Alabama’s Defense – The 2016 Preview

About four years ago, my father and I listened to Nick Saban speak at one of his annual Crimson Caravan speaking engagements.  A woman from the back of the room asked Coach Saban what in the world he was going to do to compete against these hurry up, no huddle offenses (HUNH) that have been beating his brains in.  Coach Saban bristled at the question at first, reminding the nice lady that Alabama had finished in the top three in the country in total defense that season.  But, as he talked, Saban began to open up about what he saw as the future of the Alabama defense.

Saban lamented the fact that they needed to recruit more “quick twitch athletes” who could play multiple downs in a row without getting fatigued.  He also admitted that they simply needed to get faster on defense, as the game was pushing out the Mt Cody types along the line and the 260 lb linebackers that had been so dominant for him in years past.  But then in his next breath, Saban astutely mentioned that he still needed a few of those big bad mammer jammers in order to contend with the brute force and physicality of the LSU and Arkansas running games.

Fast forward to the 2016 depth chart and you can see Coach Saban’s premonitions on display.  Gone is the 270 lb Eugene Upshaw type of end as he has been replaced by the 250 lb Tim Williams.  The larger than life Mt Cody, a two down player at his best, has been replaced by a three down athlete like Daron Payne.  At linebacker, Bama used to trot out the 260 lb Donte Hightower or the 250 lb Rolondo McClain but this year’s backers will all play in the 230’s:  Reuben Foster (235 lb), Shaun Dion Hamilton (232 lb) and Rashaan Evans (231 lb).  Even the 5-star LB recruits are leaner and meaner with Ben Davis playing at 234 lbs and Mack Wilson at 244 lbs.

The former big hitting safeties have been replaced by corners who have been converted to safety.  The emphasis at every level of the defense has become speed, speed and more speed.  Bama still has a few beasties they can throw in along the defensive line but, by and large, this year’s unit is predicated on using speed and athleticism to defeat the new age offenses.

Let’s take a closer look at what we are talking about as we preview each position….

Alabama on Defense

The 2016 version of the Crimson Tide defense will be unlike any other defense that Nick Saban has fielded at the Capstone.  First and foremost, longtime assistant and confidant Kirby Smart is no longer standing alongside Saban on the sidelines.  Say what you will about Smart’s departure to Georgia but he’s been a trusted lieutenant for Coach Saban since 2004 and his calming and reassuring demeanor will be missed along the sidelines.  Kirby was most certainly a players coach and his infectious enthusiasm was always the “good cop” to Saban’s bad cop routine.  From an X’s and O’s perspective, very little should be lost in the transition from Smart to Jeremy Pruitt but it will be interesting to see how well Pruitt reaches and connects to his defensive charges.

Regarding game planning, the Lighthouse does expect to see a more aggressive approach to game calling from Pruitt.  In the past, Pruitt has enjoyed bringing corners and safeties into his blitz packages and we honestly believe he called a much better defensive game against Auburn in 2013 than Kirby Smart did.  Honestly, Pruitt’s resume as a defensive coordinator is pretty outstanding.  In 2013, Georgia ranked #45 in total defense but posted a #17 and #7 ranking in the two years Pruitt ran the defense.  He’s uber talented and lives, breathes, eats and sleeps football and he’ll have lots of toys to play with this fall.

Defensive Line

If there’s one fear about Alabama’s defense it’s their overall depth at defensive line and in the secondary.  Along the defensive line, the departures of A’shawn Robinson, Jarren Reed and DJ Pettway will certainly be felt along the rotation so guys like Da’Shawn Hand, Josh Frazier, Johnny Dwight and OJ Smith will have to step up.  By the way, we think Hand, a former 5-star recruit, plays a significant role in the defense this season.  Look for #9 to be a playmaking machine along the defensive line.

