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November 3, 2010
Tide coaches aren't only ones having a reunion
TUSCALOOSA _ Two years ago when Nick Saban first returned to Baton Rouge as the football coach for the University of Alabama, LSU fans were foaming at the mouth to get a shot at the man who led them to a national championship and then departed for the Miami Dolphins.
Defensive back Phelon Jones was in the home locker room and played for the Tigers that day. He didn't have a tackle, but still remembers the sting of losing in overtime, 27-21.
"Knowing that we were so close and didn't pull it out, it hurt even worse," he said, adding that the overall fervor felt for the former coach wasn't matched by the players.
"Not really. A lot of people on the team didn't get to play for Coach Saban. They really had no connection to him. So at LSU it was just another game, to beat Alabama to get to our goals. It's always been a pretty intense game, win or lose."
Jones, of course, is now on the other side having transferred to the Crimson Tide at the conclusion of the 2008 season. Saturday will be his first time back to Tiger Stadium, which will sort of have a reunion feel to it.
In addition to sophomore safety Wesley Neighbors squaring off against his younger brother Connor, who is a freshman fullback for the Tigers, Kirby Smart, Sal Sunseri and Bobby Williams were all on Saban's staff there, defensive line coach Bo Davis was an All-SEC lineman for the Tigers before serving as assistant strength coach, and strength coach Scott Cochran graduated from LSU before joining the weight-room staff.
"Exciting," Jones said. "Just to see all the places that I just came from, all the people and all the friends, it's going to be pretty exciting."
Jones played nine games during his freshman year, starting at dime against North Texas and Troy, and finished with 15 tackles, three sacks a forced fumble. But by the time the Alabama game came around he wasn't doing as much.
"Things just looked better here than at LSU," the Mobile native said. "All the coaches, the players, the program was great. I just saw (better) benefit being at Alabama than LSU."
It's beginning to look like the move will pay off. Jones has played in five games this season, mostly in spot duty, but filled in for DeQuan Menzie (groin) at star during the Tide's last game at Tennessee. He had six passes thrown in his direction, and despite missing an interception just three were completed for eight yards as he kept everything in front of him.
Jones might have the same role Saturday as Menzie was held out of the bye workouts and has lined up as a reserve the past three days.
"I'm pretty sure that it's a game that he wants to play in," sophomore defensive end Damion Square said. "Everybody (would) want to go back and play LSU when you transfer from there. I know he's a little bit more excited for this one, probably more than others."
Meanwhile, Neighbors is ready to drop his shoulder on his brother if for some reason they collide on the field, but that really isn't anything new for the brothers who have seemingly been always going after each other.
"My dad would be the quarterback, and it would be one-on-one in the front yard," said the third-year player who couldn't suit up for games until now due to a limitation of the Bryant Scholarship. "We'd literally after five minutes have to go inside and be in timeout because we'd start fighting. Every little thing."
When the brothers went home last weekend to Huntsville, Wesley called it a "silent weekend."
"Usually, my dad is coming around and asking, 'What's going on? How are y'all doing at practice?' This week at the dinner table nothing was said. Nothing at all," Neighbors said, adding that it stayed that way through the drive to the airport. "Nothing really was said there either. If there was we'd still be on I-65 still getting after it."
Otherwise, they're very supportive of each other and call back-and-forth at least once a week. Wesley even cried a little when he saw his brother play his first collegiate game against North Carolina, even though Connor is now a little bigger (5-foot-10, 237 pounds vs. 6-1, 205).
"He fits in there pretty well there," Wesley said. "He's very happy and I'm happy for him ... nonetheless, I wish he was here."
Wesley is one of only a handful of players to become a third-generation player at Alabama with his father Wes recruited by Paul W. "Bear" Bryant and played for Ray Perkins from 1983-86. Their grandfather, the legendary Billy Neighbors, was on Bryant's first national championship team in 1961 and indicted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
"Actually, I have to ask what my dad is going to wear," Wesley Neighbors said. "He better be wearing red. If he's wearing purple and gold we're going to have a problem."
Yep, it's just another Alabama at LSU game.
"It's kind of like a rivalry game, maybe more," Jones said with a smile.