On College Football: Nick Saban, Thinking Ahead, Builds a Faster Defense to Get Him There
But it also showed the type of defense that Coach Nick Saban’s Alabama has — and, more to the point, has become.
During the first segment of Alabama’s dynasty — the three national titles won in the seasons from 2009 to 2012 — the Crimson Tide’s defenses sacrificed speed for size, bulldozing teams, holding Louisiana State to 0 points in one title game and Notre Dame to 14 in the next one. In recent years, though, Alabama has come to the realization that speed, even more than size, kills.
“I feel like we were a lot faster this game,” said the junior linebacker Rashaan Evans, who had seven tackles and a sack against Washington. “It shows how we adapt to each and every team.”
He added: “The offenses are constantly getting faster, so you as a defense, have to adapt anyway. I feel like this year, we adapted well to each and every team trying to spread us out.”
Many great football coaches are distinguished by specific philosophical bents. Vince Lombardi insisted on running the power sweep to perfection. Bill Walsh innovated the West Coast offense. Bill Parcells demanded toughness.
Like Bill Belichick, under whom he once served as a defensive coordinator in the N.F.L., Saban has as his defining characteristic an unwillingness to be shaped by a defining characteristic. Much as Belichick moved the New England Patriots from a tidy ball-control offense to an explosive one, and then later redefined the position of tight end, Saban sees where the rules, the players and the coaches are taking the game, and then he gets there faster and better than anyone else.
“The flexibility of being able to learn from others and change what you do relative to how the game changes is very, very important,” he said Friday.
It is because of such flexibility that Alabama (14-0) will face Clemson (13-1) for the national championship on Jan. 9 in Tampa, Fla., in a rematch of last year’s title game, won by Alabama, 45-40.
The Crimson Tide could become the first modern team to go 15-0 and the first since World War II to win five national titles in eight seasons.
But Clemson promises not to be a pushover. Last year, Alabama required a kick-return touchdown and an extra possession bought by a surprise onside kick to beat the Tigers by a slim margin.
This year, Clemson, which repeated as Atlantic Coast Conference champion, looks at least as scary. Behind quarterback Deshaun Watson, a Heisman Trophy finalist for the second year in a row, and with N.F.L.-quality talent at several offensive skill positions, the Tigers averaged more than 40 points a game before Saturday night’s other semifinal, when they hung 31 on Ohio State, which had entered with the third-best scoring defense in the F.B.S.
This is the juggernaut the Crimson Tide will have to slow, particularly if its own offense exhibits some of the struggles it did Saturday. Though much attention is being focused on running back Bo Scarbrough’s breakout day, which involved 180 yards, two touchdowns and some truly amazing jukes, quarterback Jalen Hurts completed only seven passes for just 57 yards, and his offense converted only four of 14 third-down attempts.
Still, Clemson’s offense is the kind that Alabama’s defense was built to defend, one with a quarterback with an accurate arm, fast legs and complex schemes of which to avail himself.
The story has been told before: that even amid his current run of dominance, Saban noticed the tendency of quarterbacks like Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel to conquer his otherwise world-beating defenses. So he took a chance on the former wunderkind Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator to install fast-paced schemes like the ones that gave Alabama’s defense so much trouble.
Less noticed, though, is that with many of the same defensive coaches, Saban also began recruiting a faster kind of defender and using aggressive substitutions to keep those players fresh. Saban had to compromise on size only so much: as the perennial recruiter of No. 1 classes, he was going to get practically whichever players he wanted anyway.
The nose tackle on his 2011 team, Terrence Cody, weighed north of 350 pounds. This year’s starter there, Da’ron Payne, is around 320, with a 40-yard dash time of less than five seconds.
“God is good. God gave a whole bunch of talent. That’s how they all got fast,” said Karl Dunbar, Alabama’s first-year defensive line coach. “And they chose to come to Alabama and not other schools.”
Whether God or Saban deserves prime responsibility, Alabama is reaping the rewards.
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