TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Since arriving on the campus of the University of Alabama in 2007, head football coach Nick Saban has consistently reiterated multiple ideals that have over the years become ingrained in the Crimson Tide culture.
Two such ideals that go hand-in-hand have become prevalent this season after Alabama's first three games. While the Crimson Tide has thus far begun the season with a 3-0 record, it has had a recurring issue that has been the primary focus of the team over the last three days.
The ideal? Never, ever look at the scoreboard and maintain intensity for a full 60 minutes.
“I’ve heard it all my career here," offensive lineman Emil Ekiyor Jr. said to the media on Monday. "It’s something that Saban always emphasizes; it’s a part of the program, a part of the culture. The team knows that we have to do that and play to that standard."
In each of its first three games of the 2021 season, Alabama football has struck early and often. Against Miami in the team's season opener, the Crimson Tide led the Hurricanes 27-3 at halftime. The following week against Mercer, 31-0. And last Saturday at Florida, Alabama was up 21-3 after the first quarter.
While the Crimson Tide has been able to get off to some impressive starts this season, it's the remainder of the games that have been a concern. While it wasn't outscored by the Hurricanes or the Bears, the scoring was far closer. Against Miami in the second half, Alabama outscored the team just 17-10. Against Mercer, the second-half scoring was 17-14 in Alabama's favor. At Florida, however, a wake-up call was issued when the Crimson Tide was outscored by the Gators 26-10 over the last three quarters of play.
The eye-opening slacking off of the Alabama defense set alarm bells off in the defense's heads as well as the team's coaches, and improving on finishing games rather than becoming comfortable with a lead has begun to be harped on even more this past week.
“I feel like defensively we haven’t played for 60 minutes yet," outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. said. "We haven’t played to the Alabama standard and that’s something that we’re trying to build on each week, especially coming off this week. This was a real eye-opener that we need to get our stuff together for real, for real.
"We need to live up to the Alabama standard and we need to play to the Alabama standard and we need to go out there and execute and all 11 of us need to be on the same page.”
As stated earlier, Alabama has started the season 3-0 despite its shortcomings. That being said, the Crimson Tide's season is far from over.
In its nine remaining games of the 2021 regular season, Alabama has some doozies headed its way. On Oct. 2, former offensive coordinator and current head coach Lane Kiffin and his Ole Miss Rebels come to town, bringing with them one of the best offenses in the SEC. A trip to No. 7 Texas A&M the following weekend, hosting No. 16 Arkansas on Nov. 20 and a trip to No. 23 Auburn for the Iron Bowl also highlight the schedule as games that will prove challenging.
With the season having multiple threats still on its path, the focus on the team has shifted to maintaining intensity of play through the full 60 minutes of a game. After Alabama's performance at Florida, the team is now experiencing a full shift in its approach.
"So far this week, the message we’ve got is just to return back to our standard of Alabama football," defensive back DeMarcco Hellams said. "Just become a defense and a team that we know we can be, and just putting that game behind us and moving on."
And how does one maintain intensity, exactly?
"On a personal level maintaining intensity, just practicing better, preparing better," Hellams said. "As a team, we just have to take what the coaches give us in practice, just maintaining intensity throughout the game and having the togetherness as a team to finish games and not just coast."
Easing off of the gas pedal when ahead has never been something that Saban has done. While Alabama is known for removing starters in the fourth quarter and using the 'garbage time' minutes of the game to get younger players experience — an occurrence that has happened so frequently over the last decade that it has almost become laughable at this point — the Crimson Tide under Saban is known for not letting up until they have built up an absolutely insurmountable lead and its opponent is eager to end the game just as much as Alabama is.
Getting comfortable and trying to end the game early? That's simply not the Alabama standard, which Anderson reiterated is something that the team desperately needs to get back to.
“It definitely needs to pick it up," Anderson said. "We definitely need to get back to that Alabama standard, and you know the message all year in our offseason was we're going to be a fast, physical football team. And I think that's what we need to get back to, so I think when everybody looked at their own individual performances and we come together to defense and we sit down and we talk, I think that’ll really help.
"We're going to keep getting better each week and we're going to just keep getting that message out there that we are a fast physical football team."
So how does a team build intensity and maintain it for 60 minutes in a game? It starts in practice.
As Hellams noted, practicing better as an individual as well as a team can greatly improve both a player and a team's overall intensity as well as the ability to maintain it. Over the past few days since the Crimson Tide's narrow victory over the Gators, intensity has been the biggest focus heading into Week 4.
According to Saban, maintaining intensity is something that you can train yourself to do and it starts with players' time on the practice field and in the weight room.
"I think you train yourself to do that," Saban said. "And you have to train yourself in practice. You can’t hold back. You can’t take yourself out. You’ve got to put yourself in the situation that you’re going to be in the game so that you feel that. And when you start to get a little bit tired in practice, you can keep on keeping on and continue to have the kind of spirit and energy you need to finish. So you actually train yourself to do that."
Alabama now gears up for its return to Bryant-Denny Stadium this weekend, where it will take on Southern Miss. While the Golden Eagles will likely not cause too many issues (although a certain Citadel game from 2018 comes to mind), the team's mentality needs to be focusing on playing for a full 60 minutes and building intensity that can sustain it through the rest of the challenges that the program will face this season.
As stated by Saban, focusing on maintaining intensity rather than getting lackadaisical is a conscious choice by players. With that in mind, each player needs to make that individual choice in order to not only better themselves but also the team as a whole.
"It’s a conscious decision that every player makes," Saban said. "It comes down to, 'I’m feeling a little tired so I’m going to change the way I’m playing.' Or you make the choices and decisions that I have to push through this and I’m going to train myself so that I can continue to do this even when the game comes. It really comes down to feelings versus making the right choices as a player."