Alabama is likely to have a more difficult challenge on offense this week as they face a game Texas A&M defensive squad that, while its offense sputtered, did what it was supposed to do against lowly Vanderbilt, allowing only 10 points and 255 yards of total offense. Well regarded DC Mike Elko is in his second season in College Station. Elko mixes things up quite a bit, but he favors a 4-2-5 base defense, which is essentially a nickel set that today’s three receiver sets require anyway.
The straw that stirs the drink in this defense is senior MLB Buddy Johnson, who may well have the most Texas name ever. Johnson was tabbed a three-star dual threat QB by the recruiting services out of high school, but added weight and found success on the defensive side, tallying 77 tackles including 9.5 for loss last season. Like senior Alabama counterpart Dylan Moses, Johnson acts as a coach on the field and generally has everyone lined up correctly, making it unlikely that Najee Harris and company find many cheap yards on busted assignments. Rushing yards will have to be earned, as evidenced by Vanderbilt’s paltry 2.76 yards per carry in last week’s opener.
The Aggies are solid up front, led by explosive nose tackle Bobby Brown who spurned Alabama on signing day in 2018. Brown is capable of creating all kinds of problems for the offense, making his matchup with Alabama’s Landon Dickerson one of the key battles. Both of those men are known for their nasty streak and occasional extracurricular activities as well, so don’t be surprised if a flag or two flies in one direction or the other. The Aggies boast a pair of veteran defensive ends in Tyree Johnson and Micheal Clemons, plus pass rush specialist DeMarvin Leal. All of these fellows will provide a big test for Alabama’s offensive line.
In the secondary, the name to know is Leon O’Neal Jr. The former high four-star has a ton of talent but has been somewhat mercurial during his stay in College Station and is looking to put it all together for NFL scouts in his junior campaign. Last season he managed 41 tackles and one interception, but has already logged his first pick of 2020. His running mate on the back end, sophomore Demani Richardson is a former four-star who was oft mentioned as a potential breakout candidate in season previews. This group gave up way too many big plays last season and O’Neal’s aggressiveness was particularly susceptible to play action. Expect Mac Jones to test that early and often.
The corners are somewhat suspect, so DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle should have another opportunity to make hay. Senior Myles Jones is something of an oddity playing corner at 6’4”, making breaks against quick receivers like those deployed by the Tide very difficult. Against Vanderbilt the Aggies played quite a bit of Big 12 style “off” coverage. If they do that against Alabama it will be slants for days, and Elko likely knows that. Expect him to have a unique gameplan for the Tide.
This will be an interesting matchup for the Tide offense. It isn’t the best front seven Alabama will see this season but it is good enough to provide an early season test. If the Tide are able to line up and run over these guys the way they did Missouri, confidence going forward will be justifiably high.
Vanderbilt used a ton of short, quick passes and rollouts against the Aggies, but when freshman QB Ken Seals did attempt a dropback pass, there was significant pressure from the front four. Elko teaches a one-gap style of defense and has always been adept at scheming exotic blitzes. With a veteran front seven, expect Mac Jones and the Alabama offensive line to get the kitchen sink from this bunch. Their ability to apply pressure will likely determine whether Alabama wins in something of a walk or finds themselves in a 60 minute dogfight.
To be sure, there is some potential with this defense. Still, Vegas expects Alabama to put up around 35 points, owing to the significant returning talent on the offensive side of the ball. Still, the Tide had better execute at least as well as they did in the first half of the Missouri game or they could be in for a stressful fourth quarter this week. We will know a lot more about the 2020 offense after this one.