- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban hustles from one station to another at practice. He plants his foot and throws passes to the cornerbacks and shows safeties the proper technique by doing it himself.
Day after day, he's there in his straw hat running with the defensive backs, shouting directions as he fires the ball down the sideline. After some 40 years of coaching, the CEO of the University of Alabama football program is still working on the ground floor, getting his hands dirty.
Saban was a defensive back in college at Kent State and worked his way through the ranks coaching the position, taking charge of the secondary at Ohio State, Michigan State and then with the Houston Oilers. He was the defensive coordinator for Bill Belichick, who himself coached defensive backs, with the Cleveland Browns from 1991-94.
It's safe to say that Saban knows how to work the defensive backfield. It's no mistake that he has had seven defensive backs drafted by the NFL since 2009 -- three taken in the first round.
Still, some cornerbacks and safeties come to Alabama and aren't ready for Saban's full attention. Such was the case with Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix.
"I had no clue," the sophomore safety told reporters after Thursday's practice. "Just when we first got in meetings and he was in there with us."
The shock of seeing his head coach in meetings and actually taking part in practice took some adjustment. Learning Saban's playbook took some time, too.
"It’s a lot to learn," Clinton-Dix said. "Just have to study your playbook, get help from your teammates and like I said, Coach Saban is there to help you as well. When he’s on you pretty hard, you better pick it up quick."
Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby said of all the stops he's made as an assistant, Saban's defense is one of the most complex.
The year he spent with Saban in Miami was his "master's in coaching," Smart said.
"Over the course of the first three years, he knew I understood the coverages because there was talk in his meeting room with me sitting there teaching him," Smart said at Media Day in early August. "He got to see first-hand. To be honest, it makes you a lot better coach when your boss is in the meeting room. You're a lot more driven every day."
The proximity to Saban may be taxing, but it's worth it, said Clinton-Dix.
"To be honest, it’s a blessing to be with him, the head coach," he said. "He’s coaching you up, just being out there with him and having him coach me up, it’s a very good thing."
Saban might be surprised to hear his players and coaches speak like that. He said, "If you ask them, I'm sure they'd say nothing" was good about him working so closely with the defensive backs, going on to guess they might call him, "a pain in the rear end."
At the end of the day, though, it's what Saban enjoys doing. So even at 60 years old, he's sprinting up and down the field and getting excited about teaching how to cover and tackle properly. After so long, he's still a coach at heart.
"Hopefully I help somebody somewhere along the way through the years play a little better, or be able to play a little better, develop a little better or a little faster, or play longer in the NFL or whatever," Saban said. "I enjoy doing it but it's my job trying to affect the entire team. I spend a lot of time in meetings with other players and I think that's really, really important. But I think the other players on the team respect the fact that if you can make a contribution to a part of the team and you're willing to do it and it's going to help others have a chance to be successful, I think they understand that."
Read more news and notes about Alabama football inside The Tusk.
7dEdward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough