Sugar Bowl features overachieving defenses

Published 8:03 pm Tuesday, December 30, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — Gary Andersen has plenty to be happy about, even if time for a good night’s sleep isn’t necessarily among them.

The defensive coordinator for No. 7 Utah is helping prepare the defense to face No. 4 Alabama in Friday night’s Sugar Bowl, then will head full-time to take over the Utah State program.

In the meantime, he’s also juggled hiring his own staff and shoring up recruiting for Utah State.

“I wake up happy every single day with a smile on my face,” Andersen said. “But any time you leave something that you’ve had a longtime relationship with, it’s kind of difficult.”

With Andersen’s looming departure and Kalani Sitake’s elevation to replace him, the Sugar Bowl will feature three defensive coordinators, a head defensive coach and two defensive-minded head coaches.

Not surprisingly, it will also boast two pretty good defenses. The success also means some coaching turnover, possibly for both staffs.

Alabama defensive head coach Kevin Steele is reportedly a candidate to become defensive coordinator at Clemson under new coach Dabo Swinney.

That was news to coordinator Kirby Smart, who said he learned about Steele’s reported candidacy on the ride over to a news conference Tuesday morning.

“Obviously we’re going to have coaches pursued here because people want to get winners and we won some games this year,” Smart said.

But like Utah coach and former defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham, Alabama’s Nick Saban is heavily involved in defensive gameplans and philosophies. He also frequently works with the defensive backs.

“We all do the defense here. It’s a collaborative effort,” Smart said. “We all work at that together.”

Both defenses have overachieved this season, thanks largely to the emergence of the front seven defenders. Nose guard Terrence Cody transferred in from junior college and became an All-American and freshman linebacker Don’ta Hightower also became an immediate starter.

Plus, most of the other key defenders gained familiarity with Saban’s system last year. The result is a unit that ranks among the nation’s top six teams in points allowed, total defense and rushing defense.

“I think their second year in our system is really important because they guys start to learn everything and they are comfortable with everything and they do a good job of that,” Smart said. “I thought they competed hard, played hard, and we got some help.

“We got the big guy up front, and that helped with our defensive scheme and when you have bigger people up front it made it a lot easier to play the back end because we could stop the run. It was real important for us.”

Plus, there was some talent. Cody (first-team), safety Rashad Johnson (second-team) and linebacker Rolando McClain (third-team) all earned AP All-America honors. McClain isn’t sure the Tide defenders exceeded their own expectations.

“We bonded together, quicker than what I thought. I didn’t think we would be as close as we are, but we’re just a band of brothers out there running wild, and coach Saban is our Dad,” he said. “That is how I put it.”

There’s also uncles Smart and Steele. Smart has been with Saban at LSU and the NFL’s Miami Dolphins and was promoted to defensive coordinator this season.

Utah has also had some defenders emerge. Paul Kruger became an All-Mountain West first-team performer at end and tackle Greg Newman filled in for an injured Lei Talamaivao. Plus, corners Brice McCain and Sean Smith joined Kruger as first-team all-conference players.

The result has been a unit ranked in the Top 20 in scoring, run and total defense a year after leading the nation against the pass.

Smith is expecting more of the same even with Andersen’s departure.

“To see him go is going to hurt me,” he said. “Coach Sitake is just as great. He’s a great recruiter. The players respond to him. I don’t think anyone on the staff works as hard as he does, and he deserves to be defensive coordinator.

“Nothing’s going to change. Coach Sitake made that loud and clear. The defense is going to remain the same.”

The Utes had a similar situation in their previous BCS game when coach Urban Meyer was leaving for Florida. Whittingham still served as defensive coordinator and took over after the Fiesta Bowl win over Pittsburgh in 2005.

Andersen said all parties involved wanted him to finish the year with Utah. He had some time before bowl practices to get things rolling at Utah State since the Utes finished the season Nov. 22.

“It’s something that Utah wanted me to do,” Andersen said of pulling the double duties. “It’s something that I wanted to do. It’s something Utah State wanted me to do. I’m not going to say it’s been easy because it has not been easy. But at the end of the day, I’m very proud to be here with these guys to finish this thing the right way.”