NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. - The Texas defense and Alabama offense took the stage Monday for interviews leading up to Thursday's BCS title game. The Texas defense (Will Muschamp, Earl Thomas, Sergio Kindle, Lamarr Houston, Sam Acho and Roddrick Muckelroy) showed nothing but respect for the Alabama offense.
And the Alabama offense (OC Jim McElwain, RB Mark Ingram, WR Julio Jones, OG Mike Johnson, TE Colin Peek, QB Greg McElroy) showed great respect for the Texas defense.
When I asked McElwain to compare the Texas defense to a team he'd faced, he said, "Yeah, the Pittsburgh Steelers. They have about six Mean Joe Greenes."
Senior OG Mike Johnson said of Lamarr Houston, "His hips are phenomenal. He can really rotate his hips, get movement, shed a block and make the tackle. Great lower-body flexibility."
Mark Ingram said, "Texas has great team speed. At every level. The line, linebackers and in the secondary."
Said Julio Jones, "They have incredible speed, and they are just like an SEC team, how they play the game.
Sergio Kindle had two of the funnier moments of the press conference. First, he was asked about his son Sergio Kindle Jr., and Kindle said, "He still look like his momma. He's getting there. I'm going to keep him in the sun a little bit more, so he can darken up a little bit.
"But he's the type who can run into a wall and get up and not cry like I used to do. Having him changed me because it made me more responsible. It made me grow up, start making smarter decisions because I know he's looking up to me. I feel like things I do will reflect him and my family. So I gotta keep a clean nose, on a straight path."
When I asked Kindle what he wanted Greg McElroy to think of the Texas defense after Thursday night's game, he said, "Um … (started to talk then stopped) … Um … (started to talk then stopped again) … no comment." Then he told me as he left the podium, "I'll tell you after the game."
On the Legion of Boom's attitude, Kindle said, "We're going to come in with a lot of confidence. Why not be confident? We've made it this far. We're just going to do what we've been doing all year. We're going to try to stop the run and put the game in McElroy's hands.
"We're up for the challenge. It doesn't matter who it is. We're just going to go out there and play our game. Then, it's just going to be what it's going to be at that point. So we just have to go out there ready to ball.
But Earl Thomas was the star of the interviews on Monday. Here's why …
1. After hearing Earl Thomas talk about his life, it's no wonder he easily moved past his poor angle on the Michael Crabtree touchdown in last season's Texas Tech game.
All Thomas has done in his life is overcome being left homeless by Hurricane Rita in 2005. Oh, and he also learned to play three musical instruments (including saxophone in the West-Orange Stark marching band) as the a "Miracle Child" born to a mom once given six months to live because of a cancer diagnosis.
This kid is a deep, deep well. With a great sense of humor.
Here's a sample …
Why he eats a watermelon slush and pickle for his pre-game meal: "I'm from the country, and we do weird stuff. My little brother and I loved Sonic growing up and those watermelon slushes. We always ate pickles. So those two things stuck with me."
On growing up in Orange, Texas: "We would go muddin' and barefootin' around."
In fact, when Thomas was asked if being in beautiful Newport Beach was a distraction, he brought the house down by saying:
"'Well, I'm from a small town, and this definitely is new for me. I'm used to walking around barefooted and just running around. The air smells clean here, and there are beautiful girls, so it's definitely a distraction. But it's also a business trip, and we know why we're here. We're just trying to do the best we can. I think it's going to pay off for us, though."
On playing saxophone in the West-Orange Stark marching band during halftime of his own high school football games: "I would stay out on the field and play my sax in my football uniform. At times, it was embarrassing."
But now Thomas plays in a band called Bad Bones in clubs around Austin with musicians who are all at least 10 years older than he is. He plays piano, sax and drums, and usually plays all of them in church on Sundays.
In 2005, Thomas and parents and brother were left homeless when Hurricane Rita destroyed their residence. They ended up living in a Super 8 Motel across form a Waffle House for more than a year, including all of Earl's senior year in high school.
"When I left the house, we weren't expecting for everything to be gone," Thomas said. "Orange had never experienced anything like that. When we came back, our house was gone. Debris everywhere. It was a sad sight to see. But we got over it.
"We went back to Louisiana to evacuate. Then, when we came back, to Texas, we stayed at a Super 8 motel across from a Waffle House my whole senior year in high school. My parents recently moved in with my grandparents in Orange."
Earl said his mother Debbie Thomas calls him a "Miracle Child" because after having an earlier miscarriage, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer while pregnant with Earl. She was told she had six months to live.
Debbie Thomas was ultimately found to be clear of cancer, and gave birth to Earl without issue as well as Earl's younger brother.
"My mom was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live," Earl said. "And the doctor said she would never have children. She had a miscarriage. Then she got cured of cancer and had me. A year later, she had my brother.
"It kind of followed me through my life because my mother said, 'Remember, you're a Miracle Child. You can't do what everyone else does.' She kept me out of trouble. Whenever a church door was open, she had me in there. Unless I was playing sports. The miracle of her life kept me out of a lot of trouble."
