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Alabama Football Recruiting: How has the Crimson Tide defense changed over the last decade?

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Much was made about the Alabama defense getting smaller after the 2013 season, but was that reflected in the recruiting?

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama vs Georgia Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

It started after the back-to-back years in 2012 and 2013 of Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel making the previously invulnerable Alabama defense look not just mortal, but totally lost. Then Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight eviscerated them at the end of 2013 and the entire defense took a pretty big step back in 2014— including another rough outing against an Ole Miss team that was embracing Hugh Freeze’s fast-paced spread option offense... And then lost to him again at the start of 2015.

Every sports blogger worth their salt was talking about the “cracks in the dynasty,” and how Nick Saban had to change his defensive strategy to keep up with modern football. Well, Alabama then won the 2015 and 2017 national championships while fielding the nation’s #1 defense in many metrics from 2015-2017.

Everyone talked about how Saban had transitioned to having smaller, more athletic linemen and linebackers to keep up with the spread. But did that really happen? So I went back and looked at the recruiting data since.

The reason for choosing the 2012 class as the starting point is because, before that, it was nearly impossible to find any athletic testing data on the players. We could go back further to look at sizes and rankings, but I figured it was as good of a cut off as any.

Now, any individual class is subject to a lot of variance. An average isn’t much of an “average” when you only recruited one safety in the class. So, I broke up these averages into 3-year increments to track how things have changed.

There’s still going to be a natural bias in the first grouping because the SPARQ camps were really only open to the elite performers in 2012 and 2013, so the only players to post numbers, posted great numbers.

Defensive Line

Years Total signed Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
Years Total signed Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
2012-2014 12 3.75 203 16 74.9 289 5.08 4.7 26 40.5 94.905 1.46
2015-2017 8 4 72 8 76.5 301 5.32 4.85 26.2 37.9 83.125 1.04
2018-2020 11 4.1 132 11 75.9 292.64 5.27 4.9 26.3 40.3 88.45 1.23

Starting with the defensive line, Alabama actually recruited bigger players in 2015-2017 before trimming back down a little after that. Alabama’s lightest and fastest group came in 2012-2014, so the “change” to smaller defensive linemen was already happening well before the Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Ole Miss losses.

The other thing to note is that Saban was much less willing to take 3-star defensive linemen as extra depth as time went on.

Linebackers

Years Total signed Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
Years Total signed Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
2012-2014 14 4.07 132 9 74.7 228 4.63 4.23 36.7 38 120.57 2.01
2015-2017 13 4.15 137 9 75.5 233 4.76 4.4 31.7 38 98.17 1.21
2018-2020 15 4.2 111 8 75.4 227 4.7 4.3 33.7 41 108.61 1.54

Just like the defensive linemen, the change to going smaller at linebacker was already in progress in 2012. Saban knew where college football was going and was already recruiting for it during those transition years— not just reacting to some losses.

The interesting part to me is the similarity to the defensive line in that the recruits actually trended bigger and slower in the 2015-2017 grouping before slimming back down in the most recent three classes.

The linebackers have also consistently been the most highly rated and most athletic of any position Alabama has recruited. Saban’s defense runs through its linebackers, and that is reflected in their focus on that position in recruiting.

Cornerbacks

Years Total signed Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
Years Total signed Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
2012-2014 8 4 96 8 72 185 4.49 4.1 32.2 38 121.55 1.92
2015-2017 8 4 189 18 72.25 184 4.45 4.02 37.2 37.4 126.54 2.11
2018-2020 10 4 127 12 72.65 178 4.55 4.4 34.6 34.1 87.76 0.63

I considered combing safety and cornerback since the defensive backs are becoming increasingly more amorphous, but eventually decided to keep them separate. Going through the lists, the only major contributor that wound up playing a different spot than he was recruited at was Anthony Averett, who was recruited as a safety and wound up at corner.

Saban’s stayed pretty consistent in what he’s looking for at cornerback over the years. They’ve trended towards getting slightly taller and lankier, and he’s seemed to focus less on pure speed over the years as well. The total number brought in each class has been constant as well.

He seemed to focus more on getting 1-2 elite guys and backing them up with more lowly rated depth before switching to aiming for a constant flood of upper-four star guys in the most recent classes.

Safeties

Years Total signed Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
Years Total signed Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
2012-2014 5 4.2 137 9 73 196 4.53 4.54 37
2015-2017 5 4.2 119 9 72.8 183 4.73 4.31 34.7 35.7 93.5 0.86
2018-2020 5 4 116 7 72.4 193 4.57 4.3 34.1 37.1 98.8 1.06

Just like the corners, the safeties had a mix of 5-stars and 3-stars in the first grouping, but has since just stuck with a constant influx of top-150 four star players. The averages are a bit misleading, as we typically see a safety of about 210 lbs paired with one at about 185 pounds in nearly every class. As much as he insists that the safeties are more just a “left and right” deal, Saban still recruits like he’s looking for the multiple skill sets of a “free and strong” safety tandem.

Alabama had some issues with safety speed in the 2015-2017 group, but they’ve increased the 40-yard dash time significantly in the 2018-2020 groups.


Overall, I’d say the defensive recruiting saw much less drastic changes than what we saw on offense. If the Tide truly did get lighter on defense, it was already in progress before 2012. And, while we’ve been quite vocal lamenting the performances of the 2018 and 2019 defenses, it’s pretty clear that Alabama’s defensive recruiting in the 2015-2017 grouping (when they would be upper classmen in 18 and 19) was not quite as good as the prior or later groups.

If Alabama’s 2018-2020 defensive recruiting is any indication, we should expect to see an improvement in on-field defense in the upcoming seasons.