Alabama Football: True freshman defenders that have mastered Coach Saban’s defense

2023 SEC Championship - Georgia v Alabama
2023 SEC Championship - Georgia v Alabama / Kevin C. Cox/GettyImages

Alabama Football freshman strong safety Caleb Downs is in the midst of an incredible season; perhaps the best freshman campaign of any Alabama player under Coach Nick Saban.

Coach Saban is a known defensive specialist, and has produced countless NFL players on that side of the ball. He has also had several standout freshmen, but none have had an impact quite like Caleb Downs.

Earlier this week, Downs was named the Shaun Alexander Award winner as the best freshman in college football. A starter from day one, he currently leads the team with 99 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a pair of interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a punt return for a touchdown. 

How does his production stack up against other standout freshman defenders under Coach Saban?

Freshman linebackers had extensive success early in Coach Saban’s Alabama tenure.

Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa was also middle linebacker Rolando McClain’s first year on campus. McClain was an early contributor and notched 74 of his 274 career tackles in 2007. The following year, Dont’a Hightower would follow McClain’s example, recording 64 tackles as a true freshman. In 2010, CJ Mosley was a force for the Crimson Tide with 67 tackles and a pair of pick-sixes in his freshman campaign.

A decade later, Coach Saban produced another stud freshman linebacker. Outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. might be the best defensive player to suit up for Alabama Football under Coach Saban.

An eventual two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year, two-time Bronko Nagurski Award winner, and two-time unanimous All-American among several other accolades, Anderson Jr. was a starter from day one. He became a true impact player by the midway point of his freshman year, finishing with 52 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and 7.0 sacks. Anderson Jr. was also the only other Alabama Football player to take home the Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year Award. 

Many have compared Caleb Downs to former Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick had elite instincts and ball skills to go with his impressive versatility and physical readiness coming out of high school. At Alabama, he put together a near-flawless career, and Bama fans remember him being an instant-impact player as a true freshman. Fitzpatrick was credited with 45 tackles, two sacks, and two interceptions in 2015, big-time numbers that also serve to illustrate how rare and special Caleb Downs’ 2023 season has been.

Downs is NFL-ready as a tackler and run defender, and has already recorded over twice as many tackles as Fitzpatrick in one less game. Both are ball-hawks that can play all over the secondary. The one area where freshman Minkah might have Downs beat is his nose for the end zone. Fitzpatrick scored five defensive touchdowns in his Alabama career, including two in his freshman season. Though he came very close on a fumble return against Kentucky, and returned a punt for a score against UT-Chattanooga, Downs has yet to score a defensive touchdown this season. Perhaps that will change in the College Football Playoff.

Regardless, no one would argue that Caleb Downs is a special player that has exceeded even the loftiest expectations in his freshman season. If he continues on this trajectory, he has an opportunity to become one of the most memorable players of the Coach Saban era.

Stats courtesy of Sports Reference.