Monday, May 14, 2012

Profilin' the Tide: The Defense

Previously: General Offensive PreviewOffensive LineTailbacksWide receivers, Tight Ends, and H-backsQuarterbacks

oh phew he's gone nevermind

Having already taken a look at the Alabama offense and asking some questions about Doug Nussmeier, the wide receivers, and whether or not WE ARE GONNA DIE, it's time to shift our focus to the defense. While I would argue that the Alabama offense of the last few years--while not exactly "flashy"--has been just as dangerous and important to their success as the defense, people of course look to the defense first in any discussion of the Crimson Tide. This is rightfully so, because my goodness they have been earth-shatteringly good.

Say what you will about Nick Saban's ethics, but the man (as well as his righthand man Kirby Smart) know defense like a Michigan Man knows righteous indignation. Before I say anything, I think it's important to put a certain fanciful notion to rest: Alabama will not not be really good on defense this year, even with the long list of NFL departures in mind. Yes, oversigning and all that, but it's a testament to the strength of the Alabama's program that the defense will likely be very good again in spite of losses like Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron, Dont'a Hightower, etc. Keep in mind that we Michigan fans are worrying about the defense (well, the DL, mostly), and we lost three defensive linemen, only one of whom was drafted, and Troy "Don't Call Me Woolfork" Woolfolk. That's not meant to be disparaging for obvious reasons, but it is true. Michigan will get there eventually. There was once a time when Michigan simply "reloaded", but we are not at that point just yet; Alabama is.

You probably already know all of this, but, for the sake of this post, a brief rundown of Alabama's losses on defense is necessary. Alabama lost the following players to the NFL: JLB (Jack linebacker) Courtney Upshaw, ILB Dont'a Hightower, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, strong safety Mark Barron, CB De'Quan Menzie, OLB Jerrell Harris, and NG Josh Chapman. It goes without saying, but I'll just go ahead and say it anyway: that is a lot of departing talent.

Of those losses, three went in the first round (Barron, Kirkpatrick, and Upshaw), with a fourth being selected with the 3rd pick of the second round (Hightower). Two others, Chapman and Menzie, went in the fifth round. Harris was the lone undrafted player of the bunch (of course, that does not mean that he was not very, very good).

As such, Alabama is looking to replace:

  • 3 linebackers: the "Jack" linebacker position, the name for the hybrid DE/OLB position in Bama's 3-4, the SLB, and one of two ILB spots
  • Both corners
  • Strong safety
  • Nose guard (which will be filled by Jesse Williams, who started last year at SDE)
Lastly, if you can't already tell from the above or didn't know before...yes, Alabama runs the 3-4 that certain NFL teams have used on their way to Super Bowls. This doesn't look like it's embeddable, but here's a brief video of Saban talking about the 3-4 defense. I'm probably not the one qualified to do this, but an explanation of the schematics of the 3-4 would be a useful exercise at some point before September 1st. 

You might be reading this and thinking "YES, HOKEMANIA'S GETTIN' READY TO RUN WILD ON YOU, ALABAMA." Not so fast, my friend. This type of mass defensive exodus is not unprecedented. As you probably remember, after winning the national championship two seasons ago, Alabama lost quite a bit of defensive talent to the NFL. In the 2010 NFL draft, Alabama lost: DT Terrence Cody, CB (and punt returner extraordinaire) Javier Arenas, CB Kareem Jackson, LB Rolando McClain, and safety Marquis Johnson, DE Brandon Deaderick, and DE Lorenzo Washington. 

By round, the aforementioned players went in the first round (2), second round (2), seventh round (2), and undrafted (1). So, just like this year, Alabama had to replace seven starters/significant contributors in 2010. Of course, Alabama did not have a championship season in 2010. As you will also remember, the Tide went 10-3 (5-3) that year, taking losses @South Carolina, @ LSU, and at home in the Iron Bowl when Cam Newton decided to officially lock up the Heisman Trophy in the second half.

Alabama then went on to absolutely destroy #9 Michigan State, 49-7, in the Citrus Capital One Bowl. I am obviously not a Spartan fan, but even I have to cringe a little bit when I think about that game. It was not pretty.

