Against Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, covering receivers for nearly eight seconds may be the minimum for the Crimson Tide’s defensive backs.
If ever there was a game for the Tide’s defensive backs to solely focus on their assignments, it will be this Saturday against the Aggies in College Station.
During his Monday news conference, Tide coach Nick Saban stressed that while Manziel is a talented runner, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner scrambles to buy time to pass.
“Athletically, he extends a lot of plays, but he extends a lot of plays to pass,” he said.
Saban also noted the Aggie wide receivers do a good job of playing “scramble rules” by adjusting their routes when Manziel breaks out of the pocket.
“That’s what Coach Saban talks about: never take your eyes off your man,” Tide safety HaHa Clinton-Dix said. “The minute you do, he (your man) will pop out-of-the-ground, and you know Johnny Football will throw the ball 40, 50 yards and complete a pass. It’s very important that we stay on our keys and our assignments.”
Clinton-Dix and his secondary mates experienced firsthand how dangerous Manziel is if he breaks contain or if a receiver is able to pop open.
“All of us,” Clinton-Dix said. “He’s out there, he takes off running and you think, ‘Oh, maybe I can go get him.’ Next thing you know, he’s throwing the ball to your guy. It’s very important we stay locked in on our assignments.”
A play in last year’s game that showcased Manziel’s complete skill package was his second touchdown throw. He appeared to be bottled up after running into one of his own lineman as the Tide was able to make the pocket collapse. He fumbled, regained possession, extended the play with his legs and, just as the Tide’s secondary thought the play was over, he hit a wide open Ryan Swopes for a touchdown.
“He fumbled the ball, and a lot of guys at the back end did what they shouldn’t have done,” Tide safety Vinnie Sunseri said. “They came out of their zones. They didn’t cover their man, and it opened up the middle of the field for him to throw the touchdown pass.
“We just weren’t used to a player like Johnny Manziel at the time. But we know what he’s capable of doing now.”
The experienced players have heard Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s message enough times to fully grasp the meaning, but the Tide will also rely on young defensive players to contribute.
“Coach Saban does a good job of making sure that they (young players) pay attention to what he wants them to pay attention to,” Sunseri said. “He makes sure that you know exactly what’s on every single play. And if you know what to do on every single play, then you know who you have whenever the play breaks down and he (Manziel) starts to scramble around.
“It takes reps, and it takes a lot of mental reps, also. So when we’re out there and they’re watching us, they understand the concepts and what to do.”
The message has stuck with Sunseri, and fear is a motivating factor for sticking to his assignment. What did the junior learn from watching film of the Tide’s loss to Texas A&M?
“Don’t take your eye off your man, or Coach Saban gon’ kill you,” Sunseri said.
Marq Burnett covers University of Alabama sports for The Star. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter, @Marq_Burnett.