September 1, 2006

BOL Breakdown: Hawai'i at Alabama

The Alabama Crimson Tide will open the 2006 season by hosting the Hawai'i Warriors at newly-renovated Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday night. The Tide enters the opener with a new starting quarterback in John Parker Wilson and seven fresh faces on defense. Hawai'i brings to town a passing attack that returns several key players from a unit that ranked second nationally in passing offense a season ago.

BOL senior writer Travis Reier provides an in-depth look at the match up.

Alabama running game vs. Hawai'i run defense:The biggest highlight of fall camp at Alabama? For me, it was the ability o the offense to run the ball with authority between the tackles -- something it couldn't do with any kind of consistency a season ago. With Antoine Caldwell taking over at center and a solid two-deep at both guard spots, the ground game shouldn't be limited to the outside this season. Sophomore tight ends Travis McCall and Nick Walker have reached a point where they can physically hang in against top-notch defensive ends. Tackle Andre Smith may be a freshman, but you will still see Kenneth Darby, Jimmy Johns and Roy Upchurch working off the left side a good bit.

Edge: Hawai'i's 3-4 defense will be breaking in three new starters at linebacker, including Tyson Kafentzis, a redshirt sophomore who was placed on scholarship earlier in the week. In addition to Kafentzis, C.J. Allen-Jones and Adam Leonard will be making their first starts at the weakside and inside spots, respectively. Lining up next to Leonard will be another sophomore, Solomon Elimimian, who recorded 83 tackles while starting10 games as a true freshman. Of greater concern for the Warriors than their lack of experience at linebacker is the health status of starting nose tackle Michael Lafaele, who has been hobbled in the preseason by a heel injury. At 6-foot, 302 pounds, Lafaele is counted on to hold the point in UH's three-man front. The Warriors will load the box, but Alabama should be able to control the line of scrimmage and the game. Edge to Alabama.

Key match up: Alabama C Antoine Caldwell vs. Hawaii NT Michael Lafaele.

Alabama passing game vs. Hawai'i pass defense: It's big news when Alabama debuts a new starting quarterback, and that will be the case on Saturday night when John Parker Wilson takes his place behind Caldwell. All eyes will be on the quarterback position, but I'll be more interested in the match up of Smith versus Hawai'i defensive end Ikalka Alama-Francis. In going against a second-team all-WAC performer from a year ago, Smith won't exactly ease into his first start. Given the Warriors' propensity to blitz, Smith will likely be asked to pick up a linebacker/rush end more than once. And given the inexperience of Wilson and Smith, you have to think Hawai'i defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville will try to confuse the duo with a variety of pre-snap pass rush looks. Will UA wide receiver DJ Hall play in the opener? If he doesn't, Matt Caddell and Will Oakley will team with Keith Brown to makeup the Tide's three-wide receiver set. Brown and Hawai'i cornerback C.J. Hawthorne both played high school football in Gulfport, Miss, so look for some wolfing between the two. Look for Walker to flex out when UA goes with four wides.

Edge: A couple of things lead me to believe that Wilson's first start will go smoothly: 1.) He won't be called upon to carry the offense and 2.) he'll be going against a pass defense that ranked 91st out of 117 Division I-A teams in 2005. It's worth noting that Hawai'i free safety Leonard Peters will be making his return to the lineup after successfully petitioning the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. Even with Peters in the middle of the field, look for Wilson to take a shot or two deep early on. Edge to Alabama.

Key match up: Alabama LT Andre Smith vs. Hawai'i DE Ikalka Alama-Francis.

Mike Shula's first offensive play call will be: Quick strike to Walker.

Don't be surprised if: Alabama's offense spreads the field with three and four wides early.

Hawai'i running game vs. Alabama run defense: Hawai'i head coach June Jones oversees a run-and-shoot offense that puts the ball in the air 70 percent of the time. After spreading defenses out with his base four-wide set, Jones will mix in an occasional draw to tailback Nate Ilaoa, who finished the 2005 season by rushing for 211 yards in a win over San Diego State. Ilaoa had 85 carries all of last season, compared to 36 receptions. Jones' version of the running game mostly involves running after the catch.

