Defensive Chief Discusses Bama

Kirby Smart is the assistant coach in charge of defensive backs, but that title is misleading. For one thing, his on-the-field work in practice is primarily with safeties. Head Coach Nick Saban is, as he describes it, Kirby's graduate assistant working with cornerbacks.

But Kirby Smart is much more than just a secondary coach, too. Prior to last season he was named defensive coordinator when Kevin Steele was promoted from that job to defensive head coach. By all accounts, 2008 Alabama had the equivalent of two defensive chiefs (not to mention Nick Saban having the key role in defensive scheming). At the end of last season, Steele left Bama for a similar job at Clemson and Smart is now full-fledged defensive coordinator.

Alabama had an excellent defense last year, ranking among the nation's leaders in most defensive categories. The Crimson Tide won its first 12 games and was ranked number one in the nation. But in the final two games, Bama gave up 31 points to both Florida in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game and to Utah in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama lost both games.

Smart met with media Sunday. He said, "Last year we did pretty well defensively; obviously did not finish the season the way we wanted to. The last two games were defensive disappointments to say the least."

One area where Alabama did not rank high in defensive statistics was in pass rush, sacks and quarterback hurries. Improving in that area, Smart said, "is a big emphasis for us. We have to get better. Two things about that. If you cover, it's easier to rush. If you get there faster, you don't have to cover as long."

In addition to Steele, who coached inside linebackers, Bama lost Lance Thompson to Tennessee. Thompson coached outside linebackers. The Tide has replaced them with James Willis, who came from Auburn to coach inside linebackers, and Sal Sunseri, who came from the Carolina Panthers of the NFL to coach outside linebackers.

Smart said the addition of Sunseri should pay dividends in improving Bama pass rush. "Coach Sal has done a great job," Smart said. Smart pointed out that he had worked with an excellent defensive mind at Carolina in Panthers Head Coach John Fox. "He has brought a lot of new ideas and new energy," Smart said. "We're hoping we can improve that. Front guys have to do a better job.

"That's traditionally been Coach Saban's style of defense and he's been successful at doing that. We weren't successful last season."

Smart was asked if the off-season had meant new scheming by the defensive staff to handle the spread offenses used by Florida and Utah. The Tide coach first noted that "To say (Florida and Utah offenses) are the same is a little bit of a misnomer to me. Although Coach Meyer (Florida Coach Urban Meyer) was from there (Utah), they really weren't similar. Florida was more physical--power run the ball at you. Utah didn't run."

Smart said, "We didn't do a very good job in the red area. Our goal was if they got down there to hold them to field goals. They got down there, we'd hold them to third down, and then they converted all of them. We didn't do a good job in the red area. The Utah situation was a little different. They were a little more finesse. They were throwing the ball, not running it."

Still, Smart said, "We watched a lot of tape and studied a lot of those type systems. We hope we addressed those things. All you can do is practice and attack it as best you can.

"Some teams may want to copy-cat that."

Smart said there had not been major changes in the defensive staff with the "plug-ins" of Willis and Sunseri. "Pretty consistent with what I'm doing, what Coach Saban's doing; nothing changed about format."

Smart worked under Saban briefly at LSU, followed him to the Miami Dolphins, and has been at Bama since Saban arrived in 2007. He was asked what makes Saban so successful.

Smart said, "I think he's unmatched in his attention to detail and the intensity with which he coaches. There's not going to be a day he takes a day off; there's not going to be a day he isn't out there will full intensity bringing his A Game.

"His emphasis is not always on what do to, but how to do it. He's teaching how to do it. That makes him different from most coaches, and players appreciate it. He's teaching how to do it right, how to improve.

"If a guy gets beat and you get mad at him for getting beat, it doesn't help him. If you show him: ‘How can I improve, Coach?' ‘What did I do wrong.' That is the teacher in him, and the intensity, and what makes him a great coach.

"His approach is to develop young players; get good players, and put them in his system and let them develop. You look his history -- his second and third and fourth years he's been places, he traditionally gets better.

"The players understand the system, they compete harder, it makes them physically and mentally tougher, and develops the player as a whole person."

Smart is enthusiastic about the start of fall camp. "We're excited," he said. "There are a lot of guys out there eager to work and learn and be taught. The main thing for us is learning and teaching and developing young players and continuing to develop the older players.

"We've got a lot of talented players back. They can't become complacent. They've got to continue to work hard. Those guys are doing a good job of teaching the younger guys. We've got guys who have been in the system two, three years now, some of them. We're excited about those guys.

"Our kids are really focused on that and really excited about working hard and we're excited about working with them."

One key player is missing from last year's defense, All-America safety Rashad Johnson. Smart isn't looking back, although he recognizes the importance of replacingJohnson, particularly as a leader.

"Each player takes a role in that," he said. "Nine or 10 other guys out there are back and they have to step it up a little. There's a lot of competition out there for those spots. There's a lot of competition for every spot. We're looking forward to it. Rashad's a great player. We wish him well. We've got to have somebody take his place."

Smart was asked about some of the key players who are returning to the defense. Linebacker Rolando McClain and cornerback Javier Arenas are preseason All-America players.

McClain has a reputation of being the reticent type.

"Rolando's a great kid," Smart said. "He's very talkative to us. He's got a great personality. He's exciting out there on the field. He really enjoys practice. He practices hard. You like for the younger players to see that. He has a lot of energy on the field and that's how he leads."

Smart called the 5-9, 195-pound Arenas "a great competitor. He's one of those guys who comes to work every day, one of those guys who really competes. It bothers him if they complete a five-yard out. He's motivated through fear of failure. He has a competitive nature and is a great guy to be around. He has great leaping ability. He's very strong for his size, possibly the strongest guy on the team pound-for-pound. That's what gives him a chance to compete every day."

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