Alabama Crimson Tide: Jake Spavital

SEC's lunch links

March, 3, 2014
Mar 3
12:24
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Spring practice kicks off for four more teams in the SEC this week. Here’s a look at the latest news and notes around the league in today’s lunch links.
While the head coaching carousel turns frequently each offseason, the movement is even more active among assistant coaches. Guys come and go and that includes coordinators, even at the big-time programs.

Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt were among the SEC schools that saw changes in coordinators on at least one side of the ball this offseason, and there's no doubt those changes will have an effect on their new programs. But which new coordinators will make the biggest impact? Here's four that catch our eye:

[+] EnlargeJeremy Pruitt
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreIt will be Jeremy Pruitt's task to bring the bite back to Georgia's defense.
Jeremy Pruitt, Georgia: It doesn't get much better than hiring a coordinator fresh off a national championship, but that's what Georgia pulled off. Head coach Mark Richt added Pruitt, who guided the Florida State defense to a No. 1 national ranking in scoring defense (12.1 points allowed per game) and No. 3 ranking in yards allowed per game (281.4). His specialty is the secondary, as he spent three seasons as Alabama's defensive backs coach before moving to Florida State last season. Georgia's young defense was 45th nationally in yards allowed per game (375.5) and 78th in scoring defense (29 ppg). Pruitt has a strong reputation as a recruiter, as well, and should be able to make an instant and significant impact on the Bulldogs this fall.

Lane Kiffin, Alabama: Much maligned as a head coach, Kiffin has taken his fair share of criticism, which was often justified, during his head coaching stops at Tennessee and USC. But he's not being hired to run the program, just the offense, so most of the pressures that come with being "the man" won't exist for Kiffin as the offensive coordinator. At Alabama, coordinators rarely meet with the media, so there won't be a lot of Kiffin soundbites or quotes out there, allowing him to focus on the task at hand. Nick Saban thinks highly of Kiffin's play-calling ability and offensive mind, and that's an area Kiffin has a strong reputation. The Crimson Tide ranked sixth in the SEC in yards per game (454.1), sixth in red zone efficiency (66 percent) and fourth in points scored per game (38.2). Those are all areas Kiffin can help improve, though he'll have to develop a new quarterback, the successor to Heisman Trophy finalist AJ McCarron. Kiffin was offensive coordinator of a national championship team at USC, which certainly doesn't hurt as he returns to the coordinator role.

Kurt Roper, Florida: Florida's offense has nowhere to go but up after finishing last in the league in points scored per game (18.8), yards per game (316.7), red zone efficiency (44.2 percent) and goal-to-go efficiency (43.5 percent). That's where Roper comes in. He helped Duke set a school-record for touchdowns as its offensive coordinator. He has worked with three quarterbacks who have thrown for 3,000 or more yards in a season, including Eli Manning. He has SEC experience, making stops at Ole Miss, Tennessee and Kentucky, and this league is where he has spent the bulk of his assistant coaching career. The Gators will spread it out, and Roper will be charged with developing Jeff Driskel, who hasn't yet lived up to the potential some hoped he would when he signed in the 2011 recruiting class. Expect Roper to have an impact on Driskel and the offense as a whole, and the Gators should be much strong on that side of the ball this fall.

Jake Spavital, Texas A&M: Texas A&M's offense was pretty good, which is understandable with Johnny Manziel at quarterback. But Spavital has the challenging task of steering the Aggies' offense post-Johnny Football, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews. That's three probable first-round picks leaving the offense, not to mention losing three starting receivers and the team's top running back from last season, Ben Malena. Spavital, who was the Aggies' quarterbacks coach last season, was given the play-calling and offensive coordinator reigns for the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and oversaw a unit that produced 52 points in a victory, but this will be his first fall as a full-time college playcaller. Just 28 years old, the up-and-coming Spavital must choose and develop Manziel's successor (either sophomore Kenny Hill, senior Matt Joeckel or true freshman Kyle Allen) and figure out who the go-to receiver will be in 2014. The young assistant does have a history of working with or being around great college quarterbacks though, having been at Houston when Case Keenum was there, at Oklahoma State with Brandon Weeden, and at West Virginia with Geno Smith.

