In the postmortem of the 2018 season the worst possible label was hung on the Crimson Tide, “SOFT”. Clearly there were some players who felt entitled, provided poor leadership and examples and some coaches were lacking in the X’s and O’s department and in some cases didn’t appear to be interested in anything other than progressing their careers. In an interview at a coaches convention Saban gave a telling speech about how important it was to have relationships with the players. He said these guys were not his guys for 4 or 5 years that these guys were his guys were his guys forever. He ask the coaches in attendance how many players had a father in the home? how many had NO parent in the home. He stressed how important he felt it was to provide that sort of leadership. Then he said if there was one thing he felt was missing this past year it was his assistants building relationships with the players like they had in the past.
There may have been numerous issues with last years team but there was something at it’s heart that was missing and that appears to be the focus of this off season. In Saturday’s A-Day game many people have been critical of starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s performance but I believe that is more representative of a defense that is surging back to life after having it’s heart cut out last season. The white team beat the crimson 31-17 mostly on the strength of turnovers. Overall the 2nd string defense struggled to hold back the 2nd string offense, so it appears Alabama is still deeper on offence than defense at this point. It’s not as simple as that though.
The first thing I noticed was some real depth at defensive line. I was a bit worried when word came out that a true freshman DJ Dale out of Pinson had won the starting nose job. I wondered what happened to Christian Barmore and Phil Mathis, but from the film these guys haven’t regressed at all but have improved, but rather Dale is just that good. Dale was only a 3 star recruit but like several Nick Saban recruits on the defensive line in the past he’s actually a good bit better than that. They have a new DL coach running the show and what I saw they appear to have several platoons ready to play. Encouragingly they stoned the entire run game on both sides.
Next the linebackers. Alabama lost virtually all their outside guys last year and it was refreshing to see a more healthy Anfernee Jennings, a returned from injury Chris Allen and a more grown and mature Eyabi Anoma once again pinching in on the passers. This had a lot to do with some of the low pass numbers from Tua. Last year he had his way with the 1st team defense and seeing them come back this year and limit his effectiveness is encouraging, plus it will challenge Tua to improve. Inside starters Josh McMillon and Dylan Moses looked better than we expected with true freshman Shane Lee looking like a guy who could help provide depth. Many expected Brandon Kaho to be the starter by now but this has not been a good off season for him and he appears to be a ways from being ready for SEC play. Jaylen Moody was a late add to a short recruiting class and at 2 stars is one of the lowest ranked recruits we’ve signed in a decade. He’s not very fast but he appears to be a football player who knows how to get things done. His pick 6 showed sneaky speed and wiggle for a guy who’s built for tough inside play. This is still a team weak point in depth but it’s not as bad as I thought it would be.
The starting secondary played well as expected but the 2nd team secondary was pretty much a mess. Redshirt freshman Eddie Smith had a play here and there and I still think Jayln Armour-Davis will end up being a player, he’s still on the mend from season ending injury. After that though Alabama has some work to do.
Overall the defense looks to be in better shape than they were last year and returning to championship form starts there. Offense is great but eventually every offense gets stoned or turns it over and it has to be the defense to turn a game like that around.
Special teams: Last seasons special teams were practically Armageddon. They didn’t trust anyone to field kicks, place kicker Joseph Bulovas set a record for most goal post hits in a season and the freshman punter had a meltdown and lost his job to a walkon. Obviously fixing all this is a must for any sort of championship run. Alabama signed a kicker from Hoover Will Reichard who may end up taking the place kicking job, he was 1 for 1 on his only kick for 43 yards while Bulovas missed 3 of his 4 attempts. Reichard is also a pretty good punter as well. Skyler DeLong the trainwreck punter from 2018 appears to have been reborn and had an outstanding day averaging 47 yards per punt. Though I have to say that with a bit of caution because Saban said last season he was “great during practice last year as well. I think we will know in game one if his problem has returned. Alabama did not return kicks in A-Day but fielded them and Waddle appears to be the primary returner and looked comfortable doing so. I expect they will turn him loose to try and make plays this year in the return game. He’s certainly capable of changing games doing that.
Offensively Alabama appears to have 2 game ready guys in Harris and Robinson but true freshman Trey Sanders who arrives this summer clearly has a door open for that third spot should he be prepared to take it. None of these guys saw much of a hole. The offensive line played OK but nothing to write home about.
The wide receiver corps is probably the deepest we will ever see. Jeudy, Ruggs and Waddle are NFL ready, Smith may end up in the league as well and true freshman John Metchie won the MVP award. He did his damage against the poor 2’s in the secondary but still, he had a very good day. Xavier Williams also had an excellent day. Alabama is stacked at WR.
At tight end I thought Miller Forrestall is starting to look like a weapon at H-Back but they are struggling to find big men to take on that blocker roll.
As for the quarterbacks, Tua had an ok day against the 1st team defense. He was not in mid-season form by any stretch and some uncharacteristic drops by Jeudy hurt the final numbers and stunted any comeback attempts. He still needs to get better at finding the open man on 3rd downs instead of going for the home run ball. Backup Mac Jones showed improvement, how much is hard to tell. He was co-MVP last year and looked like crap when he had to play this past year so I take it with a grain of salt. Between the two freshman clearly the younger Tagovailoa (Lia) is further along than Paul Tyson. Tyson was too slow making the read and has a ways to go. Lia like his brother is just a more natural player who instinctively puts the ball in a good spot when he’s flushed from the pocket. He’s not as big as his brother so I don’t know how far his upside is but clearly Lia has some of that same “something” than Tua has.
Much of the Alabama makeover will hinge on the new coaching staff so I thought I’d review them here the new coaches are in bold.
