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Hope For the Best: Western Kentucky edition

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Call WKU a patsy if you must, but the Hilltoppers represent one of the most potent early-season offensive threats the Alabama defense will face

NCAA Football: Rice at Western Kentucky
WKU QB Mike White appears to be picking up where his predecessor Brandon Doughty left off in 2015.
Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

For Western Kentucky’s newly-minted quarterback Mike White, the Hilltoppers’ match-up with top-ranked powerhouse Alabama on Saturday boils down to a few concise, to-the-point words.

“We fear no man and no program.”

Sure, the USF transfer who beat out a passel of other candidates as the heir apparent to Western Kentucky’s prolific offense (previous starter Brandon Doughty threw for 5,000 yards and 48 touchdowns in 2015) has to have swagger heading into Saturday’s game against Alabama. But is such bravado warranted against an Alabama defense that already appeared to be in mid-season form against USC in the opener?

If early returns prove accurate, Alabama could once again have the nation’s best defense, with a destructive front seven that will only get deeper as the season continues and more players get quality playing time. Human cruise missile Reuben Foster is every bit the leader and world-wrecker at linebacker of his predecessor Reggie Ragland. The Alabama secondary appears even more sound than it was last year, which is a scary thought for many teams hoping to pass the ball against the Tide.

But Western Kentucky is a different species of beast under Western Kentucky head coach (and former Louisville quarterback under Howard Schnellenberger) Jeff Brohm. (Interesting fact…Brohm through a pick-six to the Alabama defense in the 1991 Sunkist Fiesta Bowl after relieving starter Browning Nagle briefly. Brohm also turned down an offer from Nick Saban to become offensive coordinator for the Tide offense in 2007.) In his two previous years as head coach of WKU, the Tops have put up astounding offensive numbers to be sure. Last season, Brohm’s Doughty-led offense broke 50 school and conference records, spreading the ball to a plethora of receivers while still finding enough totes for a 1,000 yard rusher.

While it’s true Alabama’s offense will treat the sub-par Western Kentucky defense like tackling dummies, for an offensive team of the Tops’ caliber, the best defense is a fast, explosive offense. After all, Alabama’s offense will have a hard time scoring from the sideline. And with a pace that has given Nick Saban-coached defenses trouble in the past, one has to wonder how the new and improved lighter-faster Tide defensive template will perform against the stress placed on it by Brohm’s multiple offense.

We will get those answers soon enough. But don’t make the mistake of assuming Western Kentucky is in town for a paycheck game. They will put up a fight, and they have the offense to expose Alabama’s shocking lack of seasoned secondary depth with a gun-slinging quarterback and offensive cupboard that is well-stocked.

White’s proclamation may indeed be errant swagger run rampant…but then again, after spending the summer with the WKU offense, maybe he knows something we don’t. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

The Alabama offense versus the Western Kentucky defense

As pointed out here yesterday, there’s no reason to believe that it will be Western’s defense that is the silver bullet that slays the Tide were-beast on Saturday afternoon. While WKU defensive coordinator Nick Holt was the figurehead for some of USC’s tremendous championship-caliber defenses of the 2006-2008 run, the rest of his career would indicate that those teams were not representative of his true ability (and in a not-so-flattering way).

Western Kentucky’s defensive strategy seems rather simple: serve as a speed bump for opposing offenses while the Topper offense uses its explosiveness to pile points on the scoreboard in hopes of outpacing the opponent. The offense could literally score on any (and every) possession against some opponents, so the defense’s default is to just be able to keep the game close and make an occasional stop that could prove the difference in the game.

Holt runs a very vanilla 4-3 scheme at WKU with a less-than-stellar pass rush and a somewhat underwhelming secondary. The Hilltopper D is a one-gapping defense that transitions to nickel and dime when confronted with receiver-heavy sets. When in the base 4-3, typically Holt has to blitz a corner or safety to generate pressure, as the four-man front struggles to elude blockers in pass rush or get off of blocks against opposing run games.

