TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — O.J. Howard has seen a lot during his career with the University of Alabama football team, and not just during the 44 games he's played with the Crimson Tide.
Every day, he has worked against the defense that's regularly in the running to be called college football's best. Whether this year's version will be—it's a distinction that has to be earned over the next few months—Howard doesn't hesitate when saying that it's the fastest he's faced.
"Yeah, they are," Howard said Monday. "Every day is a challenge at practice for us. I think they're the best defense."
Howard has an interesting perspective on it, because when he arrived in 2013, there was no doubt that Alabama was setting the standard for strong defensive play. Having won back-to-back national championships, both of those Crimson Tide teams were ranked No. 1 in total defense.
Except for leading the nation in run defense last season, Alabama hasn't been first in any of the major defensive statistical categories since. Being third in total defense was key to winning last year's national championship, yet the Crimson Tide still had to win a 45-40 shootout with Clemson in the College Football Playoff title game.
But two games into this season, it's already obvious that this year's defense has the potential to be something special: the sum result of a sort of evolution that had to take place for Alabama's dynasty to continue.
It's almost as if Alabama took a page from Kenny Stabler's old team, the Oakland Raiders under Al Davis, as the former owner's mantra was "Speed kills." Size is still nice, but Saturday's game at Ole Miss is exactly the kind this defense was built for, as an answer to the ever-growing popularity of hurry-up/spread offenses.
Speed kills, and Alabama seems to have it everywhere defensively this year, including at interior linebacker (where Reuben Foster lost 15 pounds from last fall), yet the Tide still regularly deliver bone-jarring hits.
"I feel like we've become a little more athletic, especially in our linebackers," senior defensive lineman Jonathan Allen said. "We lost a lot of weight, we're definitely not as big as we used to be, but I feel we can play sideline-to-sideline."
In short, Alabama has gone from having the kind of defense that was most susceptible to an uptempo attacking offense to being designed to stop it.
"Yeah, it didn't take them long to catch up," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said during his on-campus press conference Monday. "...There is no doubt they have made the adjustments they have needed to make to keep up with it."
As far as which Nick Saban defense has been his best at the college level, 2011's is the clear choice. Alabama led the nation in pass-efficiency defense (83.69 rating), rushing defense (72.15 yards), scoring defense (8.15 points) and total defense (183.62 yards per game).
Only one other time since the NCAA started keeping track in 1937 has a team swept the four key defensive categories at No. 1: Oklahoma in 1986.
Alabama topped each category convincingly and also led the nation in passing defense, third-down defense, red-zone defense and three-and-outs.
|Alabama's Dominating 2011 Defense|
|Category||(Rank) Statistic||Second Team (Total)||Difference|
|Total D||(1) 183.62 yards||LSU (261.5)||77.88|
|Rush D||(1) 72.15 yards||Florida State (82.69)||10.54|
|Pass-Eff. D||(1) 83.69 rating||South Carolina (94.22)||10.53|
|Scoring D||(1) 8.15 points||LSU (11.29)||3.14|
The five 1,000-yard running backs the Crimson Tide faced that year—Auburn's Michael Dyer, Penn State's Silas Redd, Vanderbilt's Zac Stacy, Mississippi State's Vick Ballard and North Texas' Lance Dunbar—averaged 30.8 yards (65 carries for 154 yards) and combined to score one rushing touchdown. Against everyone else, they accumulated 1,084 carries for 5,826 yards (a 100.4 average) and 50 touchdowns.
Alabama's 2011 defense, which didn't give up a touchdown during its only loss and shut out LSU 21-0 in the BCS Championship Game, was a prototypical Saban defense with gap-clogging linemen (Josh Chapman, Jesse Williams and Damion Square, with Quinton Dial and Ed Stinson in relief), imposing linebackers (C.J. Mosley, Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Nico Johnson and Adrian Hubbard) and key defensive backs (Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron, Robert Lester, DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner).
There wasn't an obvious weakness that opponents could exploit.
What forced Saban's hand to change wasn't just seeing uptempo offenses, but facing them on a regular basis. With the majority of teams in the Southeastern Conference's Western Division doing everything they could to be as deceptive and rapid-fire as possible, Alabama had to re-examine its approach across the board.
