TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama football coordinators Tommy Rees and Kevin Steele are on opposite ends of the football spectrum. Steele, 65, has been coaching college football since 1980 and knew Tommy’s father and fellow coach Bill before Tommy was born. Rees, just 31 years old, is on the front nine of his coaching career and is one of the youngest coordinators in the Nick Saban era.
But the two felt a similar emotion earlier this year when they were tabbed by Saban to join Alabama’s staff as a coordinator, whether it’s for a third time like Steele (who was on Saban’s first staff in 2007 and again from 2013-14) or Rees (who is new to Tuscaloosa after several years at his alma mater Notre Dame): surreal.
“Well, shocking,” Steele said. “I did not see it coming. When you get an opportunity to coach at the University of Alabama, for the best coach who has ever done it, sometimes you will look in the mirror and say, ‘Why me?’ I’m very blessed to be here.”
Rees was quick to point out that it’s important to flush emotions quickly and focus on the task at hand. Through three preseason camp practices, the two new coordinators have impressed their boss.
“I’m pleased with the new leadership, whether it’s (Steele or Rees),” Saban said. “Those guys have both done a good job. I think players have responded very well to them so far. There’s a lot of teaching; there’s a lot of installation. This is the most condensed period of how much do we throw at players to learn in a short period of time, as any time during the season.
“So far, the attitude has been good and players have been good, and we just want to be able to sustain that, which I think is the biggest challenge in fall camp.”
Alabama’s media day on Sunday provided an opportunity for both coordinators to address the media since their arrival. Rees is overseeing the most important position battle on the team at quarterback, and Steele’s return is paired with optimism that Alabama’s defense will return to its expected standard.
This upcoming week is a pivotal moment in preseason camp. The pace will increase as full pads come out, and the first scrimmage looms Saturday. Here are some key takeaways from Alabama’s media day:
‘The Standard’ and the schemes
Much of the conversation about Alabama’s team is centered around returning to “the standard.” Steele touched on what that means to him, specifically on the defensive side.
“That’s kind of a loaded question in some regards,” Steele said. “This process is built — and it started in ’07. I was here (as defensive coordinator). It hasn’t gone anywhere; it really hasn’t. Obviously, offensive football has changed. It’s harder on defense right now at this present time than maybe it’s been in a long, long time. But the process is the process: physical and mental toughness, relentless effort, dominate your opponent and do your job. It’s just simple principles.”
Steele noted that the schematic foundation of Alabama’s defense is what he has run at previous stops. He estimated that 80 percent of the verbiage was the same upon his return; certain nuances and the application of concepts have changed, and schemes are always evolving.
Rees’ acclimation process was different and multi-pronged: learning the foundation of Alabama’s system, then adding his wrinkles and nuances, which are personnel-driven. But he described the process as smoother than he anticipated.
“To come in here and say we’re going to change all these things would be foolish.,” Rees said. “There’s certain things that we want to do or alter or look at to enhance it, but a wholesale change would never make sense. There’s still times that you’ve got to remind yourself, ‘Hey, we’re calling it this.’ We have a great staff that help us with all those issues and all those little things. But our players have really bought into what we’re asking them to do.”
New coordinators Tommy Rees, Kevin Steele settling in at Alabama
One clear takeaway from Sunday was Rees’ affinity with a physical style of play, and he went as far as to say if he could’ve been reincarnated at another position, it’d be a pulling guard on the offensive line. The effectiveness of the running game will be a central theme for this season and is an early storyline in camp with competition on the left side of the line and at running back.
“The offensive line is a group that can be unsung a little bit,” Rees said. “Really without that group of five in front of you, it’s hard to do anything well. I think we have a great (running back room). We have a great blend of guys that can do kind of a little bit of different things coming out of the backfield in the pass game, running between the tackles. So we’re a little bit spoiled in that position if we’re being honest here.”
Media day allowed for multiple perspectives of the quarterback competition. Preseason camp is an important component, but the message to the entire group is clear.
