Friday, January 8th, 2021

Slow Turns The Tide

Simon Clancy

Lead Feature Writer

Slow Turns The Tide

Simon Clancy College Football

This article originally appeared in Issue XXXIX of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE



“I haven’t lost more than one game a year since my sophomore season,” laughs Alabama’s all-star left tackle Jonah Williams. “I’m aware it’s probably going to happen at some point in my career, but I’m not ready for it yet!”

It’s exactly a month before the defending national champions start their 2018 campaign and, for Williams, defeat isn’t part of The Process. The last time they lost three or more games in a season, Gordon Brown had just stood down as leader of the Labour Party and Apple were set to launch a new product called the iPad. “It’s not an option at all,” Williams tells Gridiron. “We’ve got a lot of new guys in key spots and we lost a lot of outstanding players and leaders to the NFL, but I don’t see any difference in mindset, mentality or talent to any other year I’ve been here. We’re ready.”

‘We’re ready’. Those two words alone are ominous for the rest of the college football landscape as teams scramble to top Crimson Tide Mountain. But that’s easier said than done. Alabama have won three of the last four National Championships and are a last-second Deshaun Watson pass in 2016 away from making that four from four. They’re the modern-day sporting steamroller: almost unbeatable on the field and undisputed champions off it in the cutthroat world of recruiting, defying the well-worn adage that great players will be spread across the nation in the battle for playing time and the path to the NFL.

Not so with Alabama, where players accept sitting is part of the quid pro quo that is offset by titles and high draft positions; the Tide have had 45 players drafted in the first three rounds since 2010, including 25 first rounders. Head coach Nick Saban has created the closest thing to a dynasty in college football and it shows little sign of slowing down.

Or does it?

The 2018 incarnation returns to the field on September 2 against Louisville without a host of stars including Calvin Ridley, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Da’Ron Payne, Ronnie Harrison and Rashaan Evans, amid questions about whether losing that much talent equates to too much. Drill a little deeper and you understand the scepticism; the core of Alabama’s generational defenses of the past two seasons are now in the NFL. There’s also some fairly fundamental issues at the quarterback position where incumbent Jalen Hurts and sophomore sensation Tua Tagovailoa are battling for the starter’s job. A two-year starter with a 26-2 record, all Hurts has done in Tuscaloosa is win football games. Yet here he is pitted against the 2018 National Championship Game saviour who stepped into a deep hole in January and delivered a ring with his game-winning throw in OT.

So, let’s take point one: Is Saban’s squad going to be too inexperienced in the early weeks of the season, or will a fairly pat-a-cake opening sled – Louisville, Arkansas State, Mississippi – allow them to get enough water behind the ears for their game against Jimbo Fisher’s new-look Texas A&M on September 29? “We know we have to hit the ground running but that’s the same every year,” Williams adds. “The new guys understand the need to be ready and to come in and step up. But we have talented guys here, new leaders. They may be inexperienced comparatively speaking, but they have the right mindset.”

That’s a view shared by his teammate, outside linebacker Christian Miller. “I have no concern replacing those guys. It’s part of what happens here,” he reveals. “Young guys have always had to grow up and step up. The first couple of games there might be some nerves, but I have complete trust and faith in these kids. As long as we do what the coaches say, we’ll be fine.”
 


“It really is a one vs one battle, but that’s pushing them to be their very best on every single day. They know that they can’t afford to slack, can’t afford to lose ground.”


 
However, there are questions to be answered before opening day, chief among them deciding between Tagovailoa and Hurts. The spring couldn’t – allegedly – separate the pair and those involved in the programme have been on lockdown in terms of giving any hints about who the leader in the clubhouse may be. The rumours point to Tagovailoa, but they’re only rumours.

Hurts, who’d kept his counsel during the spring and summer, finally cracked in early August and showed his frustration over the situation when corralled by reporters after practice. “This is uncontrollable,” Hurts said. “Coaches can’t control it, they tried to let it die down. No one came up to me the whole spring, coaches included, no one asked me how I felt. No one asked me what was on my mind. Now we’re trying to handle the situation now? For me, it’s kinda late. It’s too late. The narrative has already been created. As a player, you definitely want to feel some concern from your coaches, but I don’t think that they were bold enough to ask.”

