Before the 2016 season, I wrote about Alabama’s ability to deploy a defense that consisted of nothing but former five-star prospects, something that would have been unprecedented in the recruiting rankings era. Those guys were never expected to be on the field at the same time that season, but it was an illustration of the recruiting work put in by Nick Saban, arguably the greatest defensive mind in college football history. There were a few five stars on the offensive side as well, but the defense, which carried the Tide to an unbeaten record through the semifinals while scoring nearly as many points as they allowed before finally folding to Deshaun Watson in the fourth quarter of the national title game, was miles ahead in terms of pure talent.
My, how times have changed.
Make no mistake, Alabama will still run a super talented defense out there this fall. Raekwon Davis, Dylan Moses, Terrell Lewis, Anfernee Jennings, Trevon Diggs, Shyheim Carter, and Xavier McKinney are all candidates to hear their names called relatively early in April. In terms of recruiting stars, however, this unit falls a bit short compared to that 2016 group. The Tide does not have the ability to run a five star out there at every slot, and among likely starters only Moses, Lewis, LaBryan Ray, and Patrick Surtain II were given five star ratings by one of the major services. Yes, a defense consisting of four five-stars and seven four-stars with plenty of both among the backups is the envy of just about every other program, but it is far from Alabama’s highest rated.
This offense, however, has a chance to be historic. It is unlikely that any school will ever accumulate enough five-stars to fill out a full offensive line, simply because there are fewer five-star players in the interior line positions. Still, the following players who have seen first team reps thus far in camp were all given that rating by at least one of the major services:
QB Tua Tagovailoa (247 composite)
RB Najee Harris (247 composite)
OL Alex Leatherwood (247 composite)
OL Evan Neal (247 composite)
OL Landon Dickerson (Top 247)
OL Jedrick Wills (Rivals)
WR Jerry Jeudy (Top 247)
WR Henry Ruggs III (Top 247)
WR Devonta Smith (Top 247)
Dickerson and Neal are far from guarantees to start. In fact, neither was in the first group at the beginning of camp, but both have seen first-team reps in recent practices. Still, the shift in the top end high school talent from the defense to the offense is palpable.
There are several possible reasons for this, starting with the staff valuing certain guys differently and/or recruiting misses on the defensive side that can be blamed at least in part on the crowded roster, but a large part of it is an admission by Saban that the rules favor the offense to a point that maximizing that side of the ball is a better strategy than stacking talent to stop it. Back in 2017, he made waves with some comments to that effect at the SEC spring meetings:
“I don’t think there’s any answer to RPOs,” Saban told reporters in 2017. “There is no solution to that, other than you can’t go downfield three and a half yards to block, which is the rule in the NFL and some other places.”
“Whatever the rule is, we’ll do it, too,” Saban said. “So, what makes a difference? We’ll run running plays that we throw passes, just like everybody else.”
It can be argued that, while the pro game moves at a much faster pace, NFL linebackers actually have simpler reads because the offensive linemen have to stay home on all forward passes, including those completed behind the line of scrimmage. A three yard cushion at the amateur level that was offered as leeway for young linemen, perhaps not quite as aware of their place on the field as their pro counterparts, has been used by offensive coaches to make playing linebacker nigh impossible.
In true Saban fashion, when opponents uncover ways to exploit the rules, he files his public complaint then follows suit and does it bigger and better. Enter his first gunslinger at quarterback in Tagovailoa along with extra time and effort spent on recruiting offensive skill talent, particularly smaller players like Devonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and John Metchie. While Saban requires everyone to block, outside receivers no longer have to be road graders as long as they can shake a nickel back and take a slant to the house.
At some point, Alabama fans are going to have to adjust to this new era just as the coaches have. Gone are the days of true shutdown defenses. Last season was a very different feel with the offense putting up video game numbers while the defense bent more. With a little better injury luck, this year’s defense should be less prone to the downfield passing game, but this team will ultimately go as far as Tua and company take them.