Alabama looks to answer questions in season opener


Sean Landry

Saturday afternoon, when the Crimson Tide takes on West Virginia at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, the team will finally have a ?chance to respond.

“It’s been a big motivator,” running back Jalston Fowler said after practice. “Sometimes we don’t want to talk about it, but we need to. We just want to get back to playing Alabama football.”

The restoration of the Alabama identity has been a point of emphasis for coach Nick Saban during the offseason and the weeks leading up to the first game.

“The question you always have when you start the season is who are we as a team,” Saban said Monday. “Every team has an opportunity to create an identity with the energy, enthusiasm, sense of focus that they have and the togetherness that they play with. Right now, because of whatever you want to say about preseason rankings, ratings, whatever, nobody’s really sold on anybody at this point. Everybody has a new opportunity.”

Saban said West Virginia will provide an early test for the the Crimson Tide’s defensive identity. The Mountaineers are coached by Dana Holgorsen, who spent many years as the offensive coordinator behind some of the top offenses in the nation. Holgorsen masterminded his own variation of the “Air Raid” spread offense, a no-huddle, pass-heavy game plan, heavily reliant on the “explosive play” for distance.

“Dana has done a really good job there, especially when it comes to how they’ve been able to play offense, uptempo, fast, sort of Texas A&M, Oklahoma State style,” Saban said. ”[They] try to control the rhythm of the game by the speed that they play at … We think this is going to be a very, very challenging game for us as a team.”

The no-huddle offense has given Alabama trouble in the past, but safety Landon Collins said he and the team have worked during preseason to prepare for just these kinds of offenses.

“On the field we do fast-paced offenses and we just go as quick as possible,” Collins said. “We have certain plays so we don’t have to do so many checks.”

Collins will be the leader of a defensive secondary that is looking to improve over its 2013 numbers and will be key in defending the West Virginia passing game helmed by quarterback Clint Trickett. Alabama’s defensive front will be preoccupied with slowing down an offense that features three running backs who averaged at least 4.7 yards per carry last season, and will have to do so without its top linebacker, Trey DePriest, suspended for one game due to a minor NCAA infraction.

On the offensive side of the ball, Alabama will be attempting to break in at least one new quarterback. Saban hasn’t named a starter, but said he feels comfortable with either fifth-year senior Blake Sims or Florida State transfer Jake Coker.

“The quarterback situation, we’re going to continue to rep both guys,” Saban said. “We feel like both guys have been doing a very, very good job.”

Much of the pressure placed on the starting quarterback can be lifted by a strong performance from Alabama’s stable of running backs.

“Those guys have all done a really, really good job,” Saban said. “They’ve all had really good camps. Derrick Henry and T.J. [Yeldon] probably are more of the sort of inside, downhill, do-it-all kind of runners. Kenyan Drake, because of his great speed, can do those things but is also a really good receiver as well as a regular runner. I think all three of those guys are guys we definitely want involved in the game that have playmaking ability. We’re very confident that all three of them can make a significant contribution to our team in some kind of way this year.”

Alabama’s offseason has filled questions about the team’s mentality and ability to replace key starters. Senior defensive back Nick Perry said the season opener marked the start of a campaign to emphatically quell all those doubts.

“You get sick of hearing everything,” Perry said. “We just want to prove that Bama’s back on top. We want to restate order and get back on top of the SEC.”