When you think of defense Nick Saban is a natural coach that comes to mind. The same can be said about Bobby Petrino and offensive football. Saban has fielded top defenses for about a decade now and he has built those defenses on great coaching as well as top level talent. Saban has had a lot of turnover on his staff but the talent and system has always been pretty consistent.
The defensive line will have a major hole to fill with Da’Ron Payne off to the NFL. For the first time in a good while, Alabama doesn’t have a big time nose guard to step in that they know will be a good one. However, they do have 6-7/316 Raekwon Davis who mostly played end last season. Davis might end up being the best defensive lineman Louisville faces this year because he’s so versatile and he’s just massive. Look for Davis to slide down to the nose tackle spot in passing situations. I think that would be a normal thing for Bama this year but I think we could see it more often with Cole Bentley at center. He’s pretty green at that spot and the Tide might try to take advantage with their best defensive lineman.
Isaiah Buggs lines up at one of the end spot for the Tide and he should get more snaps this year after splitting time with Davis. Buggs is a run stopper that is impossible to move at times. Some guys have a hard time completely buying into being a 3-4 linemen but Buggs openly celebrates just eating up blocks and letting other guys make the play. He’s not a flashy player and he doesn’t make a ton of plays that show up on the stat sheet, but I’d be willing to bet that his coaches grade him out among the top players on the team.
The nose guard spot that Payne played so well will now be manned by Quinnen Williams. While I don’t see Williams playing to the level of Payne, I did like what I saw from him as a backup at times last season. He does well in short areas and I think he will do well with holding his ground against Louisville’s offensive line. If he can do that, he will be doing plenty for this defense because the guys around him are all play makers. The depth on the line is a concern for the Tide, but Johnny Dwight is another guy that has been mentioned a lot by folks that cover the program. He might be an option to backup Williams or Buggs.
Middle linebacker is the most talented spot on the defense with Mack Wilson returning and Dylan Moses stepping into the starting role. Wilson was one of the players who took advantage of Bama’s injury issues last year as he ended up starting a good amount of games. Moses’ made news in middle school when he was offered by LSU and Nick Saban himself. These guys are a key part of the defense to me. There are uncertainties on the defensive line so these guys could have to deal with more blockers than they would if there weren’t questions up front. I also think that Louisville will look to get the ball outside of the tackles and these two can run down plays better than most guys their size.
The outside linebacker spot should be strong at the top of the depth chart. Anfernee Jennings should be fully healthy after a knee injury last year in the Clemson game. He will man the rush end linebacker spot like Trevon Young did for Louisville last season . Christian Miller missed most of last year with an arm injury but made it back for the last three games and ended up with a sack in the championship game. His role is more of the James Hearns role of an outside pass rusher but he can also line up at end if needed. The linebacker spot has a great mix of talent and experience but the injuries they suffered last year helped their depth tremendously. The issue, of course, is that the depth that they developed last season is now injured before this season even started.
Bama is replacing their entire secondary just as Louisville is. The Tide had three players drafted from their secondary and a few more picked up as free agents. The plus for Bama is that they recruit like Bama and will have Trevon Diggs, Savion Smith, and Shyheim Carter to chose from at cornerback. All three guys are at least somewhat experienced and all of them were highly regarded prospects. I expect Bama to pressure Jawon Pass a lot and I think they will also try to stack the box to take away the run game. That could leave these guys in man coverage against the strongest group Louisville has on offense in it’s receivers.
Deionte Thompson started both games in the playoffs last year so he’s kind of the Russ Yeast of this group. Thompson will line up next to Xavier McKinney at safety and one of them will have to replace the production of Ronnie Harrison, who led the team in tackles last year. Thompson will be one of the best safeties in the country, in my opinion. He showed a great ability to get downhill and make plays behind the line of scrimmage but I was also impressed with him in deep coverage. McKinney was a stud in high school but if he ends up replacing Harrison, he has big shoes to fill and we will have to wait and see if he can do that.
Patrick Surtain is a true freshman that could end up seeing the field a lot. He’s listed as a “or” starter with Savion Smith at corner. I think that he will likely be the backup to start the game and Smith will have a short leash. Surtain will also likely be the sixth defensive back in their dime set that they run from time to time.