2. Earl Thomas is tired of hearing all about Alabama's defense, but he said he would let his talking take place on the field.
"We're not worried about what everyone else thinks," Thomas said. "We're worried about what we can control. We can't control what our offense does. All we can control is what we learn in Coach Muschamp's room and executing a solid game plan.
"All year, we haven't gotten any credit. So we're going to go out and play ball and see what happens.
"Against Oklahoma and Nebraska, they both were dog fights, and we found a way to win, even in the toughest situations, even if it was down to the last second. One second made a big difference for us last year, and it made a big difference for us this year. It says a lot about our team. We find ways to win."
Thomas repeated that he won't talk about his future plans until after the BCS title game when asked if he'll skip his final season at Texas for the NFL.
3. Alabama tight end Colin Peek let it be known that Bama quarterback Greg McElroy would love to take down the team he grew up cheering for as a kid and even as a high school student at Southlake Carroll.
"Greg has done some things leadership-wise that have gone unrecognized," Peek said. "The big spotlight hit him in the Auburn game, when he was sort of able to keep this dream season alive. And I'm sure he has a little extra motivation to play his home-state team.
"I think that's always a big opportunity. You play with a lot of these guys in high school, and that's a throw-back game for him. When we play Auburn, that's an in-state showcase for all the high school kids from Alabama.
"When we played Florida, that's my home state and my pride kicked in," said Peek, a native of Ponte Verda Beach, Fla. "I could easily see this being Greg's state-pride game. I think there's probably a little more incentive there. You always want to prove those wrong from where you're from."
When asked about Peek's comments, McElroy didn't duck.
"I think it's fair. Colin, when we were playing Florida, he said, 'I don't care if you throw it 25 feet over my head, I'm going to go up and get it,'" McElroy said. "I guess it's when you're playing your home-state school.
"Whether you grew up rooting for them or rooting against them, it doesn't matter. The fact that you could have the satisfaction of beating your home-state school is something I'm striving for.
"It would be a great experience to be the next quarterback at Alabama to bring home a national championship. With it being Texas, obviously, it's not an I-told-you-so type of attitude or something like, 'You missed out on this.'
"Of course, I would have great satisfaction in becoming the first Alabama quarterback to beat Texas and the 13th Alabama quarterback to win a national championship."
4. Will Muschamp said there's not as big a personality difference between Mack Brown and Nick Saban as most everyone thinks.
"There's a difference between perception and reality," Muschamp said. "And I think they are a lot more similar than anyone else does. What you see on TV or what you see on the sideline isn't necessarily who they are.
"I don't think the perception of Mack is really what he is. He is hard-nosed. He's tough. He's tough on his coaching staff. In a good way, a positive way. Nick, on the other hand, the perception of him is not necessarily reality.
"But they are both guys who are very intelligent, who have had tremendous success at numerous stops. That's identical between the two. And they are both guys I think could take over as CEO of a multi-million dollar corporation and be successful because they are smart, they work well with people. They have a plan. And that's why they've had success in life."
5. Muschamp told a hilarious story about Bama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart's job interview at Valdosta State to become Muschamp's secondary coach (when Muschamp was defensive coordinator).
"We played together at Georgia for a year," Muschamp said of Smart, one of his closest friends. "I was a senior when he was a freshman. We stayed in pretty decent contact through those years. We had an opening for a job coaching the secondary when I was at Valdosta State, and we hired him.
"He came down for the interview and put 12 guys on defense on the board. I bet he didn't tell you that. I said, 'Well, we're going to be pretty good on defense if we can play with 12.' I didn't know if he was thinking this was Canadian League ball or what.
"But, no, he's a great friend. He's an outstanding football coach. He relates with people very well. He's a great recruiter. He's a great family man and a great friend. He's a guy who sees the big picture.
That's why he's been successful as a coordinator because he understands the run game and the pass game and knows how to affect the quarterback."
6. Bama tight end Colin Peek said QB Greg McElroy took his game to a new level with his game-winning drive at Auburn that covered 15 plays, 79 yards and took 7:03 off the clock. The drive was capped with a play-action TD pass of 4 yards to Roy Upchurch with 1:24 left to play, putting Bama up 26-21.
"We had that air of confidence all season to put in that statement drive," Peek said. "And I know when we went in the huddle to start the drive, I was saying to the offensive line, 'This is for everything. Everything we've done up to this point can be nullified if we don't deliver on this drive.'
"And then Greg (McElroy) walked into the huddle and said, 'No one get excited, no one get anxious. Let's drive this ball down the field.' And that's exactly what he did.
"I think a lot of players, when the game is on the line, they feel that pressure. They get anxious. Your arm starts shaking a little bit. You're not throwing crisp passes. But with him, it was almost the complete opposite. I think he saw the field even better than he did the rest of the game.
"If you look at a quarterback, he could play a terrible game but come back and win it with his composure. I'd rather have that than a quarterback who throws four touchdown passes during the game, but then falls apart on the final drive.
