Through three games, no particular receiver had stepped forward, but that doesn’t seem like such a bad thing so far. Alabama ranks third nationally in passing efficiency, and the guy who heaves almost all of those throws, quarterback AJ McCarron, said that statistic isn’t about him as much as it is the guys who catch the ball. As the Crimson Tide prepares to face Florida Atlantic at home Saturday, it seems to have developed that balanced passing game that doesn’t rely so heavily on one pitch-and-catch combination. "Those stats that really reflects my receivers, shows what kind of catches and how hard they’ve been working to get those kind of stats or whatever," McCarron said.
Yeldon, Alabama’s Mr. Football last year at Daphne High, became the first Crimson Tide true freshman to rush for more than 100 yards in his debut against Michigan. He gained 111 yards on 11 carries and scored a touchdown. He also added 26 yards receiving. The Alabama product was the most explosive performer at the A-Day game last spring and leads the Tide in rushing yards (191) and all-purpose yards (282) through three games. But Drake, a 6-foot-1, 204-pound speedster from Powder Springs, Ga., has been a bigger surprise. He’s had far fewer carries and has played in a reserve role against tiring, dispirited defenses, but his production has been impressive. Drake has rushed for 91 yards and two touchdowns on just eight carries -- averaging 11.4 yards per carry. He has scored on touchdown runs of 32 and 12 yards, showing a big burst of acceleration when he gets in the open field. Neither of the newcomers’ performances has been a surprise to teammates. Yeldon’s big debut against Michigan produced a shrug from senior center Barrett Jones. "We had been seeing that out of him for a long time," Jones said. "I don’t think it’s a secret that he might be the next one, kind of, in line to take over that title of our great running back. We feel good about the future with him."
On what he has done to turn the program around since a 2007 loss to Louisiana-Monroe: He talked about playing to a standard and telling players they should be relevant to the organization. "But until guys prove that they have the right stuff and they go out there and perform with a consistency, that over time is what makes you successful. … The quality of the race is how you finish the race. … We have a tendency around here to make a guy a hero, I mean, a guy gains 100 yards in his first game here and it’s like, well, I’ve got to spend the next month getting the guy right. I’d just appreciate if we didn’t do that." Was he talking about T.J. Yeldon?
Only six teams nationally have been perfect in as many trips into the red zone. Having powerful backs like Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon helps. So does an offensive line that might be among the nation's best. As if those weren't enough, Alabama can mix and match supersized personnel to bulldoze defenders. Against Arkansas, Alabama lined up on the 1 with four tight ends, and T.J. Yeldon scored. Lacy likes that formation of hefty blockers, too. "That's never bad at all. It helps out a lot," he said. "The defense can't really get through them. They play physical and they allow us to do what we're capable of doing."
What we can know about Nick Saban’s sixth Alabama team is that it’s overall better than his fifth, which got voters to hold their noses and vote it into the title game after a loss to LSU. It’s not so much the defense, though this year’s young Tide defense has its finer points. It still looks hard to move the ball down the field against Alabama without a drive-killing negative play. The Tide has shut out two of three opponents and given up two touchdowns all year, both on long Denard Robinson passes. The biggest difference on defense? This Alabama team gets turnovers. The Tide is tied with Mississippi State for the national lead in turnover margin, and State has already had its game against Auburn’s Kiehl Frazier.
It’s week two all over again, in a way. Alabama is coming off a blowout, away game win against a team some predicted to be in the top 10 before the season began. Now it has a lesser opponent – a cupcake, if you will – waiting for it at home. A team led to slaughter for a few extra bucks. Only head coach Nick Saban wasn’t exactly thrilled with how his team responded in week two. He claimed the Crimson Tide played sloppy, unmotivated football against Western Kentucky. There were too many penalties, too many sacks given up and the run game struggled to get much of anything going. Alabama won 35-0. But this week, Alabama gets a do-over. Now Florida Atlantic University is the school brought before Alabama as the sacrificial lamb. The Tide destroyed Arkansas 52-0 in Fayetteville last weekend and is presumably riding high after its first SEC win. But Saban expects nothing less than an even more dominant showing this week. "Every five seconds, as soon as you mess up, no matter what the score is, if you make a mental error, he’s going to be on you hard," safety HaHa Clinton-Dix said.
"At that point you’re four weeks into the season you’re going to have to start to install, especially defensively," he said. "You got to up your pressure packages, you’ve got be able to move more, disguise coverages. Right now we’re still working on the fundamentals. At that point it will become a little more scheme oriented for us. Hopefully by that point our guys have a solid foundation to build off from there.
Florida Atlantic’s offense, which is 116th nationally in scoring, against an Alabama defense allowing the nation’s third-fewest points. The Owls are averaging 14.67 points a game, slightly more than the 14 the Crimson Tide has given up collectively through three games.
Foster already has converted as many field goals (two) as he made all of last season, and both have come from 51 yards. The Crimson Tide's kickoff man and designated option for longer field goal tries, Foster has barely missed two other tries, both from 52 yards. As for kickoffs, he already has recorded 11 touchbacks, six more than he had all of last year. "The five yards definitely helps as far as touchbacks go. I've definitely improved, my kick average in that game was probably over 70 yards and last year I was not near that," Foster said. "I've definitely improved in that area and I just got to keep doing that for the rest of the season. We've only played three games."
"We play our corners up on people a lot, so sometimes they bail off, sometimes they play bump-and-run, sometimes they get off and backpedal," Saban said. "I just think that we're just not philosophically into playing a lot of soft coverage where you line up 7, 8, 9 yards off a guy and give them a lot of easy throws in front." One more thing. "I can backpedal," said Saban, who was a defensive back at Kent State. "I could backpedal when I played, and I can still backpedal. And cover. Somebody."
Arie Kouandjio's new nickname is a tribute not only to a scary movie juggernaut, but also the tenacity he's shown throughout his ongoing comeback from multiple knee surgeries. "They call him Jason ... because he just keeps on coming," younger brother Cyrus Kouandjio said, referring to the famous villain from the Friday the 13th franchise. "They cut up both his knees, they chop ’em up real good and he just keeps on coming."
Lester has been a fixture in Alabama's secondary since his breakout sophomore season. Through three games, the preseason all-SEC selection has five tackles, one pass deflection and half of a sack. On Wednesday, Saban called Lester "a good leader for us in the secondary." "Last year he had a couple opportunities that he didn't take advantage of," Saban said. "But he's always in the right place and I think that his opportunities will come when he continues to play and be in the right place. "Whether he gets interceptions or not, he's a lot better player now than he was two years ago when he made all those interceptions."
Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson certainly have two different personalities and two different body types, but there are just as many similarities. Both players have provided consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks throughout the first three weeks of the season. "Our mindset is the same, we get out there every play," Hubbard said. "Hard work is what I pride my guys on. Those outside linebackers, those are my guys."
"Let's be fair to Cory," Pelini said. "I watched the interview. Obviously, I cringed when he said that. For five or six straight questions, he had said, 'Alabama's a great team. We just gotta worry about ourselves. We just gotta keep getting better.' And he just kept getting prodded and prodded and prodded and prodded. "Actually, that question was very much taken out of context. I feel bad for the young man that he was portrayed that way because that's not who he is. He's not a braggart, and he's not that kind of kid. I feel terrible about how that went down (Wednesday). I don't like how that was handled." Pelini said Henry feels bad about the situation. "Cory's the kind of guy who comes here every day, works his tail off, never talks," Pelini said. "Is just a very quiet kid. I watched it go down and stepped in just a little too late, but he just kept getting prodded and prodded."