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Superlatives: 2022 Alabama Football Report Card: Defensive Backs made substantial improvements

Don’t let the Tennessee loss blind you to just how far this secondary came along in 2022.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 31 Allstate Sugar Bowl Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last year, in this very feature, we summarized the 2021 DB unit as one with “structural weaknesses,” both in coaching and on the roster. Nick Saban did not sit on his hands, however, a miserable 63rd-ranked pass efficiency defense. Robinson was brought in to mentor the DBs, and recruiting this season was a point of emphasis both in the regular signing class and the Portal.

So, did those structural weaknesses improve? They did, for the most part. However what was once weaknesses, plural still showed through as a glaring-but-singular weakness: safety. And, once again, Nick Saban has not rested, going out and selling his first-born for Caleb Downs, targeting Jaylen Key out of the Portal, signing a true CB2 to free up Terrion Arnold to move to safety or Malachi Moore to play the slot.

But, before we can look ahead, we have to look back.

The Good:

  • Alabama improved its completion % allowed from 50th in the nation (63.1%) to an unreal 10th (53.6%).
  • After allowing a grisly 6.9 YPA in 2021 (32nd), the 2022 unit vaulted to third in the nation, surrendering just 5.4 YPA.
  • Alabama was 95th in 2021, allowing the most TD passes since the 2014 season (25); last year, Alabama jumped to eighth in the country, and halved that previous showing — the Tide surrendered just 12 passing touchdowns all year.
  • UA cut down its yards allowed per game (218) to a beastly 186 per contest, and finished 17th in the country.
  • And where it showed up the most, the complete picture: Alabama went from 63rd in QB efficiency defense, to 6th overall.

The Bad:

  • Interceptions, never a priority under Golding’s make-em-earn it scheme, dropped from a decent 15 in 2021 to a woeful 11 in 2022.
  • On an opponent-adjusted basis, the Tide’s secondary was weirdly inefficient: it went from 6th in 2021, to 38th in 2022. That probably requires some explanation, but it means in a nutshell that very good passing teams had better success last year than the year before. Of course, since it is a composite number, there are outliers that skew the data set. For instance, Alabama ringing up UGA in the 2021 SECCG greatly helped their performance date; while the Vols having their way with the Tide’s secondary in 2022 made it plummet. That is also an artifact of some other things, discussed infra.
  • Despite being outstanding overall in turning pass attempts into 50-50 propositions, Alabama was far worse on the road doing so. Road opponents completed 64% of their attempts vs. the Tide. That is certainly confounded by the schedule: Alabama faced four road teams that are or were in the Top 10 at one point, and all four had Top 20 pass efficiency offenses. Whether Alabama would have been better at home than the road is speculative. But Texas, Arkansas, LSU, and Tennessee especially, were able to tee off on the ‘Bama secondary.
  • That road / home effect is seen throughout the dataset too. Alabama’s QB efficiency defense rose an ungodly 50 points when away from Tuscaloosa (85ish to 135ish). Alabama’s home secondary play would have been the best in the country; it’s road play would have pegged the Tide at 104th.
  • Likewise, Alabama allowed just 3 passing scores in 8 home games, with 4 INTs. But on the road, Alabama allowed nine TDs, while forcing three picks. You don’t win many games with a 3:1 TD/INT ratio-against. In its two losses, it was actually worse, too. 7 TDs allowed, just one INT. In those losses, UA also surrendered 9 full yards a toss, which was 129th in the country.
  • And against ranked teams Alabama allowed 10 of its 12 passing scores.

Putting It All Together

What do we make of 2022, then?

It was a group that looked so good on paper, but there were some serious issues lurking a bit beneath the surface.

Let’s start by reviewing what we said about 2021, and whether that was rectified:

I really like the work outgoing Jay Valai did as far as coaching the outside. ‘Bama corners particularly were almost always in phase with their man, had good leverage, inside position, and were otherwise put in a position to succeed. They timed their strips well and that borderline split-second contact to separate receivers from the ball. It has been some the best overall in-phase coverage we’ve seen in a while.

