Can Alabama Football field an improved run defense?

Tennessee v Alabama
Tennessee v Alabama / Kevin C. Cox/GettyImages

Alabama might have some question marks in its retooled secondary, but it should have one of the best front sevens in the SEC in 2024. Can the Tide parlay this talent and experience into an elite run defense?

Last season, the Tide finished 33rd nationally against the run, giving up 125 yards per game on the ground and 3.7 yards per carry. For most of the season, however, it was a better run defense than these numbers suggest. Two late-season debacles against conference rivals skewed Bama’s defensive metrics against the run, though the Tide was able to win both games.

Spearheaded by the scrambling Jayden Daniels, LSU ran for 206 yards on an absurd 8.6 yards per carry against Alabama. A few weeks later, even without the threat of a passing game, Auburn racked up 244 yards on 5.8 yards per attempt. Both of these opponents presented unconventional rushing attacks that the Tide had a difficult time getting a grasp on.

Against more traditional running games, however, Alabama was very solid. When these two outliers are removed, Alabama allowed just 108.25 yards per game on just over 3.2 yards per carry, figures that would’ve easily made it a top-15 defense against the run. 

In addition, it had several single-game efforts that were flat out dominant. It held Texas, which proved to be a top-25 rushing offense by the end of the year, to just 105 yards on 2.8 yards per carry. Ole Miss featured a high-powered backfield led by Quinshon Judkins, but Bama held the Rebels to just 56 yards on 1.9 yards per carry. Two weeks later, it held a physical Texas A&M squad to 67 yards on 1.9 yards per carry. In the SEC Championship game, Bama limited Georgia to 78 yards on 2.5 yards per carry. This was a group that could shut down the opponent’s run game when it had to, and several key pieces return in 2024.

Alabama should be very deep on the defensive line. Veterans and returning starters like Tim Smith, Tim Keenan III, and Jaheim Oatis will lead the way, supplemented by quality reserves Damon Payne, Jah-Marien Latham, James Smith, and Texas A&M transfer LT Overton

Behind the defensive line, inside linebackers Deontae Lawson and Jihaad Campbell should be a punishing duo. The Bama ‘backers are the top two returning tacklers on the team after combining for 133 stops last season. If they can stay healthy, they will post even better numbers this fall. 

The perimeter is the one area where it will be difficult for the Crimson Tide to match its production from last year. With Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell at outside linebacker, Malachi Moore in the nickel, and Kool-Aid McKinstry and Terrion Arnold at corner, Alabama was often elite at setting the edge. This ability to keep everything inside was one of the key factors of the Bama run defense, and allowed players like Lawson, Campbell, and safety Caleb Downs to thrive coming downhill.

Alabama will have entirely new personnel at these spots in 2024. Veterans Quandarrius Robinson and Keanu Koht should be able to handle edge responsibilities, but it’s tough to assume the Tide secondary will be as good against the run this year.

With Malachi Moore moving to deep safety, one of Bama’s better run defenders is taken out of the box. The combination of Devonta Smith and Red Morgan will have to step up at the Husky position to fill this void. Additionally, Alabama will be asking brand new corners (whether transfers or freshmen) to do the jobs that McKinstry and Arnold did last season.

While Malachi Moore should rack up tackles from his safety position, the loss of Caleb Downs cannot be overstated. Downs was one of the best tacklers in college football, and played the alley to near perfection. Bama not only loses Downs’ contributions, but also has to move Moore out of the box as a result. 

In terms of stopping the run, Bama's size and depth on the interior defensive line and at inside linebacker should carry much of the load. Ironically, it is the secondary that will likely be the X-factor here.

While it will be tough to replace last year’s production with so many departures, the pieces are in place for Bama to once again be stout against the run.