Nick Saban isn’t a big fan of sacks as a reliable statistic, but in this case, they illustrate well the problem he was trying to fix.
When his University of Alabama defenses were dominant just a few years ago, finishing second in the nation in yards per play allowed in 2015 and first in 2016, they were racking up sacks. They averaged 3.47 and 3.6 sacks per game, respectively, ranking third nationally both years. In 2019, UA’s sacks dropped down to 2.42 per game, ranked tied for 45th in the nation, and the UA defense tumbled down to 17th in yards per play allowed, 29th when only considering games against Power 5 competition.
There are other factors and more nuance, but the correlation is still somewhat strong. In response, UA’s 2019 recruiting class is loaded with pass rushers.
Alabama brought in 22 signees on Wednesday, the first day of the early signing period for the class of 2020, and that group included some of the best perimeter front defenders in the nation: Chris Braswell, a five-star defensive end from Baltimore; Quandarrius Robinson, a four-star outside linebacker from Birmingham; and William Anderson Jr., a four-star defensive end from Hampton, Georgia. Drew Sanders, a five-star athlete from Denton, Texas, could also end up in a role that includes an emphasis on pass rushing.
“I definitely think that we really like that group of guys,” Saban said. “They’re all very talented. They’re all good pass rushers. They’re all long.”
The emphasis there is more than just a combination of abundant talent and a need for their skills. UA’s roster attrition requires UA to go heavy on the edge of the box.
UA is going to lose senior outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings after the Citrus Bowl and has already lost junior outside linebacker Terrell Lewis, who has elected to skip the game to begin his preparation for the 2020 NFL Draft. It comes a year after the defense lost Isaiah Buggs and Christian Miller.
UA has also been forced into this personnel need in atypical methods of attrition, in five-star prospect Eyabi Anoma leaving the program before starting a game and five-star Antonio Alfano leaving the program before appearing in a game.
Tom Luginbill, a recruiting analyst for ESPN, was not surprised to see UA attack those positions with heavy numbers.
“What you see where Alabama sits right now, and it’s similar to what Clemson has going on, they continue to corner the market on the positions that they’ve got to have to improve their areas of deficiency,” Luginbill said in a teleconference earlier this week. “Now, what are they? Well, maybe they haven’t been the pass rush team that they would like to be or maybe that they were when Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams were playing off the edge. So what do they do? They go out and target a Chris Braswell or target a William Anderson. Even some of the outside linebackers in this class, Demouy Kennedy and Quandarrius Robinson. Both guys, particularly Robinson, are guys that are likely going to grow into being a pass-rush type player. Robinson is 6’5″, 215.
“I think the focus of Alabama, when you look at this class, a couple of things. Have to address on the offensive side of the ball projected losses early to the NFL. You have to prepare in advance of that. I think they’ve done it at quarterback, they’ve done it at wideout. And where do they need to improve on the defensive side of the ball? It’s on the edges on the outside to create pass rush. I think that’s what stands out about this class.”
Saban also mentioned defensive lineman Tim Smith as someone who could see some time outside. At 6’4”, 325 pounds, he’s not the typical outside player, but Saban said Smith moves well for his size and is a basketball player, so Saban sees the quickness to be on the perimeter if needed. UA had to hold off a late push from Florida to keep Smith steady in his UA commitment.
As for the personnel management aspect of the positions, Saban did not disagree.
“Well I think that defensive players, we wanted to get a couple more guys up front. I think we did,” Saban said. “We’re still trying to add to that in the future. Edge players, which we just talked about.”