There is no doubt football is changing and has already changed in the last decade. No-huddle offenses have seemingly gone from a late-game gimmick to a necessity in an offense, and teams are looking to put athletes and speed all over the field.
Three yards and a cloud of dust is long gone in college football. Even in the SEC.
Nick Saban is very much a coach who still believes in big offensive lines and running the football behind him. While so many schools look to the spread and the perimeter, Saban still has an incredible ability to recruit and implement traditional power backs.
Even he is not immune to the speed of the game, though. He has installed spread principles, hiring Lane Kiffin as an offensive coordinator, and has started to change the way his teams play.
The biggest effect is in his vaunted defense.
While at LSU and Michigan State, Saban made his name on creating tough-minded defenses. They were physical and tough, never giving an inch. The speed on the field has changed things though. And it is pretty clear in one way.
Saban, like most defensive-minded coaches, need more speed on the field to match the speed on the offense. And that has changed what his defenses look like.
The way he has taken that change in stride is what impresses some of Saban’s colleagues.
South Carolina coach Will Muschamp worked for Saban as a defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator at LSU in the early 2000s. He knows exactly the kind of players Saban wanted to recruit, and the size the Tigers needed to run an aggressive defense. But that has changed. The defensive end and linebackers are smaller now to keep their speed.
“Back when I was at LSU with Nick Saban, we wanted to be a big, fast, physical team. Nick would not (emphasize) a smaller defensive end-type rusher like he has Tim Williams now,” Muschamp told JOX 94.5 FM in Birmingham, Ala. “You’ve got to have more speed on the field. You’ve got to give and take a little bit, take away the size and girth to have more speed on the field, more pass rushers, more guys who can play in space.
“It’s a space game right now. If you can’t play in space — you’re going to give up some size to have more speed on the field, because you’re not facing the direct runs anymore. You look in the SEC, LSU and Arkansas are traditional two-back teams. That’s out of the norm now. You’re getting ready for one-back teams. Gus (Malzahn) will create some two-back runs, but it’s a one-back game, a tempo game. You have to play fast and get on the ball.”
Williams is listed at 6-foot-4, 237 pounds on Alabama’s website. That is certainly not a big guy going up against many 300-pound offensive linemen. But his speed enables him to get by those big guys to get to the quarterback and enables him to stick with receivers when he drops back into coverage.
If the offenses are getting more about creating in space, defenders have to become more about closing down that space quickly and effectively. It is the evolution of the game.
Within a decade, Saban has had to change his style of defense, and what he looks for in recruiting, in many ways. What is probably more telling about Saban’s success is that he made this change and kept winning.