TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Deion Belue, Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry walked onto the field Saturday dressed in sweatpants, you knew the game would be different. Those were three of the most experienced members of Alabama's secondary on the sideline, unable to play against Colorado State because of lingering injuries.
Then Kevin Norwood, who started 11 games at wide receiver last season, followed them out of the tunnel, wearing the same crimson pants and sneakers. He too would miss the game.
And as we later found out, they wouldn't be alone. Right guard Anthony Steen and wide receiver Amari Cooper, both key starters on offense, dressed for the game but never played. Steen sat out with a headache and Cooper rested with a sprained toe, never so much as picking up a helmet on the sideline. To make matters worse, starting running back T.J. Yeldon sat out the first quarter, serving a suspension for his behavior in the game against Texas A&M the week prior.
Alabama coach Nick Saban had said throughout the week to expect some younger players to get a chance to compete Saturday, but we had no idea it would go like it did. The offense struggled to move the ball with any consistency and the secondary, already reeling from a poor performance against Texas A&M the week before, was put to the test with so many players sidelined with injuries.
Very little was expected from reserve cornerbacks Bradley Sylve and Eddie Jackson coming into the season, and yet there they were being announced over the P.A. system in Bryant-Denny Stadium as starters in the home opener. The near-capacity crowd cheered, but only wearily, unsure of anything to expect other than the color of the jerseys. Jackson, a true freshman, hadn't played a single snap in the first two games of the year. Sylve, who had all of six tackles a season ago, hadn't been in on a single stop this year.
John Fulton, the only senior available in the secondary, didn't play until the second half as the staff opted instead to try out youngsters like Jackson, Sylve, Maurice Smith, Cyrus Jones and Geno Smith.
The results were predictable. Colorado State played on Alabama's youth, hitting up the defense for a number of big gains, 10 plays going for 10 or more yards, including four of which that went for 20-plus yards. Rams coach Jim McElwain, a former offensive coordinator at Alabama, was able to move the ball downfield almost at ease, dinking and dunking the defense with screens and misdirection plays when it didn't go for the deep pass from quarterback Garrett Grayson.
It was death by a million paper cuts as UA allowed more yards to a sub-.500 Mountain West team (279) than it did in all but five games last season. Five SEC teams and Big 10 powerhouse Michigan had less success against the Tide defense in 2012.
"Well, they all made mistakes," Saban said of his young corners. "Their little bit of lack of experience shows up like [when CSU] hit that little x-screen with the halfback blocking the corner about three times for first downs, and I don't know that we've ever given up a first down on that play. It wasn't played correctly."
Landon Collins, a sophomore, is still learning the ins and outs of Saban's defense at safety. And yet on Saturday he was the veteran voice in the secondary, calming down his even more inexperienced teammates.
"Just a lot of new guys on the field," Collins said. "We've got to figure out what to do. They're going to be some great players when they come down to it and know what they really have to do.
"I told them just be calm. It's a fast game. Everything's going to slow down after a while."
If Saban wanted to find someone capable of joining the cornerback rotation this season, that player didn't appear to emerge Saturday. The job of starting opposite Belue might return to Fulton, who has been underwhelming thus far, or Jones, who is still experiencing some growing pains at the position after playing wide receiver last season.
With Ole Miss coming to town this weekend, whoever wants the job must step up now. The Rebels, which average 490 yards and 38 points per game, can make a veteran defense look bad. As UA linebacker C.J. Mosley said of the mistakes made Saturday, "Some of those little things will get us beat next week."
"We played about five guys at corner, just kind of rotated them in there with the idea that we're going to see if somebody can play the position with any kind of consistency and do their assignment and do their job," Saban said after the game. "That's an area we need to do better in. It'd certainly be helpful if we get Deion back."
If Alabama doesn't get Belue back, it could be in trouble. Another game like the one against CSU could blow a hole in the Tide's championship hopes.