TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Coming off a season in which Alabama's secondary lacked consistency and continuity, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart's return to defensive backs coach couldn't have come at a better time.
Smart, a former defensive back at Georgia, spent the past three seasons coaching the middle linebackers, but is back with the secondary following a few changes among Alabama's staff.
The Crimson Tide is just five practices into spring ball, but junior safety Landon Collins can already tell the difference having Smart lead the defensive backs makes.
"It's tremendous," Collins said. "He just coaches us at a different level, trying to get us to understand it from his point of view because he played the position and he knows what's going on; it's his defense. So basically it's a tremendous thing for us safeties because he sits down and goes step-by-step on what we need to do and what will make us a better player."
Collins said Smart hasn't made a ton of changes, but things are more methodical this spring.
"We're doing the same thing, but we're slowing it down," Collins said. "It's the spring time so we get to slow it down and take it step-by-step during practice and go over everything slowly."
Tide coach Nick Saban called himself Smart's "GA" (graduate assistant) when the two work with the secondary.
"I've always liked it when Kirby coaches the secondary," Saban said Monday. "I think it's really hard for one guy to coach the secondary right now. I'm really sort of his GA. He's kind of working with the safeties and the whole group and then when we break down I kind of try to work with the corners a little bit."
Last season, Alabama ranked second in the SEC and No. 11 nationally in pass defense (180.3 yards per game) in Greg Brown's first year coaching the secondary (now at Louisville).
But the numbers don't paint the entire picture.
"I thought last year, we didn't play with enough consistency back there," Saban said. "We had a lot of different rotating parts, different starters, different corners starting. We've got to come up with some guys that can develop some consistency in performance. We obviously lost two very good players at safety."
Last season was uncharted territory for Smart and Saban. Since Smart became defensive coordinator in 2008, guys like Kareem Jackson, Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner have developed into top cornerbacks for the Tide, which allowed others time to develop. But the Tide never found that second guy in 2013.
Gone are safeties HaHa Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri along with cornerback Deion Belue. All three were experienced players who provided leadership at their positions.
While there are no clear-cut returning starters outside of Collins, Alabama returns multiple players with experience at both safety and cornerback.
Along with Collins, look for guys like Jarrick Williams, Nick Perry and Geno Smith to contribute at safety. At cornerback, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson, Bradley Sylve and Maurice Smith all saw time last season and are out to earn a starting spot. Factor in recruits like early enrollees Tony Brown and Laurence "Hootie" Jones along with Marlon Humphrey and it's easy to see the immense talent the group has.
Still at the end of the day, Saban is a perfectionist. And while he isn't satisfied with the group's progress, he is optimistic about the potential for improvement based on the players attitudes thus far.
"We've got some guys coming back that can be really good players," Saban said, "but their leadership, their confidence, their ability to quarterback and make adjustments in the secondary and develop the kind of chemistry back there that people have confidence in, I think, is going to be critical for this spring practice and something that we've got to do a better job of. I just think that our consistency back there last year is something that we really want to improve on. Players are working hard to do it.
"I'm not satisfied with the progress that we've made, but I've been pleased with the attitude and effort that we've gotten so far."