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Previewing Alabama vs. Western Kentucky: The Hilltopper defense

While not on par with some of the Tide’s Power 5 opponents this season, the Hilltopper D is headed by former USC coordinator Nick Holt and is packed with quality mid-major talent

NCAA Football: Rice at Western Kentucky
Safety Brandon Leston is one of the best defenders on the Hilltopper roster.
Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

A week after the Alabama Crimson Tide torched the supposedly-solid USC defense to open the season, the Tide will face decidedly less potent resistance in their game against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. That much is easy to surmise.

The Hilltoppers, representing Conference USA, are not going to be pushovers, however. Led by defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who was a (plot twist) “coordinator” of some of USC’s championship defenses under Pete Carroll between 2006-2008 (most believe Carroll called the plays while Holt was a place-holder), the WKU defense has improved somewhat. Regardless of his overall level of success across the course of his career, Holt has helped elevate Western Kentucky’s D to some degree in his few years with the team.

No one will mistake Western Kentucky’s defensive unit for Alabama’s ferocious unit. Heck, nobody would mistake Western Kentucky’s defense for the USC unit the Tide throttled last weekend. However, they are skilled enough, with enough playmakers at key positions, to confound and frustrate the Tide if the offense doesn’t show improvement of its Week 1 weaknesses. The Tide offensive line had a shaky start, and the running game (aside from a few fantastic runs by Damien Harris) sputtered often. Without solid improvement, the Hilltoppers are good enough to make Alabama look bad at times offensively this weekend (though they won’t have enough to hold the Tide off for four quarters.)

The Roster

If there’s anything one notices immediately upon reviewing the Hilltopper defensive roster, it’s that the team is loaded with upperclassmen from top to bottom. That said, the defense only returns four players who were officially starters in the past season, though with an influx of transfer talent and the promotion of role players from previous years, the Hilltoppers are not in terrible shape in terms of personnel. In fact, WKU returns 21 players who played in at least three games last season.

Western Kentucky runs a standard 4-3 front with little flash…it’s about as straight-forward as defense comes. The two defensive ends for the Hilltoppers are junior Derik Overstreet (6’2”, 250 lbs) and senior transfer Nick Dawson-Brents (6’3”, 260 pounds). Overstreet is well-schooled, having played often in 2015 and posting decent stats (39.5 tackles, nine tackles for loss, two sacks, one pass broken up and a forced fumble). He’s smallish for a defensive end (at least by SEC standards), but he has good explosiveness off the edge and possesses a nasty streak a mile wide. Despite his burst and above-average technique, Overstreet will likely struggle against the man-mountains the Tide lines up at the right and left tackle positions, whether it’s All-American left tackle Cam Robinson or future All-American Jonah Williams on the right.

On the other side is Dawson-Brents, a physical end who was one of two players to transfer from Louisville to Western Kentucky. The big end only played in two games for Western Kentucky last season, making three tackles in the process. For a defense that struggled when rushing the passer in 2015 (the Hilltoppers were 117th in adjusted sack rate last season), Dawson-Brents marks a welcome addition to the WKU front seven. He is instantly one of the most accomplished pass rusher on the defensive line, and he will be expected to contribute on that front to help generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Depth is not an issue at end, as the Hilltoppers have senior Kalvin Robinson (6’5”, 250 pounds) and redshirt junior Tanner Reeves (6’4”, 240 pounds) waiting in the wings. Both are competent if not spectacular as pass rushers, but their real strength is in run defense, where the Hilltoppers were a middle-of-the-road unit in 2015.

At defensive tackle, the Hilltoppers have decent size in the middle for a 4-3 base defense. Senior Omarius Bryant (6’3”, 310 pounds) saw action in 11 games last season, and he accrued 23.5 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Bryant is a large man, and as such, is the pivot point for the Hilltopper run defense between the tackles. He is physical and has excellent leverage, and moving Bryant off the point of attack will be difficult for whomever gets the start at center for the Tide this weekend.

At the other tackle position is the more athletic junior Chris Johnson (6’3”, 290 pounds), a decent pass rusher who can hold his own against the run. He’s quick and has good enough technique to be disruptive in the middle, though he lacks Bryant’s girth. The two make for a good tandem, though it’s possible that Johnson may be the weak link that Alabama will exploit on the Hilltopper defensive front.

WKU’s depth at tackle is not as solid as it is at end, with two sophomores filling out the second string at the position. Julien Lewis and Evan Sayner will provide the primary depth, but bpoth are rather unseasoned. Suffice to say, the Hilltoppers should pray that their starting duo remains healthy.

