For a stretch of time, no defense was as large and fierce as the University of Alabama’s. Not coincidentally, it was the most feared defense in the country during that period, too.
Terrence Cody came to Alabama weighing more than 400 pounds, and big-bodied players flying around became the norm, although none were as large as Mount Cody. At its frightening height in the Nick Saban era, the Alabama defense regularly had linebackers weigh more than 260 pounds.
It was a time of league and national dominance for Crimson Tide defenders, who threw that weight around.
Then along came Kevin Sumlin and Johnny Manziel into Tuscaloosa in 2012 and things began to change. Offenses got faster and used the entire width of the field. They made defenses uncomfortable and flat-out exhausted with their pace.
And it wasn’t just Texas A&M. Ole Miss, under Hugh Freeze, adopted the spread, hurry-up attack, and so did Auburn under Gus Malzahn. Suddenly, Alabama’s big bodies became a big problem when offenses kept those bodies on the field, with the defense unable to substitute.
Then came a philosophical change of streams for the Alabama defense.
This development didn’t occur overnight, but as sure as a Reuben Foster tackle, it occurred.
Foster and the linebacking corps is a good place to start in examining this change. Once a position held by guys who weighed sometimes as much as 270 pounds, it didn’t have a starter in 2016 at more than 253.
The change came in the form of the type of defensive athlete Saban recruited. Alabama will never turn down a big, freakishly-fast player, but more and more the focus has shifted to quick-twitch speed and versatility that allows one player to play multiple roles.
It also changed the way the defensive coaches ran practice.
“I think one thing that’s maybe a little different now than when I was here before, we have a lot of periods in practice that are no-huddle, fast-paced,” defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said. “For our guys, we don’t huddle anymore. Everybody used to huddle. …. That’s been going on for a while. The practice part of it, when we go good-on-good, is probably a lot faster than it was four or five years ago.”
That November loss to Texas A&M in 2012 was the start of Alabama’s new-look defense: one that features the same toughness and strength as before, but now with the speed, depth and versatility to play any style of football it faces.
Not too long ago, Cody, who played at well over 350 pounds, was exactly the type of nose guard Alabama sought to take on blocks, hold ground and allow linebackers to roam free and make tackles. The defense is now anchored by Da’Ron Payne, a 6-foot-2, 319-pound strongman who has uncanny lateral quickness and burst for a guy his size.
At Shades Mountain High School, Payne pushed the scales at 350 pounds. But he arrived in Tuscaloosa having lost weight and ready to work. After his first summer, he lost even more weight and has become one of the SEC’s best interior defensive linemen.
Alabama also began employing an all-hands-on-deck mentality along the defensive line too, playing as many guys who were ready to play as possible. The more an opposing offense tries to go fast to wear a defense out, the more defensive linemen are needed to combat it.
For example, examine two years ago when Alabama had the deepest defensive line in the country with A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, D.J. Pettway, Jonathan Allen, Davlin Tomlinson, Darren Lake, Da’Shawn Hand and Josh Frazier. All of those players were able to play and helped keep the unit fresh.
Such specimens aren’t easy to find, but Alabama does as good a job as anyone in the country at locating and developing them.
“I remember this thing I heard from Nick when I was back at LSU with him,” defensive line coach Karl Dunbar said. “He’d say, ‘Big guys are just like pretty women. There’s not a lot of them and everybody wants them.’
“It’s amazing how you scour the earth for guys. I found this to be true coaching pro ball, I’ll get a kid who wants to come try out for a pro team who’s 24, 25 years old who’s 6-foot-5, 285-290 pounds but he played basketball. Once he found out he wasn’t a basketball player, it’s too late. He didn’t go to college to play football, he played basketball, and all of a sudden he grows up into a man and it’s too late. That’s the thing. You go out and you talk to all these AAU (basketball) coaches and you trying to find guys who are 6-4, 245-250 at 15 or 16 years old and then all of a sudden when they hit that 17, 18 they’re 6-5, 290 and that’s the guy you’re looking for.
“They’re out there, you just have to do a great job looking.”
What does Alabama look for in defensive lineman now? They want Allen, Tomlinson and Payne types. They want it all.
“You want athletes who are physically gifted who can run, but we also like big guys who are strong and powerful,” Dunbar said. “I think that’s the thing we strive to get when we’re out recruiting guys. You look at their bodies and see if they can gain weight, gain muscle mass and at the same time be athletic enough to chase down these running backs and quarterbacks in these spread offenses.
“It changes. You don’t have a whole bunch of guys, 365-370, but I got a guy now who’s 6-7, 320 (Raekwon Davis). But he can move. That’s the kind of body types and athletes you look for and you look to get and you wish they would come to your school.”
Sometimes a player doesn’t fit the mold body-type wise, but his film becomes too much to ignore.
“If a kid can play, he can play,” Dunbar said. “I coached a kid at LSU and coached him at Buffalo, Kyle Williams. Nobody wanted him because he was short, short-armed. He’s been playing in the league for 12 years now. So the film don’t lie. Scales lie sometimes, but not the film. I think that’s the thing as coaches you’ve got to really watch the film and see what a kid can do and go from the there.”
