No college football program has been better at sacking quarterbacks in recent years than Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide.
For Saban, hunting quarterbacks is not just about talent, it’s about attitude. Alabama’s staff talks about opposing QBs as though they’re a plague sent to harm the human race, and only they have the answer. I can assure you it’s not a matter of life or death; it’s much more than that.
Offseason coaching clinics are usually cramped spaces. Sometimes they smell. That’s the unfortunate reality of being a coach or reporter welcomed into another coach’s domain.
Big, air-conditioned rooms become small and confined. Extra tables are squeezed in. Visiting coaches are made to feel like students again; rapidly taking notes, and perhaps glancing once or twice at another student’s paper.
Alabama’s meeting room can become claustrophobic during its annual clinic. Everybody wants to get in, with the hope that some part of Nick Sabanology will rub off on their program. High school coaches flood the room, eager to learn from the best in the business — and perhaps build a rapport that could help their soon-to-be-recruited tailback.
The NFL sends guys, too. Any chance to sit down with one of history’s greatest defensive innovators can’t be missed, whether you’re in the pros or not. After all, Saban is one of the architects of the pattern-matching and multi-gap systems that are now flooded throughout the league. Oh, and he sits on a yearly war chest of first-round draft picks.
Alabama’s clinic is one of the few times college football’s most professional program lets the world in and lets its secrets out. Kind of like Willy Wonka letting you in to check out how the candy is made. Not everything is revealed, but you get a damn sweet taste.
Since 2009, Alabama’s fronts have terrorized offensive coordinators, quarterbacks and offensive lines with an as-yet-unmatched blend of talent and ferocity. Sure, the likes of Clemson, Ohio State, LSU and Florida State have churned out a nasty amount of talent, to go with an equally nasty style of play, but they haven’t quite sustained it like Saban and company for nearly a decade.
The year 2009 is important. It’s a seminal one for the program. Saban had been in Tuscaloosa for two seasons. He had completed the building blocks of the soon-to-be dynasty and the program was ready to take off. The Tide finished that year with the first of their four national championships.
The offseason before, like Wonka, Saban welcomed folks into his chocolate factory for the yearly coaching clinic. You didn’t need a golden ticket, mind you. A coaching hookup and a thirst for football was enough to get you through the door. It remains legendary to this day. A star-studded lineup spoke. Now-Florida coach Jim McElwain gave a presentation on option routes, then-Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne discussed leadership and now-Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett discussed building a winning culture.
It was Alabama outside linebackers coach Sal Sunseri who stole the show, though. Sunseri, who now coaches linebackers for the Oakland Raiders, revealed the program’s ethos on rushing the passer. They’re not just football players looking to make plays, they’re a pack of wolves out on a hunt. He used five simple phrases to describe the mindset: to stalk, to hunt, to be relentless, to have a killer instinct and to create a nightmare.
Those are ruthless and hostile words, perhaps hyperbolic for a game. But Alabama football doesn’t just espouse them, it lives by them. Playing along Alabama’s front is as much about harnessing that mindset, on and off the field, as it is the bulging muscles and hellacious speed of countless 5-star recruits.
“You have to be a tough guy,” former star defensive lineman Jonathan Allen told ESPN’s Alex Scarborough. “You have to be a dog, as we say around here, to go through what we go through. You have to have that nasty, mean edge about you.”
When there’s a chance to evoke a hunter’s mentality, the pass rushers jump at it.
“You just have to open up and be a beast,” former edge rusher Tim Williams told ESPN following the 2016 SEC Championship Game. “That’s what we have on this defense: straight predators.”
The 2015 and 2016 squads became the pinnacle of Saban’s nightmare-creating fronts. They stalked, they hunted and they were relentless. They finished first in havoc rate in 2015 and sixth last season, per Football Study Hall. Put simply: They lived in opposing backfields.
It was easier for the 2015 team. Depth allowed it to constantly rotate, playing to the strengths of a star-laden roster. Jonathan Allen, A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed (all future first- and second-round draft choices) anchored the multi-gap run system on early downs, before Robinson and Reed made way for Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams (future second- and third-round draft choices, respectively) and Allen to tee off on passing downs.
So, 2016 was more difficult. Robinson and Reed moved to the pros, forcing Williams and Anderson into full-time duty. The Tide remained relentless and didn’t stop creating nightmares. They finished with more sacks than any team in the nation — 54 — and showcased their killer instinct by leading the nation in third-quarter sacks.
And 2017 is about to get even more difficult. Allen — the best interior defender in the country — Williams and Anderson are all gone. Saban will set loose a new pack of wolves.
The team is more likely to resemble the 2015 squad than the one from last year, at least in approach, if not talent. A number of inexperienced players will be expected to play a high volume of snaps. Creating a series of packages, rather than having four to five every-down players, will allow each player to focus on an individual assignment and carrying out his job, rather than having to understand the nuances of every front and every concept.
Some old hands are returning. Da’Ron Payne can be a one-man wrecking crew inside. He will be partnered up front by former top overall recruit Da’Shawn Hand — who has massively underperformed as a pass rusher but is a stout run defender who shows a good understanding of the complexities of a two-gap system. And at linebacker, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans will keep the Crimson Tide as athletic as ever.
There are question marks about the edge-rushing spots, however. Hand can play outside on base downs, but he lacks the quick twitch and bend to play there as a pass rusher. It’s likely that defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will experiment with kicking Evans outside as a sub-rusher in certain packages. But the Tide will need his athleticism to cover hash mark to sideline as well, ruling him out as the go-to sack-getter.
It’s likely that those edge-rushing roles will fall to fresh names.
Redshirt sophomore Anfernee Jennings may be the best of them all. Saban has routinely praised him during the spring. Jennings is a power-rush linebacker who slots neatly between Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson as a comparison. He isn’t as explosive off the line as Williams, nor is he as refined technically as Anderson (who had the best hands in the country), but he sprinkles elements of each player’s game with his play.
Jennings likes to sink his hips and go to the bull rush whenever he can. And he plays with the “dog” mentality that Allen said was a prerequisite to hunt quarterbacks for Saban — bringing it on each and every play.
Jennings isn’t the only one. As always, Saban has stacked the roster will otherworldly levels of talent: Keith Holcombe, Christian Miller, Mack Wilson, Terrell Hall, Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs will all feature in the rotation. But it’s clear those who master the Saban ethos — having an obsession with chasing quarterbacks — can usurp those with the most raw talent.
Regardless of who ends up on the field, you best believe that Saban’s latest defense will once again be feasting in opposing backfields.