We are nearing the end of our Report Card series for 2022. Sorry for the delay: these do take a good bit of time, since I have a lot of homework to do, including watching every snap again. Hopefully they’re worth the wait. We will have a final wrap-up this week, then completely put a bow on the 2022 season. But first, we have to talk about some of the most conflicted staff performances of 2022: defensive coaching.
Defensive Coordinator: C-
I have been an unapologetic Pete ‘stan for years. Sometimes, it felt though I was on an island out here. I could see what he was doing his first season, and what he worked towards every year thereafter: incorporating a pure 3-3-5 in addition to ‘Bama’s base 3-4 base defense. The purpose was to kill off a long-time Tide defensive bugaboo: allowing a handful of game-changing big plays. That mission was accomplished. The season that Tosh was calling plays, Alabama was 61st in big plays allowed. But in Pete’s first year, it dropped to 36th, and the last two years the Tide was 10th in preventing big plays (2020 was an outlier, but really, with that offense, the defense was often bored. When you can quite literally score anytime you get the ball, you start to look a little Big 12-ish).
But that performance came with a price for sure: Alabama was a lot more passive, and it kept the ball in front of UA’s defenders. That also meant that Alabama forced a lot fewer turnovers, particularly from the secondary. And, yes, it meant that teams were often seemingly given free range to march between the 25s. But, there the drives would die. Once inside the red zone, it became very hard to score on UA. And as teams were being made to work for their touchdowns, they were scoring less.
Schematically, there was no issue really. That is what an elite defense looks like circa. 2022.
No, the issue lie in all of those other areas where Alabama was lagging, and/or where Pete just had not yet mastered his craft. The Tide simply was not a good team at the fundamentals: far too many missed tackles, too much miscommunication, too many players out of position, way too many penalties. And over the last four seasons, those things never improved either. The same offenders could draw flag after flag and rarely if ever suffer a benching. The Mike could be a disorganized mess; the interior defensive line could be spun around backwards; arm tackles could become the norm; the DBs could play refball instead of leverage and position; the team could cede the interior; the Tide could be slow to adjust to opponents exploiting glaring mismatches on the field...and then, just...nothing.
All of those issues came to a head in the LSU game, when the Tigers saddled up their offense to their sole offensive weapon in the waning moments and then dared Alabama to scheme a way to stop a pretty pedestrian Jayden Daniels from scrambling. And they not only could not do so, they could not do so knowing the run was coming straight at them. As with Bill O’Brien’s inglorious performance that evening, Pete’s tenure all-but certainly ended in Death Valley that night.
Even if you want to give him a mulligan for the Tennessee abomination, (and I tend to give him somewhat of a pass — the Chiefs splits almost always leave someone open for a sizeable gainer: though one wishes it weren’t the speed demon slot receiver), it was the second loss that kept the Tide out of the playoffs and which was actually the far worse one. There’s not much you can do about a thin defensive backfield, a slow(er) strong safety and Jalin Hyatt’s speed. But you can load the box, not sit on your heels, and make an aggressively crappy quarterback beat you with danger plays in the waning moments, instead of game-winning strolls into the endzone. You can hold on to leads when a mediocre offense is coming at you with vanilla plays that require little more to stop than winning your battles up front. It was a lesson that Auburn and Kansas State would take to heart.
The most frustrating part is that we’ve seen him scheme fantastic games — like completely annihilating Mike Leach’s national-best passing offese. We’ve seen him make wonderful adjustments — nailing Georgia’s offense to the wall in Tuscaloosa in 2020. We’ve seen him do a combination of these things — such as against Texas in DKR last season, and how he worked in Terrion Arnold and was able to protect him. But you see the problem, right? That’s over a career: this grade is solely for 2022, not a greatest hits assessment.
I still think Pete is going to get there, provided he shore up his fundamentals, team discipline, and in-game adjustments. But he did not do that last year when it counted most. Alabama needed one stop, and not only didn’t get it, didn’t try to do so either. Like O’Brien, it wasn’t all negative, of course. The Tide stoned the Longhorns, eviscerated Mississippi State, made Ole Miss a one-dimensional non-entity, etc. But counting on stops in just 50% of your meaningful games isn’t how you get to play for titles, much less win them.
It was probably for the best that Golding moved on. I don’t harbor ill will towards him, but nor do I harbor any illusions that he is what this team needs at this moment in time.
