TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Even the most successful coach in college football knows when to play second fiddle. If you have any doubt, ask Alabama head coach Nick Saban about his defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley.
Saban, who helps coach the defensive backs alongside Ansley, makes no mistake about it. Ansley is the man in charge during practice.
“He's the secondary coach,” Saban said when asked about Ansley’s influence on the defensive backs. “I'm the GA. I just help him. It'd be hard for me, who's working for him trying to help him, to evaluate what he does. It's a hard question when you're the understudy.”
Last year, Ansley produced results. The former Alabama graduate assistant rejoined the team last season, helping to coach a Tide secondary that ranked No. 24 in pass defense and produced All-Americans in Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick.
What makes that more impressive is Ansley did that with little depth at the position as well as injuries to key players. When Fitzpatrick was forced to shift from Star to safety to fill in for injured Eddie Jackson, it was Ansley who was in his ear everyday coaching him through the change. The same is true for starter Anthony Averett, who broke out as a starter last season leading the team with eight pass deflections.
“Ansley helps big time,” Averett said. “He texts us all the time, he always keeps us together. Ansley plays a big part."
Averett described Ansley as being “very hands-on” and said the assistant stays on the secondary during practice, making sure players execute their coverages until perfection. While Saban’s fiery approach has been caught on camera, players say Ansley brings just as much passion to the field.
"Oh yeah, he's always fired up,” Alabama safety Hootie Jones sad. “Coach Ansley's something else."
That has certainly been the case this spring as the secondary has struggled in both of Alabama’s scrimmages. The Tide has particularly had difficulty covering deep passes this spring, allowing Alabama’s offense to rip off big plays. Following Friday’s scrimmage, Saban said defensive backs misplayed 50/50 balls, noting breakdowns in technique and a failure to cut off their receivers.
Expect Ansley to be the first person to address those issues when players return to the practice field Tuesday.
"He's just like a good coach is supposed to be. He's getting on us,” Jones said last week following Alabama’s first scrimmage. “We know we're supposed to respect the deep part of the field. We weren’t respecting the pass at all, for real. And he was just letting us know."
This season, Ansley faces a tough battle as he looks to ready a young secondary. While Alabama returns seniors Averett and Tony Brown along with juniors Ronnie Harrison and Fitzpatrick to its first-team unit, the Tide’s depth in experience drops off rapidly after that. Seniors Ronnie Harrison and Levi Wallace are the only two scholarship upperclassmen Alabama has as reserves if any of its starters go down.
Ansley’s secondary still has a long way to go before its ready for the Tide’s season opener against Florida State on Sept. 2. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone on Alabama’s staff doubting the second-year assistant’s ability to right the ship.
You don’t have to go any further than Saban to see that.
“Derrick Ansley does a really, really good job with our players,” Saban said. “He works hard. He's got good relationships with them, which I think is really important. He worked really hard with the young guys that we have in here trying to teach them and help them develop. I think our players really respect the job that he does and respect him.”
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