So, what of his teammates; can they see a clear leader? If they can, they’re not telling. “Both guys are so competitive,” says Williams, deftly avoiding the question. “It really is a one vs one battle, but that’s pushing them to be their very best on every single day. They know that they can’t afford to slack, can’t afford to lose ground.” He laughs when Gridiron pauses to reply. We both know he can’t say anything.

When we speak to Williams he is in the office of the Alabama press officer so is perhaps more cautious. However, Miller is in his apartment away from the all-seeing eye of administration. Does he see one of them moving ahead of the other? “I’ll tell you this,” he says, “this is really bringing out the best in both of them. Both guys are doing an awesome job and they’re great leaders. At the end of the day they’re brothers and they’ll be competitive and support each other 100% no matter who wins the job.”

“So, who’ve you got?” we persist.

“I’m not going to lie because it depends on coach,” Miller responds, laughing. “I know this though; he wants one of those two to win over the team. I’ve been here a while and it’s never been clear cut when there’s a quarterback competition. It’s going to come down to what he feels and that’s the way it’s always been around here.” Stalemate. But for all their obvious avoidance, they’re simply toeing the party line to perfection like the good team leaders they are. “There’s no straw vote with the players as to who will be the quarterback,” says Saban. “Since it wouldn’t be unanimous, it would only be divisive. It has to be done at a higher level.”

See?

All that makes Hurts’ August outburst all the more surprising. “There’s been a lot of rumours, a lot of speculation about things that have gone on this summer,” he said. “The funny part for me is the people making decisions for me.”

“I kind of feel like they’ve been hiding me from [the media]. There’s been a lot going on, a lot of things being said. Everybody has something to say, everybody has an opinion. The funniest thing about it is I’ve never said a thing. I kept my mouth closed, didn’t say anything to anyone. Regardless, people are believing the things that are being said. It’s hard to believe something when the number one source didn’t say anything.” Those comments will have irked Saban who’s Belichickian in his relentless pursuit of his players saying nothing of note to anyone, ever. And, if Miller is right, then paradoxically, winning over the team may just have come from Hurts’ honesty. But he won’t have won any fans among the coaching staff.

Of course, this isn’t the first time ‘Bama finds itself in this situation: 2018 marks the sixth time in Saban’s 12 Alabama seasons that a new starter could assume the quarterback position. Since 2014, only the 2017 season had resolution before opening weekend, so this scenario is nothing new to the programme. But it’s never had a battle between two National Champion passers before. “I’m not really focused on winning the job,” says Tagovailoa. “I don’t think that’s ever been in my persona. I think what we have to do as a team is what’s most important to me. We’ve got to focus on what we can do now to better ourselves, better each other. As the season goes on we’ll see and what-not. But we’re just focused on preparing for the first game, and at how we can identify ourselves this year.”

So how does it affect the relationship between him and Hurts?

“It doesn’t,” he says. “Me and Jalen don’t even bring it up. As far as this season, we’re just looking at getting each other better. There’s no negativity. We don’t go into games thinking ‘I might not start’, or ‘I’m going to go into this game and I’m going to throw a pick’. No negatives. We want to be positive because the team looks at that. The team looks at what we say (in) the media as well. I just don’t want anything to ruin our relationship, and I don’t think anything between me and Jalen is bad.”

You think the coaches wrote that? They may as well have done. That’s Saban-omics 101.
 


“He’s deadly serious about deadly serious things. He wants to win. But he has a humorous side to him as well.”


 
Regardless of who wins the job, ‘Bama should have enough to be serious contenders in the SEC. But, for the first time in many years, there’s enough questions for doubts to linger a little longer than normal. And we haven’t even spoken about the two new coordinators on either side of the ball in Mike Locksley and Tosh Lupoi. But Williams insists both coaches – and the team – are in sync and on the same page. “There’s been no discernible difference with the new staff, just like with the new players,” he tells me. “Everyone is committed to getting us back to where we finished last season. That’s always the goal and we’ll just take it one week at a time until we get there.”

