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Previewing Alabama versus The Citadel: The Bulldog defense

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No suspense here, scheme is irrelevant when the talent mismatch is this great

NCAA Football: The Citadel at Clemson
The Citadel will fight valiantly, but they’ll be overwhelmed.
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

When Alabama steps on the field Saturday against The Citadel, there’ll be little surprise in the course of things to come.

The Tide will march down the field on the Bulldogs for the first few series, sit the starters in preparation for next week’s Iron Bowl, and let the reserves get those much-needed reps in against a thoroughly overmatched opponent.

Schematically, the Bulldogs run a tricky defense, but it’s nothing like the units the Tide sees week in and week out in the SEC. Defensive coordinator Blake Harrell does a good job with what he has, and against the Citadel’s usual foes, they fare well enough. But against Alabama, the Bulldog defense will be little more than traffic cones on the Tide’s road to championship glory, as The Citadel is an opponent that simply can’t contend with Alabama’s offensive might (whether Tua Tagovailoa plays or not.)

The Bulldogs run an interesting system that is built to stop the run and is adequate in that respect. The same can’t be said about the pass defense, as they give up almost 260 yards per game through the air. The front is a unique hybrid that features a four-man alignment with a dedicated hand-in-the-dirt linebacker called the KAT in the Citadel’s vernacular. They also repurpose on of their ‘backers as a rover-type hybrid safety they call the Bandit. More on that later…

In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at the Citadel’s defensive personnel…

The Roster

While there’s no formal depth chart on the Citadel in the ether of the internet (and let’s be honest…how many of us have watched a Citadel game this year?), it’s safe to say that the Bulldogs make the most out of their roster by playing a lot of defenders in a variety of roles. They do call some situational personnel packages, which increases the diversity of the defense against offenses in their league that may favor the run or pass.

For the Bulldogs, it starts up front with their big men. The two tackles are senior nose Ken Allen (6-1, 282 pounds), who is the anchor of the front in the style of a 3-4 nose, and junior Joseph Randolph II (6-3, 255 pounds) at tackle. Allen has 16 tackles, four tackles for loss, a sack, and a quarterback hurry to go along with a blocked kick. Randolph has 32 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, four sacks and four quarterback hurries. Backing up Allen is junior Ja’Lon Williams (6-2, 273 pounds), who has acquitted himself well with nine tackles three tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and two quarterback hurries. Randolph is spelled by graduate student Shawn McCord (6-2, 255 pounds), who ahs six tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, a quarterback hurry, and a forced fumble.

At the true end position is sophomore Aaron Brawley (6-2, 215 pounds). Brawley, despite his small size for an end, is having a nice season with 23 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a pass broken up, a pass defended, and a quarterback hurry. He is spelled by freshman Marquise Blount (6-3, 223 pounds), and Blount has four tackles and two quarterback hurries this year.

At the LB-DL hybrid position known as the KAT, senior Noah Dawkins (6-1, 225 pounds) has been phenomenal this season. He has 60 tackles so far, with 12 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, two interceptions, two passes defended, and a forced fumble. The back-up is equally as solid, as senior Russell Hubbs (6-1, 226 pounds) has 27 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, a pass defended, a pass broken up, and a forced fumble.

The traditional linebacker roles are filled by junior Phil Davis (6-1, 225 pounds) inside and sophomore Willie Eubanks II (6-2, 215 pounds) outside. Eubanks has a team-leading 71 tackles so far this season with seven tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two interceptions, two passes defended, two fumble recoveries, and a quarterback hurry. Davis has 17 tackles this year with three tackles for loss and a sack. Eubanks is backed up by freshman Caleb Deveaux (6-1, 213 pounds) while Davis gets relieved by sophomore Jeremy Samuels (6-0, 230 pounds).

At the hybrid Bandit position, athletic sophomore Sean-Thomas Faulkner (5-11, 180 pounds) is the starter, and he has performed admirably with 28 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and two blocked kicks. His back-up is freshman Von Ramsey (5-11, 190 pounds), who hasn’t recorded any stats to date.

