The concept of the “Alabama standard” has been thrown around quite a bit the last few years with the Crimson Tide defense.
For the most part, it’s been about not quite meeting the precedent left by previous teams. That is, of course, in the context of a program that’s played in six of the last seven national title games with three wins.
It is also worth acknowledging success in 2022 looks quite different than previous standard-setting seasons like 2011. The idea of holding teams to an average of 8.2 points or 183.6 yards per game is pure fantasy in today’s game.
That said, this Crimson Tide defense has the puzzle pieces to do something special this fall. Experience returns at all three levels, led by Will Anderson — perhaps the most talented player of the Nick Saban era is set to crush standards not approached since Derrick Thomas terrorized the SEC.
Veterans up front are being challenged by a few new faces in the annual baseline of establishing the line of scrimmage. Henry To’o To’o opted against the NFL to patrol the middle at linebacker while safeties Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams bring established voices and talent at safety.
Even where the competition is still ongoing, the cornerbacks have a wealth of talent from whom to choose.
So where there have been questions about what’s not right in terms of consistency entering the last few seasons, there’s an air of confidence entering this fall.
“I think the best thing about this defense is that we’re not shying away from any expectations that we have for ourselves,” Hellams said. “We go out and we attack every day with the Bama mindset – having discipline, playing together as one and just being aggressive on defense.”
This is a defense that ranked No. 7 nationally a year ago allowing 304.1 yards a game, a far cry from the 2011 numbers. It was consistency that fluctuated from holding Auburn to 159 yards a week after Arkansas put up 468. The dangerous Ole Miss offense managed 291 yards two weeks after Florida nearly pulled off the upset with 439.
That Alabama defense was still trying to find its voice with the core of the talent on the young side. Now Anderson is a junior, To’o To’o isn’t a fresh transfer from a rival and safeties Battle and Hellams are seniors.
“Every good team that I’ve been around is player run,” Golding said. “Obviously in everything we do, here’s the expectation and here’s the standard, but if the people under you aren’t upholding that or pushing the people around them too, you’re not going to get what you want.”
Of the five players currently on the leadership council, four are from the defensive side.
And with Alabama’s powerful defense of the past, it always starts up front. There are some familiar names back after losing second-round pick Phidarian Mathis to graduation. DJ Dale is healthy and an every-down player in the middle with Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe back. Coaches have also spoken highly about junior Jamil Burroughs taking a major step forward while hinting that recently-trimmed-down freshman Jaheim Oatis could surprise you with his athleticism.
Adding an interior rush to the potential on the edge would completely change the way offenses attempt to protect passers. This is a group that returns almost everything from a defense that ranks third nationally with 3.8 sacks per game. A former starter and five-star recruit in Drew Sanders transferred to Arkansas given the backlog of top talent at outside linebacker.
With Dallas Turner (8.5 sacks) returning from a breakout freshman season across from Anderson (17.5 sacks) and Chris Braswell making noise in August, there’s another level of optimism at outside linebacker.
“I think this year is going to be something special,” Anderson said after the A-Day game in April. “I think you guys talk about the 2016 defense pass rush, I feel like you guys are definitely getting ready to see that again.”
Golding sounded open to mixing up the looks in passing situations.
“On third down, if you’re going to rush four guys, who are your four best pass rushers,” he said early in August. “I don’t give a shit if you call him outside linebackers or d-line or inside linebackers, let’s get the best four guys to rush and put them where you need to put them and that’s what we’re going to have to do .”
And Anderson smiled when asked about the possibility of seeing him, Turner and Braswell on the field together.
“It would be very lethal, very scary, violent guys,” he said early in the preseason camp. “I’m not gonna go into too much depth, but when the season comes, you guys will see.”
That doesn’t sound like a defense that’s unsure of what it has or one that’s unsure of its identity.
There are still a few questions about the cornerback position after losing starters Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis. There were too many busted plays in the first scrimmage — something a suffocating pass rush can help but not completely eliminate — as a laundry list of new and old names compete.
LSU transfer Eli Ricks hasn’t been the plug-and-play transfer after a big freshman season in Baton Rouge as Kool-Aid McKinstry, Khyree Jackson and Terrion Arnold have been mentioned most as top competitors. Saban said they’ve even tried returning starting Star Brian Branch at cornerback, a notable development at a position Saban watches closer than anyone.
This is a defense that’ll also see a few interesting challenges out of the gate. First, Utah State opens the season Sept. 3 in Bryant-Denny Stadium after ranking 19th a year ago averaging 449.1 yards per game. A week later, Texas will counter with perhaps the nation’s top running back in Bijan Robinson and former five-star quarterback Quinn Ewers.
Arkansas and Ole Miss will come later in the season, and although both are on the road, there hasn’t been as much correlation between where games with defensive struggles were played recently.
It’s been five years since Alabama finished with a No. 1 defense and that 2017 team won a national title. The 2020 team was an outlier with a generational offense covering for a No. 32 defense, and while plenty of talent is stacked on that side of the ball, it’s not in the range of carrying that much weight.
What’s sure is the Alabama defense appears to have its confidence back along with an unmistakably aggressive identity.
Instead of answering for past mistakes this preseason, the Crimson Tide defense is addressing the fact that it won’t be ducking from expectations that haven’t been this high in a while.
Michael Casagrande is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande or on Facebook.