State of the Hogs:

Clay Henry's Top 10 Keys: Arkansas vs. Alabama

By: Clay Henry
Published: Thursday, November 18, 2021
Kirk McNair, left, stands with Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant prior to a 1971 game against Tennessee at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala.
( Courtesy Kirk McNair )
Kirk McNair, left, stands with Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant prior to a 1971 game against Tennessee at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala.

No one would argue that Paul “Bear Bryant and Nick Saban coached at Alabama during different eras.

Bryant’s 25-year run (1958-82) was before the Internet and during the glory days of the newspaper business. Saban has been at Alabama since 2007, clearly the era of social media and instant, massive TV access.

That’s one thing that makes the two Alabama coaching icons different. There was confirmation this week from the one man still working that had direct working knowledge with both.

The man who once wrote his senior thesis on the comparisons of press relations between Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson agreed to answer my questions this week about Bryant and Saban.

I did not want founder of Bama Magazine, probably the best and most famous of the fan magazines, to pick one coach over the other. He wouldn’t if I asked.

But Kirk McNair did get into the details of what makes both of them great. And, make no mistake, both were the best of their time.

Everyone knows that Saban now leads Bryant, 7-6, in national championships won. But Saban has won most of his in the playoff era, whereas many of Bryant’s were shared or disputed in the days of polls deciding titles.

For instance, Arkansas was named the national champion by the Football Writers Association of America in 1964 after Texas beat Alabama in the Orange Bowl. Alabama was awarded The Associated Press title that year. The results of that season forced the polls to wait until after the bowls to name their champion.

McNair and I do not discuss those issues. They were what they were.

I wanted Bryant stories and no one is better today with them than McNair, for 12 years the football contact in the Alabama sports information office.

Bryant tried to talk him out of starting Bama Magazine in 1979, although the coach was supportive.

“He wanted to make sure I did my due diligence and said he hoped I’d stay (at Alabama),” McNair said.

Forty-two years later, it’s clear it was the right move. McNair, who in 2016 went to Bama On-line with the national website 247, is the authority on Alabama football and one of my best friends in the business. I look forward to our time in the Bryant-Denny Stadium press box before the Arkansas-Alabama game at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Early in the life of Hawgs Illustrated magazine almost 30 years ago, I sought McNair as a mentor and he obliged. Clearly, we were not competitors. He didn’t mind providing tips on the pitfalls. We put our brains together on how to solve U.S. Postal Service issues. We’ve never done it.

Over the last three decades we’ve spent many hours together at publisher’s meetings and compared notes on the coaching legends in our background. Because Frank Broyles and Bryant traded grad assistants in the 1970s, we have common friends like Louis Campbell.

One of the first questions McNair asked this week, “How is Louis?” He knows we are close fishing buddies. There is much respect between the two, perhaps one of the reasons I really like McNair.

It was a privilege to pick his brain about Bryant and Saban. He said they are alike and different.

“Really, they were not alike in many areas, but alike in two important ways,” he said.

“They both had the ability to make everyone believe that what they were doing was the right thing. You got that feel with Bear and Nick that everyone was on board. They made everyone in the building believe in their way.

“No. 2, they were both incredibly smart. The IQ of each is off the charts. They see things that others do not and it is pretty obvious.”

Then there are some obvious differences.

“Bear did not coach players,” McNair said. “He coached coaches. He watched practice from a tower. If he came down, it was for a bad reason. He wanted to change something.

“Now, we don’t get to watch a Saban practice, but he does coach a position, the corners. He’s had great success as a head coach doing that. I’ve always been curious how he also knew exactly what the quarterback was doing while coaching a position, but he does.”

How they conducted practice is similar. Almost all practices are in full pads. Both conducted long scrimmages, especially in August.

“Both understood that you need to practice hard,” McNair said. “That means you will have injuries.

“I can recall a time when Saban got a good player hurt in an early practice. He was visibly upset, but he said, ‘I don’t know another way to do it.’ You have to practice tough.”

Alabama practices are padded Monday through Thursday most weeks. Bryant’s were almost the same. Both coaches used Sunday as an off day, although players report to the training room and lift weights.

