When asked about the performance of his defense following Alabama's 35-10 win over Virginia Tech in Atlanta Saturday night, Nick Saban had a hint of surprise in his answer.
He was so used to seeing historically good (or close to it) defenses lining up on his side, but with questions surrounding this one entering the 2013 season, he wasn't quite sure what to expect in Week 1.
What he got was a dominating performance from a group that faced new schemes with a few new parts of its own.
"I thought we did a really good job defensively," Saban said. "They didn't do anything on offense that we practiced against, all right? We didn't know how they would use their personnel.
"Our players on defense did a fantastic job of adjusting in the game."
All the talk about Alabama's ugly offensive line play has overshadowed a superb defensive outing.
The Hokies, who registered just 212 total yards and averaged 3.6 yards per play, threw some unexpected option at the Crimson Tide defense, but it didn't really faze Saban's players. Outside of a nice 77-yard touchdown run by Trey Edmunds in which guys got out of position and Saban said the secondary "didn't squeeze the ball properly," it was hard for the Hokies to do much of anything against Alabama's defense.
Virginia Tech was 3-of-17 on third down, had just seven first downs and finished with nine three-and-outs on 12 total drives. Future NFL draft pick Logan Thomas was rendered ineffective, too.
While Thomas dealt with sloppy drops from his receivers, Alabama's defense helped him look very pedestrian under the Georgia Dome lights. He completed just 5-of-26 passes for 59 yards and one interception that was returned for a touchdown by safety Vinnie Sunseri. He completed consecutive pass attempts just twice and, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Thomas left the game with a QBR of 1.9, the lowest in the FBS.
Alabama's extremely fast and very aggressive defense flew around the ball and delivered a handful of bone-ratting hits for dramatic effect. With key players to replace and unknowns to account for, Alabama's defense dominated for the most of Saturday night's 25-point win. Take away Edmunds' 77-yard touchdown run, and it's hard to imagine the Hokies seeing the end zone.
What really had to make Saban happy was the pressure Alabama was able to generate up front. This was an area he wanted to see improve from last season, and even though Alabama had just one sack, it was very obvious that Thomas was uncomfortable all night. Defensive lineman Ed Stinson even led the team with eight tackles.
Fellow lineman Jeoffrey Pagan said he felt the defense wanted to put the game on its back from the start. With the offense sputtering most of the time, the defense got that exact opportunity and didn't disappoint.
"Somebody's got to [step up]," Pagan said. "If it's not the offense, then it's the defense, and if it's not defense, it has to be special teams. They came up with two touchdowns, and the defense came up with one. That's a game-changer."
This group was by no means perfect, but it was a solid start to a very long season. The stats were impressive, but it was the on-field execution that was so striking. Even with inexperience taking the field at various positions, the defense was still able to adjust and adapt. The foreign schemes Virginia Tech thew at this crew didn't startle it, which had Saban gushing as only he knows how to gush over his defense.
"I think our players on defense understand the system, they kind of believe in it," he said. "They have enough experience out there that they can adapt to things that we haven't played or practiced against."