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TRips: Three matchups for the D

Three matchups for the Alabama defense in the Crimson Tide's upcoming game against Florida:

Depending on Mosley's availability, Hightower's role might change this week.

1.] Alabama linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Nico Johnson vs.Florida running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey

From the UA perspective: C.J. Mosley is perfect for matchups like this one. Unfortunately for the Crimson Tide, it's space specialist will likely be limited at best on Saturday.

Mosley, who flashed his outstanding coverage skills on an interception return for a touchdown in last year's meeting with the Gators, hasn't been able to do much this week after dislocating his right elbow in UA's win over Arkansas. Nick Saban said after Wednesday's practice that Mosley would be a game-time decision.Translation: Johnson, Trey DePriest and Jerrell Harris need to be ready to go on Saturday.

Still, this isn't 2007, when options at the inside linebacker spots were limited to all of about three players. Four years later, there are a number of combinations UA can go with to help fill the void if it comes to that.

Johnson, a starter alongside Hightower in the base defense, is a candidate for an expanded role in the nickel. DePriest is also a possibility at money in the nickel (weakside) and mack (middle) in the dime.

Hightower, who typically moves outside to rush the passer in the dime, could be asked to play inside when the Crimson Tide goes with six defensive backs, with Adrian Hubbard and Alex Watkins candidates to enter the game as an edge pass rusher. And then there's Harris, a starter at strongside linebacker in the base defense who has experience inside in the nickel and dime packages.

Regardless of who lines up where, the goal will be the same: take away the checkdowns to Rainey and Demps and wrap them up when they do touch the football.

From the Florida perspective: Demps, who has been clocked at 9.96 seconds in the 100 meters, is the collegiate version of Usain Bolt. For my money, though, Rainey is the better all-around football player.

Rainey currently ranks second among SEC players in all-purpose yards, averaging 170 yards per game. He is also the league's all-time career leader in blocked punts with five. At 5-foot-9, 174 pounds, Rainey isn't the biggest back UA will face season, but he's not one to shy away from contact, either.

Between Rainey and Demps, the duo have been on the receiving end of 20 or the Gators' 60 completions through four games. With their ability to turn checkdowns into touchdowns, they are major reasons why offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has been able to keep the training wheels on quarterback John Brantley during the early stages of the season.

With Demps and Rainey on the smallish side, UF has looked to Trey Burton in short yardage and goal line situations. Along with Rainey, Burton will see time behind center in the Wildcat formation.

Who gets the nod?: Alabama defenders need to violate social etiquette Saturday night and invade Demps and Rainey's personal space. At the same time, it will be important to play under control because one missed tackle can result in a 60 meter qualifying heat.

In some ways, going against Demps and Rainey is like defending the option. When they're on the field together, the entire width of the field is in play, so defenders can't abandon their responsibilities if the play doesn't initially come their way.

While their speed causes reason for concern, it's difficult to recall an offense that had a good deal of success on the ground against UA without the presence of a legitimate inside running game. And, no, 2008 UF doesn't qualify, because the Gators had Roger Craig playing quarterback. And with the perimeter of the Crimson Tide defense looking a good bit stronger (and more disciplined) against the run than it did a season ago, getting the corner is more difficult for opposing backs than it was a year ago.

While Demps and Rainey will be used in different ways, going against guys like Joe Adams and Dennis Johnson a week ago was a decent primer for what UA will get this week. Alabama countered Adams and Johnson by playing a good bit of zone with minimal blitzing, which went a long way in keeping the duo from getting behind the defense.

Whether it's against the run or the pass, Alabama wants to force UF to work the middle of the field. That means, taking away the edge and funneling Demps and Rainey inside, where the linebackers and safeties can lay the wood.

If UF's wide receivers can't provide some help in the passing game, an area that looks to be even heading into Saturday will tilt in UA's favor.

2.] Alabama SS Robert Lester, FS Mark Barron and strongside linebacker Jerrell Harris vs. Florida quarterback John Brantley and tight end Gerald Christian.

From the UA perspective: Statistically, at least, it hasn't been the start to the 2011 season most anticipated for Lester. The junior has nine tackles and three pass breakups through four games. By comparison, Lester had 17 tackles and four interceptions at this point a season ago.

Part of that can be attributed to the fact that Lester hasn't been needed as much from a tackling standpoint. The front seven has been excellent against the run and the secondary as a whole is in a much better place than it was 12 months ago. As for interceptions, opponents haven't exactly attacked the middle of the field in the passing game. Barron has had more opportunities on deep balls to the outside, with Lester showing up more on short to immediate routes.

