Alabama's defense moves on with new coordinator, same approach

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban isn't one to start from scratch on defense. In fact, the last time he did, at least in terms of hiring a defensive coordinator, he was coaching at Michigan State nearly two decades ago.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that Saban opted for familiarity when longtime defensive aide Kirby Smart bolted for the Georgia head coaching job following last season. Almost immediately, Saban brought back Jeremy Pruitt to run the Alabama defense, which made the transition this spring about as seamless as possible.

The first thing to know about Alabama's defense is that it's Saban's defense. Always has been and always will be, as long as he's there. But he said it's incorrect to think that he's pressing every button, making every tweak and calling every play.

"We make changes as we go, but at its core, the system stays the same," Saban said. "There's so much diversity in the offenses you face now -- the spread, no-huddle, four open, regular formations you always see and then people go spread out of regular formations. The key, to me, is that you know how to adjust the system to everything or at least you're giving yourself a chance. And then the special situation things you do, whether it's the pressures you have on third down, those are the things you're always looking to improve on, and it has to be a little bit relative to the players you've got."

Saban, despite being the face of the Alabama defense, is continually looking for assistants who challenge him and aren't afraid to think outside the box. But at the end of the day, the buck on defense stops with him.

"People have input in all these things, and that makes the system better," he said. "But I at least know how to fix it when it goes wrong, and I can help them fix it and help them adapt to things. My role is more to help them prepare the game plan of doing what we have to do and, philosophically, how we need to play. And then I try to help teach the players where I can in certain areas."

Pruitt was a member of Alabama's staff from 2007-12, the final three years as defensive backs coach, before going to Florida State to run the Seminoles' defense during their 2013 national championship season and most recently to Georgia to run the Bulldogs' defense for the past two seasons.

"It really hasn't felt a lot different," Alabama senior defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson said. "I remember coach Pruitt when I came here as a freshman. He has some things he wants to do, some things he believes in, but the system doesn't change. A lot of what we're doing out there is identical to what we were doing under Coach Smart, and you could tell by how fast everybody was playing out there and how quickly everybody meshed with Coach Pruitt."

Saban has long said that nobody knows his defense quite as well as Smart and Will Muschamp, who's also in the SEC as South Carolina's first-year head coach. That said, Saban thinks Pruitt is in that same category. (Saban does not let his assistants talk to reporters.)

"There are two parts to that," Saban said, "understanding the defense and understanding the scheme, and then teaching it to the players so that they understand it. The next part is implementing it in a game. That's the thing that separates the men from the boys."

In Pruitt, Saban is confident he has both parts to that equation.

"He basically took our system and ran it at Florida State, and Georgia was very similar to us," Saban said. "He just didn't have the personnel to do things quite like we do, so he made some adaptations. He didn't have corners who could play bump and run, so they did different things. It was still pretty much the same.

"He has a lot of knowledge of the teams we have to play in our league and things we do. There's always a transition when you change coordinators, but it's a whole lot easier to do it this way with somebody who's been with you before and understands the system and the scheme than it is to try to teach somebody from scratch. That's really hard."

The system isn't the only thing that remains unchanged at Alabama with regard to the defense. So does the standard.

Since the end of Saban's first season at Alabama in 2007, the Crimson Tide have finished in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense the past eight seasons. They're the only team in the country that can claim that distinction. Moreover, only four teams (Florida State, Ohio State, Penn State and TCU) have finished in the top 10 in scoring defense as much as four times over the past eight seasons. The Crimson Tide have fielded a top-five unit nationally in scoring defense six of the past eight seasons and have allowed fewer than 16 points per game in seven of those eight seasons.

"New guys come in. New coaches come in, but the standard was set a long time ago," Tomlinson said. "We want to go above and beyond that standard every year. It's up to the older guys to let the younger guys know, 'This is how we play defense at Alabama.'"

That starts with great execution and great effort. If you can't think (and can't think quickly), you're going to have a difficult time playing in Alabama's defense.

"That was coach Pruitt's message from the start," Tomlinson said. "We don't sacrifice either of those things at Alabama."

If anything, this Alabama defense figures to have even more guys who can run than a year ago. Pruitt loves the speed and athleticism of his linebackers. Look for Alabama to get even more pressure out of its base defense in 2016 because of guys like Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson, Christian Miller and freshman Anfernee Jennings rushing off the edges. In addition, inside linebackers Reuben Foster and Rashaan Evans are good blitzers.

Alabama was a little thin up front this spring with returning senior Jonathan Allen recovering from shoulder surgery and junior Da'Shawn Hand missing some time. But with everybody back and healthy come fall, it should look like a typical Alabama front, anchored by 6-foot-2, 320-pound Da'Ron Payne in the middle at nose guard.

"It was different not having Coach Smart out there," Tomlinson said. "It's the same way with some of the guys we lost on defense, but that doesn't change a thing about the way we expect to play. At Alabama, that never changes."