Edge: UH center Samson Satele was a first-team all-WAC selection a season ago. With new starters stepping in at both guard spots for the Warriors, Satele will be counted on to buoy the interior of the offensive line. Even with the Tide in its nickel packages for most (if not all) of the game, don't look for Hawai'i to make a commitment to the run. Edge to Alabama.

Key match up: Alabama defensive tackles Jeremy Clark and Dominic Lee vs. Hawai'i center Samson Satele and OGs John Estes and Hercules Satele.

Hawai'i passing game vs. Alabama pass defense: This would have been a very favorable match up for the Tide a season ago. Three new starters later, and the crimson faithful isn't as confident. Still, it isn't like cornerback Simeon Castille and safety Jeffrey Dukes haven't played much the last two seasons. Castille was essentially a third starter during that time, and Dukes has been solid when given the opportunity. Biggest concern? While most of the new starters have seen considerable playing time in the past, they haven't played a lot of snaps together. Continuity, more so than individual athleticism, is what keyed Alabama's excellent secondary play the last two years. That might become painfully clear for some Tide fans during the early stages of this one.

Edge: UH quarterback Colt Brennan doesn't blow you away with his arm strength or mobility, although he's agile enough to frustrate pass rushers while escaping pressure. The Warriors return their top eight pass catchers from 2005, with slot receivers Davone Bess and Ryan Grice-Mullen leading the way. Getting the ball to Bess and Grice-Mullen is Brennan's top priority. From the slot, Bess and Grice-Mullen present match up problems for opposing nickel backs and safeties. For Alabama, this means Lionel Mitchell, Rashad Johnson (the Tide's top two nickel back options in fall camp) and Dukes, who might be asked to walk up and play some man coverage. Depending on Juwan Simpson's availability for the opener, the Tide could be without its top cover linebacker. Providing pressure against a scheme that emphasizes getting the ball out quickly can be tough. With the open-field skills that both Bess and Grice-Mullen possess, tackling is where it all starts for the Tide secondary this week. Look for plenty of quick hitches and screens until UA's linebackers and defensive backs prove they can make open-field tackles. When Brennan does take a five-step drop he has two experienced tackles -- -seniors Dane Uperesa and Tala Esera -- and a trio of jumbo-sized backs to protect him. Edge to Hawai'i.

Key match up: Alabama nickel backs Lionel Mitchell and Rashad Johnson and safety Jeffrey Dukes vs. Hawai'i slot receivers Davone Bess and Ryan Grice-Mullen.

June Jones' first offensive play call will be: Screen to either Bess or Grice-Mullen.

Don't be surprised if: Bess stirkes for a big play early.

Special Teams: UA placekicker Jamie Christensen hasn't fully recovered from the right groin strain that has sidelined him for much of the preseason. The junior is in danger of missing his second straight opener in a row. At this point, I'll be surprised if true freshman Leigh Tiffin isn't the guy on field goals and extra points. As for kickoffs, those might be left to Andrew Friedman to handle. For UH, sophomore placekicker Dan Kelly is back after making 10-of-15 field goals, including a long of 46 yards, as a freshman in 2005. Hawai'i and Alabama are both coming off years in which they rated among the worst net punting teams in all of college football.

Edge: UH ranked 93rd in Division I-A in punt returns (6.55 ypr) and 94th in kickoff returns (18.81 ypr) a season ago. Wide receiver Ross Dickerson will take his shot at both return jobs. Meanwhile, UA special teams coordinator Dave Ungerer is pinning the Tide's kickoff return hopes on a pair of true freshmen -- Javier Arenas and Terry Grant. Both will benefit from having guys like Johns and Le'Ron McClain serving as blockers in front of them. Simeon Castille will handle punt returns for the Tide to start the game, but Arenas is also expected to make an appearance back deep. After two years of perfect snaps from Drew Lane, Luke Spaulding takes over as the Tide's long snapper. With a healthy Christensen, UA would get the nod here. But, with his status still up in air, we'll call this one even.

Game prediction: Alabama 38, Hawai'i 21.

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