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"I really had no interest in coming to Alabama," Chapman says, "and then one day everything changed."
As a senior at Hoover (Ala.) High, Chapman was one of the most coveted players in the South. Scholarship offers from around the country filled Chapman's mailbox. In July 2006 he made a decision that he called ironclad: He committed to Auburn.
But then Saban took over the Tide and persuaded Chapman to visit the Alabama campus with his family. Once Chapman was seated on a couch in Saban's office, the new coach described how vital the nosetackle position was in his version of the 3--4, which he honed as Bill Belichick's defensive coordinator with the Browns from 1991 through '94. Saban explained to Chapman concepts similar to what he articulated last week. "Everything we try to do starts right there in the middle of the line," Saban said. "The nose needs to hold the point and demand double teams. That makes this whole thing go."
Saban often comes off as distant and uninterested in public settings, but inside his office, when he's chatting about the X's and O's of his defense, his brown eyes light up and he beams like an English professor increasingly animated by a discussion of Chaucer. This passion struck a deep chord with Chapman. "Just listening to Coach Saban talk defense, I was like, Wow, he really, really knows his stuff and really loves what he's doing," says Chapman, who against Florida had three tackles and—more significant—drew double teams on nearly all the snaps he played. "My word is important to me, but playing for Coach Saban was something I couldn't pass up. So I changed my mind."
Another player over whom Saban cast a spell while he was planted on that same couch was Mark Barron, one of those former five-star gems. Like many starters on the Tide D, Barron, now a senior safety, picked Alabama largely because he believed that Saban was the best coach to prepare him for the pro game. It's a sentiment that's hard to dispute: Seven Tide defenders have been selected in the last two NFL drafts. "I talk to guys in the league who were my teammates, and they say what we do on defense [at Alabama] is harder to learn than the NFL schemes," says Barron, who had two tackles against the Gators. "I'm still learning new things."
So how best to describe Saban's scheme? "It's an aggressive, attacking defense that overloads sides and brings pressure from all sides," says a pro coach familiar with the Tide. "They change coverages and blitzes based on motions and formations. Most defensive coaches don't want to run that defense due to its exposure of potential big plays. But it punishes QBs and creates turnovers. It also allows defensive players to play with a chip on their shoulder. They can bring the heat on every play."
Yet Saban and Smart are judicious with their blitzes. In Alabama's 38--14 win over No. 14 Arkansas on Sept. 24, the Tide blitzed only once. As Bill Oliver, the architect of the Tide's national-title-winning 1992 defense, watched that game from his lake house in Alexander City, Ala., he felt as if he were gazing at a work of art. "Alabama doesn't need to do anything tricky to dominate other than line up and play," says Oliver, who coached defense for more than 30 years. "I personally haven't seen a defense with this much talent in a long, looooong time. It's a pretty bunch."
If there's one key player to 'Bama's improvement on D, it's inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, a 6'4", 260-pound force of nature. During Alabama's fourth game of the 2009 season, an Arkansas lineman cut-block Hightower on a running play, driving his helmet into Hightower's left knee. It was a gruesome-looking injury; Hightower tore his ACL and missed the rest of the year. He returned last season but often looked slow and tentative. Then in late December, days before Alabama's Capital One Bowl victory over Michigan State, Hightower decided to play without the knee brace he'd been wearing. Suddenly the old Hightower, who had been a freshman All-America in 2008, was back. Last Saturday night he had only four tackles, but he constantly disrupted plays and forced Florida backs and receivers into the arms of other defenders. Stat sheet aside, in no way was this a quiet night for Hightower.
"I feel two steps faster this year than last," said Hightower, who recently ran a 4.68 40, three days before the Florida game. "The biggest difference in our defense this year from last is that we have experience. All of us know where we need to be. Last year we gave up big plays when we got out of position. We also didn't play well in big games. But we're definitely ready for Florida."
Indeed they were. After the game clock expired in Gainesville, Hightower was one of the last players to leave the field, high-fiving dozens of Alabama fans leaning out of the stands before disappearing into the locker room. Saban was close behind. As the coach jogged into the southwest tunnel, he spotted his wife, Terry, wearing a crimson-colored scarf and leaning against a concrete wall. Saban gave her a quick kiss, then continued toward the locker room. Through it all his expression never changed: It was still stuck on 9:21 p.m.