How Alabama caught up to the hurry-up offense

It has been called Alabama's kryptonite, the thing that makes Nick Saban's seemingly impenetrable defense weak in the knees.

To get the right effect, just follow a simple three-step process: (1) Spread the field, (2) Push the tempo, (3) Have a mobile QB.

And voila!

It began with Cam Newton and Auburn in 2010, and every loss Alabama has suffered since then has been a result of the same formula, with the exception of a 9-6 slugfest against LSU in 2011. There was Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, Nick Marshall and Auburn, Trevor Knight and Oklahoma, Bo Wallace and Ole Miss, and Cardale Jones and Ohio State. This season it was Chad Kelly leading Ole Miss to a 43-37 win in Tuscaloosa.

When Alabama takes the field Monday night for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, Saban and his staff will be confronted with the same issues of pace that have plagued them in the past.

But this time they believe they have the right answers.

Five years worth of research and development will be put to the test against Deshaun Watson, Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers.

Organized chaos

By going without a huddle, offenses were taking away the secret to a Saban-coached defense: personnel packages. Alabama couldn't sub in their 350-pound run-stuffers, their 250-pound pass-rushers and their litany of linebackers and defensive backs who were perfect for an exact down and distance.

But this year, Alabama worked on getting players on and off the field faster and more efficiently, gaining back some of the situational players they had lost use of.

"There had to be some kind of change," DB Jabriel Washington said.

It still looks like chaos on the sidelines. When you have coaches screaming and 300-pound linemen running around, how can it not be?

But now the chaos appears more organized.

You saw it on the first play of the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. Alabama had 15 players on the field before Michigan State brought its offense out. When coaches saw the personnel, they immediately pulled four linemen, including 300-pound tackle Daron Payne.

Fast forward to third down and Alabama again pulled their tackles in Payne and Jarran Reed. In came pass-rush specialist Tim Williams, who has 10 sacks since October. Williams shot upfield, and Connor Cook found no room on a designed run and was brought down for a loss.

"As soon as second down is over, we have guys right on the field then and there," middle linebacker Reggie Ragland said. "[Linebackers coach Tosh Lupoi] and [defensive coordinator Kirby Smart] are doing a great job of getting in the guys they need to rush the passer."

The result: Alabama, which has historically been OK at rushing the passer, leads college football with 50 sacks.

Diverse personnel

It's not just the speed at which players come on and off the field that has changed, but the speed of the players themselves.

Since the rise of spread/up-tempo offenses, Saban has actively tried to recruit more athletic linebackers and linemen.

By sacrificing a 340-pound tackle like Terrence Cody for a 320-pound tackle like A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama gained someone who could play all four downs.

Outside linebackers like Williams, Ryan Anderson and Rashaan Evans all have the speed not just to rush the passer, but to drop back and play in space.

"The diversity in the kind of players that we have helps us against the kind of offenses we see now," Saban said. "We can play some situational defense with some of those guys."

Said Ragland: "You have to have guys that can do it all. And that's the thing about Coach Saban: he recruits every guy with speed, big, fast and physical."

That philosophical change wasn't felt only on the line, though.

Against the spread, having cover guys became more important than ever, with four and five receivers on the field at once. So Saban ditched the idea of the heavy-hitting safety -- someone like Mark Barron or Landon Collins -- in favor of smaller former corners Eddie Jackson and Geno Matias-Smith.

"They have individuals that have corner skills across the board that can play man coverage," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "You look at all the spread offense teams they've played -- and the goal of a spread offense is to create space -- and they've actually condensed their space. They've closed that space gap just because they're able to play man coverage, tight man coverage, and they're able to create a pass-rush."


As odd as it might sound, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin deserves a fair amount of credit for Alabama's improvement against fast-paced offenses.

Just think about it: When Kiffin was hired, he immediately installed his own version of the hurry-up.

The defense no longer had a choice. Practicing pace was no longer something it did during those weeks when Ole Miss or Auburn was on the schedule.

"We started seeing it every day when they started doing it," linebacker Dillon Lee said.

The difference in familiarity from when Lee arrived in 2012 to now is night and day.

"It's a lot more comfortable," he said. "It's kind of something that we take pride in and put a lot of emphasis on, especially in practice. It's just something we needed to adjust to."

Between practice and the increasing use of pace throughout college football, it was only a matter of time before Alabama grew more accustomed with what Saban likes to refer to as "fastball offense."

Granted, Clemson might be the best at it that Alabama has seen all season. But in listening to Saban this week, it's clear the Tigers' speed isn't something they're going to be caught unprepared for.

"Well, we've played against a lot of other teams like this," Saban said. "This is not like this is something totally new. We've probably played against seven, eight fastball teams all year long. So we've always had a plan for how we're going to get people in and out of the game, what the plan is to play players by series and by situation in the game."

He added: "This is not going to require some new plan. There's no revelation here."