Owens, Branch and Hellams take on starting roles in Alabama football's semifinal win

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

ARLINGTON, Texas — Alabama’s path to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game has been paved by its own dominance, but lined with luck.

The Crimson Tide has had few to no starters miss games due to COVID-19 testing or tracing protocols; the two significant injuries it took on in the regular season, to defensive lineman LaBryan Ray and wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, came at position groups where it was deep enough to have viable options behind them.

Its College Football Playoff semifinal gave it a different test.

Alabama played Notre Dame without starting center Landon Dickerson and starting defensive back Malachi Moore, both out with injuries suffered in the SEC Championship Game. Chris Owens replaced Dickerson and Brian Branch replaced Moore, both playing well as the Crimson Tide won 31-14.

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Owens, an Arlington, Texas, native, had the bonus of doing it all less than three miles away from his high school.

“I think the extra motivation came from having the opportunity to play in the playoffs,” Owens said. “I mean, being home is great, but no matter where we play, it's my job to play as well as I can, which I feel like I can play better. There's going to be things to clean up, but just getting the victory in the Playoffs is hard enough.”

Jan 1, 2021; Arlington, TX, USA;  Notre Dame defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola (57) is blocked by Alabama offensive lineman Chris Owens (79) giving Alabama quarterback Mac Jones (10) time to throw Friday, Jan. 1, 2021 in the College Football Playoff Semifinal hosted by the Rose Bowl in AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

Owens had the luxury of knowing his number was called. Dickerson’s injury forced Owens to replace him for the final minutes of the win over Florida, and the ensuing knee surgery sealed Dickerson’s fate for the rest of the season, giving Owens full ownership of starting center snaps.

“Me and Landon are really close. We talk all the time,” Owens said. “All season, whether I was playing tackle (or) backing him up at center, we always talk about different techniques and stuff. One of the things he told me was to be myself, make sure I'm getting everybody on the same page.

"I think he helped me out a lot throughout this week just looking at different things they did on defense, giving me some of the tips of what's helped him be successful.”

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Owens also had the benefit of experience, having started at center in four games last year and one at right tackle this year, plus some plays as a special-package tight end last season. That experience showed in the line helping Najee Harris run for 125 yards on 15 carries, averaging 8.3 yards per carry, and keeping Mac Jones protected to just one sack allowed.

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Branch did not have that luxury. Moore’s injury was a minor one, but one that did not respond well to activity. Moore was in and out of practice throughout the week, coach Nick Saban said, in hopes of getting him ready to play against Notre Dame. When that wasn’t feasible, Branch was the next man up.

He responded with three tackles and a pass breakup. The breakup came on a crucial fourth down inside the red zone.

“He was playing confident out there,” cornerback Patrick Surtain II said. “We knew he had to come in because Malachi was down, but he held his own and he played a great ballgame. We expect him to come in and play good because it's a key role, so he did good.”

UA also had DeMarcco Hellams starting at deep safety, continuing a back-and-forth between him and Daniel Wright at that position, and Hellams turned in his best performance of the season: 12 tackles and a sack, the 12 tackles being a team high vs. the Fighting Irish. No other UA defender had more than seven.

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson