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Previewing Alabama vs. Arkansas State: The Red Wolves Defense

While there is a huge talent disparity, defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen’s unconventional backfield will test the Bama passing attack

Arkansas State v Georgia Southern
The Red Wolves defense is a very aggressive, blitz-happy unit.
Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images

After watching Alabama’s offense with Tua Tagovailoa at the helm absolutely shred a decent Louisville defense in the opener, many don’t give the Arkansas State Red Wolves much of a chance of stopping the crimson juggernaut.

But before you write off the Red Wolves, it’s worth noting that the defense the Tide offense will face on Saturday is a unique creature that has consistently been one of the better defensive units (statistically speaking) in the last several years. Led by long-time defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen, the Arkansas State defense typically makes the most of a roster that lacks star power, and they do it with a tricky scheme that plays to their roster strengths.

The Arkansas State defense is also one of the more aggressive defenses the Tide will face outside of games with LSU and Auburn. This Saturday’s match up with the Red Wolves will provide followers of the Tide a better idea of what to expect this season from an Alabama offense that is more talented than at any other point of Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa.

The Roster

Arkansas State simply can’t compete with Alabama when it comes to raw star power: The Tide is a defense that rolls up line after line of five-stars the way a shark rolls up another row of teeth. The Red Wolves, on the other hand, typically make the most of a roster dotted with three-star prospects and transfers from bigger schools who wanted to increase playing opportunities instead of waiting in the wings (former Tide defensive lineman Dee Liner is a perfect example, as Liner couldn’t break the starting rotation for Bama but was a pass rushing star at Arky State.)

That said, the Red Wolves have developed some quality talent on their current defense. Though these players didn’t arrive in Jonesboro as highly-touted prospects, they’ve played their way into the public eye under Cauthen’s tutelage. This year, the Red Wolf defensive roster brings a great deal of experience to the table, as most players in the two-deep have at least some playing time from past seasons to their credit.

Up front, that level of experience is quite visible, as 12 defenders return who had at least 16.5 tackles in 2017. The Red Wolves run a constant nickel out of a 4-2-5 configuration, and the big men up front are of the utmost importance. It all starts with the nose, who in this case is talented sophomore Hunter Moreton (6-1, 293 pounds), a smaller-framed tackle who gets the job done up front with sheer aggressiveness and grit. Moreton played considerably as a freshman and recorded 23 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and a fumble recovery. Behind him is senior Tony Adams, who played sparingly in 2017 but was credited with four tackles and half a tackle for loss.

At the other tackle position is junior Kevin Thurmon (6-3, 288 pounds), a transfer from Ball State who figures to be an important part of the Arkansas State front. Cauthen and his staff are excited about what Thurmon brings to the fight for the Red Wolves, and with good leverage he could be a solid add to the roster. Behind Thurmon is experienced senior Donovan Ransom (6-1, 304 pounds), a prototypical tackle who had 14 tackles and a tackle for loss last season.

At the true defensive end position is seasoned senior Ronheen Bingham (6-2, 241 pounds), a lean and athletic speed rusher who has great leverage and plays outside in well. He’s very much like a Sam linebacker as used in the Tide’s defense, as he can apply pressure with his speed and agility. Bingham is spelled by another explosive senior in Dejon Emery (6-3, 255 pounds), who made 10 tackles and two and a half tackles for loss last season. Both Emery and Bingham are quality ends who can test the Tide’s tackles on the edges.

The other end is a hybrid end-linebacker as can be seen in many modern defenses. That role is filled by explosive sophomore William Bradley-King (6-4, 235 pounds), and Bradley-King plays the position like a Tide Jack with a focus on pass rushing and forcing the run inside from the edge. Bradley-King is light on experience, as he only recorded six tackles and a sack last season, but with an expanded role and the freedom of the Bandit position this year he should become one of Cauthen’s weapons in the pass rush.

Though the Bandit is basically a pass rushing linebacker, the scheme only has two dedicated linebackers on any given play. At Will, sophomore Caleb Bonner (6-1, 206 pounds) will likely start, and the ‘backer recorded 19 tackles as a true freshman. Behind him is the more seasoned junior Trent Ellis-Brewer (6-2, 212 pounds), another smallish linebacker who played a big role in the 2017 defense with 34 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, an interception, two passes defended, and a forced fumble. Though Bonner may start, the Red Wolves have two solid options on the weak side, and though they are the size of SEC safeties, they are a perfect fit for a nickel system in which they must be flexible and fast enough to respond to many threats.

At the Mike position, Cauthen prefers a big-bodied hitter to be the enforcer in run defense, and this season that player is converted sophomore quarterback Trajhea Chambers (6-2, 246 pounds). Chambers only had four tackles and a forced fumble in 2017, but he will be featured in an expanded role this season in the heart of the Arkansas State front seven. Behind Chambers is junior Kirk Louis (6-2, 230 pounds), who saw limited playing time last season while recording seven tackles and half a tackle for loss.

