The University of Alabama football team had an All-American safety (Xavier McKinney) on its defense. It also had a Butkus Award semifinalist (Anfernee Jennings) and numerous emergent freshmen (Jordan Battle, Byron Young, D.J. Dale and Justin Eboigbe, among others).
Yet, the 2019 defense will be judged on what it did not have.
The Crimson Tide did not have the top three linebacker options it expected to have: Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon due to injury and Mack Wilson due to the NFL Draft. It did not have one of very few veteran defensive linemen (LaBryan Ray) for the final 10 games of the season. It also lacked continuity with a new defensive line coach (Brian Baker), a new outside linebackers coach (Sal Sunseri) and a new coordinator (Pete Golding elevated from co-coordinator to the lone coordinator).
The result was a defense that fell below the standard of most recent Alabama defenses, even if remaining above average on a national scale. It allowed 5.22 yards per play against FBS teams, the worst number of the decade for UA but still ranked 17th nationally this season. The same holds true for points per play allowed: this was UA’s worst season of the decade by that metric, but still ranked 14th nationally.
“It wasn’t always perfect, by any means, but it was the situation we were put in,” Golding said before the Citrus Bowl. “But I’m extremely proud of how they handled themselves and the preparation they put forward.”
The season numbers tell a story relative to the defense’s overall quality, but the complete body of work is not where this defense drew the ire of the fan base.
The defense did not rise to pivotal occasions when they came. LSU scored on its final three possessions of the first half — spanning 122 yards in 16 plays — to establish a 20-point lead. Allowing touchdowns on the first two possessions of the fourth quarter kept the UA offense from bringing the game to a tie.
Officiating may have been a controversial subject in the Iron Bowl, but it did not contribute to seven of Auburn’s 12 offensive possessions reaching at least the UA 35-yard line, if not better in the case of the three touchdowns.
Those were the games that ultimately kept UA out of its usual December destinations of the SEC Championship Game and/or the College Football Playoff. While those failures will define the season, the experience that came with it can define the seasons to come.
It may not have to happen at linebacker, as both Moses and McMillon will be back in the fold, but for the most part, UA will lean on the young defenders it played in 2019 for the next two to three years.
Shane Lee and Christian Harris, the duo of freshmen at inside linebacker, will ultimately get their chance to replace Moses and McMillon once again. (Although the task will be harder in the future, given the linebackers coming to campus as recruits.) Lee and Harris now have 13 games each and a combined 149 tackles, 14 for a loss, under their belts. If they improve from it, UA can expect to be better than the 43rd nationally it was in yards per carry allowed this season.
The defensive line could see the same effect. This year’s Crimson Tide had more freshmen defensive linemen in the rotation (Dale, Young, Eboigbe and Christian Barmore) than it did seniors (Raekwon Davis and Tevita Musika).
If all goes according to plan, the pain of 2019 will pave the way to pride in the future.
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