SEC lunchtime links

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
12:30
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The weekend is fast approaching and bowl game action is beginning to heat up. Here are some headlines from around the league today to sink your teeth into:

SEC lunchtime links

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
12:00
PM ET
Bowl season is just two days away. The SEC teams won’t play until after Christmas, but there is still plenty to talk about around the conference this time of year. Read the latest in Thursday’s news and notes.
  • When Alabama returned to practice this week, the Iron Bowl loss was still fresh on the players’ minds, but the Crimson Tide are moving forward.
  • Running back Tre Mason and left tackle Greg Robinson already have been tabbed as Auburn players who could leave early for the NFL, but center Reese Dismukes also requested his evaluation from the NFL Draft Advisory Board.
  • With Zach Mettenberger out, LSU’s focus for the Outback Bowl has turned to freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings.
  • Jake Spavital might only be 28 years old, but he earned a promotion as Texas A&M's new offensive coordinator Wednesday and will take over play-calling duties, beginning with the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
  • Coming off what many considered his worst game in an Ole Miss uniform, quarterback Bo Wallace is seeking redemption when the Rebels face Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.
  • Wisconsin is still mad after a bitter loss to Penn State in the season finale. That’s bad news for South Carolina, who will face the Badgers in the Capital One Bowl.
  • The Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl rematch with Nebraska didn’t sound too exciting for Georgia fans, but wide receiver Chris Conley is looking forward to playing the Cornhuskers. He had a career-high 136 yards receiving and two touchdowns in last year’s game.

Revisiting Texas A&M-Alabama, part I

September, 10, 2013
9/10/13
1:40
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M shocked the college football world when it went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and upset the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide last November. It was a game for the ages, with the Aggies jumping out to a 20-0 lead, Alabama charging back to make it close and a nailbiter finish that included a turnover near the goal line.

With the Crimson Tide coming to Kyle Field for a rematch with the Aggies, anticipation has built throughout the offseason. The Tide are again No. 1, defending their BCS championship from a year ago and the Aggies still have their linchpin, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who made his most compelling case for the trophy that afternoon at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

As the heavily hyped clash approaches, let's look back at some of the keys to last year's game and how they might affect the rematch.

1. Credit to the Texas A&M defense

When dissecting Texas A&M's upset of Alabama last season, many cite the Aggies' offensive explosion en route to a 20-0 first-quarter lead as one of the most difficult things for Alabama to deal with. And while the Aggies used creative playcalling and personnel packages, their fast pace and precision execution to score three touchdowns on their first three drives, the Aggies' defensive effort had as much -- or more -- to do with their ability to take that kind of commanding lead.

A.J. McCarron
John David Mercer/US PresswireAJ McCarron threw his first interceptions of the season in Alabama's loss to Texas A&M last season.
The first play from scrimmage helped the Aggies set the tone as Alabama handed off to running back Eddie Lacy on an off-tackle play to the left side. Tight end Michael Williams motioned to that side of the formation to help open a hole for Lacy, but Texas A&M linebacker Sean Porter eluded Williams and sliced into the gap between Williams and left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and made a strong tackle to stop Lacy for no gain. Alabama went three-and-out on that drive and punted.

The Crimson Tide's next offensive drive started on a much better note for Alabama, with Lacy gaining 23 yards on his first two carries. But everything halted as the Aggies created a turnover when quarterback AJ McCarron tried to find Kenny Bell in the middle of the field. As a McCarron pass hit Bell in the chest, safety Howard Matthews delivered a hard, clean hit to Bell, who dropped the pass. Porter was there to intercept the pass, and that set up the A&M offense with great field position after a 16-yard return to the Alabama 41.

One of the key players throughout the day for the Aggies' defense was defensive tackle Spencer Nealy. A former defensive end who moved to defensive tackle at the start of the 2012 season despite lacking what would be considered "SEC size" for a tackle, Nealy played an integral role in the Aggies' run defense. Evidence of that was on display at the start of the Crimson Tide's third drive of the game.