OC/QB – Steve Sarkisian
RB – Charles Huff
WR – Holmon Wiggins
TE/ST – Jeff Banks
OL – Kyle Food
DC/ILB – Pete Golding
OLB – Sal Sunseri
DB-S – Charles Kelly
DB-CB – Karl Scott
DL – Brian Baker
Steve Sarkisian is one of the most experienced offensive coaches currently available after leaving the Atlanta Falcons after two seasons. The former head coach at Washington and USC was an off field assistant for the tide and was given a battlefield promotion to OC in 2016 just one week prior to the national championship game after Lane Kiffin was let go. Alabama ultimately lost the game but scored over 30 points. In the final analysis the loss had more to do with Jalen Hurts not being up to the task of converting 3rd downs and the defense eventually running out of steam. Still Alabama with a single defensive stop could have won the 2016 championship so it was close game, nothing like the crushing loss a few weeks ago. Sark will likely pull Alabama back toward the spread west coast system rather than the RPO based option offense they have been running. In the A-Day game it was notable how often they went with the quick slant plays. Hopefully this is something they are going to force teams to defend to keep the linebackers out of the deep drops. That will open up some things deeper.
Charles Huff – Running Back: Huff was lured away from Mississippi State as the new running back coach. He has coached running backs at multiple colleges and a year with the Buffalo Bills. While at Penn State he coached Saquon Barkley. Huff has been known to utilize multiple unique drills to push the versatile athletic ability of his running backs and Saquon Barkley was an amazing runner who continues to confound defenses at the next level even being on a bad team (NY Giants)
Holmon Wiggins – Wide Receivers: Originally from Los Angeles playing collegiality at New Mexico Wiggins spent the last two seasons with Virginia Tech. Wiggins cut his teeth working for Justin Fuente at Memphis where their innovative offense led to unprecedented success, shattered records and produced NFL players. Wiggins inherits an experienced group but needs to build depth for the future because we don’t know how many will go pro next season.
Kyle Flood: Offensive Line – Alabama’s inability to score in the redzone even from a single yard out was a key component of Alabama not being able to stay in the game with Clemson and after several seasons of sub-par run blocking Saban has hired someone to bring back the power running game. Flood was a former assistant and head coach at Rutgers. He rose from assistant to head coach and ended up getting fired when some players committed various felony’s. From there coached the offensive line for the Atlanta Falcons. Flood worked with Sark so that relationship may have been key
Pete Golding coached linebackers last season but is sliding into the DC roll. Unlike his predecessor Golding has called defenses for many years at various other stops albeit at lower levels of competition. As always the defense will essentially be Saban’s defense but every coordinator brings some wrinkles to the system. Golding may have actually been calling the defense late last year but by then it was critically wounded at linebacker and I don’t know what could have been done to cover that up.
Sal Sunsuri- outside linebackers: Possibly one of the most important hires is the man brought in to rebuild the outside pass rush which completely flamed out last season at the wrong time. Sunsuri was with the Tide for the 2011-2012 back to back National Championship seasons coaching the defensive line and then left to become the DC at Tennessee. Most felt he did a good job there but the Big Orange was well on it’s way to a collapse that they have yet to recover from. Essentially it was a sinking ship no matter what he did. Last season he was the defensive line coach for the Florida Gators. The Sunsuri family is well familiar with Tuscaloosa and he is a former Broyles award winner for the top assistant in the country. In addition to himself his son, a former defensive back for the tide Vinnie Sunsuri will be a graduate assistant this year. Sunsuri a former Tide defensive back left after his junior season for the NFL and played for New Orleans and San Francisco. Injuries plagued him throughout his career and shortened it. Vinnie knew the defense as good as anyone and probably has the raw material to become a great coach one day. Additionally Tino Sunsuri a former Pitt Quarterback is also joining the staff in an off field roll. He was part of the Tennessee staff last season.
Charles Kelly was last job was as the defensive coordinator at Florida State from 2014-2017. Kelly is actually an Auburn grad who played for Pat Dye. Which is understandable as the Dye years at Auburn were carbon copies of Bear Bryant teams, a far cry from what they have become since. Kelly was the DC in the curious national title game between Florida State and Auburn where Auburn coach Dameyune Craig was accused of reading Florida States defensive signals because he had coached for them the previous season. Auburn’s defense which was the lowest rated defense to make it to the title game in the BCS era inexplicably shut down Jamis Winston and the Seminoles. At the half apparently they figured it out and Florida State dominated the second half and eventually won the game. Kelly’s defense held Auburn to 10 points in the second half for the win. Prior to Florida State Kelly was a long time assistant for Georgia Tech where he coached for Chan Gailey and Paul Johnson. Kelly is so qualified he was considered for defensive coordinator and if he stays with Alabama will likely get that roll when Pete Golding moves on to be a head coach.
Brian Baker: A critical hire most of Baker’s 30 years experience is in the NFL but the last three seasons he has been the Mississippi State defensive line coach, his line was the one that almost destroyed Alabama season by beating up Tua to the point of incoherence. I actually don’t think Tua has yet to get over the beating he took at the hands of this guys defensive line so naturally, we hired him. Needless to say Saban is looking for him to bring that sort of aggressiveness to Tuscaloosa.
I don’t know how many years Saban will continue to coach but I think he really wants to get back to the sort of hard nosed players and coaches that brought championships in the past. This staff looks to be that sort of staff and this team has some of those elements. Time will tell if they improve in areas they are weak and if they can stay healthy enough to compete. Much also rests on the shoulders of Tua Tagovalioa who will have to figure out how to solve the puzzles that defensive coordinators brought to him last last year. Everyone has seen that film and that’s what they are going to try to do to stop him. He’s an enormous natural talent, but can he reach the next level of being a student of the game? If he does he’s going to be very hard to stop.