TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Marcus Spears offers a unique perspective compared to other speakers Alabama football brings in.
Spears, a college football analyst for ESPN and the SEC Network, played for Alabama football coach Nick Saban at LSU. He was a key member of the Tigers’ 2003 national championship team under Saban and understands what Saban demands of his players, which allows him to address Alabama’s players on a more personal level.
He spoke to the Alabama football team last week in the Crimson Tide meeting room. In a Q&A with SEC Country, Spears discussed his message to the team, the one unknown on Alabama’s defense, and what he expects from quarterback Jalen Hurts and Alabama’s offense.
What was your overall message to the team?
Spears: When I do these talks, it’s more about life. Obviously, there are some football analogies used, but it’s about them taking advantage of a moment. I call it the four-year moment. For a lot of these guys, college is going to be the last time they ever play football.
It’s preparation. It’s learning those life lessons right now when they have the advantage of getting a free education and having the chance to play college football. But also, using their celebrity and using their networking to set themselves up after the game is over.
Also, some life lessons. Being accountable to the people that worked hard to get you where you’re at. Always making sure that you represent them the right way. Nine times out of 10 for these guys playing college football, it’s due to the sacrifice somebody made along the way in order to put them in a position to be successful.
So, just kind of reminding them that it’s not about you as an individual. It’s about everybody that helped you get where you are, and that you have a responsibility to them to make the most out of this and set yourself up for the next 40 years of your life after you get done playing.
— Marcus Spears (@mspears96) August 9, 2017
Were you able to talk to any of the guys one-on-one, or was it just the group?
Spears: I talked to Jalen Hurts. It was by chance. He came in and we were in the lounge. Just chilling, watching a movie. I had a chance to talk to him about his maturity and what he was looking forward to this season. Obviously, the generic answer is always getting better at everything. But he wants to be able to push the ball downfield more and have some success in the passing game. He thought that would open up a lot of things for them offensively.
How do you think the players received the message?
Spears: The response was great. I just wanted to give them something to think about outside of playing games on Saturdays. A lot of guys came up and were like “that was real” or “that was some of the realest stuff we’ve ever heard.”
A lot of guys said it changed their way of thinking outside of football. That response is always great. You won’t get everybody, but you’ll get a lot of guys on the fence. One thing I wanted to get across is, we have to give these guys credit for what they do beyond football. A lot of them are doing great things and trying to change the world.
[It’s satisfying] to hear guys say “you gave me something to think about” and that a lot of things resonated because they come from the same background I came from — and even if you don’t. Even if you come from an affluent family and you grew up with more things than other kids had, it still resonates because you want that for your kids and the people around you. Having them come up and say “man, you struck a cord with me” is my objective.
How do you think your words resonated compared to some of the other speakers, since you played for Saban and understand what he requires of these guys?
Spears: That’s a great question. The message doesn’t change when I speak to different teams, but I can obviously speak to them on a more personal level because I played for him at LSU.
I understand the demands he has for those guys to not only be great at playing football, but also as young men. I can speak to that more personally. Your mental always has to be stronger than your physical. I always tell a story about coach telling me to make a 40-year decision, not a four-year decision. That’s what I told the guys.
I’m living in that 40-year period right now. The things I learned and the things that he told me are paying dividends right now with my career, my family, how to manage people, how to manage situations, and how to always look forward to the next day and not harp on things that went bad or things you can’t control.
Just passing that message along to them kind of gave them a clear picture that this isn’t new. It’s a proven formula for you to be a success at life. If you follow the template, you’ll give yourself the best chance to have success on and off the field.
From a football standpoint, is there anything you see that could hold Alabama back from making the College Football Playoff or winning the national championship?
Spears: I don’t look out there and say something could hold them back. I think the unknowns are more important than them being deficient at anything. You walk through that complex and there are still a lot of really good football players. That’s stating the obvious. But it’s just the unknowns.
I talked about it last week on [The Paul] Finebaum [Show] — the defensive line. If it was something I would point to and say this is the biggest question leading into the season, it would be the defensive line because of all the production lost last year.
I know people say, “Well, they replace that every year. It’s what they do.” But when you talk about Tim Williams, Jonathan Allen, who accounted for [28.5 of 54 sacks] and a lot of your pressure on the quarterback, you’re talking about a big key to the game that they lose. It’s just one of those things where you don’t know if that type of production is going to happen next year and if they need it.
We talk about SEC quarterbacks getting better, offenses getting better. That pressure on the quarterback and that ability to stop the run with Dalvin Tomlinson leaving as well, it gets elevated. If there is one thing I can point to that would be the biggest unknown in how this defense will perform, it would be the defensive line.
What are you expecting from Jalen Hurts and this offense with guys like Calvin Ridley, Bo Scarbrough and some of these other guys back?
Spears: I expect the offense to be better than they were last year because of Jalen’s ability to progress in the passing game. I also expect them to become more balanced with more of a power running game and putting Jalen in situations where he has to figure out what the defense is trying to do to him.
That’s that maturation process you want to look for in your quarterback. That’s the part of the game where you see a guy make a big jump when he can start mentally seeing the game as opposed to using his physical abilities to get himself out of trouble.
So, if he can become a better passer, I think this offense becomes probably the hardest to stop in the country with the stable of running backs and the type of receivers they have. Calvin is a Day 1 guy [in the NFL draft]. He can be a first-round draft pick. His numbers were good last year, but they lacked because of a lack of ability to effectively push the ball downfield.
So, if you see a progression in that along with Jalen in this offense, it could get crazy.