"Take something as simple as the huddle," Saban said. "We've coached for a long time, and the first thing we did the first day of camp, the first installation, we told players how to get in the huddle. Then you told the signal-caller how to call the defense. Now that's gone with the Edsel."
Other standard operating procedures became obsolete as well, like frequently inserting specialists on certain downs, as quick-snap opponents made it tougher to substitute. Coaches couldn't take any time to counter personnel packages; it all had to be pre-planned and then done on the fly. Additionally, once the offense got a first down or two, the drive gained momentum with tired players stuck on the field.
"We'd play six teams that got in a huddle, and we'd play six fastball teams," Saban added. "So what do you become?
"Part of the reason we went philosophically no-huddle [on offense] is because we're going to have to play against this all the time. It makes it easier to practice what you play against if you do it as well."
But that was just the beginning of the changes. Alabama began stockpiling defensive linemen, which paid off last year, when the Crimson Tide's depth up front was spectacular. After a recruiting gap emerged at cornerback, Saban was able to close it by landing numerous top prospects such as Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick.
The need for speed, though, was made paramount, especially among pass-rushers and linebackers. In the interior, they had to be able to effectively drop back into coverage while adding quick-twitch players on the outside to terrorize quarterbacks alongside linemen like Allen.
So far, the defense has given up three field goals and one touchdown, which was set up by a turnover. Its potential is nothing short of enormous.
When grading each player's performance from the season opener against No. 20 Southern California, Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus wrote, "Bama's defense [is] simply too big, too fast, too strong for USC. There are no better words to describe how I felt grading the Crimson Tide defense Saturday night other than 'in awe.'"
Renner said Allen, who would be named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week, had a career-best grade. Senior linebacker Tim Williams, who was making his first career start, recorded a pressure on 29 percent of his pass rushes despite often going up against right tackle Zach Banner, a 2015 All-Pac-12 selection considered one of the best offensive linemen in the game.
Williams was also a nightmare matchup for Michigan State's Jack Conklin during last year's playoffs, when he notched his last sack of the season to finish with 10.5, trailing only Allen's 12 on the team. The Tennessee Titans wound up selecting Conklin eighth overall in the 2016 NFL draft.
|University of Alabama (*won national title)|
Then there's senior outside linebacker Ryan Anderson, who is finally getting his due. One NFL personnel executive recently listed him among the biggest breakout prospects of 2016, per NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah.
Just between those three players, Alabama has a lights-out pass rush—never mind that the rest of the front seven is good, too. If USC quarterback Max Browne hadn't gotten rid of the ball by the time he reached "Two Mississippi," he was in trouble.
"I don't think we had any blitzes," Humphrey said. "It seemed like we had blitzes with Tim and all those guys up there."
Speed is also the catalyst for the rest of the Alabama defense, which has gone from a having a young secondary in 2015, with three freshmen in the dime package, to being a veteran unit. They've already broken up nine passes at the point of the catch, with three interceptions. Two have been returned for touchdowns.
Two years ago, Alabama didn't have a single pick-six.
While Alabama has gotten faster, it has done so without giving anything up in the run defense. That was a real concern last year when coaches made Eddie Jackson and Geno Matias-Smith starting safeties, essentially going with all cornerbacks in the secondary.
|Alabama's 2016 Defensive Rankings|
|Total D||216.5 yards||6|
But even though Alabama has since replaced its key interior players, including defensive linemen Jarran Reed and A'Shawn Robinson and linebacker Reggie Ragland, there's been no statistical drop-off. If one doesn't occur, especially against physical opponents like Arkansas and LSU, this could be Saban's best defense to date.
"It definitely starts up front," Allen said. "The D-line has to be a stouter front, and I feel like we've been able to do that the last couple of years."
Granted, there isn't the same depth in the secondary or on the line as a year ago, but with everyone's versatility, Alabama doesn't feel like it has to rotate as much. When it does, players like linebacker Rashaan Evans, who is also known for his speed, are fresh and ready to go.
Will faster mean better? The 2011 team set the bar extremely high, but through two weeks, the Tide have shown they are up to the task in trying to be one of Saban's best defensive units ever.
"They play really fast, and that's what makes them really good," Howard said.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.