First and 10: Nick Saban's secret to success? He's not happy unless everybody is uncomfortable
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
A couple of years ago I was sitting in Mel Tucker’s office at Colorado discussing, among other things, why Nick Saban makes it look so easy.
Why it always looks like, no matter the obstacle, Saban has an answer for everything.
Colorado had just completed a spring practice prior to Tucker’s first season, one that had the look and feel of Saban’s Alabama practices, complete with a postmortem Come To Jesus moment when Tucker explained to all involved – players and assistant coaches – that they better get used to uncomfortable. Because that’s when growth happens.
“If you don’t like uncomfortable,” Tucker barked at his team, “there’s the (transfer) portal, man.”
“What people really don’t understand about Nick,” Tucker later said in his office, “is he holds himself to that same standard.”
You want uncomfortable? Bench your wildly successful starting quarterback at halftime of the National Championship Game.
You want uncomfortable? Fire your wildly successful offensive coordinator two weeks before the National Championship Game.
You want uncomfortable? Welcome to the 2021 season at Alabama.
Replace a quarterback who produced the greatest season in school history, arguably the greatest running back in school history, and two first-round NFL Draft picks at wide receiver.
And replace 10 – yep, 10! – assistants (on and off field) from last year’s coaching staff.
How, you ask, does Saban deal with uncomfortable? He loses the top assistant in college football (Steve Sarkisian), a coach instrumental in bringing the national title back to Tuscaloosa, and replaces him with an NFL coach.
Not just any NFL coach, either. Saban somehow convinces Bill O’Brien, who won 4 division titles in 7 seasons as coach of the Houston Texans, to ignore potential NFL jobs and return to the college game to run an offense and coach uber-talented sophomore quarterback Bryce Young.
O’Brien — who helped develop Tom Brady and Deshaun Watson in the NFL, and made Matt McGloin an NFL quarterback as the coach at Penn State – then pitches his best friend Doug Marrone (see: another fired NFL coach, who had the Jaguars a game from the Super Bowl during the 2017 season) to Saban, and Saban proceeds to convince Marrone that Tuscaloosa, not coaching offensive line in the NFL, is the place to be.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is what makes Saban better than every other coach: He’s comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Lane Kiffin once told me the thing that stuck with him more than any from his time with Saban was Saban’s need to have an answer for any situation.
On the field, off the field, recruiting. There always had to be a contingency for the plan in place. If this happens, then this happens – to the third and fourth levels.
“We’d be studying weather charts because if they weather changes, or the wind is blowing a certain way, it’s going to change our decision to do X, Y, and Z,” Kiffin said. “Little things are big things with him.”
So when spring practice began earlier this month, it’s no wonder Saban spent a good portion of a zoom session talking about personal responsibility with his young players – the group that will be a major factor in rebuilding a championship-ready program.
Understand this: Saban says nothing without intent. When he speaks to the media, he’s speaking to his players and reinforcing what he has said privately.
“It’s important that people be responsible for their own self-determination, especially young players who are trying to learn,” Saban said. “They can take things from the meeting, to the walk-through, to the field so they can progress and improve. Self-assessment for those kind of guys is really important to having respect for the critical eye.”
Translation: You determine if you play, if the team wins games, by the way you work and deal with critical coaching.
We’re less than 2 weeks into spring practice for the defending national champions, and they’re already uncomfortable.
And that’s a good thing.
2. The Young and restless
There was more than one coach on the Alabama staff who believed last season that Young would win the starting quarterback job.
But when the team returned from pandemic exile, it was clear Mac Jones had built on his impressive improvement during 15 bowl practices at the end of the 2019 season. The job was his – no matter what Young did during fall camp.
One former Alabama assistant told me last week, “I can’t wait to see (Young) when it’s his team. After he has put the work in over spring and summer. He’s a special talent.”
The obvious question: How will Young and O’Brien mesh?
O’Brien has a stellar reputation in the coaching community for developing quarterbacks and coordinating offenses. The Texans were at their best when O’Brien was focused on developing quarterbacks and offenses, and at their worst in his last season when O’Brien became de facto general manager and gained control of personnel decisions.
Again, you don’t win 4 division titles in the NFL without doing something extremely well. O’Brien knows the passing game, and that’s where his impact will be its greatest.
Saban’s program has evolved from “game managers” at the position (John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron, Jacob Coker), to game changers (Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones).
O’Brien’s ability to get the most from Young is the first critical step for an offense that won’t have nearly the same personnel it had over the last 3 seasons. There will be more quarterback runs with Young, but the basic concepts of what Saban has embraced as an offensive philosophy will stay the same.
He has made it very clear that the new assistants will “learn the system that we had here before, and try to improve on it.”
