About three years ago, it was revealed the first-year defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi— known for being a dynamic recruiter— had been relieved of actual in-game playcalling duties as Alabama’s 2018 defense struggled to find their footing.
Pete Golding had taken over partial control of the playcalling already, so filling Lupoi’s position as he left was an expected step up for the up-and-coming coach from the UTSA Road Runners.
Golding brought with him a schematic change for Alabama, adapting Nick Saban’s beloved base 3-4 to a more blitz-happy 3-3-5 that focused on using the nickel corner, or Star, as more of a safety than a 3rd cornerback.
His 2019 season left a bad taste in a lot of fans’ mouths, but he was working with a whole slew of true freshmen due to injuries. 2020 started poorly for him, but, again, he was breaking in an entirely new secondary. And things came together at the end of the season, with the Alabama defense finally looking as dominant as ever in the playoffs to win a National Championship.
In his third season, many viewed this as the “make-or-break” year for Golding, as he returned almost all of his 2020 squad to make up a veteran and experienced defense, so there was no more room for extenuating circumstances.
Halfway through 2021, how has he done?
Because I continue to be a lazy writer, I’m embedding a Twitter thread of mine from earlier this week about this subject:
For Alabama, Pete Golding has been a lightning rod for years. Personally, I love his scheme, and I think he typically does a good job of adjusting to his opponents. However his defenses now have a 3-year history of poor communication and inconsistent tackling.— Brent Taylor (@btbama22) October 24, 2021
Those nuances are what make the #FireGolding argument so tough for me, and I waffle back and forth.— Brent Taylor (@btbama22) October 24, 2021
Basically, there’s a lot more to being a coordinator than just calling plays. But before I get into giving grades to Golding for each aspect of the job, let’s jump into some stats for this 2021 Alabama defense.
In terms of total scoring (what matters at the end of the day), Alabama is allowing 20.6 points per game, which is good for 33rd in the country. The defense is allowing all of 2.8 yards per carry in the run game (great!) and 7.17 yards per passing attempt (decent).
Overall, they’re 33rd in success rate and 44th in explosives. An interesting bit is how this divides out when looking at passing downs (3rd/4th and long) vs standard downs. They vault all the way up to 12th in success rate on passing downs, but fall to 72nd in giving up explosives.
Basically, we see the defense willing to cede yardage on 1st downs in order to not give up big plays, and then flips to be generally dominant, yet prone to busts, on 3rd and long.
Despite a rough game against Florida earlier this season, this defense is 19th in success rate against the rushing game, and the front 7 is 5th in the country in stuffing runs. Even more impressive is that they’re 2nd in the nation in stopping short yardage run plays.
A weaker aspect of the defense has been their “havoc” plays, or a total count of tackles for loss, sacks, fumbles, pass deflections, and interceptions. They’re 55th overall in havoc rate, and the defensive backs fall to 67th.
Finally, this defense is 99th in the country in terms of giving up points once the opponent crosses into Alabama territory.
So what does all that mean? It’s honestly a wide range of stats that make for a rather odd defense to evaluate. They’ve been... okay... on most general plays, but have been mostly excellent at stopping opponents on 3rd downs, be it short yardage or long, though when they fail, they fail big and give up a huge play.
They don’t generate a ton of turnovers, and, for the most part, allow points if the drive sustains. They’re not a bend-don’t-break defense... They bend a little, then usually stiffen up, but will occasionally break.
I’m on record all over the internet saying I am a huge fan of the 3-3-5 / 2-4-5 scheme that Golding employs. I think that the focus on using outside cornerbacks to shut down the sidelines while using 3 safeties in tandem with smaller linebackers is key to stopping much of the RPO shenanigans so popular in college football. And while it theoretically should make the Tide weaker to a power run game, that just hasn’t played out.
Strategy and Game planning
This is the playcalling area that so many people tend to focus on when talking about coordinators. In previous years it’s felt like Golding was always one step or so behind the opponent in the first half before making halftime adjustments to settle things down.
This year, he’s seemed to be more prepared up front, and we’ve seen him alter the defense drastically for the Ole Miss, Miss State, and Tennessee offenses to counter their strengths to great effect.
He’s still a bit trigger happy with blitzes in bad situations, but, again, we’ve seen a little less of that this year.
His front seven rotations seems to both serve a purpose and have a plan to get all of the many experienced role players onto the field in different situations to generally good effect. On the other hand, his handling of DeMarcco Hellams/Daniel Wright at safety and Malachi Moore/Brian Branch at safety has been baffling at best.
Grade: B (Improved significantly from previous seasons, but still some major head-scratchers at times)
Communication and Organization
We now have three years of coverage busts and guys being late getting lined up to say that this section of running a defense has, without a doubt, been the weakest part of Golding’s game. As a young coordinator, this is somewhat to be expected. He just hasn’t mastered the communication of getting plays called efficiently under pressure. That said, it’s been three seasons, and we’re still seeing the same things more often than should be acceptable at a program with National Championship aspirations.
If you had asked me this last year, I’d have given Golding a straight F for poor tackling across the board.
That’s improved a lot this year, as evidenced by the Tide being in the top 20 in both second level yards and open field yards allowed. Certain players are still prone to the occasional whiff (Hellams and To’o To’o have been the main two culprits), but the group as a whole have been much better there.
The front 7 has been solid enough without giving up too many gaping holes, though only PhiDarian Mathis and Will Anderson have shown much ability to shed blocks. The rest of the defensive line as well as the linebacker crew have all struggled with getting off of blocks to to make tackles.
In the secondary, we’ve seen good ball skills from Jaylen Armour-Davis and Josh Jobe on the sidelines (though Jobe is a bit prone to a pass interference call), but we’ve seen some major misplays on the ball from all 4 of the contributing safeties.
With three seasons under his belt, almost all of the players on Alabama’s defense have now had multiple seasons with Golding. How many of them have truly improved from their first year? Will Anderson has made massive strides in year 2, as have Christian Harris and PhiDarian Mathis.
On the other hand, Battle, Hellams, Moore, and Branch all look to be equal to their 2020 selves or even to have backslid since last season. And the trio of starting freshmen defensive linemen from the 2019 squad (D.J. Dale, Byron Young, and Justin Eboigbe), seem to disappear more and more every year.
Dallas Turner, Kool-Aid McKinstry, Drew Sanders, Demouy Kennedy, Deontae Lawson, Ishmael Sophser, Tim Smith, Shane Lee, Byron Young, Christian Harris....
And that’s only about 1⁄3 of the total list. Golding already has secured 5 more commits for the upcoming class as well, including Top-50 players Shawn Murphy and Jaheim Oatis.
He’s been an absolutely phenomenal recruiter, and has closed the deal on some highly-contested 5-star recruits in Turner, McKinstry, and Sanders. Golding has been one of the best in the business in this regard from day 1.
Man, what a wide range of grades.
There’s truly a lot to like about what Golding has brought to Alabama. There’s clearly the potential for him to become an elite overall coordinator if experience can help him clean up some of the issues. Of course, with a team looking to win a national championship every year, does Alabama have the margin for error to allow him that leeway to learn?
Therein lies the crux of the entire argument. And, to be totally honest, I still haven’t decided on how I feel about Golding and whether I think he should be retained following this season.
Have you been satisfied with the job Pete Golding has done so far this year?
This poll is closed
(For the record, I’m intentionally leaving this as a yes/no poll, rather than giving qualifiers. I want to see exactly where everyone’s opinions lie after they consider all of the aspects of Golding’s resume)