At no other position is Alabama’s change in defensive recruiting philosophy more evident that at linebacker.
For years, the UA linebackers were a big group. Not in terms in numbers or depth, although that has been quite impressive to watch throughout the years, too, but in sheer size.
Rolando McClain played at 258 pounds. Dont’a Hightower started at 260. Courtney Upshaw was 265. Xzavier Dickson was 265, Reggie Ragland and Denzel Devall both played at 252 and Trey DePriest started at 250. Even a smaller-body guy like Nico Johnson was 245 pounds.
The five main linebackers who played the most in 2016 averaged a weight of 234.2 pounds and that includes the 252-pound Ryan Anderson. The most effective linebacker, Reuben Foster, played at 225. Tim Williams was 230, Rashaan Evans was 231 and Shaun Dion Hamilton was 232.
Two years ago, the starting middle linebackers averaged 252 pounds. This past year the starters averaged 228.5.
“I think you have to recruit to what you’re going to play against,” Pruitt said. “When you look at when you’re recruiting a linebacker or a defensive lineman, to me the first thing you have to figure out is, can he play all three downs? What’s his role on third down? What’s happening is, to me, it used to be you had first and second down and then third down changed.
“Well, the way the game is now, a lot of times probably, nine out of 12 weeks, first and second down is just like third down. These athletic quarterbacks, you have to have guys who can get them on the ground. I think yeah, when you start evaluating, you do have to recruit guys who can play all three downs.
“You have to have them all. You have to have all types.”
In 2014, the outside linebackers were Dickson, Devall and Anderson. Dickson paced the team in sacks with nine and the team recorded 32 sacks on the season.
A season later with a slimmer, more speedy Tim Williams on the outside, the team’s sack numbers began to change. Williams registered 21.5 sacks over the past two seasons as the team recorded 107 total.
Anderson is a perfect example of what an outside linebacker is expected to do now in Alabama’s defense. He had a career-best nine sacks in 2016 but was also expected to play the run and even cover downfield.
“It’s important these days is a linebacker where you really have to be a versatile player,” outside linebackers coach Tosh Lupoi said. “With the way these offenses are allowed to perform at such a rapid and fast pace, you have to have a guy who can set the edge and thump and be a physical player and at the same time be an effective edge pass rusher and have the versatility to drop in coverage, as opposed to just having certain guys that can perform their certain duties.
“You’re really looking for a guy these days who can kind of perform at a high standard with all those duties because of the way the pace of the game is allowed to go at such a high speed. It’s certainly a challenge.”
When Alabama began its dynasty run, it ran a base 3-4 defense. Now thanks to the proliferation of spread, hurry-up offense, the Crimson Tide is now a nickel base defense, playing with five defensive backs on the field approximately 80 percent of the time.
That change necessitated the recruitment of a defensive back who can do it all. The perfect illustration of what Alabama now looks to recruit is Minkah Fitzpatrick, who plays cornerback, safety and the star position.
Here are the critical factors that the defensive coaching staff weighs when recruiting a defensive back.
“The main things we really stress on are can he open-field tackle, can they play man to man, can they play the ball in the deep part of the field?” defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley said. “We think those three critical factors will translate well to the next level. We drill those three things and we demand everybody be able to tackle.
“Outside corners are in man-to-man a lot. So those have to be comfortable having their back to the ball. Most of the guys we get have those kinds of skill sets. Nobody’s perfect. Some guys are better than in two of the three. You may have to work on one, but as close as you can get to those three trifectas you’ve got your DB.”
Fitzpatrick led the team with six interceptions on his way to an All-American season in 2016. He’s the prototypical defensive back Alabama now recruits. A player who could play a similar role this upcoming season is Tony Brown, another versatile, extremely athletic defensive back. Brown is ideal because he can play any style the defense faces.
“In our league you basically have to have two teams,” Ansley said. “You have to be able to play Ole Miss and A&M and then turn around and go play Arkansas and LSU. You have to kind of have two teams. We try to teach guys at least two positions. You may see Tony play corner and star and Minkah may play corner, star, safety. As much as you can do of that, you build your roster because you only have 85 scholarships. As much as you can dual-teach guys, it creates a lot more versatility.
“The game’s definitely evolved since I played. You don’t just want to recruit a guy who can play box safety. Because the game is not played in the box. There’s a couple of teams that still try to run the ball directly at you and play in the box, but most teams are going to spread you out and make you play 53 1/3 (the width of the field) every snap. So you have to play guys who can play well in space. We try to recruit guys who can cover and tackle. But they also have to have enough size to play against the teams that want to play in the box.”
Slimmer and faster
Here is a position-by-position comparison of the average size of defensive signees between Alabama’s 2008 recruiting class and the 2017 signing class:
2008: 6-4 1/2, 284.6
2017: 6-4 1/2, 268.75
2008: 6-2 1/3, 229.3
2017: 6-3, 225.7
2008: 6-1 1/5, 191.8
2017: 6-0 1/3, 179
Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.