Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports
It’s no secret that the Alabama Crimson Tide’s march to Miami has been greatly influenced by the play of freshmen. The Crimson Tide lost more than a couple meaningful contributors from last season’s National Championship team, so fresh faces have popped up all over the field.
Yesterday, we crowned the Offensive Freshman of the Year, and now we move on to the defensive side of the ball to crown the Tide’s top freshman on defense.
This choice is quite a bit tougher because Alabama hasn’t had a freshman on defense who contributed nearly as much as T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper have on offense. That’s not to say that freshman haven’t made their fair share of contributions, but nobody has put up record setting performances like the two freshmen on offense.
On defense, it would be easy to give this award to freshman defensive lineman D.J. Pettway, who was the lone Crimson Tide defensive freshman named to the SEC’s All Freshman team, joining Cooper and Yeldon along with Ryan Kelly on offense.
A dearth of freshmen who saw playing time on the defensive line in the conference this season had more to do with that decision than anything else, in my opinion. Pettway played fine when called upon, but his 7 tackles, 3 for loss, and 1.5 sacks doesn’t really jump out at you when you look at the numbers.
Pettway has a bright future at Alabama, but that future could be at Jack linebacker as he has been working as such during bowl practices. At 280 pounds, Pettway would obviously need to drop a little weight to play it, but not as much as you would quite think with Courtney Upshaw having weighed over 270 pounds as the Tide’s Jack linebacker a year ago.
Pettway, much like Upshaw, will still spend a lot of time with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end even if he can successfully transition to the Jack spot.
If not Pettway, then who? What about super recruit Landon Collins, who saw the occasional playing time in mop-up duty at safety, but truly made his bones this season on special teams. Collins made 14 tackles and was one of the Crimson Tide’s premier players on special teams in 2012.
The highlight of the season for the former five star recruit out of Geismar, Louisiana was in Columbia against Missouri where he busted through the wall of Missouri’s three punt protectors to get his hand on the Tigers punt and set up a T.J. Yeldon touchdown shortly thereafter.
There is also Geno Smith, the highly recruited cornerback recruit from Atlanta, Georgia. Smith saw very little playing time for most of the season, but in the Tide’s last three games against Western Carolina, Auburn, and Georgia, the freshman has seen his playing time increase exponentially.
He made two starts, against Western Carolina and Georgia, and played very well as the Tide’s ‘star’ defensive back.
For most of the year, Vinnie Sunseri and Nick Perry occupied the star position in Alabama’s defense, which is just an extra defensive back when Alabama is in their nickel and dime packages, but it didn’t really work out for either of them as teams found success against both through the air. That’s when Saban made the move to Geno Smith, a cornerback instead of a safety, for the spot in taking on slot receivers.
Smith’s best performance was against Georgia where he had two pass breakups to help the Tide to the 32-28 SEC Championship Game win. Smith could seemingly become Alabama’s #1 cornerback next season if he continues to progress at this rate, especially with the likelihood that Dee Milliner will leave Tuscaloosa early for the NFL Draft, and the struggles of JUCO transfer Deion Belue.
But the defensive freshman of the year isn’t Collins or Smith, either. It’s freshman linebacker Denzel Devall who has outshined the other freshman on defense.
The 6-foot-2 243 pound linebacker from Bastrop, Louisiana has been outstanding when given the chance to play in 2012, and he certainly looks to be next in line in a storied history of outstanding Tide linebackers.
Devall wasn’t as heralded of a recruit as his classmate Reggie Ragland, who has also made a contribution on special teams this year, but Devall seems to be a bit further on in his progression than his fellow first year linebacker.
Still, Devall was pretty heralded in his own right, drawing interest from many top programs and ultimately spurning home state LSU to come to Tuscaloosa and play for Alabama.
For the year, Devall has 17 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks. He picked up two of those tackles for loss in Alabama’s 38-7 win over Mississippi State at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Alabama has many freshmen on defense who have bright futures at the Capstone, several of which didn’t see playing time this season, but you will hear from them down the road. But none shined brighter than Denzel Devall, and for that he garners the Defensive Freshman of the Year Award.
Agree of Disagree? Let us know by leaving a comment. Tomorrow, we’ll examine the Tide’s unsung hero of the season.
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