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The Real King of Alabama's Defense

Christopher Walsh@@WritingWalshCollege Football National ColumnistNovember 13, 2015

Kirby Smart has been working for Nick Saban since 2004 and has been Alabama's defensive coordinator since 2008.
Kirby Smart has been working for Nick Saban since 2004 and has been Alabama's defensive coordinator since 2008.Associated Press

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — You watch him on the University of Alabama sideline, and he’s as animated as anyone in the stadium, often being pulled back by his belt to avoid a penalty for standing too far out on the field.

That’s Kirby Smart to a T, the emotional defensive coordinator who is fully invested in all the players he recruits, every game he prepares for and each play that he calls.

Yes, Nick Saban may be the architect of the Crimson Tide defense, which has arguably been the best overall in college football since he arrived in 2007, but it’s Smart’s baby and he treats it as such. Players occasionally give him the ball following turnovers, and he’s been known to hug them after both big plays and big wins.

Saban? Not so much a hugger.

“A lot of people outside the program look at it and say ‘Hey, you’ve got Nick Saban, one of the best defensive minds in the game as a head coach, and you’re able to get all these 5-star players in there,’” Phil Savage, the former general manager for the Cleveland Browns who serves as the executive director of the Senior Bowl, said. “I think [they] see it as easier than it really is. Alabama, though, subtly and within that building, I think there’s a high regard and appreciation for what Kirby does in terms of putting it all together.”

Although Smart will only turn 40 on Dec. 23, he’s been Saban’s right-hand man for years now and is one of the few remaining holdovers from his LSU and Miami Dolphins staffs. Defensive line coach Bo Davis, special teams and tight ends coach Bobby Williams and strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran also go back that far but have all had other gigs along the way.

Not Smart, who has been with him since 2004 and was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2008. In 2014, according to USA Today, he had the second-highest salary among assistant coaches in college football ($1.35 million), so it’s a two-way street yet also reflective of how valuable Saban considers loyalty.

It’s huge to the head coach.

“Kirby’s done a good job for us for nine years now, did a good job even before that in the time we’ve spent together,” Saban said. “Knowledge and experience are invaluable when it comes to being a signal-caller, and Kirby has done a fabulous job for us.”

When it comes to Alabama football, Saban essentially considers himself to be like a CEO, and while he’s certainly hands-on, especially during practices as the cornerbacks are his position group, he’s known for letting his coaches coach within that framework.

Nick Saban and Kirby Smart have been together for so long that they even think alike.
Nick Saban and Kirby Smart have been together for so long that they even think alike.Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

“If you can peel back that layer and kind of get a look at what goes on during meetings and everything else, you’ll see Coach Smart leads the defensive meetings,” Cory Reamer, an Alabama linebacker on the 2009 title team, said. “Coach Saban sits there, and they’ve obviously had conversations before these meetings go on about what to do and how to do it, but Coach Smart has as much input on that defense as Coach Saban does. He knows it from top to bottom.”

It’s more than just having the scheme down and executing certain plays in certain situations. Depending on Saban's personnel moves, hes been the position coach for both the linebackers and defensive backs.

“He’s really good at what he does, and he really draws up some good game plans,” San Diego Chargers defensive lineman Damion Square, who was with the Crimson Tide from 2008-12, said. “He has a passion about him.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’d walk by his office and see him with his head down drawing something up on paper that he’s probably going to call one time Saturday, but it’s the play that will win the game. I really enjoyed playing for him.”

Saban has pointed out in the past that Smart often thinks the way he does, and the two can quickly communicate in ways that others can’t.

For example, when they talk concepts in a meeting room, they don’t have to draw up plays and formations so the other understands. Consequently, an adjustment during a game can be almost instantaneous.

“I sort of end up driving the bus,” Saban says of his coaching staff, the key being to have the right people on the bus and in the right seats executing what he calls “The Process.” His detail-driven approach is proven, as the elaborate ring collection demonstrates.

