Since kleph has been giving us reasons to freak out I thought I'd do a few posts focusing on the things we should be looking forward to from here 'til the opener, starting with what should be a monster of a pass rush package in 2010.
It might seem foolish to expect better results from a defensive line that loses all three starters, but as our beloved Nicktator would quickly remind you our pass defense is built around "affecting the quarterback," and last year's starters were run stoppers through and through. Astute observers will recall that, on nearly every passing down, DE/DT combo player Brandon Deaderick and NT Terrence Cody essentially always came off the field while true ends Lorenzo Washington and Marcell Dareus moved inside to make room for linebackers Eryk Anders and Courtney Upshaw (and before his injury Dont'a Hightower) on the edge. We also had to bring Arenas on the corner blitz more and more as the season wore on. Though Anders, Washington, and Arenas have graduated, the personnel left should give us every reason to believe that we will be an even better pass rushing team this season.
First, it would be hard to overstate the importance of Hightower's return. Before his injury last season he was arguably our best pass rusher from the linebacker position and his ability to put his hand down when we go nickel allowed the defense to keep its best two linebackers (Hightower and McClain) on the field while also providing not only another solid edge rusher opposite Eryk Anders, but giving the package a better pass rushing presence from the interior of the line by moving Marcell Dareus inside. Without Hightower, though, we struggled for a not insignificant stretch to produce a consistent edge rusher besides Anders and it put a greater strain on the secondary. Thankfully we had a loaded defensive backfield that was up to the challenge, but we don't have that luxury anymore. With Hightower back and effective as ever, we once again have a truly dominating player from the end position in the pass rush package.
Second, as much as Marcell Dareus was a huge factor in the defense's dominance last season, he was still a role player. We stayed big during the early downs with Washington, Cody, and Deaderick, but Dareus has shown he is both capable against the run as well as being a beast of a pass rusher. I won't say that he'll be an every down player because we rotate so frequently that no one is an every down player, but he arguably is the best defensive lineman Alabama has produced in a generation already (and yes, that includes Cody) and the increased opportunity to show what he can do as a starter gives us a strong pass rushing presence during the early downs.
Third, we'll have better every down pass rushing from the interior of the line with Josh Chapman, Kerry Murphy, and Darrington Sentimore rotating in. Chapman is the most likely "starter" to fill Cody's shoes, and in the time that he filled in during the '08 season plus the snaps he took in relief, he showed that he is more than capable of being a solid NT in our 3-4 scheme, both stout against the run and a better pass rusher than Cody. Throw Murphy and Sentimore into the mix and once again you are seeing an improved pass rushing presence from the interior of the line without having to move true ends inside.
Fourth, Hightower isn't the only player returning from injury that should be a big factor in 2010. Remember that Damion Square was getting on the field often last season as a pass rush specialist before a season ending knee injury against FIU, and if everything we've heard about his performance during the spring is any indication of how well he'll do this season then he should once again be one of the top backups/role players from the DE position. Couple that with Undra Billingsley's move back from TE and his apparent thriving on the defensive line and that's two more fresh pass rushing DE bodies to throw at opposing offenses without having to monkey with the alignments and bring DBs all the time.
Finally, Courtney Upshaw really started to fulfill the promise he showed as a true freshman by the end of last season. He was a force on special teams in 2008, but after Hightower's injury last season Upshaw seemed to play a little too tentatively a lot of the time. He had his moments, of course, but he was generally not nearly as effective as he should have been for a good stretch of games. By the end of the season, though, he was finally looking like the Upshaw we all expected and saw a lot of playing time both as a Jack linebacker and as a DE on pass rushing downs opposite Anders. In fact, if not for his heads up play late against Texas, Anders' forced fumble probably wouldn't have been a turnover. Watch closely:
Go to the :42 mark and see how quickly Upshaw reacts to the fumble. Despite being engaged with the RT, he's watching the play unfold and as soon as the ball is loose he's making a play for it. The Texas WR had the direct path and looks like he's even a few steps closer to the ball, yet it's Upshaw who reacts faster and is able to get to the ball first. I know that doesn't have much to do with the pass rush from his end, but it illustrates the caliber of player that Upshaw has become in a very short time. Also of note, watch Dareus in the clip. If the LT hadn't simply ignored Anders and let him come free, Dareus was getting to Gilbert anyway. He is terrifying.
So even though we should all be freaking out about the lack of experience in the secondary, there's hope up front.