BATON ROUGE, La. -- For all of his defensive brilliance, Nick Saban also is a heck of an economist.
All the incentive Marcus Spears needed in switching from tight end -- where he had been the country's No. 1 high school player -- to defensive end was his future earning power.
"If you play defensive end, you make $6 million a year (in the NFL)," the LSU coach told Spears. "If you play tight end you make $1.8 million."
|Former TE Marcus Spears showed his receiving skills in the Sugar Bowl with this interception for a TD. (Getty Images)|
Yes, we said best.
"I feel like that because I play on it," said Spears, a senior. "Because I play on it, I take pride in what I do. What happens on Saturday night shows what we work for all week, all year, all summer. I feel like we are the best defense."
It hit Spears during the postgame Sugar Bowl celebration. The coach found the 6-foot-4, 300-pound lug at his locker with tears in his eyes.
"Thank you," Spears said.
Cult leaders have had less sway over human beings than Saban has over his defense right now. Everything he touches turns to negative yardage. Mighty Oklahoma was sent packing in the Sugar Bowl following its lowest output in yards (154) and second lowest in points (14) of the season.
The Tigers finished No. 1 in scoring defense (11.0 points per game). No. 1 in total yards (252.0). No. 1 in intimidation. No. 1 in preparation.
"We hit the quarterback something like 218 times last year," Saban said. "We affected the quarterback with our front people. We had two good front corners. The combination of those two things makes those guys even harder to block."
Despite the loss of four defensive starters, the Tigers could have, at least, the best defensive line and best set of corners in the country going into 2004. Cornerback Corey Webster and Spears could have left for the NFL but, like their coach, are content in Baton Rouge.
"Even if the stats say you're not the best defense, you've got to go out and act like you're the best," Webster said. "We've got to make our name, our legacy."
That's where Webster and fellow corner Travis Daniels come in. Together they broke up a combined 51 passes last year. Webster is constantly reminded by Saban of the wisdom of his position switch.
The shutdown corner has caught more passes as a defender (14 career interceptions) than as a receiver (seven as a freshman in 2001).
The loss of All-American tackle Chad Lavalais and end Marquise Hill would cripple most teams. But the Tigers are so loaded on the line that this group might be just as good.
Junior Melvin Oliver was expected to take Hill's spot until allegations of striking his girlfriend put his status in doubt. Underrated Kyle Williams (four sacks) will take one tackle spot. Saban breathed a lot easier in December when juco transfer Claude Wroten impressed after joining the Tigers for bowl drills. There can be little argument that the Tigers have replaced Oklahoma and other challengers to the throne of best defense. That doesn't mean they will repeat as national champs or even win the SEC. It does mean they left a mark. Lots of them.
Georgia quarterback David Greene is a leading authority on the subject. The Bulldogs were beaten twice last season by the Tigers, once in the final seconds at Death Valley and then by three touchdowns 2½ months later in the SEC championship game.
"They were better, they were a lot better," Greene said of the second meeting. "They were playing with a lot of confidence. They were rolling. You use that momentum, sometimes you just run with it. They were running with it big time."
So what happened? The perfect storm of personnel, momentum and Saban's scheme. LSU's front four was good enough to reach the quarterback consistently (an underrated luxury), but Saban has devised arguably the most complicated blitz package in the game.
"Oklahoma, USC and us, we all three probably had the three best defenses," Saban said. "All three teams had good players up front and could rush. You can help block those four (rushers). But if you have a good pressure package they have to block them one on one."
The scheme is based on making the offense guess ...
- If the blitz is coming
- If so, from where.
Jason White and Oklahoma were so rattled in the Sugar Bowl that the Sooners' offense resorted to "max protect," keeping the tight end and backs in to help block.
"So we stopped blitzing and started doubling the receivers," Saban said. "They had nobody going out (for a pass) ... It's what I call 'green dog.' When they set up to block, just rush because they (tight ends and backs) aren't coming out."
You have to like LSU's chances in that situation -- two or three receivers against seven defenders dropped back in coverage.
Saban has made a science of it. It's hard to remember now that the Cleveland Browns with Saban as coordinator allowed the fewest points in the NFL in 1994 (sixth-fewest in NFL history at the time). His 1999 Michigan State team allowed only 177 points in 12 games.
This offseason, Patriots coach as well as Saban mentor and friend Bill Belichick came here to visit the program. Saban talks regularly with Carolina Panthers coach John Fox. The defense is constantly updated.
Defenders aren't given assignments so much as concepts. One player might be assigned to study the opposing quarterback's mannerisms. In what rhythm does he call the signals? How are blitzes going to be timed?
Another defender might be told to break down screens and draws. On Friday, they are asked to stand up at meetings and spew out what they have found.
"Our guys have kind of grown up in that culture," Saban said.
The culture was established at Saban's first team meeting. He wanted Louisiana athletes to stay home. For too long they had been plucked away by the likes of Texas A&M, Colorado and other SEC schools.
Speed in Louisiana high schools is a given. This year Early Doucet, the nation's top prep receiver, signed at LSU along with 13 other native Louisianans.
"What kills you here is you don't have any linemen," Saban said. "The linemen are the hardest guys to get. We've been able to get all those guys."
Lavalais and Hill were drafted this year. Spears and Williams, a junior, should go next.
Typical of Saban's relentless approach was a scene in his hotel room at 3 a.m. following that Sugar Bowl victory. While the world celebrated below him on the street, a close friend turned to Saban and said, "You know, it's never going to be the same for you."
The friend was right. Saban was courted heavily by the Chicago Bears. He eventually got a new deal at LSU that pays him an average of $2.3 million. But at the pinnacle of his career that night, Saban worried.
"I said, 'What are you talking about?'" Saban said. "I worried about all the agents in the lobby, how I'm going to get these guys to respond (next season)."
Saban's decision to stay inspired his troops, particularly Spears and Webster, who could have been high draft choices as juniors but stayed.
"Coach told me he was at that point," Spears said. "Him and his family are happy. His kids are in school and happy. It was hard for him to just leave out of this situation and go to the NFL where the pressure is turned up.
"Honestly, I think eventually he'll give the NFL a shot. But if not, I don't think he'll miss anything."