“I know there are some teams that hardly put on pads in these times,” McNair said. “I do know there is not just one way to do things, but Bryant and Saban both practiced hard.”

It’s interesting that Arkansas coach Sam Pittman has adopted a similar practice schedule, something he learned from Kirby Smart at Georgia. Obviously, Smart brought the same practice schedule from Alabama to Georgia.

Clearly, one of the main differences was their media relationships. Bryant was legendary for holding court with media, much like I saw Broyles do at Arkansas.

“We live in a different time,” McNair said. “When I was with Bear, it was a time when it was mainly the newspaper writers who got the news out. TV might come do an interview, but it was usually the next day before they got it on the air.

“So Bear kowtowed to the newspaper guys. They were No. 1 with him.

“Saban is all about the national TV coverage. He just tolerates the local guys. He might use them at times to get his message out to fans. But that’s about it.”

McNair recalls a time when Bryant closed a scrimmage to the public, a rare happening.

“Scrimmages were open, as were practices,” McNair said. “Fans could come. But mostly, not many people came because they tended to be boring.

“But there was a time when Bear wanted to do something behind closed doors. He told me to close it. So I called all the media, Birmingham and local, and told them they couldn’t come and to get the word out that the public couldn’t come.

“I think it was a Saturday scrimmage. At the end of the scrimmage — and no one was there, not even the car dealers that were friends to the coaches — Bear walked over to me with one question: Where are the reporters?

“I told him, ‘You closed practice.’ He said, ‘I didn’t mean them. They are friends.’”

With cell phone video now available to any visitors and the temptation great to break a story, Saban is like most college coaches. It’s a no go for almost anyone to watch practice.

Both Bryant and Saban focused resources and efforts to recruiting. Bryant was more about home-grown talent. Saban is national in scope with recruiting.

“There were exceptions, but the closer to home the better for Bear,” McNair said. “He thought it was harder to go home if you were close, and by that he meant quit. You would always be talked about around town as quitting at Alabama if you did that.

“But he did have some from out of state. Obviously, Joe Namath was from Pennsylvania.

“With Alabama being on TV every week, Saban will go anywhere to recruit.

“Another difference, Saban really thinks it is important how well his players do in the NFL. Bear wasn’t that aware of it. Both understood that the better players you recruit, the better coaches you become.”

Campbell has told stories about Bryant handling every substitution when he worked under him on the Alabama staff.

“Saban is a micro manager, but I don’t know how much he handles all the substitutions like Bryant,” McNair said. “But I suspect Saban is aware of depth chart changes. Bear posted those depth charts before the game, but he did take input in staff meetings. I try to watch Saban to see if he handles substitution, but I can’t tell.

“Bryant’s belief was that when a player saw he was demoted on the depth chart, he’d get mad and try to go back to work. It was effective.”

Obviously, Saban is not afraid to make a change. He benched quarterback Jalen Hurts at halftime of the national title game against Georgia in favor of Tua Tagovailoa.

“It didn’t work immediately,” McNair said. “Tua was terrible on the first two possessions. He threw an interception. But it turned out right.”

That’s the jumping off point to discuss the weekly 10 keys to victory. How it’s going to turn out at quarterback is always a great place to start, with the best pass rushers next.

KJ Jefferson

The sophomore Arkansas quarterback was the difference in the 16-13 overtime victory over LSU. On a night when defenses ruled, Jefferson completed 18 of 25 passes for 125 yards. He also led the Hogs in rushing with a net of 41 yards, 63 before three sacks were subtracted.

It’s Jefferson’s ability to remain cool under pressure that gives the Hogs a chance at Tuscaloosa. He is completing 65% of his passes on the season, the exact number that offensive coordinator Kendal Briles said this summer was the goal.

Jefferson had to dodge blitzes most of the game. Pittman said Briles improved the protections somewhat in the second half with some slides in the offensive line. But the Hogs have to improve in their pickups against Alabama.

There was no finger pointing by Jefferson. He said his charge from Briles all along has been that there will be times there is one more rusher than blockers and that’s when he needs to make someone miss.

