Alabama Football: 5 Reasons the Tide Have the Best Defense in the Nation
College football will enter the second month of the 2012 season this weekend and, once again, it appears that the Alabama Crimson Tide may have the best defense in the country.
The same unit that looked uncertainly into the future as it watched names like Barron, Hightower, Upshaw and Kirkpatrick disappear into the professional ranks last spring is somehow at the top of the collegiate heap once again. This is not simple happenstance. It is not luck. It is not a weak schedule.
Head coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have again molded their wealth of defensive talent into a masterpiece that would challenge the Great Wall for superiority.
This defense leads the nation in points allowed per game. It is third in first downs allowed, 12th in yards penalized, third in pass efficiency defense, second in turnovers gained, second in total defense and fourth in rushing defense. We could go on.
Here are the how's and the why's of the Alabama defense.
1. Continuity in the Coaching Staff
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Nick Saban is in the midst of his sixth season manning the Tide. Alongside Saban is defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, also in his sixth season at Alabama.
When Saban came to Alabama he referred many times to something he called "the process". When Alabama went just 7-6 in 2007, it was "the process." When the Tide won the BCS title again last season, still "the process."
Saban and Smart have seemingly been on the same page since the day they first arrived in Tuscaloosa. The much coveted Smart has stayed at Alabama longer than many expected, and the result of this stability on the defensive side of the coaching staff is what you see on the field now.
The system has not, does not and will not change. While game plans may differ from week to week, the overall scheme and system that the Tide defense operates within is static.
From season to season, players do not have to start over with new playbooks and schemes. By the time their number is called and their dues have rightfully been paid, they have often been a part of the same routine for up to three years. Therefore, the transition from bench to starter is virtually nonexistent.
2. Recruiting to the System
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From Saban's 2008 signing class, Marcel Dareus, Terrence Cody and Damion Square were all rated as 3-star recruits by Rivals.com. Three stars does not often turn too many heads.
With the track record that Saban has built for not only winning football games, but for putting his players in the NFL, recruiting at Alabama is much easier than it is at most places. It would take no major effort to bring in superstar high school athletes year after year because they are rated at the top of their respective positions by some recruiting service.
But Saban does not do that. Saban and his staff recruit players that fit their system and their needs. Just because a player is rated highly and garnering national attention as a high school underclassman does not automatically qualify him to play under Saban.
If a player does not fit a specific role or if he does not have the mental makeup that would be a good fit with the already well-oiled machine that is Alabama football, Saban and Company move on. The result of this thorough scrutiny of recruits is what you see today.
3. The "Youth" Is "Experienced"
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As much talent as Alabama lost on the defensive side after the 2011 season, it brought back five of its top nine tacklers and eight of the top 14 from a year ago.
Saban has dug deep into his rosters for as long as he has been a head coach. Again, the players know the system. They know what their role is within that system and they know all too well what is expected from them.
Therefore, when the Tide took the field for the first time this fall, the names on the uniforms may have been different. But the superior talent under those crimson jerseys and the wealth of knowledge under those helmets was practically the same.
To say that Alabama reloads rather than rebuilds is an understatement. Saban ushers in fresher, stronger and faster talent like Apple does iPhones.
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An athlete that does not play within the rules of the system is an athlete that finishes his collegiate career playing for a previously unheard of FCS school.
There is a reason that Alabama is typically among the least-penalized teams in the nation (currently 12th) every year. Practices at the Capstone consist of constant and relentless repetition. If a player cannot keep up with the high demand for excellence, another one is ready to take his place.
Turnovers, penalties and missed assignments are not tolerated. When we see Saban smack backup freshman quarterback A.J. McCarron on the behind in the closing moments of a meaningless blowout, it comes with a lesson in mind. It is done with the future in mind.
The result of that "spanking" is that McCarron has evolved into one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. Saban and Smart are even harder on their defenses.
5. Reputation and Intimidation
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Anyone who has played a team sport at any level, be it little league baseball, Pop Warner football or beer league softball has had it happen to them. The day that they arrive at the field and realize that the guy on the other sideline is flat-out better than them is not one that they remember fondly.
The Alabama that we see today is far removed from the Alabama of the Shula and DuBose eras. Through hard work and refusal to settle for anything less than the best, the Crimson Tide has set a bar for the rest of the nation that is all but unapproachable.
We have all seen and recognized the moment that an Alabama opponent ceases to fight, the moment that the mouse gives up the desire to move on while being suffocated by the python.
When teams enter Bryant-Denny Stadium, they often do so with dreams of pulling off the epic upset and unseating the reigning king of college football. Shortly thereafter, sans few exceptions, the look in their eyes fades from sharp an determined to foggy and endless.
That is the moment in which Saban knows the process is working.