With Alabama’s national championships in 2009 and 2011, rising graduation rates and team grade point averages and its production of first-round NFL draft picks, the Crimson Tide head coach has plenty of reasons to crack one of his rare smiles.
Nevertheless, Saban also realizes the dangers of complacency by a team that has experienced so much success.
“Success should be defined by consistency in performance. Whether it’s the Chicago Bulls in the 1990’s, the New York Yankees organization through the years or Roger Federer and Michael Johnson as individual athletes who have had great careers — success was there over a long period of time,” said Saban on Thursday at the final day of SEC Media Days at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover.
“We’ve obviously learned a lot at Alabama over the last five years and by far the most important thing we’ve learned is that you have to stay on top of the little things. Things don’t happen by accident — you don’t win a game, a division or a national championship by accident — you have to make it happen and you have to make it happen by what you do every day.
“This team seems to be less affected by the previous year and the year before that,” he continued. “They’re not really the 2010 team, nor are they the 2011 team. There’s a lot of players on this team that have an opportunity and this is their season.”
With the loss of 13 starters from last year’s squad — including key members from the nation’s top-ranked defense, Saban stressed that opportunities are ripe for many of his talented, but younger players this fall and for his older players to accept new roles on the team.
Though last year’s offensive coordinator Jim McElwain left the team to take over as head coach at Colorado State, Saban said that the offense under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier is progressing well, with junior quarterback A.J. McCarron under center and preseason All-SEC first team linemen Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker returning to form the core unit.
“A.J.’s had a good spring — hopefully he’s poised to continue to improve and have a really good year for us,” Saban said. “Barrett Jones is a special kind of person, competitor and athlete. He’s like former Houston Oilers offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, who could play guard, tackle and long snapper — that’s pretty high class to be compared to someone like him.”
With the departure of the 2011 Doak Walker Award-winning running back Trent Richardson, Alabama will look to a committee of capable candidates to fill the role.
Junior Eddie Lacy, who was second on the team in rushing yards, is coming off foot surgery and as Saban reports, has done “extremely well this summer.” He also indicated that since the Crimson Tide has always played more than one running back in its offense set, several other backs — such as Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart, T.J. Yeldon and Blake Sims — could create some competition for the second and third spots.
Senior tight end Michael Williams, a third-team All-SEC pick, said that while the loss of experienced leaders such as Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks to graduation leaves several opportunities open for playmakers to emerge, he feels confident in what he has seen in the play of his fellow receivers both last season and during the spring.
“We have Kevin Norwood and we all saw what he can do in the national championship game. There’s also guys like Christian Jones that can make plays,” Williams said. “As for the freshmen, Eddie Williams. Cyrus Jones has the quickness of anyone on the team and he’s just a freshman.”
Saban also cited the play of Kenny Bell and DeAndrew White, as well as freshman Amani Cooper, as being keys to having a solid receiving corps.
“Kenny and DeAndrew proved last season that when they have opportunities, they could make plays. Both of them, along with Norwood made some outstanding plays in the championship game and all had a good spring,” Saban said. “Amari is a young guy who came in a mid-semester and showed some ability and talent to make big plays.”
Alabama’s defense will see a collection of both experienced playmakers and new faces with the departures of Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron, Josh Chapman and Dre Kirkpatrick to the NFL. Saban said that the return of veteran defensive linemen such as Damion Square and Jesse Williams will be important to help building a strong foundation within the young defense.
“Everything starts up front — the fact that we do have some defensive linemen coming back that have some experience is vital in terms of leadership ability and helping mentor some of the more inexperienced guys,” Saban said. “Even though we’ll have some new linebackers, I think those guys up front can make the linebackers’ job a little easier if they do things they’re capable of.”
Square, a senior who has played in 25 games for the Crimson Tide and earned 18 starts, said the key dynamic into making this year’s defense a success will be the newer players learning to adapt to Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s system and accept their roles.
“It’s a system. We have great guys that play in the system, but that doesn’t take away from the system,” Square said. “We have a great defensive coach in Nick Saban and a great defensive coordinator in Kirby Smart who study film and help us develop. The system is the system. It’s pretty dynamic though, and the new guys that come in, if those guys learn and master their roles within the system, it’ll make us that much stronger.”
A native of Houston, Texas, Square also expressed his excitement of not only playing against Texas A&M, but also beginning his senior year with the season opener against Michigan in Dallas.
“It’s going to be a challenge to play against the type of offense that Texas A&M brings into a game. I trust in the ability of our coaches — they’ll draw up a great gameplan and we’ll work to execute it. We’ve faced difficult offenses before that we had to adapt to — against Georgia Southern last year who came out in a triple option offense and forced us to change what we were doing — our coaches guided us well and we were able to make adjustments,” Square said.
“It’ll be a lot of fun to play against Michigan in Dallas, too. It’s a great way to start my final year — in my home start against a great traditional opponent. I’m looking forward to it.”