Norwood embraces clutch role for Alabama

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- He waved his arms back and forth as he tried to capture the attention of someone in the crowd behind the north end zone at Commonwealth Stadium here in Kentucky. Kevin Norwood, his helmet off, an ear-to-ear smile lighting his face, kept looking toward the same spot in the stands as his No. 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide counted down the final seconds of a 48-7 victory over the hometown Wildcats.

The clock hit zeroes and Norwood finally turned away from the cluster of Alabama fans in the bleachers, walking toward midfield to congratulate Kentucky on a hard-fought game. A television reporter tried sidling up to him for a quick post-game interview. Norwood, after all, was the star of the game offensively. His leaping catch between two Kentucky defenders set up Alabama's first touchdown of the game, a 1-yard scamper by Kenyan Drake. Norwood led all receivers with 81 yards and a touchdown.

But Norwood wasn't ready to talk about all of that yet. He avoided the camera and bolted toward the end zone, to the person whose attention he was trying to get earlier. Without slowing his pace, he leaped into the stands and sat on the railing, hugging his intended target as sure-handedly as he had any football thrown his way Saturday night. Content that he'd made his final reception of the night, he stepped down and into the visitors locker room to revel in yet another win, the sixth of the season.

"It was a breath of fresh air," he told reporters of his touchdown reception, still buzzing from the game. "I felt like I hadn't been in the end zone in a while."

It had been nearly a month since his last score, a grab that was equally impressive as the one he made against Kentucky. On Sept. 14 at Kyle Field, Norwood did what he's done almost his entire career at Alabama: he made the catch that needed to be made in the exact moment it needed to happen. Down two touchdowns and on the ropes against Texas A&M, Norwood skied over the defensive back, caught the ball at its highest point and twisted around to get his feet just inside the pylon for a 22-yard touchdown. The moment will be forever memorialized in photos and painting as the point Alabama turned the corner and put itself in position to win an instant classic against the Aggies.

For Norwood, it was just another game. He's not the tallest, the fastest or the most athletic receiver on Alabama's roster. He's battled a number of injuries in recent years that have kept him from piling up the kind of statistics that would get him noticed nationally. But he's always found a way to be there on the biggest stage and in the biggest moments when his team has needed him. It wasn't just Kentucky or Texas A&M. You'll do well to remember Alabama's trip to LSU last year when quarterback AJ McCarron, down three points with a championship berth on the line, found Norwood on three consecutive passes. All three went for first downs, the final reception setting up a screen pass to T.J. Yeldon for the come-from-behind win.

At first, Norwood was uncomfortable with the distinction of being a "big-game receiver." He didn't like the idea of being called a "possession receiver" either. There seemed to be veiled insults in both, the idea that he somehow couldn't make all the plays at all times. But as a senior, he's decided to embrace the monikers. He says he doesn't care about things like yards after catch. Style points, in fact, have little affect on him.

"I’m looking for the first down -- first down or touchdown," he said a few weeks ago. Of his four receptions against Kentucky, three went for first downs and the fourth was a touchdown. "As long as we move the ball, I think that’s what really matters."

He may have been trying to do too much as an underclassman. Now he's discovered his niche. During the offseason he looked at the numbers and saw he was close to 80 percent on third down, he said. His response: "OK, so this is something I could work at."

Holding onto the football in double coverage is something he's practiced. He said it's become a habit for him to get out of his breaks quickly and look for the sticks on third downs. And when it's a jump-ball situation, he lets instinct take over.

"Really it's my ball or nobody's ball," Norwood said. "That's how I feel about it. That's something I take pride in."

But Norwood had to credit his quarterback, too. When he turns for the ball, he trusts that McCarron will have it where it needs to be. The chemistry the two have developed since coming to Alabama together has played itself out in crucial moments time and time again.

"We've been here for five years," McCarron said, "so you have no choice but to get close with him."

And like Norwood, neither gets hung up on statistics.

"To be honest, I didn't even know that," Norwood said of McCarron throwing for a career-high 359 yards against UK. "It's one thing AJ works hard for is just getting us the ball and being able to manage the game really well. He does a great job of that. All hats off to him. He's just that great of a quarterback."

He'll need to continue to be as Alabama begins the second half of its regular season schedule against Arkansas on Saturday. Tennessee will come next, followed by a home date with top-10 LSU.

Whether Norwood will have another signature moment against the Tigers remains to be seen. For now, he's hoping the offense continues to develop.

"I think we have the momentum we need," he said, "but at the same time we need to focus on doing the little things right."