The Bulldogs field a young group in the secondary, with the only returning starter from 2017 being senior safety Aron Spann III (6-2, 212 pounds). Spann is a solid defensive back, and he has accounted for 41 tackles, three interceptions, five passes defended, and two passes broken up. He is spelled by graduate student Cliff Barrett (6-0, 190 pounds), who has three tackles, and another grad student in Ronald Peterkin (6-0, 185 pounds). Peterkin has 17 tackles and two forced fumbles this season. At the other safety position is freshman Lane Botkin (6-0, 195 pounds), who has 11 tackles this season. Botkin is relieved by freshman Destin Mack (6-0, 190 pounds), who has nine tackles, one pass broken up, one pass defended, and a quarterback hurry.

Despite the lack of depth, the Bulldogs have some legit players in the secondary, including true freshman defensive back Chris Beverly (5-10, 181 pounds). Beverly was signed out of Tallahassee, FL, and came out of nowhere to be a phenomenal corner for the Citadel. He has 41 tackles and five tackles for loss this season. Backing him up are two other freshmen, Jay Howard (6-1, 180 pounds) and Joshua Bowers (5-10, 172 pounds). Howard has 11 tackles, two passes defended, and two passes broken up. Bowers has five tackles, two passes broken up, and two passes defended.

At the other corner is sophomore Phil Barrett (6-0, 160 pounds). Barrett is having a solid year by Bulldog standards, as he has accounted for 21 tackles, one tackle for loss, three passes broken up, three passes defended, and a forced fumble. Freshman Jaylan Adams (5-10, 165 pounds) steps in when Barrett goes out, though he hasn’t recorded any stats to date.

How the Citadel defense will attack the Alabama offense

In a nutshell, there’s not going to be a great deal of strategy that goes into this game when Alabama’s offense is on the field. Of course, the Citadel coaches and players have pride in performance, and they’ll do their best. They have a good scheme, but there’s no scheme on earth that can offset the large talent and size disparity between the Tide and Bulldog rosters.

That said, let’s draw a few basic conclusions about how the Bulldogs will attempt to stifle the Tide, no matter how futile that task may appear to be. With so much youth, the Bulldogs have struggled to shine in any one facet of defensive play, but the strong point thus far must be their run defense. With so many athletic players in their front seven, one can expect that they’ll do what lots of more qualified teams have attempted to do this season. They’ll try to take on the Tide’s elite offensive linemen in the run game and pass rush, fit the gaps with the linebackers versus the run, and get some pressure on the quarterback.

Will they be able to do that often enough to have a chance in the game? No. Of course not. Their largest starting linemen is 18 pounds shy of 300, and there’s no physics-defying scheme that can allow a defensive line like that to dominate the Tide offensive front. They will try to battle in front and do their best to battle off double teams. They’ll bring their KAT backer the way Alabama uses the Jack as a proxy lineman to try to create pressure off the end. They’ll stunt and try to find a way to disrupt Alabama’s timing up front. They’ll even use a safety blitz from time to time or bring in Faulkner at the Bandit position to create a little chaos. The fact remains, they still give up over 400 yards of offense per game on average, and that’s to competition that falls well short of that they’ll face in the Tide.

The Bulldog pass defense is the weak link for the Citadel, but fortunately for the Bulldogs it’ll likely be Mac Jones who gets most of the reps against their secondary. Tagovailoa is beaten up after two weeks of physical pass rushes, and while Nick Saban scoffed at the idea of sitting his starter completely, there’s no reason to think that Tua will play more than a quarter before deferring to Jones. It’ll be good practice for the third-string QB while second-stringer Jalen Hurts heals up, and the Citadel has enough players in the backfield to test his skill and allow him to safely polish up his game.

The Result

No need to mince words here. The Tide will do whatever it wants to do for however long it chooses to do it, no matter who plays quarterback. After Saban’s comments this week, there’s little doubt that Tagovailoa will see some time in the game. The Tide first-stringers will get their plays in as expected, then defer to the second-line. By the fourth quarter, only avid readers of the Crimson Tide program may recognize the names of those on the field.

With all due respect to taking every opponent seriously, there is little reason to believe that Alabama will experience any struggles at all against a team a 4-5 FCS team that’s third from last in its conference. Any assertion to the contrary is an insult to one’s intelligence.