TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There will be a lot of talk about University of Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt when the Crimson Tide open the 2017 season against Florida State on Saturday night in Atlanta, and rightfully so.
He had the same role for the Seminoles during their 2013 national championship season, but what’s largely overlooked is that he’s going into season No. 2 as Nick Saban’s right-hand man.
Just like with players, the second time around can be much smoother for a coach as wrinkles get ironed out and everyone is more familiar with one another. Saban used to say of Pruitt’s predecessor Kirby Smart that they worked together for so long that sometimes he only had to think something and Smart would already be doing it.
Pruitt having worked before for the Crimson Tide was the key in his being rehired, as Saban usually prefers his coordinators to have some NFL experience. The transition appeared to be seamless and Alabama benefited from defensive end Jonathan Allen and linebacker Reuben Foster sticking around for their senior years.
Now comes the tricky part for Pruitt — doing it again, and without those big-name players.
But Alabama might just do that.
“Hooo … they’re going to be all right,” sophomore tight end Miller Forristall said. “They are fast and physical. I know we harp on that always, we always say that around here, but it’s true. They’re fast and physical and they’re nasty. They’re not afraid to hit you. They’re going to be all right.”
An example he gave was linebacker Rashaan Evans, who is stepping into a starting role as a senior and has the versatility to line up at different spots.
“He’s tough to block,” Forristall said. “You have to keep your head on a swivel.”
A lot has been made about Alabama’s turnover on defense, and rightfully so. Allen became the first player in Crimson Tide history to be named the national defensive player of the year, winning both the Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski awards. Foster was presented the program’s third Butkus Award since 2009.
Seven defensive players were selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, and all of them had been productive while making 162 starts and playing in a combined 262 career games.
Collectively their 877 tackles, 161.5 for a loss and 79 sacks were more than the rest of the team: 554 tackles, 118 for a loss (one every 4.7 plays) and 54 sacks.
Moreover, they scored eight touchdowns in 2016.
“It’s Bama,” senior cornerback Anthony Averett said. “We lose guys every year. Guys, new faces, new guys have to step up and become the big dogs just like the other guys that just left. We expect them to come in and take over.”
That’s become the culture under Saban. For every player who was a top recruit turned starter there’s another one or two on the depth chart, waiting for his chance and developing. The fans may not know who they are yet, but they’ll soon become familiar with the guys wearing jerseys like No. 33 (sophomore linebacker Anfernee Jennings) and No. 99 (sophomore defensive lineman Raekwon Davis).
Most of the other key replacements, including Evans, senior defensive end Da’Shawn Hand and junior linebacker Christian Miller, already have extensive playing experience. They just haven’t started.
Consequently, Saban didn’t waste any time during fall camp, stating in his opening news conference that the coaches were looking for the new alpha dogs of the defense, the ones who would step up as leaders. He already knew the roster had the necessary talent. The intangibles were the biggest question mark.
“Shaun Dion Hamilton can be that guy, Rashaan Evans can be that guy, and on the back end Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison can maybe lead the back end,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “So I think there are guys who can play, but it’s just again, until you see it, especially in a big game Week 1 against Florida State, you’re left kind of wondering if it can be as good as it’s been.”
Everyone wondered the same thing last year, when Alabama replaced six defensive starters, and the season before that, and so on.
It’s pretty much been that way every year under Saban, which Pruitt experienced firsthand as the Crimson Tide’s director of player development (2007-09) and defensive backs coach (2010-12).
“In this profession, it happens every year and it happens everywhere,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter if they go to the NFL or if they go into the work force. You have to replace them.
“It creates opportunities for other guys. That’s why they came here, to have an opportunity to get on the field and compete and play. I think we have good competition everywhere.”
Saban refuses to make comparisons, at least publicly. But during one of the few times Smart talked to Alabama reporters he indicated that the Crimson Tide defense regularly compares itself to one thing — other Crimson Tide defenses.
“This defense is as good as any I’ve ever been around,” Smart said before Alabama shut out LSU in the 2012 BCS Championship Game. “Obviously the 2009 group was really special … the only difference is I think this one has a little more speed on it.”
