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SUPERLATIVES: Grading the 2020 Alabama Football Season — Defensive Backs

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The kids are going to be alright.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Ohio State vs Alabama Columbus Dispatch-USA TODAY Sports

Midseason Grade (Corners): A+
Final Grade (Corners): A+

What we said at the break (Corners):

It is an absolute no-fly zone on the outside — teams simply do not throw the ball at Josh Jobe or Patrick Surtain II. Instead, they are opting to try and attack the slot, isolate the tight end, or put the backs in space thinking (correctly, as it unfortunately happens) that Alabama will more often than not forget RBs are eligible receivers.

But, the development of freshman stud Malachi Moore has made attacking the nickel position a dicey proposition for opponents.

Some position units grew as the season progressed, notably the front seven. Some took a slight step back, owing to injuries or inexperience or inconsistency on the depth chart (running backs after Najee, come to mind. And some were just steadily excellent throughout the season. Such was the case with the Alabama Crimson Tide cornerbacks.

After finishing last season in 27th in adjusted passing defense, the Tide finished 8th on the year, en route to a 2nd place overall defensive FEI for the season. Two of the teams above them were in the playoffs; six others were in New Year’s Six games. And all were much more veteran units than the Tide.

Alabama faced the second-most passes of anyone in the conference (36 per game), and still led the league in yards per attempt, passer rating allowed, completion percentage, and fewest scores allowed. The Tide were 3rd in yards-per-game allowed and 4th in interceptions forced. Considering Alabama was also clearing the bench for entire halves, that’s not too damned shabby, folks.

Patrick Surtain II and Joshua Jobe were about as automatic as you could want on the outside. They finished 1st and 3rd in the SEC in passes defended, respectively; and they were 1st and 2nd in passes broken up.

But what really allowed this unit to shine was the emergence of the babies — freshmen Brian Branch at dime and Malachi Moore at the all-important Star spot. We tend to think of Moore in particular as the revelation. But Branch was put on an island against outstanding wideouts all season, including Ohio State matching up Chris Olave against him. While both gave up some plays, they more than held their own. Malachi Moore led ‘Bama with 3 INT, and was 8th in the SEC in PBUs (6), and 9th in passes defended. But Branch was just about as effective. In fact he 6th in the SEC in PBUs (7), and tied Moore at 9th in passes defended. While Moore led the team with three picks, Branch added a pair of his own.

The future is very bright.

Midseason Grade (Safeties): C-
Final Grade (Safeties): B+

What we said at the break:

Can we grade this one in two divisions? We have the Jordan Battle division, which is a solid A. He tackles well, he covers well, he’s smart, and he has the chops to man-up. Then we have the “oh, god, make it stop”- everyone else division. The C+ grade here is mostly his responsibility (and Hellams is the other portion).

Were you upset with the lack of physicality by the defensive line? How about the lack of a consistent pass-rush from the linebackers? Friends, you don’t know disappointment-verging-on-existential-dread until you see No. 3 in that starting lineup.

What we said about the corners held true for the safeties as well: what you saw early in the season was basically what you got down the stretch. Jordan Battle was a beast back there, providing much-needed stability and playmaking. And Daniel Wright, for all of his excellent break on the ball and skills with the ball in the air, was just as lost in Game 13 as he was in Game 1. And that really is a pity. He’s the more athletic, skilled option at the SS spot. But he simply makes bad decisions and mental errors.

We begged to see more of Demarcco Hellams down the stretch, and I suppose that Coach Golding finally saw that picking up some Ws was more important that pure potential — No. 29 was the starter in the SECCG and in both games of the College Football Playoff. When he got his shot, he shined too. He was very physical in run support, and he was assignment-sound in coverage. Teams did try and pick on him of course, but Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, and Kyle Pitts are going to be a mismatch for nearly everyone in the NFL too. So, no shame there.

But it was what we didn’t hear that mattered the most — a lot of third down conversions. In the final five games where Hellams started or played > 75% of the snaps, Alabama surrendered <50% on third down in four of them, and against high-powered, Top 20 offenses: LSU, Ohio State, and Notre Dame.

We won’t count Arkansas’s 33% here, so the only team that had any real success on third down was Florida — the nation’s No. 2 offense. But that was a combination of Kadarius Toney moving all over the field, Dan Mullen calling an inspired game, and Kyle Pitts showing you why I believe he’ll be in Canton in a decade. But in 7 of the previous games where Wright started or played >75% of snaps, teams converted at or above Ohio State’s 42% in 5 of them. Particularly awful was allowing 45% to UGA, then and the game I think got DW3 benched, Auburn’s 48% 3rd down.

The Tide’s explosive plays surrendered also plummeted. After surrendering 5.5 YPP in the first 8 games, the Tide allowed just 4.9 down the stretch, and that includes showings against Nation’s No. 2, No. 8, and No. 17 offenses.

Safety play was a tremendous reason for that improvement, and Hellams in particular was the thumb that plugged the leaking seawall. We upgrade ‘Bama’s score accordingly.

Let’s give the entire package, and entire year a B+

Poll

What player surprised you the most in 2020 (positive or otherwise)?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    Brian Branch
    (22 votes)
  • 10%
    Demarcco Hellams
    (33 votes)
  • 9%
    Josh Jobe
    (32 votes)
  • 66%
    Malachi Moore
    (212 votes)
  • 3%
    Daniel Wright
    (10 votes)
  • 3%
    I just started watching football. This Surtain fella’ seems pretty good.
    (12 votes)
321 votes total Vote Now