On the first play of the drive, Alabama handed off to T.J. Yeldon on the left side and the 6-foot-5, 277-pound Nealy, who lined up at nose tackle on that play and for much of the day, used his quickness to beat center Barrett Jones and tackled Yeldon for a loss of 4 yards. The Crimson Tide went three-and-out on that drive as well as the Aggies forced McCarron's hand with a safety blitz and Matthews got into the backfield untouched, forcing an incomplete pass. The defensive effort by the Aggies forced McCarron to start the game 1-of-5 passing for 5 yards.

And even though the Tide were able to gather their bearings and make a strong comeback with some big plays on offense, the Aggies still found ways to make plays on defense. Matthews plugged a gap on third-and-2 when Yeldon tried to cut back for first-down yardage, holding the Crimson Tide to a third-quarter field goal. Safety Steven Terrell stripped Yeldon in the fourth quarter on the play after a 50-yard pass from McCarron to Amari Cooper. And of course, cornerback Deshazor Everett picked off McCarron on the Tide's final offensive play with 1:36 remaining.

The drawback for Texas A&M in the rematch is that many of the above names are gone. Nealy, Porter, Terrell and other key players -- such as defensive end Damontre Moore and linebacker Jonathan Stewart -- have graduated. They've been replaced by younger, more inexperienced players who have taken their lumps in the first two games. The Aggies also haven't had their full complement of defensive players because several served suspensions in the first two games. Saturday will be the first opportunity for all of their key guys to play together this season.

Lacy is gone for the Tide, as are several offensive linemen. The Tide struggled in that area in their season-opening win against Virginia Tech. So there will be adjustments on both sides with the differences in personnel.

2. Finding the "Y"

Manziel went to receiver Ryan Swope, the "Y" receiver who lines up in the slot on the right side of the offensive formation, early and often against the Crimson Tide. Early in the game the passes were of the short, quick variety, hitch routes that gained incremental yardage, almost like running plays.

Ryan Swope
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireRyan Swope, a senior last season, made 11 catches against Alabama.
As the game wore on, Manziel went downfield to Swope, who made some of the biggest catches of the season. One was in the middle of the field for 28 yards as he was nailed by safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the third quarter. In the fourth, Manziel found Swope down the right sideline for 42 yards.

Swope graduated as well, but look for the guy who made the catch on the play after Swope's 42-yard reception -- Malcome Kennedy -- to be a factor. Kennedy caught a 24-yard touchdown pass on the next play and having experience in a game like that can only help him this Saturday. The question is, can Kennedy bring the kind of consistency that Swope did in catching 11 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown against Alabama?

And should he be healthy for the game, 6-foot-5 freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones could be a factor at that position as well. Seals-Jones missed the Sam Houston State game last Saturday with a knee injury.

3. McCarron can scramble, too

While Manziel is known for his scrambling, McCarron showed he has good mobility as well.

McCarron isn't nearly as fleet of foot, but he did show the ability to escape pressure and make quality throws. On two instances in the Crimson Tide's first scoring drive, he evaded the Aggies' pass rush and found Cooper for a first-down completion.

In the second half, McCarron scrambled and tried to find Cooper. He avoided an interception from Everett (who was ruled out of bounds on the catch), but nevertheless, scrambling is a tool McCarron can use if the Aggies dial up extra pressure Saturday.

4. Defending Manziel on the ground

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Dave MartinJohnny Manziel had great success running in the first half against Alabama, but the running lanes closed a bit in the second half.
In the first half last year, Manziel was electric with his feet. Then-offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury was comfortable in calling designed quarterback draws. They were successful as Manziel piled up 82 yards on nine first-half carries.

But the Tide did a much better job containing Manziel in the final two quarters. In the second half, he finished with 10 rushing yards on nine attempts.

This season, Manziel is making an effort to improve as a pocket passer without taking away his playmaking ability. The Aggies have a new offensive coordinator and playcaller (Clarence McKinney) and a new quarterbacks coach (Jake Spavital). It will be interesting to see how much running Manziel does Saturday and how Alabama handles it.

5. Big plays in the Alabama passing game

Cooper, now a sophomore for the Tide, had a huge game in last year's matchup, catching six passes for 136 yards.

He had a catch of 50 yards and a 54-yard touchdown reception, both in the fourth quarter. The first came on an out-and-up, when he beat Everett one on one. The next one came when the Aggies sent Everett on a cornerback blitz and Cooper beat Matthews deep for a touchdown.

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