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The All-Saban Underappreciated Team: The Pass Rushers

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Yes, Eryk Anders is on this list. And you knew he would be.

NCAA FOOTBALL: JAN 01 College Football Playoff Semifinal - Allstate Sugar Bowl Photo by Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last season was a bit of a struggle for new Alabama fans, accustomed as they may be to having a world-class pass rush and consistently ranking among the nation’s most feared units for men under center. In the previous five seasons, Alabama led the nation twice in sacks, was 5th, 8th, and 13th. Last year, Alabama had just 32 sacks and finished 46th in the country. Yuck.

But, fear not. While those results were an aberration, generating sacks itself is a relatively new emphasis for the team.

Of much more importance to Nick Saban’s defensive philosophy is the concept of “disrupting the passer” — getting pressures, forcing rushed throws, forcing quick decisions, putting bodies around the quarterback, throwing giant mitts into passing lanes, getting quarterback hits, borderline chippiness that gets in the QB’s head — everything that can and does affect the mechanics, decision-making, and consummation of a passing play once the ball is snapped. When the backs are tight, when the defense diagnoses the play properly, and when everyone is fulfilling their responsibility, it is a remarkably effective style of play — without even generating sacks. (It is also a punishing brand of defense uniquely vulnerable to boom-or-bust plays when Alabama is in Saban’s beloved Cover-1 — that is why you see more pattern-match Cover-3 and increasingly Cover-7 against talented quarterbacks. But that is a story for another article).

In 2009, for instance, Alabama only created 31 sacks (just 29th) — but finished 2nd in total defense, 2nd in rushing defense, 10th in passing defense, and 2nd in scoring defense. You may recall how that season played itself out. In 2011, another title year, it was much the same — Alabama and LSU alternated being either 1 or 2 in literally every defensive category of note that year...except sacks. LSU finished 11th in that category, and Alabama was just 29th, with just 30 sacks. That turned out alright for both teams, if I recall.

So, with that, we will now wrap up the very last of our positional units for The All-Saban Underappreciated Team, the pass-rushers. (In case you forgot, we are breaking down the front seven into pass-defenders, run-stuffers, and pass-rushers. That made more analytical sense than doing them by position, where the style of player has changed so much and in some cases where players have moved in and out of spots on the field.)

SEC Championship - Alabama v Georgia Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Xzavier Dickson, Jack / Weakside Defensive End

Dickson had everything you could want in the old Jack position — long, large, and athletic for his size. The 4-star (No. 4 weakside DE) from Griffin, GA chose the Tide while holding offers from Notre Dame, every Florida team of note, and most of the ACC and SEC.

He was not necessarily a player that was born, however. To become the productive player that he became, Dickson first had to be built.

He came to campus at 6’3” as a WDE, and a ‘tweener weight of 240. Unfortunately, that ‘Tweener style of play and size sort of dogged him most of his career. Despite bulking up and developing over his freshman season, Dickson nevertheless played immediately, seeing action in seven games in 2011. In 2012, he had improved enough to earn a starting spot in six games for the Tide. He made the most of that time too — he picked up 3.5 sacks, 5 TFL, 5 QBH/hurries, 1 PDF, and 33 tackles (including 19 solo). That year would also see his single greatest game when he picked up two solo sacks of Georgia’s Aaron Murray in the 2012 SECCG.

In 2013, much was expected of Dickson as rising Junior on a team thin on elite pass-rushing talent. But, like many players on a squad that lacked leadership, Dickson underwhelmed. He played in every game, but created almost no plays of note — and regressed in just about every category imaginable. That forgettable campaign ended with a suspension for the team’s Sugar Bowl appearance. From the hype of his 2nd team All-SEC preseason selection to being a mere afterthought, it was a year he would probably want back.

His senior season, however, we finally saw what a healthy, focused, and disciplined Dickson could do. That year he racked up 9 sacks, had 10 QBH. broke up 2 passes, accounted for 42 tackles (32 solo), and notched 12.5 TFL. They say to strike while the iron is hot, and Dickson did, coming up big for the pros just when he needed to. Dickson was eventually drafted in the 7th round, but his lack of elite measurables coupled with rumors of attitude issues and wasting an entire season hurt his stock considerably.

Still, this is what is meant by a player developing — from a skinny freshman with a high motor to a steady contributor to leading the team in sacks — some guys are made, not born.

Eryk Anders, Will OLB

Anders was, like Dickson on this list, another player that had to grow into greatness and become a prodigious pass rusher. Some players affect the quarterback with hurries and hits. Some players are strip-artists. Some put their man in the dirt — Anders did all three.

And few would have liked his odds in the 2005 NSD class that he entered.

Ya’ Boy was an absolute steal out of San Antonio, Texas. He played small-division ball in the Lone Star State. How small? At 6’2” 200 pounds he was the team’s defensive tackle, slated to try and walk on with Ed Orgeron’s historically bad Ole Miss group. And not even a preferred spot. At that size, with that positional experience, he obviously received no D1 offers except for an Alabama team in the NCAA Doghouse.

But, when he landed in the SEC, he found himself getting some playing time early — likely out of self-defense for the battered Tide. His first few years as a reserve were unremarkable. Playing mop-up in 17 games, Anders only had 8 total tackles through two campaigns — no pressures, no sacks, no fumbles, no picks.

In 2008, however, he had finally started to put it together. Though not a starter, he was the first OLB off the bench for that Tide team and played in all 14 contests. He started to flash signs of what he could do off the edge with another year ahead of him. Anders recorded 34 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4.5 TFL, and forced 2 fumbles as a junior.

It would be 2009 when Eryk finally lived up to a lot of the latent, raw potential very few had seen in him. Coming off the edge, he was a pure terror for the National Champs. That year he led the team with 6.5 sacks, added another 12.5 tackles for loss, forced 3 more fumbles, defended three passes, batted down two more, and had an interception. When he was not putting opponents into the grass, he was hitting and hurrying them. He also led the Tide in QBH, with 17 hurries on the season.

And he saved his absolute best for last. That night in Pasadena Anders made seven solo tackles, broke up a pass, registered three QB hurries, and had the biggest sack-fumble in recent Alabama history.

Remember the Rose Bowl, we’ll win then...

Adrian Hubbard, Jack OLB

Quick.

Name an Alabama player that led the team in sacks one year, finished second in sacks another year, and that you almost never recall when you think of critical Crimson Tide defenders.

Ladies, Gentlemen and others of less obvious description, I give you the curious case of Adrian Hubbard. Because, yes, he did exactly that.

The 6’6, 254 beast out of Lawrenceville, Georgia was a prize of the 2010 NSD Class. Hubbard was a 4-star (No. 9 WDE), who spurred offers from the Dawgs, FSU, Clemson, Auburn and others to come to the Capstone. When he arrived, however, it was clear that at just 227 pounds, he was simply way too light to play the position and needed significant seasoning to take the weekly beatings he would receive in the SEC.

But, bulk up Hubbard did. By the time his career was over, he would play his Jack position at a stout 266 pounds of muscle and anger.

Adrian did not play as a Freshman (see that note above about 6’6” WDE/Jacks and the SEC). But, he did start to see action in 2011, where he played 9 games as a reserve. His motor was apparent even then. Though he did not register a sack, he notched 1.5 TFL, 9 tackles, and more importantly 3 QBH in very limited action. It was apparent to anyone with eyes, that there would be significant playing time for Hubbard in the future.

In the 2012 season, that playing time came. Starting all 14 games for the Tide, Hubbard recorded 41 tackles, 11 TFL, had 4 QBH, forced 3 fumbles, and led the team in sacks with 7.0, The following year, on a much thinner defense, Hubbard’s production dropped off in some respects, even as he became a more complete player. He finished second on the team in sacks (5.5), had 5.5 TFL, 33 tackles, and forced another 3 fumbles. While his sack numbers were down, his QBH/hits were up, and he led the team with 7. He also defended 3 passes and deflected another 3.

Not too bad to have Deion Belue, Bradley Sylve,and John Fulton in the secondary, eh?

#TooSoon

Next Monday we’ll name our defensive coaching staff, and then on Thursday we’ll put a bow on this series. If you missed any particular unit, you can find them on the landing page or peruse the Underappreciated Team hub right here.