At this point in the off-season last year the main worry on the minds of most folks looking forward to the 2010 Crimson Tide season was the secondary. With only a single returning starter from a unit that ranked 10th in pass defense the year prior the expectation was that growing pains were going to be inevitable.
Instead, the pass defense finished 13th in the nation for 2010 and were fourth best in the country for passes defended. Only one player in the country ended up with more interceptions that Robert Lester. There were a few epic breakdowns but overall, the kids were alright.
The Achilles Heel of the defense was actually revealed to be the defensive front seven. A month into the season OTS noted that the line was struggling to control the point of attack, tackling was not up to its usual level and third and short stops were not happening with regularity.
Things got better but not a whole lot. At one point in the season, Alabama was the second-worst team in the country for tackles for loss. The Crimson Tide ended up tied for 59th but in the SEC, only Kentucky tallied fewer.
While several folks have noted that Nick Saban's 3-4 scheme doesn't put a premium on these stats as other defenses might, there is no escaping the fact that last year was the worst tackles for loss performance by a Crimson Tide squad since the man arrived in Tuscaloosa. And the best defensive linemen on the team (who was second on the squad for TFLs even though he missed two games for suspension) just departed for the NFL.
Add to that a healthy dollop of coaching uncertainty. Defensive Line Coach Bo Davis, who Saban brought with him from Miami, was snapped up by Mack Brown as part of the overhaul of the coaching staff in Austin. Within days, Coach Saban announced Clemson defensive ends coach Chris Rumph would be taking over the Tide defensive line coaching duties.
The Tigers ranked high in both scoring and total defense while Rumph was in Clemson (check out this superb breakdown of his work by the SB Nation Clemson site Shaking the Southland) but he takes over the reins with the stakes as high as they have been in the Saban era.
Things are disturbingly similar on the other side of the ball. Last season saw the number of both tackles for loss and sacks reach their worst level since Coach Saban's first season.
If you'd like to know why Greg McElroy led the team in fumbles last season, here's the reason. Alabama allowed 60% more fumbles in 2010 over the year prior, a season we played an additional game. In the SEC, only Vanderbilt and Tennessee allowed more. With a new starting quarterback this season, Alabama simply cannot afford this to happen again in 2011.
With the offensive line looking like "somewhat of a mixed bag" in the wake of the A-Day game the pressure is one for this group to coalesce quickly once Fall practices get started in a few weeks. And, once again, they'll have to do it under a new position coach. Offensive line guru Joe Pendry stepped down in January and was almost immediately replaced by University of Miami OL coach Jeff Stoutland. The Hurricanes were pretty stingy when it came to allowing sacks last year, lets hope that was due to the quality of the coaching they received.
Lastly, it's worth noting that Alabama saw a significant step back in the aspect of the game the offensive and defensive lines have the most impact on - rushing.
A slip back from Alabama's phenomenal 2009 season was expected but the Tide saw the rushing offense go from 12th in the country to 30th. While the numbers for 2010 are similar to 2008, the talent Alabama had in the backfield last season was far superior. Alabama's rushing defense was 10th in the country last season but that's a fall from No. 2 the season prior.
Obviously, laying the blame for this entirely at the feet of the offensive and defensive lines seems a bit simplistic. The players Alabama has to man the trenches are certainly considered some of the best in the conference, if not the country. The question is getting them to perform as a group and up to their incredibly high potential. If that happens then a reversal of these trends seems much more likely if not certain.