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SUPERLATIVES: 2020 Alabama Defense Midseason Grades and Awards

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This one is a bit more difficult than the offense, that’s for sure.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

(We posted the offense earlier; you can check that out here.)

I am of a few different minds on how to grade this Alabama defense. Do you assess the Crimson Tide as the team that played a lot of aggressive-man and brought pressure from all over the field, as they did earlier in the season? Or, do you grade ‘Bama on its simplified scheme they’ve shown over the past few games? Does Alabama get cut some slack for starting nine new defenders? Does youth get cut some slack — freshmen are seeing a lot of playing time? How about the team that has seemingly finally settled on a rotation? Do you grade Alabama by halves — in 2020, the second-half Crimson Tide often resembles nothing like its first-half performances?

I guess in the interest of fairness and thoroughness, we’ll have to take all of these things into consideration

Defense

Defensive Line: C/C+

I will have to admit, this unit that we were all so excited about has underperformed dramatically at times this year. They were sporadic against Missouri and Texas &M at the point of attack; they held their own against UGA’s mansome offensive line; they dominated Mississippi State...then they get blown off the ball by Ole Miss. And the issues with this group are three-fold. First, in execution (mental and physical). Earlier in the season, they were very confused about even their assignments. A lot of that has been remediated though, and they have been gap-solid much better of late. Tim Smith and Byron Young have the motor, for instance, but sometimes gets lost out there. Second, effort. We have seen far too many arm tackles, whiffs, bad angles and the like from this group, particularly earlier in the season. Not to single out players, but it’s mainly happening on the interior. Alabama had another washout with Ismael Sophser’s dedication to Ole’ Country Buffet and his hatred of practicing. Worse, you can tell when DJ Dale and Christain Barmore haven’t been giving 100% and/or have been sloppy with their technique. I hate to keep coming back to Ole Miss, but it was emblematic of this group’s struggles as a whole. Third, a rotation. With so many new faces, this group has seen a lot of rotations and is attempting to develop chemistry.

That said, Dale’s spotty performances, Sopsher’s absence, Burrough’s injuries, and Barmore’s inconsistency have hurt this interior, especially against the ground game — and that was expected to to be a team strength.

But, I think we can all conclude that it is a defensive line that plays better when Justin Egboigbe, Labryan Ray and Phidarian Mathis are on the field, when Tim Smith and Byron Young are playing assignment football, and when Christian Barmore and D.J. Dale are bringing it every down. (In fact, given Mathis’ motor and production in his appearances, I would not be surprised to see No. 48 split time with Barmore much more down the stretch or be a second interior lineman). Jamil Burroughs has been getting into shape and is healthy — he even saw some snaps on Halloween — and the staff expect much of him, as well.

Despite those criticisms, it is a unit that is getting better in both effort and execution. We can see it on the field. And they do adjust well at the half; so we know they can be coached. Finally, you can at least diagnose where the problems lie and how to correct them...which is not necessarily true at other positions.

Poll

Grade the Alabama defensive line

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    A
    (3 votes)
  • 27%
    B
    (108 votes)
  • 66%
    C
    (261 votes)
  • 5%
    D/F
    (21 votes)
393 votes total Vote Now

Linebackers: C-

Again, we must grade this on a curve. There are new starters all over the place — as well as some notable busts. But this is a group that has lived and died by the man in the middle — Dylan Moses.

Let’s be frank too: For about a month, he saw his draft stock absolutely plummet. He was lost in coverage; he was running by plays; this was his first year calling the defense and miscommunication was rampant. Adding to those issues, he’s also coming off of a potentially draft-killing ACL injury. For several games Moses would be in position to make a play and would shy away from contact — not exactly what an inside linebacker needs to be doing. In fairness to Moses, we saw much the same with Donta’ Hightower’s ACL in 2010 as well. It took him a solid season to regain confidence in his body.

Moses is working on an accelerated recovery schedule though. Over the last three weeks, as the defense has become more simplified, Moses’ play is improving. He led the team in tackles the past two weeks; he leads the team individually in tackles; and he is now 8th in the SEC at 8.33 TPG (50 total, 29 solo).

