The University of Alabama has started this season off just as everyone expected. Perhaps even better, considering the Crimson Tide’s defensive unit was under serious scrutiny coming into this season. The defense has held its own, however, even dominating opponents at times. But Alabama hasn’t faced anything quite like what it will find when the Tide travels to Fayetteville, Ark., Saturday to take on Ryan Mallett and the Arkansas Razorbacks.
The Tide defense held the Razorbacks to minimal gains last year en route to a 35-7 blowout. Of course, head coach Nick Saban doesn’t really care about what happened last year, and he said he feels Arkansas’ offense is even better this season.
“I don’t think anything that happened last year has anything to do with what happens this year,” Saban said. “[Arkansas’ offense is] better in terms of their consistency and what they’re expected to do. This’ll be a real challenge for this team, this year.”
So far this season, the Tide’s defense has held opponents to a combined 760 total yards. Of course, none of those teams are on the level Arkansas is.
“This is sort of a new season, playing in the SEC,” Saban said. “Our team will find you’re only as strong as your weakest link…. This’ll be a real critical test of adversity.”
Mallett may be the greatest test of all. He has already eclipsed the total offense allowed by Alabama’s defense by himself, passing for 1,018 yards in three games. Three of his receivers already have more than 150 yards receiving each.
“He’s a good QB,” junior linebacker Jerrell Harris said. “He’ll try to stay in the pocket and try to pick us apart.”
Sophomore defensive lineman Damion Square said he realizes Mallett’s talent, but also feels like he is the kind of quarterback the Tide can get pressure on. After all, Alabama did sack him three times last year.
“Ryan Mallett’s a big guy back there, great passer,” Square said. “He’s a guy that delivers the ball pretty well to his team. As a pass rusher, you do get excited when you play a guy that’s going to stay in the pocket and execute his offense [that way].”
Tide senior quarterback Greg McElroy doesn’t seem too worried about how the defense will fare against Arkansas’ offense and has a lot of confidence in his defensive secondary.
“I think [the secondary] is doing a good job,” McElroy said. “The great thing about our scheme, as long as they play the scheme within what Coach asks them to do, we’re so well-coached, as long as they don’t make any busts, then we’ll continue to have success.”
It’s not as if Alabama has never seen a high-octane offense, either. They practice against one every week. Junior running back Mark Ingram noted how Alabama’s balanced offense prepared its defense for the game.
“It helps them a lot,” Ingram said. “They have balance in [Arkansas’] offense too. They talk about Mallett being able to throw the ball, but they have explosive receivers and can run the ball, too.”
Of course, the Tide offense can do a lot to take the pressure off its defense, whether by preparation or simply scoring early and often. Sophomore offensive lineman Barrett Jones said the defense hasn’t really had any pressure on them in terms of having to win games so far.
“We haven’t needed to take much pressure off them,” he said. “We just go out there and try to score as many points as we can week in and week out, and the defense has done a great job of getting us the ball in great field position and getting stops.”
The defense this year is still trying to create its own identity, separate from the Tide’s defensive unit last year, which included stars such as Rolando McClain, Javier Arenas and Terrence Cody.
“We’ve known we have a ton of talented guys [on defense],” Jones said. “Coach Saban does a great job of recruiting, and we have a great group of guys stepping in their roles. We know that we have a ton of talent on our defense, and right now I think they’re just starting to crack the potential of how good they can be.”
Said Harris: “It’s really a big step up for us. We need to step up and play. I’ll grade [our defense] well right now. We’re still a young defense. Basically [we need improvement] all around, but we don’t have any weaknesses. Right now, we’re licking our chops, ready to show the world what we can do.”