HOOVER – Despite the challenges that each season brings, there has remained one constant for the Alabama football program. The defense, no matter the changes to personnel or the coaching staff, remains steady.
Just once in the last nine seasons has the Crimson Tide failed to finish in the top 10 nationally in total defense. And that one season (2012), it finished 12th. Three times during that stretch, the defense ranked No. 1 nationally, including last season.
Suffice it to say, there exists a certain faith that no matter the obstacles that must be overcome, the defense will rebound each season to be one of the best in the country.
That’s the expectation this season, although UA coach Nick Saban pointed out Wednesday at SEC Media Days just how youthful the defense will be in 2017.
“I think this is going to be one of the youngest teams that we’ve had probably since maybe 2012, especially on defense, where we lost a ton of really, really good players, I think seven guys drafted off the defense, all in the first four rounds,” Saban said. “So it’s going to be a challenge to replace those guys.”
Those guys include national defensive player of the year Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and elite inside linebacker Reuben Foster. And that’s just in the front seven. Throw first-round draft pick Marlon Humphrey into the mix and it’s clear the challenge UA defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt faces.
“We’re going to be very young on that side of the ball, but it’s also something that we’re excited about as coaches to try to help those guys develop to play the kind of football that will allow them to be individually and collectively successful defensively,” Saban said.
Starting positions and roles on the defense are still up for grabs, but the names are familiar even if their play as a unit remains uncertain.
Call it a byproduct of the Saban machine, but there is just a faith that exists that the defense will remain stout.
“We just had the No. 1 recruiting class, so we always have talent,” junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said.
As Fitzpatrick eloquently points out, it’s not a talent issue. Rather it’s the experience level of the talent or lack thereof that’s the question.
Allen and Anderson brought an edge to their game: Call it purposeful hate. Saban often called the 2016 unit hateful. How will the new faces fare in that regard? Only meaningful snaps will answer that question.
Next man up
“You’re going to get talent, you’re going to get guys who can move, guys that are 260, 280 (pounds) who can run, can flip their hips, that have lateral quickness, and maybe that play hard, but the mental makeup of those kinds of (players like Allen and Anderson) can’t be replaced easily,” SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic said. “The difference to me this year is, I’ve heard everyone of them – Christian Miller, Terrell (Lewis), Isaiah Buggs – I’ve heard them all. But two years ago I saw Tim Williams do it and be effective. Three years ago I saw Jonathan Allen do it. The year before last I saw Ryan Anderson and Dalvin Tomlinson do it. I haven’t seen this wave of guys do it within meaningful reps.”
Of course that doesn’t mean those new replacements can’t be effective. But to expect them to pick up where last year’s defense left off is unreasonable.
Having stated that, the defense has leaders.
“I think MInkah Fitzpatrick can be one of those guys,” Cubelic said. “He absolutely can. I think Da’Ron Payne can be one of those guys. I think he’s going to have to be one of those guys because he’s the one who’s been in all the huge games, made the huge plays, knows what the atmospheres are like. He knows what it’s like when the other team gets rolling and you have to make a stop. He’s the one who knows that.
“What you’re looking for is guys who take that personal responsibility. You get 11 of those and you’ve got nothing to worry about. If you don’t find them, I think what it does is it puts more stress on Jeremy Pruitt to try to create and find something, and make something and manipulate something.”