June 23, 2016
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — New coordinator, new leadership and new starters.
It’s a nasty trifecta for Nick Saban and the University of Alabama football team this season, one that would stymie most college football programs, yet has caused few to think twice about the Crimson Tide’s potential this season.
Yes, Jeremy Pruitt has replaced Kirby Smart, who for years had been Saban’s right-hand man on the coaching staff. Players like Reggie Ragland, A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Cyrus Jones have moved on and were all selected in the second round of the NFL draft. The base defense will have at least seven new starters.
Nevertheless, the word drop-off has been significantly absent around Tuscaloosa this offseason. Some believe that this year’s defense could become something special, although, like usual, Saban is quick to deflect away such talk. He’s quick to point out that this group hasn’t even played a live down yet.
“Everybody not only has to have a get-it-done type of attitude but they also have to take ownership for people who aren’t getting it done because they’re unable to do things to the standard that we want to do it,” he recently said about fighting complacency.
“I do think this is a work in progress and I do think that players have to accept roles. This is not something that just happens. The team chemistry last year happened over time. I think we’ll see how this team develops over time.”
The chemistry part is definitely true as Alabama’s defense last season looked a lot better against LSU in November than it did during the loss to Ole Miss in September.
Pruitt is also very familiar with the players and scheme, which has helped everyone with the transition, including the two other new defensive assistant coaches, Derrick Ansley and Karl Dunbar. Smart will certainly be missed, but it’ll be interesting to see how someone else puts his thumbprint on Saban’s long-established defensive system.
“He brings a different kind of energy,” senior outside linebacker Ryan Anderson said about Pruitt. “He’s definitely more of a players’ coach. A lot of the guys are more willing to sell out for the guy because he’s willing to do it for us. It’s a different style.”
“I’m really going to enjoy playing for him,” junior interior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said.
Anderson and Hamilton are just two of the players with significant experience and are now expected to fill bigger roles. The same goes for the likes of Tim Williams, Dalvin Tomlinson and Ronnie Harrison, only no one’s sure how well they’ll handle those responsibilities and mesh until they actually do so.
That part of the equation is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted. The Crimson Tide had to learn that the hard way with three losses in 2010, after winning the national championship in 2009.
After Alabama won back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012, it was again unable to maintain its success during the two subsequent seasons. That left last year’s crew hungry, with Ragland going so far as to say “Guys aren‘t scared to play us anymore,” during the 2015 SEC media days.
Changing that perception became the goal, and Alabama came pretty close to pulling it off. Although not one defensive player received a major postseason award, they notched a shutout in a College Football Playoff semifinal, 38-0 against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl.
However, Alabama then gave up 550 total yards against Clemson in the title game, although most Crimson Tide fans were too busy celebrating after the 45-40 victory to really notice.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson established new playoff records for pass attempts (47), pass completions (30), passing yards (405), passing touchdowns (four) and total offense (478 yards), and his ability to move the ball caused Saban to attempt the on-side kick that no one will forget.
“I made the decision to do it because the score was 21-21 and we were tired on defense and weren’t doing a great job of getting them stopped, and I felt like if we didn’t do something or take a chance to change the momentum of the game that we wouldn‘t have a chance to win,” Saban said at the time.
Alabama had entered the game, its 15th of the season, ranked second in the nation in total defense, averaging 256.8 yard per game. Clemson’s output more than doubled that. Opponents had also completed 49.1 percent of their passes, but Watson found the mark in 63.8 percent of his attempts.
Overall, Alabama finished third in the nation in total defense, which was based on yards allowed per game. It stood out in what some called a down year for the conference even though Georgia was seventh and Florida eighth in the statistical category, while the Crimson Tide defeated two other top-10 teams in Wisconsin (second) and Clemson (10th).
Of note, only one other SEC West team finished in the top 25 in total defense, LSU, but all had a winning record.
Alabama matched its No. 3 showing in scoring defense and was first in rushing defense, but with the young secondary, finished eighth in pass efficiency defense. Except for Alabama’s rushing defense in 2008, which was second in the nation, those were the worst its been in those categories during the four title seasons under Saban.
That’s remarkable, but also sets the bar for what needs to be achieved for the Crimson Tide to repeat in 2016. Match those rankings, especially in total defense, and its probably a playoff team again, although that still wouldn’t automatically mean another national championship. After all, the 2008 team hit two of those marks and still lost to Florida in the SEC Championship Game, and Alabama also had the Heisman Trophy winner last season.
The key number to look for is one, because whenever Saban’s had a defense finish first in any of the four major defensive categories Alabama has won the whole thing.
This team has that kind of potential if it wants it badly enough.
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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