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July 26, 2006

SEC Notebook Day 1: Tide tug-of-war

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Alabama assistant coaches have a pretty good understanding of what opposing tacklers face when trying to bring down sophomore running back Jimmy Johns.

Crimson Tide starter Kenneth Darby has posted back-to-back seasons, meaning the speedy 6-foot-3, 227-pound Johns is relegated to backup duty. Some have suggested that Johns, who rushed 38 times for 202 yards last season, should move to another position to get his talent on the field somewhere.

Those suggestions have been made by Alabama's other position coaches.

''The coaches fight for him,'' Alabama head coach Mike Shula said. ''The tight ends coach wants him, the cornerbacks coach wants him, the linebackers coach, the defensive ends coach. Sparky Woods, our running backs coach, is holding on to him for dear life.''

Woods has fared better than most tacklers.

''We probably could play him at linebacker and get him in there, but we don't have many defensive backs or linebackers that like tackling him,'' Shula said. ''I like people saying that about our running backs. He'll be at running back.''

From picked on to picking off

With Roman Harper, Charlie Peprah and Anthony Madison completing their eligibility, cornerback Ramzee Robinson returns as Alabama's only starter in the secondary.

Shula said that's a good place to start when rebuilding that secondary.

''Ramzee paid the price (to get better),'' Shula said. ''I remember his redshirt freshman year, he came into games and teams looked to pick on him.

''Now, all the sudden, he's a consistent football player for us. He's a physical player. His leadership and enthusiasm spreads throughout the team.''

Robinson had two interceptions and broke up seven passes last season.

Where's the respect?

The players returning from last year's 10-2 season take great exception to the fact that Alabama isn't ranked highly in any preseason polls.

''We talk all the time about how we had a great season last year and we're not getting the credit we deserve,'' Robinson said. ''They're looking at the guys we lost instead of who we have back. That adds fuel to the fire to prove them wrong. We've got to work hard and lead by example. What we did last year was not a fluke.''

The Crimson Tide had one of the nation's best defenses last season. Seven starters are gone from that unit, including standout linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Freddie Roach. The Tide also lost quarterback Brodie Croyle, and whether receiver Tyrone Prothro can come back from a broken leg remains uncertain.

But the Alabama players still feel they've been disrespected.

''We did have a great season and then we see we're not even ranked in the top 10,'' Darby said. ''That motivates us. We see the media doesn't give us respect. We have to prove people wrong.''

Cutler influence

The Jay Cutler influence at Vanderbilt continued well after that game-winning touchdown against Tennessee on Nov. 19.

Cutler was routinely on college football highlight shows, then on NFL Draft shows. Each time Cutler was featured it was a boost for the Vanderbilt program.

''We couldn't buy that kind of exposure,'' Commodores coach Bobby Johnson said Wednesday at the Southeastern Conference media meetings. ''It helped recruiting. It helped season ticket sales. My wife liked me a lot better.

''It was just the tonic we needed. Especially the way we ended up beating Tennessee. He was a first round draft pick. His picture was everywhere. That shows (high school) guys you can get a great education at Vanderbilt and still go to the NFL. It was all positive.''

There is also a negative side, however, and that's that Cutler - who passed for 3,073 yards and 21 touchdowns last season - is now with the NFL's Denver Broncos.

''He was a great quarterback. I can't say enough about him,'' Vanderbilt linebacker Jonathan Goff said of Cutler. ''He did great things for the program. We have two new guys who don't have a lot of experience, but who are looking up to the challenge.''

Actually, there's three.

Sophomore Chris Nickson threw three passes last season, and redshirt freshman Mackenzi Adams, also returns from last year's roster. Junior Richard Kovalcheck, a former starter at Arizona, has transferred to attend graduate school at Vanderbilt, so he's immediately eligible.

Johnson couldn't say which one will be starting when the Commodores open the football season at Michigan on Sept. 2, but whoever it is will be asked to do a few more things than Cutler did.

Like run with the football, for example.

''You'll probably see our quarterback move a little more this year than last year,'' Johnson said. ''Even though Jay ran a good bit his first three years, last year he didn't run as much. Nickson and the other quarterbacks are good athletes and we'll take advantage of that.''

Big trip to the Big House

When ESPN offered Vanderbilt a televised game at Michigan to open the season, a series of debates ensued.

The Commodores are striving for the six victories necessary to ensure bowl eligibility, and already had early games scheduled against Alabama and Arkansas. Adding a trip to Ann Arbor didn't seem conducive to reaching the goal of postseason play.

At least, not on the surface.

''We discussed it a lot with the coaching staff and administration,'' Johnson said. ''There were some good arguments, but we finally decided to do it and everybody got on board and we're 100 percent behind the decision. The players are excited to play in a great stadium against a storied program.''

