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Previewing Alabama vs. Fresno State: The Bulldog defense is in a steep rebuild

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Though Nick Saban would have you take every opponent seriously, this defense is in a “rebuilding” mode (read: hot mess)

Fresno State v UNLV
There will be a LOT of this sort of thing Saturday night...
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Let’s face it: Alabama is a 40-plus-point favorite against underdog Fresno State this weekend, and there’s good reason for it. While the Bulldog offense spent much of 2016 in a quagmire that saw them finish at the bottom of several major statistical categories, the defense wasn’t much better. The Bulldogs specifically struggled against what is a proven weapon for the Crimson Tide, the running game.

There are no illusions that this game will be anything but a blowout for the Tide, as the once-proud Bulldog of the San Joaquin Valley have fallen upon the hardest of times. Everyone involved knows that. And though the Bulldog offense will likely struggle mightily against an Alabama defense that already appeared in midseason form against formerly third-ranked Florida State, it is the Bulldog defense that may take the most brutal whipping as the Tide works to polish timing and play-calling rhythm against the token resistance offered by the Fresno D.

That said, no one expects Fresno to take their beating in a reclined position. No, they’ll try to do what they can do to keep the Tide in check, as futile as such a pursuit may be. The Bulldogs had a wretched year defending the run last season, and they finished in the bottom half of the nation’s 128 teams in every meaningful statistical category for defense. New coordinator Orlondo Steinauer is currently working on a trajectory of improvement, but to hear him tell it, the project is more salvage than reclamation, as he works to reinstate fundamentals that apparently fell into recession under the previous coaching regime.

Fresno isn’t loaded with talent by SEC standards…in fact, most of their starters would be lucky to break the three-deep at Alabama. Yet, even a starless defense can be adequate if it’s salty and fundamentally sound, and in that regard, Steinauer has his work cut out for him because Fresno is neither at the moment.

An outgunned Fresno defense will merely do its best against the true power of college football and a Bama roster loaded with offensive stars. But how will they do it? Let’s take a closer look.

The Roster

As previously stated, the raw talent available to Steinauer and head coach Jeff Tedford is lacking, to be polite. There are a few seniors littered across the two-deep, and it’s interesting to note the volume of transfers that appear in the first- and second-strings. Of the 22 players listed on the two-deep, six are transfers. When the defensive cupboard is depleted, it’s wise to seek seasoned players elsewhere, which is exactly what Tedford and Steinauer are doing as they reconstruct the Bulldog D.

The linebackers are probably the strength of a defense that is working to improve against the run, and junior Will linebacker James Bailey (6-1, 225 pounds) is the best of the bunch (and probably the most talented player on the defense.) While Alabama crossed swords with all-world Florida State uber-athlete Derwin James last week, Bailey is the closest thing the Bulldogs have to James’ versatility. Bailey is the leading returning tackler from 2016, when he recorded 58 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, four passes defended and a fumble recovery. He’s fast for his size, and is a heavy-hitting sure tackler. Though Steinauer has simplified the defense to a base 4-3 with traditional roles and assignments for the most part, Bailey has the skill set to star at linebacker, or slip to defensive end, safety, or Star in special defensive packages. Bailey is backed up by redshirt junior George Helmuth (6-1, 220 pounds), who recorded seven tackles in the previous campaign.

At Sam, the Bulldogs start senior Justin Green (6-4, 210 pounds). Though he’s a upperclassman and one would think he’s a veteran player, he had a pretty scant stat line in limited action last season. Green was responsible for eight tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack. Behind Green is junior transfer Kesoni Mafi (5-11, 219 pounds), a plugger with a low center of gravity who the Bulldogs hope can provide some resistance against the run.

The Mike slot is held down by sophomore Jeffrey Allison (6-0, 250 pounds), and his size is a plus in the heart of a conventional 4-3 defensive scheme. Though only in his second year at Fresno, the young ‘backer has already seen an impressive amount of playing time, accounting for 21 tackles last year. His continued development will be key to the Bulldogs’ efforts to solidify their ailing run defense. Junior former transfer Trent Soechting (6-3, 218 pounds) will spell him when needed. The rangy Soechting saw time in his first year at Fresno in 2016, recording 36 tackles and two tackles for loss.

