Alabama defense embraces final chance to restore ‘Bama Factor’


CW / Joe Will Field

James Benedetto | @james_benedetto, Assistant Sports Editor

ORLANDO, Fla. — When Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding sat down inside Salons 5 and 6 at the Rosen Plaza Hotel for his second press conference of the season, he knew questions about the team’s defense were coming.

After a 30-second opening statement, Golding moved forward in his seat, sat up straight and prepared to answer the numerous questions that Crimson Tide fans and the media wanted to have answered. Why was Alabama’s defense so different this year?

“I think it was a unique deal this year that you lost two guys at the same position [inside linebackers Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon] to where you have two 18-year-olds that have never been in the system side-by-side,” Golding said. “I think a lot of times they’re looking for confirmation, and they’re looking for confirmation and the guy beside them that doesn’t really know either. And I think that’s been the big difference.”

After 10 straight seasons where Alabama’s defense finished in the top five in points allowed per game, the Crimson Tide finished the regular season with the No. 15 defense in the country.

The 18.8 points per game average, which includes the defeats to LSU and Auburn in which both teams scored more than 40 points, can be attributed to the injuries to that the team suffered before and throughout the season. In total, six different freshmen started in Alabama’s defense, headlined by the two “18-year-olds” that Golding mentioned in Shane Lee and Christian Harris.

“In the past, it’s not like freshmen haven’t played at the University of Alabama or freshmen don’t play at every other school in the country. That happens. It’s going to happen,” Golding said. “But I think the big thing, the big difference, is that guy having to make the calls, set the front, set the blitzes, and then having validation beside them, to where if he’s second-guessing himself, ‘No, hey, it’s Ringo, Ringo, Ringo, or Ralph, Ralph, Ralph,’ just to confirm what he was thinking.”

As the year continued, Harris and Lee became more comfortable with the defense as both players finished in the topfive on the team in total tackles. The defensive line also saw young players like Justin Eboigbe, Byron Young, and Christian Barmore step in and make an impact. All participated in nine or more games this season.

Golding said the team prefers to have a veteran alongside young players to help mitigate their mistakes. That wasn’t often the case this season, he said, with players occasionally ending up in the same gap.

“Justin Eboigbe, Byron Young, we’ve had several guys up front as true freshmen that play,” Golding said. “… But I love just the way they work. You know, they come to practice. They’re eager to learn. They play extremely hard. Obviously, we’ve got to improve in our gap integrity, you know, striking coming out of our hips. And we’ve got to do a better job at the second level of making those guys right. You know, that’s the bottom line of playing linebacker, to be able to fix things and erase things, and we’ve got to be able to help those guys.”

As the focus shifts toward Michigan, coach Nick Saban stated in his Tuesday morning press conference that the younger players have gained experience throughout the week.

With normal defensive starters such as redshirt junior Terrell Lewis sitting out for the NFL draft, redshirt linebacker Christopher Allen will get his first start of the season and will inevitably gain more experience towards his development as a pass rusher. Saban said in August that Allen was one of three outside linebackers who can be “very productive players.”

“I think it’s been great to have guys like [redshirt senior Anfernee Jennings] and Terrell [Lewis] in front of him, leaders on the team who are super physical and great players,” redshirt junior tight end Miller Forristall said. “To see him grow and progress – I mean we’ve had, like, 20 days of practice in a row, is what it feels like – so it’s been great to kinda go against him every day. Iron sharpens iron, so it’s been a lot of fun to know him and watch him get better.”

With the last game of the season looming, the focus of Alabama’s defense is not only to right the wrongs of the tumultuous season it just endured. Rather it is to return to a top-five defense standard, while gaining experience along the way.

” I know in a lot of the games that we play, we haven’t really played our best, but we just want to come out here and show that we still can play and that we still can show that we are [Alabama] and that we can go out and dominate,” junior safety Xavier McKinney said.