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Alabama 2023 Fall Football Preview: Coaching Staff brings significant continuity into the season

Ignore the coordinators, the other seven guys on staff could matter far more.

Florida Gators Orange and Blue spring football game Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

For the first time since 2018, Alabama finds itself replacing both coordinators. And, indeed, most of the speculation this offseason has been about the loss, and replacement, of Pete Golding and Bill O’Brien.

But, as we wrote in Spring, who Alabama returns in 2023 could be a better harbinger of success than who was brought in. Because for all the splash (and ire) around the coordinator spots, it’s the rank-and-file position coaching continuity that could matter most.

And Alabama is simply loaded in that respect:

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.

Who’s back for 2023?

The better answer is who is not back. Alabama returns:

  • Edge / OLB coach
  • Wide receiver coach / Associate Head Coach
  • Cornerbacks coach
  • Offensive line coach
  • Tight Ends coach
  • Defensive line coach
  • Special teams coach
  • Running backs coach

The losses really were minimal, including Charles Kelly — the FSU product reunited with Deion at the Boulder Carnival, and the aforementioned coordinator spots.

As is Saban’s wont, he brought in a blend of promising youth and deep veteran experience. Here’s who’s new for 2023:

Robert Bala: ILB Coach

Bala is young...and I mean young. He has just one year coaching experience in major college ‘ball, and none of it is in the Power 5. But, what he was able to do at Liberty was impressive, turning the ILB corps into a disciplined, sound-tackling and aggressive group. In retrospect, his work with the Flames really does what resemble Jeremy Pruitt did in 2017, and I would expect the same in 2023. There is promising talent on the roster, but little in the way of proven experience. Let ‘er rip as people find their way could very well be what we see this year.

His first job? Clean up some truly terrible tackling and soft play at a position on the field that cannot afford timidity or whiffs right up the gut. The LSU, Auburn and Kansas State games were truly despicable.

Kevin Steele: Defensive Coordinator

This seems, at first blush, a remarkably unsexy retread hire. But, just like the Little Black Dress or Missionary, sometimes things are classics for a reason. And as a three-decade veteran with deep 3-4 experience, much directly under Saban, this “retread” could be exactly what the doctor ordered:

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.)

The more you think about what Steele brings to the table, the help that Alabama needs in some crucial areas, and what talent is on the roster, the more this hire grows on you. Is it modern? No, not really. But what good does all the scheming in the world do when the DC can’t coach the down-to-down fundamentals. And that really was Pete Golding’s downfall: the team missed too many tackles, communicated too poorly, and was far too undisciplined especially with respect to drawing hankies.

All of that changes with Kevin Steele, and I actually really like this hire.

Tommy Rees: Offensive Coordinator

Whoa, buddy. Wanna’ talk about a baffling, divisive hire here. Rarely is Nick Saban criticized the moment he announces a hire, but he caught no end of flak for this one. And, he also was given the benefit of the doubt based on past performance. I mean, Alabama has usually at least had a serviceable OC, right? No outright disasters, no matter how much people didn’t like BOB or Major Applewhite or Muss. So, why not Rees?

Well, the camps — and conclusions — break down as follow:

Josh is Trust the Process, thinks playcalling is overrated, and does not dock Rees for his 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...

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

What’s his ceiling, really? We have a 40-game body of work, and four quarterbacks he recruited and “developed” and the results were...not good. At the least, they were not national caliber-type results.

But, you know, look at the roster here too, particularly under center. Of the five QBs on the depth chart, who are you pegging as the guy to lead the Tide to a title season? A learning curve for everyone may be on the table, right? And perhaps we should just learn to accept that. The Dynasty is dead, and it has been for a while now: not every year is going to be a national title contender, and while Alabama has the defense and running game to make a run this year, the other questions likely put the Tide outside of the conversation at the end of the day.

Still, you know that no matter what happens this season, Rees is going to be the most scrutinized man in Tuscaloosa. Because, let’s be honest, if there is any single coaching breakdown this season, of the Tide’s three new coaches, which one figures to both be the most likely to occur and most likely to cost ‘Bama a few games?

You can say this for Rees though: It is a brave man that ventures out of the lion’s den of Notre Dame only to jump not the Tuscaloosa shark tank that devours everyone and forgives no one.

His bravery is unquestioned. And this gamble very well could pay off. If he gets the keys to the kingdom, develops a quarterback, and the Tide is a one-legged man in an ass-kicking competition, he will instantly become the hottest commodity for a head coaching job.

You have to respect that, at least.