Can Missouri provide a true test of Alabama football's improved run defense?
Alabama’s run defense in 2019 was worse than its norm under any context. It tied for 43rd finish nationally in yards per carry allowed was UA's worst since 2006; it allowed opponents to run for 4.53 yards per carry on first down, ranking 73rd in the nation.
However, even at its worst — when it allowed more than 150 rushing yards in a game — it took more than just a running back to do it.
Alabama was rarely victimized by a feature running back last year, which Missouri has in Larry Rountree III, who is coming off of 829 yards and nine touchdowns in 2019. If Missouri is going to rack up rushing yards on UA in Saturday’s season opener, the precedent suggests it will need more than a feature ball carrier.
UA allowed five opponents to run for more than 150 yards last year: Ole Miss, LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn and Michigan. Ole Miss and Mississippi State got 214 of their combined 461 rushing yards from their quarterbacks; in Mississippi State’s case, All-SEC running back Kylin Hill gained just 35 yards on 16 carries. LSU even got some help from quarterback running in Joe Burrow producing 64 yards.
Michigan used 43 carries to power its way over the 150-yard threshold, getting there despite averaging a pedestrian 3.8 yards per carry. The exception that proves the rule is Auburn, when JaTarvious Whitlow ran for 114 of Auburn’s 181 yards.
Missouri is confident in Rountree with good reason: He’s had at least 700 rushing in each of his three seasons as a Tiger, and he’s just 450 yards shy of becoming the leading rusher among running backs in Missouri history.
“I think the thing about Larry is he’s a runner,” Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said this summer. “He’s physical, he’s got good vision, but he can get you an extra two (yards), even when the offensive line doesn’t block for that extra two.”
Yet, the Tigers will need more and may get it from the quarterback position. Drinkwitz has no plans to announce a starting quarterback before the game, but one of the candidates is Shawn Robinson, a TCU transfer who ran for 389 yards in 15 games as a Horned Frog. The other candidates, Brady Cook and Connor Bazelak, either have not been run threats in little playing time to date or are not projected to be run threats.
UA’s defense could also lead it to be more susceptible to perimeter runs, the types of runs more common for quarterbacks. UA lost both of last year’s starters at outside linebacker and currently has only freshmen listed at its Jack linebacker position: Will Anderson Jr. and Drew Sanders.
Alabama does have some experience at the position, with redshirt junior Christopher Allen and redshirt senior Ben Davis listed as co-starters at the Sam linebacker position, and since Anderson and Sanders are primarily seen as pass-rush specialists at this point in their careers, it is possible Allen and Davis are mostly responsible for perimeter run stopping early in the season.
UA can also hope to get more from its defensive ends in that regard, as Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe develop from experienced gained as freshman, plus the return of LaBryan Ray.
Missouri could attempt to test Alabama’s run defense with threats other than Rountree, by attacking its weak points positionally or a blend of both. UA coach Nick Saban is sure the Tigers will have a plan to truly test the Crimson Tide.
“If you look at what they did at Appalachian State, they were an extremely effective running team,” Saban said of Drinkwitz’s 2019 season as the head coach of the Mountaineers. “They had a very good back running inside, running outside, ran it on the perimeter and also featured quarterback runs in terms of what they did. Which you know, always sort of creates a little bit of an extra gap on defense that everybody's got to be conscious of trying to fit.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or email@example.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson.