What Nick Saban's coordinator hires mean for Alabama in 2023

Is Tommy Rees the right fit as offensive coordinator at Alabama? (1:32)

Paul Finebaum reacts to Alabama hiring Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to the same position. (1:32)

When it comes to Alabama football, cause for concern is relative.

Sure, it's been only two seasons without a national championship, but the team replacing Alabama in that title seat during those two years was SEC rival Georgia. The Crimson Tide at times a year ago simply did not look like the Alabama teams of the past under Nick Saban, and they're losing a Heisman Trophy quarterback with no clear replacement.

Despite Bryce Young's brilliance over each of the past two seasons, "all" the Tide could muster during that period was an SEC championship in 2021. What's more, Alabama is returning less production from last season than any other SEC team and ranks 125th out of 133 FBS teams in that department, according to projections by ESPN's Bill Connelly.

On top of it all, Saban will enter next season with new offensive and defensive coordinators.

The reality is Alabama will look a lot different in 2023, especially on offense with Tommy Rees coming in from Notre Dame as the offensive coordinator. Kevin Steele, very much a part of the Saban family, comes in from Miami as defensive coordinator in what will be his third stint under Saban at Alabama. And in both cases, according to coaches, football insiders and others close to the program, the hires suggest Saban might be returning to his roots as he enters his 17th season in Tuscaloosa.

"You're not looking at a complete overhaul on either side of the ball," one veteran head coach told ESPN. "Nick has adjusted and adapted a lot more than he's been given credit for. He's changed as the game has changed, but with the direction you're seeing him go with his two coordinator hires, don't be surprised if it looks a little bit more like what Alabama looked like six, seven, eight years ago, right in that time frame.

"At least, I'd say that's the plan -- running the football on offense, turning you over on defense and just generally punching you in the mouth."

According to those close to the Alabama program, one of the things that most impressed Saban about Rees, a former quarterback at Notre Dame, was his ability to adjust what the Irish were doing offensively to his quarterback's strengths, be it Ian Book, Jack Coan, Drew Pyne or Tyler Buchner, who was the star of Notre Dame's Gator Bowl win over South Carolina last season after breaking his collarbone earlier in the year.

"I would say above everything else that Rees' commitment to running the football and how he devised ways to get his best player the ball, whether it was a running back like Kyren Williams or tight end like Michael Mayer, had to be a big factor in Saban's decision," one SEC offensive coordinator told ESPN.

To be fair, it's not like Alabama didn't or couldn't run the ball under former offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, who left for the New England Patriots. The Tide averaged 195.7 rushing yards per game last season and 150 yards in 2021. But from 2009, when Saban won his first national title at Alabama, through the 2017 national championship season, the Tide averaged at least 200 rushing yards per game in all but one season. They haven't done it since, although they've been close a couple of years.

And for those criticizing O'Brien and the Tide's offense the past two seasons, Alabama tied for fourth nationally in scoring offense a year ago (41.1 points per game) and was sixth in 2021 (39.9 points per game).

"Alabama was so dynamic and so explosive offensively in 2020 that anybody who came after (Steve Sarkisian) was going to be looked at as a downgrade by fans," one SEC assistant coach said. "That's just the way it is at Alabama. But I'd say Saban knows what he wants and what direction he wants to go with that offense."

The 30-year-old Rees is the antithesis of Steele, who is going on 40 years of experience in the business and has coached in the NFL, been a head coach in college and a defensive coordinator at five Power 5 schools.

"(Rees) better have thick skin," one SEC coach joked. "But you could say that about all of Nick's offensive coordinators, no matter what age they are."

According to a source close to the Alabama program, Rees' confidence and self-assuredness shone through during his interview with Saban, who talked to a wide array of coaches during his search for an offensive coordinator. Among them: Washington's Ryan Grubb, former Florida coach Dan Mullen, former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley and former Cleveland Browns coach Freddie Kitchens.

"One of Nick's best qualities is that he's always seeking out new ideas and new ways to do things," one former Alabama coach told ESPN. "He doesn't mind being challenged in those areas. But there are some things he won't compromise. It's still Nick's offense, and (Rees) will be running his version of Nick's offense."

Protecting the quarterback, whether it's Ty Simpson or Jalen Milroe, is an area that will need to be addressed in a hurry. The Tide were better in that department a year ago and finished 47th nationally with 22 sacks allowed. But that's after tying for 120th nationally in 2021 (41 sacks allowed).

"So much of it gets back to, in big meaningful games, not just being able to outscheme people and out-big-play people, but being able to line up and punish them in the run game," a former SEC coach said. "I think that's what Nick wants to get back to, and if you can do that, there's not as much burden on the quarterback."

