While the offense, defense and special teams all contributed to the crushing loss to LSU Saturday night the question that haunts most Alabama fans is what on earth is going on with our defense? Well I’m going to answer some of that with a look back to better times.
Taking one of the last times we had a really solid defense lets review the 2015 championship season. The first string defensive line consisted of Jarran Reed, Daron Payne, and A’Shawn Robinson. Off the bench we had Dalvin Tomlinson, Darren Lake, and Jonathan Allen. That group included 2 seniors, 3 juniors, and a lone freshman in Daron Payne who never played like a freshman from day one. Some made comparisons between current nose man DJ Dale and Payne but in my opinion Dale is not close to where Payne was as a freshman.
In that group of 6 players were 2 future first round NFL draft picks, 3 second rounders and one guy (Lake) who did not go pro. If you include DaShawn Hand who was third string that year that’s 6 guys who went on to become regular starters in the NFL.
This season in the top 6 we had 3 true freshman, 1 redshirt freshman, and 2 seniors. Of those seniors Musika only played sparingly and never exceptionally and the other Raekwon Davis never lived up to his lofty recruiting ranking.
Up to this point in the Saban era most defensive line starters fell into the upper class category. In fact even in the Shula years we started mostly upper class defensive linemen. That has drastically changed but why? We will dive into that. Four years ago Alabama signed 3 defensive lineman. The previously mentioned Davis, Quinnen Williams who only started one season (2018) and Jamar King who never played. They also signed Kendell Jones who never reported to campus or played college football.
The following season they signed LaBryan Ray who has only played intermittently and is currently out for the season, Phil Mathis who is a backup and Isaiah Buggs who was a junior college player who only played two seasons, though he was solid.
The following classes fill out our current depth chart and are so young we don’t know if they are any good. So the entire signing classes for several seasons back would not come close to assembling the talent present on the 2015 roster.
Moving to linebacker we will start at middle. We had 4 players. They included 3 players who went on to be regular starters in the NFL and one guy Keith Holcombe who was solid when he played, especially when it came to tackling. The Starters were also a Junior and a Senior. Compare that to the two lost freshman we have now, there is no comparison.
At outside we had Senior Denzel Devall at Jack, he was not athletic enough for pro ball but at that point he was a four year starter and pretty solid at the college level. On the other side was junior Dillon Lee also a solid college player and backing them up were Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson, two current NFL players. While Alabama’s current starting outside men are fairly solid the backups have not amounted to squat.
If I keep going down this road you would find 15 players on the two deep defense in 2015 that would go on to be NFL starters, not just make a roster, I means starting in the NFL. When I look at our defensive roster today I see a bunch of freshmen that we don’t know much about, and perhaps three players who might get drafted. The bottom line is this, Since Kirby Smart left the program Alabama’s defensive recruiting has been below the level it was before.
Was Kirby Smart the reason we were winning championships? The answer is, partially. He was a master recruiter and great DC and together he and Saban were almost unbeatable. Almost as important however was that Georgia’s program was not succeeding and Alabama was taking whatever players it wanted from the rich Georgia recruiting footprint. When Kirby went to Georgia that came to an end. If Smart had taken a job some place else the effect would not have been so pronounced.
The 2016-2018 recruiting classes were not as highly ranked classes as we had enjoyed before and they were particularly weak on defense. Included in those numbers were quality players who only started one season, like Quinnen Williams, Mack Wilson, and Dylan Moses. Moses could attempt to return to start a second season but we don’t know how good that knee is going to be. Alabama has had too many recruiting busts and too many players have left early for the NFL.
What’s more we have no clue if the problem is the same today or even getting worse. Alabama signed 15 defensive players last year. 6 of those have started games. Almost all of them have had to play. How good they will be is unknown at this point. The 2020 class is once again heavy on defense they have 14 verbal commitments so far. At least on paper it appears Alabama is attempting to fix this problem but you have to coach them up.
So the final question is can Alabama return to winning like before? The answer is that it is unlikely we will see another stretch of dominance like we saw before. For that to happen other programs we compete with for recruits would have to fall on hard times. So, can Alabama win more championships? Certainly this is possible. While they don’t out-recruit everybody like before they do recruit well enough. They did however do a poor job for several seasons recruiting defense and that has to turn around because as we all know and often forget. Defense wins championships.
One final thought on this is that Alabama has been plagued on the recruiting trail by crafty recruiters who convince a lot of players that Alabama is 3 deep with 5 start talent. While that was never really true it’s become rather glaringly obvious that they are not even 3 deep with 4 star talent any more. In fact, a quality freshman defensive player should expect playing time in 2020 and can certainly compete as a starter. Alabama can and should begin to turn that table on teams like Georgia and LSU that have feasted on recruits the past several seasons and are loaded up with top talent. Hopefully Saban can get that point across and continue to restock the empty shelf that has plagued us for several seasons now.
Here’s hoping for brighter days ahead, Roll Tide.