clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How Nick Saban has used the Star to keep Alabama Football ahead of the curve

Spread offenses giving you woes? Nick Saban just might have the cure for you

NCAA Football: Alabama at Florida Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Fans, coaches, and keyboard warriors have been talking for years about the offensive revolution in football and how to stop it. But just how did we get here?

Somewhere in the time period between the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous, everyone categorized defensive football schemes as either a base 4-3 or a base 3-4. Essentially, itw as just assumed there would only be 4 total defensive backs on the field, and the rest of the nomenclature was to distinguish between the types of big guys out there trying to stop the run. The good ole days.

The 4-3 was the staple for most of the 1990s and 2000s, and Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 defense wound up becoming the dominant scheme in the early 2000s time frame, placing a premium on fast linebackers and good tacklers at cornerback and forcing offenses into long, plodding drives underneath as the speedy defense rallied to make gang tackles.

As ever, offenses evolve, and many of the West Coast concepts from the 90s began to overtake the Air Coryell concepts that had made up the majority of NFL and College offenses at the time. Rather than power rushing and play-action deep shots, teams adjusted to more zone running, quick timing routes, and hitting center seams to slip in between those Cover 2 zones.

In 2007, Nick Saban came to Alabama with a 3-4 defense predicated on “mush rush” concepts that was hard wired to combat the scrambling QBs and mid-level West Coast timing routes with his pattern-match concepts that had been developed in the 90’s. This scheme asked his outside cornerbacks to take on the tremendous task of covering an entire sideline while the monstrous linebackers disrupted short passes in their quasi-zones. This led to an utter domination of college football for about 4 years, until the spread-option was popularized by teams like Oregon, Auburn, and Texas A&M. These horizontal attacks tried to trap the big outside linebackers on the field and force them out of their range, and that has continued into the 2020s, though now is more focused on RPOs into slants and seams, rather than the sweeps, screens, and hitches of the early 2010s. Regardless, the entire idea is to push at positional mismatches in that area just to the outside of the defensive line.

In the meantime, the NFL lagged behind the college schematic chess match (as always), and the 4-3 remained the most popular defensive scheme, but cover 2 man became dominant, as the best of the best athletes in that time period were all becoming cornerbacks. Pure man coverage required elite cornerbacks, but gave a great numbers advantage for defenses.

Problem was, the college ranks were churning out taller and taller receivers to combat these extremely speedy cornerbacks, and that’s when Pete Carroll’s unique take on the Cover 3 out of a 4-3 took the NFL by storm. An uber-simple defense, it asked two tall, rangy cornerbacks to lockdown the sidelines in deep zones while an undersized free safety took away the deep middle. The 4th safety moved up as an defacto linebacker, and the group of linebackers spot dropped in a mid-level shell similar to the Tampa 2 from a decade before... but now with a more run support from the safety.

This started giving way in the later 2010s as the Sean McVay-style offenses brought many of the wide-zone concepts from college ball and combined them with zone-killer crossing routes and jet motion. The Carrol defense was stuck sitting back in zones that offenses didn’t care about any more, and linebackers were forced to cover way too much lateral ground as much smaller receivers crossed in front of them all game long.

By the end on 2020 and the entirety of 2021, we finally saw the early signs that, in both the NFL and college landscapes, defenses may be catching up with the different variants of the horizontal spread that’s been so dominant over the last decade. Whether the trend holds remains to be seen, but both levels of football have seen a substantial decline in scoring and passing prowess for a season and a half now— most of which has been from defenses using deep quarters-shell coverages to force offenses to be patient and execute the short, central passes over the middle with consistency.


So what is it about the recent iterations of college offenses that have given so many problems to the defenses? Sure, the “spread” gets blamed, but teams have been using 3+ wide receivers and the shotgun formation since the 90s, and West Coast offenses have been attacking the short timing routes for decades.

Well, in the 90s and 00s, the major chess match between offensive and defensive coordinators had to do with packages, subpackages, and using different personnel groups to combat the specialized formations of the other team. Everyone was substituting at max speed, and there were role players for every situation.

