August 31, 2006

Defensive Notebook: Learning on the job

Replacing seven starters on one of the nation's best defenses was never going to be easy, but the players and coaches in the Tide camp are realizing that their success may not rely on individual players.

"In order to beat any team you have to run to the ball and tackle," said junior Wallace Gilberry. "That's been our motto since I've been here and we'll never change that. That's what has put us in a position to make big plays and that's what we're going to continue to do: tackle and run to the ball."

Defensive coordinator Joe Kines maintains that he has some fine talent in his unit this season and provided those talented young players learn quickly, the Tide could avoid seeing much of a drop-off from last season.

"We're going to be a really fine football team somewhere down the road," Kines said. "We've got a lot of young guys that love to play, have athletic ability and that don't mind working and studying. At some point in time, we'll be a good football team. How fast we can push that point is the issue. We've just got to keep working."

Luckily for Kines his job is made a bit easier by a group of dedicated seniors on the defense who have taken the lead in teaching the younger players the finer points of the game.

"The more film they watch the better they're going to be," said senior corner Ramzee Robinson. "The more you know the better and the faster you can play without thinking. You can't really teach them how fast the game is going to be, they just have to see it for themselves. I just try to motivate them to practice fast. The harder they go in practice, the easier the game is going to come."

Until their games are perfected, Kines says, the best thing to do is to let the young players go out and learn by playing.

"Nothing's going to help you until you get our there and play," Kines said. "It's a hard time to learn but that's how you have to learn."

Game planning for Hawaii

With their high-flying, quick-scoring run-and-shoot offense, Kines will certainly be happy to get the Hawaii Warriors behind him.

"You look at every game they've lost, offensively they put up numbers as good as anybody," Kines said. "They score a lot of points, they move the ball down the field, they do the things you have to do to be a good team on offense."

One thing the Tide defense has worked on throughout camp is increasing their pass rushing ability, something that could make the difference needed to stop quarterback Colt Brennan and the Hawaii offense.

"We tried to get 10 or 12 guys that can rush the passer," Kines said. "Coach Buddy Wyatt and Coach David Turner have done an excellent job of searching for somebody to do that and we'll find out Saturday afternoon because we'll have plenty of opportunities to rush the passer."

Kines refuses to overlook the playmakers Hawaii has at nearly every position on offense and says the Tide will need its best to stop the Warriors from scoring at will.

"We've got a quarterback coming in here off a record-setting year. He's got four really excellent wide receivers with a couple of good backups. They've got the offensive line that's exactly what they need to run this style of offense."

"Defensively you just have to hang on to your hat and pray a lot."

Special Teams

Special teams coach Dave Ungerer has perhaps more questions facing him than anyone. Star placekicker Jamie Christensen creates the biggest question regarding whether or not he'll be ready for gameday after injuring his groin during fall camp.

"We don't want to rush Jamie back and then have him struggle with this all year," Ungerer said. "We're going to take our time and make sure he's healthy before we put him out there. If Jamie doesn't kick, Leigh Tiffin will be the kicker and we're confident he can get it done."

A more positive question involves starting punter and holder P.J. Fitzgerald who brings a little more to the table than your average specialist. Fitzgerald played quarterback in high school and has the athleticism to make plays running the ball as well. Fitzgerald's versatility could make him a threat on special teams at crucial points in the game.

"All those skills athletically along with his attitude and confidence will help us be more aggressive when he's on the field," Ungerer said. "You only can do what your personnel allows you to do. You look at some of our guys in the past, they did a great job but he wasn't very athletic. We try all that stuff in practice and if they can't execute it then we're not going to do it in a critical scenario in the game. As we get into the season and start to see tendencies that teams have we may be more apt to do something different."

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