TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When a defense loses three projected first-round NFL draft picks, a total of five starters, other key reserves and its coordinator, it’s natural to think that unit would take a step back in the coming season.
Not at Alabama.
Despite all the talent lost from last year’s national championship team, Alabama’s defense is once again expected to be one of the best in the SEC and the country heading into coach Nick Saban’s 10th season with the program.
“Our defense is going to be faster, I can say that. It’s just relentless. You have to have something in your heart to play on our defense,” outside linebacker Tim Williams said after Saturday’s A-Day spring game. “I can’t really put it in words for real. It starts on down from Saban to the position coaches to the leaders of the defense and to all the guys, the soldiers. Every year we’ve had certain defenses and each defense has had their own thing. We’re still trying to figure out what this defense is right now.”
One thing we can probably say for certain is that this defense will be the quickest of any Saban has had during his tenure at Alabama. From the defensive linemen to the linebackers to the secondary, where there are multiple players with track speed, each level of the 2016 defense has players with fleet feet for their position. That speed may also lead to Alabama having its most aggressive defense under Saban, as there are players who can blitz from every position.
This is not an overreaction to A-Day, but more of a look at the returning pieces and how things project to come together in the fall.
One of the things Alabama did last year arguably better than any year under Saban was bring some of its young players along early. Daron Payne, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison all played significant snaps as true freshmen in 2015, so their transitions to full-time starters won’t be as difficult during their sophomore campaigns. All three made game-changing plays throughout the course of the season, and never let the moment or the big stage overwhelm them.
Their play and experience also makes it easier to replace the starters from last year who have moved on. Payne slides into the holes left by A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed as the monstrous run stopper. Fitzpatrick moves from nickel defensive back to starting cornerback in place of Cyrus Jones and opposite Marlon Humphrey. Harrison is the natural pick as Geno Matias-Smith’s replacement at safety next to Eddie Jackson.
From there, take a look at the defensive front. Jonathan Allen could have been a first- or second-round NFL draft pick had he left school early. His return solidifies the Tide’s defensive front, a group he led with 12 sacks, which was good for No. 7 in the country and second in the SEC. Allen has been contributing since his freshmen season (2013), so there is very little he hasn’t seen. He’ll be the leader of that group this year along with Dalvin Tomlinson.
Speaking of Tomlinson, he would have been a full-time starter last year had it not been for Reed and Robinson. But now is his time to make his mark on the program. Tomlinson finished last season with 34 total tackles, and led the defensive linemen with six pass breakups. Being able to bat the ball down at the line of scrimmage is an underrated skill, and Tomlinson seems to have mastered it.
It’s rare that a No. 1 recruit is able to come in and learn for two seasons without immediately being thrown into the fire. But that’s the luxury of playing at Alabama, where defensive line depth was at a premium during Da’Shawn Hand’s first two years on campus. As a sophomore last season, Hand made 16 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Hand’s best performance of the year came in the national championship game, where he had four tackles and two for loss. Like Allen and Tomlinson, Hand is a player who can both rush the passer and hold up against the run, meaning he won’t have to come off the field against up-tempo offenses.
Combine Allen, Tomlinson and Hand with Payne, and Alabama’s defensive line is stout before you even mention the outside linebackers.
ELITE PASS RUSHERS
One would be hard pressed to find a better pass-rushing duo on the edge than Williams and Ryan Anderson. Statistically speaking, both ranked in the top-15 in the SEC in terms of sacks, with Williams posting 10.5 and Anderson adding six. Anderson may be the most underrated player on the entire defense. The pass rushing ability is obviously there, but his frame also allows him to set the edge like Saban and the coaching staff desires.
After strictly playing a pass rushing role last season, Williams spent the offseason working on becoming a more complete player.
“Working on trying to read run-pass (options). Being out there on first and second down, you can’t just go like it’s third down and run up the field or the running back will run through your gap,” Williams said. “Seeing things and working on my eye technique. Just focusing on looking at the (offensive) tackle, looking at his outside shoulder and staying in my run key. Things like that, the focal points of the position.”
