CFB Insider: Signs of trouble for Alabama's D, Florida's o-line, Chip Kelly and Jim Harbaugh
Each week, Matt Hayes uses his sources around the country to bring you insider knowledge about what’s going on in and around the SEC ahead of this week’s games.
This is what he’s hearing from coaches and NFL scouts in Week 4 …
The struggling Tide defense
Two SEC coaches who have studied the Alabama defense already this season say the unit is probably faster than last year’s group, but that it doesn’t have game experience.
Translation: If you’re going to get the Tide, get them early.
“You’ve always been able to hit big plays in the passing game every now and then against them because of the way they play defense,” one SEC coach told me. “They like to pressure and play a lot of man and mixed man. If you can protect long enough, you can hit some chunk plays.”
The problem now is Alabama is also giving up chunk plays in the run game. Those dominant Tide fronts of the past aren’t around. Alabama gave up 20 plays of 10 yards or more last week to South Carolina – which was starting a freshman quarterback and rolled up 459 yards of offense.
The obvious question is how does the Alabama defense react when it’s staring at Kellen Mond and the Texas A&M offense, or LSU QB Joe Burrow and the new Tigers’ spread offense? Or even a potential rematch with Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.
“They’ve got players now, don’t get it twisted,” another SEC coach told me. “They’re going to slow down most people and they’re going to get their turnovers. But if they’re playing an offense in this league with some experience and a quarterback who protects the ball and makes good decisions, that defense will be stressed like it hasn’t been in a while in this league.”
Florida offensive line bigger issue than QBs
One NFL scout I spoke with this week said it doesn’t matter who plays quarterback at Florida, the offensive line has “significant problems” in both run blocking and pass protection.
“They’re just not that physical,” the scout said. “They don’t use their hands well, and the tackles are really inconsistent with quickly getting into their drop step (in pass protection). I think some of that is youth and growing and learning what you can and can’t get away with. But it’s going to be a rough few games until those guys get more comfortable.”
To that end, expect Tennessee to use various blitzes and disguised fronts in this weekend’s game in Gainesville. Kentucky played mostly zone last week when Kyle Trask entered the game for injured Feleipe Franks.
Tennessee won’t make that mistake because the Vols’ secondary has had problems with zone coverages this season (see: critical blown coverage in loss to BYU), and because freshman All-American CB Bryce Thompson was reinstated to the team last week.
With Thompson, Tennessee can play more man coverage and allow Pruitt to get exotic with some blitz packages that the Florida quarterbacks (Trask and Emory Jones) – and maybe more important, the offensive line – haven’t seen.
Chip Kelly’s disappearing act
Nearly 22 months ago, Florida was chasing what was then considered the hottest coaching candidate on the market: Chip Kelly.
Now UCLA is wondering what it has paid for.
One industry source told me this week the Bruins’ administration is “shocked” at the product on the field. Meanwhile, Florida dodged what could have been a third consecutive failed hire.
Kelly’s big selling point when he was being courted by UCLA and Florida was his ability to run his once feared “Blur Ball” offense that stressed defenses like few have in the past quarter century.
The Bruins won 3 games last year and were terrible on offense. After 3 weeks this season, UCLA is 129 out of 130 FBS teams in total offense (263.3 ypg.) and 127th in scoring offense (14 ppg.).
Instead of getting Blur Ball, UCLA got a watered-down version of the offense, without much of the most critical aspect to its success: the zone read run game. Part of the problem is UCLA doesn’t have a running threat at quarterback, though that, too, falls on Kelly.
His 2 recruiting classes have been ranked 19th and 40th, and he hasn’t landed a quarterback who can run the Blur Ball. Defensively, his teams have been an utter catastrophe.
“Imagine,” one Florida source told me, “if we had gotten that performance after what we’ve been through around here on offense.”
Kelly does have one shining mark on his brief résumé: beating crosstown rival USC – but even then he couldn’t capitalize on the win by winning recruiting battles against the Trojans.
In a year or 2, UCLA could be looking for another coach, and Florida will be moving toward returning to the top of the SEC East Division. Since Kelly and Mullen were hired, UCLA is 3-12 and Florida in s 13-3.
Not bad for the coach the Gators “settled” for when Kelly decided to take the UCLA job.
The return of Auburn WR Anthony Schwartz
Though there’s no real timetable for the return of Auburn WR Anthony Schwartz, expect the SEC’s fastest player to see more action this weekend at Texas A&M.
In fact, the Texas A&M staff is preparing as if Schwartz will be full-go this weekend.
Schwartz caught his first pass of the season last week against Kent State, nearly a month after breaking multiple bones in his hand. He wore a padded club of sorts last week vs. Kent State – and even caught the ball with the club – and there’s hope that the protective cast won’t be as cumbersome as it was last weekend.
Getting Schwartz back on the field for more than just a handful of plays would be critical for the adjustment of freshman quarterback Bo Nix. It’s not just Schwartz as a receiver, but he’s also a dangerous threat on jet sweeps and direct handoffs.
Big game, big pressure for Jim Harbaugh
Keep an eye on the Michigan at Wisconsin game. One industry source told me if Michigan can’t beat Wisconsin this weekend, the heat will begin to ratchet up on Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh.
“They love Jim; that’s not even in question,” the source told me. “But the idea this year is not just winning your division, it’s winning the Big Ten and getting to the Playoff with Urban Meyer gone from Ohio State. You lose to Wisconsin, and that entire scenario is a lot less likely to come to fruition.”
A troubling reality for Michigan: This year’s run defense isn’t close to the stout run defenses of years past under DC Don Brown. The Wolverines have a handful of new faces at critical spots (defensive interior and linebacker) and are 60th – you read that right, 60th – against the run this season.
And here comes Wisconsin’s ground and pound offense and TB Jonathan Taylor, the best big game tailback in college football. Taylor had 17 carries for 101 yards in last year’s game, and was taken out of the game once Michigan built a big lead and forced Wisconsin to throw the ball.
In 2017, Taylor had 132 yards on 19 carries. Both of those 100-yard games were against the Big Ten’s best defense over the past 2 seasons. Expect Taylor to have his best game yet against Michigan this weekend – and for the criticism of all things Harbaugh at Michigan to increase.