Saban’s willingness to innovate keeps Alabama ahead of the college football curve

Nick Saban

Alabama Coach Nick Saban celebrates after the Crimson Tide won their playoff semifinal against Washington on Dec. 31, 2016.

(Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)

Some coaches like to talk about their success, expounding on various strategies, telling the world exactly what they did right.

Nick Saban is not that type.

The Alabama coach stands atop his profession, leading his top-ranked team into the College Football Playoff championship game against No. 2 Clemson on Monday with a chance to tie Bear Bryant’s record of six national titles.

Asked recently about his approach to the job, he offered a modest reply.


“I haven’t really ever invented anything in this game,” he told reporters, adding: “Always just learned from really good people that had success.”

The Crimson Tide often benefit from having the most talent on the field, attracting a new crop of blue-chip recruits each spring. And Saban usually makes good in-game decisions, including a surprise onside kick that proved crucial in defeating Clemson for the title last year.

But Alabama enjoys another edge that isn’t as evident on television.

Since arriving in Tuscaloosa a decade ago, Saban has quietly and consistently stayed ahead of the curve on behind-the-scenes tactics that involve recruiting, staffing and practice.


It all adds up to a program that has won 26 consecutive games and is trying for a fifth championship in eight seasons.

“I tip my hat to them,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said. “Unbelievable run they’ve had under Coach Saban. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Earlier this week, Saban spoke briefly about adjustments he has made in the kind of players he recruits, especially on the defensive line, that have been key to success.

Though he resisted the trend toward up-tempo, spread attacks in the college game — updating his offense only recently — Saban accounted for the change in opponents by looking for specific types of athletes.

The result is someone like All-America defensive end Jonathan Allen, who ranks among the top handful of college players at any position. He has 15 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and has returned two fumbles for touchdowns this season.

“It takes even a different sort of guy that’s more versatile, more athletic, because of the pace of play as well as the style of play that has kind of taken over in college football,” Saban said. “To find guys that are athletic enough to play that position but still strong enough and stout enough to be able to play gaps and play blocks and control the line of scrimmage is even more challenging than it’s ever been before.”

Once Alabama finds and signs these recruits, the program takes extra steps in preparing them to play.

NCAA rules limit each top-level college team to one head coach, nine assistants and four graduate assistants. The Crimson Tide website lists nine additional names under the category of “football analyst.”


These paid consultants are not allowed to deal directly with players during practices or games, but can break down film and advise the coaching staff on a daily basis.

Some of Alabama’s analysts are relative newcomers, such as Shea Tierney, who previously worked in the Philadelphia Eagles’ front office. Others are veterans with free time between jobs; Mike Locksley, the former offensive coordinator at Maryland, signed on last spring.

Steve Sarkisian, who was head coach at Washington and USC, held one of the positions until this week, when he was promoted to offensive coordinator.

The information and experience that analysts impart can have a tangible impact on game day.

“It just makes it that much easier to go out there and just play faster because they know so much and they work so hard,” linebacker Ryan Anderson said recently. “They watch so much film so some [assistants] don’t have to.”

Saban is widely recognized for starting the trend years ago. Now many top programs — at least, those that can afford the larger payroll — employ analysts.

“I think those guys now have created a role and a niche for themselves that’s very important to every program because we all depend on them,” Saban said.

Alabama has been at the forefront of another development — enlisting former players to be stand-ins in practice.


Five years ago, Trent Richardson was an All-American running back for the Crimson Tide. He played three seasons in the NFL, ending in 2014. This season, before a key game against Louisiana State, he returned to campus to serve on the scout team, playing the role of LSU star Leonard Fournette.

Defenses benefit immensely from preparing against talented athletes instead of the third- and fourth-string players usually charged with mimicking the other team.

Before the Texas A&M game, former quarterback Blake Sims pretended to be Aggies star Trevor Knight. For LSU, John Parker Wilson posed as Tigers quarterback Danny Etling.

Again, Alabama is pushing the envelope on NCAA rules, which allow former students to participate in practice on an “occasional basis.” Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer looked startled when informed of this earlier in the season.

“In practice?” he said. “I did not know that.”

It seems California may have actually tried to exploit the rule first, bringing Marshawn Lynch back over the summer, but Saban has taken the idea and run with it. Clemson certainly noticed, using former Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd to get the defense ready for the Fiesta Bowl clash with Ohio State.

“Tajh was a great look for us,” Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables told reporters. “Great advantage, I would think.”

Asked if Alabama planned to make use of former players to prepare for Clemson, Saban answered: “Yep.”

Given his reputation for being intense and detail-oriented, it comes as no surprise that he has created and explored new avenues for preparing his players.

This was probably a tough week of practice after Alabama struggled on offense while defeating Washington, 24-7, in the CFP semifinal. The coach was not pleased.

“Well, we had 25 negative plays in the last game, so what do you think I saw?” he said. “I saw a lot of poor execution, a lot of poor fundamentals.”

When a reporter asked him to ruminate on his accomplishments, Saban brushed the question aside.

“This is not the time to be falling in love with what you did yesterday, last week, last year, 10 years ago or anything else,” he said. “I want to do the best job I can do for these players.”

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