October 19, 2006

Offense faces tough challenge

The Tide offense has struggled for most of the 2006 season but is finally starting to show signs of improvement as the Tide heads into arguably its biggest game yet this season against No. 9 Tennessee. The challenges presented to Tide by the Vols will be a true test of how far the Alabama offense has come.

"We've played some very good defenses but this is by far the fastest pair of safeties we've seen all year and the most athletic defensive linemen we've seen all year," said offensive coordinator Dave Rader. "They know how to use their personnel well."

Most of the Tide's offensive success has hinged on the play of its sophomore quarterback John Parker Wilson who has thrown for over 200 yards in each game this season.

"He's done some real good things, made some plays and created on his own," said head coach Mike Shula. "He's made some mistakes, missed a couple throws, maybe taken a sack when he shouldn't have but overall for a guy starting his first year he's showed some maturity and most importantly he's showed improvement each week. He'll have his biggest challenge of the year this week on the road at Tennessee against a lot of well-coached athletes."

One of Wilson's most powerful weapons has been wide receiver DJ Hall who is currently on pace to break nearly every school receiving record by the season's end. Rader said that Hall's success has as much to do with the rest of the offense as it does with Hall himself.

"You have to have a lot of things going on for a receiver to have that much success. You have to have good protection, and I think John Parker was hit less on Saturday than he's been hit all year. He also happen to get open on a lot more plays than usual and he turned some short passes into much longer gains thanks to his playmaking ability. Keith and DJ are both doing a great job with making plays for this football team."

Another pleasant surprise for the Tide in last week's offensive breakout was wide out Will Oakley who came through with three crucial catches.

"Will Oakley has come along so nicely," Rader said. "He's due more playing time and has been carrying himself with a lot of confidence. His issue is not whether or not he can make plays but whether or not he can do it consistently. Now that he knows he can play at this level, he has to continue working and right now he is preparing as hard as anyone."

The Tide offense may not be as explosive as their Tennessee counterparts but recent history suggests that the Tide and Vols are in for a close game.

"Knowing our team, it's probably going to come down to the last 2 or 3 minutes to decide it," said senior fullback Tim Castille. "But we've been in some of those close games now and we came out on the other side on Saturday. Hopefully that will help us going into this game."

Tide players take UT rivalry seriously

The Alabama-Tennessee rivalry is often called one of the least-known great rivalries in football but for Tide players that grew up as Alabama fans, this week is among the most special of their careers at the Capstone.

"Growing up this is one of the biggest games as an Alabama fan that I loved to watch," Tim Castille said. "You hear that if you beat Tennessee you get the special cigar. That's huge. It's just one of those things. I still have my cigar from last year and I'd like to get another one. It's huge."

Some players are more aware of the rivalry than their coaches.

"John Parker's been raised an Alabama fan so I don't expect we'll have to explain to him much the importance of this game," Rader said. "He could probably lecture me on what it means."

Though the game took place for many years in Birmingham's Legion Field, Castille and many other veteran Tide players have grown to love the experience of playing in Tennessee's colossal Neyland Stadium.

"It's like the Roman days or something," Castille said. "It's just tons of people all packed in the little bitty area and you're down there competing and going at it. I love it, it's the loudest place we'll ever play and I'm looking forward to going back."

Running game finally taking off

After a seven-game drought without 100-yards rushing, Kenneth Darby has finally regained his step and has run for triple digits two straight weeks.

"I think offensively we're doing a better job up front," Shula said. "I think we got some better looks in the running game because we had a little more balance than in the past and we've had a little more success in the passing game. KD's motor is always going and maybe a couple games he wasn't 100 percent. He had a couple runs that he could have made plays earlier but he was trying to make too much happen."

Rader believes there wasn't just one reason for Darby's sudden return to success in the rushing game but part of it may have been the Tide's superior depth up front as the game went on.

"There are number of reasons for his success. I don't know how deep the Mississippi defensive line was and I think our guys really wore them out in the second half. We also were able to get more plays on offense in the second half. A big part of it was that KD just made some guys miss and started getting a feel for the Ole Miss defense a little better."

The Tide offensive line looks to be gelling as the season goes on and sophomore center Antoine Caldwell believes the unit's progress has been the key to opening up the running game.

"I know we're going to be running the football this week a lot and that starts with me up front," Caldwell said. "I've got to make sure I'm doing my job in identifying the fronts and getting everybody on the same page. I think up front we've been staying on our blocks a little longer and Ken Darby is finding a way to make a few more things happen."

"I feel like all of us are starting to come together. The young guys like Andre Smith and Justin Britt are starting to pick up on a lot more things as well. Certain things you don't have to say to them anymore, they just know to do it and that makes us all better because we can focus more on improving on other things in practice."

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