TUSCALOOSA — Xavier McKinney found a simple, albeit somewhat unnerving way to correct the open-field tackling issues that plagued him early in his Alabama career: imagine Nick Saban yelling at you.
“I remember getting yelled at by Coach Saban a lot (after missing tackles as a freshman), so every practice I kind of think about that moment, and like, ‘OK, make sure I make this tackle so he doesn’t yell at me,’” McKinney said Tuesday. “… It’s one of those things where it’s like, man, you don’t want him yelling at you. You try to avoid that as much as possible.”
Perimeter tackling, especially within the Alabama secondary, has been a constant point of emphasis for the better part of the last few weeks as the top-ranked Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0 SEC) come out of its first of two bye weeks with a Top-25 matchup against No. 21 Texas A&M (3-2, 1-1 SEC) and athletic, dual-threat quarterback Kellen Mond at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in College Station, Texas.
“It’s obviously something that we need to do better. I think it’s player awareness. We certainly try to do those things on a daily basis and try to emphasize those things on a daily basis, but it still comes back to that same word that we talked about earlier – players have to be disciplined in doing their job,” Saban said Monday.
“If you’re a contain rusher, you’ve got to contain the quarterback. You can’t be coming underneath. You’ve got to keep the proper leverage on the guy. Give the opportunity to push the pocket in the middle. That’s something that we definitely have focused on and need to improve on.”
Alabama is coming off its worst game against the run this season, allowing Ole Miss to roll up a then-season high 279 rushing yards, the most since the Crimson Tide surrendered 281 rushing yards in a 42-35 loss to Ohio State in the 2014 Sugar Bowl national semifinal. Against its two SEC opponents so far this season, Alabama’s defense has allowed a combined 414 rushing yards on 87 carries for a 4.76 yard-per-carry average.
Much of the Rebels’ success on the ground came courtesy of outside runs from true freshman quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, who took advantage of the Tide’s poor perimeter tackling to tally 109 rushing yards two weeks ago, and then added 165 rushing yards in last weekend’s win over visiting Vanderbilt.
“We didn’t keep the quarterback contained. We lost the quarterback a lot. And it will be the same this week if we don’t keep this quarterback in the pocket,” senior defensive end Raekwon Davis said Monday. “Do our job or it’s going to be another problem. In the bye week we worked a lot on attacking the pocket and keeping the quarterback inside.”
It’ll be of the utmost importance this week as a very athletic Mond could look to emulate what Plumlee did to both extend drives and keep Alabama off balance defensively.
Mond combined for 294 total yards and two touchdowns against the Tide last season, including 98 rushing yards on 18 carries and one touchdown, and could’ve had plenty more if not for Alabama’s seven sacks for a combined net loss of 31 yards.
“He played really well against us last year. So we have a lot of respect for him as a player,” Saban said of Mond. “They’ve been able to have really good balance on their offense in terms of run-pass. The quarterback runs, although they’re sometimes limited, they hurt us last year in the game and are something you always have to be concerned about.”
Mond has both thrown and run for a touchdown in the same game 10 times in his career, which leads all current SEC quarterbacks, and has gained more than 1,500 combined yards and 12 total touchdowns already this season, though much has come through the air.
But against SEC competition, Mond has had to do more with his feet, combining for 23 carries for 59 rushing yards in his last two games against Auburn and Arkansas.
“He’s a good QB. He can throw, he can scramble, he can make plays on his feet, he can extend the plays,” McKinney said of Mond. “I’ve always thought he was a good QB. … So, we definitely respect him and we know what he can do.”
Which is why there’s been a greater focus on containing mobile quarterbacks during Alabama’s last several practices, including unique positional drill work Tuesday that saw the Tide defensive linemen and outside linebackers working in concert to keep contain of a scout-team receiver that was serving as a running quarterback.
For Davis, the way to limit a dual-threat quarterback like Mond is simple enough: “everyone being on the same page and executing plays.”
But like two weeks ago against Ole Miss, that’s easier said than done.
“Really, everyone just has to do their assignments and do their job,” senior cornerback Trevon Diggs said. “The DBs have to cover, the defensive line has to contain the quarterback and worry about the quarterback and stuff like that. But once the QB scrambles and gets out of the pocket, everyone has to break on the ball. It’s a team effort.”