"I think that's his biggest attribute, that he's a finisher and he's a winner. He hasn't lost a game in high school or college as a starter, it's a streak of 29, and that's just a tremendous accomplishment for any starter at any level, really."
7. McElroy said he thinks his teammates now look at him in a new light after that game-winning drive against Auburn (and his subsequent win over Florida).
"I think so," McElroy said. "I think that's a little different circumstance. We'd been playing really well from the LSU game on, and that was just a chance for all of us to step up.
"When a game is on the line like that and you're playing against your bitter rival, people really realize the true character and heart of this team. I don't know how you can describe heart. I know it's an intangible, and I know you can't teach it.
"So I think the fact we were put in a situation like that with our backs against the wall. And the way we were able to capitalize and answer really spoke volumes about the other 10 guys in the huddle, and myself. It was a pleasure to take the ball down the field, and I was really proud of the way the guys responded.
"I think that sometimes you have to have a revelation like that as a quarterback. Sometimes you just need to have your back against the wall and say, 'All right, Greg , lead us.'
"And I'm not the only leader on the offense. You've got Mike Johnson, Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, we've got all those guys.
"But we're fortunate to have a good group of leaders and a good supporting cast. I think they do look at me a little differently.
"If I was able to see a guy step up, I'd probably respond differently to that person as well. It was a pleasure, and I'm glad to have had the opportunity to lead them down the field."
Earl Thomas said of McElroy, "I think he plays fast. Over the past couple games, he's been playing lights out, making all the right reads, especially against Florida, moving the offense down the field. I'm pretty sure we're going to get that same performance."
8. Will Muschamp had his leg snapped as a high school junior while playing baseball (the shortstop fell into him as they both went for a fly ball). Muschamp went from being a highly recruited safety to not being recruited at all because of a 17-inch steel rod with three screws that were inserted into his leg.
Muschamp ultimately had to walk on at Georgia after being recruited by all the SEC schools and even USC. Muschamp keeps that 17-inch steel rod and three screws in his office.
"I always have it in my office in case a player comes in with a woe-is-me attitude about life or to talk about what's unfair about life," Muschamp said. "It's not happens to you in life, it's how you deal with it. Everyone's got hardships in life. No one wants to hear why you didn't get something done. They want to hear why you got it done."
9. Muschamp was asked what working for Nick Saban does to prepare someone to be a head coach?
"I don't think it's just an X and O organization. It's a total program from an evaluation standpoint of what we're looking for, what we're going to identify in the recruiting process, practice, preparation. From a total program standpoint, everything is very detailed in what you do.
"He has a plan for everything, even for things you're thinking, 'Why in the world are we doing this?' But at some point of a game or some point in the recruiting process, those things come up. And you're prepared for that.
"As an assistant coach, if you have aspirations of being a head coach, you try to put yourself in that chair and ask, 'How would I handle this?' But I think he does a good job from a total program management standpoint of preparing the staff for all situations."
10. Greg McElroy said he was "disappointed" when Major Applewhite left Alabama as offensive coordinator after the 2007 season.
"He pushed us," McElroy said. "But he pushed in a sense that we need to focus on what we're doing. He didn't say, 'You need to do this,' or, 'You need to do that.' He would just say, 'Focus.'
"In my case, he'd say, 'If you throw a couple underneath, one might open up deep.' And that allowed me to not be as greedy with the ball and allowed me to be a better player.
"I was disappointed when Major said he was going to Texas. That was before they announced Coach (Jim) McElwain was coming in (as offensive coordinator).
"I was disappointed because I felt like we had a good relationship. We obviously had a common background. His mom and dad live in Southlake, so we know them pretty well. Major was a great coach. I learned a lot from him. I really appreciated the year I had from him."
BONUS NUGGET: Muschamp said he's very comfortable with his role as coach-in-waiting
"This is Coach Brown's idea. He came to me and explained this to me, and it was a no-brainer for me. I really enjoy what I do. I really enjoy being the defensive coordinator at Texas. I'm 38 years old. We've got a good young core of defensive players coming. We're going to be good.
"Again, I really enjoy my job. Seems like everyone has a hard time believing somebody liking where they are. I'm not a grass-is-always-greener guy. I've had opportunities to be a head coach. I'm not a guy who wants to put head coach on my table just to be a head coach.
"I want to be a head coach at a job where you can win it all and be in the best job in the country, and that's Texas."
Muschamp said he tries to communicate with Mack Brown when his name starts getting mentioned for a head job.
"I'm not looking for any other jobs. I like the one I got."
BONUS NUGGET II: Tuesday is the BCS title game version of Super Bowl Media Day. Should be fun. The team is tapering down from physical practices and is now working in shells at "thud" tempo (make contact, but don't wrap and bring to the ground).
Teammates say Christian Scott is doing well on special teams and is working with the second-team defense.
If you see him in the game on defense, it's either a very specialized call or something has gone wrong.
Mack Brown was clear that Earl Thomas, Blake Gideon and Nolan Brewster had a better grasp of the defense at safety because of their reps.