Put Saban's Face On Tide Defense

Alabama football has a long history of good defense. For many years under Paul Bryant the defense was in the hands of Ken Donahue, a tireless worker and tyrannical taskmaster. Bill Oliver, secondary coach in many of those Bryant-Donahue defenses, got much of the credit in the Gene Stallings era, particularly in throttling Miami in the National Championship Sugar Bowl at the end of the 1992 season.

In 2008, Alabama ranked very high in most defensive categories, both in the Southeastern Conference and in the nation. The Crimson Tide was third in total defense, second in rushing defense, and seventh in scoring defense.

Last year the Tide had two-headed defensive leadership with Kirby Smart as defensive coordinator and Kevin Steele as defensive head coach. Steele has departed for Clemson and Smart is the defensive leader.

But if one is to put a face on Alabama defense, it is Nick Saban's defense.

Alabama's head coach is much more actively involved in defensive work than is the case with the vast majority of teams. Saban's stock line is that he is "Kirby Smart's GA (graduate assistant coach)." In practice, Saban works with Alabama's cornerbacks.

Most analyses of 2009 Alabama football include expectations of a very strong defensive unit. Understandably so. Bama returns eight starters from the outstanding crew of 2008. Included in that number are three men who have received pre-season All-America recognition—linebacker Rolando McClain, nose tackle Terrence Cody, and cornerback Javier Arenas.

It doesn't happen automatically, though. In 1966, Alabama gave up 37 points in the entire regular season. Thirty-seven points in 10 games. The Tide had six shutouts. Most of the top defensive players from the 1966 team returned for 1967. In the season-opening game against a Florida State team that wasn't the FSU of later fame, Bama gave up 37 points. Fortunately for Bama, the Tide offense delivered 37 points and Alabama escaped with a tie.

The memory of the 1966 team giving up 37 points in a season and the 1967 team giving up 37 points in its first game was kindled by Saban's comment this week regarding defense.

He said, "This year's team, regardless of how many players are coming back from last year's team, there's a new chemistry there and they're going to have to go prove all the same things about how they play, how we're going to play some very challenging competition and it'll be interesting to see how they respond to it."

Saban has rebuilt Bama defensively in a hurry. But Alabama success in 2008 was tempered by the end-of-season disappointments.

Saban said, "We gave up 31 points the last two games we played so even though we were one of the top teams in the country, the last two times we played we played against pretty good offensive teams but I think we need to do better. I think there is a lot of room for improvement."

The Tide coach did say, "I think we made progress in the first year relative to our system and the way the players bought into it. I was really proud of the way we played defense last year for the most part and to get ranked nationally in several different categories and actually lead the nation in a couple of categories speaks a lot to the pride that the players have and the kind of defense that they want to play here, the quality of the players that we have and how disciplined and accountable and responsible they are to executing and doing things together."

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