Following Tuesday’s Alabama football practice, Crimson Tide offensive tackle was out of uniform and into civvies. Except, of course, for a football player that post-practice dress often includes ice bags, bandages, tape.
Austin Shepherd, a 6-5, 315-pound junior from Buford, Ga., said the ice bag on his ankle was for “just a bruise. Trying to get the swelling to go down.” And the hand? “It’s fine. Just a dislocated finger.” Life in the trenches at the level of Alabama football.
This week Shepherd and his Crimson Tide teammates will ignore the bumps and bruises and dislocations. It’s Tennessee week. Bama, 7-0 overall and 4-0 in Southeastern Conference games and ranked first in the nation, will host the Volunteers at 2:30 p.m. CDT Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. CBS will televise the game.
The story of this season for Alabama has been the Crimson Tide’s quest of a third consecutive national championship and fourth in five years. Shepherd was not a member of the 2009 team, which started the amazing record, but he had committed to Bama by the time Alabama hosted the Vols that year and he was on the sidelines as a visiting prospect. That was the game in which Terrence Cody blocked a field goal attempt on the last play of the game to preserve Bama’s 12-10 victory.
“It was pretty cool,” Shepherd said.
Shepherd said it was a thrill to be around the intensity of that game and looks forward to Saturday. “I can’t wait to actually play in this rivalry,” he said. “Coach Saban always talks about how it’s the old-time rivalry around here and it’s super important to a lot of people. So I’m excited to get my chance to play in it.”
He said that early practices this week have gone well. “I feel like the intensity’s there and everyone’s doing good and everybody’s focused and just everyone wants to win Saturday,” he said.
Shepherd said that Tennessee’s recent improvement has added to the atmosphere. Alabama has six straight wins in the series, but under new coach Butch Jones the Vols have been playing well, including a 23-21 win over South Carolina last weekend.
“It’s exciting to see them play well,” Shepherd said. “It’s another SEC team doing good. It’ll definitely be a challenge for us, and we’re looking forward to it.”
From his standpoint, Shepherd said the Tennessee defensive ends are quick. “But,” he said, “every end in the SEC is quick, so we’re kind of used to that.
“Their two D-tackles are huge, but that’s something the inside guys have to deal with. I’m not really in there, so I don’t really have to worry about it. I just have to worry about the speed on the edge.”
Shepherd did his job well last week in Bama’s 52-0 win over Arknasas, earning a Player of the Week citation from Crimson Tide coaches.
“I just felt like I did what I needed to do,” he said. “It’s more of an offensive line honor, because of what we rushed for. I feel all the offensive linemen should have got it.”
Shepherd expected the offensive line to play well, but also knew that “it was going to take time.” The Tide was replacing three starters, all of them now playing in the NFL.
“We’re doing good now,” Shepherd said, “but there are things we can improve on. We can do a lot better, obviously. Everything’s going to keep rolling and we’re going to keep improving every week and working on everything we need to work on.”
Alabama’s offensive line has given up few sacks and few penalties and none recently. That, said Shepherd, is “our job. Our goal every week is no sacks, no hurries. We want to keep AJ (quarterback A.J. McCarron) clean. That’s kind of what we strive for. It’s kind of our goal is just, keep him clean.”
Shepherd toiled for a few years behind D.J. Fluker before taking over at right tackle this year. He said that Fluker helped him and now he’s helping freshman Grant Hill, who has moved into the back-up role behind Shepherd.
“Grant Hill’s a good player,” Shepherd said. “He’s doing everything right, learning the system still. We both have a ways to go. He’s doing good.
“If I see he doesn’t understand something, I try to get him to the side and explain what he’s doing wrong, what he needs to do. Just kind of explain to him, technique-wise, what he needs to do.
“When I’m gone, he’ll still be here and maybe he can do that for another person. He can influence someone like I’m influencing him. I just try to get him to know what he’s doing in case something does happen, he goes in, he knows exactly what to do, what to do, when to do it. I feel like D.J. Fluker did that for me. If I didn’t understand something, he’d take me to the side to explain what to do. And just, I want to keep it rolling.”