As the 00s wore on, though, more and more college teams started adopting the Hurry-up, No-Huddle that the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills used in the 90s. This strategy forced defenses to play with a single personnel group, and eliminated much of the game of chicken of substituting every play.

By 2010, Chip Kelly’s Oregon Ducks had become an absolute spectacle of an offense that never huddled, ran wide-zone, and threw screens to wide receivers to chew up opposing defenses (plus they had flashy jerseys and ESPN just LOVED it), so naturally it started to gain popularity.

The Auburn Tigers and Texas A&M Aggies jumped on the bandwagon early, both of whom notched some high-profile wins over Alabama following Nick Saban’s rise to college football dominance, and, from there, the copycat race to have the next high-speed offense was on.


After losses to Auburn, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss in the 2012-2014 seasons, Nick Saban spoke candidly quite often about needing to change his defense to match the new wave offenses that were quickly adapting the scheme that could take down college football’s premier defense.

“The whole spread offense, quarterbacks who are more athletic guys playing the position, you have to have guys playing on the edges that actually can get the guy on the ground, which never used to be a premium,” Saban said. “Now, our league has changed dramatically, so we are going to have to change a little bit in terms of the kind of fast-twitch guys we recruit to play against the kind of offenses we see.”

...

Because the tempo limits defenses’ ability to substitute, offenses have seized the upper hand when changing formations to gain favorable matchups—such as splitting a tight end wide and forcing a linebacker out into coverage. The same scenario plays out in the zone when defensive ends are forced to make plays in space against speedy running backs or quarterbacks.

That’s why players who have hybrid characteristics of multiple positions are so invaluable to defenses in today’s game. Long and rangy players with the ability to explode in quick bursts are the new prototype for teams looking for answers in dealing with spread attacks and mobile quarterbacks.

It was all the talk on the internet, and, for the most part, fans understood the need for “hybrid” players. Alabama fans in particular focused on the fact that Saban started recruiting smaller defensive ends and linebackers who could move laterally and hold up in pass coverage.


Lost in the “new” focus on hybrids, though, was the very same concept/issue that coaches have been working on for decades: how to continue to defend the run when the opposing offense uses three wide receivers.

The opponent would go 3 wide receivers, and you’d go into the nickel package, taking a linebacker off the field in favor of a new cornerback to match the new wide receiver.

The nickel corner was generally the 3rd best cornerback after the two main cover guys, and the nickel would, back in the day, really only come into the game on 3rd downs to cover a slot receiver once the opposing offense took a tight end out of the game.

Nick Saban and Bill Belichick understood, even back in the 80s and 90s, that the slot corner/nickel corner had to be more than just the 3rd cornerback. They needed a unique skillset that blended a cornerback’s body into a linebacker mentality.

“In the old days, I called the fifth defensive back nickel back, and we never really played six defensive backs,” he said.

The middle linebacker (Mike) and the weak inside linebacker (Will) stayed in the game, and a defensive back replaced the strong outside linebacker (Sam).

“Well, when I went to Cleveland, everything that Bill Belichick does has some purpose, from what you call blitz to what you call fire-zone front,” Saban said.

“The Star really is the Sam, so he wanted an s-word for that position. When you put six guys in the game, whether it’s a sub linebacker or a sixth defensive back, we had nickel, dime, dollar. Different money terms.”

“You can be a really good Star and not have the long speed to be a good corner,” he said. “Long speed being that if a guy runs a takeoff on you, you have to run and not get out run when the ball is in the air.

“If you have really good quickness and cover ability, the slot guy (receiver) has a hard time beating you in that position, because he’s closer to the safeties, he’s closer to the middle of the field. So a good tackler, a good blitzer, a good cover guy on a slot player, which is different than a good cover guy on an outside player.”

