TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was supposed to be a strength of the defense last season. Maybe not on par as the previous year when quarterbacks would only need to blink and Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams would be in their face, but a strength nonetheless.
Instead, the pass rush from the Alabama outside linebackers never really developed in 2017, in large part due to injuries. Terrell Lewis did get a big sack in overtime in the National Championship Game, but he gives the credit to lineman Da’Ron Payne for disrupting things so much on the play that all he had to do was make the hit.
The more surprising, if not alarming, thing about that play was that was just the fourth sack of the season by an Alabama outside linebacker. Lewis had one. Christian Miller had one. Anfernee Jennings had one. Jamey Mosley had one.
Anderson and Williams combined for 18 during the 2016 season, but they didn’t have their unit decimated by injuries. The only linebacker, interior or outside, to play in every game last season with Keith Holcombe (who is focusing on baseball this spring).
Except for Jennings, who is out until May while recovering from a knee injury, Alabama had everyone on hand for the first practice of spring on Tuesday, which was in sharp contrast to any point in the 2017 season.
“It felt funny seeing all the young guys getting back to roles that they’re comfortable in, getting back to just learning the game instead of being forced to learn on the field,” Lewis said.
With Lewis (elbow) and Miller (biceps) missing 10 games after going down major injuries in the season opener against Florida State, along with interior linebacker Rashaan Evans (groin), defensive lineman Raekwon Davis ended up leading the team in sacks with 8 1/2, as Alabama notched 40.
Evans came back to finish second with 6 1/2, often moving out of a pure interior linebacker spot to be what Alabama calls a rabbit off the edge in obvious passing situations. More indicative of how creative the coaches had to be with the pass rush was that 19 different players were credited with a sack.
Although sacks aren’t considered an adequate indicator of how well a team affects the quarterback, a team’s total is usually influenced the most by the talent level of the players and the play calling by the coach, and how aggressive he wants or can afford to be.
Having a veteran secondary may have saved Alabama’s defense last season, yet getting to the quarterback was emphasized more with Jeremy Pruitt as the defensive coordinator (2016-17). He blitzed more than his predecessor.
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Alabama had seven defensive starters selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, and it could match or even top that next month.
Ironically, the outside linebacker spot is the only place on the defense where everyone is back, and the only spot with the same position coach (minus Nick Saban with the cornerbacks), although Tosh Lupoi is now also the defensive coordinator.
With Alabama having to replace all six defensive backs in the dime package, establishing the pass rush may be more important this season than any other during the Saban era. There’s also the extra motivation of everyone having missed so much playing time last season that the unit feels it has something to prove.
“Just obviously more production, if we can, but ultimately just affecting the quarterback as much as we can. I think we can do a better job on third down,” Miller said.
“I know in one of our meetings we talked about our third-down percentages, and I think that’s one thing that would help increase pass rush on third down and get off the field.”
Consequently, the key thing for the outside linebackers and primary pass rushers is an obvious one:
“Stay healthy,” Lewis said.
Alabama LB Christian Miller thoughtfully explains why college players should be allowed to make money https://t.co/3tioBgRk7o
— Michael Carvell (@Michael_Carvell) March 1, 2018