In years past, Nick Saban has used the podium at SEC media days like a pulpit.
Pace of play and satellite camps have been some of his most recent sermon topics in Hoover, Alabama. His voice carries so much weight in the college football landscape that he always gets big-picture questions from the assembled media.
But on Wednesday morning, Saban looked more like a preacher who can put his congregation to sleep.
From his lengthy opening statement, the defending national champion coach made it clear he wanted to talk about his team—even if all of it had already been said before.
“I’m gonna sit up here and very seriously talk about our team,” Saban said on the SEC Network broadcast. “And everything I’m gonna say about our team, you’ve already written a story about. Somebody in this room has already written a story about what I’m gonna talk about.”
And that’s exactly what Saban did for a little more than half an hour in the “big room” at media days.
Outside of a question about concussions and another about flood relief in his native West Virginia, Saban’s appearance at the podium was kept to topics that will directly affect his team in 2016.
Then came the post-show fireworks.
Here are the biggest takeaways.
Suspensions sound unlikely for Robinson, Jones
Saban’s appearance at the main podium was so relatively uneventful that the most-important question for him heading into Wednesday didn’t even come until he arrived later in the event’s “internet room.”
Saban was asked about the status of star left tackle Cam Robinson and defensive back Hootie Jones, who were arrested in May on drug and weapons charges but were not prosecuted.
According to Bleacher Report’s Barrett Sallee, Saban said the facts surrounding Robinson and Jones’ situation were “different than advertised,” and made it sound like the players would continue to be punished internally without suspension:
Robinson’s availability for Week 1 will be especially important for Alabama, which will face USC at AT&T Stadium with a brand-new starting backfield. Jones, a junior, is projected to be a key reserve in the defensive backfield this fall.
The Alabama duo still have to go through the rest of the internal punishment Saban and the program have laid out for them. However, it looks almost certain that the Crimson Tide will face the Trojans in Texas with the cornerstone of their offensive line.
Saban vs. Finebaum
Toward the end of his time in Hoover, Saban appeared on set with several SEC Network analysts, including Paul Finebaum.
The radio host directly asked Saban about not suspending Robinson or Jones. Saban then got into a heated exchange with Finebaum that was broadcast on the network:
“Do we condone the behavior? No, alright? But you’re innocent until proven guilty in this country, regardless of whether you get convicted in the media or not, which is what you’re doing to these players,” Saban said. “[Finebaum] said I was going to get criticized by you and the public and the media because I’m not going to suspend them. And I don’t really care about that. That’s the end of the conversation.”
The situation continued to boil over after the network went to commercial. While the audio isn’t clear, a video posted by AL.com showed Saban continuing to go after Finebaum during the commercial break before he left the set:
Finebaum said Saban’s anger wasn’t directed at him as much as it was at the situation involving Robinson or Jones. The longtime radio host also said it was the angriest he had ever seen Saban in his career.
“Somebody’s got to win” quarterback job in fall camp
Before the questions about Robinson and Jones, Saban took the podium in Hoover for a third straight year in which he did not have a returning starter at quarterback on his team.
The Crimson Tide are in the midst of a four-man race between Cooper Bateman, Blake Barnett, David Cornwell and Jalen Hurt for the starting quarterback job. None of the options particularly separated themselves when they were in the public eye at the annual A-Day Game, so the battle continues to rage.
“Somebody’s got to win that job,” Saban said. “Somebody’s got to win the team. You know, that has not necessarily happened yet.”
Bateman has the most experience of any quarterback in the competition, as he was the primary backup last year and started in place of Jake Coker in Alabama’s regular-season loss to Ole Miss.
However, Saban and the staff continue to keep all their options open, and the head coach refuses to say if anyone has taken the lead as the Tide get closer to fall practices.
“I’m not going to sit up here and sort of try to…give you some statistics on who’s winning the race and how the race is going and who’s ahead, are they on the back stretch or in the final turn,” Saban said. “That’s something that’s going to happen probably in fall camp. I hope [it happens] in fall camp.”
In classic Saban fashion, don’t expect the head coach to divulge much movement on the quarterback front this far ahead of the season opener against USC.
The Kiffin Effect
One of the most memorable moments that will come out of what was an otherwise low-key Saban appearance at SEC media days was this exchange between a media member and the head coach on offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin:
Although Saban responded with a standard “we all try to improve each other” answer once the media member repeated her question, Kiffin came up again in the session.
Since his arrival in Tuscaloosa, Kiffin has introduced more uptempo and no-huddle strategies into the Alabama offense—something that Saban used to be adamantly against. But Saban said Alabama has welcomed the changes thanks to Kiffin’s offensive know-how and the rules in place on that side of the ball.
“Lane wasn’t really a no-huddle guy,” Saban said. “That was something that we did philosophically because of the issues that it created for us defensively. And it was the rule. … So for us to not use those plays is a disadvantage for us.”
Saban compared the no-huddle elements of Kiffin’s offense to the run-pass option plays that take advantage of college football’s rules on eligible men downfield. Since the rules aren’t changing, he is adapting them to how he plays, even if it doesn’t necessarily mesh with his core philosophy.
The presence of Kiffin, Saban said, has helped make those changes possible for the back-to-back defending SEC champions.
“It’s been a work in progress for us to learn how to do that, because we do not have an offensive coach on our staff that came from that background, came from that hurry-up, no-huddle offense,” Saban said. “I think our coaching staff, including Lane, has done a fantastic job sort of developing a system that has been very effective for us in terms of what we’ve been able to do.”
Downplaying depth on defensive front for 2016
Alabama’s defensive front has the potential to be one of the best in recent college football history with the return of playmakers such as defensive end Jonathan Allen, outside linebacker Tim Williams and inside linebacker Reuben Foster.
Saban said Alabama’s ability to go deep on the defensive front last season was one of its biggest strengths on the way to the national championship. This year, though, could be quite different.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us to be able to replace some of the depth that we had in terms of the specialty players that we had last year,” Saban said. “A guy like Tim Williams, for example, had, I think, 10.5 sacks and only played on third down. … Jonathan Allen, who was one of our best defensive lineman, did not have to play all of the time and was a really, really effective rusher.”
One of Alabama’s biggest transitions this offseason will be adjusting ultra-efficient role players such as Williams, Ryan Anderson and Rashaan Evans into “full-time” responsibilities on defense.
“That was unique that we had that kind of depth on last year’s team,” Saban said. “I don’t think we’ll have it on this year’s team, even though we have some really good players. It will be more challenging for us to create some different roles for some other guys, who can sort of have a role so that these guys don’t have to play all of the downs in the game.”
Thanks to its run of No. 1 recruiting classes, the Crimson Tide definitely have the talented bodies across the defensive front to come close to that depth in 2016. But in Saban’s eyes, there’s a lot of work to be done between now and then.
“The diversity in players that we had on last year’s team was almost perfect for what you need in this day and age of football with the spread, with no huddle,” Saban said. “We kind of had all of those parts. I’m not sure we have all those parts this year, but certainly we’re working to try to develop them.”
All quotes obtained from SEC Network’s broadcast unless otherwise noted. Stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings are courtesy of 247Sports.
Justin Ferguson is a national college football analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.
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