Though few will give the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks much of a chance of knocking off the Crimson Tide this week in Tuscaloosa (though none gave them much chance of doing so in 2007, it's worth noting), the plucky Todd Berry-led team would be more daunting if it had an offense to match its nasty defense.
Though La-Monroe didn't fare well earlier this season against SEC East contender Georgia (the Warhawks lost 51-14 while allowing 243 rushing yards), don't be fooled. While the offense continues to be mediocre in 2015, this Warhawk defense brings a veteran unit to the fray, and they operate out of the always-difficult 3-3-5. Bama faced a tall task versus Ole Miss and its 4-2-5 defense last week, and the Tide will face off against another speedy athletic unit this week. Though the returns should be vastly different, the Warhawk defense can present problems for Alabama's ailing passing game.
Let's take a closer look, shall we?...
Let's face it: La-Monroe isn't bringing the talent level of an SEC team to the match-up with the Tide. While Ole Miss' veteran defense was studded with four- and five-star talent, the Warhawks boast only a handful of three-star athletes, with most falling into the two-star categories. That's not to say the Warhawks don't have players, but top to bottom, the Sunbelt Conference foe simply can't engage in a toe-to-toe slugging match with Alabama.
The Warhawks do have talent along their defensive line, however, as the deep unit returns two of three starters from a stout 2014 squad. Leading the attack is senior nose tackle Gerrard Johnson (62 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss ad 6.5 sacks in '14). At 6'1", 290, Johnson is somewhat smaller than the typical nose one would see in SEC play, but what he lacks in bulk he makes up for with athleticism. Johnson is savvy and quick, and he acts as the "quarterback" for a defensive line that includes senior defensive end Lorenzo Jackson (36 tackles, 12.5 tfl, three sacks) and freshman end Benji Bonegu. Again, though somewhat light by SEC standards, the trio is extremely effective at handling the roles assigned them in the 3-3-5: namely, to attack a gap, make a play and tie up offensive linemen at the point of attack.
The linebackers, who line up directly behind the linemen in the "33 stack" defense, are a trio of talented veteran defenders. Senior Michael Johnson (59 tackles, 16 tfl, eight sacks, one forced fumble) leads the way, and he is joined by fellow senior Cody Robinson (39.5 tackles, six tfl, 3.5 sacks, one interception, three passes broken up and one forced fumble) and junior Braxton Moore Jr. Expect to see senior Hunter Kissinger (60 tackles, 10.5 tfl, five sacks, two INT) at times as well.
The defensive backs in the 3-3-5 typically include a two corners, a traditional free safety and two safety/ linebacker hybrids. Fortunately for ULM, the Warhawks also have a deep assortment of defensive backs to employ in their scheme. Quarterbacking the secondary is safety Mitch Lane, one of the aforementioned hybrids with good size at 6'1" and 215 pounds. He is joined by junior Justin Backus (44 tackles, one tfl, two INT, five passes broken up) and newcomer Cortez Sisco Jr. in the safety rotation. Corners include senior Trey Caldwell (36.5 tackles, one tfl, one INT, seven pbu), junior Lenzy Pipkins (28 tackles, three tfl, one sack, one INT, two pbu) and freshman Xaviar Dias. The final hybrid defensive back position, known as the "hawk" in the ULM vernacular, is manned by Marquis McCullum, a 6', 206 pound sophomore.
How Louisiana-Monroe can stop Alabama
They can't, and won't, to be quite honest. The talent disparity is simply too great for ULM to have any chance of competing with the Alabama offense for four quarters. Even if Bama elected for a run-only attack, eventually the Warhawks would wear down under the weight of Bama's bludgeon.
That said, the Warhawks can make life unpleasant for the Tide offense through its 3-3-5 scheme. Much like the Ole Miss defense in last week's game, ULM features speed and smaller-framed players operating out of a simplified defense to play fast and aggressively. While the Ole Miss defense relied to a great extent on speed and veteran decision making, the Warhawks add intelligent chaos into the equation to maximize their underwhelming talent across the defensive roster.
Fans of the SEC will remember the frustrating defenses devised by the originator of the 3-3-5 scheme, Joe Lee Dunn. In stops at Memphis, Ole Miss and Mississippi State in the 1990s, Dunn used the picked-over talent left by bigger SEC schools to build a scheme that relied not on size and strength, but rather speed, simplicity and subterfuge. The ULM defense is a relic of Dunn's legacy, as the Warhawks use the 33 stack defense to great effect against stronger, more talented offenses to great effect (relatively speaking.)