Bryce Young

While Jefferson is a third-year player, Alabama will counter with a second-year quarterback. Young is a true sophomore who played a lot in mop-up duty last year behind Mac Jones.

If there were any doubts about Young’s ability to step up in the role of Alabama’s leader, they were wiped away in the opener. Young threw for four touchdowns in the first game against Miami, the most ever by a first-time starter at Alabama. Namath and Jones previously held the record with three.

In his first 10 starts, Young has thrown for 3,025 yards with 33 TDs against just 3 interceptions. He’s completing 70.9% of his throws.

That ranks just behind the first 10 games Jones started last year, but it was as a senior. Jones threw for 3,368 yards and had 29 TDs against 4 interceptions to set the record as a first-time starter at Alabama.

Will Anderson

There is a growing thought that Anderson should be considered for the Heisman Trophy. Young has been mentioned more, but Anderson is Alabama’s best player and might be the nation’s most outstanding player, the defining charge on the Heisman ballot.

The outside linebacker/rush end has 12.5 sacks. One NFL scout said Anderson would be the first pick in the NFL draft if he was eligible next year. He’s not because he’s a true sophomore.

Anderson (6-4, 243 pounds) is the type of talent that requires special consideration in building the game plan. Pittman said the Hogs will be challenged. Few teams have tried to block Anderson with just one lineman. He said simply, “Will Anderson is probably as good a rush end as there is in the country.”

Incredibly, for a line player (and that’s what the Jack linebacker is at Alabama), Anderson is second on the team with 67 tackles — 19 for 86 yards in losses. He’s been the national defensive player of the week three times this season.

Tre Williams

A graduate transfer from Missouri, Williams (6-5, 243) is the best edge rusher for the Hogs. He’s been bothered by nagging injuries at times this year, but Williams has still managed six sacks for 26 yards in losses.

That isn’t in the same territory as Anderson, but he’s faced more blockers equipped with better help since the Hogs have usually just rush three.

That may change this week because Alabama plays a tight end in many sets, meaning the Hogs will likely play a four-man front to cover more linemen. That look helped provide a little more pressure last week against tight end sets on blitzes because it’s easier to slide another defender — usually an inside linebacker — into the front from an odd angle.

The Run

Which team can control the line of scrimmage with the running game might be the biggest key after the way the quarterbacks and pass rushers play in the game. Both teams are strong on both sides of the ball in that area. It’s the primary focus of both teams.

Here’s a quick look at the numbers on both sides of the ball:

Rushing offense: Arkansas (233.5), Alabama (162.1).

Rushing defense: Arkansas (151.3), Alabama (81.5).

The Alabama rushing defense isn’t quite as good as that last number appears because the NCAA statistical sheets subtract sacks from rushing totals, not passing totals like the NFL. Alabama is No. 5 in the NCAA with 3.4 sacks per game, primarily because of Anderson.

The Hogs could not block the LSU blitz last week, forcing top runner Dominique Johnson to reverse his field several times looking for room. Some of his best runs were for small gains. That’s not the way to make a living against Alabama. Anderson will chase down Johnson.

Brian Robinson is the top Alabama runner. He’s got 823 yards on 164 carries for an average of 5.0. He will be pressed to play all of the meaningful snaps because of injuries. The Tide played a wide receiver at running back in relief of Robinson in the blowout victory last week.

Best Matchups

The key matchup could be the Arkansas cornerbacks against Alabama wide receivers John Metchie (67 catches, 722 yards) and Jameson Williams (51 for 1,028).

If Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom doesn’t have confidence in this matchup, there probably won’t be many blitzes. The Hogs played a three-deep zone against Alabama last year and the Tide hammered away with 38 rushes for 216 yards.

After the game Saban indicated that’s not the way the Tide prefers to play. They probably wanted to get the ball to DeVonta Smith, their best player, but the Hogs stacked defensive backs in front of the wide receiver.

Alabama has to game plan to stop Treylon Burks. The slot receiver for the Razorbacks had only two catches for 16 yards last season when the Tide cruised to a 52-3 victory. Saban calls his nickel back the Star position and it’s manned by backup safety Malachi Moore. That’s likely who Burks will see the most, but often the second of two men in stacked coverage.