Rees, who was the Irish quarterbacks coach for six seasons, had a chance to go with Brian Kelly to LSU a year ago but elected to stay at Notre Dame. He's smart enough to know what being Saban's offensive coordinator -- easily one of the toughest jobs in college football -- can lead to for a coach. Saban's past five offensive coordinators are either Power 5 head coaches or NFL head coaches or offensive coordinators.

"It was the right move for Rees and one that could pay big dividends for him and Saban," a former coach said. "Either way, it's going to be fun to see how it all plays out."

Whereas Rees might be learning on the job a bit after just three years as an offensive coordinator, it was a given that Saban wasn't going to bring in somebody on defense who needed "training wheels."

Not to run Saban's defense, which last finished in the top five nationally in points allowed in 2017, when the Tide led the country, allowing 11.9 points per game.

And make no mistake, it is and will remain Saban's defense. Steele has been behind that curtain on two other occasions, as defensive coordinator, linebackers coach and player personnel director.

Throughout his career, Saban has almost always hired guys to run his defense who already know the system, know how he wants it taught and know how he wants it run. Really, the only outlier has been Pete Golding, who left last month to be the Ole Miss defensive coordinator after holding that position for four seasons at Alabama.

"Nick has always had system guys -- guys who had been either football friends of his when he was an assistant or a younger head coach -- and they talked ball a lot and came up through the system with him," a former Alabama coach said. "Everybody kind of knew the nuances of the defense, which is pretty expansive, and how to apply the principles to defend certain things and the extensions of those things.

"And that got passed down through the family."

Steele is a member of that family going back even before he worked with Saban for the first time in 2007. Steele was the inside linebackers coach for the Carolina Panthers' first team in 1995. The head coach of that team was Dom Capers, who was with Saban at Kent State when they started their coaching careers as graduate assistants in the early 1970s. The offensive coordinator on that first Panthers team was Joe Pendry, who remains one of Saban's closest confidants in football.

"It's a big defensive family, a family that's intertwined, and Kevin has been groomed in that family," one longtime defensive coordinator said. "He knows what Nick wants, knows what the offseason program is supposed to look like, knows what Nick wants when it comes to developing players and knows that every detail matters."

Indeed, Saban has always had lineage connections on defense -- Kirby Smart, Will Muschamp, Jeremy Pruitt, Todd Grantham, Glenn Schumann, Bo Davis, Dean Pees, Capers and Steele. And there are others down through the years.

"They all grew up in the system or came up in the system in some fashion," one coach said. "I guess you could say they grew up in 'The Process.'"

Steele, 64, has had a close-up view of what that "process" looks like from two opposing vantage points in the SEC. He was LSU's defensive coordinator in 2015 and Auburn's defensive coordinator from 2016 to 2020. Auburn beat Alabama's 2017 national championship team, and Steele was a finalist for the Broyles Award that season as the top assistant coach in the country. He was out of a job after Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was fired following the 2020 season, sat out the 2021 season, then landed at Miami.

In nearly 40 years and 15 coaching stops, Steele's career is a prime example of how there are bound to be some dips along the way. He was a dreadful 1-31 in conference games as Baylor's head coach from 1999 to 2002, and he was fired as Clemson's defensive coordinator in January 2012 after the Tigers, who won the ACC championship that season, were torched 70-33 by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.

Steele, who played football at Tennessee under Johnny Majors, has worked for some of the biggest names in the sport, including Tom Osborne, Bobby Bowden, Dabo Swinney, Majors and now Saban for a third time.

"It's always in the eyes of the beholder," Osborne told ESPN in 2015 when discussing Steele's career. "What one person remembers about you might not be what other people remember about you. Kevin has had way more success than he has bumps in the road."

One longtime coach pointed out that Steele's recruiting success in the SEC footprint undoubtedly weighed heavily in Saban's decision. Like Saban, Steele is a relentless recruiter, and Saban trusted Steele implicitly in his evaluations of players and how they would fit in at Alabama during his prior stints with the Tide.

"The other thing about Kevin is he understands Nick and wore a lot of different hats in managing players and situations when he was there the last time," a former Alabama staffer said. "He also knows how to deal with him when the s--- hits the fan."

Some might say the stuff will hit the fan in Tuscaloosa if Alabama goes a third straight season without winning a national title -- which remarkably has never happened since Saban arrived in 2007 -- but history also tells us that it's foolish to start suggesting Saban has lost his fastball, even at 71.

Yes, he lost both of his coordinators, but he'll rely on one fresh face and one familiar face as their replacements in his quest to hoist a national championship trophy for the seventh time at Alabama.