The structure itself works to the advantage of smaller players, but the lack of size up front must be countered by the use of aggressive, physical players. For example, Johnson may not be the biggest nose tackle the Tide will face this season, but he will be among the most ferocious. In this defense, the nose is asked to attack his gap on either side of the center and penetrate into the backfield. IF there's a play to be made, he makes it. If not, he ties up as many blockers as possible to free space for the linebackers to penetrate downhill while reading the developing play. Such is the task of the defensive linemen in the 3-3-5: attack a gap, make a play if possible, and tie up blockers for the linebackers who will undoubtedly crash any developing gaps caused by the physical play up front.
Linebackers in the scheme are called upon to do a little of everything, from blitzing to coverage. Outside linebackers are typically pass rushers and run containers, while middle linebackers plug gaps in run defense and drop into coverage. Regardless of the specific assignment, however, much like the defensive linemen, linebackers are responsible for a gap. The theory behind this strategy is that no matter what the offense elects to do, the gaps must be covered to prevent breakdowns, since often times the 3-3-5 breaks out into a zone blitz attack without a dedicated defensive lineman in pass coverage (thus taking away the liability of such.)
Defensive backs come in two flavors in the 3-3-5: traditional coverage defenders in the corners and free safety, and hybrid safety/ linebackers who are the most versatile defenders on the field. The corners need to be efficient, as they are often times counted upon to play zone, with heavy man responsibilities on certain blitz packages. The hybrid players, much like Ole Miss' "stinger" and husky" designations, are called upon to roam the flats, to rush the passer as blitzers, to support run defense and to drop back into pass coverage.
The defense features a good bit of movement, and sometimes confusing alignments, to confuse blocking schemes. In reality, the looks are subterfuge, as the schemes at the snap fall back on traditional formations that trap opposing offenses and create hesitation. Dunn was known for putting seven, sometimes eight, defenders on one side of a formation just to give opposing quarterbacks unconventional looks. Expect some of this from ULM, as they will look to take advantage of Baa's quarterbacking short-comings through confusion and chaos.
The Tide relies heavily on zone blocking principles, and against such schemes, the 33 stack defense thrives. Zone blocking relies heavily upon double teams, and the ULM will use pre-snap motion and strange looks up front to confuse blocking assignments. All it takes is a little hesitation to create an opportunity for the Warhawks' linebackers to disrupt a play, and if the result is a missed assignment, the chances of such a big play grow even further.
While Alabama should be able to run with enough consistency to chip away at the Warhawks defense, ULM could provide problems for Bama quarterback Jake Coker. Coker, at this point, still doesn't seem to have a command of the offensive philosophy of taking what a defense gives. Against ULM, receivers will be able to use their athleticism to get free underneath. These are opportunities to be exploited, and along with the run, will set up potential big play opportunities in play action if the offense can execute. After numerous interceptions (and dropped interceptions) against the Rebels last week, Coker will need to better read defenses and make more intelligent decisions against a tricky defense that will flood the short to middle range routes with defenders.
Again, short of a cataclysmic offensive collapse, Alabama will win handily against the Warhawks. If the offense executes the game plan and plays conservatively, the tailback tandem of Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake will wear down and dominate the defense over the course of four quarters. Bama's line will struggle at times with the defensive front, as they did last week, but at the end of the day, Alabama's talent quotient will be too much for the Warhawks to overcome.
Coker will once against struggle in the passing game, as it appears he has trouble realizing when he should and should not attempt to thread the ball through defenders. More times than not, last week Coker threw into double-, triple- and sometimes quadruple-coverages seemingly oblivious to the presence of hot read receivers on shorter routes. Coker must learn to find his other receivers and work his check downs, and against ULM, he'll get a chance to work on that skill against a crafty scheme and less-than-SEC talent.
That said, the ULM defense will come away with at least one interception. Given the Warhawks' aggression and quickness and Bama's displayed penchant for turnovers, it wouldn't be out of the question for ULM to force a fumble or two as well. The Warhawk defense in 2014 was in the top 15 nationally in total sacks, and they return four of the six members of that front this year. Given the confusion the front creates, expect the right side of Alabama's line to break down and allow a couple sacks, especially when right tackle Dominick Jackson and right guard Alphonse Taylor are matched against lighter, quicker pass rushers.
Bama will wear down ULM, there's no question about that. But will the Tide offense have another ugly performance against a tricky, athletic defense? The ULM game would have been a great warm-up to the Ole Miss match-up. Now, it can only serve to further highlight Bama's offensive deficiencies if the Tide once again fails to execute.