Alabama football: 5 things that will define the Crimson Tide defensively in 2021
Although Alabama dealt with a slew of nagging injuries to probable starters over the last month, the spring still offered Nick Saban & Co., a chance to evaluate the progress of second-year quarterback Bryce Young, as well as get a glimpse of a potential salty defense spearheaded by a cast of impact pass rushers and a deep secondary.
Alabama lost a record-setting quarterback, the Heisman Trophy winner, the best cornerback in college football and a host of other future pros, yet the Tide still enter offseason as the odds-on favorite to repeat as national champions. So while some may see Alabama as a bit vulnerable in 2021, the expectations in Tuscaloosa have not changed.
Recently, I outlined just why Alabama could have an elite defense in 2021, even if Nick Saban no longer believes such units exist in modern college football.
The Tide lost several key contributors — Patrick Surtain II, Dylan Moses and Christian Barmore, among others — from a defense that allowed the fewest points per game in the SEC (19.0) and ranked 20th nationally in yards per play (5.04), but they have all the pieces to make a leap as a unit in 2021.
I looked at 5 things (questions with potential answers) that could define Alabama offensively in 2021, so today I’ll take a stab a 5 defining characteristics for the Tide defensively this fall.
1. Could Alabama have the best collection of pass rushers in the nation?
If not, point me to a group that’s better.
The Tide led the SEC in tackles for loss (81) and sacks (35) in 2020, but the current crop of pass rushers could dwarf those numbers this fall.
Returnees Will Anderson and Christopher Allen were unblockable throughout the spring, with Anderson looking particularly poised to become a household name. The sophomore freak, who led the SEC in pressures and quarterback hits as a freshman, didn’t play in A-Day, so in stepped Chris Braswell, a former 5-star recruit who didn’t see the field at all in 2020.
Braswell was a scout team contributor last season, but the redshirt freshman took full advantage of his opportunity in the spring game, recording 3 sacks and a forced fumble that resulted in a scoop-and-score touchdown for the defense.
As reported in recent days after spring practices, the defense is loaded. Despite missing several starters Deontae Lawson and Jaylen Moody stood out at LB. Josh Jobe will be the alpha man, but Armour-Davis has starter skills as well. #BamaFactor #RollTide #ADay pic.twitter.com/2ky7b6UJIX
— Antonio Matticoli (@AntonioMatticol) April 18, 2021
It’ll be hard for coordinator Pete Golding to take Anderson and Allen off the field, but Braswell’s emergence, plus Drew Sanders and the summer addition of 5-star outside linebacker Dallas Turner gives Alabama’s coordinator plenty of quality options to rotate up front to keep the rushers fresh. Saban suggested as much after the spring game, saying Braswell is “a guy we can count on to have a role this fall.”
Overall, this unit should feast on opposing quarterbacks, which is scary because …
2. The rest of Alabama’s front 7 could be just as salty
Dylan Moses is gone, but Jaylen Moody looked like a perfectly suitable replacement on A-Day. The senior was flying around the field Saturday, scoring a touchdown on a fumble recovery and adding 7 tackles with 1 TFL.
Furthermore, Moody didn’t miss a beat without his tag-team partner Christian Harris, who was absent for the spring game but is viewed as one of the top returning inside linebackers in the SEC. With Harris out, freshman Deontae Lawson received first-team reps in the spring game and will push for playing time this fall. Shane Lee, a guy who played a ton as a freshman in 2019, is another quality depth piece at the position.
Up front, Alabama’s pass rush won’t come solely off the edge either. The Tide have some man-eaters up front to push to pocket on the interior, with the staff stoked about the return of LaBryan Ray, who missed 6 games last season with an elbow injury. Also back are mammoth nose tackles Tim Smith and DJ Dale, as well as versatile tackle/ends Phidarian Mathis and Justin Eboigbe.
I could list another 3-4 names of impact linemen who will be in the rotation this fall. Simply put, this group is loaded.
Speaking of which …
3. The competition for playing time in the secondary will last all season
The Tide have some dudes at defensive back, and even in nickel and dime schemes, not everyone will see the field this fall.
Following A-Day, 4 defensive backs — Brian Branch, Jalyn Armour-Davis, DeMarcco Hellams and Marcus Banks — earned most improved honors.
Branch flashed as a freshman and is an intriguing Swiss Army Knife options at Star, safety, money and dime, but Armour-Davis probably had the best spring of the bunch, capped with a breakout final scrimmage.
During A-Day, the junior had 3 pass breakups and staked his claim to fill Surtain’s open spot.
The Tide know what they have in cornerback Josh Jobe, who quietly led the SEC in pass breakups in 2020, safety Jordan Battle and Star/nickel Malachi Moore, who missed most of the spring with an injury, but the rest of the group looks flush with capable 4-and 5-star reinforcements.
Banks had a big spring and is eyeing his first real playing time in Tuscaloosa, while Ga’Quincy “Kool Aid” McKinstry showcased exactly why he was the nation’s No. 1 corner in the 2021 class on A-Day (an interception, 1 TFL, 1 pass breakup). There’s also a host of other blue-chip freshmen set to arrive on campus in summer.
Alabama routinely has excellent secondaries, but this is Saban’s deepest group of corners and safeties in a couple of seasons.
Which leads me to …
4. Even without Surtain II, the Tide’s pass defense should be better than it was in 2020 (and force more turnovers, too)
Alabama’s pass defense numbers will always be a bit inflated (or skewed depending on how you look at it) because of the team’s dynamite offense.
When you score all the time, other teams have to play catchup, meaning they’re going to throw the ball a lot more.
Still, the Tide sported just a *good* pass defense in the shortened 2020 campaign, ranking 36th nationally in yards per completion and 54th nationally in expected points added (EPA) per pass on defense. They yielded completions at a 58.1% clip — the team’s highest-allowed percentage in over 12 seasons.
Well, the law firm of Jobe, Battle & Moore (pun intended) will best those stats in 2021.
Count on it.
With a dynamic pass rush coupled with a deep pool of ballhawks in the secondary, Alabama opponents aren’t going to have much time — or open windows — to attempt passes this fall.
5. On a defense chock-full of potential stars, look for a third-year safety to emerge as the heartbeat of the unit
Jordan Battle enters 2021 as a fixture in Alabama’s secondary, starting 17 games the last 2 seasons, including all 13 during the Tide’s title run last year.
The 6-1, 210-pound junior has been overshadowed at times by other future NFL standouts on the roster, but Battle has all the tools to become the next Alabama safety to see his name drafted in one of the first few rounds, joining the likes of Xavier McKinney, Landon Collins, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and others.
In 2020, Battle finished 3rd on the team with 66 tackles, adding 4 pass breakups, 3 TFLs and a pick-6, too. He’s instinctive, physical and a sound tackler. He has been praised for being a film rat as well.
This offseason, he’s added “leader” to his personal ledger, too.
Saban challenged Battle to take on a more vocal role this spring, and the South Florida product said he’s holding his teammates accountable after learning such leadership skills from former teammates like Surtain, Landon Dickerson and Najee Harris.
“It’s something that I’m comfortable with now because the players I have before me, who have shown me the way,” Battle told reporters recently.
“At this point, I’m more comfortable being vocal and getting on other players.”