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How three losses transformed Alabama's defense

It's November 2012. Alabama is undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country when Johnny Manziel storms into Tuscaloosa. It's early in the first quarter, and Texas A&M's sprightly freshman quarterback bounces around in a collapsing pocket. He's toying with a lumbering pass rush, it seems, as he veers left into the open field. Six seconds is too long to cover anyone, and Manziel finds a wide open Ryan Swope in the end zone to go ahead 14-0, stunning the crowd.

A year later, the Kick Six is right around the corner. But instead of one second left on the clock, go back to when there was less than a minute remaining and Alabama led Auburn 28-21. Auburn has the ball around midfield, and Nick Marshall keeps on the zone-read. Xzavier Dickson flinches on the run fake, then gives chase. The 265-pound linebacker dives and comes away with nothing but grass. Marshall pulls up right as he sees the secondary abandon Sammie Cotes and throws for the game-tying score.

Five weeks pass, and it's on to the Sugar Bowl, where Oklahoma freshman Trevor Knight has the cleanest pocket you'll ever see on his first of three touchdown passes. In the fourth quarter, he rolls out to his right, beginning a comical race. Brandon Ivory, Alabama's 300-pound nose guard, is huffing and puffing and giving it all he's got. Then there's Knight, who doesn't seem bothered at all. He just shuffles his feet, buying time. Again, six seconds is enough. The secondary breaks, and Knight connects with Sterling Shepherd in the end zone for the final nail in the Tide's coffin.

Three games over the span of two seasons. Three newfangled spread offenses. Three mobile quarterbacks.

Three losses for Alabama that forever altered Nick Saban's outlook on defense.

If Saban had plans to add to his two championships at Alabama, he knew then that he had to change. His defense couldn't continue to be a step slow.

According to Tyler Siskey, who was Saban's director of player personnel at the time, those discussions were picking up steam around the recruiting office. The old ground-and-pound SEC was giving way to a preponderance of spread offenses, and it was understood that the big, bad Bama defense of old had to reinvent itself. There were phenomenal players on the roster who had become outdated, Siskey said, useful only against the likes of LSU or Arkansas.

In the background, they were already working on something different.

By signing day 2014 - a month after the loss to Oklahoma - many of the pieces were in place. Ryan Anderson, an athletic outside linebacker from South Alabama, had just finished a redshirt freshman season in which he played primarily on special teams. Tim Williams, a lanky defensive end from Louisiana, was showing some promise as a true freshman as a pure speed-rusher. Meanwhile, a four-star prospect named Jonathan Allen was getting ready to sign his letter of intent. Together, they'd form the nucleus of the lightning-quick pass-rush we know today.

Against Tennessee last weekend, the pair of seniors were part of a defense that sacked quarterback Joshua Dobbs on three consecutive third downs at the start of the game. Williams got it started by dropping Dobbs for a 17-yard loss, followed by Allen's stop which came in at minus-10 yards. Then, on a third-and-19 later in the first quarter, it was Anderson who applied the pressure and hurried Dobbs into an errant screen pass that resulted in a pick-six by safety Ronnie Harrison.

"We're faster at every position," Saban said.

No, it wasn't by mistake.

"It's been a couple of years in the making," he said.


It's fun to call Alabama an assembly line of talent. It's also a useful tool to describe the way Saban wants to recruit.

Everyone looks the same because that's exactly how it's set up to be. There's an ideal size and weight for every position -- "parameters," as Siskey calls them.

Take middle linebacker, for instance. C.J. Mosley is the exception to the rule, of course, but if you look at his predecessor, Nico Johnson, and his successor, Reggie Ragland, they look almost identical. They all basically look like Saban's first great middle linebacker at Alabama, Rolando McClain: roughly 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds.

"It's pretty black and white, cut and dry," Siskey said. "That's what he's looking for, and it's our job to go find them."

The same could have been said for defensive linemen. From Marcell Dareus to Quinton Dial to Jesse Williams, they were all space-eaters with varying degrees of quickness. Like the hulking nose guard Terrence Cody, they were all great against the run.

Then the game changed.

When it became clear that hurry-up offenses weren't going anywhere, Saban stopped asking, "Is this what we want football to be?" and started getting with the program. He "adapted his parameters" in recruiting, according to Siskey, and the two positions that were most affected were linebacker and defensive line.

Speed was put at a premium. In 2014, Alabama signed blue-chip defensive end Jonathan Allen, who began his high school career at receiver. The next year, slightly undersized outside linebackers Rashaan Evans and Christian Miller signed on.

During the offseason, freshman linebacker Mack Wilson tweeted a picture of the "max velocity" of the running backs, tight ends, linebackers and quarterbacks on the team. Half the top 10 were linebackers, including Wilson at No. 6. The fastest of the group: Evans, who clocked in at 20.52 miles per hour.

But the best example of Alabama's newfound speed on defense might be Tim Williams. For the longest time, it didn't appear that Williams would ever find his niche. He simply wasn't big enough. He was supposed to be a Jack linebacker, yet at roughly 230 pounds, he was a far cry from the 260-pound prototype of Courtney Upshaw, who dominated at the position during Alabama's championship season in 2011-12.

It took two years for Saban to carve out a suitable role for Williams on defense, but when he did, the effect was immediate. Williams' job was simple: rush the passer. He didn't start a single game and rarely saw the field unless it was third down. Still, he managed 11.5 sacks as a junior and entered this season as a potential top-five pick in next year's NFL draft.

Through seven games, he leads the team in quarterback hurries and is tied with Ryan Anderson for second, with 4.5 sacks.

"He's one of the fastest guys in the NCAA right now, especially his first step," Evans said. "He's always creating a mismatch any time he's going against any tackle."

South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, who cut his teeth under Saban as an assistant at LSU, said he isn't sure whether his old boss would have even bothered recruiting someone like Williams 10 years ago.

"But he's adapted and changed," he said. "He's evolved."


It's too late to say what this Alabama defense would do to Johnny Manziel or Nick Marshall.

But there's always Trevor Knight.

On Saturday, Alabama's defensive evolution will come full circle when it welcomes to Tuscaloosa No. 8 Texas A&M and its transfer quarterback, Knight. The team Knight helped beat while at Oklahoma is simply not the same team anymore. Sure, Alabama's defense is still plenty big and strong. But now it's athletic too.

Most of the defensive linemen actually shed weight during the offseason. Ask around, and they'll tell you they feel they're even faster than they were last season, when they led the country in sacks. The numbers back that up: With 27 sacks through seven games, Alabama is slightly ahead of last season's averages.

Go back to the 2013 season and the game against Knight's Sooners, and Alabama had 22 sacks all season. That feels like forever ago. Now, Siskey said, we're seeing the full effect of Saban's decision to shift priorities in recruiting.

"One of the most ingenious things Saban has done, and I think the college football world has seen it come to fruition this year, as these players are playing now, is how he's adapted his parameters," he said. "He's adapted as the game has changed."

Now, when Saban wants to cover the field with speed, he has options. He can call for the nickel rabbits package and shift Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson from outside linebacker to defensive end to go with an additional five defensive backs and two linebackers.

When that happens, there's nowhere to run.

From big and bulky to speedy and sleek, Alabama's no longer a step slow. If anything, Saban has made his defense a step ahead of the game.