You could also add Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings to that group of pass rushers from the outside linebacker spot. Miller spent his first two years adding weight to his wiry frame, and is now ready to contribute. Last season, Jennings spent his first year on campus recovering from a back injury he suffered in high school, but is now healthy. Both Miller and Jennings had three sacks on A-Day. These two could be the fresh pass rushers that come in during third-down situations this season.
“I think both guys have improved. I know Christian had a couple of sacks today. He’s got some pass rush ability,” Saban said Saturday. “Anfernee Jennings probably has improved as much as anybody over the course of this spring practice. He has the opportunity because last year he was hurt. He missed part of the season. When he came back he was just a part of the scout team. So he was starting at pretty much ground zero in terms of knowledge. He has really made a lot of progress and so has Christian. I think it’s important for us that those guys continue to develop and can play winning football for us next year.”
THE SECOND LEVEL
On the inside, Reuben Foster will the guy Alabama relies on most. He’ll be one of the players in charge of getting everyone lined up and making the calls and checks defensively. Last season, Foster played in all 15 games and is credited with eight starts. He finished second on the team with 73 tackles (48 solo), including eight tackles for loss. Foster mostly served as the inside linebacker in the Tide’s nickel package, which Alabama ran a majority of the time. Foster likely won’t come off the field much this year, which means he’ll have to take his game to an even higher level.
But Foster needs running mate. A few of the candidates are Shaun Dion Hamilton, Rashaan Evans and Keith Holcombe. Hamilton would be the first choice as he is the most experienced. He played in all 15 games and is credited with five starts. Hamilton mostly played in the Tide’s base defense.
After making the switch from outside linebacker this spring, Evans capped things off with a 17-tackle performance (10 solo) in the A-Day game. Holcombe wasn’t able to play on A-Day because of what Saban called a “slight concussion.”
“Shaun Dion has done a nice job. He’s very smart, does the right thing and doesn’t make a lot of mental errors,” Saban said. “Rashaan Evans is certainly learning and growing every day. I think it’ll be really important that we continue to get him a lot of reps so he can continue to do that.”
With a full year of starting experience under his belt, Marlon Humphrey projects to be an All-SEC type cornerback after posting three interceptions last season. Same goes for Fitzpatrick who’s versatility allows Alabama to be even more creative in the secondary. Fitzpatrick is an aggressive playmaker who likes the endzone. He returned both of his interceptions for touchdowns and also scored off a blocked punt. At safety, Jackson has a nose for the ball. He finished top-10 in the country and tied for first in the SEC with six interceptions, including two touchdown returns.
Like the others, Harrison too is a natural playmaker. He had two interceptions last season while serving as the third safety.
Alabama also has veterans like Maurice Smith, Tony Brown, Laurence “Hootie” Jones and Anthony Averett who can provide depth and step in when Alabama goes to its nickel and dime packages. Young players like Deionte Thompson, Shawn Burgess-Becker and Kendall Sheffield are competing as well.
DEPTH UP FRONT A CONCERN
If there’s one area Alabama could struggle with, it’s depth in the defensive front. After A-Day, Saban acknowledged that the defensive depth was one of the team’s concerns. This means two things: the top guys must stay healthy and some of the reserves and/or incoming freshmen must emerge to provide support. It’ll be important for guys along the defensive line like Josh Frazier, O.J. Smith and Johnny Dwight to continue to improve as they enter their third seasons on campus. Dwight, who spent last season as a tight end, recorded two sacks in the A-Day game.
Every year there seems to be a true freshman or two who makes an impact. That’s not to say a young guy needs to play as well as Fitzpatrick, Payne and Harrison did last season, but it would be nice for Alabama’s sake if multiple freshmen were at least competing for spots in the defensive rotations.
Between now and the start of the season, Alabama has its offseason conditioning program and fall camp to clean up any of the little mistakes the coaches noticed during the spring.
“I feel like we’re going to improve a lot between now and the fall,” Tomlinson said. “We’re going to continue watching film and doing extra work. Just working harder and harder so we can continue to get better for next season.”