Nick Saban, like rust, never sleeps. I suspect he’s been chewing over the reasons behind Alabama’s two-game losing streak. It sounds like his defensive philosophy is evolving in response to what happened last season.
Saban has said on multiple occasions recently how important it is for Alabama to adapt to the changing landscape of college football. His system has long relied on big, heavy bodies on the defensive line to clog running lanes and free up linebackers to play in space. And for a while, no one had an answer for it as his defenses at LSU and Alabama routinely dominated the point of attack. But as more and more mobile quarterbacks have begun moving the pocket and more and more hurry-up offenses have sped up the game, the size Saban so covets has been nullified. Three-hundred pound defensive linemen are too slow to catch quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel and Nick Marshall, and they’re too slow to catch someone like Trevor Knight when he’s getting rid of the ball in the blink of an eye.
The litany of personnel packages Saban was known for using have become outdated as well. It’s not that they’re no longer effective, they’re simply no longer applicable. With so many teams going without a huddle on offense, there’s no time to substitute players. So, in turn, Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have had to simplify the defense and find players who can play multiple roles. That means no more lumbering defensive ends and no more linebackers who don’t have the speed to cover a slot receiver. Athleticism and versatility is now the name of the game.
I don’t think all that’s totally gone the way of the dinosaur, if for no other reason than that not every team Alabama plays runs some version of the HUNH. Plus, beef still tends to come in handy inside the red zone, regardless of the opponent’s scheme. And the idea that athleticism is all of a sudden the name of the game is silly, considering that you can go back to what Jimmy Johnson did at Miami to counter the powerhouse option offenses of the time to see that defensive minds have valued athleticism for some time now.
Versatility, however, is something that’s increasingly valuable in this new era. (So are some other things, if you’ll recall.) If Saban’s reached an adapt-or-perish point in coaching defense, he’s not the only one. Recruiting the right kind of athletes and knowing how best to deploy those athletes once they get on campus will always be the name of the game, even as college offenses change. It’ll be interesting to see if Saban’s defense can mutate successfully. And Jeremy Pruitt’s.