- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Uptempo offenses have been written about and agonized over at length this offseason. It sometimes felt like SEC Media Days was devoted entirely to answering the question Nick Saban posed more than six months ago: "Is this what we want football to be?"
Gus Malzahn answered in the affirmative, saying he thought the issue of player safety was a joke. Bret Bielema fired back, saying he's no comedian and that player safety is no laughing matter. Between barbs, there actually was very little talk of how coaches planned on actually slowing down no-huddle offenses.
Well, Kirby Smart isn't biting. Alabama's 37-year-old defensive coordinator is young by coaching standards, but he's taking the long view on the subject. He's watched tape of hurry-up offenses since before many of his players were in middle school. It isn't new to him. In fact, it's what he grew up on.
"You guys have made a big deal about this uptempo," he said on Sunday. "I was coaching my first year in 2000 with coach Muschamp at Valdosta State. Chris Hatcher was going no-huddle, fast pace every play, throwing the ball, running the ball."
Smart was matter-of-fact on the topic in an interview session that will be his only time speaking with the media during the regular season. "You've got to deal with the cards you're dealt," he said.
Teams such as Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Auburn have made a living pushing the tempo in recent years, never stopping to huddle in an attempt to get defenses on their heels and out of position. Smart concedes that Alabama needs to get better at stopping such schemes, saying that he's never experienced a game like the one against the Aggies last season. Johnny Manziel threw his defense for a loop as Texas A&M jumped out to a 20-0 lead that the Tide never recovered from.
The loss was tough, Smart said. He said he wasn't sure whether it was a symptom of not playing them before or simply not being prepared.
"They obviously did a great job against us," Smart said.
Players such as former linebacker Nico Johnson said it was a wake-up call, a jolt that helped the defense return the focus to the field and away from the distractions of the media.
Smart, for his part, wouldn't speak to his players' mindset after the loss. What he would say was that while he's eager to do better this season, he's not ready to overreact to fast-paced offenses, almost dismissing their effect by labeling them a "trend."
"Every year, things kind of go in cycles," Smart said. "For us the new cycle is uptempo, fast-paced offenses, which you have to adjust; you have to adapt to it. We've studied a lot of teams in the offseason. A lot of NFL teams have come here to study fast tempo and running quarterbacks, which is kind of the new trend going forward. So we've been able to study with those guys for any ideas. Try to create ways to give them negative plays.
"There's an upside and a downside to fast tempo. Because when teams go fast tempo, there's a lot of things they can't do at the line. We try to create an advantage for us by being able to give them negative plays, and I think if we can do that, it can hurt them with their uptempo."
It's no secret that the best way to slow a tempo offense is to stop it altogether. Make it go three-and-out and you need not worry about the next play. But what happens when teams such as Ole Miss move the chains is scary to defensive coordinators such as Smart: Everything speeds up. Players get tired, play calls get fumbled and mistakes are inevitably made. Suddenly Bo Wallace has the football and before your secondary knows if they're in cover-2 or man-to-man, he's found Donte Moncrief in the open field for another big gain. The chains move and one of oldest cliches in sports hits you over the head -- momentum.
There's no stopping momentum, but Smart would like to see referees play a role in slowing it down. He called for referees to do a better job of catching when the offense substitutes players.
"If they don't substitute, obviously we cannot substitute," he said. "We'll get caught with 12 on the field, which happened to us once last year. ... If they exchange receivers, one guy runs on one guy runs off, that allows us -- we can change 11 people if we wanted to. But again, that's not always caught by the official."
The issue of substitutions is key to Alabama's success on defense. Though Saban has scoffed at describing his defense as complex in the past, players and recruits consistently say how difficult it is to master. Ask opposing coaches and they'll agree: It's the complicated nature of Alabama's defense that makes it so difficult to succeed against. The coverage is usually disguised, as are blitzes. Watch the 2011 BCS National Championship and you'll see just how confused Jordan Jefferson is under center. At one point he flees the pocket and flips the ball underhanded to linebacker C.J. Mosley for an easy interception.
Now a senior, Mosley's focus has turned to creating a similar sense of confusion for no-huddle offenses. Preparation, he said, will be vital.
"The only thing a fast-paced offense does is simplify the defense," he said.
But if simplicity is the enemy of complexity, won't that take away what makes Alabama's defense so special?
"That's why we have Coach Saban and Coach Smart," Mosley answered matter-of-factly. "If they want to get fast-paced, we'll make certain calls where we aren't as technical as we usually would [be]."
Confidence is in no shortage in Tuscaloosa, which makes sense given Alabama's historic string of top-five defenses that goes back to 2008. Last season Alabama finished No. 1 in the country in defense, giving up 250 yards per game.
Big or small, Smart said Alabama is going to do what it's always done on defense.
"You can't lose sight of defeating blocks," he said, "whether it's in space or not, tackling people, which we have to do every game. So certainly we've tried to become athletic, but we'll never leave our true motto, which is [to] be bigger and more physical than everybody we play and try to out-physical them at the point of attack. Because at every play there is a point of attack. It may be wider, it may be tighter, but there is a point of attack."
3dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough