Does Alabama's defense have the juice to be, gasp, the best ever?
Editor’s note: This is the 1st in a series previewing every SEC team’s defense. We start this week in the SEC West, with Alabama. Next: Arkansas.
Pete Golding, your seat getting warm yet?
Golding, who is Alabama’s defensive coordinator in title (with head coach Nick Saban clearly in charge …), enters his 2nd season in his position with a lot to prove. The Tide defense finished 21st in the nation last year in total defense, 13th in scoring defense and 15th in yards allowed per play.
At a lot of programs, that is exceptional. At Alabama, that is unacceptable bordering on disaster.
Injuries decimated Alabama’s defense. As a result, the Crimson Tide relied on a sizable group of underclassmen, best evidenced by the 11 freshmen or sophomores who held starting roles or important rotational spots. Also, 10 of Alabama’s 14 highest-rated prospects in the 2020 recruiting class are defenders. There is no question that several of those players will make an immediate impact.
In losses to Auburn and LSU, the Tide allowed 9 scoring drives of 48-plus yards. That’s flat unacceptable for an Alabama defense — and it doesn’t even factor in opponents’ defensive scores and short scoring drives after turnovers. Even in a game Alabama dominated, against Michigan in the VRBO Citrus Bowl, the Wolverines still piled up 286 first-half yards.
Can Alabama improve defensively? Absolutely. Will the Crimson Tide defense be more dominant in 2020? Absolutely. And does Golding’s job hang in the balance? Absolutely.
Pressuring QB: Better
Perhaps nowhere did Alabama suffer more from the rash of injuries in 2019 than in getting to opposing quarterbacks, as the Crimson Tide finished tied for 44th nationally in sacks per game (2.46) and tied for 61st in tackles for loss per game. Losing a Butkus Award finalist in linebacker Dylan Moses put a major crimp in a unit that eventually recorded just 32 sacks.
Terrell Lewis (6 sacks, 16 QB hurries in 2019) has moved onto the Los Angeles Rams, and Raekwon Davis, who played in 48 games in 4 seasons with 19.5 for a loss and 11.5 sacks, is now with the Miami Dolphins. But a pair of talented players beset by injury in 2019 are ready to dominate up front.
LaBryan Ray played only 3 games last season due to a lower leg injury. D.J. Dale won the job at nose tackle during the spring but was also plagued by a knee injury for most of the season. Those players return, and what was now a weakness has become a strength due to depth built up by young players getting lots of action. Christian Barmore showed flashes of potential, playing in 12 games and tallying 26 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 QB hurries and 2 passes broken up. Justin Eboigne played in 10 games with 2 starts, and veterans Phidarian Mathis and Stephon Wynn Jr. also deliver lots of depth.
Run defense: Better
Alabama’s defense allowed opponents to pile up 1,783 rushing yards last season. In comparison, the Tide’s rushing offense amassed 2,191 rushing yards. That pedestrian effort landed the Crimson Tide squarely in the middle of the SEC, 7th to be precise and behind teams like Texas A&M and Missouri.
Being absolutely packed at linebacker will make Alabama a markedly better run defense in 2020. Dylan Moses, of course, is back. So, too is Joshua McMillon from his own knee injury. Freshmen Shane Lee and Christian Harris finished 2nd and 4th on the team in tackles, respectively. They’re now good veterans to work in with Moses and McMillon on the inside. At outside linebacker, super-recruits Demouy Kennedy, Chris Braswell, and Drew Sanders likely to be thrown into the mix as soon as fall camp begins.
Pass defense: Better
This is the toughest answer of all, as Alabama actually wasn’t awful last season in pass defense.
Sure, Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow and LSU torched the Tide for about a zillion yards. And yes, Xavier McKinney is a New York Giant and Trevon Diggs is a Dallas Cowboy. And Shyheim Carter and Jared Mayden are also gone …
But Patrick Surtain is back, and the dominant defensive back will virtually shut down an entire side the field with his speed and big-play ability. Josh Jobe is the probable starter on the other side of Surtain, but he is likely to be pushed in the fall.
Safety, on the other hand, is wide open. Jordan Battle made 30 tackles in 2019 and returns for his sophomore season, and true freshmen Brian Branch and Malachi Moore were solid-if-unspectacular gets in recruiting.
Still, this is Alabama’s bread and butter. This is Nick Saban’s skill group. Alabama could be abysmal in every other category on both sides of the ball, and you best believe the Crimson Tide would have a stout passing defense.
Special teams: Better
Lord, the punting game can only get better.
Alabama used 4 punters in 2019 and finished 13th in the SEC with a 39.91 average. Will Reichard was going to pull triple duty here along with kicking off and place-kicking, but he was injured early.
That meant the Crimson Tide trotted out Mike Bernier, Skyler DeLong and Ty Perine in an attempt to fill the void. None of them really did, though Perine’s 44.7-yard average was at least acceptable. But Perine shanked a couple of punts, too, and Alabama was maybe a week away from holding open tryouts on The Quad for any college kid with a leg and some eligibility.
As long as Reichard’s leg is still healthily attached to his body in 2020, this gig is his to lose. And to improve.
The headline was a grabber, yes. And yes, we haven’t somehow hit our head and overlooked dominant Tide defenses like the 1992 unit. But with improvement on the horizon at all 11 positions and in the punting game, there is no reason to say Alabama can’t go from a solid-to-good defense to a spectacular one.