If depth is a concern then we can take solace in the fact that very few teams in college football can boast about the ridiculous amount of starting talent along the front line.  Jonathan Allen is a guy who easily could have turned pro last year – he’s a game changer at DE and is even more deadly when he moves inside to DT in the nickel and dime sets.  Meanwhile, Da’Ron Payne is an immovable object up front who oozes athleticism at every snap.  Lastly, there’s Dalvin Tomlinson who is a guy we’ve been a fan of for a long, long time.  Tomlinson won the Georgia heavyweight wrestling title in about three seconds and seems to be built to delete offensive lineman like Hillary does with emails.

In today’s version of football, the smaller & quicker defensive ends like Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson spend as much or more on the field as any of the bigger linemen.  Alabama plays in their nickel package more than 60% of the time and that allows Allen to move inside while Williams and Anderson wreak havoc along the edges.  This season the depth at this OLB/DE position is just silly.  Wait til you see #47, Christian Miller, in a uniform.  Mercy.  If God reached down and sculpted a physical specimen for the OLB/DE position, it would look like #47.   Of course, Rashaan Evans can still line up outside and all accounts say Terrell Hall is going to contribute right away.

Between the likes of Hand, Allen, Williams, Anderson, Miller, Evans and Hall, Alabama will be able to feature more speed across the line than ever before.  It will be very interesting to see who among the big boys will be able to step up when the running games of LSU and Arkansas come calling.  At the time of this writing, signees Raekwon Davis (315 lbs) and Jamar King (290 lbs) have not appeared on the depth chart.  Davis, who could easily play right away, is having clearinghouse issues with the NCAA while King, a juco, hasn’t outperformed the guys ahead of him.  Both were being counted on to bring immediate size to the rotation.

Linebackers

As we said at the beginning, Coach Saban’s philosophy regarding the linebackers has changed so this group is going to be a lean, mean fighting machine.  Reuben Foster, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans are all playing around 230 lbs.  They will be fast.  They will be furious.  Gone are the big thumpers that Alabama has featured at linebacker in the past as this group is perfectly suited to attack the spread attacks of today’s offenses.  And, when you factor in 5-star signees Mack Wilson and Ben Davis, this group has probably never been as deep and talented as the one Alabama will trot out there in 2016.

If there is a concern, it goes back to fending off the big uglies from LSU and Arkansas.  Even USC has some wooly mammoths that the smaller, faster linebackers will have difficulty shedding at the point of attack.  It will be critically important for the interior lineman such as Payne, Tomlinson, Frazier and Smith to occupy the OL and allow Bama’s heat seeking LBs to run to the football.

Rashaan Evans is probably the most interesting story at this position.  Evans’ speed allows him to flow from sideline to sideline making plays so it seemed to be a perfect idea to move him to LB from DE.  While the athleticism is clearly there, Evans hasn’t quite picked up all of the nuances of the position and spring scrimmages saw him catching more blocks than he shed.  Look for Evans to once again be used situationally while Hamilton takes the larger number of reps next to Foster.

Lastly, it must be mentioned in this space that Reuben Foster is so freaking good in pass coverage.  He has tremendous instincts at LB and reads and solves routes faster than Trump can piss off the Pope.   We are betting the Foster snags close to a handful of picks this season, including one or two pick sixes.  Book it!

Secondary

What the Tide doesn’t have in pure numbers (thanks to the departures of Maurice Smith, Kendall Sheffield and Shawn Burgess-Becker), it makes up for in talent. Perhaps it’s a bit of hyperbole but the starting four of Marlon Humphrey, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Eddie Jackson and Ronnie Harrison is probably the most athletic starting group that the Lighthouse can remember.  Humphrey and Fitzpatrick are tremendous at corner but the playmaking abilities of Jackson and Harrison may actually be even better.  This group is perfectly suited to defend the HUNH spread offenses of today’s game with each one of them having the ability to play straight up man-to-man or range from sideline to sideline.  We feel Harrison, in particular, is completely undervalued at safety – he is a very, very talented playmaker and should be even better as a full-time safety this season.

