Jan 4, 2013, 3:31 PM EDT
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — With hundreds of reporters sifting through storylines looking for a new angle under every nook and cranny, Irish All-American Tyler Eifert ended up supplying the closest thing to bulletin board material this morning, when he called a Crimson Tide secondary that had to replace three NFL draft picks, well — human.
“They’re not perfect,” Eifert said. “They’re not supermen. They’re a really good defense, but they have weaknesses, too.”
And with that, the reports were off and running.
An hour later, when Notre Dame players and coaches departed and Alabama players and coaches took their turn with the media, suddenly a Crimson Tide defense Eifert called “the best defense we face all year,” was feeling challenged.
“They’re going to pick out something, a position or anything, to say they’re going to exploit. It’s not just Notre Dame. Any team will,” All-American Dee Milner told reporters. “I’m glad they chose the secondary. That just makes me want to play more.
“Hopefully when we get out on Monday night, we can showcase that we’re not a secondary that’s intimidated or can be messed with at all.”
Trying to find even a sliver of disrespect in anything Eifert or other Irish players said this morning would take an active imagination. But keying on the battle between Notre Dame’s pass catchers and Alabama’s secondary is wise. Because that’s going to be the Irish’s best bet to pick up yards by the chunk, especially after watching Texas A&M and Georgia have some success in the passing game.
If there’s been any consistent kryponite against the Tide secondary, it’s the NFL. Replacing first round draft picks Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick was no easy task. And while Dee Milliner looks well on his way to hearing his name called early as well, the Tide have had to rebuild their secondary with junior-college transfer Deion Belue, underclassmen Tino Sunseri and Haha Clinton-Dix, joining the lone returning starter Robert Lester. It’s hardly the cobbled together group that Notre Dame runs out there, but that’s the machine that Nick Saban has built over the past few years.
And while Alabama players might be looking for motivation, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart acknowledges that Tyler Eifert and company possess some unique challenges, most leveled by the Irish’s All-American tight end.
“We haven’t faced a tight end with this much talent,” Smart said today. “The guy is a special player. People don’t give this kid enough credit for his blocking ability.
“He really forces you to play different defensively because he’s so multiple. And they do a great job as an offensive staff of managing their players and using their skill players in the right way.”
While this pass catching corps for the Irish hasn’t put up impressive individual numbers, they’ve been far better than many expected, winning one-on-one battles when their numbers were called. And if Notre Dame is going to make the kind of “big chunk” plays needed to move the ball, they’ll do it via the pass. They’ll also need Everett Golson to extend some plays, using his legs not unlike another redshirt quarterback that gave the Tide fits.
While statistically there’s not much common ground, after 40 days of scouting, Smart and the Tide defense has seen a lot of Johnny Manziel in the Irish’s dual-threat quarterback.
“The guy is a very good athlete. He’s got the ability to run the ball. He’s got extremely great arm talent,” Smart said of Golson, finding more than a few parallels. “There are a lot of similarities between the two. Both of them are youthful, and sometimes youth is a good thing. He doesn’t have a very long memory. He forgets it and he’s right back to the next play and will make another big play.”
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