This is all to say that Alabama was still really, really good in 2010 despite having a "down" year. The loss at South Carolina was the only "bad" loss of that year, as the Gamecocks finished the season 9-5 (although they did represent the SEC East in the Georgia Dome that year). Playing at Death Valley (no, not you Clemson) is a tough thing in almost any year, but LSU wasn't exactly a middling squad year; the Tigers finished the year 11-2 (5-2), with their only losses coming at the hands of Cam Newton and Arkansas in one of many "somewhat inexplicable Les Miles losses to Arkansas in the Battle for the Golden Boot." Alabama lost that one at LSU by, you guessed it...a field goal, 24-21, a game in which which both SECW powerhouses were ranked in the top 10. Also of note: Alabama was without Barrett Jones, then still at the left tackle spot, for the last two games of that season against Georgia State and, more importantly, Auburn. 

In short, the only loss that year worthy of a paddlin' was the one at South Carolina, a team led by the man known as Stephen Garcia (although he doesn't normally go by that name because, you know, who needs to be held down by the unchill tyranny of "names," man?). That game, in addition to the second half against Auburn, were the lone examples of the Alabama defense showing any semblance of mortality. This is a bit disconcerting. Many Alabama fans likely remember that season as a failure, but that team could have very easily been looking at another national title game appearance, or, at the very least another SEC title, which is no small feat in and of itself. 

In short, there is a precedent for what Nick Saban and Alabama will be attempting to do with the defense this season. Does this mean that Alabama will actually be that good again this season in spite of significant losses on the defensive side of the ball? No, but to say that they won't good enough to give us serious problems is a bit of wishful thinking. If this all sounds like a bunch of doom and gloom, is. Of course, I'm talking about Alabama here without mentioning Michigan at all, which makes it seem like I think that Michigan has no hope or no agency in making the outcome a desirable one. That is obviously not the case, as I have the utmost confidence in Michigan's coordinators and Denard Robinson's ability to make people look silly. Still, it's important to view things in the appropriate light. 

The Michigan offense, with another offseason of conditioning and practice reps, will be better than last year. However, if you asked me to give you a vague point of reference for Alabama's 2012 defense, I'd tell you that they will be at least as good as the Virginia Tech defense that stifled Michigan in the Sugar Bowl not too long ago. 

Like I did for the offense, I will finish this somewhat apocalyptic post with a few general questions as a primer for the position specific previews: 
  • Jesse Williams obviously looks the part, but position switch concerns will always apply regardless of the caliber of player. Can Williams replace the presence of Josh Chapman as the run stopper/general world destroyer in the middle? It remains to be seen simply because we have not, you know, seen him play that position. It doesn't help that Michigan is looking to replace a Rimington winner at center. 
  • Alabama looks to replace both starters at corner, an uncomfortable proposition for any team in college football. With that said, Alabama does return Dee Milliner, a former 5-star prospect who was primarily a 3rd corner nickel type last season. Milliner did in fact start 6 games last year, so he's not exactly some sort of newbie. Still, Alabama needs to find one other starter on the outside. Given the erratic nature of Denard's arm and the lack of top end receiving talent for Michigan, this may not end up mattering as much as it otherwise might have if Darryl Stonum were returning. Additionally, Alabama returns FS Robert Lester but looks to replace 1st round pick Mark Barron at the strong safety position. Sophomores Vinnie Sunseri (son of former Alabama linebackers coach and new UT DC Sal Sunseri) and Ha'Sean "Ha-Ha" Clinton-Dix are currently battling for Barron's vacated spot. Michigan is obviously going to attempt to run the football as much as possible, so can either of them provide the authoritative run-stopping presence that Barron provided? While not short on talent, there are questions in the secondary that need to be answered. The fact that Saban signed two JUCOs, Deion Belue and Travell Dixon, speaks to that. 
  • With Courtney Upshaw's departure, Alabama will need to find someone to replace his pass rushing prowess at the JLB position, aka the deathbacker position that, for some reason, Craig Roh was at one point supposed to be. Adrian Hubbard looks to be the heir apparent here; can he provide a consistent pass rush and run-stopping presence on September 1st that even approaches what Upshaw offered? The SEC is known for its speedy pass rushing mavens at DE and OLB, but a redshirt sophomore with no starts to his name is still a question mark, no matter how much talent or recruiting hype he may have. 

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