Alabama's Defense Under Kirby Smart
YearRushing DTotal DScoring DPass Eff. D
200874.1 (2)263.5 (T3)14.3 (7)106.68 (14)
200978.1 (2)244.1 (2)11.7 (4)87.67 (2)
2010110.2 (10)268.4 (5)13.5 (3)103.54 (6)
201172.2 (1)183.6 (1)8.2 (1)83.69 (1)
201276.4 (1)250.0 (1)10.9 (1)103.72 (7)
2013106.2 (7)286.5 (5)13.9 (4)116.84 (26)
2014102.4 (4)328.4 (12)18.4 (6)116.53 (30)
2015*75.8 (2)265.3 (3)16.3 (7)100.20 (6)
NCAA statistics

“I have become who I've become as a coach from working for Coach Saban,” Smart said a couple of days before the 2013 BCS National Championship Game in Miami, where Alabama dismantled Notre Dame. “He does an outstanding job of managing our organization. There is nobody I could put him up against in the country. His ability to facilitate, thats great. He helps game-planning on defense, hes a great mind in the room.”

In both 2011 and 2012, even after losing seven starters, Alabama led the nation in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense. About the only thing that didn’t change between those seasons was Smart jumping around during games, getting everyone lined up correctly, making adjustments and quick personnel changes.

Kirby Smart emotional? Nah.
Kirby Smart emotional? Nah.Butch Dill/Associated Press

Some consider the 2011 defense to possibly be the best in college football history, and not surprisingly Smart was subsequently a hot commodity. He interviewed for the head coaching job at Southern Miss and a year later at Auburn.

He appeared to have the luxury of waiting for the right opportunity to come along, but when Alabama’s defense wasn’t able to maintain its dominance, his phone stopped ringing.

Meanwhile, the rest of the 2011 defensive staff moved on. Defensive line coach Chris Rumph now works for former Saban assistant Jim McElwain at Florida. Linebackers coach Sal Sunseri has the same position for the Oakland Raiders and head coach Jack Del Rio, whose son used to play for Alabama. Secondary coach Jeremy Pruitt first left for Florida State under former Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher. He’s now the defensive coordinator at Georgia.

Although Smart won the 2009 Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach, and three years later a similar honor from the American Football Coaches Association, he’s still in Tuscaloosa making yet another title run.

“Every year we’ve had to change a little bit,” Smart said at the start of training camp in August. “I think we did a chart trying to figure out why we were so good; I guess it was four years ago—the 2011 defense that was so good against LSU in the championship game. That season we had five run-pass option plays out [of] 800 plays, and we looked at last year, we had over 120 run-pass option plays. So obviously the game has changed, the teams we’re playing have changed, and we’ve had to evolve with it.

“That team was a big, physical presence team that was good at stopping the run, had two first-round corners on it and both played well. In recent years, the run-pass option has evolved to make offensive football a little bit better, and we’ve had to change with that. We’ve got to do more things; we’ve got to play more split-safety coverages; you’ve got to help your corners in a lot of different ways. And we’ve got to continue to grow in that area so we don’t give up big plays, don’t put those guys in tough situations. Which I did last year, probably too often.”

Kirby Smart won the 2009 Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in college football.
Kirby Smart won the 2009 Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in college football.Danny Johnston/Associated Press

Alabama’s answer was reflected in its recruiting, adding more players who ideally had the size it coveted but could also handle the uptempo spread schemes it sees on a regular basis. Alabama again landed prize players in the secondary, who are improving with every game, and unbelievable depth among the front seven.

When things are clicking, like they did last week against LSU, Alabama’s flexible defense attacks in waves.

“The defense did a great job. Played physical, played hard,” running back Derrick Henry, who might be the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy because he doesn’t have to face his own defense, said. “They did a great job of what Coach Saban and Coach Smart coached them on all week. My hat’s off to them. I have all the respect in the world for them.

“Those boys were just hungry.”

Actually, the play that might have best demonstrated Alabama’s physical prowess wasn’t one that helped limit Leonard Fournette to 31 rushing yards on 19 carries, but when defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson hurdled the long snapper and single-handedly blocked an extra-point attempt.

