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September 29, 2010TUSCALOOSA _ Like with many of his University of Alabama teammates, the phone call comes after every game. Before junior wide receiver Darius Hanks receives his critique from the coaching staff he gets one from his father.
Two weeks ago the first words were probably something like "Nice catch" regarding his 9-yard fingertip touchdown reception of a ball that was tipped at the last moment by a Duke defender, and after Arkansas they had so be something like "Great block, son." When Alabama swung a pass out to junior Julio Jones midway through the second quarter Hanks laid out the nearest defensive back and helped turn it into a 19-yard gain.
"This year he's pretty satisfied with how I've been reacting after the catch and everything," said Hanks, who was thanked by Jones on his way back to the huddle. "I feel like I've improved."
Saturday afternoon, he and the rest of the receiving corps will be put to the test again when the Crimson Tide hosts No. 7 Florida, and if last year's SEC Championship Game is any indication Alabama's ability to pass the ball to players other than Jones will be a crucial.
While Alabama gained 251 rushing yards against the Gators in Atlanta, senior quarterback Greg McElroy completed just 2 of 6 passes to Jones for 28 yards, but was nearly perfect to everyone else. He finished 12-of-18 for 239 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions to be named the game MVP.
That's 13.3 yards per attempt (19.9 per completion) for a very impressive passer rating of 196.53. The Tide receivers accumulated 122 yards after the catch. His top target was Marquis Maze, who had five catches for 96 yards.
In addition to a lot of misdirection play-action and attacking the zone across the middle with crossing routes, one of the new wrinkles was continually lining tight end Preston Dial wide as if to run screens behind him and then never did.
"Between what I have in my mind and what I have in my playbook, I feel like it's like a tenth of what (offensive coordinator Jim McElwain knows)," Dial said. "Everything is setting up for the next move. He's just really smart about keeping on their toes."
What really did in the Gators, though, was third down. While Florida converted just 4 of 11 opportunities (36.3 percent), the Tide did so on 11 of 15 chances for 73.3 percent. Alabama was so impressive that despite coming in ranked ninth in the SEC at 37.7 percent it jumped all the way up to third. To put it further into perspective, the previous year when Florida won the SEC title game, the Tide was 5-for-12 (41.7 percent) while the Gators were 7-for-13 (54.8).
Although Florida has a new coordinator, Teryl Austin, and there's been some talk in Gainesville of using five down linemen to try and slow Alabama's running game, the overall scheme appears to be roughly the same.
"They have a lot of speed, so they try and use that speed to their advantage and play a lot of man-to-man coverage," McElroy said. "They bring some fire zones and bring the (cornerback) quite a bit, which we haven't seen that much this year.
"They do a really good job of disguising."
But so does Alabama, which despite its physical persona is at its best when balanced, and with a senior quarterback is able to go from smash-mouth football to five wide at the blink of an eye. McElroy has completed 70.9 percent of his passes for 899 yards and seven touchdowns and three interceptions while ranking seventh nationally in passing efficiency at 178.62. Consequently, the Tide is averaging 511.8 yards per game, which ranks first in the SEC and sixth nationally.
"We have a strong backfield and a strong receiving corps and quarterback," Hanks said. "Basically we feel like we can run what we want to do."
Actually, the one thing Alabama's offense didn't do last week was have a big gain out of the passing game, with two 20-yard receptions marking the Tide's longest gains in addition to a pass-interference call. It did take some shots, though.
"It was important, and there were a couple that we were pretty close," McElroy said. "A couple of plays here or there and it could have been a totally different ball game, but the fact that we didn't make those plays and were still able to get a victory is really encouraging."
Alabama still manage to tally 117 yards after the catch, which was its worst output of the season (153 vs. Duke the best), but still nearly matched the last Florida game. Here's the breakdown by player:
Not coincidentally, the turning point of last year's meeting was when Mark Ingram broke a 69-yard screen against the Gators. A similar explosive play, perhaps by Hanks or sprung by a block like he threw last week, could again be the difference.
The way the Tide spreads the ball around he also knows the opportunities will be there, one way or another, with the matchups pretty much set. With Joe Haden having moved on to the NFL, junior Janoris Jenkins (5-foot-11, 186 pounds) figures to key on Jones, with Jeremy Brown, who returned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown last week against Kentucky, frequently on Hanks.
Jenkins and Jones were teammates for the Under-Armour All-Star game before college and went against each day in practice.
"This ability to intercept the ball," Jones said Jenkins is known for. "He's a great competitor, a great player.
How much help those cornerbacks will get, though, will largely depend on the success of the Tide's running game, and Florida leads the conference with 12 pickoffs (plus-eight turnover ratio).
"Any time we see 1-on-1, we're licking our chops," Hanks said in general. "We feel like no defender can cover us one-on-one as a receiver group. We just have to go out and grind out there, and execute.
"It's not about them, it's about us."