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  • Kevin Scarbinsky

Talkin' ball with Coach Bill Clark

So what is two-time National Coach of the Year Bill Clark doing on the weekends now that he's recuperating from spinal fusion surgery and not coaching football for the first time since his freshman year in college? He's watching games like a coach. Of course. Every week, he'll share his insight and observations on what caught his trained eye.


Bill Clark: North Carolina and App State. That one just jumped out. One, just the great atmosphere at App State. Seeing them go head to head with someone in their state. Power 5 vs. Group of 5. All the decisions, the back and forth. The onside kick where all the guy had to do was get on the ground and the game's over. The game is so much about situations. That one jumped out because it was just situation after situation after situation. How would you handle it? When would you go for two? When would you kick? That was a thriller.


North Carolina 63, Appalachian State 61 featured three touchdowns and two missed two-point conversions in the final 31 seconds. The middle TD came when Carolina ran back an onside kick for a score rather than falling on the ball and allowing the Tar Heel offense to run out the clock. It almost cost them when App State scored again and had a two-point try to force overtime. How do you prepare for that unusual situation?


BC: We have a system called "Play the Game" all the way back to when I first got to Prattville. It's got every scenario. We're always using things that happen to other people to use as learning lessons. I don't want to give away all the secrets, but that's what we do at the night walk-through. Multiple situations. That is when we say, on that onside kick, when you catch the ball, you get down. Now catching it on the run like that, it's hard to do. We do it a lot on interceptions in a drill. You've got the whole defense going to grab a guy and make him get on the ground.


Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud has been touted as a Heisman contender, but the Buckeyes trailed Notre Dame at the half at home before putting up two touchdowns in the second half to win 21-10. Should Buckeye fans be concerned?


BC: One thing that people don't understand. People can say an offense struggled, but I go immediately and look at the defense. Like Ohio State, and you say, wait a minute. Notre Dame's defense is doing a good job. When I hear announcers talk and say this offense is struggling, as a defensive coach, I'm saying, no, that defense has something to do with it as well.


When I've got a lot of time to work on somebody, I think that helps defenses usually. It's those short weeks trying to stop the multiple-formation offense and all the things they do (that are a challenge). When you've got a little bit of time to focus on that team … Go back to us last year with Georgia. We had Jax State, which was a giant game Week One, then we had North Texas, which was just as big Week Three. That's where you put your attention. Those openers when it's a giant game usually do favor the defense a little bit.


(For the record, UAB in 2021 beat Jax State 31-0 in Montgomery and North Texas 40-6 on the road around a one-sided loss at Georgia. Focusing more on the in-state game and the conference game worked. More on Georgia in a moment.)


Neither Alabama nor Texas played a giant in their openers. They play each other Saturday in Austin for the first time since the 2010 BCS Championship Game. There's a lot of hype building, but Texas coach Steve Sarkisian is downplaying the game's importance. Why?


BC: Now you've got what you say in private and what you say in public. He knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that his team will be ready for this. So 1, you're trying to keep 'em as calm as you can, and 2, you've got to let them know: There's a whole season to play after this. Even with a win, there's more to do. You're doing everything you can to prepare the players and also the fan base. This is a big one, but the next week is a big one and so is the one after that. And he's probably saying something in private with his team that he's not sharing with the public.


Florida has jumped from unranked to No. 12 after beating No. 7 Utah 29-26 in a thriller that wasn't decided until the UF defense intercepted a pass in the end zone in the final seconds. How big was that win and how good is Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, whose performance is drawing comparisons to Cam Newton and Vince Young?


BC: It doesn't get any better than that to play a really tough opponent first, get tested early and get a big win. All coaches say you see the most improvement from the first game to the second because you just have not had that live work. There's no way to simulate it without getting people injured. Yet you found a way to win it, and you've got a good measuring stick for your team. There are so many pluses.


Utah can survive the loss. They're going to get better from it, too. What kind of an environment was that to put yourself in, whether it was the humidity or the crowd or all of the above? If you can win, when it's close like that, your players are really going to listen to you. I don't think that could've been better for Florida.


And when you've got a quarterback like that … He becomes the 12th guy when he can run and throw. When you've got the big, fast guy … there's certain things you just can't do as a defense against those guys if they're good. They're a running back back there. If you lose eyes on him, or those front four guys are rushing, they have a hard time tackling him, and you've still gotta go play coverage. I thought he was really good. If they can keep that guy well, he's going to be very special.


I've told guys for years, you rush four, you're asking for a problem against a guy who can run any, much less a running back back there, and that's what happened (on Richardson's 45-yard touchdown run). They all got drained out. That's why we usually would rush three with a spy. Just a little X-and-O 101 right there.


Auburn played two quarterbacks in its easy victory over Mercer with dropback passer T.J. Finley starting and dual threat Robby Ashford providing an electric change-of-pace. They even played one snap together, with Ashford taking a speed sweep handoff from Finley before pitching to tailback Tank Bigsby. What are the pros and cons of playing two quarterbacks?


BC: It's not easy. We would all love the guy that's just a superstar. He's so much better. And even when you've got a good guy, he's just that much better. That's what everybody wants. When you don't have that, when you have two guys and they both have different strengths, somebody's gotta go out there more often than the other. That's when it's just who does better in the games. You are looking for the guy who can get it done in the games. If one of them's a little bit of this and one of them's a little bit of that, that's really hard for a defense. It's like you're getting ready for two different teams.


And as we know, you're a play away (as the No. 2 quarterback). There are just so many more snaps because people play so fast now. There's more wear and tear, more opportunities for injury, so having a second quarterback, having a third and fourth running back, all that is critical.


Analysts expected Georgia to take a step back after losing a record 15 players to the NFL Draft, but the reigning national champions were dominant in a 49-3 win over Oregon. You saw Georgia in person last season with UAB. How good are the Bulldogs?


BC: You're talking about the elite of the elite. Them. Alabama. Maybe Ohio State. But just Alabama and Georgia. They're so talented. They're so deep. It's crazy. Players. Staff. The elite of the elite in every way. You could just see the difference in the two teams, and I think Oregon's got a chance to be a decent team, but it's night and day. And they can do it all. Last year I remember thinking their kickers are phenomenal. It's that Alabama blueprint of how to recruit nationally, and you're the big team in the state. You are the signature team for your state. You should be good, and that's what Kirby (Smart) has done. He's taken advantage of all the opportunities they do have. They're unbelievable.


After his team got shut out 55-0 at Alabama, Utah State coach Blake Anderson called the Crimson Tide "the best team I've ever seen put on pads." How does Nick Saban handle that rat poison with a road trip to Texas coming up?


BC: They've been working on that one all year. He's done it long enough, as we all do, we use history. That's what I've always done. All right, let me tell you about Texas A&M last year. Y'all haven't forgotten about that one, have you? That's the thing he's constantly reminding them, trying to keep their heads screwed on straight. The good news for him is he got to play everybody. It was the same great news for UAB (in a 59-0 opening win over Alabama A&M). You're talking about human beings who have worked their butts off to play, and so you're managing all these kids who want to play, who want to be a starter, who want to be the star, so that's a constant juggling management issue of keeping people humble.


Have you ever been really surprised by your team, for better or worse, after a first game?


BC: It's always been for the better. I don't know if it's being a defensive coach all those years or being the son of a coach. You never probably think you're as good as you are. I'm not a negative person, but my wife says I was always shocked when we were any good. Because you see all the mistakes. You know all the things that can happen. The ball can bounce funny. I think I've been surprised to the good many times.