TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The television cameras may not catch it, but there will come a time during Alabama’s high-profile game against Southern California on Saturday night when something goes wrong for the Crimson Tide defense.
It might be the kind of thing that happens during every game, such as a botched call, missed adjustment or poor substitution. Perhaps it’ll be something much bigger. Regardless, it’ll probably be the first time that not having Kirby Smart on the Crimson Tide sideline will be noticeable.
“I think that Kirby will be greatly missed at Alabama,” Gary Danielson of CBS said about the Alabama defensive coordinator turned Georgia head coach.
This isn’t to suggest that his replacement, Jeremy Pruitt, won’t do a good job at Alabama. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see little or no change statistically from what the Crimson Tide defense did in 2015.
But it will be different—for the players, for the fans and, most importantly, for head coach Nick Saban, who had become so familiar with his former protege that he often only needed to give him a look or a glance to get a point across. They had a connection that takes years to develop.
Having that kind of right-hand man to rely on is a rare thing that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Saban’s even said that one of the reasons why they worked so well together was they thought alike and thus always seemed to be on the same wavelength when it mattered most.
“He’s certainly the co-pilot on that defense, if not the pilot,” former coach Rick Neuheisel said about Saban, the architect of the defense his teams run. “That’s not to take away from Kirby Smart. Kirby’s going to be terrific in his new role as the head coach at Georgia, but Nick Saban is all about that defense.”
Although Danielson and Neuheisel are colleagues at CBS, they don’t see eye-to-eye on how much the change will affect the Crimson Tide. Yet both make good points.
Almost like with the quarterback position, coaching turnover doesn’t seem to affect the Crimson Tide in Saban’s “process.” Alabama simply keeps winning regardless.
“I don’t know if there’s anyone more prepared for that hurdle than Nick Saban,” said Neuheisel, who went 87-58 over 12 seasons at Colorado, Washington and UCLA. “He’s got almost a bullpen of coaches.
“Tosh Lupoi, who was considered one of the up-and-coming coaches on the West Coast, was an [Alabama] analyst before becoming his outside linebacker coach. It’s almost as if he has people feeling out what he’s doing with respect to the process before they get the job as an incoming position coach.”
Pruitt was one of those guys as well. Having played for Gene Stallings in 1995 and 1996, he began his career at Alabama as a student coach in 1997 and then started working his way up the prep ranks, including a three-year stint at nearby Hoover High School just outside of Birmingham, Alabama.
During Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa, Pruitt joined the Crimson Tide staff as the director of player development in 2007. In 2010, he was promoted to defensive backs coach to work alongside the head coach during practices. (Saban still coaches the cornerbacks.)
It wasn’t long before Pruitt became the front-runner to someday follow Smart as defensive coordinator, but former Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher stepped in and hired him at Florida State. Installing the same defensive system, the Seminoles went undefeated and won the 2013 national championship.
Georgia and Mark Richt came calling next with a significant pay raise in 2014. (“For the last two years I learned as much about being a man from him as anything,” Pruitt said.) But when the Bulldogs named Smart their head coach last winter, Saban only had to make one phone call to find a replacement.
So although this will be Pruitt’s first season working for Saban as his defensive coordinator, it’s his seventh in the program. Similarly, new secondary coach Derrick Ansley previously worked at Alabama as a defensive graduate assistant coach (2010-2011), so his transition appeared to be almost seamless.
“It’s pretty much always the same,” senior defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson said. “All the new defensive coaches, we’re working great with them. They’re working great with us. They’re teaching us a lot of things we didn’t know.”
Danielson, though, wonders what’s going to happen when something unexpected occurs during a game or how the defense will react to a key injury, which would be Pruitt’s first big test. After three defensive backs who were expected to contribute transferred (Shawn Burgess-Becker, Maurice Smith and Kendall Sheffield), depth could be a real issue in the secondary and possibly with the defensive line.
“The first thing that players do when things go bad [is] they find an excuse, and it’s never them,” he said. “If things don’t go well at Ole Miss, the first thing they’re going to say is that Kirby wouldn’t have called it that way. I think it’s going to be a challenge.”
Another factor is Alabama’s schedule. Beginning with the No. 20 Trojans, the Crimson Tide have to play all four of their opponents in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 away from Bryant-Denny Stadium (season opener at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas).
“They have a humiliated LSU team that can’t wait to play them,” Danielson said. “They have a Tennessee team that came two back-shoulder fade passes from winning the game last year, and they have them at home this year, and they have to play Ole Miss early with probably the best quarterback in the league.”
That would be tough for any new coordinator, especially with a juggernaut like USC up first. And the Trojans had all summer to think of ways to attack the reigning national champions. JuJu Smith-Schuster may be the best wide receiver in the nation, they return a veteran offensive line, and they boast a strong stable of running backs.
Yet this isn’t the same Alabama defense either, especially at linebacker, where senior Reuben Foster is the only returning full-time starter. Whereas Reggie Ragland may have been representative of the 2015 defense, Foster’s become what Saban would call the alpha dog in the interior, the boss.
“Reuben Foster gets from Point A to Point B faster,” ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. said in the spring. “I think Foster will be a better prospect next year than Ragland.”
Foster said he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds while weighing 240 pounds last year. He also ranked second in team tackles (73), had eight tackles for loss, two sacks and nine passes defended.
He’s now closer to 225 pounds and eager to show the difference.
“[It’s] like testing a new automobile,” Foster said. “I’m ready to drive a Ferrari.”
Factor in senior outside linebackers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson—who combined for 24 tackles for a loss and 16.5 sacks despite not making a single start in 2015—and junior Rashaan Evans looking like he could be a major contributor as well, and it’s easy to see why fans believe this year’s defense could develop into something special.
In terms of overall talent, Pruitt’s inheriting a defense with 10 players 247Sports’ composite rankings considered 5-star prospects: defensive linemen Da’Shawn Hand, Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne; linebackers Foster, Ben Davis, Evans and Lyndell Wilson; and defensive backs Tony Brown, Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick. He recruited some of them, Smart all of them.
Using 247Sports’ composite team rankings, that’s more 5-star players than some entire conferences can boast, including the Big Ten and the Big 12.
Much like with the coaching staff, how well everyone jells will obviously determine a lot. But despite having six new starters on defense, everyone already has experience in the system and knows what’s expected.
So yes, Alabama is going to miss Smart, the 2012 AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year and the 2009 Broyles Award winner as college football’s top assistant coach. How could it not? The trick for Pruitt will be to make it look like it doesn’t.
What he should hope for is to draw the same kind of attention as the offensive linemen, who don’t often get noticed unless something goes wrong. The less he’s talked about, the better Alabama’s D is doing.
“I hope my thumbprint here is that we continue to have the same success that we’ve had,” Pruitt said.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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Source: Bleacher Report -SEC Football