Saban spends most of his time discussing off-the-field issues

University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban speaks to the media during the 2021 SEC Football Kickoff Media Days on Wednesday at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover.

HOOVER -- It isn’t like you’re going to come at Nick Saban with a lot of new questions on predictions, hypotheticals and comparisons for the 2021 season.

So the Southeastern Conference Media Days’ segment with the dean of conference coaches dealt with other predictable issues such as NIL and COVID vaccinations. And Saban dealt with both issues in a cagey manner, even though he has come out publicly in public service announcements urging people to get vaccinated.

“I think there’s two issues when it comes to vaccines,” Saban said. “First of all, you have a personal decision which comes down to risk -- risk of COVID relative to risk of the vaccine. We don’t really have a lot of knowledge about how this stuff is going to affect people in the future.

“On the other hand, you also have a competitive decision to make because you’re going to be a part of a team. So how does the personal choice and decision you make affect the team?

“I think we’re pretty close to 90 percent, maybe, of our players who have gotten the vaccine and I’m hopeful that more players make that decision but it is their decision.”

As far as the name-image-likeness issue, Saban pointed out that players have always been paid for their services, but a recent trend of enrolling in summer terms at universities lowered the opportunities for players other than a cost-of-attendance stipend that garners an Alabama player several thousands per month.

“I know there’s a lot of interest in a lot of those things,” Saban said. “I almost feel that anything that I say will probably be wrong because there’s no precedent for the consequences that some of those things are going to create, whether they’re good or bad.”

Defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis answered one lingering question concerning the disparity in NIL earnings between a quarterback and, for example, a lineman.

“This is something we all think we deserve as players,” Mathis said, “so I don’t think it’s jealousy.”

Saban will begin his 15th year at Alabama with a ton of talent on a defense that played at sub-Tide expectations and the school’s record-setting offense that lost eight starters.

“We’re going to be a work in progress as we focus on improvement and that’s going to be critical to our success,” Saban said. “We have a lot of difficult games early, on the road, new coaches, new quarterback, eight new guys on offense.”

The biggest question concerns who will replace heralded receivers DeVonta Smith -- winner of the 2020 Heisman Trophy and just about every other offensive award -- and Jaylen Waddle. Reveiver John Metchie, one of the three returning starters, came with Saban to SEC Media Days and said he was encouraged by what he saw in the spring.

“I think we saw a lot of good opportunity for a lot of young guys,” he said. “I think we saw a lot of potential in a lot of young guys and a lot of young guys can step up and help.

“So we’re definitely excited about that.”

Metchie added that he was “really excited” about playing the conference opener at Florida on Sept. 18 and saw ”endless potential” in quarterback Bryce Young, the replacement for the graduated Mac Jones.

Other questions remain on finding three offensive linemen to join returning starters Emil Ekiyor and Evan Neal, but there is plenty of experienced reserve players -- Saban mentioned sophomore Javion Cohen will be “a starting, probably, left guard on our team” -- on the offensive side of the ball.

Defensively, Saban gave a strong indication that the arrival of Tennessee transfer Henry To’o To’o might be the cure to Alabama’s struggles last season.

“I think that there’s a lot of positives that he can bring,” Saban said. “You always want to have a great signal caller or quarterback-type guy on defense. Regardless of what kind of player they are, those things really enhance the chances of all the other players on defense playing with confidence because they’re confident in the call (for the defensive alignment) that they’re getting, the adjustment that they’re making, and I think that’s something that Henry can really add to us as well as being a very productive player.”

The Tide loses Patrick Surtain at cornerback but returns the remainder of the secondary, returns the defensive front nearly intact (Mathis and the departed Christian Barmore were co-starters) and will replace Dylan Moses with To’o To’o.

“I think this is going to be a very good unit,” Mathis said. “I feel like we’ve just got to take on a role and live up to the hype. Don’t by into it, but also show them what we’re capable of once it comes game time.”

Once you got past the off-the-field issues, there wasn’t a lot of new ground for Saban to cover.

And, believe it or not, a Tuscaloosa News reporter asked Saban what was the secret to his tenure as the conference’s longest active coach.

“More than half the coaches here were not here two years ago,” he asked. “What would you say is the key to longevity in just such a fickle business?”

Saban, who would have stopped his answer after the first sentence had he entertained the question a decade ago, actually explained some of the philosophy that has created the dynasty in Tuscaloosa.

“I think that’s simple, you’ve got to win,” Saban said.

And when the media votes are counted on Friday, don’t be surprised if Alabama is picked to finish first or second in the conference. Again.