Before the season began, I was assigned to write a story explaining how to stop Tim Tebow. I sought the advice of Florida linebacker Ryan Stamper, who has seen his share of epic fail from teams trying to slow the Gators' juggernaut of a quarterback. Stamper said the best way to stop Tebow is to cover man-to-man and spy Tebow with a particular kind of player.
What kind? Stamper explained that the guy would have to be fast enough to chase Tebow from sideline-to-sideline but strong enough to avoid getting dumptrucked by Tebow in the open field. Not many players in America fit that description, but one Alabama player does. Unfortunately for the Crimson Tide, he won't be playing in Saturday's SEC championship game.
With all the hubbub over the suspension of Florida defensive end Carlos Dunlap for his arrest Tuesday on a DUI charge, we've forgotten that the Tide defense has played most of the season without 6-foot-4, 255-pound weakside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who tore up a knee against Arkansas on Sept. 25. I guarantee Nick Saban hasn't forgotten, because Hightower would have been the perfect foil for Tebow on Saturday.
Hightower started against the Gators as a true freshman last year, and he had three tackles and a hurry, but he had yet to come into his own. With a full season under his belt alongside all-universe teammate Rolando McClain, Hightower would have been a force. When I visited Saban in Tuscaloosa in early November he prefaced the answer to my first question about the defense with a caveat that everything the Tide had done was without Hightower. He wanted me to understand just what Alabama had lost.
Looking at the matchups for this game, the thought of Hightower spying Tebow would give Gators coach Urban Meyer nightmares. The Crimson Tide have used a number of players to replace Hightower, and the likes of senior Cory Reamer and freshman Nico Johnson have played well, but Hightower's size and speed made him a natural to follow Tebow on every play. He would have given the Tide the precise personnel to follow Stamper's blueprint.
The Tide have the corners (Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson) to cover Florida's best receivers one-on-one. Between McClain, Reamer and Eryk Anders, they have athletic enough linebackers to account for Florida's speedy backs, especially with nose tackle Terrence Cody occupying two blockers on every run between the hashmarks. The wild card is Tebow, who doesn't have breakaway speed but can cripple a defense with 10- to 15-yard option runs or scrambles after a designed pass breaks down. With a proper spy, those outcomes become less of a concern.
It's a shame we won't get to see that clash of titans, because it would have been epic.
And in case you were wondering, Stamper, during that August interview, did mention by name one player he considered gifted enough to spy Tebow. Who is that player so fast and so strong that he could singlehandedly alter the course of a game?
"Someone like a Dunlap," Stamper said.