Tom Herman visit helped Alabama defense improve

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Georgia announced Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart would become the new head coach. CW | Layton Dudley

Sean Landry

You may not remember this, but Tom Herman’s Ohio State offense tore apart Kirby Smart’s Alabama defense about a year ago. The Buckeyes went for 256 yards through the air, 281 on the ground, and went 10-18 on third-down conversion.

(Sorry.)

After that loss, Smart knew things had to change for his defense. Who better to ask than the man who had picked it apart? So Smart called Herman, in the midst of Herman’s preparation for the College Football Playoff National Championship.

One year after those phone calls, after several meetings in Tuscaloosa, Smart’s defense leads the nation and his final game with the Crimson Tide will be in the College Football Playoff National Championship.

“I called him after we got beat by them, but they were getting ready for this game so he didn’t have a lot of time,” Smart said. “So I reached out and said “what did you have on us, what can we do to get better?” So he said “Give me some time, I’ve got to get through this game.” Coach Saban had the idea of bringing him in. He wanted to bring him in and visit with him after I had a couple of two hour phone conversations with him.”

In the Sugar Bowl last year, the Crimson Tide gave up play after play on third down. This year, they’ve given up just 27.7 percent on third down conversions, fifth in the country.

“We took a lot of scheme stuff,” Smart said. “Philosophically, I wouldn’t say it changed how we substituted, how we played. I would say it changed what fronts we were in, how we play those fronts. What he thought gave them problems and what let them do what they did to us offensively. Ultimately, we didn’t play well on third down in that game, which created a lot of other issues. When you don’t get off the field on third down, you play tons of snaps and your kids get tired.”

An improved defensive front means Alabama can spend more time in its nickel package. With the best defensive line the nation and one of the best secondaries the country, the Crimson Tide has cut back on the number of explosive plays it allows, though those explosive plays are still the key to beating Alabama.

“The front helps the secondary tremendously at Alabama,” Smart said. “We ask those guys to two-gap, to play a 4-3 front and eat all the gaps. They’re big. They’ve got to be able to play both sides of the linemen. Most people don’t ask their defensive linemen to play the right side and the left side of the offensive linemen. We have to. It’s our only way to be able to play coverage in the back end and not give up big plays. Ultimately, you’ve got to be able to do both. But we’ve been a lot better in safe coverage this year than press-man because we don’t want to give up those big plays. When you do an offseason study and say ‘We gave up 50 big plays, how did we give them up? Let’s avoid that.’ So we tried to avoid that.”

Ultimately, if Smart closes his chapter at Alabama with another national championship ring, some credit may be due to Herman, the man who denied him last season.

“If you can’t look at yourself in the mirror and say ‘I got my butt beat,’ you’re never going to get better as a coach,” Smart said.