The most important player in the back half of a 4-2-5 defense is usually the Nickel back, and the Red Wolves have a veteran with a lot of upside in senior Justin Clifton (6-0, 207 pounds). Clifton is one of the most solid defenders on the State roster, and he proved that in a breakout campaign in 2017. He is one of the leading returning tacklers for the Wolves, as he recorded 63 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, an interception, 13 passes defended, a fumble recovery, and two forced fumbles. He is used in a variety of ways, from coverage to run support to pass rush. Alabama’s Tagovailoa will need to know where Clifton is on each play, as he is truly an impact player for Cauthen’s defense. Behind Clifton is the relatively inexperienced junior Logan Wescott (6-0, 202 pounds).

Both starting safeties are experienced players with great instincts, as junior B.J. Edmonds (6-0, 202 pounds) will start at strong and senior Michael Johnson (6-1, 200 pounds) will get the start at free. Edmonds is the top returning tackler for the Red Wolves, as he was credited with 80 tackles. He was also a playmaker in the defensive backfield, plucking three interceptions and recording four passes defensed. Johnson also put up solid stats in 2017, as he had 42 tackles, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. The opportunistic starters at safety are backed up by solid reserves, as Edmonds is spelled by sophomore Demari Medley (5-10, 175 pounds) and Johnson’s relief is junior Darreon Jackson (6-0, 204 pounds). Medley made 17 tackles last season, but Jackson was a prolific producer with 58 tackles, four tackles for loss, a sack, two passes defended, a fumble recovery, and a forced fumble on his ledger.

Corner will likely be the weak spot for the Red Wolves defense, and that will be a problem against a gifted passer like Tagovailoa and his elite receiving corps. Both edges will be manned by relatively inexperienced players, as junior Jeremy Smith (5-10, 167 pounds) and true freshman Jevon Jones (6-0, 160 pounds) are the expected starters. Not only are they inexperienced, but they are also undersized, which does not bode well for their ability to stifle the likes of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, and Devonta Smith. There’s not much help behind them either, as the only known reserve on the two-deep behind the starters is also a freshman, Triston Anderson (6-0, 167 pounds).

How Arkansas State Will Attack the Alabama Offense

Remember those tenacious, athletic defenses Ole Miss featured in the years they beat Alabama? They were the bane of the Tide offense, as they used smaller, faster players and confusing blitz concepts to attack, disrupt, and generate turnovers. Those Rebel defenses masterminded by Dave Wommack may look familiar to anyone who views film of the Red Wolves defense, as Cauthen’s modus operandi is similar, as is the ways he goes about achieving those ends.

The strength of the 4-2-5 is that it takes a usual liability of a traditional defense, namely smaller players, and turns it into the backbone of an aggressive, opportunistic ball-hawking unit. The linebackers aren’t much bigger than safeties, but because of the ferocious way they are utilized, they use their speed and quickness to create disruptive plays. There’s also great diversity in the number and types of look that Cauthen can run with that personnel alignment, which can keep offenses guessing.

The Red Wolves defense thrives when it can make opposing offenses uncomfortable by attacking, creating confusion, and making offenses hesitate and second-guess themselves. Much like Wommack’s Ole Miss defense in its heyday, Cauthen wants to take away solid gains on first downs, thus setting up third and longs. When offenses routinely face those odds, success rates fall, and frustration sets in. Quarterbacks force the ball, and other skill position players become sloppy. Then Arkansas State attacks the ball, and as a result they generate a lot of big plays on turnovers.

A few advanced metrics numbers support the effectiveness of Cauthen’s defense. Last season, despite playing a difficult schedule and some talented offenses, the Red Wolves defense finished seventh nationally in completions allowed, 14th in adjusted sack rate (an opponent-adjusted measure of sack rates), 18th in stuff rate (which is a measure of plays made behind the line of scrimmage), 25th in overall success rate, and 30th in opportunity rate. Havoc rate is an advanced metric that measures how many times a defense generated a tackle for loss, a forced fumble, or a pass defended. It’s a good barometer of the disruptiveness of a defense, as all of those above-mentioned components of the Havoc metric result in a loss: loss of down, or loss of yardage. Either serves Cauthen’s goal of creating down-and-distance situations. The 2017 edition of the State defense faired especially well in that regard, as they finished the year rated ninth in overall Havoc rate (second in defensive line Havoc rate and 10th in secondary Havoc rate.)

That is the positive side of the defensive coin for the Red Wolves. But as the advanced metrics giveth…so too shall they taketh away. Several advanced stats provided evidence of some shocking weaknesses in the Arkansas State defensive performance as well. Like many aggressive defenses, the Red Wolves were susceptible to the big play (much like the Louisville defense the Tide faced last weekend.) Last season, they ranked a putrid 110th in passes of 20+ yards allowed per game, and 95th in passes of 30+ yards per game allowed. They finished the year 105th in IsoPPP (unadjusted number of points allowed per play). They were good at forcing teams into those third and long situations (as they ranked 24th in standard down defensive success rate), but they failed to capitalize on that extra pressure in many cases (they were a middlin’ 53rd in passing down success rate.

