On the face of it, Alabama hosting Kentucky this week doesn’t have the panache of the game that was postponed last week – LSU – or the game that is scheduled to follow a week from Saturday – Auburn. Just the fact that CBS put Bama on its schedule for LSU and Auburn says something.
Alabama (6-0 and ranked first in the nation) and Kentucky (3-4) kick off in Bryant-Denny Stadium at 3 p.m. CST Saturday with SEC Network televising what had seemed in the preseason to be a nice in-between game for the Crimson Tide.
Earlier this week, Alabama Coach Nick Saban sounded the alarm on Kentucky’s offense. It’s not like it has been up there with the Crimson Tide and Florida and Ole Miss, but it has that scary component – a veteran quarterback who can run and pass.
“The quarterback is very athletic and can run,” Saban said. “They create a lot of quarterback run issues for you.”
Alabama sophomore inside linebacker Christian Harris is paying attention.
“Kentucky has a really great offense.,” Harris said Tuesday in a ZOOM interview. “They have a really good quarterback who’s able to throw the ball and run the ball. I think that presents a really good challenge for us being that a lot of the teams that we play might not have had as many QB runs as this team does. It makes you have to focus more on your gap control.”
That Kentucky quarterback, Terry Wilson, was injured last year, opening the door for converted wide receiver Lynn Bowden to star as a Wildcat quarterback. Now Wilson, 6-3, 202, is back for his senior season and has completed 75-116 passes (64.7 percent) for 712 yards with 6 touchdowns and only 1 interception. He has also rushed 68 times for 334 yards (4.9 per carry) for 4 TDs.
One thing that has carried over from last year’s is Kentucky’s rushing game. In addition to Wilson, Junior Chris Rodriguez has 88 carries for 562 yards, 6.4 yards per carry, and 5 TDs and the Wildcats rank second in the Southeastern Conference in rushing at 195 yards per game and just over 5 yards per carry.
Saban said, “When the quarterback can run it makes it like Wildcat. There’s always an extra gap because you don’t really account for the quarterback in most basic things that you do on defense. They do a good job of formations, they make you make a lot of adjustments. You have to stay gap sound in everything you do and you have to have enough guys in the box to account for the quarterback.
“Some of it is as simple as pulling the ball on the zone read, which you have to be very disciplined. This is a game that requires a lot of discipline from all the players. Everybody has to do his job.”
The Wildcats have good individual players in skill positions, but UK is only 10th in the SEC in total offense, 318 yards per game, and scoring, 23.3 points per game.
Harris, a 6-2, 232-pound sophomore weakside linebacker, is a native of Baton Rouge. The chance to go home last week to face LSU was, at best, postponed because of COVID-19. That gave Bama back-to-back open dates.
“I think we handled it pretty well,” Harris said. “[It’s] being where your feet are; that’s how we approached it. We took it as an opportunity to practice and find something to get 1 percent better at every day.”
Harris thinks he has improved in his second year after being more-or-less thrown into a starting job as a freshman when veteran linebackers Dylan Moses and Josh McMillon suffered season-ending preseason injuries.
He said, “One thing I think I did pretty well with coming into the season was really getting in the run game, understanding my gaps. Last season I started to understand that week by week, and I think I’ve continued to improve on that. I’ve been trying to improve on my coverage as well, and mainly communication — being able to know what my assignment is, but not just my assignment, everybody else’s assignment so I can be able to — with Dylan also — help everybody else line up and put them in position to execute.”
Harris ranks second on the team to fellow inside linebacker Dylan Moses in total tackles with 38 (to 50 for Moses) and Harris is tops on the team in primary stops with 30. He has 3 ½ tackles for loss for 13 yards, including a 10-yard sack, has broken up a pass and is tied for the team lead in quarterback hurries with 4.