Western Kentucky is well-stocked at the linebacker position, as they return the leading tackler from 2015 in UAB transfer and redshirt junior T.J. McCollum (6’3”, 230 pounds). McCollum was a primary weapon for the Hilltopper defense last season, as he posted fantastic numbers (87.5 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, one interception, three passes broken-up and a forced fumble). McCollum is extremely fluid and flows well to the action, with decent speed and good instincts. He is used in the pass rush at times, and is adept and getting penetration and disrupting the running game in the back field. Alabama will need to game-plan for McCollum, as he is easily the best overall defender on the Hilltopper roster.

At the other outside linebacker spot is redshirt sophomore Joel Iyiegbuniwe (6’2”, 220 pounds), who saw a good bit of action in 2015 despite not being a starter. Iyiegbuniwe posted respectable stats for a player functioning in a reserve role, with 16.5 tackles, one tackle for loss and one sack. If the Tide is going to pick on any of the starting three linebackers, it will likely be Iyiebuniwe, as the Tide running game could prosper against the linebacker with neither SEC speed nor a bulky frame.

Western Kentucky has the ability to rotate at outside linebacker, with two adept defenders in sophomore Masai Whyte (6’0”, 218 pounds) and senior Drew Davis (6’1”, 225 pounds). White, though safety-sized at linebacker by Power 5 standards, is lightning-quick, and though McCollum is rugged and rarely injured, White is good enough to force his way onto the field from time to time. Davis is good in run defense, and can be transitioned in to add bulk on the outside.

Inside, the Hilltoppers field another former Louisville player in senior transfer Keith Brown (6’1”, 235 pounds). Brown looks every bit of a Power 5-conference interior linebacker, with excellent size, adequate straight-line speed and a nose for the football. Brown will be expected to contribute to the previously-meager pass rush as well, as Holt likes to bring the ILB on blitzes in certain packages. Brown is another much-needed addition to a WKU defense that struggled to generate any consistent pressure last season, and they will need him to produce early.

The secondary runs hot and cold for the Hilltoppers, as they have a really solid set of safeties and an underwhelming tandem at the corner position. Senior free safety Brandon Leston (6’3”, 205 pounds) is as good as they come in Conference USA, a hard-hitting ball-hawk who is equally at home in run support or in coverage. His closing speed is impressive, and he is steady, not letting opposing receivers and running backs beat him easily. His height alone will allows him a chance to do what the USC safeties had no chance of doing: namely, cover Alabama’s taller receivers (and possibly even O.J. Howard if the need arises). Leston was second on the team in tackles in 2015, as he amassed 83 tackles, three tackles for loss, an interception, three passes defended and a forced fumble.

His running mate at strong safety, senior Marcus Ward (6’3”, 210 pounds), is equally as troublesome. The lead-headed thumper is aggressive in run support, and thrives when allowed to play instinctively at full-speed. Ward is the kind of player Alabama will need to account for on each play, as he is equally lethal in pass and run defense. He hits like a linebacker with defensive back speed, and he can wreak all kinds of havoc if left to his own devices. Ward made 47 tackles in 2015, with 7.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception, eight passes broken-up and two forced fumbles.

Behind Leston and Ward, the Hilltoppers don’t have a lot of experienced depth, with redshirt freshman Jason Johnson (6’0”, 195 pounds) and sophomore Drell Greene (6’1”, 190 pounds). As rich as WKU is at safety in regard to their starting line-up, forcing either one of the reserves to become a critical part of the defense could have disastrous effects for Western Kentucky.

At corner, the Hilltoppers have a couple of previous reserves who are being asked to step up as every-down starters in 2016. Neither redshirt junior De’Andre Simmons (5’11”, 185 pounds) nor junior Joe Brown (5’10”, 190 pounds) are what one would consider totally green, as they’ve both seen action in their careers. In 2015, Simmons had 14.5 tackles, one tackle for loss, one interception, and a pass broken-up. Brown recorded 30.5 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one interception and nine passes broken up. Neither Simmons nor Brown likely have the firepower to hang with Alabama’s stable of receivers, and one can expect them to be targeted often on Saturday.

Behind the starters, the Hilltoppers have nicely-sized redshirt sophomore Martavius Mims (6’1”, 200 pounds) and redshirt junior Leverick Johnson ((6’1”, 185 pounds). They’ll be called upon to spell the starters, as well as when the Hilltopper defense goes into nickel and dime packages versus four WR sets.

