When Alabama rolls out its shiny new offense on Saturday, they will be facing an experienced Miami defense that will be looking to improve after a somewhat disappointing 2021 campaign. Head coach Manny Diaz decided to personally take the reins at defensive coordinator after parting ways with Blake Baker in the offseason. Known for bringing the turnover chain to college football, Diaz will undoubtedly look to get back to a more attacking style after only generating 16 turnovers in all of 2020.
His 4-3 defense returns a significant number of starters at all three levels from a 2020 unit that ranked #31 in SP+, 67th in yards per game allowed at 408, and 51st in scoring defense at 27 per game. The last two games were particularly rough as North Carolina and Oklahoma State combined to roll up 99 points and nearly 1,200 yards of offense.
The secondary will likely be the strength of this group, led by a talented safety in #21 Bubba Bolden. The 6’3” 200 lb. redshirt junior is versatile, athletic and physical. He and running mate Gurvan Hall, another junior, may be seen switching responsibilities between box safety and centerfielder, designed to confuse Alabama’s young QB Bryce Young. Miami also signed the nation’s top safety prospect in summer enrollee James Williams, a five star prospect out of Fort Lauderdale’s American Heritage where he was coached by Patrick Surtain Sr. Called a “unicorn prospect” by 247 analyst Andrew Ivins, odds are that the 6’5” Williams will see the field at some point in the game.
Miami’s cornerbacks were torched early and often in 2020, but they are hoping that some additional experience will move the needle for them along with Tyrique Stevenson, who transferred in from Georgia. Stevenson was the #3 CB in the 2019 class according to the 247 composite rankings and will likely be counted for some immediate heavy lifting. The incumbents are junior D.J. Ivey and sophomore Te’Cory Couch. Those three are listed as co-starters and will be challenged by a speedy group of WRs led by junior John Metchie III, and including its own super talented transfer in Jameson Williams.
The ‘Canes have some beef up front, led by 318 lb. senior Jonathan Ford. Ford enters his third season as a starter after flirting with the NFL Draft. He is a grown man in the middle who will clog up some space and push the pocket. Ford is one of three 300-lb. tackles on the two-deep, plus 285 lb. redshirt freshman Jared Harrison-Hunte. Edge rusher is the one position that will require an overhaul, as 2020 starters Jaelen Philips and Quincy Roche were drafted in April. A couple of 255 pounders in redshirt senior Zach McCloud and redshirt freshman Jahfari Harvey will start on the ends.
The linebackers are an area that Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien likely feels he can exploit a bit. In the middle is 234 lb. sophomore Corey Flagg, a former three-star out of Houston. Speed has been something of an issue for Flagg, and he has made improving in that area a priority. Sophomore Keontra Smith moves from the “striker” hybrid position in Diaz’s defense to weak-side linebacker. It is an interesting experiment. Smith came to Miami as the #15 ranked cornerback in his class and is quite undersized for a linebacker at 5’11” and 212 lb. Starting in the striker spot vacated by Smith is senior Amari Carter, who goes 202 lbs. Expect Alabama to run the ball and work the tight ends against this smallish group.
From a pure talent perspective, this is something of a mismatch as most of Alabama’s games are. Still, with so many new starters on Alabama’s offense and a new offensive coordinator, there could be some early struggles against a defense that should be comfortable in the scheme if nothing else. With a new starter at quarterback, it will be a surprise if O’Brien doesn’t lean on the running game quite a bit while looking for the occasional explosive opportunity through the air. For at least one week, this may look an awful lot like the Alabama offenses from earlier in the Saban era, which would be a welcome sight for Tide fans starved for some old school football.