Kevin Steele has been coaching football for nearly a decade longer than Tommy Rees has been alive.
Now Steele is embarking on his second stint as Alabama’s defensive coordinator, and the 31-year-old Rees is approaching his first season as the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator. They’re at very different stages of their careers, but with the same mission: Help coach Nick Saban and Alabama get back to national championship form.
Both made it clear Sunday they’re putting their imprint on Saban’s system, not the other way around. Steele, who was defensive coordinator on Saban’s first Tide team 17 years ago, wasn’t biting on a question about returning the defense to “the Alabama standard.”
“That’s kind of a loaded question in some regards,” said the 65-year-old Steele, who is beginning his 40th year of coaching. “This process is built — and it started in ’07, I was here. 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.”
Steele replaced Pete Golding, who took over the defense at Mississippi.
Steele and Rees spoke to reporters Sunday for the first time since both were hired in February. It’s likely the only time until perhaps leading up to a bowl game or their preferred destination, the College Football Playoff. They’re each set to make $1.9 million this year.
Alabama lost two games last season, falling short of the annual title goal and failing to even make the Southeastern Conference championship game. Now Rees is charged with replacing No. 1 NFL draft pick Bryce Young at quarterback, and Steele must find a pass-rusher to fill the void left by the No. 3 pick, linebacker Will Anderson Jr.
Neither Saban nor Rees are tipping their hand if a quarterback has the upper hand a few practices into fall camp. But the Tide coach noted that history proves a quarterback competition doesn’t necessarily end with a decision on the opening-game starter.
“I’ve told our quarterbacks, fall camp is not the beginning of the end,” he said. “You’ve got an opportunity to separate yourself, to show that you can play with consistency and play winning football at the position.
“But that competition goes on and on and on, and we need all of the quarterbacks to continue to improve and to continue to compete even far beyond the time that we name a starter. We’ve had circumstances around here where quarterbacks have changed over the course of the year.”
The offensive line will be an area of focus, as well, regardless of who is under center. The Crimson Tide ranked 123rd in blown run block rate, 110th in offensive line penalties per game, 78th in pressure rate allowed and 60th in stuff rate allowed last season.
Rees is clearly familiar with one of the quarterback candidates. Tyler Buchner won the starting job for him at Notre Dame last season before getting sidelined by an injury. Buchner joined the Tide after spring practice, when neither Jalen Milroe nor Ty Simpson came close to locking down the job.
“He provides a little bit of veteran presence in the room and adds competition,” Rees said. “I think he’s hit the ground running with the rest of the guys on the team, especially with the rest of the quarterbacks, and it’s been really a healthy transition.”
On the flip side, he notes that Milroe and Simpson both stuck around to compete instead of transferring after Buchner’s addition.
“I think they’ve both improved greatly from the spring,” Rees said. “I think there’s been more buy-in since spring ball ended and just doing more, doing extra to get themselves prepared.”
Age gap aside, Steele has some insight into his young offensive counterpart. He has long known Rees’s coaching father, Bill.
“Tommy was unique for me because I knew his dad before Tommy was born,” Steele said. “He is a extremely, extremely bright football coach. I kid him about this — Notre Dame quarterback, Chicago, he’s very tough. He’s got a defensive mentality.
“I don’t know if he’d appreciate me saying that about him, but he’s a very tough football coach — very, very smart. But he’s the same every day. That’s the best part about Tommy — he’s the same every day. He’s got ice water in his veins.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.