3. Embracing the uncomfortable, The Epilogue
If you’re looking for a blueprint for 2020, look back to the 2016 season.
Alabama won the 2015 national title, and entered 2016 with questions at quarterback and tailback, and issues on the offensive line.
Hurts took over at quarterback early in Game 1, and the offense found itself shortly thereafter. Pass protection wasn’t an issue early because of Hurts’ ability to break containment with his legs and stress defenses in the run game.
This tailback room is inexperienced but deep with talent, just like in 2016. The only difference in the seasons: the 2016 team had Calvin Ridley, a legitimate All-American, returning as WR1.
The 2020 team has John Metchie III, who had a strong sophomore season (55 catches, 15.7 ypc., 6 TD) despite being overshadowed by DeVonta Smith. Tight end Jahleel Billingsley will be used more like Florida used Kyle Pitts, spread outside in man situations to use his big frame.
And to make everyone feel more uneasy about dealing with Alabama: 3 of the 4 freshmen wideouts — Jacorey Brooks (5-star), Agiye Hall (4-star), Christian Leary (4-star) – who have been compared to the 2017 freshman class of wideouts (Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Smith), have enrolled and are participating in spring practice.
4. Reconstructing Nix
There’s big news from Auburn spring practice, everyone.
Bo Nix will take more snaps from under center in 2021.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s zero in on what’s important: How does new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo make Nix an efficient, winning quarterback?
There’s this common misconception that Nix is at his best when he’s creating and off schedule. But the wow plays that are great for highlights are toxic for his development.
Nix is best – it’s proven statistically over his first two seasons at Auburn – when he’s in the pocket, going through progressions and throwing on time.
Or as one SEC defensive coordinator told me, “We wanted him outside and throwing off (schedule). His accuracy goes way, way down.”
Auburn’s offense will be built around the philosophies Bryan Harsin learned for years as an assistant under Dan Hawkins and Chris Petersen at Boise State, and that he further developed as head coach.
Boise State quarterbacks don’t run off schedule and “make plays.” There’s a precision to the system.
Just like the system Bobo has used for years while offensive coordinator at Georgia under Mark Richt, and while head coach at Colorado State. How many Georgia quarterbacks under Richt were at their best off schedule?
There will be a power run game, just like Boise State (and Georgia) had. There will be double tight end sets. There will also be 4- and 5-wide sets, and yes, there will be plenty from the shotgun.
The idea of changing Nix for the better doesn’t revolve around where he receives the snap – but how he moves within the pocket once he does.
5. The Weekly Five
Five reasons Georgia still is a championship contender despite the injury to star WR George Pickens:
1. JT Daniels is QB1. The sport is all about the quarterback.
2. Jermaine Burton is on the verge of becoming elite, and might have passed Pickens to WR1, anyway.
3. Kearis Jackson, the team’s leading receiver, is back and is a dependable 3rd-and-make-a-play option.
4. The tight end – Darnell Washington (6-7, 260 pounds) – will become more a factor in the offense (see: Alabama offense with O.J. Howard).
5. The return of WR Dominick Blaylock from an ACL injury in 2019 gives Georgia another deep threat.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout analyzes a 2022 draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Texas A&M DL DeMarvin Leal.
“Where does he play? He can play inside or out, and he’d probably fit better in a classic 3-4 as an anchor end. Does he have the bulk to play inside in our league? I don’t know. But I know this: He’s a disrupter. He could be a top-10 pick.
“He’s a lot like Ed Oliver coming out of college, in the sense that you can play him all over your front, but you’re going to eventually have to find a place that works for everyone. Oliver eventually grew into his position in our league. So could Leal. He’s ridiculously athletic for a 280-290 pounds, and he’s consistently winning individual battles on the line in the best league in college football.
“He’s powerful at the point, and is much quicker than you think off the edge. That ability to rush the passer is huge if he’s playing inside.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll: ranking the SEC’s defensive coordinators.
1. Mike Elko, Texas A&M: Everywhere he has been in FBS – Bowling Green, Wake Forest, Notre Dame, Texas A&M – his defenses have been among the best in the nation.
2. Barry Odom, Arkansas: The first DC last season to figure out Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, and everyone followed the game plan.
3. Dan Lanning, Georgia: Georgia was No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense in his first season as a defensive coordinator in 2019. Numerous injuries contributed to some slippage last season (No.16 in the nation).
4. Derek Mason, Auburn: Built his résumé as an elite DC at Stanford, the trudged through the heavy lifting that is Vanderbilt football. The most important hire for new Auburn coach Bryan Harsin.