Despite this less than sparkling appraisal of the WKU defense as a whole, there are some role players who provide spark for the unit, and can help step up at key moments to keep offenses in check. The safeties, for example, are both quite good, with senior Brandon Leston (6’3”, 205 pounds) at free and senior Marcus Ward (6’3”, 210 pounds) at strong. They are both solid in run support and against the pass, though neither has the athleticism to routinely cover the likes of Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart, Gehrig Deiter and O.J. Howard. Therefore, there will be mismatches to be had when the Tide brings a full complement of receivers into the game. Look for Lane Kiffin to root those out.

Making the WKU pass defense even more suspect is the injection of two relative newcomers to the starting line-up at the corners. Be sure that Kiffin has highlighted both junior De’Andre Simmons (5’11”, 185 pounds) and junior Joe Brown (5’10”, 190 pounds), as the Bama OC takes pleasure in finding the weak link in a defense before pounding it repeatedly and relentlessly. In the secondary, the corners are that weak link, and there’s little reason to believe that Alabama’s wide receiving corps won’t get a chance to rip them early and often.

In the front seven, the Tops have some players, though they may be too few to do much to stifle the full-bore Alabama attack. After the offensive line was called out by Saban for their inability to control the point of attack early on, several players made post-game comments that they were unhappy with the performance and would indeed play better this week. Unfortunately for Western Kentucky’s front seven, they will bear the full brunt of this renewed focus on Saturday, as Alabama’s big men will show up meaner than a pack of biting sows. Expect Alabama’s running game to take advantage of the Toppers’ somewhat undersized defensive line, as only tackle Omarius Bryant (6’3”, 310 pounds) tops 300 pounds.

As stated before, the WKU defense does have some players, as senior defensive end (and Louisville transfer) Nick Dawson-Brents (6’3”, 260 pounds), OLB (and UAB transfer) T.J. McCollum (6’3”, 230 pounds), and senior (and another Louisville transfer) Keith Brown (6’1”, 235 pounds) are all talented defenders, to be sure. They may make their plays against the Tide, but Alabama will dominate the trenches of this game on both sides of the ball. The Tide offensive line will undoubtedly improve dramatically between Week One and Week Two, and for a team that scored 52 points with a 140 yard rusher, that will be more than WKU can handle.

Kiffin can literally choose his weapon in this game. This Hilltopper defense in the past has struggled against offenses that run zone read from a pro-style offense with the ability to stretch the field and use an effective screen game. Those terms pretty much describe the Alabama offense against USC to a note. Don’t expect anything different in that regard. Alabama will attack the edges of the WKU defense with its speed, and they will at times let their big men up front do their thing and grind out devastatings rushing yardage that will wear down the WKU front. Kiffin will diagnose opportunities for big plays in the passing game as he did against USC, and Jalen Hurts (or Blake Barnett) will execute them. There’s just seemingly not a lot that the Tops will be able to do to stop Alabama’s offense, other than preventing them from getting their hands on the ball.

Alabama defense against the Western Kentucky offense

This is the true “tale of the tape” in this game, and truthfully, the only one that will shape the outcome. As stated before, Alabama’s offense, unless it inexplicably goes to pieces, will basically be asked to execute against a scout team defense.

The same, however, couldn’t be less true when the Tide defense takes the field. Western Kentucky brings one of the nation’s elite offenses into Saturday’s game, led by one of the nation’s elite offensive minds in head coach Jeff Brohm. Brohm’s accomplishments in his previous two years at WKU have been stunning, and after a shellacking of Rice in the opener, it appears a change at quarterback has done nothing to slow down the high-octane Topper attack.

Brohm’s offense is a thing of wonder, to be quite honest. It seamlessly appears to knit together the best facets of several popular offensive styles from the game today, turning each one of them to a specific advantage. Brohm himself has described his philosophy as “a no-huddle, uptempo pro-style offense with spread elements.” Some of those terms seem to contradict each other, but when one views the offense at work, it’s clear what he means.

