The task ahead
In a nutshell? The defense was simply not that good by the lofty standards of Alabama defenses, and nowhere was it more apparent than in the passing game.
Once Alabama lost Trevon Diggs, who was heading for an All-SEC-type season, the Alabama secondary had to return to recently-benched Saivion Smith to man the other corner, pressing freshman Patrick Surtain II in a starting role. Thus, while one was learning how to play the game, the other was inconsistent and often shying away from contact in run support.
Thrown in with an entirely revamped coaching staff, a first-time defensive coordinator learning to game-plan — a DC who had zero experience coaching the secondary, and in retrospect the results should have been predictable.
The secondary was viewed as the weak point, at least going into the Clemson game. Five of the top six performers in 2017 did not return. The number of peripheral stats reflected that. The 22 touchdown passes surrendered in 2018 were the most in at least a decade.
The number of “long” plays allowed by the Bama defense (167 of at least 10 yards) were the most since 2014 -- almost one in five plays (17 percent) went for 10+ yards against the Tide last season. That was an overall increase of 36 such plays from 2017 -- an average of 2.4 per game.
Explosive plays surrendered and the loss of Diggs were by no means the only issues that plagued Alabama down the stretch. Indeed, you can make the case that Diggs’ was not even the most critical injury that hit the Tide when it mattered most. Following a cheap chop by Citadel on Quinnen Williams, and an equally cheap cut by Auburn on Isaiah Buggs, the defensive line never regained the form it had going into November. The lack of a consistently healthy pass rush did those corners no favors. Deionte Thompson’s performance slipped in the Tide’s more crucial post-season games. And poor Dylan Moses, playing out of position, was a walking mismatch for opposing offenses in the underneath passing game.
Now the entire starting defensive line, the best player in the nation, an All-American safety, and a second team all-SEC inside linebacker must be replaced. So too, does the Tide see the exit of several defensive coaches, including Tosh Lupoi — both rightly and wrongly viewed as one of the goats in the Santa Clara Calamity. But, in their place are some old familiar faces to go with the new. The rebuilt staff on this side of the ball isn’t quite as extensive on the offense, but it is daunting.
So, let’s meet the new staff responsible for helping to right the ship. If you missed the companion piece, on an entirely new Alabama offensive coaching staff, we’ve got you covered right here.
Defensive Line/Associate Head Coach: Brian Baker
(Outgoing Craig Kuligowksi)
A polished, veteran DL coach with more than 30 years’ experience, Baker spent several years in the NFL before heading over to Starkville, where he developed some dominating defensive line talent including first-round NFL locks, Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons.
True to Saban’s word, this is going to be a get-back-to-basics staff. In Alabama’s defense, that begins by clamping down on the run. Last season, Baker’s Bulldogs were second in FBS against the run, limiting opponents to just 2.87 yards-per rush. Per Football Outsiders, MSU also finished 4th in stuff-rate and 9th in generating standard passing downs.
On the recruiting trail, Baker — who hails from the fertile DMV area, has done a very good job locking-down local talent. In his short collegiate tenure, Baker has inked seven defensive players — all 4-star recruits, all-local — including securing the commitment of Alabama defensive tackle target Jah-Marien Latham from Reform.
His NFL experience has been a big selling point to d-line prospects, no doubt. It was a toss-up who Bulldogs’ fans were most upset to see leave: ace recruiter/RBC Charles Huff, or Brian Baker, who builds monsters up front, and especially ones that can stuff the run while terrorizing opponents off the edge.
Outside Linebackers: Sal Sunseri
(Outgoing Tosh Lupoi)
Father of Tino and sire of Vinnie “Honkey Badger,” the immensely popular Sal Sunseri returns to Tuscaloosa. Just as importantly, he is reunited with his first Big College boss. These two have a good working chemistry and experience together going back to Saban’s first 2000 LSU team, and Sal isn’t going to be intimidated by Nick — he’s gnarled like an oak and as crusty as the coal from his Pittsburgh hometown.
Last year, Sunseri coached Florida’s defensive line, where the Gators improved across the board in every metric contrasted to 2017’s weak showing. Some of that was a little more experience to be sure, but his largely-underclass Florida linemen were especially good in generating passing downs, sacks in passing downs, and sacks in non-standard throwing situations. But, of recent relevance to ‘Bama fans, he also responsible for some of the good times and some of the best defenses college football has ever seen assembled; he was linebackers coach for the 2009-2011 Crimson Tide.
Sunseri’s recruiting has been heavily concentrated in the DMV area. He gained the commits of both 5-star Kouandjio brothers and Chris Braswell from the regional. He will travel though: Sunseri also poached Jalen Ramsey out of Nashville, Alfy Hill from North Carolina, and DeMarcus Walker from Jacksonville.
Without gilding the lily much further, we’ll let one of the 2020 targets speak for Coach Sal on the recruiting trail and how much players adore him. We give you linebacker Antoine Sampah (Chesapeake, VA):
That’s an endorsement, innit?
Safeties: Charles Kelly
Charles Kelly is an interesting addition to the staff. Most know him as the hyperkinetic madman from Ozark on the Seminoles 2013 National Championship coaching staff. But, when Jimbo took his road show to College Station, Kelly left to join Jeremy Pruitt’s staff at Tennessee, where he coached the special teams and safeties. As part of that staff, the Vols passing down S&P+ improved to 36th, and the overall passing defense “improved” to 83rd from 96th (baby steps.)
Perhaps the better comparison to draw — at a program with comparable talent, is the work Kelly’s secondary did with the ‘Noles defense. In the 2013 season, Kelly’s DBs finished 1st in passing down S&P+, 1st in standard down passing S&P+, and 4th overall in passing defense. When paired with the improvements at Tennessee, even in a switch to a different scheme, it’s apparent that he knows his business.
