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Jumbo Package: Gump Day!

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Is a rebuilt depth chart the key to Alabama returning to their status as elite defense?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Chick-fil-A Kickoff - Duke v Alabama Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

— Jones has been studying the Tiger defense more than a little. He gave a detailed answer that read like a full scouting report of Saturday’s opponent complete with notations of number changes from last year. He also said coordinator Ryan Walters does a great job with schemes.

“On the back end with their cornerbacks, No. 14 and No. 8, they look pretty good. Obviously, they might have some guys out but those guys in the back end look good. No. 9, Tyree Gillespie, their safety, No. 1 this year, he switched numbers — (Joshuah) Bledsoe — he looks good in the back end. And then 32 is kinda like their workhorse of the defense, Nick Bolton, looks really good. They have another good linebacker — he switched to No. 11 this year — he looks good.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this round up of quotes from the interviews yesterday. Mac Jones rattled off this monologue of a scouting report that, at the very least, bodes well for his preparation for the upcoming game. He also spends some time talking up new starting safety Daniel Wright.

Dylan Moses also gets pretty open and candid about how he’s been working on his mentality of not letting last year’s injury affect his play, and he and LaBryan Ray talk up some of the freshman defensive players like Will Anderson, Tim Smith, and Ishmael Sopsher.

The 2020 Alabama Crimson Tide defense must be better – much better. How will the ’20 defense differ from the ’19 defense? Based on Monday’s depth chart, the turnover in defensive, Crimson Tide starters is huge.

Only four defensive starters from the LSU game are expected to start against Missouri. The four are D. J. Dale, Christian Harris, Patrick Surtain II and Jordan Battle. The numbers are even less from the Auburn game, with only Christian Harris and Patrick Surtain II returning as starters.

Other statistical numbers are more staggering. 2020 returning starters from the Auburn game were credited with only three of 48 tackles against the Tigers. None of the Crimson Tide defenders who made tackles for a loss at Auburn are 2020 starters. Three Tide players broke up three passes against Auburn. None of those players are on the 2020 roster.

Every offseason, much is made about “returning starters” factoring into all the many different variations of preseason rankings of teams and other such speculation in football media. And the more “returning starters” a team has, the more highly that team tends to be ranked. Which is fair, as relying on unproven players— particularly freshmen— can lead to roller coaster-like results for a team.

However, there is a nuance getting ignored here: what if the previous year’s starters... weren’t effective? In Alabama’s case, the Tide is starting nearly and entirely different defense than they did last season, and pretty much every fan out there will tell you they’re feeling more confident than they were in 2019’s defense.

Some of that is the usual pervasive offseason optimism that infects even fans of teams like the Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons, and Tennessee Volunteers, making them believe that this is the year their team will finally be better before actually playing real football games quickly beats that hope back into submission.

But it’s also fueled by the fact that Alabama is returning two seniors who should have been star-level starters last season before injury took that away as well as back-to-back recruiting classes that featured significant depth and star power in the linebackers and defensive line positions.

Sometimes, new players just might be better.

Ray also missed half of his freshman year in 2017 with a foot injury. He returned in 2018 to play in all 15 games for the Tide before last year’s disappointment.

When healthy, Ray has lived up to high expectations. He was a two-time 7A lineman of the year at Madison High School and was the No. 1 prospect in Alabama his senior season. His senior year at Madison he contributed 124 tackles, including 25 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, 16 quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries, and a blocked punt.

At Bama he has played in 24 games, has 53 tackles, including 10 tackles for loss and 4 ½ sacks. He’s also broken up 6 passes and has 2 forced fumbles. In his two-plus games last year he was in on 9 tackles with a sack and another half tackle for loss and caused a fumble.

This might be the most hedged headline I’ve ever seen from 247. In any case, Ray arrived at Alabama as one of the least-hyped 5-star players I’ve ever witnessed for some reason. He still drew a lot of optimism for his play as a freshman and his increased role as a sophomore. After his early season injury last year when he finally became a starter, he seemed to become an afterthought to people focused more on the injuries to Dylan Moses and Tua Tagovailoa derailing the Tide’s season. But a healthy, disruptive Ray could be the type of difference make Alabama struggled to find last year as they limped their way to being one of the worst teams in the country at stuffing run plays behind the line of scrimmage.

Don’t believe me? The Tide defense only got a “stuff” on 16% of opposing run plays last year. Good for 104th in the nation. For reference, Auburn was 16th in the nation at 24% and Ohio State was 7th with 27%.

1. Angry Alabama: Nothing happens in the SEC until Alabama says it does. After an “off” year (11 wins), the Crimson Tide’s revenge tour starts in this truncated season. They begin as the favorites to win the SEC and claim a spot in the College Football Playoff for the sixth time in seven years. If that happens, Saban might have pulled off one of his best coaching jobs. He got key juniors like Najee Harris and Dylan Moses to stick around. He has had to retool the defense, which was the worst since Saban’s first year in 2007. Tua Tagovailoa’s injury gave successor Mac Jones enough reps last year to step right in. “I believe in Mac the same way I believe in Tua,” receiver DeVonta Smith said.

The only limiting factor might be game postponement. Would a 6-0 Bama get to the postseason over other teams that play full(er) seasons? Saban has accomplished a lot. It would be miraculous if he could make a pandemic disappear.

CBS sports has come around, though, and they aren’t buying into the Georgia or LSU hype. This Alabama team has a chance to be very, very good. And a full 10-game (or 11) SEC schedule could make this season special.

WILL ANYONE KICK THE BALL TO WADDLE?

The junior was officially listed as the top option on kickoff returns Monday, granting him double-duty status in the return game. After two seasons of terrifying opposing punt coverage units, we caught a glimpse of what Waddle is capable of doing with kickoffs. His 98-yarder for a score against Auburn served notice that he’s more than capable of scoring in that area of special teams as well. As crazy as it sounds, there are some hulked-up special teams coordinators (Scott Cochran?) who will attempt to challenge Waddle. In doing so, they may end up contributing to his goheismanme.com campaign.

When the depth chart was released on Monday, there was a good bit of discussion around the wisdom of having Waddle pulling double-duty as a punt returner AND kick returner as well as taking on an increased role at wide receiver.

Personally, I think the injury risk to the return man himself is actually pretty low on kickoffs, and that it would be a waste to NOT have such a generational talent back there to force opponents to go ahead and kick it into the endzone while adding that extra element of fear to the kicker’s mental load.

What are your thoughts?

Poll

Should Alabama use Jaylen Waddle as the primary kick returner?

This poll is closed

  • 72%
    Yes. Intentionally NOT giving the ball to best playmaker on the team with a full field of open space is just dumb
    (524 votes)
  • 8%
    No. The injury risk is too great for a play that’s just too difficult to actually get a good return with the current rules
    (60 votes)
  • 3%
    He should only be brought out as a secret weapon when the situation is desperate.
    (28 votes)
  • 14%
    No. If he returns every single kick for a touchdown, the games will last too long and we’ll never get to see Najee Harris carry the ball.
    (107 votes)
719 votes total Vote Now