The Tops definitely use tempo, operating at a screaming pace with short, accurate passes spread between myriad receivers and backs. The Tops will throw to the receivers, they’ll throw to the tight ends, they’ll throw to the running backs. If they could throw to the guards, they would do that, too. With so many available targets on tap, Alabama’s defense will be challenged to the hilt in pass defense. Linebackers will play a role in coverage, and Alabama will benefit from having Foster and speedy ‘backers like Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans helping out.

What could be problematic is when the Toppers go to five wides sets, leaving Alabama to bring in extra defensive backs. Such tactics will require Alabama to potentially play true freshman like Jared Mayden and Shyheim Carter against WKU’s excellent receiver talent. Though the young defensive backs have been impressive and are promising talents to be sure, asking them to step into the swirling maelstrom of receiver talent that WKU can throw at a defense is a little overwhelming.

Anthony Averette, who got a start against USC and worked at corner opposite Marlon Humphrey, is likewise fairly green. He will most definitely be the weak underbelly of the Tide secondary in the base defense and nickel, simply because he lacks game-time experience and can’t yet match the accomplishments of Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick. The fact is, he’s simply yet to see anything like the storm the Hilltoppers will send his way on Saturday.

To further complicate things, Brohm likes to incorporate spread elements in his offense to create space and increase the impact of the speed of his playmakers. Just because the team likes to operate in HUNH fashion doesn’t mean they eschew the running game, as the coach isn’t afraid to call a run out of a shotgun formation with a single back off-set or in motion. The offense will be categorized by most as HUNH, but it goes so much deeper than that. It is so multiple that it defies such traditional labels, and offers defenses a seemingly endless number of looks and packages that can be run against them.

The offense is somewhat thin in regard to seasoned depth, but that didn’t seem to matter much in the season opener for WKU. Former USF quarterback Mike White (6’4”, 210 pounds) has stepped into the shoes of departing legend Doughty, a senior who threw for 5,000 and 48 touchdowns within Brohm’s system in 2015. White is picking up where Doughty left off, as he threw for 517 yards in a 25-of-31 performance last week against Rice.

What makes a system like WKU’s work so incredibly well is talent at the skill positions. Fortunately for the Hilltoppers, that is once again the case. They only return two of the top five receivers from last season’s history making team, but those two returning receivers represent one of the most dynamic WR tandems in the country. Senior Taywan Taylor (6’1”, 195 pounds) is a beast, every bit as skilled as USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster and equally as accomplished. The seasoned receiver caught 86 passes in 2015 for 1,467 yards with 17 touchdowns, staking his claim as one of the best pass-catchers in the game last year.

Fellow senior receiver Nicholas Norris (5’9”, 175 pounds) may not have Taylor’s size, but he could be an even more explosive athlete, a spark plug in the mold of Alabama’s former receiver Christion Jones. Norris caught 63 balls for 971 yards last season, and he conspired with White last weekend to absolutely torch the Owls, catching seven passes for 146 yards with two touchdowns (one, an 87-yard strike).

Toss in third receiver Nacarius Fant (5’9”, 185 pounds), and you have the starting core of receivers responsible for an explosive performance against Rice in the first weekend of the season. Alabama’s secondary will have a decided size advantage against Fant and Norris, but with the attention likely to fall heavily on Taylor, the duo may find daylight, especially considering Alabama’s suspect depth in the secondary. Last week, Alabama used no fewer than two freshman defensive backs to fill out the nickel and dime packages and spelling the starters, and Fant, Norris and a host of other WKU receivers have the skills to introduce the freshmen to Division 1 football.

