TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban began his signing day news conference with something of a joke, telling the assembled media how much he’d missed them since January when his Alabama Crimson Tide lost to the Oklahoma Sooners in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Everyone in the room snickered at his sarcasm, but for Alabama fans throughout the country, there wasn’t much comedy to be found in a reminder of that game. The loss at Auburn to end the regular season hurt enough, but that was nothing compared to what occurred in New Orleans when Alabama was dominated by Oklahoma in a game that exposed many of the Tide’s deficiencies.
On Wednesday, Saban seemed to have moved on from the loss, though. He was too busy enjoying the top-ranked recruiting class he’d just assembled, one that has all the potential to be looked back on as the best in school history. It has five five-star prospects and a total of 19 ESPN 300 recruits. A few hours earlier he and his staff stole Rashaan Evans, the No. 2 outside linebacker in the country, out of Auburn’s backyard. It was a win that won’t count on the scoreboard of the next Iron Bowl, but it was a moral victory Alabama desperately needed.
If there were any Alabama fans still wallowing in the way last season ended against Auburn and Oklahoma, they should have joined Saban and put on a smile. Why? Because Saban didn’t simply add some of the best talent in the country this week, he also answered each and every need Alabama had on its roster, most notably the need for more athletic defenders to help stop the letdown it experienced in the final two games of the season against offenses that employed some form of the spread or hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
Saban has said on multiple occasions recently how important it is for Alabama to adapt to the changing landscape of college football. His system has long relied on big, heavy bodies on the defensive line to clog running lanes and free up linebackers to play in space. And for a while, no one had an answer for it as his defenses at LSU and Alabama routinely dominated the point of attack. But as more and more mobile quarterbacks have begun moving the pocket and more and more hurry-up offenses have sped up the game, the size Saban so covets has been nullified. Three-hundred pound defensive linemen are too slow to catch quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel and Nick Marshall, and they’re too slow to catch someone like Trevor Knight when he’s getting rid of the ball in the blink of an eye.
The litany of personnel packages Saban was known for using have become outdated as well. It’s not that they’re no longer effective, they’re simply no longer applicable. With so many teams going without a huddle on offense, there’s no time to substitute players. So, in turn, Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have had to simplify the defense and find players who can play multiple roles. That means no more lumbering defensive ends and no more linebackers who don’t have the speed to cover a slot receiver. Athleticism and versatility is now the name of the game.
“One of the goals we had was to get a little more fast-twitch, quicker body type guys to play on the edges for us,” Saban said. “We're playing against a lot more spread. I feel between the outside backer types we got as well as some of the more athletic kind of defensive ends we got that maybe we satisfied that need as well.”
“We’re excited about Rashaan,” Saban added later in the news conference, “who not only is a fantastic athlete and exactly what we're looking for in terms of the more athletic, fast-twitch edge player who can rush, but also has great character, is a really good person.”
Alabama met a lot of its needs on Wednesday: two five-star corners in Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, a slew of offensive linemen that included standouts Cameron Robinson and Dominick Jackson, a quarterback in four-star David Cornwell. But no need was more obviously met than pass rushers. Evans and Christian Miller are the top two outside linebackers in the country, and both have the speed to chase down the quarterback or drop back in coverage. D.J. Pettway is a veteran defensive end with the ability to play the run and the pass, and five-star Da'Shawn Hand is one of the nation’s premiere edge rushers as well.
How each player develops remains to be seen. But as we saw last season, it’s not that farfetched to imagine some of this year’s 27-man signing class playing in the coming season. True freshmen A'Shawn Robinson was among the most impressive newcomers in the SEC in 2013 with a team-high 5.5 sacks, and fellow defensive lineman Jonathan Allen was a consistent contributor as well, appearing in 12 games. Both could vie for starting jobs as sophomores now that Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson are gone, loosening up the logjam on the second and third string for newcomers such as Hand and Pettway.
The hope for Saban and Alabama is that with more athleticism on the field at every level, outcomes like last season won’t happen again. Instead of getting one hand on players like Manziel and Marshall, maybe they’ll get two hands and a tackle.
Saban’s change in philosophy has been steady. The question is how quickly it catches on.