Nick Saban knows defense.
Alabama has led the SEC in defense six straight seasons, winning three national titles in five years with a vice grips group that continues to churn on first-round draft picks by the fistful.
He also understands a thing or two about beating defenses. His last two quarterbacks, AJ McCarron and Greg McElroy, were a combined 60-7.
Florida State transfer Jacob Coker is presumed the favorite in new coordinator Lane Kiffin’s offense.
“We’re basically an unproven team in a lot of areas,” Saban said Thursday during his press conference at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. “In some cases — they are critical positions, like quarterback. We have a transfer player, Blake Sims was our quarterback in the spring and is certainly going to compete for the position and a couple of young guys. … It does create a question mark as to when is this going to resolve itself?”
One thing is new about Alabama — the Crimson Tide is learning how to handle an offseason that kicked off with a second straight loss in January, a lopsided loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl on the heels of the “Kick Six” gut punch in the Iron Bowl.
Saban even used the phrase “rebuilding situation” to describe his approach to this season.
“Our situation as a team is a lot different,” Saban said of balancing previous years when he spent the offseason battling complacency. “It’s a little bit different mindset with our players. We have to re-establish our identity as a team at Alabama. It’s going to take every player to have a tremendous amount of buy-in for us to do that. I think you basically need to check your ego at the door … trust in the things that have helped us be successful. And certainly have the willingness as a family and a group to serve each other.”
Blake Sims, a mobile quarterback, will likely have a role in the offense but Kiffin’s system of pro-style root concepts makes Coker, a 6-5, 225-pound pocket passer, a more ideal starter.
“The development of that position — no matter who it is — is going to be critical to the team,” Saban said, adding that the outside perception of Coker being the starter is not shared inside the program.
The media pick to win the SEC — the poll that stands as the perennial bane of Saban’s offseason — has yet to select a starter, but Saban has readymade options at his disposal after leading the nation in recruiting three years running.
Elite freshman Cam Robinson projects as the starter at left tackle in the opener Aug. 30 against West Virginia. The acclaimed recruit has the size and potential to become the next blocker to reach the NFL via early round draft choice, but the newcomer will be tested in Kiffin’s shifting, audible-reliant scheme.
To his benefit, Robinson will have a pair of seniors next to him at center and left guard.
He’s hardly the sole newbie to watch in Tuscaloosa. The skill position talent around Coker should be special. Experienced receivers such as Christion Jones and Amari Cooper will be joined by sophomore Chris Black, and an exceptional freshman class give Alabama its best collection of pass catchers in decades.
Running back T.J. Yeldon, one of seven returning starters on offense, is a Heisman Trophy candidate who could find the new offense very much to his liking. The junior, a former Mr. Football in Alabama,
Alabama, the media pick to win the West division and SEC, plays at LSU on Nov. 8 and hosts Auburn three weeks later (Nov. 29).
Those games will be significant in determining Alabama’s fate in the first College Football Playoff selection on Dec. 7.
“I do think when you look at the history of the BCS, they usually got it right,” Saban said, adding that he’s hopeful the playoff leans on 13 years of the BCS to tweak the system to get the right four teams. “The criticism always came when there were more than two teams that were deserving. Now, the same thing is going to happen with a four-team playoff.
“I think if we continue to expand, whether it’s a playoff system or whatever it is, I think we’re getting to a saturation point of how many games can a college football player play without overdoing it relative to responsibilities he has academically and the other things going on in his life. There’s only going to be a few teams that do that, and we’d certainly — I’m sure every coach — would like to be one of the teams with the opportunity.”