Is Pete Golding the reason Alabama's defense struggled in 2019? It's complicated
It hasn’t been the best week for Pete Golding.
The Alabama defensive coordinator didn’t watch his defense allow 40 points, nor did he bring attention to himself by messing up off the field. Yet in early March, 2 months removed from Alabama’s season ending, he made headlines twice for the job he did the previous year.
Thus is life in the SEC.
It all started with former Alabama linebacker Terrell Lewis’ interesting quote at the NFL Combine over the weekend. In case you missed it, Lewis had some noteworthy comments about the struggles with communication on the Alabama defense this past year (via AL.com):
“I just feel like sometimes, especially the LSU game, a lot of times they caught us in a situation where there was a lack of communication and they ended up winning that play and scoring,” Lewis explained. “As a defense, I feel like it was basically too many mental errors as a defense. Same for Auburn. I feel like we had a lot of plays when it didn’t go our way and they caught us when we were at our worst.”
“Communication from the top down, as far as even play calling and as far as just on the field, guys relaying the calls and relaying the signals, stuff like that.”
That then prompted Paul Finebaum to call Golding “the worst Alabama defensive coordinator to return under Nick Saban.” Here was the full quote from Finebaum’s appearance on WJOX 94.5 FM in Birmingham on Monday:
“Pete Golding is the worst defensive coordinator Nick Saban has had at Alabama, that’s not really debatable,” Finebaum said during his latest WJOX appearance. “Kevin Steele, Kirby Smart, Jeremy Pruitt and I don’t even consider Tosh Lupoi the defensive coordinator because he really never finished the season calling the plays. Make sure I’m heard correctly, Tosh Lupoi is the worst in name, but Pete’s the worst in terms of someone that came back the next year. And I really don’t understand it.
“I think Saban was so insistent on not making a change that he maybe went against his better judgment, he wants Pete Golding to be a great defensive coordinator and I’m not sure that’s going to be the ticket at Alabama. That’s probably one reason why he brought Charlie Strong on. The combination of Tosh Lupoi and Pete Golding as defensive coordinators at Alabama is really embarrassing, quite frankly, for a program like Alabama.”
That’s some, um, noteworthy stuff about a top assistant for a team that’s expected to compete for a national title. It’s almost like the tweets from Alabama fans during the first half of the Citrus Bowl just continued the past 2 months.
So what is there to make of this? Is Golding getting criticized fairly or is he just the scapegoat? And what do we need to see from him in 2020 so that the criticism dies down?
I think both things — the fair criticism and being the scapegoat — can be true. Obviously any conversation about the Alabama defense’s performance last year needs context.
Alabama had the No. 13 scoring defense in the country. On the surface, one would look at that and say this is just the perfectionist mindset clouding judgment. But again, context is needed because since Year 2 of the Saban era (2008), that defense easily finished as Alabama’s worst:
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And actually, the No. 37 run defense this past year was worse than Saban’s first year in 2007 when that defense ranked No. 28 against the run allowing 124.2 rushing yards per contest. There was about 13 yards separating those 2 squads in terms of average rushing yards allowed.
The fact that Alabama finished outside the top 10 in scoring defense each of the past 2 years — something that hadn’t happened at all after 2007 — suggests that Finebaum’s point is fair to make. Nobody would take Golding over Steele, Smart or Pruitt. Duh.
Finebaum’s point about Saban being so desperate for stability that he kept on an underachieving coordinator is debatable, though as someone who had 3 defensive coordinators leave since the end of the 2015 season, it would make sense. Why wouldn’t Saban want the 36-year old to become his next Smart? And why wouldn’t Saban do everything in his power to add Strong for 20 cents on the dollar to give the young defensive coordinator all the help he can get?
Let’s get back to Lewis’ comments because that’s what really got the ball rolling. Keep in mind that this is someone in an NFL job interview. The last thing he’s going to say is, “well, our team defensive numbers were down because we just weren’t physically capable of staying on the field with LSU or Auburn.” And even though Lewis didn’t name Golding directly, it’s clear where the blame was assessed.
He’s not wrong. You could find several instances in 2019 in which it looked like Alabama was out of position and on its heels defensively. Between the LSU game, the first half against Michigan or even the 279 rushing yards allowed against 4-win Ole Miss, Alabama’s defense didn’t look Alabama-like for several key chunks of 2019.
How much of that had to do with Dylan Moses suffering a season-ending injury in fall camp? I’d say that absolutely contributed to the lack of communication. This was supposed to be an All-American, and more important, he was supposed to be the quarterback of Alabama’s defense. With all due respect to his replacement Shane Lee, who actually performed pretty well in 2019, but that’s an awful lot to put on a true freshman.
The injuries that Alabama experienced in the front 7 were significant. Losing veterans like LaBryan Ray and Josh McMillon led to Alabama relying on 4 true freshmen on the front 7. Before that, a Saban-led Alabama defense never had more than 1 true freshman starting on a full-time basis in the front 7. It was unprecedented youth that even Alabama couldn’t quite overcome.
Was that on Golding? No. He played the hand he was dealt, which, with the current structure of the transfer portal, was different from the hand that Alabama would have had 10 years ago.
Lewis, as the veteran of the bunch along with Raekwon Davis, would know better than you or I would about whether Alabama’s defensive struggles were because of a lack of communication. The coordinator is always responsible for that. The worst possible criticism of a defensive coordinator is that players were consistently out of position. Moses could have cleaned some of that up, but that still comes back to Golding.
So now, with Moses’ surprising decision to return to Alabama, there should be added pressure on Golding to get Alabama back to being Alabama. That means leading a top 5 scoring defense and getting back into at least the top 10 as a run defense like the Crimson Tide did on a yearly basis from 2008-17. Golding can ill afford games like 2019 Ole Miss or 2018 Arkansas when it looks like Alabama’s defense doesn’t have an answer for a team with vastly inferior talent.
It’s Golding who will get the criticism if the defense doesn’t look all-world again, not Saban, AKA the guy with 6 rings. That’s what happens when you come from UT-San Antonio and everyone questions your credentials from the jump.
People are still questioning Golding’s credentials. That’s life for anyone who doesn’t meet expectations at Alabama, regardless of what injuries happen or how different the game is compared to when the 2010s started.
Golding was a punching bag in 2019, and apparently he’s still one in 2020. In September, it’ll be his turn to fight back.