How Western Kentucky will attack the Alabama offense

The 4-3 system used by Holt is as vanilla as a defense can be. The upside is that it’s an easy system for players to learn and execute. The downside is that there is little trickery and obfuscation, something the Hilltoppers could need to match up with the talent of the Tide offense. Everything about Holt’s approach is cookie-cutter: there aren’t any surprises in what the Hilltoppers do defensively. It is pretty straight-forward: opposing offenses either out-execute them, or they don’t. During Holt’s coordinator and head coaching shots outside of USC, his defenses have indeed been out-executed often by superior offenses. (Only twice has a Holt-led defense finished the season in the top 100 teams in regard to scoring defense…not necessarily a positive point on the resume.)

In their first game against Rice, the WKU defense did a nice job of controlling the Owl offense (for whatever that is worth). After allowing 164.4 yards per game on the ground in 2015, the Hilltoppers held the Owls to a mere 105 yards rushing. Again, that improvement came against lowly Rice, but it matches the trend for WKU under Holt as the 2015 defense was markedly better than the 2014 edition (WKU improved by 104 yards per game against the pass and 104 yards against the run between 2014 and 2015).

But let’s be honest: that was Rice they manhandled last Saturday. Despite all of the improvement, Western Kentucky is still not what one would consider a defensive force. After all, in 2015, they allowed 239.2 yards per game passing, 164.4 yards per game on the ground, and 25.9 points per game. That’s a lot of yardage and points to give up against a Conference USA-heavy schedule, and even if the same trend of improvement continues in 2016, expect the Hilltoppers to struggle against talented power-conference opponents like Alabama.

In short, Western Kentucky will do what most 4-3 defenses do. They’ll try (note that, try) to produce pressure with a four-man front that brings a linebacker or safety blitz from time to time. Even when they have attempted to bring five against lesser opponents, the results have been fair-to-middlin’. Against Alabama’s offensive line, it will likely be a zero-gain endeavor.

When Alabama brings out three wides and a tight end, Holt will generally transition to a typical 4-2-5 nickel. In sets that feature four and five wides, expect them to transition to the dime in a 4-1-6 configuration. Holt pulls the linebackers when he plumps up the secondary in most cases, hoping that the four D linemen will still generate enough pressure to effect the opposing quarterback while giving him extra bodies in the secondary to match-up. Unfortunately for the Hilltoppers, it doesn’t usually end that way against decent opponents.

The Hilltoppers will try to one-gap the Tide offensive line early, create confusion, and stop the running game. Depending on how much the offensive line has gelled since Week One, they may have some limited success. They may also have no success, which will be the beginning of the end for Western in this game. If the Tide gets into its offensive rhythm, however, any limited success that WKU enjoys early on will be fleeting.

The Outcome

Without proven playmakers at corner, Western Kentucky is going to have a difficult time attacking the Alabama offense. In the past, teams that shredded Holt defenses (with less impressive talent than Alabama, mind you), have been teams that could effectively pound the ball, run the zone read, stretch the field with explosive plays, and successfully exploit the scheme with screens (especially of the bubble variety). Any of that sound familiar?

With Jalen Hurts (or Blake Barnett, for that matter) under center, Alabama’s offense is Hilltopper venom. Against USC, Alabama used Hurts to effectively run some zone read, thus effectively opening up the running game. Alabama successfully stretched the field with explosive passing plays for touchdowns on two occasions to break the stand-off in the Tide’s favor. And if we know anything about Lane Kiffin, it’s that the man loves him some bubble screens. Those bubble screens become more effective when paired up with…you guessed it, a quarterback who can run the zone read well (and Bama’s QBs do), and an offense with the wide receiver talent to pose a deep threat.

Sounds like the Hilltopper defense is in for a hell of an afternoon when they take the field in Bryant Denny Saturday. Is there any hope for Western against the same Alabama offense that hung over half-a-hundred on a better USC defense with a better coordinator? In a word…nope. Not a whole lot more to say there.

The best that Western can hope to do is contain Hurts (or Barnett) in the running game, and play gap-sound defense between the tackles to limit the Alabama running attack early. Alabama’s wide receivers will see daylight against a pair of sub-par corners early and often, and both quarterbacks expected to play Saturday have shown the ability to read mismatches/ blown coverages and take advantage with their arms. No matter how one looks at the match-up, it is a horrible one for the ‘Toppers. They won’t be able to stop the run for four quarters, and Alabama will shred their secondary despite the nice pair of safeties in Hilltopper red. As will be the case in many regards Saturday night, it just won’t be enough to stop the Tide. It really is that simple.