There is some talent in the front four for Fresno, and surprisingly, they won’t be dramatically outclassed in regard to size when they face the Tide, at least at tackle. The 4-3 scheme Steinauer uses requires a couple of big tackles and a pair of athletic ends, and he has just that at his disposal.

Senior tackle (and former transfer) Malik Forrester (6-1, 295 pounds) may be the best of the bunch up front. He was a steady force for Fresno inside last season, accounting for 38 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. That said, given the run defense woes of the Bulldogs in 2016, Forrester will be counted upon to help solidify the middle and keep opposing running games at bay. Behind Forrester is the largely-inexperienced redshirt sophomore Jasad Haynes (6-0, 275 pounds), who is a little light for a tackle and only has a single tackle to his credit.

Next to Forrester is senior Nathan Madsen (6-4, 300 pounds) who will function as a nose to anchor the line. He’s big, but despite his class seniority, he has little experience as a starter. In fact, Madsen didn’t record a single stat last season. Behind Madsen is a redshirt freshman, Kevin Atkins (6-2, 297 pounds) who likewise doesn’t have any stats on his ledger.

On the edges, the Bulldogs have a pair of light, athletic ends who, though they skew more towards linebacker size, have speed off the end. Senior Robert Stanley (6-3, 250 pounds) was a solid performer last season for Fresno, accounting for 54 tackles and three tackles for loss. Another transfer, sophomore Kwami Jones (6-2, 240 pounds) will spell Stanley, though he is still relatively green in regard to playing time.

At the other end position is manned by senior Tobenna Okeke (6-3, 245 pounds), a force who helps to set the edge for the Bulldog defense as they try to improve against the run. Okeke had a strong 2016 campaign even though the Bulldog defense was lacking, as he accounted for 51 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. Senior Stephen Van Hook (6-2, 245 pounds) will provide depth at the position, though he hasn’t seen much playing time prior to this year.

The secondary is replacing three of four starters this season, with junior free safety DeShawn Potts (5-11, 202 pounds) leading the charge. The heaving-hitting safety plays with abandon, and with solid football intuition, he finds his way to the action often. Potts recorded 59 tackles, one tackle for loss, five passes defended, and one fumble recovery. Potts will be called upon in coverage, but more importantly, he will be needed to shore up the run defense if the Bulldogs are going to improve in that regard. Senior transfer Jackson Finch (6-1, 200 pounds) backs him up.

At strong safety, sophomore Juju Hughes (5-10, 180 pounds) will be counted upon to grow into a starting role this season. He’s not completely new to the Bulldog defense, as he accrued 18 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss last season as a reserve. Hughes is backed up by redshirt sophomore Ka’Lonn Milton (6-0, 185 pounds), who has no stats to his credit.

Despite only being a sophomore, Jaron Bryant (6-0, 186 pounds) is the more experienced of the two starting corners, as he recorded six tackles last season in limited playing time. Senior Johnny Johnson (5-9, 189 pounds) recorded no stats in 2016. Reserve corners include redshirt junior Anthoula Kelly (5-10, 195 pounds), and junior transfer Sherman Coleman (5-9, 165 pounds), neither of whom have any stats to speak of.

How the Bulldog defense will try to stop the Alabama offense

In brief, it ain’t happening. The talent disparity between the two teams is too great, the Bulldogs have little seasoned depth, and Alabama will be able to leverage its strength against a run defense that is highly-suspect at best.

But for the sake of argument, let’s discuss what the Bulldogs will try to do. Steinauer is an old CFL defensive coach. Though Canadian football is a cousin to the American version, it’s not the same game. Field dimensions are different, and the offense is favored as a result. There is plenty of space for offenses to use, so he favors athletic players who can move sideline to sideline. While the old coach has said he’d like to eventually implement a multiple scheme at Fresno, for the moment, the team’s basic defensive principals are a more important concern. Steinauer, therefore, hasn’t worried too much about X’s and O’s in his short stint in Fresno, focusing rather on the bugaboo of any poor defense: fundamentals and execution.

