach / Quarterbacks)
2007-09: Stanford (Running Backs)
2010-present: WKU (Head Coach)
Playing Experience: Quarterback at WKU (1994-98)

WKU Alabama
Offensive style West coast Pro style
Base defense four-three three-four
2011 record seven-five 12-one
Note: All seven of WKU's wins came in Sun Belt play. The Hilltoppers are a veteran team, returning 48 of 58 lettermen from a year ago, including 16 starters. WKU is 0-17 against the SEC in school history.
WKU Alabama
PPG 22.9 34.8
Run-Pass % 64.4-35.6 58.8-41.2
Yds. per play 5.0 6.5
Pass yards 2,008 2,797
Rush yards 2,179 2,788
Turnovers 23 12
Note: Western Kentucky threw the ball 41 percent of the time against Austin Peay in Week 1, completing 20 of 27 passes for four touchdowns and an interception. Conversely, Alabama threw the ball 33 percent of the time against Michigan, connecting on 11 of 21 passes for two touchdowns and no interceptions.
WKU Alabama
PPG 24.8 8.2
Yds. per play 5.9 3.3
Pass yards 2,867 1,449
Rush yards 1,618 938
Sacks 27 30
INT 13 13
Turnovers 20 20
Note: Western Kentucky gave up just 10 to Austin Peay. The Hilltoppers surrendered just 154 total yards of offense and seven first downs. WKU had two sacks and two interceptions in the game.

University of Alabama coach Nick Saban took to the SEC teleconference on Wednesday morning to talk about how his team is feeling after beating Michigan, as well as what the mood is heading into a Week 2 matchup with Western Kentucky. Here is some of what the sixth-year head coach had to say:

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesNick Saban said he was not surprised with the outstanding play from freshman T.J. Yeldon in the season opener.
Opening statement: "Any time you play a first game, you kind of see what areas of the team you really need to improve, work hard on. That's certainly been our focus. We have a tremendous amount of respect for every team we play. Western Kentucky has won eight of their last nine game, and we certainly respect what they do. They do a good job of coaching their players. ... We just want to continue to do the things we need to do to improve and progress as a team because we know we need a tremendous amount of improvement to be the team we need to be."

Saban on having too many penalties: "Since we've been here, we've been pretty good with the penalties. We've always been one of the better teams in the SEC, statistically. We have a goal in terms of how many penalties we get and we have officials at practice every day so players are learning what they can and can't do so they don't develop bad habits."

Scouting Western Kentucky: "They do a really good job offensively, use their personnel really well, lots of shifts and motion. They get a hat on a hat. They have good runners. They run the ball effectively. The quarterback does a great job for them in terms of being accurate, getting the ball out of his hand. They've been a pretty good third-down team for the most part. Defensively, they're very active with a lot of pressure. They try to give you a lot of bad plays. ... We have a tremendous amount of respect for them. They're probably, in my opinion, maybe the best team in the Sun Belt."

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Watch: Bama's No. 1, injuries, WKU

September, 5, 2012

Alex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf discuss Alabama's No. 1 ranking and break down the injuries leading up to the Western Kentucky game on Saturday.


Recapping Florida Opening Regionals
National recruiting coordinator Craig Haubert discusses top performers from Opening Regionals in Miami and Orlando.