ORLANDO — Pete Golding was given an unenviable task.
In his first season as the University of Alabama’s defensive coordinator, he saw his only veteran inside linebackers go down with preseason knee injuries, left to replace them with true freshmen. Three games into the season, he lost one of few veterans on the defensive line (LaBryan Ray) for the season. That all came after a toll from the NFL Draft that was a little heavier than UA anticipated.
The unenviable task was met with unenviable results. The unit that finished top 25 nationally in yards per carry allowed finished 45th; it was the first UA unit since 2003 to give up 30 or more points more twice in the regular season, two of those instances coming in the losses to LSU and Auburn.
Alabama’s defense has been a whipping post in the court of public opinion. In a rare opportunity to speak with media, Golding shed some light on the season from his perspective before UA tries to end it well in the Citrus Bowl against Michigan.
The position Golding has the most personal knowledge with is the aforementioned inside linebackers, for whom he doubles as the position coach. Shane Lee and Christian Harris were forced into duty after the injuries to Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon. UA head coach Nick Saban praised Golding for his patience and teaching approach with those freshmen.
“Those two freshmen that came in are really good players,” Golding said. “I think the struggle for any young player in any system coming into college football as a freshman is adjusting to the speed of the game, and then I think as many shifts and motions and things like that that they see when the picture changes, those guys having to make a call in a split second, and then all 11 guys are waiting on them to make the call because they’re the signal caller of the defense. I think that was a struggle early for them.
“But I think both those guys in the middle of our defense love football. They’re extremely smart, they prepare the right way and they’re in there all the time, and I think they got better throughout the year. They had their growing pains. I had my growing pains. It wasn’t always perfect, by any means, but it was a situation that we were put in. But I’m extremely proud of how they handled themselves and the preparation they put forward.”
Lee and Harris were far from the only freshmen playing significant snaps on the defense. Ray’s injury put freshmen Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe into prominent roles, and Christian Barmore (a redshirt freshman) slowly joined them through the season. D.J. Dale was UA’s starting nose guard as a freshman from the beginning of the season.
Golding correctly pointed out that freshmen play in today’s college football more often than before, and UA has done the same. He believes the placement of the freshmen, particularly Lee and Harris, made their debut seasons more difficult than the average freshman.
“I think it was a unique deal this year that you lost two guys at the same position, to where you have two 18-year-olds that have never been in the system side by side,” Golding said. “I think a lot of times they’re looking for confirmation, and they’re looking for confirmation and the guy beside them that doesn’t really know either. I think that’s been the big difference.
“Alabama’s going to play freshmen. We’re going to have great juniors that go out to the draft. That’s going to happen. So you’re going to have to replace those guys and develop the bottom of your roster. But it’s unique in those guys having to be the signal caller and having to be side by side. I think that was kind of the difference.”
Saban was clear from early in the season the youth would mean a more simplistic version of UA’s defense. The balance between running a simple defense for its inexperienced parts yet finding ways to stop explosive offenses proved to be difficult to find.
“I think, at times, we put too much on those guys to where they’re thinking instead of reacting,” Golding said. “I think sometimes, as coaches, we can think too much. I think we’re too damn smart at times and then you try to put them in certain situations to where they start changing a picture and we change a coverage because it’s what’s best to do. However, if you can’t execute it, it doesn’t matter the call.
“The big thing is obviously trying to keep it simple; however, be sound and be multiple because, obviously, we’ve got good offensive coordinators, good quarterbacks. So if they know what you’re going to be in, obviously they have a play designed to beat it.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson