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  • Kevin Scarbinsky

Talkin' ball with Coach Bill Clark: I thought that was crazy

What is Bill Clark doing on the weekends now that he's recuperating from back surgery and not coaching football for the first time since his freshman year in college? He's watching games like a coach. Every week, he shares his insight and observations on what caught his trained eye.


Week 5: On deciding when to let an injured player return, joking about coaching Alabama, tricking your own team, reassessing Georgia, questioning Wisconsin and building teams, not programs.


We all saw Alabama quarterback Bryce Young get hurt at Arkansas, get mad before he went into the sideline medical tent and then head to the locker room before halftime. We saw him spend the second half on the sideline, smiling and encouraging his teammates, but he did not return to play with what Nick Saban described afterward as a sprained AC joint in his shoulder. What goes into the real-time decision on whether to let a player return to play in that situation?


BC: If he can't go medically, that's easy. That's our first question. You leave that up to the doc. Now you can have, let's just use a sprained ankle. There's not a medical issue other than maybe he sprains it worse that keeps him out longer. Maybe it's something he can play with, and now it's functionability. Can he do what we need him to do? Hopefully, your backup can come in and do what you need him to do. A lot of times, your starter may be limited in terms of mobility, but he's still better than the next guy even with that happening to him. So those are all factors


How much does the game situation play into that decision? Arkansas made a strong comeback with Young on the bench in the third quarter. Nick Saban stayed with backup Jalen Milroe, and Alabama pulled away in the fourth quarter.


BC: Once again, if he can go, there's a reason he's the starter. Then there are times he's just not going to be ready this week so we'll bring him back next week.


What does it say about Alabama that, with all the momentum flowing toward Arkansas at the end of the third quarter, the backup quarterback breaks off a 77-yard run to set up a touchdown, then the tailback breaks off two 70-yard runs for touchdowns?


BC: That tells you who they are. It tells you a lot about their depth. At quarterback sometimes, it seems like you're only as good as your second guy. To be able to cut the momentum off at a place like Arkansas, and to do it emphatically, that tells you a lot about them.


Jalen Milroe's long run came after he dropped back to pass on third-and-15, couldn't find an open receiver and decided to tuck it and run. That's just improvisation, right?


BC: That's good coaching, isn't it? (He laughs.) He pulls it down and goes 77 yards on third-and-15. That's the ones you laugh about as a coach. We did a good job of recruiting that guy.


Auburn had a trick play go terribly wrong in the fourth quarter of its loss to LSU. Down by four points early in the fourth quarter, on second-and-goal from the 10, a wide receiver pass was intercepted. When you go into a game, how long is your list of trick plays? Is it different every week? Are there some you carry with you into every game?


BC: I used to say, and this goes all the way back to (coaching at) Prattville (High School). Trick plays have become just another play. They're not so much trick plays if you practice them all the time. Let's say we have 20 trick plays or gadget plays that we keep. I'm always making a folder and a list of those. One, offensively, because I like the idea of about two a game. It makes defenses play assignment football. Like the throwback screen pass. All those things that make the defenses stay home. And then you're going to break out two more the next week and two more the next week.


I love to throw them at the defense in practice because that's what makes you, say, stay with your receiver on the reverse pass. It makes defenses play assignment football. That's what you're hoping for.


It's based on what you've seen that sets that up. I do think there's a philosophy now that if you practice them, they're less trick plays than they are just plays. You just have to call them at the right time.


So you spring trick plays on your own defense in practice without them knowing to see how they react?


BC: Yeah, 100 percent. That was something I always wanted to see. Let's just say we were working first and 10, which we did all the time. Maybe we had two racks of five (plays). I would want at least one trick play in there just so they had to play the reverse, the reverse pass, the toss pass because that's assignment football. What happens when you work 'em against the scout team? You don't get the reaction that's real football. That's why you want to do it good on good as much as you can. Those plays have to be practiced good on good so the offense gets a real look on how a real defense reacts, not a scout team where you're telling them where to be, and defensively it forces you to play assignment football.


Let's say we're playing a team we had not seen trick plays from. We were going to make some up every week. You see them now more and more and more, but the problem is defensively, once you see one, they usually put that one to bed. So you go back and see what they did two years ago. That's how much film study goes into this.


Georgia has struggled the last two weeks. They trailed for most of the game at Missouri before taking the lead late and holding on. They've had injuries at wide receiver and haven't been as explosive as they were earlier in the season. Is there concern about where the Bulldogs may go from here?


BC: It's interesting. That's the thing nobody knows. Maybe they've had some injuries. Kirby (Smart) made the point. SEC on the road. It's just college football. On the road against well-coached teams in those environments, you can get people who play beyond themselves. It's like there's a few holes in the armor.


How can a team look as bad as Missouri did at Auburn, then almost knock off No. 1 Georgia seven days later? How can a team like Auburn be competitive in the first half week after week against Power 5 opponents but get shut down consistently in the second half?


BC: It's the psyche of your team. We've got to keep it the same, but it's so hard. I'm telling you, it's harder now than it's ever been because there's so much social media. These are kids. They hear this team is no good. If they believe that mess, you're going to see it in their play.


I always go to injuries and I also go to depth when you start talking about what happens in the second half. There's preparation and there's working to be a second-half team, but I also see some of these teams get worn down. They don't have enough depth.


We all watch coaches try to guard against, well, we beat 'em 50-0 last year. Well, this ain't last year, you know? That means nothing. A lot of factors go into that (inconsistency). A lot of them you don't know if you're not in the locker room.


Two more Power 5 coaches at Colorado and Wisconsin got fired after last weekend's games. What is your reaction to Paul Chryst at Wisconsin losing his job five games into his eighth season? He had no losing seasons, won three Big Ten West titles and was 6-1 in bowl games. That one seems different.


BC: I thought that was crazy. I know Paul. I didn't understand that one at all. That one would've been a shocker at the end of the year, much less the middle of the year, and it's not even the middle of the year. That's crazy. That one was totally unexpected to me.


It's almost like you can't have a bad year, or a bad start to the year. Is that going to change the way coaches go about recruiting? Do you have to worry more about the moment and bringing in transfers than about building a program with high school players?


BC: I think you're 100 percent on it. That's what is being created. It's going to be harder and harder to build a program. It's a Catch 22. When we come into a program, we don't want to wait. It's not fair to our seniors to say we're going to wait four years. But when you take it to the extreme, which is where we are now, it's going to create a lot of different issues.