TUSCALOOSA | A week ago, the coach was clear: The University of Alabama's second units had a long way to go in their game-day preparedness. Nick Saban made that point after a 52-0 win over Arkansas in which the second units played virtually all of the fourth quarter. In Saturday's 40-7 win over Florida Atlantic, the backups got another full quarter to make amends.
And even though the Crimson Tide allowed a late touchdown to spoil what might have been a third consecutive shutout, Saban and players were just as clear in postgame remarks this week that steps forward were taken.
"I think they were upset (about losing the shutout)," said starting linebacker Nico Johnson, who watched the fourth quarter from the sideline with the other starters. "Coach was preaching to them and all the younger guys how important it is to know what's going on and know what to do as far as their role. Last week when they got in, they messed up on some plays. They gave up some plays. I think Coach said they had eight mental errors in a row. They were kind of embarrassed by that, so they came back this past week and worked hard. Today they gave up the touchdown, but they're learning."
During a late timeout prior to Florida Atlantic's touchdown pass, starters such as Johnson and Damion Square joined coaches in the sideline huddle for a pep talk.
UA coordinator Kirby Smart loaded the field with backups in the fourth quarter, including Darren Lake, Geno Smith, Landon Collins, Bradley Sylve and others.
That group was on the field for Florida Atlantic's best-sustained offensive drive of the day in the closing minutes.
Then there were some players who continued to emerge as more significant contributors earlier in the game. Count Jeoffrey Pagan in that group. The defensive end was involved in Alabama's defensive substitutions early and often Saturday, and delivered a sack that knocked the Owls out of field goal range in the first half.
Freshman linebacker Denzel Devall was plugged into a bit of first-half action as well. Offensively, Blake Sims substituted for AJ McCarron at the quarterback position.
Late in the third quarter, Sims found freshman receiver Cyrus Jones, who saw his most extensive action of the season to date, on a hitch pass that Jones took for a 35-yard gain with a dazzling high-step move. Just a couple plays later, however, Sims bailed from the pocket too late to avoid pressure, and took a 16-yard sack that resulted in a punt.
On his next drive, behind the second offensive line, Sims engineered a touchdown drive for a 40-0 lead, finishing with an 8-yard scoring run by freshman running back Kenyan Drake.
"Blake did a good job with just running a limited number of plays when he's in there. We really wanted to play both of those guys, more like we did at Arkansas, but Blake seemed to be moving a little bit better so ... we were pleased to put a scoring drive together," said Saban.
No. 3 rusher Dee Hart played extensively and also took over on punt returns. Late in the first half, guard Anthony Steen exited for what appeared to be a minor hand injury, and reserve Arie Kouandjio filled in on the drive, which Steen later re-entered.
The UA participation chart indicated 69 players saw action.
"We made a special point this week after the Arkansas game, we had a bunch of mental errors when those guys played, about what it takes to prepare for a game, to motivate yourself for a game and be ready to play in a game. For some of the younger players, we actually showed film first," Saban said. "I think we also met with the leadership group and some of the older players on the team to say, 'Look, you guys know how to do this, but we obviously have some guys that don't, so, what are you doing to affect that? Because these guys are going to have to play and contribute to our team."
Reach Chase Goodbread at email@example.com or at 904-722-0196.
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