What will tax (and expose) Alabama’s secondary depth even further has nothing to do with injuries, but rather with sheer exhaustion. The pass-happy Topper offense will throw the ball a lot, and they will run a lot of plays. Even the most endurance-minded defensive back can’t run wide open for hours on end chasing wave after wave of fleet-footed receivers. They will need rest, and when they do, who will step in to offer support? The answer is true freshmen, in most cases. At safety, there is little depth at all beyond the starters, as Alabama didn’t sign a safety in the class of 2016. Because of this, Trevon Diggs (signed as a WR) has seen reps at safety. Again, having to face an offense like Western Kentucky’s with an assortment of freshmen six months removed from high school is not necessarily confidence-inspiring.

This should be a cause for some concern, as solid as Alabama’s starters have looked. Many have assuaged such concern by praying that the Tide defense remains injury-free while the younger players learn the ropes. However, in this game, the depth issue will not be injury-related, as the freshmen will have to be utilized when the overactive WKU offense breeds exhaustion in Bama’s starters.

Shifting gears to the big uglies, the Hilltopper offense has the benefit of a full complement of returning starters along the offensive line, something that cannot be underestimated within Brohm’s fast-paced scheme. Last season, the Neil Callaway-coached unit was excellent at executing the game plan, and while smallish by SEC standards, the linemen did exactly what was needed of them in their system. Callaway, however, has departed for the same position with USC, with newcomer Dale Williams getting the call from Brohm to replace the former Alabama assistant. While the WKU offensive line is as seasoned as it can be and knows the game plan, one can only wonder the impact that Williams will have, as he doesn’t have the pedigree of Callaway (and was coaching high school ball when he got the call from Brohm to join him at WKU).

The Tops’ offense isn’t just an (airborne) one-trick-pony, as Brohm is dedicated to the run. Senior Anthony Wales (5’10”, 195 pounds) is a solid running back, having rushed for over 1000 yards and nine touchdowns in 2015. D’Andre Ferby was the presumed second back, but he will miss much of the season due to injury. The Tops will miss his physical presence, as the 240-pound running back could do things that just aren’t accessible to his lighter counterpart, Wales.

Make no mistake, Alabama’s defense will be tested mightily by what Western Kentucky brings to the table offensively. Much was made in recent years of Saban’s strategic pivot to a lighter, faster defensive front to better handle the likes of HUNH teams. Several such teams took advantage of the Tide defense in the past, and the emergence of that particular style of offense led to the recruitment of players who could not only hold the point of attack, but respond quickly to uptempo offenses while retaining their endurance for four quarters.

Alabama has reached that pinnacle, as the Tide found a way to beat such an offense in Clemson in the national championship game. While WKU doesn’t have the caliber of athlete enjoyed by the Tigers, they do have many of the same uptempo advantages. Western Kentucky won’t run much zone read with White, preferring to let him operate from a shotgun pocket, run his progressions, and slice defenses ninja-style with short, accurate passing and shotgun runs.

Western Kentucky’s offense can represent an exercise in frustration for the Tide, with an ability to dish the ball to countless targets, erase tendencies, and wear down opponents with speed and pace. Alabama will need to continue the trend of generating effective pressure with four rushers, something it did well against USC (who has a bigger, better offensive line, mind you). Doing so will allow Alabama to get everyone else involved in pass defense, and that may very well be needed.

Because of the pass happy Topper offense, expect to see those young defensive backs a good bit, as Alabama will spend a great deal of its time in nickel and dime coverages to defend the multiple passing targets available to White. Expect Brohm to take advantage of those lighter defensive packages by spreading Alabama thin, then running back through the spaces created and matching his linemen and backs against lighter, less physical defenders.

As good as Alabama’s defense has traditionally been against vanilla, pro-style offenses, the burr in the Bama saddle has always been tempo teams with spread concepts. It’s not that Alabama can’t stop those offenses, as they’ve done it against more talented teams. But they won’t look comfortable doing it, and it will present a unique set of problems. Alabama’s defense now is vastly different from the one that won Saban’s first championship with the Tide in 2009, and teams like Western Kentucky are the reason why.

