FORT LAUDERDALE | Notre Dame running back Theo Riddick cast the first barb of criticism lobbed between players so far during the BCS National Championship Game week, commenting Friday about the opportunity to exploit the University of Alabama defensive backfield.
Asked what could be gained by Notre Dame from its review of Alabama's loss to Texas A&M, Riddick said: "That we can take advantage of their secondary."
Shortly after, UA cornerback Dee Milliner had this to say in response: "They say we're the weak link? Hopefully, they'll take some chances and throw the ball out there and we can make some plays on the ball."
Milliner went on to call it extra motivation.
"I'm glad they would say something like that. It makes you want to play even more and go out there and make plays, our secondary also. We know that because we've been hearing it all season -- we're the group that can be exploited," Milliner added. "Since they think we're the weak links of the team, hopefully they'll try to exploit us and we'll make plays to change their mind."
It wasn't exactly the stuff of classic college football trash talk in the way it was redefined by Miami and Florida State in the 1980s, but it nevertheless added another layer of intrigue to a game already expected to draw a record television audience.
In typical fashion, fifth-year senior safety Robert Lester brushed Riddick's remark aside.
"We're just going to go into this game and do what we do best. That's go and play Alabama football," Lester said. "You know, execute the game plan and cover the receivers. That's out job and that's what we plan on doing."
Third and forever
Notre Dame studied Alabama's defense, and zeroed in on the Crimson Tide's production in situations where the opposing offense faced third-and-seven or longer.
Chuck Martin, offensive coordinator for the Fighting Irish, noted that UA defenders do more pre-snap changes in such situations to create turnovers.
"They've got more fumbles and and interceptions and sacks than they've given up first downs on third-and-seven-plus. If you want to get demoralized if you're a Notre Dame fan, watch the Alabama third-and-seven-plus tape, which we did one morning. And then we called it a day after that because we were all demoralized."
What are the odds?
Few college football players get to play for a national championship. Fewer still get to play for three in four years, like Alabama's upperclassmen have.
"It's very rare for anybody to play for one (national title)," linebacker Nico Johnson said. "Coach Smart, we were talking the other day, just kidding around, and he said it's like 0.6 percent of a person getting to play for a national championship. I've been fortunate to play for going on three.
"Where I'm from, it's very rare to get the opportunity that I have. I'm blessed to take advantage of the opportunity we have at hand. I'm enjoying it while I have time. This is my last game as an Alabama player and I'm going to enjoy it the best that I can."
Defending Eifert a challenge
With tight end Tyler Eifert being the Fighting Irish's leading receiver, the Crimson Tide has spent plenty of time focusing on stopping him -- especially because it's not something they've had to do much of this season. Eifert is by far the most effective tight end UA has faced, making for a challenge that is unique to the season.
"A lot of challenges. That's what we're experiencing now because we haven't faced a tight end with this much talent. The guy is a special player. People don't give this kid enough credit for his blocking ability," said UA defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. "He blocks with great toughness and effort. He really forces you to play different defensively because he's so multiple."
Eifert has started every game amd has 44 receptions for 624 yards.
Smart fine where he is
Kirby Smart was asked about the now-annual interest he receives from other programs about becoming a head coach, but said he couldn't be more content as Nick Saban's top assistant.
"Ultimately my goal is my career is to be a head coach. Where that is, I have no idea," Smart said. "It's not like I wake up every day trying to leave Alabama. I
have the best non-head coaching job in the country, period, because I've got a great administration, we've got a great facility. I want to be where I can win, and I know you can win at Alabama."
Former Selma standout receiver Jai Miller has enrolled at Alabama to become a walk-on with the UA football team. Miller (6-3, 220 pounds) was recruited by former coach Mike Price in 2004, but instead opted for pro baseball after being a fourth-round choice of the Florida Marlins. Miller recently retired from baseball but still has NCAA football eligibility at age 26.
Miller will be eligible for spring drills and will begin practicing at the safety position. He chose Alabama over Georgia.
Reach Chase Goodbread at email@example.com or at 205-722-0196. Tommy Deas and Aaron Suttles contributed to this report.