Nick Saban and Jeremy Pruitt’s 2016 defense will forever go down in Alabama history as one of the most dynamic in program history. Their well-documented streak of games with non-offensive touchdowns was one of the most incredible acts any defense has ever been apart of. A huge part of that team was the insane pass rush, headed by the combination of Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson, and Tim Williams. Together, the team posted a Saban-era high 54.0 sacks on the season.
After losing the top-four pass rush contributors to the 2017 NFL Draft, Saban knew coming into last season he would be working with “one of the youngest defenses (the team) has had.” While still managing to play at a high level, that youth, combined with a slew of injuries, saw the pass rush decline with just 40.0 sacks on the year.
The Tide, however, head into next season in much better state. They return only one of the team’s top-five in sacks – Raekwon Davis who lead the team with 8.5 – but the numbers are only a red herring. Alabama suffered through a rare injury bug at linebacker, with numerous notable injuries that ultimately downgraded their pass rush to nearly null.
Davis, a 6-7, 310-pound monster is set to head the effort once again in 2018. His size and technique will garner a lot of blockers’ attention and eventually double-teams. Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis showed significant flashes in the playoffs after both missing nearly the entirety of the year. The combination of surprising speed and significant size (6-4 and 6-5, respectively) that they bring to the table when healthy is enough to completely disrupt backfields alone. Another guy that dominated while healthy was Anfernee Jennings, who amassed 41 total tackles and 6.0 for a loss this year. He was a key in the win over Clemson, and was missed dearly on the edge against Georgia.
Other names to watch are inside ‘backers, Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses. Wilson was another on the long list of injuries last season, while Moses was one of the biggest benefactors to them and receiving playing time despite being just a true freshman. The loss of Rashaan Evans – one of the quickest inside rushers of the Saban Era – is sure to be most noticeable against running quarterbacks. The duo of Wilson and Moses inside would give Alabama one of their most athletic middle linebacker duos since 2011.
With the talented Isaiah Buggs capping out the other side of the defensive line, only Da’Ron Payne will need replacing – a task that will not be easy, but doable. Quinnen Williams, LaBryan Ray, and Philadrius Mathis, among others, are names high on the list for playing time in that nose tackle slot.
Despite the injuries, the Tide still managed to put together an otherwise special season on defense. That said, being much healthier could see them dominate at a highly elite level. In fact, this team has the makings of another 2016-esque performance.