A retooled Missouri offense is hardly a barometer for success, but the Alabama football defense got back some swagger.
This Alabama football team looks different. Obviously, there’s no Tua or Jeudy or Ruggs or Wills (all first-rounders in the 2020 NFL Draft) on the offensive side of the ball. However, the 2020 version led by Mac Jones, Najee Harris, Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith appears to be fine.
The improvement most sought by Tide fans was from the defense. And by that measure, this Alabama team looks different.
Sure, there were some fourth-quarter breakdowns, primarily made by the second team. But this defense does look a lot different from the one we saw against LSU in 2019. And it lies at the linebacker position.
First of all, it’s really good to see Dylan Moses again. Even watching a postgame interview where Moses believes that the defense didn’t play particularly well is something we missed last season. He led the linebackers with 8 tackles, 4 solo and 2.5 for a loss.
Lest we forget about a sack that was nullified by a defensive holding penalty. Dylan looked stellar.
You, also, have the athletic play of “Will” linebacker, Christian Harris (6 tackles, all solo). Harris looked downright terrifying, especially on the first sack of the evening for the Tide. He flew to the ball and he did it with a level of confidence that was lacking in 2019. With fellow Baton Rouge native Moses calling the signals on the field, you can tell that he’s free to play “see ball, get ball.”
And then there’s the freshman phenom, Will Anderson, who made his own impact on the game. His stats (3 tackles, 2 solo) don’t necessarily jump off the page, but he was as quick off the ball as we were told during the preseason and he appears to be mature beyond his classification.
The “Jack” linebacker position is a hybrid one, where the player is essentially an undersized defensive end. Anderson’s ability to disrupt the mesh point (where the quarterback and running back meet with the ball) was on display in the second half. While he bit on the play-action fake to the running back, his speed to the point was so violent it caused Mizzou quarterback Shawn Robinson to throw an errant lateral to an unsuspecting receiver. Patrick Surtain II was Johnny on the Spot to recover the fumble.
“Sam” linebacker Chris Allen was the quietest of the four primaries (2 tackles, 1 solo), but his role as the primary disruptor of the opposing offense’s tight end will be pivotal against Week Two opponent Texas A&M and their star sophomore TE Jalen Wydermyer.
Bottom line: the above four athletes appear to have the goods to be a stellar first group, but as is the case in recent memory, injuries tend to occur. What will be paramount going forward is establishing a really good second team that can substitute in the event of an injury. Guys like Ben Davis and Drew Sanders, a senior and true freshman respectively, have five-star talent, but little-to-no experience.
Luckily, you have a guy like Shane Lee backing up Dylan Moses at the “Mike” spot to come in if the unthinkable occurs yet again. That may make fans bristle, but very few teams in the FBS have the luxury of having a backup who started all 13 games the previous season.
The level of play will increase over the next few weeks with A&M, Ole Miss and Georgia on the horizon (the Rebels put up over 600 yards against a good Florida defense). Moses is going to need to be the steady hand of the entire defense. Harris and Anderson can’t lose their intensity, but also must make good decisions. And Allen has to be the experienced presence on the outside.
The last two Alabama football defenses Nick Saban fielded were underwhelming by his and fans’ standards. Much of that had to do with shoddy play at either inside or outside linebacker, sometimes both.
Despite the youth at half the positions in the group, these Alabama football linebackers have an opportunity to be special. They could be just what this team needs to make it back to the national title game.