After firing coach Barry Odom and the entire offensive coaching staff in an attempt to bring some energy back into the program, Missouri though enough of their young defensive coordinator, Ryan Walters, that they kept him through the coaching change.
He originally started out as a safeties position coach for the Tigers in 2015, and was promoted to coordinator in 2018. During his first season, he shaved almost 40 rushing yards and 6 points per game off of the Tiger’s defense. If that wasn’t impressive enough, his defense’s performance in 2019 was absolutely phenomenal and pretty much the lone bright spot in an abysmal season in Columbia.
They were the #4 ranked defense in limiting success rate, led by a staggering 29% of opponent pass attempts being successful. They were a top-20 defense in nearly every metric, including top-10 in limiting success rates on 1st, 2nd, and 4th downs.
They did have a few (relative) weak spots, though. They dropped to only 21st on 3rd down success rates, due mostly to a #39th ranked explosive pass defense as well as #37 and #29 in stuff rate and havoc rate, respectively.
In other words, while they were absolutely phenomenal for most of the game, they had some struggles getting a disruptive pass rush, and it let to a disproportional amount of failures to stop teams on 3rd downs. We Bama fans affectionately call that the “3rd and Kirby” defense.
Walters uses a base 3-4 defense, and he aggressively uses both outside linebackers as standup defensive ends more often than not. In effect, it’s often more of a 5-2 (or a 5-1 in nickel) defense built to stifle the opponent’s rushing game at the line of scrimmage. He tends to keep a single high safety while walking up the other safety to use as more of a 3rd cornerback. All of the defensive backs tend to back off and play close to the first down marker even before the snap in an obvious bend-but-don’t-break strategy in tandem with a tight 5-man front that is willing to give up short out routes in order to limit deep balls and stop the run.
And, against many college QBs that don’t have the arm talent to hit those quick outs, it’s highly effective.
Personnel-wise, linebacker Nick Bolton is the guy that makes everything work. This defensive formation tends to leave a big hole in the intermediate center of the formation, and the do-everything junior had over 100 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, and 2 interceptions from the center of the field on his way to a 1st-team All-SEC and 3rd-team All-American season last year.
Safeties Tyree Gillespie and Joshuah Bledsoe both return for their senior seasons, as do defensive linemen Kobie Whiteside and Tre Williams. Whiteside was the Tigers’ only pass rushing threat last season with 6.5 sacks (nobody else had more than 2.5).
However, they are looking to replace 3rd round NFL draft pick Jordan Elliot at defensive tackle and a multi-year starter at cornerback in DeMarkus Acy. True freshman Ennis Rakeshaw is expected to step in for Acy, and if you recognize that name, it would be because he was considered one of Alabama’s major recruiting targets as an under-the-radar 3-star guy to sign in February.
Overall, this is a defensive unit that is replacing a major cog in the middle of the line, but ultimately returns most of the talent and experience that made them an arguably top-15 unit in 2019.
It will definitely be a test of strength against strength for Mac Jones, as the Tide QB was lights-out on standard downs while faltering on passing downs last season, whereas the Missouri defense was one of the best in the country on early downs before breaking down from a lack of pass rush on 3rd downs.
Look for Alabama to lean into letting Jones go for deeper developing routes often, hoping that a lackluster pass rush and inexperienced outside corners allow him to comfortably target the speedy Tide receivers.
However, if Steve Sarkisian comes out determined to get the horizontal passing game going and banking on wide reciever yards after catch like he did against Michigan last year, Missouri will eat that up.
On rushing side of things, it’s again a case of strength against strength. Missouri was a top 15 defense in defending rushing success rate with their 5-man lines and Bolton cleaning up behind them... and yet Alabama was a top-5 rushing offense with Najee Harris and a quartet of experienced blockers. That will be an absolute battle all game long, but losing Jordan Elliot at the center of it all should give Alabama enough of an edge to take the overall advantage.
This will be a big test for Alabama’s offense to open the season, but I think it overall bodes well for the Tide, as it will force them to not totally rely on Najee Harris. Mac Jones will have to make some plays to keep the offense moving, and a weaker pass rush should let him stay comfortable enough to build confidence. I think Alabama winds up with north of 35 points.