Beyond the starters, the only other DB we truly feel good about is corner Anthony Averett.  Averett has 4.3 speed and has excellent size for the position.  Since he’s been around the program for three years, he’s well versed in the playbook, as well.  When Bama slides to the nickel and dime sets, Averett will come in at one corner while Fitzpatrick moves inside to his old familiar role.  In the dime package, it looks like Hootie Jones will get the bulk of that playing time as he will slide to safety alongside Eddie Jackson.

And there you have it – Alabama’s six defensive backs that you can feel pretty good about playing their role and playing the schemes the way they are intended to be played.  Outside of Fitzpatrick, Humphrey, Harrison, Jackson, Averett and Jones, there is little to no experience whatsoever.  Tony Brown, who has been practicing at safety, is serving a four game suspension so Bama can ill-afford to lose any of their top six DBs before Brown returns.  Once you get past Brown, Bama’s lack of experience is downright scary.  At corner, true freshmen Shyheim Carter, Jared Maybin and Aaron Robinson could be pressed into service if Averett goes down.    At safety, true freshmen Trevon Diggs has turned a lot of heads and is pushing for time along with redshirt freshman Deionte Thompson and Keaton Anderson has been moved from LB to S for depth.  Quite frankly, playing in the secondary may be the most challenging position to play as a true freshman due to the complexity of the schemes and the techniques so having nothing but freshmen behind the starting six is frightening.

Punting/Returners

JK Scott is back for his junior season and may be the only punter I’ve ever heard of discussed as a three and done player (many feel he could jump to the NFL after this season).  Scott has the ability to flip the field and has been the Lighthouse game MVP on more than one occasion.  While consistency was an issue early on last season, he appears to be back to his regular howitzer self this season.

Calvin Ridley is slated to be the starting punt returner this season and while he’s going to add an awesome dimension to the return game, I sure wish there was someone a bit more expendable who could do this deed.  He’s going to be fun to watch, though, there’s no doubt about that.

Ardarius Stewart and Trevon Diggs are set to return the opening kickoff of the season and that’s a testament to Diggs’ phenomenal ability to make plays with the football in his hands.

Season Outlook

So now we’ve covered the offense, defense and special teams of the 2016 Alabama Crimson Tide.  What do you think?  Offensively, the Lighthouse feels MUCH better about Bozeman’s recent move to center.  Bozeman has the most experience along the line and will be able to make the calls and adjustments for the rest of the crew.  Meanwhile, Pierschbacher can just concentrate on mauling people.  Additionally, Pierschbacher’s experience will be invaluable to Jonah Williams as they line up next to one another.  We still do not like Bateman at the helm and we hope beyond all hope that Barnett can settle down and let his natural QB instincts and abilities take over.  Barnett has the ability to be one of the best QBs Alabama has ever had but he has got to rid himself of making costly turnovers.

Defensively, Alabama’s team speed is just plain silly.  Any teams that want to press the Tide with pace or with a spread attack will be playing right into Jeremy Pruitt’s hands.  But, as the Tide has gotten lighter and quicker, the more physical attacks of LSU and Arkansas will be more of a challenge.

If you polled a panel of experts, they would likely tell you that the three best teams in the SEC (that are not named Alabama) are LSU, Tennessee and Ole Miss.  While some could debate Ole Miss being on that list, none can debate LSU or Tennessee and, unfortunately, Alabama will play all three of these teams on the road.  Additionally, Alabama will play Arkansas on the road the week prior to their HUGE matchup with Tennessee so it looks like Arky may be one of those nasty old trap games.

With an unproven QB…an inexperienced group of RBs…a still shuffling offensive line…four brutally difficult road games…this, in our mind, is going to be the most difficult and challenging season for Nick Saban and his staff.  When you sprinkle in the loss of Kirby Smart and the departures of three members of the secondary who would have played significant roles, it’s tough to imagine Alabama running the table once again this season.

Until the staff can mold the offense into a smooth running machine, every Saturday has the potential to be like Christmas Day – we’ll open up each Saturday’s gift without truly knowing what’s inside.  If Alabama escapes their inexperience and this schedule with fewer than two losses, this will be Saban’s best coaching job to date.

Alabama’s Offense – The 2016 Preview

 

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