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August 25, 2014

Is Alabama ready for 3-3-5 stack defense?

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Dana Holgorsen is known as an offensive mind. The 43-year-old head coach at West Virginia has worked for or beside the best offensive coaches in the country on his way up the coaching ladder, including Hal Mumme, Sonny Dykes, Mike Leach, Kevin Sumlin and Mike Gundy.

But it's Holgorsen's defense that's been under the most scrutiny the past two seasons, posting total defense rankings of 112th and 102nd in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

Four defensive coordinators in four years hasn't helped with continuity, but hopes are high with the hiring of Tony Gibson. Holgorsen also brought aboard long-time Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley as the senior associate head coach.

As part of the defensive rehabilitation, West Virginia brought back the 3-3-5 stack defense it previously ran under defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel (2003-11). The stack requires three down linemen, three true linebackers stacked behind them with five defensive backs (two cornerbacks, one free safety and two hybrid safeties/outside linebackers).

It's a scheme Alabama players aren't familiar with.

"They play a pretty weird defense to me," wide receiver Amari Cooper said. "I've never went up against that type of defense. They play an odd defense with three down linemen and two guys have to come for a receiver to be hot. So it's something we are going to work all this week and we will get use to it."

Quarterback curiosity
Nick Saban addressed the quarterback competition during his opening remarks of Monday's press conference, but that didn't prevent four more questions from being asked about everything surrounding the race for the starting quarterback position.

The questions inquired about how Blake Sims and Jake Coker have handled the pressure, to how they will rotate series, to whether or not both will play Saturday against West Virginia.

Saban, whose patience usually wears thin on multiple questions involving the same subject, handled each inquiry calmly, giving insightful answers to each.

A starter has yet to be named and Sims and Coker are expected to split time, although, as Saban reiterated Monday, that's not a guarantee, using a baseball metaphor to back up his point.

"We don't have any plans to do that at this point in this game, but that doesn't mean that whatever pitcher starts the game is necessarily going to pitch nine innings," Saban said. "I mean, (New York Yankees manager) Joe Girardi tells (Masahiro) Tinaka he's starting in the game, he's not telling him he's going to pitch nine innings. Does he tell them that or does he just pitch until he doesn't pitch well any more?"

It's not even certain that both players will play.

"That decision has not been made yet," Saban said.

Tweaking the offense
One of the goals in bringing in Lane Kiffin as the offensive coordinator was to adjust the offense to make it more difficult for defenses to defend.

Alabama isn't going to the spread or anything dramatically different, but the pro-style offense got a tweak with Kiffin, and Saban fully intends to let him have some freedom in calling the offense.

"My thing has always been that as a playcaller, you have to let the guy have the rhythm of what he's trying to do," Saban said. "I'd rather make my suggestions between the series.

"I know that's putting a lot of trust in another person, but that's been the most effective way for me through the years as a head coach because I think you can really mess a guy up if you're always questioning what he does, 'Why did we call that?' or 'Are you sure that's what we want to do on third down?'"

Through spring practices and fall camp, offensive skill players like what they've seen.

"I have a good feeling how he calls the game. I like how he calls the game," Cooper said. "He takes advantage of certain situations and certain match-ups really well."

Injury/suspensions
All players are available for Saturday's game, Saban said.

Kurt Freitag missed Monday's practice with a turf toe injury, but Saban said he isn't aware of any player that isn't available for the road trip to Atlanta.

"I don't have anybody that's not going to be available, not right now," Saban said. "That doesn't mean they're going to go, just because they're available to go. I think I'm going to go, for sure. Terry's going for sure. We've got lots of people from West Virginia coming. A lot of people."

Reach Aaron Suttles at aaron@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0229.



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