But, lord, the man cannot coach playing the ball in the air. When you have a receiver on your hip, your head is turned around staring at the incoming toss, and you are stride-for-stride with your man, you cannot fail to contest the pass. And Alabama has not contested passes in the air, or broken on the ball well, since the loss of Derrick Ansley. Those PBU and PDU and big plays that Alabama made on defense were the result of being in position, and not a matter of going out and making a play. One is passive, one is active, and this was not an active unit. And, not coincidentally, Valai is no longer on staff.

Like the wide receivers whom the DBs mirror, it is also a group long on talent on the two-deep. And with the right coaching and preparation and reps, they could have a ceiling that is as high as they want it to be. So, I’m not ready to burn it to the ground, because while the receivers seemed to be an issue of personnel, DBs appear to (mostly) be matters of coaching and/or inexperience. The new staff has a lot of promising weapons in their arsenal.

I think that was half-right in retrospect.

Coaching very plainly had been a problem. Alabama went from defending just 60 passes in 2021, to 99 PDs in 2022. And the Tide went from 45 passes broken up to 59 in one year. As we expected when Travaris Robinson was hired, Alabama would become a far more active team with the ball in the air; it would be a more physical unit that pressed the play rather than letting the play come to them.

That was borne out.

And Alabama still dealt with youth and injuries, for sure.

Because a camp injury sidelined Eli Ricks, who had been counted on to man the corner opposite Kool-Aid, safety Terrion Arnold was pressed into service perhaps a year early, but certainly at a position that he had to learn. Considering the circumstances, he did well overall in his “baptism of fire.” But, as the season progressed, and as the opposing talent level improved, that job became Eli Ricks — he was just the better option at corner. Not that Arnold regressed, but his growing pains were more evident.

Similarly, Alabama had counted on the continued development of Khyree Jackson at the corner, and that improvement simply never arrived either.

It truly was Arnold-or-nothing, at least until Ricks was healthy enough to insert into lineup.

So, we can call Arnold “half-a-target” — he saw a lot of looks, as teams stayed away from All-American studs Brian Branch and Kool-Aid McKinstry, but he acquitted himself well for the most part. Though against elite talent he looked every bit the young safety playing corner that he was.

No, the biggest issue was the other safety spot and Alabama’s dime sets. When Khyree had to be pressed into service, he had a bullseye on his back. His athleticism is not in question, but his football awareness and overall IQ very much were.

And no one was quite targeted like teams isolated DeMarcco Hellams and made him cover wide receivers. Hellams was, to be blunt, a liability at the best of times, and a game-losing hole in the lineup at the worst of times.

It wasn’t just his lack of awareness and ability to rotate over to help that were concerns, but his speed. Hellams was simply too slow to do the job. The less said about the Vawls loss the better: Tennessee zeroed in on the Tide’s greatest weakness, took their greatest strength and matched them up against one another. Josh Heupel threw the Chiefs splits out on the field, and dared Pete Golding to outcoach him. And Golding could not do so, and he could not largely because of personnel. Not to pick on Hellams, but he was the weak link all year.

Overall, the Crimson Tide made tremendous strides in 2022 over 2021. Travaris Robinson was not quite a miracle worker back there, but his imprint was all over the DBs. The Tide were more physical, they contested the ball more. Yet, they rarely turned those plays on the pass into turnovers; that will have to be corrected.

However, the most glaring issue of the past two seasons now appears to be corrected: personnel and quality depth. Alabama now has eight healthy, legitimate starters — at their position — for five spots on the field. The Crimson Tide can do things in 2023 that it has not had the luxury of since 2016 or so.

If their health holds, then there are simply no excuses for this team to not have one of the top secondaries in the nation, and perhaps the best one in the Power 5.

No pressure.

Final Grade: B (2021 C-)


Grade the 2022 Alabama Crimson Tide Secondary

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