Better or worse? Previewing Alabama's defense in 2021
Editor’s note: SDS’ annual preview of every SEC defense begins in the SEC West with Alabama. Coming Tuesday: Arkansas.
I’m already on record believing that Alabama will have one of the elite defenses — even if Nick Saban no longer believes in such a thing — in college football in 2021.
Like a good batch of oysters, Pete Golding’s unit was plenty salty enough during its run to a national championship last season, leading the SEC in scoring defense (19.0 points per game), tackles for loss (81.0) and sacks (35).
Sure, Ole Miss dropped 48 on the Tide, and Florida nearly hung half a hundred in the SEC Championship Game, but in the two College Football Playoff games, Alabama buckled down, allowing just 38 combined points to Notre Dame and Ohio State.
Well, expect the latter, and not the former, to continue this fall.
What should terrify opponents in 2021 is the Tide’s defense looks primed to make significant strides from a good-to-sometimes-great unit last year, bringing back one of the deepest front-sevens in the nation, plus a loaded secondary with too many playmakers and not enough snaps to go around.
So, let’s take a look at some categories and play better or worse for Alabama in 2021.
Pressuring the QB: Better
There’s always plenty of wishful projection (mainly so the author feels good about guessing something right) in these sorts of exercises, but I’m quite confident that Alabama’s pass rush will be better in 2021 — this despite losing its No. 1 sack artist (interior lineman Christian Barmore, 8.0 sacks) to the NFL this offseason.
The Tide still have the best collection of pass rushers in the country, headlined by phenom sophomore outside linebacker Will Anderson.
The 6-4, 240-pound Transformer led the SEC in pressures and quarterback hits as a freshman, and the Georgia native could easily top double-digit sacks after recording 7.0 in 2020.
Not to be overshadowed by Anderson is senior Christopher Allen, who had a dominant spring and had 6.0 sacks and 13.0 tackles for loss last year.
Behind Alabama’s top duo is a pool of former 5-star recruits just waiting for their opportunity. Chris Braswell took a redshirt in 2020 but had a monster spring game (3 sacks, forced fumble). Drew Sanders saw limited snaps as a freshman and will see increased playing time this fall. Then there’s several incoming rookies looking for PT, including Dallas Turner and Keanu Koht.
The pressure won’t just come off the edge from the Tide, either, as the defensive line has a slew of interior penetrators (LaBryan Ray, Byron Young, DJ Dale, Phidarian Mathis and others) and a couple of inside linebackers (Christian Harris and Henry To’o To’o) capable of getting to the quarterback.
Run defense: Better
Barmore and linebacker Dylan Moses are gone, but like the rising sun, you can count on Alabama having one of the best run defenses in the nation.
The Tide ranked 18th nationally in rush defense and 13th in yards per rush allowed (3.33) in 2020, and there’s no reason to believe there will be a dip this fall.
The addition of thumping transfer linebacker To’o To’o (he led the SEC with 17 run stuffs at Tennessee last year, per ESPN stats) should further bolster a stout rush unit, as could the return of Ray, who missed the majority of last season with an elbow injury.
Alabama is also looking to get mammoth lineman Tim Smith more playing time, with 5-star freshman Damon Payne (6-3, 300 pounds) hoping to crack the rotation, too.
This is a group that combines elite talent with sound, consistent assignment football, generating steady results against opponents’ ground game.
Pass defense: Better
Sensing a theme here?
Yes, cornerback Patrick Surtain II — the No. 10 pick in the NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos — is no longer patrolling one side of the field, but the Tide have the secondary talent to actually improve its pass defense compared to a year ago.
In 2020, Alabama was (shrug emoji) *fine* at pass defense, ranking 54th nationally in expected points added (EPA) per pass on defense. The Tide were at least 21st in passing yards per attempt (6.6), and I except an uptick in both stats in 2021.
Josh Jobe, who led the SEC in pass deflections last year, returns, as do playmaking safeties/nickelbacks Jordan Battle, Malachi Moore and Brian Branch. Meanwhile, veterans Jalyn Armour-Davis, DeMarcco Hellams and Marcus Banks all earned Most Improved Honors this spring and will vie for playing alongside incoming studs like cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry (who was the nation’s No. 1 corner in the 2021 class and had an interception and pass breakup on A-Day) and JUCO signee Khyree Jackson.
This is a unit that is going to play with plenty of confidence — and force lots of takeaways.
Special teams: Slightly better?
Alabama actually finished last in the SEC in punting in 2020, averaging just 38.0 yards per kick.
Now, the Tide rarely punted (just 2.5 times per game), but Nick Saban isn’t going to overlook a single spot on his roster, so he went out and poached Troy’s punter via the transfer portal.
Jack Martin averaged 46.1 yards per punt for the Trojans last season, which would’ve ranked No. 1 in the Sun Belt if the Alabama native had qualified for the minimum number of attempts.
Well, let’s see: A better pass rush + better run defense + better pass defense = Better³
Alabama is going to be outstanding on defense in 2021.
The Tide will still allow some useless yards and garbage points at times, especially with many teams likely to trail by wide margins, but the unit’s overall efficiency and production will be among the best nationally.
With Alabama’s offense potentially needing a few weeks to gel under first-year starter Bryce Young and new OC Bill O’Brien, Golding’s group could even grab some of the early season headlines with potential strong performances against Miami and Florida.