In Alabama’s ascent to the top of college football, Saban took electric return man Javier Arenas and harnessed his limitless supply of energy to turn him into a short, fiery Star cornerback who, in 2009, was battling front-seven stalwarts Marcell Dareus, Rolando McClain, and Eryk Anders for the team lead in tackles for loss (12) and sacks (5).

Arenas was Alabama’s starting outside corner in a base 3-4 scheme but would move to the slot when the Tide shifted into nickel, and he blitzed into the backfield with stunning frequency and ferocity. Even then, before the HUNH and spread revolutions, Saban already understood the importance of finding the right player for that spot, rather than the 3rd best.

The next year, uber-talented 5-star freshman Dee Milliner was thrown into the mix. Milliner went on to become a top-10 draft pick as an outside corner, but it spoke to Saban’s focus on the slot that he played his most talented defensive back slightly out of position to handle the Star.

A few years later, we saw the same career progression from Minkah Fitzpatrick. Currently the highest-paid safety in all of football, Fitzpatrick made a name for himself as a true freshman at Star and safety. In his next two years, Fitzpatrick played all over the defensive backfield as the most dominant defensive player in college football. It even got out at the time that Saban really wanted him to stick to the Star spot, but Fitz wanted to try his hand at outside corner, as that was the position getting paid the most in the NFL.

“I came in as a corner, so I’m used to just covering people, playing man to man wherever it was. Like halfway through camp, Coach Saban just came to me asking if I wanted to play slot corner, learn how to play it. And I said, ‘Sure,’ so I kind of just took on that role,” he said.

That was in camp Fitzpatrick’s freshman year, 2015. He started to work there some in practice, while he mostly played a true safety role as a freshman. He worked in more game snaps at both outside and inside corner as a sophomore, then settled in as a nickel in 2017.

“It’s a different type of position,” Fitzpatrick told SB Nation at the NFL Combine. “It’s kind of a combination between corner and safety. You can make calls like a safety. You can make calls like a safety. You can rush, you can fill the holes and the gaps like a safety. But then you can cover man to man on pass downs when you need to, just like a corner. So I like playing both corner and safety, so I think slot corner’s just the optimal position.”

Following Fitzpatrick’s time at Star, Saban experimented in the offseason with moving both Trevon Diggs and Patrick Surtain II into the slot. Both players were naturally built to play on the outside as tall, rangy, and opportunistic defensive backs, but, again, it spoke volumes that Saban was still trying his best to figure out ways to get his best defensive backs into the slot, rather than on the outside.

“I feel like when you’re in the slot, people think the position is supposed to be smaller so you can move (with) those guys,” said Diggs, who also saw time at Star during spring practice. “Pat and I are bigger guys but we can move just as well as the smaller guys so I feel like ... we have an advantage because quarterbacks (will) normally read the Cover 2 and throw that seam route, (and) it’s harder to get that (pass) over our heads because we’re taller and longer, so I feel like that’s our advantage, and we can move as well so I feel real good (about Surtain at Star).”


It’s clear that Saban has always valued the slot corner. That’s nothing particularly unique— many coaches over the decades have also talked about that position needing a special skillset. Les Miles made Tyrann Matthieu go viral in that spot, and players like Jabril Peppers and Isaiah Simmons became stars as hybrid safety/linebackers (though that’s not exactly the same how Saban has approached it with his hard-tackling corners).

What made Saban different, though, is the way he had doubled down on trying to get his best players into that position, even as the NFL and most of college football valued the lockdown sideline cornerback as the most important position on defense, outside of edge rusher. However, he needed some new ideas to change the entire scheme to feature that player.

In 2018, Saban pulled UTSA defensive coordinator Pete Golding to the team to coach linebackers:

The first and most sudden change we saw under Golding’s was the immediate move from the short-but-speedy cornerbacks UTSA used in the past to sturdily-built corners that stood over 6’0”. It was a huge change that seemed strange at the time but was very crucial, as Golding would go on to ask his defensive backs to play a ton of press coverage each season.