5. Brad White, Kentucky: A longtime NFL assistant, White arrived in Lexington in 2019 and the Wildcats didn’t give up more than 30 points in a game for the first time since 1974. UK was 14th in the nation in scoring defense that season and 5th in the SEC in last year’s COVID season.
6. D.J. Durkin, Ole Miss: Durkin has too much success on his résumé as a DC (Florida, Michigan) to think he won’t get things turned around at Ole Miss. It’s a talent issue now, one that was specifically addressed in recruiting.
7. Pete Golding, Alabama: Third-down defense has gotten progressively worse under Golding, and the Tide are a long way from where they were in the early Saban years. But how fair is that? The game is different now, and defenses are at a distinct disadvantage – and Alabama gave up all of 19.4 ppg last season.
8. Todd Grantham, Florida: It’s “Third and Grantham,” and it depends on how you look at it: pressure forces quick decisions and turnovers, or reckless calls lead to big plays. It’s a crapshoot, and the ultimate risk/reward philosophy.
9. Tim Banks, Tennessee: A critical hire for new Vols coach Josh Heupel, who defenses at UCF struggled in the second half his tenure in Orlando. Banks, a top assistant on the Penn State staff, is yet another DC hire whose specialty is coaching the secondary.
10. Zach Arnett, Mississippi State: Despite losing 7 starters from 2019, the Bulldogs made strides across the board in Arnett’s first season – despite the struggles of the MSU offense.
11. Steve Wilks, Missouri: A former NFL head coach and a respected defensive mind in the league, Wilks’ first season in Columbia was a struggle with a young unit that played well in spots against the lesser offenses in the SEC, but got smashed against the SEC’s elite offenses (just about every SEC defense did).
12. Daronte Jones, LSU: Former LSU DC Dave Aranda pushed LSU coach Ed Orgeron to hire Jones, a longtime NFL assistant. His impressive work as secondary coach with the Vikings was attractive for Orgeron, who watched his secondary give up far too many big plays in 2020.
13. Clayton White, South Carolina: His defenses got progressively better at Western Kentucky, despite playing in a league where points are premium. This will clearly be a significant jump in degree of difficulty.
14. Jesse Minter, Vanderbilt: The son of longtime CFB defensive coach Rick Minter, Jesse Minter fits the staff mold for new Vandy coach Clark Lea: young, multiple levels of experience (CFB and NFL), fresh ideas.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: We just finished a season where the SEC played 10 conference games and the world didn’t end. Is it possible that could impact future scheduling?
— Sharon Thompson, Charlotte
Sharon: First, understand where we begin: The SEC played 8 game a season from 1992-2019 and became to dominant conference in college football. From their view, why fix what isn’t broken? But SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has always been proactive in areas that can and will shape the college football landscape.
There’s no greater issue than the one thing that makes college football so strong: television. Money generated from television deals makes everything work in all 14 athletic departments, and throughout college football. But there’s no denying it’s becoming easier to sit at home and watch games on television instead of investing in a weekend at a game and all that goes with it (money, convenience, hours away from home, etc.).
College football has the old guard, men and women in their 40s, 50s and 60s who will continue to attend games. But the younger generation isn’t as invested. How do you get them to the stadiums? Better games.
That’s why nonconference schedules are beginning to beef up. It’s not a projected move to 8 teams in the Playoff; that’s going to happen no matter what changes in the nonconference schedule.
Schools need fans in seats to buy seat licenses and tickets, and concessions and apparel – and everything that goes with a football weekend. That doesn’t happen with Arkansas vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff; it happens with Arkansas vs. Notre Dame.
If the SEC can’t find additional revenue streams (i.e. streaming rights deals with Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, etc), they’ll be forced to change the product on the field to entice fans to return to campus. That means an expanded SEC schedule.
9. Numbers: 54.89
Here we go into Year 4 with Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M, and nearly every way-too-early Top 25 poll has the Aggies among the top 10 in the nation – despite a few glaring and significant weaknesses.
Texas A&M was a top 5 team last season because the Aggies had a senior quarterback (Kellen Mond), a veteran offensive line and a star running back (Isaiah Spiller) who allowed them to convert a whopping 54.89 percent of 3rd-down conversion.
Spiller will be one of the best players in college football, but projected starting QB Haynes King has attempted 4 career passes and every other option at the position hasn’t thrown a pass. The offensive line loses 4 starters.
The two previous seasons under Fisher, the Aggies converted 41.2% of 3rd downs (2018) and 40% (2019). The difference in those numbers is too significant to ignore, and too glaring to assume Texas A&M is a top-10 team.
10. Quote to note
LSU coach Ed Orgeron on his new offensive and defensive coordinators: “You’ve got some young coordinators that want to prove themselves, that are very hungry. I can already see the difference in this team, as far as execution and practice, opposed to last year.”