Alabama Returns Most Starters On Defense

For the most part in the Nick Saban Era of Alabama football, the only ones with concerns about the Crimson Tide defense were the players and coaches playing offense for opposing teams. But we have to be honest, here. There has been some slippage on the defensive side.

Although Alabama had a respectable 12-2 season in 2014 and won the Southeastern Conference championship and participated in the inaugural College Football Playoff, it hasn’t been that long since Bama was reaching higher goals, primarily with more effective defense.

That’s not to say that Crimson Tide defense was horrible, either. Alabama was third in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing 18.4 points per game; first in rushing defense, giving up 102.4 yards per game; but 11th – 11th in the 14-team SEC ahead of only Auburn, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State – in pass defense, allowing 226 yards per game. In overall defense, Bama was third, giving up 328.4 yards per game.

The Tide was middle of the road in things like allowing first downs, preventing third down conversions, making sacks, and Red Zone defense, and was minus 2 in turnover margin because of managing only 20 takeaways (9 fumble recoveries and 11 interceptions).

In the category of “positions of question,” Alabama fans have far more concerns about the offense – where there will be nine new starters – than the defense, which lost only four starters from last year – middle linebacker Trey DePriest, outside linebacker Xzavier Dickson, and safeties Landon Collins and Nick Perry. And to the surprise of almost no one, those positions were of only moderate concern compared to that of cornerback, where Bama has been vulnerable. That position, ironically, is coached by Saban.

First, though, the good news.

Modern football seems to be pass-oriented, but stopping the run is still the first order of defense. If the offense can run, it will usually be successful. Last year’s Alabama defense gave up 24 touchdowns – 5 rushing and 19 passing.

The Tide should again be very strong against the run. Alabama is rarely in its nominally normal 3-4 defense – three defensive linemen, four linebackers, and four defensive backs. In passing situations, including first down plays, Bama more often works with three linebackers and a fifth defensive back, usually an extra safety. The Tide can also go the other way with four defensive linemen. Therefore, for this examination of the 2015 defense, we look at 12 positions. (That was true in the look at the offense, too, since Alabama sometimes has three wide receivers or two tight ends and can be one-back, two-back, or empty – quarterback only – in the backfield.)

The defensive line should look familiar with all three starters returning from last season, and all three of them are all-star candidates.

A’Shawn Robinson (6-4, 312) was a Freshman All-America and is being regarded as one of the top juniors likely to head for the NFL after this season. He’s big and strong enough to man the middle, but athletic enough to play at end, and has the ability to disrupt an offense from either spot. He will be flanked by senior Jarran Reed (6-4, 313), who came to Bama from junior college last year, and was the leading tackler among defensive linemen (22 primary, 33 assist) and along with Robinson was in on seven tackles for loss. The third returning starter is junior end Jonathan Allen (6-3, 283) who was in on 12 tackles for loss with six sacks and seven quarterback pressures.

Alabama also has good depth in the defensive line with ends D.J. Pettway (6-3, 270), Dalvin Tomlinson (6-2, 294), Johnny Dwight (6-3, 300), and Da’Shawn Hand (6-4, 273, who is also capable of playing outside linebacker), and tackles Darren Lake (6-3, 315), Josh Frazier (6-3, 315), and O.J. Smith (6-3, 308).

They’ll be joined by the number one player in Alabama high school play last year, five-star Daron Payne (6-2, 325).

Alabama’s best defenses have included outstanding inside linebackers (Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower, C.J. Mosley) and senior Reggie Ragland (6-2, 252) is already the next one. Playing weakside linebacker last year, he was a Butkus Award semifinalist last year and first team All-SEC and is Bama’s leading returning tackler (45 primary, 50 assist). Listed as his back-ups are redshirt freshman Keith Holcombe and Walker Jones (brother of Barrett), both of whom were reported to have had very good practices in the spring.

A good battle is expected for the other inside linebacker position between junior Reuben Foster (6=1, 240) and sophomore Shaun Dion Hamilton (6-1, 230). The big question is whether Foster can stay healthy as he’s had a series of neck and shoulder problems.

Denzel Devall (6-2, 252) was a Freshman All-America in 2012, but battled injuries last year and was limited in spring practice. He is expected to be healthy this year and continue as the starter at jack linebacker, where he has played 35 games in three years. Devall will get good competition from junior Tim Williams (6-4, 230), considered one of Bama’s most disruptive pass rushers. Redshirt freshman Christian Miller (6-3, 215) also works at jack.

At the other outside position, strongside linebacker, senior Dillon Lee (6-4, 242) leads a quality trio. If necessary, Lee could play on the inside. He’s joined by sophomore Rashaan Evans (6-3, 225) and junior Ryan Anderson (6-2, 255).

It is not unusual to see first-year linebackers playing prominent roles on special teams in kickoff and punt coverage and that would be expected of incoming freshmen Keaton Anderson, Mekhi Brown, Joshua McMillon, and Adonis Thomas.

Another incoming freshman who had been expected to contend for playing time is outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings, but surgery on his back is expected to keep him out of action in 2015.

Alabama has been hard-hit at safety in recent years, including losses like HaHa Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri following the 2013 season. For the second consecutive year Bama will be replacing both starting safeties as Collins and Perry have moved on to the NFL.

Alabama uses a strongisde safety and a free safety during the season, but the candidates work at both positions until the start of game preparation in August.

For the most part, Bama’s defense includes the use of three safeties, and senior Geno Smith has a lot of playing time (39 games in his three-year caqreer), particularly since moving from cornerback to safety in 2013. He had six starts last year and played in all 14 games and is considered the leading candidate for one of the safety spots. Junior Eddie Jackson, who has been a starter at cornerback the past two years (though had his problems last season after coming off knee surgery) made the move to safety in the spring and also is a challenger to start. Senior Jabriel Washington has experience as a safety and nickel back, but the chief challengers to Smith and Jackson are likely two younger players. Sophomore Hootie Jones has a big reputation among his teammates, although he played only sparingly as a freshman. Ronnie Harrison, a true freshman who entered The University and took part in spring practice, was very impressive in scrimmage work, including the A-Day Game.when he had an interception and 31-yard return. True freshman Deionte Thompson worked at safety through most of spring practice, but moved to wide receiver during spring drills.

Cyrus Jones had a struggle in 2013 when he made the move from wide receiver to cornerback, but by the end of 2014 he had transitioned into one of the SEC’s better cornerbacks. He’s almost cerntain to be at one spot this fall. From time-to-time there is talk of cornerbacks having “track speed,” and the battle for a position among Bama candidates includes three who have proved they are blazers. Senior Bradley Sylve has more experience, but it would not be a surprise for either soph Tony Brown or redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey to end up with one of those starting jobs. Bama has two other men working at cornerback and both soph Anthony Averett and junior Maurice Smith have ability.

Three incoming defensive backs – safety Shawn Burgess-Becker and cornerbacks Kendall Sheffield and Minkah Fitzpatrick – were among the best prospects in the nation last year.

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