“Oh man, I haven’t even attempted that,” former Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw, a key cog on the 2011 defense now with the Baltimore Ravens, said with a laugh.

“Them big guys in the middle? Those guys are monsters.”

For this season, Smart especially targeted three areas for improvement:

  • Third-down conversions: Alabama went from being 41st in the nation in 2014 (82 of 217, 37.8 percent) to 18th (44 of 142, at 31.0 percent). It’s also second behind only Clemson in three-and-outs (55 of 130, 42.3 percent).
  • Turnovers gained: Alabama is already closing in on last year’s 20, which tied for 65th in the nation. With the front seven applying more pressure and causing more interceptions, it’s had 18 in nine games, tied for 19th.
  • Explosive plays: Saban defines an explosive play as a run of 13 or more yards or a pass of 17 or more yards. Last year, Alabama gave up 80 explosive plays in 14 games (including 14 to Auburn and 11 versus Ohio State) for a 5.7 average. This season, Alabama has yielded 48 in nine games, for a 5.3 average.

That last area is the one Saban has been stressing the most recently, especially since only two of the last five SEC opponents have managed to piece together a drive lasting 10 plays or more. And Alabama still has Mississippi State and Auburn to play.

Alabama's Big Plays Allowed (2015)
OpponentRunPassTotal
Wisconsin134
Middle Tenn.022
Ole Miss2810
La.-Monroe000
Georgia437
Arkansas055
Texas A&M178
Tennessee257
LSU235
Totals123648
Compiled by the author

“In a lot of respects, I think this game coming up is going to be more of a challenge than the LSU game because LSU is an I formation team and Alabama has a doctorate in stopping the I formation,” Savage said of Dak Prescott and No. 17 MSU. “They probably are still maybe at a master’s-level program when it comes to defending the spread. That’s been the evolution for them over the past couple of years, but especially this year.”

In 2013, during his semi-annual visit with reporters as Saban otherwise makes his assistant coaches off-limits, Smart disclosed that each year’s goal isn’t to be the best defense in the conference or nation but the best that’s ever played for the Crimson Tide.

In other words, Alabama only compares itself to itself, and this season’s improving unit is beginning to remind everyone of the defenses that won national championships in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

“With 2009, there’s no doubt that we didn’t have the amount of talent that this defense does now as far as recruits go, and 2010 and 2011, they were full of talent,” Reamer said.

“It’s a beautiful combination of guys who know exactly what they need to be doing on defense, and they’re also 5-star athletic talent. That’s going to be tough to compete against, and I’d say this is their best defense so far since he’s been at Alabama.”

Savage isn’t quite ready to go that far, saying it’s “certainly residing in the same neighborhood because they have more depth along the defensive line. Yet hes already projecting that every Alabama defensive starter and contributor will get a shot at playing in the National Football League.

“I think this defense faces more challenges, quite honestly, than the ’11 and ’12 teams did,” he said. “Virtually everyone now is playing out in space, some form of the spread, there’s more of that in the league now than there was even a few years ago. But yet you still have to bulk up and play against an LSU or Arkansas within a few weeks of each other.

“To me, Kirby and Nick Saban, they want to play with a full tool box. This defense has the capacity to be able to do that if things keep going the way they are.”

Regardless, Alabama made a statement with dominating wins at Georgia and Texas A&M and now versus LSU, three teams ranked in the Top 10 while being about as different as can be offensively.

But what it really wants is to reclaim nightmare-opponent status and again be the team that no one wants to face.

As senior linebacker Reggie Ragland pointed out at SEC media days in July, when he first arrived at the Capstone opponents feared facing the Crimson Tide’s defense. He wants to go out having re-established that, but he doesn’t feel its arrived yet.

“We’re getting there,” he said.

“Coach Smart is always on us. I think we take the identity of him. Coach Smart is a tough competitor. He hates losing, and he can’t stand when guys don’t do their job. Anytime you take the identity of your coach, you’ve got a great chance of winning.”

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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