Second-and-nine. The offense decides to run up the middle and gains two yards after a solid defensive play. Third-and-seven. In an obvious passing situation, the defense substitutes a package of pass rushers, Alabama calls it the “Rabbit” package, to get after the opposing quarterback. The ball is snapped, and the quarterback throws an incompletion thanks to the pressure generated by the defense. Time to punt.
Traditional football, you are missed.
Thanks to the adoption of the NFL’s forty second play clock in the mid 2000s, that sequence of events rarely happens in today’s college game. Offenses have been able to take far firmer command of defensive substitutions by either running a true up-tempo offense which snaps the ball early in the forty second clock, or rushing to the line of scrimmage and then looking to the sideline for the play call.
In either case, the defense cannot substitute because it takes too much time to get different players onto the field. Catching the defense in a substitution is one way to ensure a positive play. While there is a rule that states if an offense substitutes, the defense must be given time to perform its own substitutions as well, offenses have eschewed substitution in favor of keeping the same group of defenders on the field.
Defenses have had to adapt to this new paradigm and Alabama has not been immune to the pains of adaptation. A top-tier college defense can’t rely on one package being elite at doing one thing such as stuffing the run, but poor at others. Due to inability to substitute, the defense has to be willing to sacrifice elite play against one group of plays for solid play against the majority.
For example, consider the “Star” position in Alabama’s Nickel defense. Traditionally, Crimson Tide coaches have preferred to deploy a cornerback in this position since nickel defense counters offenses that run three wide receiver sets. The tradeoff is obvious. The majority of cornerbacks are not as good at stuffing the run as a linebacker. It’s less an athleticism problem and one more grounded in physics. It is generally easier to block 200 pound guys than it is to block 250 pound guys assuming the players have similar athleticism.
A defense can overcome this by having versatile players which can fulfill a multitude of roles in their scheme, and the 2015 version of the Crimson Tide is teeming with these players. The most obvious one is Dillon Lee, a 6’4″, 242 pound linebacker from Buford, Georgia. During Fan Day 2015, Kirby Smart said, “Dillon’s been the kind of man who can play many positions” and he has seen time with both the inside and the outside linebackers during fall camp.
What does Lee’s presence mean for the 2015 Crimson Tide defense? Nothing short of the potential to return to the gold standard in college football. Alabama can run out of its base 3-4 defense, and if a player like Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram flexes out to become a third wide receiver, the Crimson Tide can transform itself into a nickel defense without having to substitute thanks to Dillon Lee being able to be a stand-in “Star.”
It doesn’t end with naturally versatile players, though. How players are molded to compete has to change and strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochrane has been hard at work to do just that going into 2015. Multiple reports have surfaced that Crimson Tide defenders are thinner, with an emphasis on speed and being able to sustain over pure bulk. In a real sense, Nick Saban’s recruiting emphasis on “quick-twitch athletes” has become the reality at the Capstone.
With multiple teams on the 2015 schedule known to employ an up-tempo type of offense, versatility is the name of the game going into the year. Player development, typified by the presence of Dillon Lee, has borne fruit in this area. While Lee is the poster child, the change can be seen throughout the defense. It is too early to say this defense will be as adept as the 1992 or 2011 defenses, but reshaping personnel all over the field has given the 2015 defense the potential to be that good.