Last year’s defense came close, but 2011 is still considered the best during the Saban era, and maybe all of college football. The only other team in history to lead in the nation in all four major categories of team defense — total, scoring, rushing and pass efficiency — was Oklahoma in 1986.
Moreover, despite the significant rise in offense since 1992, Alabama’s last national championship season prior to Saban’s arrival, only one other defense limited opponents to less than nine points per game — Michigan (8.9) in 1997.
Alabama’s defense during the Saban era
(National rankings in parentheses)
|2007||345.5 (31)||22.9 (27)||124.2 (28)||117.2 (38)|
|2008||263.5 (3)||14.3 (7)||74.1 (2)||106.7 (14)|
|2009||244.1 (2)||11.7 (2)||78.1 (2)||87.7 (2)|
|2010||286.4 (5)||13.5 (3)||110.2 (10)||103.5 (6)|
|2011||183.6 (1)||8.2 (1)||72.2 (1)||83.7 (1)|
|2012||250.0 (1)||10.9 (1)||76.4 (1)||103.7 (7)|
|2013||286.5 (5)||13.9 (4)||106.2 (7)||116.8 (26)|
|2014||328.4 (12)||18.4 (6)||102.4 (4)||116.5 (30)|
|2015||276.3 (3)||15.1 (3)||75.7 (1)||105.2 (8)|
|2016||261.8 (2)||13.0 (1)||63.9 (1)||106.5 (9)|
When Pruitt worked for former Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher at Florida State in 2013, the Seminoles led the nation in scoring defense (12.1 points), were second in passing efficiency defense (93.77), third in total defense (281.4 yards), and 18th in rushing defense (124.8).
So he came back to Alabama with an impressive resume after two seasons at Georgia, and achieved the primary goal of avoiding a dropoff.
The 63.9 rushing yards allowed in 2016 were the best yet under Saban, and the sixth time Alabama was first or second nationally in rushing defense since 2008.
“That’s something we take pride in, stopping the run, and I’ve always been a hard-nosed, physical guy,” Jennings said. “I like being physical.”
Although Saban repeatedly says that sacks are an overrated statistic, and that the aim of the pass rush is to affect the quarterback, it’s the biggest unknown about the 2017 defense. None of the four players who had five or more sacks last season are still on the roster.
In 2016, Alabama led the nation in sacks with 54, and was third in sacks per game (3.6). The previous season was statistically almost identical with 53 and 5.3, respectively.
However, in 2014 Alabama was 61 st with 31 sacks in 14 games (2.2).
A lot of that just had to do with personnel, with both Smart and Pruitt playing to their strengths. For this defense, Evans and Miller are expected to be utilized in what Saban calls the “rabbits” package, but otherwise no one is quite sure where the pass rush will stem from.
“Any time you bring more than four guys, you’re putting pressure on the back end,” Pruitt said. “To do that, you have to have guys who can stand up and play man-to-man. Obviously, that’s where the pressure’s at. We had some guys back there that have experience and we have some guys that were good blitzers.”
Alabama’s experience in the secondary will help. Everyone in the dime package is an established veteran except for sophomore cornerback Trevon Diggs. The converted wide receiver was given a crash course in the position during the offseason and no one questions his athleticism.
“The good thing is at wide receiver and you come over there to DB you don’t have any bad habits,” Pruitt said. “You’re really just learning. I think Trevon’s got a good skill set.”
Having Diggs set would allow returning All-American Minkah Fitzpatrick to line up in different spots, including safety in the base package and either the fifth or sixth defensive back in nickel and dime, which Saban calls the Star and Money positions.
It could be a huge advantage for the Crimson Tide, not only in pass coverage, but in unexpected blitzes.
“It allows me to come off the edge or come through the middle and you really don’t know where it’s coming from,” Fitzpatrick said. “We can disguise it a whole lot better when we have a defensive back instead of a linebacker disguising, because it looks like I’m going to cover and then I can go and blitz. And if you have a linebacker [blitzing], he’s just sitting in the box and, you know, he might come.”
It’s just another wrinkle that Pruitt can utilize and make the 2017 defense a little different from previous years.
“We just feel like it’s our time now,” Jennings said. “It’s time for us to step up and play a role on this team, bigger than the one we had in the past.”
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