Defense is the pride and joy for Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban and his coaching staff. Projecting Alabama’s 2019 defensive starters is key to finding the success Saban is looking for. This past season, the Tide’s defense was not ranked in the top ten of most of the major categories such as points allowed per game (12th) or rushing yards allowed per game (19th). They still finished the season second in the nation in defensive efficiency (96.6). The defense also tied for fifth in total sacks accounted for (45). This was with a young and inexperienced defense, especially in the secondary. Each unit still performed very well up until the National Championship loss against Clemson. Second-year defensive coordinator Pete Golding will expect more consistency from his entire defense. Taking a look through the positions are essential for projecting Alabama’s 2019 defensive starters.
Projecting Alabama’s 2019 Defensive Starters
It was a huge surprise when Raekwon Davis announced he would return for his senior season. He mentioned that he had some unfinished business in college before going to the NFL Draft. His return will make projecting some of Alabama’s 2019 defensive starters a little easier. While his performance declined last season, accounting for only 5.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, he knows he has to play more consistently. Junior LaBryan Ray will finally get his big opportunity to start for the Crimson Tide after being a huge contributor as a backup the past two seasons. Ray will be the main pass rusher while Davis will be the strong-side end as the main run stopper. Redshirt freshman Stephon Wynn Jr. will likely be a backup to Davis at the strong-side end. True freshman Antonio Alfano, the number five recruit in the class of 2019, is likely to immediately as an extra pass rusher for the Crimson Tide.
Spring has seen the constant battle for the top defensive tackle/nose guard position. Freshman D.J. Dale has been taking the majority of the post-spring reps with the first team when he’s been healthy. Sophomore Phidarian Mathis is the player who mostly resembles Quinnen Williams, who accounted for 19.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. It may take both Dale and Mathis to replace Williams’ impact on the defensive line. Davis can also play at the three-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3 front with a heavy pass rush setting. Wynn is also an end that may find himself in the interior defensive line to build more consistent depth.
This is an area that the Crimson Tide are most excited about. Senior Anfernee Jennings returns as the leader and major returning contributor in the pass rush. Jennings accounted for 13 tackles for loss, five and a half sacks, and 11 pass deflections. Joining Jennings at the opposite outside linebacker position is junior Terrell Lewis. Lewis is eager to play after spending all of 2018 with a torn ACL. He has a lot of potential and finally gets a chance to display it. The transfer of Eyabi Anoma has left a hole open regarding depth but sophomore Christopher Allen has done very well in training camp to fill that loss. Allen accounted for three tackles and two sacks in the A-Day game. Redshirt junior Ben Davis has been progressing well in the fall camp but true freshman King Mwikuta could also be a potential role player.
Alabama’s leading tackler, junior Dylan Moses, returns to lead the defense. Hopefully to a more balanced form of stopping the run and pass. Moses accounted for 86 total tackles, 45 solo tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and three and a half sacks. The loss of senior Joshua McMillion to a likely season-ending knee injury is a tough task for the Crimson Tide to bare. Although, sophomore Ale Kaho was competing with McMillion for most of the spring, summer, and fall practices. Kaho was the favorite to be the other starting middle linebacker until he suffered a minor injury that forced him out of the last fall scrimmage. True freshman Christian Harris reportedly played very well enough to be considered for the starting role. True freshman Shane Lee and sophomore Jaylen Moody could be in the mix as well and provide excellent depth at the inside linebacker position.
Last season’s question mark is now the least of concern for the Crimson Tide. Senior Trevon Diggs was an excellent corner for Alabama a year ago until he broke his foot midway through the season. He will return as the main coverage corner. Sophomore Patrick Surtain II was a pleasant surprise when he took over for the injured Diggs as the number one coverage corner. Surtain accounted for 37 total tackles and seven pass deflections in his limited starts. Recently in the fall scrimmages, sophomore Josh Jobe has been playing the number two cornerback position. Freshmen cornerbacks Scooby Carter and Jalyn Armour-Davis will be the main contributors off the bench in the case of more injuries.
Nickel back (Star)
This is where the most position change has occurred for the Crimson Tide defense. Last year, Shyheim Carter was the main contributor of the Tide’s nickel back position. The defensive coaching staff made some recent shifts of the defensive backs. Surtain was the most consistent press coverage cornerback last season. While he still might be the second cornerback on the field in a regular 3-4 or 4-3 front defense. He may at times make a switch to nickel back. In fall camp, Surtain has been seen adjusting well to the position change to nickel back. Often, the Tide will take out a defensive lineman or linebacker and put a nickel back on the field. Carter last season or Surtain this year as an extra defender in the second or third level. This type of position requires depth but also the reliability of consistency in coverage and play recognition. Carter and sophomore Eddie Smith fit that profile.
Deionte Thompson left the program early for the 2019 NFL Draft. Despite this, thee is depth at this position. Junior Xavier McKinney returns as the anchor of the safeties for the Crimson Tide. Last season, he accounted for 74 total tackles, 10 pass deflections, and two interceptions. Seniors Jared Mayden and Carter are still competing for the main strong safety position. It may be difficult to put Carter in one position because he is very effective at star or safety. Sophomore Daniel Wright performed very well in spring and summer at free safety. Finally, true freshman Jordan Battle wowed the defensive coaching staff during the fall training camp at the strong safety position.
Senior Mike Bernier was on the verge of transferring during the offseason to another program as a graduate transfer. In early August, he announced he would stay with the Crimson Tide to get his Master’s Degree and play for a fifth and final season. He replaced Skyler DeLong, as the starting punter after the game against the Tennessee Volunteers. Bernier started the final seven games of the season. This is a competition that may go down to the week one matchup versus the Duke Blue Devils.