If Nick Saban had never met Bill Belichick, Saban would be an outstanding football coach. It is obvious, though, that Saban has taken much from his time as an assistant to Belichick. One of those things is the designation of players in nickel and dime situations.
More important to Alabama Coach Nick Saban than the nomenclature, though, is the reason that the Crimson Tide has a “star” and a “money” as a part of the Bama defense.
When a team is in a defense with five defensive backs, the extra secondary player is known almost everywhere as the nickel. And that’s the way it had been for Saban until he went to work for Bill Belichick, now the famed coach of the New England Patriots, at the Cleveland Browns.
The nickel back usually replaces the strongside linebacker, known as Sam.
“Everything that Bill Belichick does has some purpose, from what you call blitz to what you call fire zone front,” Saban said. Belichick wanted an “S” word for the nickel. “Star” was born.
“The Star is really the Sam,” Saban said.
Saban said in the old days the defense did not use six defensive backs.
“When you put six guys in the game, whether it’s a sub linebacker or a sixth defensive back, we had nickel, dime, dollar,” Saban said. “Some money terms.
“Whoever played Star, that was the Sam, and whoever played the money position was the Will (weakside linebacker).
“But when you talk to players you can say, ‘Look, these linebackers on the team are all going to play money. These DBs on the team are going to learn how to play money.’ Because when it comes to the assignments of the defense, the position is the same.
“It’s just if they’ve got four wideouts in there the linebacker can’t cover, so we put another DB out there.”
“So we just started calling that the money position. It could be nickel, dime or dollar.
“That was Bill's system, but it made lots of sense to me. Just like everything else we did, we categorized things for the players. I think it made it better for the players. I think this does, too.”
Of course, it takes more than a name. Players have to be found to play those positions.
Saban said, “You can be a really good Star and not have the long-speed to be a good corner. Long-speed being that if a guy runs a take off on you, you have to run and not get out-run when the ball is in the air.
“If you have really good quickness and cover ability, the slot guy has a hard time beating you in that position because he's closer to the safeties, he's closer to the middle of the field. So, a good tackler, a good blitzer, a good cover guy on a slot player which is different than a good cover guy on an outside player.
“The Money guy has got to have some linebacker characteristics, in terms of the run. It helps that the guy's a little bit bigger and physical because sometimes he has to cover a tight end which is a bigger guy. But he also, unless you change personnel, has to be good enough to do the same things that the star does.”
Saban noted that Vinnie Sunseri, the leading candidate at strong safety as a sophomore, played both Star and Money as a freshman last year. Dee Milliner, expected to be the starting left cornerback this year, has been a Star.
He said , “We're trying to teach Geno Smith to be a star. Jarrick Williams has played money. He played money during the Capital One Bowl a couple of years ago. Nick Perry can play money.
“We teach multiple guys how to do these roles and see what mix and matches the best. But I also think you have to be conscious of how many reps your going to get in practice, especially during the season, and if a guy has too many multiple roles, is he going to get enough reps in that role to be effective in the game.”
Obviously that puts a strain on defensive backs, and Alabama is rebuilding its secondary this year after losing three starters, including first round NFL draft choices Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick.
As for the secondary as Bama reaches the one week mark of fall camp, Saban said, “We've got a ways to go, that's all I can tell you. There are guys that have some good promise and some guys that have played really good football for us here. They're trying to provide some of the leadership. We need to develop some other players. To me, that's a challenge for us right now to see how rapidly we can get some of those young guys to develop with the consistency.
“It really reminds me a lot of two years ago when we got a new guy DeQuan Menzie, Dre's a young player who started. It's a work in progress.
“How quickly those guys develop is going to be really important to how successful we are on defense.”