The Arkansas State defense has been on a roller coaster ride the last few years, and there’s no reason to believe that will change this season, especially not against an Alabama offense that could be the best unit fielded during the Saban era. In their opener, Alabama looked like what everyone thought they would look like. They were surgical in the passing game. The running game didn’t struggle but was unnecessary due to the success the passing game enjoyed. The offensive line did its job, despite a few rough patches in pass protection (particularly on the right side). It was a performance the Tide will build upon, unfortunately for the Red Wolves.

Alabama can expect to face an efficient defense that will apply a great deal of pressure in the form of zone blitzes and fire blitzes while keeping nickel personnel in the defensive backfield. Louisville coordinator Brian VanGorder is known for the variety of blitzes he uses, and he threw the kitchen sink at the Tide’s front last week. Cauthen comes from the same school of thought, as his team uses every twist, pressure, and blitz that can be conceived in his mad scientist mind and drawn out on a whiteboard.

Those innovative blitz vectors and aggressive play calls have worked for the Red Wolves against lesser teams than the Crimson Tide, and the pass rush has consistently been a strength of the Arkansas State defense. Under Cauthen, the defense has recorded 146 sacks in the last four seasons, which is a historic rate for the program. The aggressiveness of the front seven pays off in run defense as well, as they have recorded at least 84 tackles for loss per season for four consecutive seasons.

However, the rebuilt front seven hasn’t proven itself in that regard just yet. While the system is the same, the Red Wolves lost four of their top six Havoc players from last season. And against Alabama, the task of being effectively aggressive is even more difficult because of the Tide’s superior athleticism and the presence of a quarterback who can confidently throw into tight holes, read defenses, and run through his progressions like a pro.

There is some talent at the Nickel and safety positions for the Red Wolves. But the corners are severely outgunned. Even with five defensive backs on the field at once, the Red Wolves can’t cover all the passing game weapons Tagovailoa can pull from his quiver. The Red Wolves depend on generating solid pass rush with their big men up front, and they can do that with some regularity against regular competition. But they give up a large size disparity to the Tide’s offensive front, and quite frankly, there’s a disparity in talent level between the two units as well.

To get any kind of effective pressure, Cauthen will have to rely on aggressiveness and hope the back end can hold up to the passing game assault. He will keep his defensive backs in coverages that will offer help over the top: a little Cover-1 and Cover-2, a little quarters coverage. And he will ask his linebackers, particularly Bonner and Ellis-Brewer, to drop into coverage on zone blitzes so that he can bring a safety blitz and attempt to create a speed/ athleticism advantage with his pass rush.

Against the run, those big bodies up front are dedicated to forcing the run inside and maintaining edge integrity. When backs are forced to select gaps in the interior of the defense, those free-flying safeties and speedy little linebackers can flow to the ball with their quickness and drop backs in their tracks.

It’s a solid defense with the right personnel in place, but at this point in the season, there’s no guarantee that the personnel Cauthen has in place can consistently get the job done. They have a nice scheme and some good athletes, but this isn’t a Sunbelt foe they’re facing in Tuscaloosa Saturday night.

The Result

No matter what system the Red Wolves run, or which player starts at what position, there’s little chance that Arkansas State can hem up what may be the most potent offense in the country this year. Alabama proved Saturday night against a better defense than the Red Wolves that it can move the ball at will. It didn’t even need to rely on its ground-and-pound running game to get the job done but toyed with an ACC foe the way a cat taunts a rat before gnawing off its head. There is simply no path to victory for the Red Wolves Saturday night, and it begins in the match-up between their defense and the Tide’s offense.

Cauthen will do what he does, however, and his exotic blitzes and unconventional tactics will be a polishing exercise for Tagovailoa and the Alabama offense. The shocking array of offensive weapons boasted by the Tide simply cannot be contained by Arkansas State. They are bringing a knife to a tank battle, and Alabama’s offense will have their way with them.

That doesn’t mean the Red Wolves won’t make a few plays, however. They may be able to generate some pass rush, as Louisville did early on with their assortment of odd blitz looks. It wasn’t enough to stop the Tide last week, and it won’t be this week. But the Red Wolves can take a little pride even in delaying the inevitable by forcing Alabama in a few third and longs or three and outs. It would be shocking if the starting offensive line up for the Tide didn’t score early, but even the occasional stutter caused by the Red Wolves defense could be considered a small win.

The game will also provide Tagovailoa with some valuable experience against a nickel defense as he must navigate a flooded defensive backfield and deal with the threat of a roving nickel looking to pounce on errant balls over the middle. The Red Wolves generated a lot of interceptions last season, and for a young quarterback like Tagovailoa, an interception against the Red Wolves wouldn’t be unheard of.

By the end of the game, however, Alabama’s superior depth and overall talent level will allow them to smite the Red Wolves resolutely. The Red Wolves defense isn’t Ole Miss circa 2015. They’re not even Louisville circa 2018. They are a pretty solid unit against equivalent competition, but against the likes of Alabama’s offense, they simply won’t be able to out scheme or outcompete the Tide.