The outside has been the biggest mystery though. For this defense to reach its goals, Alabama devoutly needed to develop a pass rush, and that just has not come to fruition. Christopher Allen and Christian Harris have been the best at it, but they still account for just 3.0 total sacks. In fact, Barmore is tied with Allen for team lead in sacks with a miserly 2.0 Overall, Alabama has notched just 10 sacks in six full games, and 3.5 of them came from the defensive line. To say this edge rush has been a bust isn’t entirely fair — there have been many almost-moments, and they are getting pressure and affecting the passes. But they’re not getting there nearly enough, consistently enough, and they’re not putting their man on his backside when it counts. (Will Anderson is going to be a lot fun to watch though).

Then we have Ben Davis, King Mwikuta, Quandarrius Robinson, Chris Braswell, and Drew Sanders, who are either buried on the depth chart, redshirting, and/or are developing as players.

The lack of an edge rush has by far been among the biggest disappointments of the 2020 season. That starts and ends with this group.

Poll

Grade the Alabama linebacking corps

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    A-ish
    (2 votes)
  • 18%
    B-ish
    (72 votes)
  • 62%
    C-ish
    (247 votes)
  • 18%
    D/F
    (74 votes)
395 votes total Vote Now

Corners: A+

It is an absolute no-fly zone on the outside — teams simply do not throw the ball at Josh Jobe or Patrick Surtain II. Instead, they are opting to try and attack the slot, isolate the tight end, or put the backs in space thinking (correctly, as it unfortunately happens) that Alabama will more often than not forget RBs are eligible receivers.

But, the development of freshman stud Malachi Moore has made attacking the nickel position a dicey proposition for opponents. When Jahquez Robinson rounds into form, and Jalyn Armour-Davis ever sees daylight, this group could be America’s best. It already may be. Ronald Williams has been cleared to play after breaking his arm. And Brian Branch has simply been a revelation as a dime/nickel DB. This is an outstanding mix of youth and experience.

Finally, we should give a holler to Josh Jobe’s commitment to being the team bully. If anyone is likely to body slam you on this defense, it’s No. 28.

Safeties: C-

Can we grade this one in two divisions? We have the Jordan Battle division, which is a solid A. He tackles well, he covers well, he’s smart, and he has the chops to man-up. Then we have the “oh, god, make it stop”- everyone else division. The C+ grade here is mostly his responsibility (and Hellams is the other portion).

Were you upset with the lack of physicality by the defensive line? How about the lack of a consistent pass-rush from the linebackers? Friends, you don’t know disappointment-verging-on-existential-dread until you see No. 3 in that starting lineup.

We are not trying to pick on an unpaid college kid trying to earn his degree or make an NFL dream a reality, but it has been...a trying season back there for Daniel Wright. He’s already not the best tackler, but it is infuriating to see him whiff time and again from poor technique, take poor pursuit angles, and otherwise run himself out of the play.

But, the real killer is coverage. You can see the potential he has — when he is in phase and reads the play, he can make great plays on the ball. But he takes far too many risks, gets out of position, lets receivers get behind him, and is an overall net deficit to the defense. And none of those things are acceptable — the position is, after all, called safety for a reason.

I don’t want to belabor the point here, but after seeing the sure-tackling, solid Demarcco Hellams in action, I can only conclude that Wright is making otherworldly plays in practice every day. There’s simply no other justification I can provide for starting Wright on this defense.

It is perverse to see an Alabama team field such poor safety play. To call this a critical area of need for 2021, including signing significant depth, is an understatement.

Poll

Grade the Alabama safeties

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    A — Thank you for reading, Coach Kiffin!
    (8 votes)
  • 11%
    B — Thank you for reading, Coach Fisher!
    (42 votes)
  • 50%
    C-ish — Thank God for Jordan Battle
    (188 votes)
  • 29%
    D — Not quite failing, but how did we come to this?!
    (110 votes)
  • 7%
    F — OH, GOD, MY EYES. MY EYES
    (27 votes)
375 votes total Vote Now

Defensive Coaching: B- with a HUGE asterisk.

I know what you’re thinking: How is this a B of any sort? Well, pull up a chair, young ‘un and lemme hip you to some knowledge.

