Nick Saban’s Biggest Challenges for Alabama in 2016

May 16, 2016

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — One gets the feeling that Nick Saban hates this time of year.

This used to be when he would hit the road to meet with high school coaches and evaluate potential recruits firsthand. That is until the NCAA banned college coaches from doing so to prevent what was called “bump-ins” during the spring evaluation period.

To compensate, the University of Alabama created the Crimson Caravan, by which Saban and other coaches travelled around the region and spoke to fans. However, this is the first year since he arrived in 2007 that the tour isn’t happening.

Instead, Saban’s been doing his usual events like the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Challenge, a charity golf tournament in partnership with former Crimson Tide punter Chris Mohr to raise money for his Nick’s Kids foundation and the university. 

He also recently picked up the National Football Foundation’s national championship trophy, the MacArthur Bowl, at the College Football Hall of Fame, and this week, he will play in the Regions Traditional Pro-Am at Greystone Golf & Country Club just outside of nearby Birmingham.

Don’t for a moment think that Saban isn’t busy, though. This is when Alabama does a lot of its preliminary work for the upcoming season and the coaches get together with the program’s other staffs to swap information.

Moreover, recruiting never ends, and the NCAA has decided to allow college football programs to host and participate in satellite camps over the summer.

“We’re going to participate on a limited basis,” Saban said during the Southeastern Conference’s spring media teleconference.

Maybe the camps and a little vacation will help him get through what some call the “stupid time of the year,” when all the headlines are seemingly negative, especially because of all the things that seem to happen when players are away from football and school.

Alabama isn’t exempt.

For example, starting linebacker Reuben Foster was at an Auburn nightclub when a shooting took place that left three dead on April 23. 

That’s not to suggest that Foster did anything wrong during one of his trips home, but one can’t help but think what could have potentially occurred. They’re the kinds of things that can cause coaches (and parents) to lose sleep.

In the bigger picture, avoiding distractions and keeping his players focused on the tasks at hand are probably Saban’s greatest challenges this year, especially since Alabama’s the reigning national champion and back-to-back Southeastern Conference champion.

He knows better than anyone how hard it is to repeat, having won five national titles but only once pulled off back-to-back championships. Too much can go wrong, and there’s always that ugly “C” word: complacency.

Go back to 2010. The Crimson Tide had no shortage of talent, including 11 first-round selections in the next three NFL drafts, but ended up losing three games.

This might be Saban’s most talented team to date, but the roster is full of players who lack starting experience; it’s one thing to think that Bo Scarbrough can be a standout running back, quite another to actually see him being one consistently over the course of a season.

There’s also been a lot of turnover on the coaching staff, beginning with Saban’s right-hand man Kirby Smart, who left to become Georgia’s head coach. That alone changed the dynamic of the program, even though Saban rehired Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator.

“Jeremy did a great job here the five or six years that he was with us before, and certainly when he went out on his own, proved at Florida State and at Georgia that he’s a very capable coordinator,” Saban said. “There’s always new energy and ideas when you bring somebody in, but he was here for so long and understood the scheme and how we do things that it made the transition much easier for our staff and our players.”

However, the coaching staff took a hit with Bo Davis’ recent resignation, which was largely overshadowed by the NFL draft. It could have been a huge distraction, but Alabama has already hired his replacement, longtime NFL assistant coach Karl Dunbar, and moved on.

Meanwhile, the school is awaiting word from the NCAA about defensive back Tony Brown’s looming suspension, although his transgression has yet to be revealed and he’s currently running for the Crimson Tide’s track and field team.

Junior college transfer Charles Baldwin was also dismissed from the program for a violation of team rules as soon as the spring semester ended. The coaches had hoped he would have challenged to be the starting right tackle, only to see him struggle during the spring.

Saban has two more weeks before summer school starts, when the players are all due to report back to campus, and strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran resumes asking players the question that will ultimately define this team: “How bad do you want it?”

It’s then another two months until training camp opens and Alabama really begins to build on what appeared to be a successful spring.

“I was really pleased and excited about the kind of spring practice that we had, lots of opportunity for a lot of young players to develop, and really pleased with the kind of progress that we were able to make,” Saban said. “I’m not quite satisfied with where we are. So it’s a time, and I think it’s a little bit of a work in progress, for us to develop the kind of chemistry and leadership on your team that we all look for.”

If Saban had his way, it would probably already be August, with everyone’s attention turning toward the high-profile season opener against Southern California at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 3.

But a lot can happen between now and then.


Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

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