Gary Pinkel and Nick Saban both learned the tenets of their "Process" from the great Don James. Both played under James at Kent State, Saban was brought on as a grad assistant in 1972, and Pinkel came on as a grad assistant in 1974 when Saban moved up to defensive assistant. Pinkel also spent 13 seasons as a James assistant at Washington.
The similarities between Pinkel and Saban don't go too much further beyond that. Saban bounced around to a number of schools in the 1980s before landing the Toledo head coaching job in 1990. (When he moved on to the Cleveland Browns in 1991, he recommended Pinkel for the job.) He has more NFL experience than Pinkel, he runs a 3-4 as opposed to a 4-3, and to say the least, he has proven to have quite a bit more recruiting prowess. They're different people, and they've experienced different levels of success (obviously).
But within their respective Processes, one can find similarities. Neither Saban nor Pinkel put an incredibly aggressive defense on the field. They prefer sound play based around leverage (forcing the ball into the middle of the field where multiple tacklers are pursuing) and fundamentals. They won't take an inordinate number of risks, instead relying on their defenses to make tackles, force more snaps, and eventually force mistakes.
If someone asks you "What defines a Dave Steckel defense," what other answer would you have beyond "Sound fundamentals with leverage"? Since Steckel took over in 2009, Mizzou has never been much for sacking the quarterback at a particularly high rate, but when Stec has the horses, he seems to figure out what to do with them. When he doesn't, he doesn't. When he's got Sheldon Richardson, his line does well. When he's got the senior versions of Carl Gettis and Kevin Rutland, his corners play well. Et cetera.
In 2012, Stec's defense faded rather dramatically down the stretch. That tends to happen when your offense does you no favors. The early part of the season was flavored by key goal line stands (Arizona State in the fourth quarter, UCF in the second) that contributed directly to pretty nice wins; but the defense simply had to make too many stands and eventually couldn't. And when Sheldon Richardson was suspended for the Syracuse game, things fell apart.
I'd say it'll be interesting to see what Stec does with the lineup facing him in 2013, but we kind of already know what each position is required to do in given situations. We've seen it for a while now. If E.J. Gaines and [Other Starting Cornerback] are able to tackle well on the short stuff and defend the longer passes well ... if Kony Ealy and Michael Sam are able to more consistently generate the pressure they've proven capable of at times ... if Andrew Wilson and a pair of new starting linebackers (probably Donovan Bonner and either Darvin Ruise or Kentrell Brothers) make tackles and occasionally provide disruptive potential ... if the guys in the middle (the tackles, Wilson, the safeties) are able to avoid breakdowns ... then this should be a solid, top-40 or so defense. Mizzou ranked 10th in Def. F/+ in 2010, 34th in 2011, and 41st in 2012; that's fine, and you can win some games with that as long as your offense is doing its job.
This isn't going to be an elite unit, and Steckel, not an elite coach, isn't going to suddenly start playing roulette with his defensive calls (which is good, because seemingly every time his defense sold out on the blitz last year, the opponent had a perfect screen lined up in response). If you give him enough pieces, he'll use them well. The question in 2013 is whether he has enough pieces.
Mizzou Rugby: My biggest question for Steckel is this: Can you recapture the brick wall that was the defense of the first six or so games last year? Losing Richardson and senior linebackers will make the task much more difficult. But Steckel put together a defense, at least in the first half of the season, that punched much, much higher than its weight class, and would have probably continued to do so for a few more games if the offense hadn’t forced them on the field much more than they should have been. Hopefully he can do it again.
countrycal: I like this guy a lot. I think his defense will adapt to the SEC style of play more each year, and thrive. They had to spend a lot of time on the field last year – hopefully that will change and they will be able to play on an even field. If so, I think they can keep the game close late enough into every game to give us an opportunity to win.
The Beef: I think defense is defense, and Steckel knows defense. My concern here is with personnel more than strategy. Can Steck manipulate the weapons he has into a unit which can keep the opposition from scoring more points than us? It certainly has been shown in flashes, but it is going to need to be consistent throughout the season, especially since the year gets a heck of a lot tougher as we enter the second half.