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2023 Alabama Crimson Tide Spring Football Preview: There is more coaching continuity than it appears

Who Alabama returns could be a better harbinger of 2023 success than who the Tide hired

Clemson v Notre Dame
Do not think for one single second that I’m not going to flay Rees alive every time he calls a dumbass 2nd and 10 run.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

This offseason has seen substantial changes to the coaching staff. Indeed, all eyes are on the new coordinators, and conventional wisdom is that Alabama is rolling the dice on a rebuild; that it is a staff in transition. But overlooked in those splash coordinator hirings (or thuds, depending on your level of cynicism), is that the Alabama staff, at its core, returns the vast majority of coaches Nick Saban brought in for the 2022 season.

The Crimson Tide has significant continuity for the first time in a long time. Who is returning may be the bigger story at year’s end in terms of wins and losses, rather than who left or who was brought in at the high profile coordinator spots.

Coming back for 2023 are: the position coaches on both sides of lines; Edge / OLB coach; both pass-catching coaches, including Holmon Wiggins, who was elevated to Co-OC/AHC; running backs; corners; and special teams.

The Tide did lose long-time lunatic Charles Kelly to Coach Prime. You could see the writing on the wall with this one, but Pete Golding — the most wrongly maligned man in Tuscaloosa — put in his five years with ‘Bama and then departed for a less-than-lateral position at Ole Miss. And OC Bill O’Brien is now finally back where his heart always lie, with the Pats after his obligatory two-year stint at Nick Saban’s Second-Chance Home for Wayward and Dissolute Coaches.

Weirdly, these moves seem to work out well for everyone: Kelly wanted a high profile job, and he got one. Pete needed a chance to learn his craft without the ‘Bama expectations smothering him; notoriously laid-back Kiffin is a great guy to work under for that. And Alabama needed an offense that was more than 3rd and YOLO, while Mac Jones needed an actual offensive coordinator, and Bill O’Brien needed to get back to the Shield.

We can debate the wisdom of who the Tide brought in to replace these men (and I am record as detesting one of them), but the departures at least made sense for all parties involved, for all sorts of reasons. It’s rare that so many people pack their bags at the end of the year, and the reasons are good for everyone, with no hard feelings involved.

Let’s take a look at who is actually new on the staff this year.

Robert Bala (ILB)

For a guy that has been coaching for over a decade, the resume is remarkably thin at the D1 level. Though, given his output after just one season, there is reason for some guarded enthusiasm:

During his season at Liberty, Bala helped coach a defense that finished first nationally in tackles for loss per game (9.3) and No. 3 in sacks per game (3.46). The Flames more than doubled their turnovers gained in 2022 from the previous season, ranking 11th nationally in turnovers gained (24) and 18th in passes intercepted (14).

Bala has 15 years of coaching experience with stops at the Oakland Raiders, Southern Utah, Ottawa University of Arizona, Palomar College and Snow Junior College. He has coordinated defenses at both Southern Utah and Palomar College while coaching linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties during his career.

Liberty was a very physical team under Hugh Freeze, particularly in the front seven (as you would expect with Rev. Cheater McBurnerphone). Bala was a good fit for Freeze’s scheme, and his Flames linebackers were very active and far less passive than what we have seen in Tuscaloosa the last few seasons.

While Alabama has surely suffered from a Jimmy and Joe deficit at ILB since Rashaan Evans departed, the lack of aggression has been just as noticeable. Bala’s work at Liberty, as well as practice clips of Spring Drills, indicates that we will see an ILB corps that is spiritually more Baldy than Golding, and far more aggressive.

Bala’s first job will be to clean up fundamentals that have gone to hell in a handbasket. Alabama has been a mistackling machine the last several seasons, and the interior has been especially bad at cleaning up on running quarterbacks. You can directly trace two losses in the last four seasons (hey, we don’t lose many! It’s a small n), to some piss-poor interior tackling on running quarterbacks.

Losing to that garbage LSU team. and how Alabama lost, probably spelled the end for Golding and O’Brien, just as surely as it was the direct reason for Bala’s hiring. If you want some optimism, go take a look at last season’s upset by Liberty over Arkansas, where the Flames linebackers tallied four sacks, 2 PBU, and 14 tackles — including 5 TFL.

The 2023 ILB corps could look a lot like 2017: little proven talent, but very aggressive with productivity by committee.

Kevin Steele (DC)

Honestly, after almost four decades as a coach, and nearly three running defenses, Steele is a cipher through which you can win or lose any bar bet. He is the man where you can pick results from just about any program and any era in which he coached to make the case for (or against) him.

To me, this seems exactly what it appears: a known quantity; a continuity hire; an older man hiring another older man and doing so with clear expectations of the defense, the program, the coaching staff, and all the other associated woes and thrills that come with being a high-profile member of the Alabama staff. You don’t have to teach Steele the base defense — he knows it (although, he was always a better 4-3 signal caller). You don’t have to teach Steele about work ethic: he’s had stints under Johnny Majors, Tom Osborne and Nick Saban — all three were notorious hard asses. You don’t have to adjust to a learning to an SEC learning curve — he ran his own program in the B12, and ran defenses in three Power Conferences. You don’t have to teach him the ins and outs of the recruiting trail — Steele has been doing this about as long as most of the parents have been alive.

