5 areas Alabama needs to improve in 2015
Alabama averages 12 wins per season since 2008.
Coach Nick Saban and his staff continue to land No. 1 recruiting classes year after year after year. The Crimson Tide are stacked with four- and five-star talent at every position three deep. Heck, the team even boasts arguably the nation’s best punter in JK Scott.
Yet all good things come to an end at some point, right?
A team from the state of Alabama participated in the national championship game after the 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons. But not in 2012, as the Crimson Tide fell to Urban Meyer’s Ohio State team in the national semifinals.
Saban will eventually retire, but not yet. So the debate will rage until the Sept. 5 season opener against Wisconsin: Can Alabama continue to stay in the thick of the national championship hunt, or will the Tide fade to a 10-win team next year?
Here are five things the program needs to do to remain at the top.
1. Get faster sideline-to-sideline on defense
Middle linebacker Trey DePriest got exposed athletically and in coverage in 2014 without C.J. Mosley there to clean up his mistakes. Reggie Ragland likes playing downhill, and Reuben Foster would rather line up and smash you in the mouth than chase you out on the edge.
As offenses crank up the tempo year after year, and as the number of teams with elite skill players grows, the Tide’s defense has become more vulnerable.
If the team is ever to return to defenses so good they intimidate opposing fans and give offensive coordinators migranes, Alabama must be fast enough in its front seven to cover sideline to sideline, run or pass.
2. Create better running lanes inside
Judging by numbers alone, T.J. Yeldon had his worst season at Alabama in 2014. Derrick Henry developed, but not at the rate many expected.
One of the reasons for that is that the Alabama offensive line was merely good, rather than elite, at run-blocking. To take it a step further, the Tide even struggled against solid power-conference defensive lines, especially with interior blocking.
A healthy Kenyan Drake will give Alabama field-stretching speed on the outside, but the team’s interior offensive line needs to get back to bullying opponents so that Henry can realize his potential and the team can control games.
Even with Lane Kiffin as the offensive coordinator, the Tide offense would operate with much greater efficiency by re-discovering an elite interior running game.
3. Quit beating yourself on special teams in big games
Alabama doesn’t lose many games, but in addition to its defense falling flat against high-octane offenses, when it has lost, leaky special teams often have been the culprit.
The Tide missed a bevy of field goals in a 9-6 loss to LSU in 2011, gave up a 100-yard touchdown return on a missed field goal to lose the Iron Bowl to Auburn in 2013 and committed a grocery-store sampling of sins in a road loss to Ole Miss in 2014.
Adam Griffith spent a large portion of this season kicking through a stress fracture in his back, but Alabama must determine he’s reliable or find someone else. Christion Jones entered the year as a potential All-American returner, but seemed totally out of it for large stretches of the year and struggled with fumbles. The team’s coverage units were not nearly dominant, a concern considering the program’s wealth of available special teams talent.
The margin for error just isn’t what it was when the team’s defense and running game could carry it to championship after championship, so strong special teams is essential.
4. Hire a secondary coach
Early in Nick Saban’s tenure at Alabama, the program was 1b to LSU’s 1a in terms of the premier destination for dominant cover corners. Between a drop-off in development, a brief talent drain and youth, it’s been a few years now since the Tide could claim that distinction.
The team has two five-star cornerback commitments in the 2015 class after pulling in Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey last signing day.
Saban (corners) and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart (safeties) have tag-teamed the position most recently and preach fundamentals as well as any defensive backs coaches in the country. But it would behoove Alabama to hire someone whose sole focus is returning the secondary to its place atop the college football landscape.
5. Develop edge rushers
One surefire way to improve the secondary and temper the fact that Alabama has been too slow at the second level: develop a dominating pass rush.
Alabama’s run defense is always going to be great as long as the Saban/Smart combo remains intact. But it’s been a long time since the Tide featured an edge rusher even close to, say, Missouri’s Markus Golden and Shane Ray this season.
The team generally generates pressure by wearing down opponents with big, physical every-down linemen, building a lead and getting fatigue sacks in the second half. But there’s no shame in developing one or two dominant pass specialists. It’s an element that’s clearly been lacking.