Here's a name you probably never thought you'd see grouped together in the search. Based on reports from the Advocate's Ross Dellenger, Les Miles met with Kirby Smart on Sunday. Worth noting:
We'll get into the probability of all this later, but let's do a quick run through of what Smart brings to the table.
First things first, Smart is still a very young coach. Having just turned 39, it's right to call Smart a rising star in the industry. His coaching career began just 15 years ago, and he's quickly risen up through the ranks, assuming Alabama's DC spot in only his ninth year of coaching. Just take a peak at some other coaching resumes and you'll quickly realize that's the proverbial success rocket strapped to his ass.
Now the other side of that coin, is that the heavy promotions are almost exclusively under Nick Saban. Smart's first coaching gig was at Valdosta State, where he spent a year as DB coach before being promoted to DC the next season. He GA'd at Florida State, before spending a year here at LSU as DBs coach in Saban's final season. A year in Georgia coaching offense and right back to Saban, serving as his safeties coach in Miami, before finally moving on with him to Alabama. After year as an assistant, Saban promoted him to defensive coordinator, after demoting Kevin Steele.
Since Smart's promotion, Alabama claimed three national championships and consistently fielded one of the most elite defensive units in all of college football. I could lay out all the numbers for you, but you are probably well aware, so here's a quick summary:
- 6 seasons ranked top 5 in Total Defense (no. 1 in the nation 2x)
- 5 seasons ranked top 5 in Scoring Defense (no. 1 in the nation 2x)
- 6 seasons ranked top 5 in Defensive S&P+ (no. 1 in the nation 2x)
- 5 seasons ranked top 10 in Defensive FEI (no. 1 in the nation once)
This is a bit of an egg to crack. Clearly Saban has a heavy hand in all the defensive gameplanning, and his scheme is well-established. If Smart didn't like/agree/jive with those principles, you wouldn't imagine he'd hold down a gig for seven seasons. I think it's safe to assume he would likely implement similar schemes when he branches off onto his own, whenever that may be.
There's been plenty of ink spilled on the Saban/Smart schemes, so I'll just link you some here:
- "Florida vs. Alabama: The evolution of the Crimson Tide defense under Nick Saban" by Alligator Army
- "Alabama 3-4 Defense: D-Line Basics" by the Key Play
- "How the hell do you score on Alabama? Part One: Probing for Weaknesses" by Ian Boyd at Football Study Hall
- "How the hell do you score on Alabama? Part Two: The stats behind the late season 'decline'" by Ian Boyd at Football Study Hall
This is just a sampling. There are dozens and dozens more. At the heart, they've been a 3-4 team that thrives off making teams one dimensional, typically by squeezing the life out of the running game and daring opponents to beat their secondary.
One of the major benefits of hiring Smart would be to secure his recruiting prowess, not just from the perspective of strengthening our own staff, but to also weaken a division rival, one that, no less, is the greatest recruiting power in the history of college football. So what part did Smart play in that? A lot.
Using 247's recruiter rankings, here's how Smart has fared:
2014: 3rd nationally
2013: 2nd nationally
2012: 15th nationally
2011: 28th nationally
2010: 7th nationally
On average, he's a top 10 recruiter in a given cycle. Frank Wilson, by comparison finished this way:
2014: 4th nationally
2013: 22nd nationally
2012: 20th nationally
2011: 2nd nationally
2010: 51st nationally
That's an average of a top 20 recruiter in a given cycle.
Smart has some legitimate recruiting chops. He's pulled eight different 5 stars to Bama, including Kendell Sheffield and Minkah Fitzpatrick this year. He snatched 5-star Rashaan Evans, an Auburn, Alabama native, right out of Auburn's backyard. He's also secured the commitment of 2016 stud Louisiana DB Shyheim Carter. Smart is one of the elite recruiters in all of college football.
One major question is where Smart would fit. He's a DBs coach historically, with no listed experience with the DL or LBs. That's not to say he couldn't coach either of those, just that he's never had to do so thus far. Without additional staff moves, how Smart fits into the picture there is a bit of a puzzle.
Why Leave Bama?
I think beyond staff fit or schemes, the biggest question is why would this move happen? He's paid handsomely at Alabama and working under his mentor. There's nothing on the surface that would make you think this is a real possibility. But let's talk through this some.
Escaping the Shadow
As recently as three years ago, Smart was a hot name mentioned for virtually every head coaching vacancy that would come free. This season's cycle came and went with him drawing hardly a mention. What's happened? The defensive performance hasn't declined enough for legitimate concern. But one factor could be Muschamp's failed tenure at Florida, and him having a similar career trajectory as Smart. That said, Mushcamp also put in impressive stints at Auburn and Texas before getting the Florida gig.
Smart may feel he needs to get out from underneath Saban to legitimate his own legacy. Whether its true or not, there are some that will still think of Smart as a figurehead while Saban is the one running the defense. How true that is we can't know until Smart assumes his own gig. LSU's as good of a place to do that as any.
This is entirely conjecture, but last season we saw Saban ouster a good OC in Doug Nussmeier. It seemed a puzzling decision. He didn't outright fire Nuss, but he was certainly given the "yeah, go ahead and look around" indication. Smart, unlike Nussmeier, is a Saban protege, so it's unclear whether he'd send him the same message. But perhaps Saban feels its time for some new blood atop the defense? They've also had back-to-back horrendous showings in bowl matchups, which could nudge Saban into thinking he needs change. Again, this is all just speculation, but it's at least one possible avenue.
Of all the names bandied about, Smart comes closest to a pure HR hire for me. This is an elite level recruiter and a DC that's proven competent enough that Saban keeps him around for seven consecutive years. Not to mention all that was accomplished in that span. Keep in mind, Saban demoted Kevin Steele after a single year at Alabama, so he's not afraid to act fast and make changes when something isn't working.
The timeline of this is interesting. Trying to hire away a division rival is a tall task, especially when its a valued coach. How could Saban let that happen? This isn't USC or Ohio State or hell, even Georgia trying to pry their DC. This is one of their top division rivals. It's hard to imagine Saban would let that unfold. It seems like a deal like this is something that would need to be kept quiet and acted upon quickly.
So why did the story leak? Smart posturing for a raise doesn't seem probable. He's already one of, if not the, top paid DCs in all of football. It's also hard to imagine there being a candidate that much more exciting for fans than Smart, thus a smokescreen here would seem counter productive.
The other angle to consider is that the timeline of this search continues to be pushed back. First it was by last weekend, then Monday, now reports saying it could "linger into next week." Is Les buying time because he's wooing Smart? Remember, initial reports of Sumlin coming for Chavis came about a week or two before he actually jumped to the job. I imagine it takes some convincing to lure a coach to make a lateral move. Could that be the reason the search is dragging on?
I'd still say the probability of all this happening is pretty low. That said, if Les were able to pull it off, it's be a major coup for the program. Getting better while weakening your main rival is a double victory.