Pete Carroll, Nick Saban and the art of skinning cats

I’ve started reading Chris Brown’s new book, The Art of Smart Football, (more on that in a later post, once I’m finished reading it).  The first chapter is devoted to Pete Carroll and his evolution as one of the best defensive minds in football.

Chris notes that one thing Carroll has added to his repertoire is mixing in some two-gap defensive line tricks to his base 4-3 Under, which is based on aggressive one-gap line play.  Carroll’s done that to allow his defense to gain numbers elsewhere to counter the increased threat of quarterbacks running spread-option plays.  That in turn has led to him deploying a variety of types of personnel to gain flexibility.

It’s something he learned while at Southern Cal.  Here’s what Chris quotes about that.

“That really came out of my time at SC,” Carroll told  “We forced [young players] to play, in essence.  And then we discovered if we asked them to do things they could do uniquely well, that they could elevate faster and find their confidence sooner.”

Compare that to what Nick Saban had to say about how he’s had to adapt to the challenge of defending hurry-up offenses in college.

“The biggest effect is pace of play and how it’s affected the whole game,” Saban said. “I’m not saying this in a negative way, because there are more points and it’s more exciting. There are a lot of good things about the way college football has evolved. But from a defensive perspective, you can’t play specialty defense, you can’t play substitution defense, so you really have to recruit more players who can play every down. You can’t recruit specialty players.”

So one coach has chosen to go in the direction of greater specialization and the other in the direction opposite.  That’s not to say either is incorrect, of course.  Both are two of the best defensive minds in the game (with due apologies to Gus and Boom, heh), although you could argue that Carroll is trending a little better than Saban of late, I guess.  I just find it more than a little interesting to see the conclusions they draw from strategizing against modern offenses.

I admit I can’t help but wonder what kind of impact Saban’s approach has on Alabama’s recruiting now, though.  One of the huge advantages Saban enjoys with managing an 85-man college roster is the ability of carrying specialty players on it. It will be interesting to see how giving up that advantage plays out over the next few seasons.


Filed under Strategery And Mechanics

23 responses to “Pete Carroll, Nick Saban and the art of skinning cats

  1. Shorter Saban (pun intended): Gus doesn’t allow me to recruit Mount Cody who plays only on early downs and short yardage and then bring in my pass rushers on passing downs.

    Smarter Carroll: Give me 4 athletic defensive linemen who can play either 1 or 2 gap and I’ll make your life miserable.


    • In a strange way, is the advent of the spread offense forcing the defense to return to fundamental defense with the all around best players? If so, maybe the hurry-up is a good thing after all.


      • Mayor, you’re right. I don’t have a problem with HUNH if the officials control it by making sure the offense doesn’t substitute. I also don’t have a problem with the spread if they enforce linemen downfield on pass plays. It does challenge the defense to be more athletic rather than just space eaters.

        The beauty of our offense is that we can go hurry-up and still play power football. That combination when it works just breaks the will of the front 7 because there’s no break.


        • JCDAWG83

          If the refs start enforcing the lineman down field rule, the spread is going to be seriously affected. If the qb can’t run that sweep to the side with his linemen downfield blocking and pull up and throw a pass at the last instant without a penalty, the spread passing game is going to go away.

          I agree about our offense, being able to go hurry up and still have a power running game is devastating to defenses.


      • dawgtired

        I wonder what this will do to the stock of the Mount Cody’s in recruiting. It seems to me the LBs (Zo Carter and the like) are the ‘best-all-around-athletic-type. This will put a premium on those type players and the 3-4 type D’s. It may even come to the point where players like J. Jenkins are the largest lineman on the DL in order to get as many of these ‘every-down’ players on the field. Also, if CFB is about evolving every so many years. Will there be SOS type coaches that bring back the ‘smash-mouth’ play of the 80’s to push around the hurry-up-size D’s. Remember when SOS brought the fun&gun to the ‘smash-mouth D’s of the SEC? For a while we may see a mix of small fast D’s and large smash-mouth O’s. It all just keeps cycling. There could be games where one O scores in 90 secs and the opponent’s O runs 5 min off the clock every drive.


        • There will be the need for the Trent Thompson type of DT who can plug gaps and get to the passer, but you’re right about the hybrid DE/OLB who can play with either his hand in the dirt or as a stand-up edge defender. They make it easier to defend the width of the field when they execute their assignment (unlike a certain OLB in the UF game).

          If you have the right personnel complement like Pruitt & Rocker seem to be building, you have the type of players that can defend against either offensive style whether it’s spread or pro-style.


  2. FarmerDawg

    Would I be wrong to say that pace and substitution are not near the issues in the NFL that they are in the college game. Apples and oranges.


  3. Grathams replacement

    What Saban is saying is since I can’t oversign anymore my defense is not going to be as good.


  4. Uglydawg

    Recruiting kids that are good at faking an injury to get an official time-out called is “Specialization'” at it’s best. Like intentional fouls at the end of a basketball game, it’s becoming accepted.


  5. Macallanlover

    Carroll’s tweaks are effective but his issues are much smaller than the one’s a college HC face. It is not a “pace of play” problem in college football as much as you need another “platoon” of specialists with the different skill sets. This is a much larger problem in the SEC where the conference is more split between traditional, pro-style offenses with a power running game (UGA, Bama, LSU, Arky, SC) and more wide-open spread attacks (AU, A&M, Miss St,).

    In the Big 12 and PAC12 is almost all spread, Delaney-land has all traditional. Perhaps Little Nicky should begin a crusade for additional schollies in conferences where there is greater diversity. One thing Carroll is right about, more defensive players will get their shots in their freshmen year than ever before.


  6. W Cobb Dawg

    And then there was the CTG chapter in the book….

    “I’ve developed an elaborate system of frantic arm waving, hand signals, unusual gestures, and general disorder. Of course, the mastermind controlling such a system must be protected from surveillance. Therefore some type of cloaking device is necessary – like a curtain, or a towel if a curtain isn’t available. The overall sense of confusion this system brings to the field of play can’t be underestimated, or even rationally explained.”


  7. JCDAWG83

    College football is always changing. The wishbone was a great innovation in the 50s, pushing out the Wing T as the high powered offense. The I was the next big innovation. We’ve seen the veer, the run and gun, the triple option, etc. The HUNH is simply the latest offensive scheme to come around. Defenses will always figure out how to stop an offense so innovation continues, it’s one of the things that make college football so much fun to watch.

    Saban’s complaining about the HUNH has made him look weak in my opinion. Surely, the highest paid head coach in college football can deal with a new offensive scheme.