First of all, this is not anyone’s defense other than Nick Saban’s. Every player on the field, every call, every adjustment, every starter, every play in the book — and every hire — belongs to him. He owns this. Saban placeholders recruit, suggest plays, and then help with initial game plans. From there, it is up to those coordinators to learn the flow of the game, how to adjust, and how to manage those plays.

And you can hear it in his voice too how much Saban hates this: Nick hates modern football. Nick hates the passive way in which defenses are forced to adjust. Nick loathes the track meets and zone-schemes and lame-o four-man rushes — all of those things are for football normies. He said it seven years: Is this what we want football to be? Absolutely not. But it is what it is. While Saban has been remarkably flexible in offensive scheming and recruiting, he is far more stubborn on this side of the ball.

Especially frustrating to him (and us) are the missed tackles and being out of position. I could not tell you how many times Alabama has correctly diagnosed the play, made the right call, put players in position to succeed, and then some guys half-ass it or just outright make an execution bust. But again, teaching those fundamentals and putting players on the field who will make the correct play, is the entire job of the coaching staff.

Thus, while it is somewhat unfair to criticize Pete solely for the defense’s woes, he must get docked on his ability to adjust to the game in real time. Alabama has done a fantastic job adjusting at the halftime (one quarter against A&M aside). That cannot be denied. Alabama has surrendered 117 points on the season — just 34 have occurred after halftime. The fact that the Tide is adjusting so well means that, like the 9 new starters on the field, Pete is also learning as he goes: the coach can be coached. So to Golding also goes that credit (as well as Coach Saban, Coach Strong, and Coach Kelly, who are helping him learn his way with halftime adjustments).

But perhaps the biggest adjustment of all has been in the staff’s collective realization that you go to war with the troops you have, not the ones that you want. It is a rebuilt defense that performs better with the play in front of them, that is more physical and assignment-sound when it is kept simple, and that can rely on their athleticism to make plays rather than scheme. The past three games of the Alabama Crimson Tide defense look almost nothing like the first three...and the real start began in the second half against Georgia.

Poll

Grade the Alabama defensive coaching

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    A — Thanks again for reading, Coach Kiffin!
    (9 votes)
  • 31%
    B
    (109 votes)
  • 50%
    C
    (173 votes)
  • 11%
    D
    (40 votes)
  • 3%
    F — Thanks again for reading, Coach Leach!
    (13 votes)
344 votes total Vote Now

Defensive MVP:

Josh Jobe (CB) — Going into the season, almost every offensive coordinator knew to shy away from Surtain. Instead, they were going to try and target Jobe. That has turned out to be a huge mistake. While Jobe does not have an interception (he has dropped a few), he has 20 tackles on the year, has 4.0 tackles for loss, he has a sack, and he leads the team in PBUs. Every week he puts on a master class in how to stay in phase with your man. If anyone has made himself money every week on the defense this season, it is Jobe.

He’s also probably the meanest single player on the roster.

Defensive Unsung Hero:

It’s hard to single out a player that has been the unsung one. On this defense, it has been feast or famine — guys are playing lights out or gacking it up all over the place. We would say the emergence of Malachi Moore, but it’s clear after half a dozen games that he is going to be special. In fact, we even wrote an entire film review on it! Shameless Plug Here.

Instead, we’re going to go with Justin Eboigbe. While he doesn’t show up much on the stat sheet, he makes this defensive line so much better. He’s rarely out of position, he holds the point of attack and doesn’t lose contain, and he even gets some pressure from that weakside DE spot. When he’s on the field, he makes the players around him better. And that’s as good of a justification for an unsung hero as any. In basketball, they have an annual Sixth Man Award — Eboigbe would be Alabama’s, at least on the front seven.

Poll

Grade the overall 2020 Alabama defense

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    A
    (2 votes)
  • 26%
    B
    (94 votes)
  • 64%
    C
    (224 votes)
  • 7%
    D
    (27 votes)
  • 0%
    F
    (2 votes)
349 votes total Vote Now

As with the offense, chime in below:

Was there anyone you’d rather name as our MVP?
Who’s your unsung hero of the defense?
Is this on Pete? Nick? Some combination? And who bears the most blame or gets to take the most credit?