Kelly was an active recruiter at FSU, however at Tennessee and Alabama, his role has been that of a hands-on teacher. Honestly, given some of the issues on the back-end last season, that’s just as well. At certain positions, this team could stand to have a few coaches whose sole function is to develop the blue-chippers on the roster. Kelly was almost certainly added to the secondary coaching crew so as to free up Karl Scott for what he has proven to do the best: recruit.
(Seriously, though, watch Kelly on the sideline this season: He makes Scott Cochran seem the very portrait of sedate composure.)
Returning DBs: Karl Scott
Karl Scott returns in his role as defensive backs coach; however, with the addition of Coach Kelly, he will primarily be coaching the corners.
Scott was placed in a ridiculous situation last season for a young coach. Rattling it off, you see the almost-impossible task Scott had at one of the most challenging positions on the field: The Tide entered 2018 having lost 5 of its 6 DBs the year before. The most proven corner was a converted wide receiver who position-hopped for two years before settling in on the outside. The most talented defensive back was in high school eight months earlier, and was never expected to be pressed into a starting role. The corner that he replaced was a JuCo player who had previously washed out of LSU because of their deep, more talented defensive backfield. On the other side, the corner that had been playing the best was lost for the year in the 4th game of the season...and that that required putting the JuCo transfer back in...after having just lost his job to the Freshman. The all-important Star position, vacated by perhaps the best defensive back Alabama has ever had, was being manned by a new starter.
...And then all those injuries.
So, we’ll give Scott a mulligan on any results from last season, which most teams would kill for, but in championship football just wasn’t sufficient; the bottom line was a Tide secondary that finished 29th in passing defense S&P+ (ouch). With another year’s experience working with Pete Golding, and the addition of Kelly, the secondary should be steadier, especially on the outside. The troika of Diggs, Surtain, and Carter will likely be the best in the SEC and among the best in the country. And Xavier McKinney is poised to be the breakthrough player of a thin safety corps.
Scott’s recruiting has not been regional; he travels all over the country and has been very aggressive recruiter. In his first season, Scott’s biggest recruiting get was winning the croot lottery for Patrick Surtain II. And, this year, he has already gained the commitment of DT Jayson Jones, CB Jeffery Carter, WR DeMarrco Hellams, and S Jordan Battle.
Simply put, he has been outstanding in the living room with mama.
Defensive Coordinator/ILB: Pete Golding
(Outgoing: Tosh Lupoi)
As much attention as OC Steve Sarkisian will receive, nothing compares to the scrutiny that Pete Golding will face.
Last season was a bit of a mess — Golding was never intended to be doing the game-planning for his boss. He was listed as the Co-DC, but it was meant to be Tosh’s time to shine. He had paid his due. Still, by the middle of the year and it was apparent that Tosh didn’t quite have the chops just yet, that’s what had happened. But, when the ball kicked off, it was up to Lupoi to make the in-game adjustments. And you know Nick Saban had to have spent far more time coaching his defensive coaches than managing the team. So, the less said about all of the cooks in the kitchen, the better.
This season should prove to be far more stable. After fending off bids by Oklahoma and Ole Miss, the Tide retained the young Golding to be the undisputed head of the defense. Last season may not be the best indicator of what Golding, whose background is coaching DBs, can do calling the plays. Instead, we’ll look to what he did as defensive coordinator of the UTSA Roadrunners in 2016 and 2017.
We covered Golding’s philosophy and results extensively with UTSA beat writer Jared Calmus. You’ll definitely want to read that in full:
UTSA played most snaps in a 4-2-5 alignment throughout Golding’s tenure. However, I always had the impression that the long-term goal was to move to an odd-man front. When Golding came to UTSA he quickly found out that the personnel was not in place along the defensive line to run with an odd-man front, as the previous staff hadn’t recruited many guys big enough and quick enough to play defensive end in such a scheme. If Golding would have stuck at UTSA for another two years then I think UTSA would have moved to a pure 3-4 or 3-3-5, as UTSA’s recruiting strategy really pointed towards that being the long-term plan.
As for scheming, Golding is an extremely aggressive playcaller, arguably too aggressive. Never afraid to blitz his inebackers or secondary players, UTSA played a high number of their snaps in cover 0 or cover 1 this season. It was a risky move that paid off because the Roadrunners had a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball.
And did it ever pay off for the Roadrunners where CPG was nothing short of a miracle worker. After coming over from Southern Miss as the Eagles’ DB coach, Golding effected a transformation in the defense that eventually led UTSA to its first bowl game. But, more startling is the tremendous leap their defense made every year under his supervision.
Look at these results: The year before he arrived, his two years in San Antonio, and after he departed:
Pre-Golding 2015: Total Defense / Rushing Defense / Passing Defense
111th / 45th / 112th
Golding Year One 2016: Total Defense / Rushing Defense / Passing Defense
95th / 43rd / 88th
Golding Year Two 2017: Total Defense / Rushing Defense / Passing Defense
34th / 40th / 43rd
Post-Golding 2018: Total Defense / Rushing Defense / Passing Defense
103rd / 61st / 107th
Golding is, simply put, the next hot thing on the defensive coaching circuit, and at just 35 years old, he is poised to have a tremendous career. One of the least-discussed recruiting jobs of this offseason was Alabama securing him for a three-year deal, keeping both his aggressive, transformative Xs and Os, and his outstanding recruiting. (His recruiting haul this year alone included Shane Lee, Byron Young, and Ishmael Sopsher.)
Grade the revamped Alabama defensive coaching staff:
This poll is closed