The Alabama Crimson Tide have had one of the top pass rush defenses for several seasons. This should not come as a surprise with a Nick Saban led defense. In each of the past four seasons, the Crimson Tide’s defense has accounted 40 or more sacks. In three of the four seasons, the Tide have been ranked within the top-five in total sacks accounted for. This includes the 2015 season (52 sacks) and 2016 season (54 sacks) where they’ve been ranked first overall. The process of how Alabama becomes a top pass rushing defense in the nation is the more surprising factor. Last season, nose tackle Quinnen Williams came out of nowhere to account for eight sacks (second-most on the team) and 19.5 tackles for loss (team-highest). Defensive end Isaiah Buggs and outside linebacker Christian Miller was also the surprise leaders of the Tide’s pass rush unit.
This offseason, the Tide lost those top three pass rushers from the 2018 season to the 2019 NFL Draft. Even though Alabama returns a great selection of experienced playmakers on defense, there remains some uncertainty. It will take some restructuring to get Alabama to have the same impact of rushing the quarterback this upcoming season like in the past few years. The Tide’s front seven are led by senior defensive end Raekwon Davis, middle linebacker Dylan Moses, and hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings.
Raekwon Davis needs to return to the dominant defensive end he was in 2017
Davis, the senior defensive end, shocked many when he decided to forgo the 2019 NFL Draft to return to Alabama. He, along with a select few, have the experience and playmaking ability to account for high-numbers for the Tide. In 2017, Davis accounted for 69 total tackles (third-most on the team), eight-and-a-half sacks (team-most and fourth-most in the SEC), and 10 tackles for loss (second-most). He was a dominant pass rusher Alabama, even though, he suffered a gunshot wound a week before the season opener. Last season, however, Davis did not have the same statistical input he did in 2017. One of the big reasons was his reliability in stopping the run as opposed to the other end in Buggs. Davis was also often double-teamed in certain situations or lined up against the tight end.
Ultimately, Davis only accounted for one-and-a-half sacks (eighth-most) and five-and-a-half tackles for loss (eighth-most) this past season. This lack of input in the pass rush will not help Alabama’s defense this year with their top three sack leaders gone. He will be the main leader of the defensive line with Williams and Buggs both gone. Davis will likely still be the main run-stopper. He will also continue to play the three-technique in certain packages when the jack linebacker plays on the line-of-scrimmage. If Davis would’ve gone through the 2019 NFL Draft, he would potentially be selected in the late third round or later. If Davis were to continue to progress the pass rushing aspect of his game, then he potentially is a first rounder. More importantly for Alabama, he would be one of the stars of the Tide’s defense to bring another top pass rush unit.
An explosive impact from LaBryan Ray
Ray’s name first came to light when he was one of the top performers in the Crimson Tide’s 2018 A-Day Spring scrimmage. Since that scrimmage, fans were eager to see how Ray would contribute with a stacked defensive line unit. Last season, Ray accounted for 39 total tackles, six tackles for loss (tied for sixth-most), two-and-a-half sacks (seventh most). Measured at 6’5, 294 pounds, his size along with sudden burst and speed makes him a dangerous pass rusher for the Tide. Ray will likely lineup at the weakside defensive end position which will give him the edge as a pass rusher.
This could potentially be a breakout year for Ray as he will be a pure defensive end. His role will be mostly simple, which is to penetrate the backfield often and to not give up running room for the running back or a scrambling quarterback. This will be the first year that Ray will be starting. He did not start in any of the 13 games he played last year. Outside of Davis, Ray has the most experience as a pure defensive lineman. Much of the pressure will be asserted on him as he will be heavily relied on to make the pass rush elite as well. This kind of pressure can be great for a player like Ray as he looks to be an elite pass rusher for the Crimson Tide this upcoming season.
Jennings and Lewis can be the most dangerous hybrid position duos in the nation
Jennings was also a surprising returner for Alabama at the outside linebacker position this upcoming college football season. He has the most experience with the Crimson Tide’s defense and how it is structured. Last season, he accounted for 50 total tackles, 13 tackles for loss (third-most), and five-and-a-half sacks (fourth-most). He also accounted for a team-high of 11 pass deflections. This was due to his long frame and ability to swat the passes at the line of scrimmage. Jennings will be the main tenacious pass rusher for the Tide as well as providing key vocal leadership. At the other outside linebacker, Terrell Lewis is hoping to finally get his shot with Alabama’s defense. He missed 10 games at the beginning of the 2017 season with an elbow injury. He only played in four games. Last July, Lewis tore his ACL in practice that forced him to miss all of 2018.
Tide fans and coaches are aware of the potential that Lewis could bring for the Tide’s defense. This season starts anew for Lewis and brings more pressure from Jennings. The Crimson Tide have been using a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker since the first season of defensive coordinator Kirby Smart (now the head coach of Georgia). The Crimson Tide have two hybrid position pass rushers that they can be inserted in multiple scenarios. Putting Lewis or Jennings at the line of scrimmage would put the other in the linebacker unit. In key third-down situations or long yardage plays, it wouldn’t be unorthodox for both players to be creating pass rush at the line of scrimmage.
Other players that can provide a consistent pass rush
The Crimson Tide have other players that can be great providers of highly consistent pass rush. Williams wasn’t expected to be one of the most dominating pass rushers in the nation in 2018. Filling in as the new starter at the nose tackle position is sophomore Phidarian Mathias, who played 11 games behind Williams. Outside linebacker Eyabi Anoma might be a starter at the middle linebacker or a backup outside linebacker. Anoma was debating on transferring after not getting a bigger role as a true freshman. Last season, he accounted for two tackles for loss. Incoming freshman Antonio Alfano could be the biggest surprise in the upcoming season if he passes Stephone Wynn Jr. at defensive end.