Upset Recipe

The Hogs are three-touchdown underdogs, typical of their role in this series since Saban became coach. Obviously, that would make for a huge upset if the Hogs can snap a 14-game losing streak against the Tide.

The recipe for an upset is always the same: flawless play in the special teams and no mistakes on offense. That means limiting turnovers, something the Hogs have done well most of the season.

But the Hogs do make too many mistakes. At LSU, they had too many lost-yardage plays caused by missed blocks on the edge (both on wide plays and blitzes) and too many penalties.

As for eliminating penalties, Pittman said some changes were made in practice this week, but didn’t list them.

“What we were doing obviously was not working,” Pittman said. “Nobody wants to jump offside on either side of the ball. We work on it all the time and this week we did something different. Hopefully it shows up and helps us on Saturday.”

Pittman has worked his team with crowd noise all week, but that didn’t provide the kind of antiseptic play that was desired in the two big-crowd road games, Georgia and LSU.

The Hogs must eliminate the pre-snap penalties if they are going to make it a four-quarter game at Bryant-Denny.

Third Downs

This is where Alabama dominates. Offensively, Alabama leads the nation at 56.6%. Defensively, the Crimson Tide are 13th at 31.7%.

This is an area Arkansas has improved at least on one side of the ball. The defense is tops in the SEC at 30.5%, eighth nationally. The offense is at 36.8%, 88th nationally.

The offense has to do better than that at Tuscaloosa. The best way to slow the Tide offense is to keep the ball away from Young, moving the chains on third down. It’s not something the Briles offense has done well.

The defense hit a lull in the middle of the season, perhaps because of the absence of safety Jalen Catalon. But his replacement, sophomore Myles Slusher, has been steadier of late. He was superb against LSU. His ability to move teammates into the right spots has improved and is noticeable.

“I think Myles especially played a really, really good game the other night,” Pittman said. “I think he’s gone from, ‘I’m nervous, I’m a little afraid of what’s going on out here,’ to, ‘I’m seeing everything better. I’m winning the battle pre-snap.’ I think that’s why he’s playing so much faster and more aggressive.”

Nothing Easy

This probably seems like stating the obvious, especially where it comes to Arkansas, but it’s crucial against Alabama. The Hogs can’t give away cheap points.

In the Saban era the Tide have scored 85 non-offensive touchdowns on interception returns, fumble returns, kickoff returns, punt returns and blocked punts.

There have been five of those this season, including two apiece on kickoff returns and blocked punts. That last category is scary for the Hogs. It’s been a real issue under Pittman. They’ve had four blocked punts in two years and Georgia scored one touchdown on such a play this year.

One of the big keys is Arkansas kickoff man Vito Calvaruso. Of his 62 kickoffs, 52 have been for touchbacks. Williams, the wide receiver, is the danger this week. He’s returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. Calvaruso has to keep the ball away from him.

Pool, Henry and Morgan

How the Arkansas linebackers go, so goes the Arkansas defense. Bumper Pool, Hayden Henry and Grant Morgan are the straw that stirs the drink. They rotate at the two inside spots in the defense.

Pool is not a starter, but leads the team with 100 tackles. Henry is next with 79 and Morgan has 78.

They have played well all year, meshing with first-year linebackers coach Michael Scherer. That group — coach and players — probably had its best game against LSU. There was a great understanding of the LSU scheme and it showed with timely blitzes.

“Our linebacker group Saturday night played outstanding,” Pittman said. “Pool, Henry and Grant, they played as good as you could play.”

The middle of the Arkansas defense has been tough all year. Nose tackle John Ridgeway has been terrific at times. The Illinois State transfer also probably played his best game last week.

How that group plays against Alabama will be critical. Tide center Darrian Dalcourt is playing through a sore ankle, an injury that severely altered the running game against LSU.

If you want to put your focus on one area, it might be the middle of the field when Alabama has the football. If the Hogs are winning the line of scrimmage there with Ridgeway and the linebackers, it might mean a close game.


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