Defensive position battles to watch as Alabama football starts spring practice
Alabama football is returning almost all of the key contributors and all but one of the coaches behind a 2020 defense that was 20th in the nation in yards per play allowed, 13th in yards per carry allowed and tied for seventh in sacks.
Maintaining that level of success, and improving upon it, will still be reliant on the new personnel as much as it will the ones returning.
Here is where to look in spring practice starting Friday for new personnel to emerge in UA's defense.
Patrick Surtain's shoes not easy to fill
Patrick Surtain II left UA a year early to likely be taken in the top 10 picks of the 2021 NFL Draft. That talent is not easily replaced, and UA does not have an obvious answer for it yet.
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For a starter alongside Josh Jobe, UA could turn to one of last year's reserves: Jalyn Armour-Davis, Brandon Turnage, Marcus Banks or Jahquez Robinson. It also has two highly-touted prospects coming into the program: one of the top junior college prospects, Khyree Jackson, and one of the top high school corners, Ga'Quincy McKinstry.
Jobe proved to be reliable in 2020, which gives UA a starting point. Entering spring, no such starting point exists in its other cornerback spot.
Who starts alongside Christian Harris?
Just two years ago, Christian Harris was the freshman being thrown into the fire, forced to start at inside linebacker alongside another true freshman (Shane Lee), neither knowing as much as most of their predecessors did when they earned such an opportunity. This offseason, Harris is the veteran, grooming a position mate on the field.
Who that inside linebacker partner is remains to be seen, and very well could come from outside of the program. Former Tennessee linebacker Henry To'o To'o, an All-SEC caliber player, is in the transfer portal and reportedly considering Alabama. He would be the favorite to land the position should he choose UA, but if he doesn't, an heir apparent exists in Jaylen Moody. Moody got a full game last year in the regular season finale against Arkansas when Harris went down with a shoulder injury.
The competition behind Moody (and possibly To'o To'o) is less crowded after Ale Kaho's transfer (presumably to Utah, although he recently deleted the tweet announcing his transfer). Moody has sophomores Jackson Bratton and Quandarrius Robinson behind him, plus Lee and incoming freshman Deontae Lawson and Kendrick Blackshire.
A down season for DJ Dale's standards was ultimately washed away by Christian Barmore's resurgent second half of the regular season, a stretch of games that could catapult him to the first round of the NFL Draft. Dale returning to his form from the first half of 2019 would solve this issue immediately, but if injuries hinder him again as they have for much of his UA career, the Crimson Tide will have to develop secondary options.
LaBryan Ray and Phidarian Mathis can (and have) bumped inside to nose guard, but all that does is limit the depth at defensive end. UA would be much better served to find a real contributor in Tim Smith, Jah-Marien Latham, Jamil Burroughs or the incoming five-star defensive tackle Damon Payne.
Will a No. 2 safety make himself apparent?
DeMarcco Hellams and Daniel Wright spent most of 2020 exchanging the role, with nowhere else to go given Malachi Moore's ownership of the star defensive back position from the first snap of his freshman season. Hellams did play the money position in dime packages at times, giving him another route to playing time, but that position could also belong to Brian Branch.
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson