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Backups step up

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The rows of empty seats and abandoned crimson cushions were apropos of the matchup: No. 4 Alabama versus an unranked, one-win Western Carolina team. Not many fans wanted to make the trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium to watch the Crimson Tide pummel an overmatched, underwhelming opponent.

But like A-Day or a scrimmage, where the crowd is usually less than a sellout and gone midway through the third quarter, there's still something to see -- the team's future. In the moments when Alabama led by three, four or five touchdowns, the second- and third-string players finally got their turn, many of them freshmen or sophomores looking to make a mark.

"One of the good things about today is … was the opportunity to play a lot of players," coach Nick Saban said after the Tide's 49-0 blowout win.

"We were trying to get as many guys in the game as we possibly could. I think for some guys all their hard work that they do is certainly appreciated and we were happy to play as many players as we did."

On offense, rookie Marvin Shinn was able to haul in a reception, his fourth of the season. Fellow freshman Cyrus Jones caught two passes, doubling his previous total. Brent Calloway, stuck between H-back and running back this season, got seven carries and turned them into 52 yards.

"Calloway did good today," starting running back Eddie Lacy said of Calloway. "He made the right reads. He ran the ball hard."

The second-team offensive line was able to play for most of the game, helping backup quarterback Blake Sims to 70 yards on the ground as he ran the read-option. Sims hasn't gotten many reps under center this season, so Saban had the redshirt sophomore come on early to work with the first-team offensive line as well.

"We wanted to put him in at least one series with the first-team offense, and I thought he did a good job," Saban said of Sims. "I think we still have work to do. Blake has ability to throw the ball, but he gets real antsy sometimes, especially in the pocket. I think the experience today probably would help him, but all in all I thought he did a pretty good job."

Senior Barrett Jones was particularly pleased with how his backup, and potential replacement at center, Ryan Kelly performed in relief.

"He's my protege, the guy that I've been training up to be the next center, and I think he's going to be an outstanding player and somebody who's going be to a lot of fun for you guys to watch," Jones said. "He's extremely quick and explosive. He just has great feet and body quickness. He's a whole heck of a lot more talented than I am."

Saban said he was pleased with how the second-team defense performed, too, noting that he almost went three-deep at points during the game.

"I thought there was some maturity out of some of the backup players," he said. "They played with a lot of poise, which is something we haven't been able to get out of them. Hopefully their confidence and maturity is going to help the depth of our team."

One backup who stood out in the secondary wasn't a backup at all. Freshman Geno Smith earned his first start of the season at cornerback with John Fulton sidelined with a turf toe injury.

"Geno has improved," Saban said. "I think he is a lot more confident in what he is doing right now. He has a better understanding of what to do. I think he and Landon Collins both have, just in the last few weeks, got their sea legs underneath them in terms of playing with more confidence, knowing what to do and playing faster. He didn't have any glaring mess-ups out there, made a couple of mental errors on a couple of things.

"We feel like he is a guy that is going to definitely have to help us down the road. He's a corner-type of ability at the star position, and I think that lends itself to having a little bit better cover guy. If he continues to progress maybe he can give us that. It lets Vinnie [Sunseri] play the dime position when we go to six defensive backs, which is what he is really good at. So, his development is probably critical to improving defensively."

Said Sunseri of Smith and Collins: "Today, they showed they can go through the calls, not make any mental errors and play with a tenacity. It was really exciting to see them get out there and play."

Sunseri was in a similar position to Smith a year ago, learning both cornerback and star, the inside corner spot that requires the ability to cover and play near the line of scrimmage.

"Learning two positions, cornerback and star, is really tough," Sunseri explained. "One position is completely different than the other. When you get in there, you've got to be able to differentiate the two. It's really tough, but he's developed really well and he's doing a great job."