Alabama's Kirby Smart seeks rebound from 'worst' defensive season

Alabama's Kirby Smart seeks rebound from 'worst' defensive season

August 11th, 2015 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart gives instructions in a practice before last season's playoff game against Ohio State in New Orleans, which the Crimson Tide lost 42-35.

Photo by Gerald Herbert

Alabama's defense allowed a mere 106 points during the 2011 college football season, which included a 21-0 blanking of LSU to capture the national title.

The Crimson Tide allowed 258 points last season, including 86 to Auburn and Ohio State.

Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart knows he's not forgetting how to coach as he enters his ninth season in Tuscaloosa. Smart simply realizes that he's having to prepare for more types of offenses operating at faster tempos than ever before.

"We did a stat because we were trying to figure out why we were so good four years ago," Smart said in a recent news conference. "That season, I think we had five run-pass option plays throughout the 800 plays we defended. Last year, we had over 120 run-pass option plays, so obviously the game has changed and the teams we're playing have changed, and we've had to evolve with it.

"That 2011 team was a big, physical team that was good at stopping the run and had two first-round corners. In recent years, the run-pass option has evolved to make offensive football a little bit better, and we've had to change with that. We've got to do more things and play more split-safety coverages and help our corners in a lot of different ways."

It's a sentiment that echoes how Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban has been feeling for a while now.

"I don't think there is any question that it's more difficult to play defense," Saban said last month at SEC Media Days, "and I think that's why you see more points being scored. I don't think that trend is going to change any time soon."

Alabama held its fifth practice Monday and its first in full pads, working out for two hours in the Hank Crisp Indoor Facility.

The Crimson Tide led the Southeastern Conference in run defense last season (allowing 102.4 yards per game) and were third in scoring defense (18.4 points per game). In pass defense, however, Alabama ranked 11th among the 14 league teams (yielding 226 yards a contest).

Smart said last year's defense was his worst in attaining goals established before each season. Alabama allowed too many big plays, did not force enough turnovers and did not excel on third down, but the Crimson Tide did have a good year in red-zone defense.

The variety of offenses Smart's defense must face is reflected in Alabama's four-game October schedule of Georgia, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Tennessee. The Bulldogs and Razorbacks are straight-ahead running teams with play-action passing, while the Aggies and Volunteers spread the field more and offer more wrinkles in their attacks.

"It's challenging enough just in the West," Smart said. "You've got Arkansas and LSU, who like to hit you in the mouth and bloody your nose, and then you've got Texas A&M, who can be anything but is getting more physical. You've got to have two kinds of defenses. You've got to play spread sideline to sideline, and then you've got to turn around and play smashmouth.

"We game-plan way ahead for these opponents, but they change a little bit, too. For the most part, we're going to have a game plan going into those games, but it's just tough on the kids because their mindset always has to change so much. With Arkansas and Texas A&M, you couldn't find more polar opposites."

The Crimson Tide performed well defensively last season in wins over Arkansas, Florida, LSU and Missouri, and they were brilliant in a 59-0 shredding of Texas A&M. They survived the highest-scoring Iron Bowl ever, rallying for a 55-44 triumph, but did not have enough offense to overcome Ohio State in a 42-35 loss in the playoff.

Alabama also allowed 40 or more points twice during the 2013 season.

"We obviously made a lot more mistakes in those Auburn and Ohio State games than we did in that Texas A&M game," Smart said. "One thing that contributed to that was the quarterback play in each one of those games. No offense to the Texas A&M guy (f0rmer Aggies QB Kenny Hill), but he didn't play very good against us, and those other two teams had a factor A&M didn't have, which is a dominant, physical run game right at you.

"Make no mistake about it, Auburn and Ohio State are not spread football teams. They run the ball at you. They run power. They run counter. They are physical running football teams, and the combination of that and us giving up the big plays is what got us."

Smart has reviewed all the video from last season's games, but he knows the upcoming opponents are narrowing their focus.

"People are not going to attack us like A&M did," he said. "They're going to attack us like Auburn and Ohio State did, so we know it's coming back down the road."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.