New Alabama Coach Nick Saban is, by his own admission, primarily a defensive man, and the Crimson Tide defense will have his imprint, implemented by Defensive Coordinator Kevin Steele and the other defensive coaches. Development of that defense is taking place this spring.
Although Saban came with the reputation of using a 3-4 defense (three defensive linemen and four linebackers), it didn't take much work to see that his defenses have been truly multiple, as much 4-3 as 3-4 and with a healthy dose of nickel packages (five or more defensive backs with various numbers of linemen and linebackers).
No one questions the importance of a well-coached team with a good plan, but an adage has it that schemes don't win games. The big question at Alabama this year may be whether Saban and company have enough good players at each position to get the job done.
Adding to the problem for the defense is "the offense has more experience and is doing a very good job," Saban said.
"We don't have four down linemen to play," Saban said. He pointed out that Alabama is currently playing a 3-4 much like the Miami Dolphins did last year when he was head coach there. That is a defense that can "slot" a player and turn the 3-4 into a 4-3.
"It's not a different defense," Saban said. "It's an implementation based on personnel. A presentation. Like if you put chocolate syrup on your ice cream. Is it still vanilla with chocolate syrup or is it chocolate?"
He pointed out that Alabama has two men – former defensive ends Keith Saunders and Ezekial Knight – who are not true defensive linemen. They have outside linebacker type bodies. "And they do a pretty good job. And we're not getting them beat up by playing them over a tackle."
Saban said work in the secondary continues. He said, "I think you ought to be able to play man, sometimes you ought to play zone, and sometimes you have to be able to pattern match."
He said he calls man coverage "cat coverage. You've got that cat, you've got that cat, and you've got that cat. It's the easiest mentally and the hardest physically."
He said, "We will do it all."
Saban said that Brian Motley, a redshirt freshman who moved from the offensive line to noseguard this spring, "has played the best so far at that position. We've been pleased with his progress. He played well in the scrimmage. He's been one of the most improved players of the spring and one of the pleasant surprises for us. We hope he can continue to improve. He does a pretty good job on a consistent basis in practice."
Saban announces experiments with the caution that they are not position changes and not necessarily permanent. Wednesday he said that middle linebacker Matt Collins is getting a look on the defensive line, that safety Cory Reamer is working at outside linebacker, and that Taylor Pharr – who had a few days on the defensive line – has moved back to the offensive line.
"We don't have any evaluation after one or two days as to whether they'll make the Pro Bowl one day," the coach said.
As he has previously, he pointed out, "It's very difficult at midstream to move guys around because you lose the cumulative effect of what their knowledge is at their position, but it's still more important to have this experimentation so that we have an opportunity to know what some guys can do if we need them to do it next year."
Saban said that linebacker is a position without a great deal of proven depth, noting that Saunders and Knight have never played outside linebacker. He said, "They're making nice progress in what they are doing, but they need to make improvement. You're talking about guys making mental errors in coverage because they're not used to it, but those guys are working hard and I think we're making progress."
Asked about special teams play, Saban said, "We've got a long way to go on teams. We're spending a significant amount of time on it. I think it's hard when you don't practice it live. It's also a place where you get a lot of guys hurt when you practice it live. But certain body types on special teams are very, very helpful. When you have a lot of guys with size and speed that is very helpful. Guys that play linebacker, fullback, tight end – to have depth at those positions gives you guys to fill roles on special teams. Obviously, the more team speed you have the better you are on special teams. I have been impressed with some return guys. The teams themselves we have to continue to work to develop, find the guys who work best, and coach them. The players have been willing. I don't have issues with that. We just need to make more progress in fundamentals of execution."
Regarding running backs, Saban said (in answer to questions) that tailbacks Glen Coffee and Terry Grant "have done fine. They both did well in the scrimmage. They both have practiced well. Hopefully they'll continue to improve."
As for Jimmy Johns, the most experienced returning tailback who had missed two practices in Saban's doghouse, the coach said, "He's been practicing the last two days."
There was little news regarding injuries. Saban said, "Keith Brown is getting better. Travis McCall is getting better. Justin Woodall hurt an ankle Tuesday. Demarcus Waldrop got hurt before the scrimmage, but he's been practicing but no contact. But nobody really got hurt in the scrimmage."
As he has frequently, Saban said, "We're not disappointed at all where we are. We're not where we need to be. We're trying to make progress. We need to execute more consistently. Consistency and performance will determine our success."
Alabama will practice again Friday, have a scrimmage Saturday, then practice Tuesday and Thursday next week before concluding spring training with the A-Day Game on Saturday, April 21, at Bryant-Denny Stadium.