Don’t be shocked when Western Kentucky scores more than USC did in the opener. Don’t be dismayed when the Alabama defense cedes 3 (or even 400) yards through the air to this potent offense. Alabama’s ability against the run is a constant, as outside of a mobile quarterback, the Tide has shown the ability to shut down any running back, any time, any scheme, anywhere. That’s one thing that won’t change this week.

But the WKU passing game is enough to frustrate and confound Alabama’s defense on its lonesome. The Bama defense is a machine that best works when all parts are working in tandem. The secondary will thrive if the pass rush is ferocious. The pass rush will be more effective when the corners and safeties can cover up receivers early and force a quarterback to run through his progressions. Both units work better when the linebackers can contribute to the pass rush and be counted on to play their roles in pass defense.

Fortunately, in the opener against USC, Alabama’s defense was a well-oiled machine, working in concert. With a few adjustments, the same can be true against WKU. It’s just that it can’t be taken for granted.

If Alabama allows the Topper offense to get in an early rhythm, if the game becomes an offensive foot race, then Alabama’s needs will not be well-served. The best-case scenario will see Alabama’s defense keep the WKU offense out of synch early, while the Tide offense gets on the scoreboard and demoralizes the Tops.

Special Teams

Alabama’s J.K. Scott appeared back to form against USC after a tumultuous 2015, with the cannon-legged kicker flipping the field and pushing the Trojans back deep into their own territory on the rare occasion he was asked to punt. Adam Griffith did his job, though the jury remains out on whether or not nerves will be calmer when he lines up for critical field goal attempts this season.

Alabama’s return man rotation of Calvin Ridley, Trevon Diggs and ArDarius Stewart seemed to work fine for Alabama against USC. While there wasn’t much that comes to mind in regard to the kicking game, that is probably not a bad thing, i.e. there were no critical errors committed.

Alabama kick coverage was okay against USC, though there were a few breakdowns that gave the Trojans better field position than was probably desirable. That will be an area in need of improvement as the Tide heads into the game against Western Kentucky, so we’ll put a pin in that and re-examine it once there is a bigger sample size.

Western Kentucky has sophomores at both punter (Jake Collins) and place kicker (Ryan Moss). Both appear fair-to-middlin’ given limited available info. If the game comes down to whether or not Moss can make a field goal, then it’s safe to say things will have gone horribly awry for the Crimson Tide on multiple fronts.

Returning punts for WKU is the explosive Fant, with junior Kylen Towner returning kicks along with Taylor. The Topper return men are explosive athletes, and again, if Alabama has any struggles in kick coverage this week, Fant and Taylor definitely have the skills to make them pay.

Fresh off of a dominating performance, and with a critical SEC match-up with Ole Miss on the horizon next week, don’t expect to catch this Alabama team napping on Saturday. There were more than enough missteps in the opener to give Saban and Company ample fodder for the improvement grinder. Alabama will need to be on top of its game to keep from creating PR nightmares and blood-thirsty storylines for next week’s match-up with the Rebels.

Western Kentucky is no pushover, by any stretch. But they’re also a team that has no business beating Alabama at this point in the season. Of course, the same could have been said about last week’s LSU/ Wisconsin match-up…and we know how that ended up.

With an explosive, high-octane offense, Western Kentucky can inflict damage against the Tide this weekend. This dynamic will decide the game. It matches strength-on-strength, and the Topper offense will test the Tide defense in a way few others teams will be capable of doing this season. Sure, Alabama’s defense looked monstrous against USC, but WKU will be a true test of how far Alabama’s reconfigured defense has come from the 2009 season.

White said that the Hilltoppers fear no man and no team, and they may not still after this weekend. What they will learn is a respect for what it takes to play with Alabama. Their offense is great, but they’ll have to play the game of their careers if they have any hope of hanging with the Tide for four quarters. Maybe it’s not likely, but in this wild-and-crazy 2016 football season, as we saw in Week One, anything appears possible. Hope for the best…