A decade of dominance by the University of Alabama football team is ending in what could be labelled as a lost season, relative to the lofty expectations that decade set.
The Citrus Bowl game against Michigan on New Year’s Day is far from UA’s usual postseason destination, but the season that preceded it was far from a loss for the 13 freshmen that played at least eight games this season. UA coach Nick Saban has discussed using this game as another opportunity to reestablish the so-called Bama Factor for the future, and they are the biggest part of that future given their years of eligibility remaining.
Of those 13, seven played in all 12 games this season: wide receivers Slade Bolden and John Metchie III, linebackers Shane Lee and Christian Harris, defensive back Jordan Battle, defensive end Byron Young and offensive lineman Evan Neal.
The biggest spotlight of all was on Lee and Harris, thrust into the ever important interior linebacker positions of the UA defense. Saban believes they approached the job the best they could — with help from a patient inside linebackers coach and defensive coordinator Pete Golding — as they worked through the ups and downs of starting as freshmen in the SEC.
“I think they’ve really tried to prepare themselves the right way, where sometimes you get guys that if they’re not playing, they have a hard time focusing because it’s the first time they haven’t been the guy that’s going to go out there and play,” Saban said about them early in the season. “So it makes it a little more difficult for them. But fortunately Shane Lee and Christian Harris — whether they were starters or backups, either one — they were both bright guys. They’ve been very engaged in what they have to do to be able to go play.”
Harris’ development got a particular boost when UA turned to Markail Benton for pass-stopping packages such as Dime, giving Harris less to prepare for in a game week. Lee ended the regular season second on the team in tackles (77), with 5 1/2 for a loss and 3 1/2 sacks; Harris finished with 54 tackles, fourth on the team, with 5 1/2 for a loss, five quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery.
As they went, they gave their teammates reason for optimism.
“I really see the maturity in (Lee), from being all over the place when he was first announced as a starter,” senior safety Jared Mayden said. “Kind of at a young age, especially with the Alabama defense, it does take awhile to learn. I just played corner, star and safety and I know it took me every bit of 2 1/2, 3 years.
“And now you tell me a freshman linebacker, who not only has to get the coverages but has to make the defensive front changes. I knew he was overwhelmed but the coaches helped him learn, we helped him gain confidence in calling, because you do need to call. But overall, he’s just getting mature. I think now you can see him not being so kind of confused or sporadic. He’s come into his own.
The same can be said for defensive lineman Christian Barmore through the 11 games he’s played in his redshirt season. He was challenged by Saban earlier this season to be more disciplined in his assignment execution, and as the season progressed, Barmore was a fixture in pass-rush packages. With the injuries on the defensive line at the end of the season, Barmore also got more reps in base packages at the end of the season.
Bolden, Metchie and Battle all got valuable reps going into 2020 seasons that could see them replacing highly valuable players. UA’s explosive wide receiver trio of Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith is likely to see some attrition to the 2020 NFL Draft; the safety position is guaranteed to see some with senior Mayden on his way out, and Xavier McKinney could enter the 2020 NFL Draft as well.
Neal performed well enough as a starter that he could be seen as a candidate at tackle, if UA loses Jedrick Wills Jr., Alex Leatherwood or both to the NFL Draft.
UA also got significant experience for tight end Cameron Latu (10 games), offensive lineman Tommy Brown (eight games), running back Keilan Robinson (eight games) and defensive linemen D.J. Dale (10 games) and Justin Eboigbe (nine games), all of them freshmen.
The worst-case scenario for UA and early entrants to the 2020 NFL Draft could see almost all of its offensive production leave school, plus some of its best defenders. If that scenario comes to life, UA will be handing things over to a class of freshmen that already have more experience than most of the classes that came before them.
As Saban said on Lee and Harris early in the season, “I don’t think there’s any substitute for experience.”