“I told our quarterbacks that fall camp is not the beginning of the end,” Saban said. “You got an opportunity to separate yourself, play with consistency and play winning football at the position, but that competition goes on and on and on, and we need all our quarterbacks to continue to improve and continue to compete, compete far beyond even the time that we name a starter. I mean, we’ve had circumstances around here where quarterbacks have changed during the course of the year.”
Transfer addition Tyler Buchner was of particular interest, having started under Rees last season at Notre Dame. Rees described the motivation for bringing Buchner as adding a veteran presence and competition to the position.
“I think one thing we’re trying to get the whole quarterback group to understand is when one guy has success, we need to look at it as shared success,” Rees said. “We need to look at it as a group. We want to leave practice saying, ‘The quarterback position had a good day.’ The other thing we want to see is when one quarterback has success, it’s going to challenge the rest of the group. And when we can do that, it’s going to raise the level of play in the room. And so we don’t want to look at it and shy away from it; we want to look at it as an opportunity to improve for the entire group.”
Saban not ready to name starting quarterback
Alabama’s quarterback situation is unique with five scholarship quarterbacks repping at once. There’s a split system where Buchner, Jalen Milroe and Ty Simpson are repping with the top group of players on one half of the field, and freshmen Eli Holstein and Dylan Lonergan are repping with players lower on the depth chart on the other side. The dynamics will change as scrimmages will provide more clarity.
“Our players have bought into it,” Rees said. “We have had opportunities to give them longer chunks of plays to get them into a rhythm. Sometimes it’s a little choppier. But we want to make sure we’re mixing up how we’re rotating; we’re mixing up different periods that guys get so they’re exposed to different situational football. Again, our players have made it easy for me because they’ve been receptive to it. They just want to make the most of every opportunity they get.”
The main objective of camp coincides with one of the biggest areas of improvement this season: creating good habits and eliminating bad habits, which lead to turnovers and penalties. The Tide had the most overall penalties in the SEC in 2022 and were last in penalty yards per game (70.67).
“Penalties, those type things, when you have something to correct, then you place an emphasis on them,” Steele said. “We have officials at practice. We chart the officials. There are repercussions for your actions, and it stays in front of you. In most cases in life, if you keep something that you need to correct in front of you continuously, most people learn.”
Alabama’s priority this offseason has been finding the right mindset
Each coach returned to a common theme in eliminating mistakes: the process. That has manifested by focusing on fundamental things early in camp and building on them and each player understanding his job, a mentality that has been hammered home in the first week. And when mistakes occur, the players need to learn from them and minimize them.
“Everybody has a responsibility and an obligation,” Saban said. “As soon as one of us makes a mistake, it impacts everybody on the team. You try to learn from those mistakes so that you can improve in the future. They’re all opportunities, teaching moments, whatever you want to call it. You never want to tolerate mistakes, but you also want to learn from the ones you make.”
What does Tommy Rees bring to Alabama’s offense?
Updates on specific position groups
Outside of quarterback, there are several positions and position battles of interest. Through three practices, each coach provided insight into the development of certain groups:
Saban on the wide receivers: “Some good, some OK, some need to improve. Some have experience; some need to gain experience. I think they’re all working hard, but I do think attention to detail is probably one of the biggest things, route-running, timing in the passing game that they all need to focus on. As a whole group, nobody’s disappointed, and I think we have guys that have talent there, and if we can get them to play to that level, I think we’ll have a chance to have some guys who can make plays at that position.”
Steele on the defensive line: “Right now we’re early in fall practice, but they’ve worked really hard in the summer as a defensive line group. We’ve got talent there. They’re very coachable. And we’ve got some guys that are developing leadership in the room. That’s still a work in progress. But we have the talent. We’ve just gotta work through the process.”
Rees on the tight ends: “I think we have more than enough talent in that room. I think we have different body types in that room, which allows us to mix and match the personnel and use them in different roles. You bring in (CJ Dippre) who’s a veteran that’s played a lot of football. You have some guys that were on the roster a year ago that didn’t play a ton, but you’re hoping they can continue to progress, and I think they’ve done that. Everybody has different strengths and things that they do really well, so our job, as a staff, is to make sure we can personnel things the right way to get the right people in the right spots.”
(Top photo of Kevin Steele: Gary Cosby / USA Today)