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September 24, 2009
It's test time for Tide secondary
Javier Arenas was taken aback.TUSCALOOSA _ When he turned on the game last Saturday night to get a look at the next opponent, University of Alabama senior cornerback
It's one thing to hear that Arkansas has a good quarterback this season, it's quite another to see a 6-foot-7 guy slinging the ball around as hard as anyone, completing 21 of 39 passes for 408 yards and five touchdowns against No. 23 Georgia.
"I was pretty stunned and how confident the quarterback was," Arenas said. "I didn't know of him before this. He's an excellent quarterback and it kind of came as a surprise because I hadn't seen him before."
Come Saturday, when the Razorbacks visit Bryant-Denny Stadium, sophomore Ryan Mallett will have No. 3 Alabama's undivided attention, and not because of his height.
Through his first two games with an SEC team after transferring from Michigan, Mallett has completed 38 of 61 passes (62.3 percent), for 717 yards, for six touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer efficiency rating of 193.49 leads the nation, while his 361.5 yards of total offense is fifth. As a team, Arkansas is second in passing offense, total offense and passing efficiency, and eighth in scoring offense (44.5 points).
Mallett has already set school records for single-game yards and touchdowns (both against the Bulldogs), and at this pace the Razorbacks will smash last year's team passing record of 3,115 yards by the end of October.
"He can throw the ball really well," Crimson Tide quarterback Greg McElroy said. "That's going to be a challenge for our defense. We're going to have to try and match their intensity offensively."
Although disrupting the passing game will be as much on the defensive front seven as the back four, the onus will clearly be on the secondary. Mallet's powerful arm and poise are drawing comparisons to someone the Tide faced, and beat, last year, who ended up becoming the first player selected in the NFL Draft.
"(Matthew) Stafford at Georgia, he was awesome," Arenas said. "We didn't discuss him too much (beforehand). We had our own things to focus on."
He continued: "All the small things can come into play if you don't take the proper steps or he'll throw it over your head. With a good quarterback you have to know what's coming. You can't just play sand-lot football."
So here's what's coming Saturday: sophomore Jarius Wright leads the Razorbacks with 10 catches for 247 yards (123.5 average), sophomore Greg Childs burned Georgia for 140 yards and two touchdowns last week, and the player who may be the most difficult to defend is junior D.J. Williams, who had 61 catches for 723 yards last year.
"He's definitely one of the more athletic tight ends that we're going to see this year, but he also does a great job blocking too," senior linebacker Cory Reamer said. "We can't let him loose."
Arkansas' top seven receiving leaders from 2008, and 10 of the leading 11, are all still on the roster, benefitting from a full year in Bobby Petrino's system. Even with London Crawford sidelined until October with a broken right collarbone, five of his teammates have receptions of 35 yards or longer, and eight players average at least 10 yards per catch. Already 13 different Razorbacks have at least one reception.
"We're going to have our hands full," senior safety Justin Woodall said.
Meanwhile, Alabama has had some breakdowns and coverage errors that have not gone unnoticed, and can't happen against Arkansas at the risk of being drawn into a shootout.
"Because I spend so much time with those guys, I probably get on them a lot more than some of the other players on the team," Coach Nick Saban said. "I'll say this. They can take it better. Defensive back is not a place for a guy who's faint of heart.
"What I tell our young players is, if you can't take my wrath, of getting on you when you don't do it right, you're not ready to play because you're going to get the ball thrown over your head some day in front of 93,000 people. That's going to happen. It happens to everyone who ever plays back there.
"If you can take that and go play the next play, you ought to certainly be able to take whatever I'm giving you. So when it doesn't bother you anymore, I'll probably quit doing it. I know that's probably hillbilly psychology 101 from West Virginia, but that's just the way I believe it to be."
Although Saban is known for having one of the most complex defenses schemes to play against, he has a pretty simple philosophy for how he wants defensive backs to defend opposing receivers, whether to play the ball or the man. He explained it without too much coach-speak during his radio show last Thursday:
"There were several occasions last week (Florida International), where guys should have played the ball and they didn't. That's something if you can see me on the sideline I'm always going to be yelling at them, 'Why didn't you play the ball? Why didn't you play the ball?'
"Let me explain it to you this way, there's two positions you can be in when you're defending a receiver: You're either in-phase with him or you're out-of-phase with him. Now, to explain in-face it means that you're pretty much even with the guy, but if you can see the guy's number nearest you you're in-phase when you're covering him down the field. So when he gets through the move area, the move area defined being 14 to 18 yards down the field where the guy's going to break a route, in or out, we play a lot of closed coverage, we're in bump-and-run a lot, we're in that position with the guy when he gets in the move area. Now, if you're in-phase with him when he gets into the move area, you should be become the receiver and look for the ball. That's what you should do, and then the ball has to go through you.
"If you're in the out-of phase position, which means you can't see his near number, you can't be even with him, then you have to play the guy's eyes and hands for the ball because you're not in position and if the quarterback throws it correctly you're not going to be able to get to the ball, you're behind him too far.
"Now, to explain why some of the guys didn't play the ball last week, is what FIU is really good at, if you play bump-and-run and you have pretty good corners, and they keep the guys cut off, that means my shoulder is ahead of his shoulder going down field so I can control his speed and he can't run all over the place, I have good coverage on him, they'll throw it to what's called the back shoulder (behind you). By the time you turn around he catches it.
"The way the defensive back should read that is you read the guy's upfield shoulder and when his upfield shoulder turns back you should turn into him and play the ball into him and you'll be able to play that pattern. I think with a lot of our guys we probably over-coached that last week and did it in practice a lot. They were waiting for the guy to make the back shoulder throw when he had him cut off and they ended up not playing the ball."
Concerns and solutions
Although Virginia Tech was ranked seventh when it opened the season with a loss to Alabama at the Georgia Dome, this will be the secondary's litmus test following the departure of defensive captain Rashad Johnson, an All-American whose absence has been felt.
So far, the defense has yielded just 143.3 passing yards per game, which ranks 13th in the nation, and 31 of the 45 points allowed, but rookie starter Mark Barron has the lone interception while the entire team has created a disappointing three turnovers.
"In order to be a great team we have to get takeaways," junior linebacker Rolando McClain said.
Barron and Marquis Johnson have been targeted the most by opposing quarterbacks, although the junior cornerback has the same role along with starters Arenas and Kareem Jackson as last year when Alabama picked off four Arkansas passes and returned two for touchdowns in the 49-14 road victory.
At safety, coaches switched Barron and Woodall between the free and strong safety spots against Virginia Tech, but have since primarily kept Woodall deeper and Barron closer to the line of scrimmage where he's more able to make punishing hits.
"Mark has a natural ability," McClain said. "He's big and fast and strong. He can cover just about anyone. He's improved, he's watching more film, he's just more comfortable. When you can play loose, without worrying about making a mistake, you're better. You just play loose and play football.
"The sky's the limit."
If not, Saturday could be a long day.