TUSCALOOSA — Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is realistic about the challenges fast-pace offenses present.
In three of the Crimson Tide’s most prominent games from 2013, the defense struggled. Two of those contests ended in losses.
At Texas A&M, the Tide’s defense was carved up for 628 yards. In the Iron Bowl, Auburn bulldozed the Tide for 296 rushing yards. Against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, the Tide surrendered 387 passing yards and 516 total yards.
So Smart knows the Crimson Tide must alter its approach in some areas while also not losing its identity.
“It’s definitely challenging, because you don’t face that kind of offense daily,” Smart said Sunday during Alabama’s media day. “It’s not really who we are offensively, so you spend time, obviously, simulating that in different ways, whether it’s the scout team or your offense. But you can never simulate it as good as, say, a hurry-up team that traditionally does this well. So you’ve got to practice that.”
During the 2014 recruiting cycle, Alabama appeared to be heading in a different direction, signing bigger safeties in Laurence “Hootie” Jones (6-foot-2, 221 pounds) and Ronnie Clark (6-3, 215 pounds) along with leaner linebackers in Rashaan Evans (6-3, 225 pounds) and Christian Miller (6-4, 215 pounds).
But Smart said that’s strictly Alabama trying to “get the best football players we can, regardless of size, what type of guy we’re looking for.”
That said, the change must come from the Tide’s current players.
“We want to be able to beat LSU in our league, Auburn in our league, Texas A&M, good teams in our league, especially our side (SEC West), that challenge you,” Smart said. “So you’ve got to have enough players so that you can play every kind of style of football. And that’s obviously what our goal is.
“Our No. 1 goal this fall camp is to improve on that. And there’s a lot of ways to improve on that, whether it’s being in shape, cutting weight, play more snaps, play more people. So you’ve got to have more depth. There’s a lot of things we can do to hopefully improve on that and try to play those style of offenses better.”
Two areas that lacked depth last year — defensive line and defensive back — are filled with experienced, able bodies heading into 2014.
At defensive line, A’Shawn Robinson returns for his sophomore season after leading the team with 5.5 tackles for loss and finishing second with eight sacks. He and fellow sophomore Jonathan Allen are expected to have bigger roles after playing regularly in 2013.
There’s also Dalvin Tomlinson, who returns from a season-ending knee injury. D.J. Pettway is back for his second stint with the Tide. Nose tackle Darren Lake is another player who’ll provide depth. True freshmen Da’Shawn Hand and Josh Frazier have the potential to contribute early.
Even with Jarran Reed and Brandon Ivory suspended, the defensive line group still appears robust.
“We have more guys playing winning football at that position than we had last year,” Smart said. “Last year we got a little worn out at that position, we didn’t have a lot of subs that we could put in.”
No matter how it’s sliced, Alabama’s secondary — particularly cornerbacks — struggled last season after multiple years of losing defensive backs a season early to the NFL caught up with the Tide.
But those trial-by-fire experiences should help the team going into 2014. There’s also the addition of five-star cornerbacks Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey to push the veterans.
“We’ve got good competition at those positions, which to me, when you can’t relax out there knowing that you have your position wrapped up, you’ve got to work every day to be head and shoulders above the rest, it’s going to help you be better at the end,” Smart said. “That’s what we have at that position, with Tony and Marlon and those guys really pushing.”
As deep as the defensive line and secondary units are, numbers and experience are sparse for Alabama at inside linebacker. Behind senior Trey DePriest are junior Reggie Ragland and sophomore Reuben Foster. While talented, neither has played many significant snaps.
Players such as Ryan Anderson, Dillon Lee and others are cross training to prepare for emergency situations that can creep up during the long grind of a college football season. Freshmen such as Shaun Dion Hamilton and Keith Holcombe could hear their numbers called on early.
“Inside linebacker for us right now is probably one of our thinner positions, with Tana (Patrick) and C.J. (Mosley) leaving,” Smart said. “We have a lot of youth there. We’re going to have to play some freshmen there. We have to stay healthy at that position.
“Before, we’ve always had four guys who could play that position. Right now we’re sitting around one or two who have proven they could play it, but we need four to be able to play inside linebacker and play well for us.
“We’ve done some things there and moved some guys around. We’re going to have to cross train some guys. If anybody gets injured at that position, it’s going to be really tough.”