Business as usual then. Or more coach speak from senior players?

Love them or hate them, going seven years in a row with just six regular-season losses – one per season except for 2016 – is as impressive as any run in the history of college football. And although dynasties end, 2018-19 doesn’t look like the year if the talent of those stepping up to fill the gap of the departed players is anything to go by: Damien Harris and 2016’s No. 1 high-school recruit, 6ft 3ins, 225-pound Najee Harris (no relation), will pound the rock regardless of who’s under centre. Jerry Jeudy is next in the conveyor belt of great Alabama wideouts after Julio Jones, Amari Cooper and Calvin Ridley and, up front, Williams is heavily tipped to be a top-10 pick in next year’s draft – although he told Gridiron he’s “not thinking about that, only controlling the controllables”. Defensively, Raekwon Davis could be the SEC’s next great pass-rusher, whilst Mack Wilson at MLB for Rashaan Evans, Deionte Thompson at safety for Fitzpatrick and Harrison and freshman high-school superstar Patrick Surtain all have All-American ability.

And, in terms of schedule favourability from the outset, the 2018 slate could be Alabama’s easiest in Saban’s tenure with only three games versus top-25 teams – all of those coming in November. Another scheduling quirk that benefits Alabama? Saban’s team won’t play any of the SEC East’s three best teams — Georgia, Florida and South Carolina — during the regular season.

And what of Saban himself? Talk has slowly begun about possible retirement, something the 66-year-old is not close to countenancing. “The way I look at it is, as long as I’m healthy and as long as I feel that I can do a good job, I want to keep doing it because I enjoy doing it,” he told ESPN recently. “What I don’t want to do is just stay forever, forever and forever and ride the programme down where I’m not creating value. I would never want to do that, and I think I’m a long ways from doing that. I don’t want to talk about anybody else, but there have been a couple of coaches where their legacy was tarnished by them maybe doing it longer than they should have. That won’t be me.”

Saban, whose day begins each morning with two Little Debbie oatmeal cream pies, a cup of coffee and 15 minutes of the Weather Channel with wife Terry, rarely gives anything away. And Miller reckons he’s fired up about repeating as National Champions. “Coach is ready. He’s had his game face on through the spring and summer and ‘Bama will always be what Coach wants it to be regardless of who the players are. He brings a lot of energy and he’s fired up and ready to go.”

In Miami, Saban once stepped over a convulsing Dolphins player after practice without acknowledging his presence, but the respect his players have for him is immense. “He’s a great man,” eulogises Miller. “He’s deadly serious about deadly serious things. He wants to win. But he has a humorous side to him as well. He’ll often make jokes in meetings to get a laugh, or you’ll go up to his office and he’ll joke around about golf or the situation with the boat this spring. He has a funny side.”

Gridiron tells him that we’ve been in postgame press conferences with him where it seems as though breaking a smile would kill him and being nice to reporters is a crime worse than murder and he laughs loudly. “That’s Coach being Coach. It’s part of The Process,” he says.

“So, tell us something about him we don’t know,” we ask Miller. “He has an old grand piano in his house but can’t play a note,” he tells me. “It’s a recruiting tool.”

We laugh and then ask Miller about the legacy of his head coach and whether he understands the significance of playing for the man he does. “I know a lot about the history of college football, so I know his place. He’s one of the gods of the game. I’m fully aware of his significance and I knew that, when I left high school in South Carolina, not only would he make me a better football player, but a better man. And that’s all I can ask.”

Gridiron finishes by asking the senior the same rhetorical question we asked Williams; ‘You know that at some point in your career you’re going to lose more than two games in a season, don’t you?!’ “It’s crazy,” he giggles. “Losing is so rare to me, especially here. You just expect to win every game. The fans expect it, the boosters expect it and America expects it. But that’s the culture. It’s how we roll.”



This article originally appeared in Issue XXXIX of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE


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