At the safety level, Golding seemed to prefer running a trio of safeties — one with great instincts that could play centerfield at free safety, a hard-hitting run-stopper at strong safety, and a speedy guy with the chops to cover slot receivers but with the toughness to bring down ball carriers in the tackle box as a safety/linebacker hybrid. Alabama fans might want to read my breakdown of UTSA’s safety positions to get an idea of what they might be able to expect in Tuscaloosa if Golding is given much control over the defensive philosophy and scheme.

A year later, Golding was promoted to defensive coordinator as a mostly unproven play-caller that surprised many Alabama fans. Looking backwards and reading between the lines, though, it makes a lot of sense. Saban was struggling with the nature of HUNH, spread, and RPO concepts that were consistently trying to get mismatches and targeting the edges of the line and short, central passing routes. He knew that the Star was the key to doing it, but wanted someone with a different background in a pure 5-defensive back stack system to help him transition the defense out of a base 3-4 that’s always stuck in nickel.

It was a rocky 2019 for Golding, but in 2020, he quickly identified true freshman Brian Branch as the lynchpin to his scheme. Unfortunately, an undisclosed setback (Covid and/or injury) put Branch behind in his fall camp development, and freshman Malachi Moore got the nod instead.

Moore made a number of splash plays as a freshman, but he had his struggles, particularly at taking on blocks. Eventually, an injury to Moore saw Branch take over near the end of the season, and that - very coincidentally - seemed to be when Golding’s defense finally started to click in wins over Notre Dame and Ohio State.

In 2021, Branch and Moore returned to split time, but, ultimately, Branch’s ferocious tackling and explosive athleticism saw him win the job full-time for the remainder of the season in what amounted to Alabama’s most effective overall defensive performance since 2017, when Minkah Fitzpatrick was in the spot.

According to Pro Football Focus, Branch led all college defenders with a 92.0 tackling grade, registering 56 stops without letting a single ball carrier slip his grasp. Standout Georgia tight end Brock Bowers couldn’t shake him, neither could powerful Auburn running back Tank Bigsby. Branch also blew up a few quarterbacks, including Florida’s Emory Jones and Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder.

According to PFF, Branch’s last missed tackle came during the Rose Bowl victory over Norte Dame in the 2020 season. So far that’s his only slip-up in his two seasons with the Crimson Tide.

“I take a lot of pride in it,” Branch said of his ability to wrap up defenders. “Coming from high school that’s one area where I wanted to focus on in my game. I think I’ve come a long way in that area.”

While Branch’s tackling percentage is impeccable, it’s how he brings down his opposition that has drawn plaudits from his teammates. Last week, Alabama safety Jordan Battle listed Branch alongside DeMarcco Hellams as the two hardest hitters in the Crimson Tide’s secondary.

In the last two seasons, we’ve seen Brian Branch tasked with blowing up the never ending tunnel screens in the Mike Leach Air Raid, be the primary edge defender against Auburn’s wide-zone runs, cover uber-athlete TE’s Brock Bowers, Kyle Pitts, and Jaylen Wydermeyer down the field, stick with big play hybrid WR/RB Ainias Smith on screens and deep shots, and be ready to blitz on the heels of Will Anderson to get a quick sack on elusive QBs.

It hasn’t been perfect: Wydermeyer got him in the endzone last year, and Kyle Pitts was a monster in 2020. But it spoke volumes that, in this crazy variety of matchups, Branch was the guy tasked with shutting down the opposing offense’s top weapon.

Coming into his 3rd year in Golding’s system, I expect Branch not only to be a hard hitting defensive back, but a guy who comes into his own on his way to an All-American season.

If he manages to make that leap, I think it proves to college football (and soon, the NFL) that the slot cornerback is the most important defensive back (and maybe overall defensive player) on the field, and the right player in that position is the seismic key to shifting much of the current power out of the hands of the spread offense and back to defenses.

Ed. note: Credit where it’s due, Erik started piecing this all together in a Jumbo Package last year, and his two paragraphs on it were what got me thinking about writing this article for the last 6 months