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Coaching update: Saban hopes third time is a charm for Steele

For the third time during the Nick Saban era at Alabama, Kevin Steele is set to be a part of the defensive coaching staff.

According to published reports late Sunday night, Steele had reached an agreement to become Alabama’s next defensive coordinator, a position he also held during Saban’s inaugural 2007 season. Steele was defensive coordinator for the Miami Hurricanes in 2022.

The hiring brings closer to an end a chaotic offseason for Saban, which saw Alabama replace both coordinators in moves that may not have been completely voluntary for the affected individuals. Defensive coordinator Pete Golding made a lateral move at best, taking the defensive coordinator position at Ole Miss, while former offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien returned to the NFL as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots. While Golding still had another year on his contract, O’Brien’s contract was set to expire in late February, and Alabama had been ramping up to hire someone else for more than a month when O’Brien finally announced his departure.

For Steele, returning to Alabama may not have been completely unexpected, but the timing – and the role – was. Steele’s first tenure at Alabama saw him serve as defensive coordinator in 2007, which was, by far, the least talented team of the Nick Saban era in Tuscaloosa. Steele also coached inside linebackers, and Alabama found itself starting a walk-on, MTSU transfer Darren Mustin, for the entirety of that year. The following season, Saban choose to move the defensive coordinator tag over to Kirby Smart, and Steele served in the capacity of inside linebackers coach and associate head coach. He would leave to take the position of defensive coordinator at Clemson for the 2009 season.

Steele later returned to Alabama for two seasons, beginning with a stint as director of player personnel in 2013 and then coming back to the field as inside linebackers coach in 2014. He left to become defensive coordinator at LSU for the 2015 season, and then began a five-year stint with Auburn as defensive coordinator and ultimately interim head coach. Steele was considered for Auburn’s head coaching job twice, once after Gus Malzahn’s separation from the program during the 2020 season – which saw Steele take over the Auburn program briefly as interim head coach – and again when Malzahn’s ultimate replacement, Bryan Harsin, was fired last year.

From a technical standpoint, Steele has been probably the most unlike Saban of any of the Saban-era defensive coordinators, as Steele’s non-Alabama defenses have made more use of 4-3 and 4-2-5 base concepts than Alabama, which bases out of Saban’s famed 3-4 over/under alignment.

Steele’s most recent work at Auburn, and then at Miami in 2022, produced mixed results at best. His tenure at Auburn started strongly enough, but defensive failures in the 2020 season ultimately played a significant role in Auburn’s decision to fire Malzahn. Auburn finished the 2020 season ranked 38th in scoring defense, 62nd in rushing defense, 63rd in total defense, 75th in pass efficiency defense and 79th in raw pass defense. In 2022 at Miami, the Hurricanes finished ranked 54th in rushing defense, 65th in total defense, 67th in scoring defense, 80th in raw pass defense and 102nd in pass efficiency defense.

Speculation has swirled that Steele’s hiring may be the first step in a “hand-off hire” process that would ultimately end up with Jeremy Pruitt returning to the role as defensive coordinator. Pruitt was believed to be Alabama’s favored choice in this hiring cycle, but significant allegations of NCAA wrongdoing have placed Pruitt’s immediate and future job prospects effectively on hold at the college level. Were Pruitt to receive a show-cause order from the NCAA following the final adjudication of the case against him and the University of Tennessee, Alabama could find itself without Pruitt’s services for a period of time, and could expect substantial reductions in Pruitt’s abilities to recruit off-campus. Due to Steele’s age – he’ll turn 65 before Alabama completes spring practice – and the ease in which Alabama has moved him up and down the organizational chart in the past, using Steele as a bridge to Pruitt seems the most likely scenario in play.

What is also unclear as of this hour is what the eventual makeup of Alabama’s assistant coaching staff will be, especially in the defensive side. On the offensive side, it appears Tommy Rees will step directly into Bill O’Brien’s former roles as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach; no other changes appear to be imminent. Defensively, the picture is significantly more cloudy. Alabama may be waiting on defensive line coach Freddie Roach to entertain NFL offers before making further moves, but at this time, Alabama has one too many linebacker coaches on its sideline and one secondary coach too few.

Cornerbacks coach Travaris Robinson is expected to keep his role, and Roach may also return as defensive line coach. With former safeties coach Charles Kelly departing for Deion Sanders’ staff at Colorado, Alabama has a vacancy there. Steele, fellow new hire Austin Armstrong and 2022 staff member Coleman Hutzler are all linebacker coaches by trade, and there has also been speculation that former OLB coach Sal Sunseri might return to that spot in 2023 from his current, off-the-field role. Regardless, Alabama will either have to divide the defensive line responsibilities, move a linebacker coach to the secondary, or make yet another hire at the expense of probably Hutzler. If Roach leaves, and Alabama chooses to replace him from the other candidates currently in-house, Armstrong’s resume shows one year of experience coaching defensive linemen at West Georgia.

Steele has been in football for 43 years now, and either been a head coach or has coached linebackers for all but two of those seasons, serving as Tennessee’s defensive backs coach in 1987 and 1988.

Once the makeup of the 2023 staff is settled, the analysis of all the offseason hires can begin in earnest. But the hiring of Steele would seem to confirm what TideFans.com has reported twice already now: Nick Saban was said to believe the offense needed more revamping and fresh voices than did the defense, which he believed was a lot closer to regaining its status as an elite unit. To that end, hiring Kevin Steele would make sense, as he is intimately familiar with the system and working for Saban. Steele is also a highly effective recruiter and has built close relationships with many high school football coaches in Alabama and around the region.

However, some observers have noted that the hire feels a bit “safe,” in that Alabama apparently was not seeking significant input into changing the core elements of its 3-4 over/under scheme. Saban instead has doubled down on his defensive system, and appears ready to ride it to his own eventual end in Tuscaloosa, whenever that might be.

The recent decline, statistically, in units coached by Steele is also an area for concern, but both Auburn in 2020 and Miami in 2022 undeniably suffered from a dearth of talent compared to many of its rivals. Both programs have taken steps to close those gaps, hiring more established recruiters and seeing boosters invest significantly more money in NIL programs.

TideFans.com will continue to monitor the process, especially as the makeup of the 2023 staff comes into better focus.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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