Sugar Bowl: Injuries once again force Alabama to shuffle defensive lineup
Smart game planning wasn’t quite enough to get Alabama through the season and back into the College Football Playoffs.
The Crimson Tide needed something more — a great health plan.
Their defense has suffered a rash of injuries this fall, a trend that continues as the fourth-ranked team prepares to face No. 1 Clemson in a CFP semifinal at the Sugar Bowl on Monday night.
Freshman linebacker Dylan Moses, pressed into action when senior Shaun Dion Hamilton went down at midseason, won’t make it back from a bowl-practice injury. Defensive back Hootie Jones, who went down in the regular-season finale, also will be a scratch.
That requires another shuffling of the lineup.
“It’s a new mix of people and a new chemistry of how those guys are going to work together,” coach Nick Saban said.
News from the injury report hasn’t been all bad.
Linebackers Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis have used the past few weeks to recuperate. So has Mack Wilson, who recently returned from a foot injury.
“We’re excited to have him back,” defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said of Wilson. “We need him back.”
Not that the Crimson Tide should expect sympathy. Even with all their health struggles, they have shown enough depth to rank as the No. 2 defense in the nation.
“They keep saying there are a lot of injuries,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “But they just keep rolling guys in there.”
It might be fair to say Clemson is feeling loose and confident.
The moment the Tigers arrived in New Orleans last week, they started talking about exploring the city before getting down to business.
“We’ve earned the right to be here … the right to enjoy ourselves and just have a little bit of fun,” defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said.
The vibe has been different among the Crimson Tide players. “I don’t really have fun, so I don’t think about it like that,” Alabama offensive lineman Jonah Williams said.
Maybe the teams have taken on the personalities of their coaches.
The quiet, sometimes gruff Saban runs Alabama in no-nonsense fashion. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has always been more folksy and talkative.
“You have to win the game,” Swinney said. “But I don’t think you have to be miserable to do that in the process.”
Running back Travis Etienne, a Louisiana native, has been anointed as the Tigers’ travel guide. Wilkins promised that he and his teammates won’t have too much fun.
“We know that when it’s time to grind, it’s time to grind,” he said.
A bit defensive
To no one’s surprise, Pruitt has faced questions about staying focused on his work. That’s because the defensive coordinator was recently named head coach at Tennessee.
While remaining with the Crimson Tide through the postseason, Pruitt has split time between his old job and new, especially during the recent early signing period.
Alabama has some history with this situation – last year, the team abruptly parted ways with offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin after he accepted the Florida Atlantic job. Steve Sarkisian was promoted to fill his spot in the middle of the playoffs.
This time, with Pruitt sticking around, defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne said things are going smoothly. “He has been ready to go and focused on winning the game,” he said.
Facing reporters at a pre-bowl news conference, the coordinator showed no interest in discussing his juggling act.
“Right now, I’m working as defensive coordinator at Alabama,” he said. “I’d like for these questions to be targeted toward this game and the players that are associated with this game.”
We’re No. 1
Some people might be surprised that lower-ranked Alabama is favored to win, but the odds make sense to the Clemson.
“They earned that,” Wilkins said. “They’ve done what they’ve needed to do for as long as I’ve been watching college football.”
Crimson Tide players suspect not everyone agrees.
“We know a lot of people just don’t like us because we’re Alabama,” running back Damien Harris said. “But, at the end of the day, that doesn’t really bother us.”
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