''Last year we proved we're not afraid to go to big stadiums and play. We played well at South Carolina and Florida and won at Arkansas and Tennessee. I don't think our guys are afraid to go up there.''

Johnson said the positives of playing that game heavily outweighed the negatives.

''It was too big to turn down,'' he said. ''It could be a positive for our program several years down the road. It's an opportunity to do things bigger and better. And if we go up there and beat Michigan it will be a bit step for our program.''

Maybe the refs were in the moral majority

Vanderbilt faithful are still miffed about a questionable ''excessive celebration'' penalty against then freshman receiver Earl Bennett that might have prevented the Commodores from upsetting Florida last season.

The touchdown brought Vandy within one point, and Johnson admitted he was planning to go for a two-point conversion to win. Instead, the 15-yard penalty forced an extra point and the Commodores eventually lost 49-42 in overtime. Making matters worse, Vanderbilt came one victory short of bowl eligibility.

Johnson said the outrage over the call wasn't limited to Vanderbilt fans.

''A lady from Minnesota who didn't have anything to do with Vanderbilt wrote me a letter,'' Johnson said. ''She said, 'Coach, Southern Baptists allow more dancing than what Earl did.' ''

Bennett often inspired Vandy fans to dance in celebration by setting a team and SEC freshman record with 79 receptions.

The three horsemen of Georgia

Junior tailback Thomas Brown led Georgia in rushing with 736 yards last season, but Bulldogs coach Mark Richt estimated Brown could doubled his production.

Two factors kept Brown from improving his output junior Danny Ware, who rushed for 492 and junior Kregg Lumpkin, who rushed for 355.

''I think if we took any one of those three guys and made them the horse they'd get 1,200-to-1,500 yards,'' Richt said. ''All three are capable of that. We rushed for about 1,600 yards at that position, but we spread the wealth, so to speak.''

Richt doesn't intend to change that approach, either.

''I think you've got to have at least two that can share it,'' he said. ''If you've got one guy carrying it 20 to 25 times a game, especially if it's a two- or three-year career, that guy is going to get beat up.

''Just by virtue of the fact that we have three that we can count on, I think it keeps those guys more healthy. It keeps them fresh in any given ballgame and throughout a season.''

A wonderful life

Last April football didn't seem very important to Richt when his wife, Katharyn, was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

''My wife went through a routine checkup, to having some suspicious tissue, to taking a sample of that and finding out there was cancer, and having a radical hysterectomy, to checking the lymph nodes for more cancer, to waiting for the pathology report to finally hearing they feel like the cancer is gone. That all happened in about a month's time.''

Richt said his wife handled the stress better than he did.

''I pretty much shut down for about two months,'' he said. ''By the grace of God she's very healthy now.

''As much as I felt like I have a pretty good perspective, I feel like I've got my priorities in line. I feel like I love my wife as much as I could. I mean, when you go through something like that, you can get a greater appreciation for family and what's really important. Football wasn't very important at all at that time.''

Richt and his wife have four children.

Good scouting

Clemson recently offered a scholarship to a talented high school quarterback from Athens, Ga. John Richt, Mark's oldest son.

''The news is out that my son was offered a scholarship to Clemson. It was probably leaked by me,'' Richt said. ''We sent him to camps to get a taste of big time college football and it turned out Tommy (Bowden, Clemson coach) offered him a scholarship. It's exciting for him.''

There was no official word on whether Georgia offered a scholarship.

On the job

Kentucky coach Rich Brooks' job is rumored to be in jeopardy, but he didn't shy away from the topic. He even brought it up.

''I'll just open by saying that I'm happy to be here again,'' he said. ''There was some question last year whether I would be. I'm hoping that I'll be back next year.''

That may require significant improvement over the previous three seasons in which the Wildcats have finished 4-8, 2-9 and 3-8.

The Wildcats are optimistic they can improve.

''We have most of our scholarships back this year and are in the top 50 in recruiting,'' linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. ''We have great guys coming back from injuries. Having good players makes it easier as a coach. It is not easy for a coach when your team is not winning, but the guys this year have the right attitude. We have to play like brothers on the field and have our fathers on the sideline.''

Getting defensive

The main area in which Kentucky must improve is its defense, which allowed 439.5 yards per game to rank 103rd nationally last season.

The Wildcats have six starters back from that defensive unit, so maybe the added experience will give them a boost.

''If you don't play defense in this league you're not going to win very many games at all,'' Brooks said. ''The first year we came in (2003) we played better defense than we did the last two years because we had more talent. The last two years we were very inexperienced and started a lot of true freshmen.

''Now, a lot of those freshmen are playing in the same system two years in a row. A lot of those underclassmen are more physical, they're better prepared physically to be better players in this league, and they have the experience of lining up and playing in this league. I feel a lot better about our defense.''

Click here for more coverage of 2006 Football Media Days.

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