Smart Puts Passion Into Coaching
Kirby Smart has been Alabama's secondary coach for two years and this year was elevated to defensive coordinator. Crimson Tide Head Coach Nick Saban spoke earlier in the week of Bama having excellent men running the defense, Smart handling the secondary and Kevin Steele (who was elevated from defensive coordinator to defensive head coach this year) in charge of the front, the linebackers and defensive linemen. Steele has specific coaching responsibilities for the inside linebackers.
Saban is fond of calling himself "Kirby's GA."
Smart has a little different perspective on the Alabama defensive organizational chart.
"Coach Saban is the head coach, and I respect that," Smart said. "Coach Saban is the boss and the rest are all equal in my mind. We all work well together, work hard together." He said that defensive planning is "a collaborative effort," with Smart, Steele, Line Coach Bo Davis and Outside Linebackers Coach Lance Thompson all contributing to the plan.
Saban has said that he works with the cornerbacks for two reasons: One, he enjoys working with players. Two, Alabama's secondary, frequently five (nickel) or six (dime) defensive backs, requires two coaches. The Bama head coach has also pointed to his long background as a defensive coach and Smart said the defensive plan is the Saban plan.
This week the plan is being finalized for the Sugar Bowl game against Utah. Bama is 12-1 and ranked fourth in the nation, Utah 12-0 and ranked sixth. Kickoff will be at 7 p.m. CST Friday in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans with Fox televising the game.
Smart understands Saban's desire to be a part of hands on coaching. "Coach Saban says all the time that he wants to be involved with the players," Smart said. "That's why you coach. I do it because I love the game. If I could still play, I'd play. I can't, so I coach."
During the game assistant coaches are rarely noticed, but this year when Rashad Johnson intercepted an LSU pass in overtime, leading to Bama's win in Baton Rouge, Johnson was met at the sidelines by Smart leaping into the senior safety's arms.
"I was excited," Smart said. "The players want to see you excited.
"I live vicariously through the players. The day I don't have that passion, I'll get another job."
All-America safety Rashad Johnson said, "He brings a lot of energy. He interacts with the players. He's a coach who is all over the field. He has a passion for the game."
Cornerback Javier Arenas said, "He works hard to pull it out of us." Arenas said that Smart is demanding on the mental side, but that players "look forward to the meetings. When you get that, then you go on the field and you're not tense and you just allow the athleticism to take over."
Smart enjoys on-the-field work with Saban. "It's great to have him in the room," Smart said of the on-the-field relationship. "I have learned so much from him." He has coached under Saban four years--one at LSU (2004), one with the Miami Dolphins (2006) and the past two seasons at Alabama.
Smart said Saban "does a heck of a job" in practice. With two coaches in the secondary, he said, the players "get it from two people." That goes for "messing up," but it also works when the players do well.
One thing Smart likes about Alabama practices is that the Tide has full speed work, first against first, throughout the season. He pointed out that not many teams have that kind of practice late in the year. "It's the speed of the game," he said, "even if you're not working on (the opponent's plays). You may get beat sometimes (working against the first offense), but you'll get better in the long run."
Smart said that Alabama's defensive success this year is a combination of many things, including being in the second year of the system and getting improved play from returning players and help from new players. "We had to grow up," he said.
Smart has respect for the Utah defense Bama will face Friday. "They do a great job, and they do it in all personnel groups so you don't really know when it's coming," he said of Utah's spread run attack. "They do it with the quarterback in the game. They present a lot of challenges offensively. They bring the back-up in and he's a quarterback. They can throw. They do a good job of mixing it up. Obviously their intent is to run the ball."
On making defensive calls, Smart said, "As you are calling, you try to find a way to beat the opponent. It is a chess match. But the players are going to make plays."
Smart was asked what grade he would give the Alabama defense this year. "I'm like Coach Saban; I don't get into giving grades," he said. "We give grades for games, not for the season. Our last performance was not our best performance so that's what we're thinking about." Alabama is coming off its only loss of the season, a 31-20 loss to Florida in the SEC Championship Game.
When this season ends, Smart will turn his attention to the 2009 season, and particularly replacing Johnson at safety. He said that Johnson has been outstanding in running the defense, making the calls in a complicated defense, getting players "on the same page."
One reason Smart could believe that a player will step up into Johnson's role is the performance of Arenas this year. "We questioned ourselves why he didn't play more for us (at cornerback) last year," Smart said. "He proved this year that he can do the job. He practices harder than anyone."
As for next year, he said that Justin Woodall, who plays the safety spot alongside Johnson, is a possibility, as are the likes of Ali Sharrief and Tyrone King. "We have a lot of good young players," he said.
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