The defense for Alabama Football was stout against Middle Tennessee State in the first outing of the 2023 season. Bama allowed just 211 yards of total offense and seven points, as a late-third quarter touchdown by the Blue Raiders spoiled a shutout opportunity.
As expected, the defense had a couple early season miscues. However, the group looked improved overall and was fairly disruptive, notching three sacks and forcing a pair of turnovers in the game.
Alabama Football Defensive Line: B+
The Alabama defensive line made it difficult for MTSU to run the ball all evening. For the game, the Blue Raiders ran for just 78 yards on 3.0 yards per carry. A 30-yard run by QB Nicholas Vattiato was the outlier and accounted for over a third of MTSU’s production on the ground.
Junior Jaheim Oatis led the defensive line with three tackles, and senior Justin Eboigbe added two stops. Redshirt sophomore Tim Keenan III rounded out the starting lineup up front. Senior Tim Smith, redshirt sophomore Damon Payne and redshirt junior Jah-Marien Latham got on the field early and all played well.
Alabama Football Linebackers: A
The Alabama linebackers were arguably the strongest unit on the defense in week one. On the inside, redshirt sophomore Deontae Lawson (seven tackles, two TFLs, one sack) and redshirt junior Trezmen Marshall (four tackles) led the way.
Lawson showed his All-American potential, flying around the field all night and making plays for the Crimson Tide. It is frightening that Bama played without sophomore Jihaad Campbell, who is arguably the most athletic linebacker on the team.
Junior Kendrick Blackshire and redshirt freshman Shawn Murphy looked good with the second unit, as Blackshire racked up five tackles.
Bama was as good as advertised on the edge as well. Junior Dallas Turner and senior Chris Braswell led the unit as expected, with senior Quandarrius Robinson and redshirt sophomore Keanu Koht rotating in. All four outside linebackers recorded at least one tackle for loss.
Braswell and Robinson each notched a sack on the evening. Alabama continued to use its Cheetah package in third-and-long situations, with Robinson coming in to replace an interior defensive lineman. The senior played very well in his role as a pass rush specialist.
Alabama Football Secondary: A
The Alabama secondary was very effective, led by cornerback tandem Kool-Aid McKinstry (three tackles) and Terrion Arnold (five tackles, one pass breakup). Arnold looks to have taken the next step in his development, and this could be a shutdown duo on the perimeter.
On the back end, true freshman safety Caleb Downs was fantastic in his debut, recording a team-high eight tackles. UAB transfer safety Jaylen Key also made his Alabama Football debut, finishing with four tackles and an interception.
The biggest concern with the secondary is its health. Junior safety Devonta Smith was injured in the preseason and is out indefinitely. As the game progressed, three more defensive backs left the game with injuries.
Key, a starting safety, went out in the first half and did not return. Starting star Malachi Moore also left the game with an injury. Moore is the senior leader of this secondary and one of its more versatile pieces.
Finally, McKinstry exited the contest after taking a big hit while returning a punt. Hopefully, McKinstry was held out for precautionary reasons. Coach Nick Saban addressed the injuries of Moore and Key in the postgame, and both are considered “questionable” for next week against Texas.
Should Devonta Smith and Jaylen Key both miss next week’s game, senior Kristian Story would likely start next to Downs at safety. If Moore can’t go, redshirt freshman Earl Little II could get the start.
Alabama Football Special Teams: B+
The special teams for Alabama Football were relatively quiet in week one, which is a good thing. Will Reichard never attempted a field goal, but hit all seven of his extra points. True freshman Connor Talty added an eighth.
James Burnip averaged over 46 yards on his three punts, and the Crimson Tide coverage units were effective.
Kool-Aid McKinstry picked up right where he left off last season as a return man. The Blue Raiders were not afraid to kick the ball to McKinstry, and they nearly paid for it multiple times. The electric punt returner broke off a 33-yard runback, and averaged over 13 yards per return on his five tries.
In 2022, McKinstry racked up 321 of his 332 punt return yards in the first five games of the season. In fact, the nation’s top punt returner got just four opportunities after October 1st last season. He was so dangerous as a returner that teams simply stopped giving him returnable punts. I expect something similar to happen this season. If not, Kool-Aid will inevitably run a couple back for touchdowns in 2023.
Although this was not the stiffest competition, it was a good opening game for the Alabama Football defense and special teams. Both units were very effective, and yet showed that they have plenty of room to improve. They would be wise to do so quickly, as a much bigger test rolls into town next week.