PHOENIX — Kirby Smart’s success as Alabama’s defensive coordinator has been well documented. Since taking over the defense in 2008, the Crimson Tide has finished among nation’s top five defenses every year but one.
And this year is no different. No. 2 ranked Alabama (13-1) comes into Monday’s College Football Playoff national championship game against Clemson (14-0) ranked number two in the nation in total defense (256.8 yards per game), first in points allowed (13.4 pg) and rushing yards allowed (70.8 pg) and first in quarterback sacks (3.57 pg).
But the narrative on Smart has always been that, one, he’s always working with the nation’s best defensive players and, two, that it’s really not his defense. It’s really the work of head coach Nick Saban and Smart is just a sort of taskmaster.
That notion becomes of even more interest to the Georgia Bulldogs now that he has been named their head coach.
Certainly, having worked alongside Saban for the last 10 years [CK], Smart has been able to observe his ways and methods – “the process,” Saban likes to call it – long enough that should be able to copy the general template, tweak it to make it his own and put it into action at Georgia.
But what about that defense? While the Bulldogs recruit as well or better than just about any other program in the SEC, can they realistically be expected to recruit the same level – and more importantly, depth – of talent that Smart was used to working with at Bama?
We talked this week to college football observers who have watched to find out what, if anything, distinguishes Smart as a defensive mind that he might be able to transfer to Georgia and help propel its defense to the next level. ..
BUCK BELUE, sports-talk host Atlanta’s 680 The Fan, former UGA quarterback
“Certainly Alabama is able to stuff the run with seven (players), which means they don’t have to add a safety for run support and that’s a big advantage. He’s doing it with those 240-pound linebackers like Reggie Ragland and just three down linemen, which enables him to show a multitude of looks. But those three linemen better be good and they are and there’s a lot of them and he’s had that benefit. But where I’ve really been impressed with Kirby this year is in the second level. That’s where they’ve had a little trouble sometimes against the spread and they did early in the season. But he moved some of those bigger cornerbacks to safety and those guys like Geno Smith have really done a good job since he did that.
“Kirby knows what he’s doing. Obviously he’s got to more of the kinds of players he’s had at Alabama to come play for him at Georgia. But this guy can X-and-O with the best of them and he’s been in a lot of big games and he’s worked for one of the best coaches in football for a long time. And they’ve been running a lot of the same stuff at Georgia for a while now, so it should be a pretty smooth transition.”
GARY DANIELSON, lead college football analyst for CBS, former NFL quarterback
“One of the things I think Kirby has been instrumental in helping Nick with is adjusting as college football has changed. I think sometimes it’s just good to be younger, it’s good to be on the edge. Nick’s defense is a pro defense, and college ball has really moved and separated itself from the way the pro-style game is. It’s so much different now than when I started broadcasting the game. When I first started the pro game and the college game was much more similar than it is now. And I think Kirby has been instrumental in nudging and changing and adjusting to modern offenses and how to adapt in terms of defense and recruits and what they’re looking for. So I think the strength, the biggest thing he’s going to bring to Georgia, is his evaluation techniques, that blueprint of defense he’s learned from Nick and a keen eye for how the game has changed and how Alabama needed to adapt its defenses to take on these offenses that they’re seeing nowadays. …
“Lastly, I’d say Kirby brings a couple more things to the table. You have to be tough-minded to coach under Nick Saban. I’ve said this before, it’s not for a shy person to coach with him. If there’s one thing I’ve heard more at an Alabama practice than I’ve have heard anything else is – well, the main one is ‘do your job’ and I get that – the next one is, ‘don’t be so sensitive; I’m just trying to make you a better football player.’ A lot of that was directed at and through Kirby. Kirby is a very competitive person, but he has learned how to set those goals for the team, and I think that’s basically what he’s bringing. So he’s going to be able to evaluate players, and he understands winning defense and he understands I think how to motivate competitive people and bring them into the program. I don’t think there’s anything X-and-O wise he’s going to bring that looks any different than what Georgia was doing before.”
GREG McELROY, football analyst for the SEC Network, former Alabama quarterback,
“One thing I think he does so well – and in this day and age, this cannot go overshadowed because it’s so important – he manages egos extremely well. I mean, you look at Alabama at linebacker and in the defensive line and even in the secondary at some positions, every single one of those guys has the potential to play on Sundays. Every single one. I would assume that all of them will. Yet you never see anything about anyone complaining about playing time. And watching the film, often times when you watch defenses, you see players play out of position in order to enhance their ability to make a tackle for a loss or a sack; you never see that on Alabama’s defense. You never see guys get out of position and make selfish plays.
“Honestly that’s a real credit considering how well Alabama has recruited and how good some of the players are and the acclaim they came to campus with. That’s something you don’t see every day. There are other defenses in college football that haven’t done as good a job of that. As a result, their defenses have suffered both statistically and in production.”
ANDY STAPLES, College football reporter for SI.com, former Florida player
“I think the part about him just running Nick Saban’s defense is a bit of a misconception. Nick tells the story about getting overruled by Bill Belichick with the Browns on a third-and-20 against the Giants. He liked to do overload blitzes and Belichick told him not to blitz so he called off the blitz and the Giants get the first down and end up winning the game. From that point on, Saban said, ‘I’m not going to be that guy.’ I think he lets Kirby run the defense. The calls are Kirby’s. Obviously there’s input from the head coach just like there would be anywhere, but I don’t think it’s a case of this is strictly Nick’s defense.
“There’s a reason they wanted Kirby coaching in this game, because those players respond to him, the one who’s been calling the plays the whole time. I think there’s more to it than Saban says what to do and he does it, especially as the years have gone on. He’s running it and Saban trusts him as much as any assistant he’s ever had. So I don’t think he’s been serving this apprenticeship. I think he knows quite a bit about playing defense and he’ll bring that into this CEO type role.”