So, what do we take from Steele’s work? Do we take in the ghastly effort at Miami last year? the bomb at Clemson? Position coaching at Alabama? I think the most honest appraisal is his recent work at Auburn: a job in which he was engaged, motivated, and treated as a head coaching trial run for years.

Here is that recap:

During his five-season tenure as defensive coordinator at Auburn (2016-2020), Steele’s units ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense four times while producing 14 NFL Draft picks and multiple first-rounders.

In his final season at Auburn in 2020, Steele’s unit ranked fourth in the SEC in scoring defense while playing a 10-game conference slate. He also served as interim head coach for the Tigers’ Citrus Bowl contest against Northwestern.

In 2019, Auburn’s defense ranked eighth nationally in both red zone and third down defense, allowing only 19.5 points per game against a schedule that featured six 11-win opponents. The 2018 Auburn defense ranked 14th nationally in scoring defense (19.2) and allowed only nine rushing touchdowns. The Tigers ranked in the top 20 nationally in sacks (38) and tackles for loss (96) and were ninth in the country with three interception returns for scores.

The 2017 season saw Steele earn Broyles Award finalist honors as SEC West champion Auburn ranked 14th in total defense and 12th in scoring defense, allowing just 4.67 yards per play, which was eighth-best nationally. The Tigers ranked seventh in Division I for scoring defense, 11th in red zone defense and 28th in total defense in his first season of 2017, an improvement of 43 spots over the previous year. The Tigers also held eight consecutive opponents without a rushing touchdown, the longest season streak at Auburn since 1957.

If Steele has any imprint of his own, it’s in five areas: 1. defensive backs that hold every trip down the field, and do so just enough on the edge to avoid penalties; 2. dominant defensive line play; 3. very aggressive playcalling; 4. sound tackling, and 5. immediate impact among linebackers. Indeed, if there were any position where Steele could be called a position coach, it is at linebacker.

So, while it seems a continuity hire, and to many is a hella’ unsexy one, if you’re paying attention to his CV, Alabama seriously needs help in four of the five areas where Steele excels. (I’d also argue that teaching CBs to hold while drawing fewer flags is not the worst thing that ever happened to the defense either. It is an irritating skill that Auburn mastered and one that he has been aces at coaching up.)

For Alabama, this is a solid hire of a veteran coach. For Steele, this is the last hurrah: his last shot to turn heads and try to get another head coaching job. Turning around an already-very good Alabama defense could be just the thing that does it. I’d think this is a two-year reclamation tour and perhaps even a launching spot for Steele.

The 2017 Auburn-UGA highlights are a good idea of what Steele can do, and how aggressive he calls games, when given a healthy, talented roster.

Tommy Rees (OC)

We’ve digitally murdered a small rain forest, with page upon page written over the last few months about Tommy Rees.

He is, in fact, the most divisive hire among the RBR staff we’ve probably ever had. The camps seem to shake down as follows:

Josh is Opti-Gump / Trust the Process, and does not dock Rees for his many demonstrable failures, choosing to think that it was a matter of talent at Notre Dame. This is the camp Nick Saban has consistently been in, as he assures us repeatedly that Rees is a quality coach.

Brent thinks it’s a pretty good hire, at least to the extent of the running game. Alabama has a very deep running back corps, though the interior of the offensive line is still an issue, until they prove otherwise.

And I come down on the side of cold hard data and results. You are only as good as your record, and the record is that it’s a terrible hire.

At the end of the day, though, it really could just depend on which playbook Rees is given, how much slack Saban will allow him in playcalling, and whether the offensive talent is soooo much better in Tuscaloosa such that it negates a three-year pattern of ghastly analytical playcalling, a poor track record developing quarterbacks, and his absolute no-shows against quality opponents.

There is no happy median here. Rees is either going to be a success, and buck his previous track record, or he is going to be so miserable that we will go crawling naked on broken glass all the way to Foxboro to get Bill O’Brien back (indeed, if I knew this was going to be the hire, I would have made a full-court press to keep BoB).

So, hold your breath and pucker your keister. This is going to be the most scrutinized hire of Saban’s tenure...and it ought to be.

Here are some choice nuggets about Rees, if you want to read the in-depth whys and wherefores.


How are we feeling about the new staff

This poll is closed

  • 22%
    (132 votes)
  • 63%
    Reasonably upbeat / cautiously optimistic, especially if Alabama becomes a more physical team
    (373 votes)
  • 10%
    I’m on the fence like a chicken hawk. Truly torn about some or all of them.
    (59 votes)
  • 3%
    Full Nega-Gump. This screams "9-3 surrender cobra". What in the hell was he thinking?
    (19 votes)
583 votes total Vote Now