With an old-school football philosophy, Steinauer has said he would prefer to run four defensive looks and execute them perfectly than have 50 schemes that are executed sloppily. He knows that running and tackling are paramount to scheme, so his focus has been on re-instilling the fundamental focus amongst players who saw those fundamentals wane during the latter years of the previous administration.

To that end, Fresno has moved from a complex 3-4 two-gap defense with some nickel concepts to an attacking 4-3 one-gapping defense that is as simple as it comes. Because of the basic defensive scheme, players know responsibilities and can attack downhill aggressively without hesitation. Defensive tackles tie up blocks in the center, the athletic ends set the edge against the run, and linebackers and safeties fill when an offense attempts to keep it on the ground. The pass rush is not super stout, but it hasn’t had to be in the last year, mostly because the run defense has been so bad that offenses have opted for the safety of a running attack rather than risk turnovers through the air when they weren’t necessary.

Just how wretched was the run defense last season for Fresno? It was pretty bad, no matter how you slice it. They were ranked 123rd (out of 128 teams) in run defense, allowing an average of 247.4 yards per game. They ranked 109th in tackles for loss, averaging 4.7 per game. The defensive S&P+ numbers looked a little more favorable for Fresno, as they ranked 84th in run defense S&P+, but that still puts them firmly in the bottom third of the nation when it comes to limiting opponent ground games.

Simply put, if the Bulldogs can’t stop the run (they can’t), they sure won’t be able to even slow Alabama. The Tide has a bevy of backs with which to attack the Bulldogs on the ground, with several Bama backs who are bigger than the Bulldog linebackers. This is a huge mismatch, and while Alabama will likely take opportunities to pass the ball to help develop timing between Jalen Hurts and his receivers, there’s no reason to expect Alabama won’t bludgeon the Bulldogs with their running game. California native Najee Harris will see plenty of time in this one while the starters await bigger tests down the road.

We know of the Bulldogs’ run defense struggles, but how about the passing defense? Obviously, as previously mentioned, Alabama will take the opportunity to work on the passing game against an outmanned defense with little chance of winning the game. Truthfully, the passing defense isn’t much better for the Bulldogs, as they ranked 85th in passing efficiency defense, 118th in team sacks (they recorded 14 total, seven of which came against two opponents, Sacramento State and Tulsa), 117th in interceptions with only five, 56th in pass defense S&P+, and 106th in secondary Havoc (a rating that includes a team's total tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays).

With numbers like those and a lot of leaders from last year’s team gone, there’s little reason to expect an outcome that favors the Bulldogs in any way. In fact, they likely won’t even be able to limit the Tide, even if Hurts and Company sputter to a slow start coming off the huge game last week against Florida State. If Fresno does manage to slow Bama at all, it could be a sign of bigger problems for a Tide offense that is trying to shape a new identity under new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.

The Result

No one doubts the result. It will be a rough outing for the Bulldogs, any way you look at it. No reason to fluff up this particular defense, as they struggle against WAC teams. Against the might of the Alabama roster, they don’t stand a chance.

Alabama may let Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris get a few carries for the sake of repetition, but the wise move would be to let the younger backs get the carries while the starters stay fresh for bigger games down the line. The same is true for the passing game, as Hurts can take the valuable chance to work on the finer details of the passing game against a live opponent. However, Tua Tagovailoa will undoubtedly see his first action of his Alabama career as Hurts retires early in this game. Observers will be treated to the full arsenal of Alabama receiving talent as well, as players who are usually waiting in the wings will take front and center after starters get few reps.

The spread is hanging around 41 points at this moment. Saban may or may not elect to run up the score. The Fresno offense will likely not score against the Bama defense, so whether or not Alabama covers will be strictly up to a coach who is loathe to embarrass any opponent. That said, if the Tide wanted to score 50 on Fresno’s defense, they could likely do it in the first half.