TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Turnovers were fickle for the Alabama defense a year ago.
The young, inexperienced secondary stole a majority of the 22 interceptions that ranked fourth nationally. But fumbles were fewer and less likely to change hands.
The Crimson Tide actually ranked 118th of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision team in fumbles recovered. That ranking certainly doesn’t sit nicely with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.
It’s also fueling the renewed emphasis on the art of stripping the pigskin in preseason practices.
“When you look at the turnover stats, it’s a little misleading because we had a lot of interceptions, but we did not force many fumbles,” Smart said. “That’s usually indicative of big contact and people ripping the ball out. We have to improve sacks and tackles for loss.”
In all, Alabama opponents dropped 20 fumbles -- nine of which were forced -- but Alabama recovered just four of the loose balls. One came on special teams, so the defense could be credited with three. North Carolina State led the nation with 20 fumbles recovered while only Utah State had fewer than Alabama with three.
Of the four Alabama reclaimed, two led directly to scores and each was recovered by a different player. Linebacker Courtney Upshaw, however, was the only with multiple stripped balls with four.
Halting long drives by the opposition was more important, though.
And Smart was still pleased with a red-zone defense that ranked fourth nationally by allowing points on two of three possessions crossing its 20 yard-line.
“We had two big turnovers against Florida, one big one against Arkansas and a big one against Tennessee, so we saved ourselves in the red area by playing well and protected a young defense,” Smart said. “Statistically, we overachieved, but in big games we did not play as well as we should have. We let ourselves down, and that should be changed this year. We expect to have a better year this year.”
For perspective’s sake, the 2009 defense regarded as one of the best in school history wasn’t piling up fumble recoveries either. The BCS championship winning team with six future NFL draft picks recovered seven of the 17 fumbles lost in 14 games.
Still, the practice routine includes its share of fumble awareness.
Coach Nick Saban said defensive players do a “turnover circuit” once every three practices.
“You never know when those kind of opportunities are going to occur,” Saban said. “Every ball that hits the ground in practice, our guys have to scoop and score, whether it’s a fumble, an incomplete pass or whatever it is.”
Linebacker Nico Johnson can see a difference forcing turnovers this August.
“I won’t say we weren’t attempting to strip any balls, but we probably pulled out over 30 against the offense,” Johnson said.
“That’s one thing coach Smart is forcing into us, that we were 118 in the country out of 120.That’s almost last. We take it among ourselves to increase in that category.”