OLB Coaching: Coleman Hutzler (ST/OLBC) A+
Do you know where Alabama generated the majority of its tackles for loss? Its sacks? Its forced third down conversions? Its short yardage defensive success? It was this group of guys. Granted, Will Anderson is going to make anyone look like a genius. But it was not just Terminator. Hutzler got a lot out of Dallas Turner, who’s now poised for an All-American breakout-type year, as well as Chris Braswell. There may have been a few chinks in the armor of the 2022 Crimson Tide, but it wasn’t coming from this unit. Anything you add here would just be gilding the lily.
Inside Linebackers Coach: Pete Golding (DC/ILBC): A-
It’s hard to give Pete too much grief here for the small frame of Henry T.
When he landed in Tuscaloosa, the Tide was beginning an historical drought of talent on the inside. As a result, for half of his tenure, Alabama simply did not have anyone that was capable of playing this most demanding role. However, when UA reached into Knoxville to grab Henry To’oto’o away from the Vols, you saw instantly what an impact the infusion of starting SEC talent had on the defense. It had been one of the two missing pieces of the defense, alongside game-breaking free safety...which never materialized.
Henry was communicative, got people lined up properly, was a fiery leader, had coverage skills, great lateral speed, was smart, and brought so much else to the table that helped the defense thrive. The issue — and it feels like a record on repeat here — is that Alabama just didn’t have elite talent. Henry for all of his merits, is too light of a player to man the inside, and teams exploited that one on one mismatch at every given opportunity. How many times would he be in position and then get blasted by running back? Or neutralized by a guard? Far more than you care to remember.
That’s not a Pete issue, though. And, given the tremendous progress that Kendal Blackshire has made on the inside, coupled with Henry’s sound fundamental play, Coach Golding was earning his paycheck here. At least in terms of coaching, there was not much to complain of. Linebackers almost always diagnosed what was in front of them, and were in a position to make the play. But some SEC backs outweigh Henry, and given a full head of steam, it wasn’t particularly fair on some nights.
Defensive Line: (Freddie Roach) B-
There was a remarkably steep regression across literally every single metric on the defensive line. Regression was expected, sure. But this was a core that was out of position far too often, missed too many tackles, were fundamentally soft, and conceded the interior.
Any team that wanted to run right up the middle had a practical invitation to do so. Yes, losing Phil Mathis hurt, and fans knew it would. But permitting over a full yard extra per carry on the ground, the lack of a pass rush across the line, and a lot of roster dead weight was apparent. It can’t all be talent, right? I don’t think so. Though, how much of this was Roach not getting enough out of them, or whether there just isn’t talent, is still an open question.
Oatis’s spot appearances, the work that a healthy Eboigbe put in, and Byron Young’s breakout season leads one to believe that the issue was one of talent.
Mainly...though not exclusively. As with so many other position units, many of these players were directly evaluated and recruited by the present staff.
Cornerbacks: (Travaris Robinson) A-
Travaris Robinson was precisely what the doctor ordered here. Half of the field was a no-fly zone; pressed into service, Robinson turned a safety into a very serviceable s
tarter on the other side. And, when healthy, Ricks flashed every bit of the potential that made him a freshman All-American. But no where was it more apparent than Brian Branch, who grew from a very good DB into a first round Star corner, leveraging his natural talents and harnessing Robinson’s more aggressive on-ball approach.
If you’re still mad about the defense, it’s hard to look to the outside for the blame here — at least among the first three corners. The biggest issue here was the inability to develop Khyree’s raw talent as well as still taking too many penalties. We will see at Oregon, however, whether that was a Robinson issue or just a Khyree thing.
Safeties: Charles Kelly D
Charles Kelly, bless his insane heart, whatever Alabama was doing back there just was not acceptable. His DC experience is appreciated. His intensity is always cranked up to 11. His recruiting is stellar.
But, for a scheme that relied upon safeties playing safe, Alabama was remarkably iffy with anything thrown over the top, much less targets to tight ends. And the next time a safety picks up a RB out of the backfield, it may be the first. Players were slow to rotate over for help, they lost inside leverage far too often, and miscommunication continued to be a tremendous issue.
This was unacceptable.
Final Grade: C+
Quick: What Crimson Tide game in 2022 was Alabama focused, dialed-in, played smart, played with position, executed properly, were disciplined and did not take dumb penalties. Which one was communication on-point for 60 minutes, where teams got no freebies? Where the defense spotted weaknesses and shored them up?
Having a hard time with it, aren’t you? Me too.
If teams wanted the interior, they got it. If teams needed to make a clutch play, they got it. If teams wanted to go over the top and exploit bad safety play, they could. If teams wanted to put backs in space, they did.
Ignore the outstanding individual performances, and even games where the Tide looked mostly like a UA defense, in toto you cannot say that Alabama played to a standard, that the team evinced the Standard, can you?
Grade the overall Defensive Coaching in 2022
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