“Jesse's a very smart guy,” Saban said. “He's very prideful. He's a hard worker. It's really important to him to get it right. He competes with a lot of character. He has improved and improved last year dramatically through the season and was a very, very consistent player for us.” Now the 6-foot-4, 320-pound strong man is playing nose guard. “He's really doing a great job,” Saban said. “I think he has just continued to improve through the spring and this camp. I think he can be a guy that can really affect the game up front.”
When asked, Johnson said he just tries to keep in step with what Saban, Smart and the Tide coaches are teaching — respect the process. “I’m all about take one game at a time, one practice at a time, and everything else will take care of itself,” he said. “We do that day in, day out. We’ll be OK.” He said he sees that attitude in the others on the team as well. “In the teams I’ve been on the last three years — I don’t think we’ve been so focused in and committed to what we were doing,” he said. “We have an opportunity here, and everybody understands that. We’re just trying to take advantage of it.”
Injured Michigan senior receiver Roy Roundtree is expected back for the Sept. 1 season opener against Alabama, coach Brady Hoke said Thursday. Roundtree, who had his knee scoped Aug. 10 after injuring it in practice, has been working aggressively to return in time. “I think (the chances) are good,” Hoke said after U-M’s 14th practice of preseason camp. “He’s with the rehab specialists every day, and we communicate.” Hoke wouldn’t give specifics about what threshold Roundtree must meet, other than having the doctors clear him, but teammates said last weekend they expected he would recover in time.
Player who needs to step up: C Ricky Barnum has never played in more than four games in a season, but the fifth-year senior will be counted on to anchor the offensive line this fall. Barnum was slated to start at left guard last season, but he suffered a pair of ankle injuries and was never the same. Now, he is counted on to slide into the most important position on the line and guide a running game that averaged nearly 5.2 yards per carry and scored 31 touchdowns on the ground last fall.
In 2010, Michigan finished 110th in overall defense (450.8) and the 107th in scoring defense (35.2). In one season under the tutelage of Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison, the Wolverines made a shocking turnaround finishing 17th nationally in total defense (322.2) and 6th nationally in scoring defense (17.4). It will be fascinating to see how the defense performs in the second season of the Brady Hoke era.
Coordinator Al Borges first unveiled the unorthodox formation against Minnesota in last year's Big Ten opener. The initial play out of the look -- a handoff from Gardner to Robinson -- resulted in a 4-yard loss. Then, it was off and running. Michigan frequently dialed up the formation as a supplemental package, running everything from power runs up the middle to halfback passes. There were reverses, end-arounds and screen passes. Borges said Michigan averaged more than 8 yards per play in the deuce formation. The Wolverines averaged 6.2 yards per play overall. "Even the plays that weren’t good set up plays that were good," Borges said recently. "There were guys we’d run a play that wouldn’t yield much, only to be set up by another play that did. It’s not always the play -- sometimes, it’s the residual effect of the initial play. "Now how much we use of it (this year)? I don’t know. That’s a game-plan deal. As we get through the install and we see where we are, we’ll decide on that."
Another special teams role that needs filling are the gunners on the punt unit, a role held last year by Dre Kirkpatrick, who was a first-round NFL Draft choice. Gunners line up near the sideline on the punt team and are expected to be the first defenders to reach the punt returner. "I think straight-line speed is really important. Ability to release the block on the guy that's trying to hold you up. ... Once you beat him with your release, you can get on top of him with your speed," Saban said. "You've got to be a pretty good tackler, but if you're fast enough and you get down there fast enough then they're going to fair catch it. Then you don't have to be such a good tackler." Saban mentioned no potential names for the role, but said several are being tried. "Big, fast guys," he said.
Though sacks were one of the few defensive categories Alabama didn’t rank the best at last season, the Crimson Tide’s linebackers, specifically Hightower and Upshaw, were constant nuisances to opposing quarterbacks. To go along with their combined 13.5 sacks, Upshaw and Hightower amassed 19 quarterback hurries. “They have to change the game on third down,” defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “We've got to have a change-up and say, 'Hey, we're not going to be heavy and hit you in the mouth, we're going to try and run around you.’”
ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit raised eyebrows when he correctly picked Auburn to win the SEC West in 2010. Last year, he took Alabama as SEC champion, and although that didn't happen, the Crimson Tide won the national title in an SEC rematch over LSU. Herbstreit's 2012 SEC prediction: Alabama beats Georgia in Atlanta -- thanks to the dismissal of LSU's Tyrann Mathieu. "We're kind of in an either-or situation with Alabama and LSU," Herbstreit said during an interview today. "They are so much better than everybody else."
Two place-kickers shared one job on the Alabama football team the past two seasons, with Jeremy Shelley handling short kicks and Cade Foster attempting the long ones. Now there’s one more foot in the competition: freshman Adam Griffith. “We're giving them all an equal opportunity, whether it's kicking or kickoff, and we're evaluating on a daily basis,” coach Nick Saban said Thursday. “We really want to be fair, and we don't really have any favorites. “We just want to evaluate statistically how well they've done throughout camp, especially in team situations.”
D.J. Fluker had heard it before from his coaching staff; that anybody on the team can show leadership. That message didn't quite sink in for the University of Alabama offensive lineman in his first three years on campus, but the fourth-year junior has embraced the concept in the preseason. "I've always had it; I just didn't know when my time would come, like, to step up and say, 'Hey guys, let's get together' and know when to lead," Fluker said. "Because we already had leaders like Rolando McClain, Barrett Jones, Vlachos. We had great leaders already. I really didn't know when my time would come. But now that I see the opportunity to get it, why not take advantage of it?"
FOX 8 Sports has learned that former LSU star Tyrann Mathieu has come to some big decisions about his future. It's been an agonizing decision making process for Tyrann Mathieu and his parents this week. But they've now decided, as a family, that Tyrann will remain at a drug rehab center in Houston for the near future, instead of returning to classes at LSU or any other college - in order to play football this fall. The Honey Badger's father, Tyrone Mathieu, tells FOX 8 Sports that he and Tyrann agree -- until he conquers his demons, he won't be successful at his future endeavors, wherever they unfold. The senior Mathieu says both Tyrann and his family are committed to restoring Tyrann's health, no matter what it takes, believing football will take care of itself down the road.