TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When there's a turnover, it's like a virus that infects the defenders all at once. Every player in crimson sees red, ready to turn a mistake from the offense into points of their own. Forget letting AJ McCarron & Co. take the ball into the end zone; they'd rather do the job themselves.
Alabama coach Nick Saban called his team's drive to create turnovers, and in turn capitalize on them, a mental trait, one the staff has instilled in recent years. He said they spent the offseason looking at how the New Orleans Saints force turnovers and have tried to implement the same type of conditioning in Tuscaloosa.
That means forcing fumbles in practice even after the whistle has blown. As Saban explained it, "When the ball's on the ground, we scoop it and try to score with it, even if it's not a fumble."
"There are sneaky ones like Robert Lester," said UA running back Eddie Lacy. "He’s a sneaky one. He’ll wait for you to turn around and jog back to the huddle and he’ll just come up behind you and knock it out."
Lacy joked that, "It’s not fair, but our coaches don’t care about fair. They just care about the ball." That means taking the ball themselves if they have to.
"[Strength coach Scott Cochran] gets you like right when you least expect it," Lacy said. "We watch out for him the whole time but then you’ll kind of forget about him and then he just pops up and hits the ball out."
Lacy joked that he didn't know what the consequence for turning the ball over was, but he wasn't ready to find out.
"Let’s just say we hear a lot of things we don’t want to after fumbling the ball," he explained.
Saban said the habit of forcing the ball out in practice has had an effect on both sides of the football. The offense is tied for fourth in the country in turnovers lost with just one this season. Conversely, the defense is No. 1 in turnovers gained with 12. Alabama forced 20 turnovers in the entire 2011 season.
"It's a consciousness and an awareness as much as anything," Saban said. "I think it gets a little bit contagious. Sometimes that becomes psychological and you start getting a lot of turnovers.
"It's the same thing when you're a runner. If you get a reputation as a fumbler, sometimes that's hard to shake. How much of that is physical and how much of it is psychological? I'm not sure. Sometimes if you tell somebody they are something for long enough, they start believing it."
Through three games, the defense is buying in and believing in going for the turnover whenever possible. Alabama pounced on three fumbles against Arkansas and intercepted two passes. One of those interceptions came ever so close to being returned for a touchdown. Nose guard Jesse Williams sprinted ahead of the play -- with all of his 320 pounds -- and nearly threw a block that would have resulted in a touchdown, had Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix taken the ball 3 more yards into the end zone.
Alabama has come close to translating turnovers into points, just not yet.
"You just got to get in there," Clinton-Dix said. "We had the blocks set up; I just had to get in there.
"We do it every day in practice. Finishing is what we strive on a lot."
If Clinton-Dix and the rest of the defense continues chasing the ball like they have, they'll hit pay dirt sooner or later.