Nick Saban no longer believes in elite defenses, but Alabama's unit could be just that in 2021
Late last month, Alabama coach Nick Saban made headlines when he explained precisely why he no longer believes just playing elite defense leads to championships.
“You’re not going to win anything now doing that.”
In a virtual coaching clinic to the Louisiana High School Coaches Association, Saban further explained that he doesn’t think that his former philosophy, one that did lead to multiple titles, will work anytime soon, either.
“We have a good defense. I mean, we gave up 19.0 points per game last year and that was first in the SEC. 19.0 points per game. That is 6 points above what we feel is average, which is giving up 13.0 points per game, and its first in the SEC.
“The game is different now. People score fast. The whole idea, like I grew up with the idea that you play good defense, you run the ball, you control vertical field position on special teams, and you’re going to win. Whoever rushes the ball the most, for the most yardage is going to win the game. You’re not going to win anything now doing that.”
“Because A, the way the spread is, and the way that the rules are, to run RPOs, the way the rules are that you can block downfield and throw the ball behind the line of scrimmage, I mean those rules have changed college football. No-huddle, fastball has changed college football. So I changed my philosophy … We have to out score them.”
Love him or hate him, Nick Saban was dropping some old school dimes tonight in the @TheLHSCA coaches clinic.
He also discussed his philosophy changes and when he knew he needed to adapt or die. pic.twitter.com/8V6w7Vxo23
— Michael Cauble (@Cauble) March 26, 2021
Saban is the GOAT®, but he didn’t reinvent the wheel here. He’s simply saying out loud what most everyone who follows college football already knows. Still, by embracing and emphasizing offensive explosiveness, Alabama, with the most talented roster in the sport, has become college football’s Thanos.
And once again, the Tide are expected to unleash another juggernaut offense this fall. They must replace a ton of NFL talent — including Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, wideout Jaylen Waddle, tailback Najee Harris, quarterback Mac Jones and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood and Landon Dickerson — but when isn’t that the case?
Bryce Young is all set take over at quarterback and the dynamic sophomore quarterback has a host of explosive playmakers to work with at his disposal.
But what could make the reigning national champions once again terrifying is, despite Saban’s recent comments, the Tide did have a very good defense in 2020 by modern standards — only it didn’t get the shine it deserved.
Well, it just might in 2021.
A year after allowing the fewest points per game in the SEC (19.0), leading the SEC in tackles for loss (81.0) and sacks (35) and ranking 20th nationally in yards per play (5.04), the Tide have all the pieces to make a leap on defense this year.
I’m talking improved havoc rate, better stuff rate and more takeaways.
Gone are future pros Patrick Surtain II, Dylan Moses and Christian Baremore, but as a whole, Bama’s defense is arguably deeper and with more upside than it had a year ago. Pete Goulding’s staff also has plenty of continuity, an unusual feat at Alabama these days, losing just a single coach this offseason.
The Tide’s front seven is loaded, with a host of playmaking linebackers (Christian Harris has all the makings of a contract season entering his junior campaign) and a defensive line that returns multiple starters and a slew of blue-chip reserves just waiting for their opportunities.
Defensive end LaBryan Ray, who missed 6 games with an elbow/arm injury last season, is back, as is senior stuffer DJ Dale, who has started 22 games but is getting pushed for his job by promising sophomore Tim Smith this spring.
Off the edge, Will Anderson was a menace as a freshman (7.0 sacks, third in the SEC) and could emerge as the best pass rusher in the conference this fall. Christopher Allen, who led the Tide with 13.0 tackles for loss, is no slouch either, and behind Alabama’s Jack and Sam linebackers is literally a carousel of former 5-star recruits.
Early takeaways from spring practice have the defensive line and edge rushers giving Alabama’s green offensive line fits, including dominating parts of Saturday’s first scrimmage. With Anderson, Allen, as well as Drew Sanders, hot-shot freshmen Keanu Koht and Dallas Turner, and others, it’s easy to envision a scenario where the Tide could rank among the tops nationally in sacks — just like 2018 (No. 5) and 2016 (No. 1).
Meanwhile, the secondary should be just as stout, this despite some mild concerns at cornerback with Surtain II gone.
With good reason, the All-American standout Surtain overshadowed Josh Jobe’s play in 2020, but Alabama’s now-senior returns as one of the best corners in the SEC, leading the conference in pass breakups (11) last fall. The stiff competition to replace Surtain includes a battle between 5-star freshman Ga’Quincy McKinstry and veteran Jalyn Armour-Davis, who’s seen spot duty at corner and nickel over the last few seasons. A couple of JUCO transfers in Khyree Jackson and Ronald Williams are looking for playing time too, as is Marcus Banks.
Outside of Surtain, the rest of Alabama’s secondary starters return, positioning a seasoned unit to be one of the best pass defenses in the country in 2021. A year ago, the Tide allowed a completion percentage of 58.1%, ranking 33rd nationally. It was Bama’s highest-allowed percentage in over 12 seasons, too. Same for its 6.6 yards per attempt — both solid but hardly spectacular showings.
Expect both statistics to see some improvement this fall.
Nickel/Star corner Malachi Moore was a stud as a freshman (3 interceptions, 6 PBUs, 1 forced fumble, 4 tackles for loss) and while he’s limited with a minor injury this spring, he should continue to develop and showcase his natural playmaking ability.
At safety, Jordan Battle looks to be the next great Alabama centerfielder (see; Mark Barron, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Eddie Jackson, Landon Collins) paroling NFL secondaries for years to come. Now a junior, Battle seamlessly replaced Xavier McKinney last season and will be a preseason All-SEC selection in 2021. Goulding has no shortage of options at the other safety spot either, with three guys who shared snaps last fall all back. DeMarcco Hellams and Daniel Wright both started multiple games in Alabama’s title run, while sophomore Brian Branch could be the wildcard candidate here after a freshman season where he flashed raw potential and elite ball skills (2 interceptions, 7 pass breakups) playing multiple spots (dime, safety, nickel).
With Moore limited this spring, Branch is getting a long look at nickel/Star, and his versatility could help him see snaps all over the field as a matchup X-factor.
Overall, Alabama’s defense has a tremendous ceiling for this fall. The schedule isn’t particularly daunting, most of the defensive staff is back and there’s talented depth across each unit which could (should?) exhibit real growth in their second or third seasons in Tuscaloosa. Lastly, in ESPN’s analyst Bill Connelly’s 2021 preseason SP+ rankings, Alabama ranks 4th nationally on defense.
I’d call that elite, even if Saban may not want to label it as such anymore.