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Tuscaloosa News’ Nick Kelly Previews Vols Roadtrip To Alabama

Photo by Dale Zanine/ USA Today Sports

Each week, Rocky Top Insider will take you behind the scenes with a question and answer with a media member who covers Tennessee’s opponent.

This week, the Tuscaloosa News’ Alabama beat writer Nick Kelly discussed Alabama’s offense full of new faces and the Tide’s inconsistent defense.

Question: Alabama losing regular season games is always a surprise, let alone when it comes to an unranked team. Were the Crimson Tide’s issues against Texas A&M a one game diversion or a product of bigger issues?

Answer: Well, that’s a good question. We only have one game sample size in terms of a response. In terms of that one game, we saw a lot of those issues fixed, one of them being pass rush and just getting pressure on the quarterback. Against Texas A&M they didn’t have one. At least to the extent they needed to. They didn’t get any sacks on Zach Calzada and they didn’t have enough pressure to affect a lot of his throws. In the Mississippi State game they didn’t even necessarily blitz a lot, and Will Anderson had four sacks and the defense had seven total. Whatever they were doing was working and the pass rush was back. 

Another issue was pass protection. There’s still a gap here or there but for the most part it improved. Bryce (Young) was able to make plays and had time to see stuff development. When Mississippi State did bring a blitz, Alabama handled it well and Bryce had nice outlets. You’d see him dump the ball off and his receivers would take it the rest of the way. Running back Brian Robinson took a pass that was maybe 10 yards down the field and took it 51. They’re finding ways to handle the blitz.

Q: Alabama lost its quarterback and one of the best skill position units in recent college football history from last season’s team. How is this offense different from last season?

A: Last year’s offense had so much talent. It’s almost silly how much talent they had. That’s from the quarterback spot to the running back spot to the receiver spot. Just look at all the first round picks they had on that side of the ball. The offense is not as good as last year but that benchmark is just so high. The offense this year has still been really good. I believe they are fourth right now with points per game in the country. It has been something to follow with what’s their identity, who are the best players, who are the guys that they can count on. I think some of that is still being figured out.

For example, against Ole Miss, they rode Brian Robinson for 36 carries as they grounded and pounded for that win. Another game, they may have John Metchie and Jameson Williams have a few big questions and they’ll win that way. They have a lot of versatility and continue to take advantage of that. We’re still trying to figure out this offense exactly and what they can do but for right now they’re in a solid spot.

Q: What have you made of Bryce Young’s play and do you see him earning more trust over the course of the season?

A: I’m sure it’s increasing but to be honest it was pretty high early on. He made such an impression through his freshman year and the offseason that there was never really much of a question about who was going to start at quarterback. Of course he came in really highly touted as a five-star guy but Alabama doesn’t just hand the reins over without some high competition. He was always seen as the starter and it was really seen as a formality when they sent out the first depth chart. He’s not a finished product for sure, but people forget that it’s his first year starting— as a sophomore. The can can make plays, he’s poised, he’s a little Houdini like with the way he can escape. If you get a guy like that you can get a lot of good stuff done obviously. 

Q: Expectations were sky high for Alabama’s defense. How have they and Henry To’o To’o performed this season?

A: If you like roller coasters you’d love this defense. It definitely is not consistently dominant every week. Of course when they’re being compared to the likes of Georgia it’s a tough comparison to reach, but the defense has shown flashes of being really good. Last week, they held Mississippi State to nine points and not a single touchdown. The week before that they had some serious gaps in coverage and missed tackles and just not making the plays they need to be making. They’re not necessarily missing out on heroic plays, but in a game like that they need to make solid plays and be in the right hole at the right time and finishing talent. There are games like that but games like Ole Miss and Mississippi State games— against good offenses— and pretty much shut them down. It’s hard to figure out what you’re going to get with this defense at times but they have talent there and it’s just a matter of how they match up with this team and how they’re going to show up.

In terms of Henry, I believe he leads the team in tackles right now, but I’d say he’s been a little up-and-down himself. Especially in terms of not making the exact tackles he should make all the time. He’s also made some really good plays. A fourth-and-two against Ole Miss there was a speed option that he just snuffed out and stuffed him. It was a huge turning point in the game. He hasn’t been perfect but I think the biggest thing Alabama has enjoyed is having a guy that’s smart and can organize the defense the way he can. That sets them up for success?

Q: What’s a matchup you feel like Alabama can really exploit against Tennessee?

A: I’m curious to see how many guys are healthy on the offensive side of the ball for Tennessee. I know they’re dealing with some injuries right now so if Cade Mays can’t go, I’ll be curious to see how Will Anderson does because he can be so dominant— even against good offensive tackles. This could be a big game for the pass rush for Alabama. 

Q: Score Prediction?

A: Alabama 42, Tennessee 17

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