Weis does utilize regular personnel (two backs and a tight end) on occasion, so Harris could play a larger role than is normally the case. The senior has been solid in limited opportunities this season.

From the Florida perspective: Like most coordinators with NFL backgrounds, Charlie Weis has a strong affection for the tight end position. In New England he had guys like Daniel Graham and Ben Watson. At Notre Dame, he had Kyle Rudolph, a John Mackey Award semi-finalist as a sophomore in 2009 who caught 28 passes in just six games as a junior in 2010.

Jordan Reed, who is coming off a hamstring injury but is expected to play against UA, is listed as the starter for the Gators, but Weis may have found something in Christian during Reed's absence. The sophomore's 45-yard touchdown reception against Kentucky last week represents the Gators' lone scoring grab by a non-running back so far this season. Christian and Reed aren't traditional hand-on-the-ground guys; they'll flex to the slot as well.

To this point, Brantley hasn't been asked to carry the offense and with good reason. After a 2010 season that saw his confidence tank, lifting the quarterback's self-esteem has been priority number one for Weis. Mix in four new starters on the offensive line; the lack of a proven No. 1 receiver; and the possibility of Demps and Rainey turning easy throws into big plays and the decision to be risk-adverse makes plenty of sense.

Who gets the nod?: Barron and Lester are more than capable of covering tight ends, so I wouldn't expect a blow-by similar to the one Christian had of Kentucky defensive back Anthony Mosley a week ago. Again with the possibility of Weis staples like throw-backs to the tight end, assignment football is where it starts and ends for Barron and Lester this week.

It will be interesting to see how Christian and Reed fare when going against Alabama's outside linebackers and defensive ends in the running game. In fact, that matchup could play a larger role in determining how effective the Florida offense is this week than anything Christian and Reed provide as receivers.

As for Brantley, all orange and blue eyes will be on the second-generation Gator Saturday night, especially if the running game struggles to get out of the blocks. If he and the rest of the passing game fail to deliver early in the game, a fan base that is anything but sold on Brantley's talents will be quick to voice their displeasure.

Alabama gets the nod here.

3.] Alabama jack linebacker Courtney Upshaw and DE Damion Square vs. Florida offensive tackles Xavier Nixon and Chaz Green.

From the UA perspective: Upshaw was unblockable in last year's meeting with the Gators, racking up four tackles for loss a fumble recovery and a pass break up in a 31-6 win. The top priority for the senior this week will be to take away the edge in the running game.

While turning Rainey and Demps into between the tackles runners would be ideal, it won't be the worst thing if Florida's backs have to bounce to get to the outside. The key will be to keep them from hitting the corner in full sprint, thus making it difficult for the secondary to support.

Third-and-6 should be considered a run down this week, especially if UA is in the dime. Draws and zone reads underneath the Alabama pass rush can be expected in those situations.

From a pass rush standpoint, Mosley's availability might affect how Hightower is used against UF. Depending on who plays mack in the dime, he could find himself in the middle or on the edge.

From the Florida perspective: Nixon, who started at right tackle in last year's meeting with UA, is best remembered by Alabama fans for being detonated by a bull-rushing Hightower a season ago. He'll see a good bit of Upshaw this time around so in moving to the left side, the junior isn't exactly catching a break.

Green is a redshirt freshman whose better than average athleticism makes him a better than average pass protector for a first-year starter. In addition to starting on the right side, he's also the top backup to Nixon, with redshirt junior Matt Patchan rounding out UF's top three tackles.

Who gets the nod?: The Gators rank first in the SEC in sacks allowed, but at least some of the credit for that goes to their controlled passing game. Meanwhile, the Alabama defense ranks eighth in the league in sacks for much the same reason: opposing quarterbacks aren't exactly holding the ball for three seconds before getting it out.

The Crimson Tide didn't rack up a lot of sacks against Arkansas, but Bobby Petrino saw his quarterback take enough hits to get him out of the game early in the fourth quarter. This week will likely present more of what UA saw in the first three weeks, one-read and get the ball out and, really, that approach better fits the strengths of the UF offense regardless of who it's going against.

For me, though, this matchup goes back to the run and that's why Christian and Reed need to be included from UF's standpoint. Physically, the Alabama defense has the edge up front, which is why Weis will likely be in change up mode for much of the night.

Remember that reverse to LSU tight end Deangelo Peterson last year? Look for something similar to Reed Saturday night. And keep in mind that Reed is a former quarterback.

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