Smith explained the idea. "That was one of the first things I talked to my players about was finishing things. That's key to being good at anything. Almost everybody starts off well. But the guy that finishes--that completes the race--that completes whatever the task is. That's what it's about.
"We put emphasis on that, and I think the players are doing better."
Last season the Tide defense garnered an embarrassingly low total of six interceptions on the season. And two of those came from defensive linemen working in zone coverage.
"Our goal is to improve in interceptions," Smith stated bluntly. "We're always working on what Coach Fran calls ‘Touch to catch ratio.' I've always believed that if we get our hands on it--catch it.
"Opposing offensive players don't spend time in their meeting rooms working on plays that throw us the football. So when they do throw it to us, we need to catch it. That's an accident, and you've got to take advantage."
As Smith is quick to point out, nothing can flip-flop the momentum of a contest quicker than a crucial turnover in the passing game. "One of the greatest football plays that you can make is something that is not rehearsed," he explained. "An interception or a takeaway in a game is an unplanned happening. Once you get your guys to buy into finishing things, you're OK. And I thought we made some progress at it this spring."
Smith came to Alabama from Mississippi State, where he tutored successful Bulldog secondaries for six seasons. In 2000 his secondary led the Southeastern Conference in pass defense and finished the season ranked fourth nationally in that department. Following that season cornerback Fred Smoot was a second-round selection in the NFL draft, and two other Smith pupils signed pro contracts. That year the Bulldog DBs intercepted 19 passes, the second most in school history.
"One of the things I came here with was a reputation for aggressive secondary play," Smith said. "I was fortunate to have the guys thinking I had something to say to them. They were already prone to listen to see what I was going to say. They knew I had coached some good players in the past."
Talent will always be key to success in big-time college football, and Smith likes the players currently working at safety. 2001 starters Waine Bacon and Charles Jones return, and younger players like Roman Harper, Carlos Andrews and Chris James should blossom under Smith's coaching. "That's the first thing I wanted them to do," he said. "There's no doubt that by the end of spring practice all the players were adjusting to me. In fact, I noticed it before then."
In 2001 the Tide pass defense ended the season ranked 8th in the SEC and a very disappointing 95th nationally. No one expects a complete turnaround overnight.
No one except Melvin Smith.
"I've coached secondaries that have been the best, and I won't be satisfied until we are," he stated. "When someone watches them perform, he should be able to tell that Melvin Smith is coaching these guys."