TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The words weren’t hollow, and they were backed up on the field.
After Alabama’s A-Day, the final scrimmage of spring practices otherwise known as the Crimson-White game, senior linebacker Anfernee Jennings made a point of saying “As a defense we felt like we had something to prove. This was the first opportunity to show who we are.”
The first-team defense, which played on the White, led the day, resulting in a 31-17 victory.
It gave up one big play and one touchdown drive against the likes of Tua Tagovailoa, Najee Harris and the talented starting trio of wide receivers. The Crimson was just 2 of 9 in third-down conversions and averaged 0.6 rushing yards per attempt.
“We have to pride ourselves on stopping the run again,” Jennings said.
Obviously the defense was a little sick of hearing how good the offense was, plus there had been a lot of turnover since last season. Five defensive players were selected in the 2019 NFL Draft, and the coaching staff was revamped with Pete Golding taking over as coordinator.
But the real incentive was this: The 2018 defense was statistically Alabama’s worst since Nick Saban’s first season in 2007.
• It finished 16th nationally in total defense. Only once since 2007 had Alabama finished outside of the top 10, No. 13 in 2014.
• Alabama was 12th in scoring defense, giving up an average of 18.1 points. It actually gave up more in 2014, 18.4, but finished sixth.
• The Crimson Tide was 23rd in passing-efficiency defense, a little better than 2014, but the previous year it had been second.
• The rushing defense is where Alabama took the biggest step back, finishing 19th in the nation. The three previous years it was No. 1.
Alabama defense national rankings
Year Total (yards),Scoring (points), Rushing (yards), Pass Eff. (rating)
2007 31 (345.5) 27 (22.0) 28 (124.2) 38 (117.21)
2008 3 (263.8) 7 (14.3) 2 (74.14) 14 (106.68)
2009 4 (256.6) 2 (11.7) 2 (78.14) 2 (87.67)
2010 5 (298.0) T-3 (13.5) 10 (110.15) 6 (103.54)
2011 1 (177.6) 1 (8.2) 1 (72.15) 1 (83.69)
2012 1 (252.9) 1 (10.9) 1 (76.36) 6 (103.72)
2013 5 (295.8) 4 (13.9) 7 (106.2) 26 (116.84)
2014 13 (337.0) 6 (18.4) 4 (102.4) 30 (116.53)
2015 1 (266.2) 3 (15.1) 1 (75.7) 8 (105.22)
2016 2 (261.8) 1 (13.0) 1 (63.9) 9 (106.47)
2017 1 (260.4) 1 (11.9) 1 (94.7) 2 (96.78)
2018 16 (319.5 12 (18.1) 19 (121.3) 23 (115.79)
Grated, injuries contributed to the Crimson Tide’s woes, but now you know why some players slid in the draft.
The gold standard of Saban-coached defenses at Alabama, of course, was 2011. The Crimson Tide led college football in pass-efficiency defense (83.69 rating), pass defense (111.46 yards per game), rushing defense (72.15), scoring defense (8.15 points), and total defense (183.62 yards per game) en route to the national championship.
Only one other time since the NCAA started keeping track in 1937 had a team swept the four key defensive categories at No. 1: Oklahoma in 1986.
It also topped each category convincingly even though it didn’t have the same level of talent as some of the teams to follow.
“Every year we’ve had to change a little bit,” former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said in 2015. “I think we did a chart trying to figure out why we were so good; I guess it was four years ago — the 2011 defense that was so good against LSU in the championship game. That season we had five run-pass option plays out [of] 800 plays, and we looked at last year, we had over 120 run-pass option plays. So obviously the game has changed, the teams we’re playing have changed, and we’ve had to evolve with it.
“That team was a big, physical presence team that was good at stopping the run, had two first-round corners on it and both played well.”
Part of that evolution was to get faster at key spots. Consequently, in 2017 the Crimson Tide nearly matched the 2011 team in finishing first in all the of key defensive team categories except one. It was second in pass-efficiency.
Defense still wins championships, right?
Even though Alabama lost Quinnen Williams, who was the third-overall selection in the recent draft, two starting linebackers and two contributors in the secondary, the defense could bounce back in a big way this fall.
It again has two corners with first-round potential. There’s a talented inside linebacker ready to take over the key leadership role, with two veteran outside linebackers ready to wreck havoc. The line doesn’t have a lot of proven depth, but at least there’s strength in numbers.
It could be a big, physical and fast Crimson Tide defense, which is emphasizing player together under Golding
“It’s great, just competing against our defense,” wide receiver DeVonta Smith said. “Just to know that we have big, long corners. Everyone has just the things that they like to do. It just makes us better. At the end of the day that’s what we come here for to compete against the best every day.”
This is the first story in a summer series called "Stat Pack"