Alabama football prides itself on living in the present, but it’s apparent that lessons from last season will loom large during the stretch run of this season. The Crimson Tide are coming off two consecutive emotional wins over Tennessee and LSU, and they have taken a toll to some degree, even on Nick Saban. The challenge is to continue pushing to the regular season finish line.
“I don’t think this is a time for anybody to be complacent,” Saban said. “I know that even Sunday morning when I got up, I was like, ‘Wow, I’m tired,’ but you’ve got to go, man. You’ve got to keep going. You’ve gotta keep grinding. You’ve got to keep focused on what you have to do to get better and prepare for the next game.”
Throughout the week, players have talked about an “elimination game” mindset that’s been adopted over the last several weeks, understanding that a second loss would end the Crimson Tide’s College Football Playoff hopes. The last two wins have bolstered their resume, and a win at Kentucky on Saturday (11 a.m. CT, ESPN) would clinch them a share of the division (with a chance to become outright West champions later in the day if Ole Miss loses to Georgia), but those larger goals can easily evaporate if the team is not focused in Lexington.
“We gotta take it one game at a time, game by game,” senior defensive lineman Justin Eboigbe said. “Don’t look too far ahead. Don’t relish on things of the past because the past is the past. Future is what’s in front of us right now.”
There’s perhaps no player more fitting to reinforce the message of embracing the moment than Eboigbe, a program veteran who was forced to watch last season’s disappointment from the sideline after a season-ending neck injury. Eboigbe recalled living in uncertainty but controlling what he could in that moment, and the approach has paid off thus far. He has been the leading snap getter on the defensive line and ranks fifth on the team in tackles (44) and third in tackles for loss (6.5) and sacks (4).
Eboigbe will play another big role on Saturday when stopping the Wildcats’ rushing attack will be the defense’s top priority. The most physically dominant team will win, and he will be one of the key players called upon to set the tone.
“A lot of mental battles, a lot of physical battles on the road to recovery,” Eboigbe said. “Not being sure of my future, can’t tell, as far as not knowing if I would be able to play the game of football again, not knowing how I’d be back on the field coming off the injury. And just seeing the fruits of my labor and the time spent. Everything that has happened has been something that I can be proud of.”
Miller, Law looked primed for strong season finishes
One question exiting the idle week was which players had the chance to become major contributors in November, particularly in the backfield. One true running back and one Swiss Army knife have emerged: Jam Miller and Kendrick Law.
Saban confirmed on Monday that Jase McClellan rested during the off week, which allowed for Miller to get more reps. He impressed to the point that he earned a bigger role against LSU.
“Only God knows when my time comes,” Miller said. “Just take a step back, let the older guys do what they’ve got to do. Whenever your name gets called up, you’ve got to be ready.”
One of Miller’s standout plays was the tush push sweep run that was highlighted in the LSU film review, but he showed more in Saturday’s game that should keep him in the playing rotation. Pass protection wasn’t a big emphasis for Miller at Tyler Legacy High School, and it’s been an adjustment at Alabama, but Saturday’s effort was promising.
On this second-and-8 in the first quarter, Miller did a good job of being proactive in stepping up to meet Harold Perkins after the LSU rusher got past Tyler Booker, instead of waiting for him in the pocket. Miller moved Perkins out of the way, and Alabama converted for a first down.
On the next play, LSU’s Bradyn Swinson beat Kadyn Proctor to the left side, but Miller was right there to put his body in front of him. It was not as sturdy of a block as the play before, but Miller’s interference was more than enough to keep the pocket clean for a 21-yard completion.
“When I got (to Alabama), that’s when I really started to learn a lot about pass protection,” Miller said. “Reading the defense and everything. When my name got called and I saw that play call to protect, I tried to make the best of it.”
Miller’s awareness helped create a big play in the second quarter. On a third-and-short, he kept his eyes on LSU cornerback Sage Ryan (No. 15) to see which coverage he was playing. Once he saw that Ryan was committed to Jermaine Burton and turned upfield, Miller immediately looked back to Jalen Milroe, who was dealing with an oncoming blitzer. Milroe floated it to Miller in stride, and it turned into a 35-yard gain.
Expect Miller’s workload to increase if these types of plays continue. He adds another dynamic to the rotation and will limit the wear and tear on McClellan. That’s not to say that other backs like Justice Haynes haven’t progressed; the group is just that deep. Remember that even Derrick Henry had to wait his turn.
“Both (Justice Haynes and Richard Young) are great guys,” Miller said. “They do a lot in the running back group. They’re great running backs. I know they haven’t gotten their chance on the field a lot, but when their time comes they’re going to be great.”
There’s a bit of a running joke that Law is an honorary member of the running back room. We’ve seen Law at receiver, his listed position, and masquerading as a tight end, but last Saturday he took several snaps lined up as a running back. Law was listed as an athlete out of high school and played several positions on offense, defense and played special teams.
“It’s a positive thing, getting called on by the OC, saying, ‘We have a role for you’ or ‘We have something just special for you,’” Law said. “To take it upon yourself to not only know it, but master it and go out on the field and execute it — it’s something major.”
Law lined up as a running back in a few different capacities: once alongside Jase McClellan on the first play of the game as a weakside blocker, another time with Miller as a lead blocker and as a receiver. On this RPO look, the defense shifted toward the run, and Law leaked out for a 16-yard gain.
On another play Law lined up as the only ball carrier, with tight end Robbie Ouzts on the other side of Milroe. Both motioned out to the right to create a five-wide look. Milroe looked Law’s way and tried to find Isaiah Bond to the left, but LSU snuffed it out and Milroe ended up running for the first down. Law may not have gotten the ball, but the play illustrates how he’s becoming a bigger priority.
Law has earned a reputation as one of the hardest-working players on the team, and one place that shows up is special teams. He earned a role there during his freshman year and described it as “his Super Bowl.” He still plays with that same effort, and it’s being rewarded with a role on offense. This season he’s been named one of Alabama’s players of the week four times for his special teams play, against Middle Tennessee, Texas, Mississippi State and LSU.
“Coming to Bama, I just knew I was gonna have to beat out the best if I wanted to be the best, to play with the best,” Law said. “So I approach everything more than 110 [percent], everybody wants to go 110 [percent] — I just go all out, whatever all out is for me. You may go 110 one play then the next play you only got 80, so I’m gonna give Coach Saban all my 80. And then the next play, I may only got 65, so I’m still gonna give him my 65. So I just go out, everything I do, off the field, in school, in the weight room — things like that.”
(Photo: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)