By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
Alabama is in the midst of one of the greatest five-year runs the SEC has ever seen. Since the start of the 2008 season the Crimson Tide, currently sitting at No. 2 in the BCS rankings, has amassed 59 victories, the most ever by an SEC team in such a period.
It’s no coincidence that the Tide defense has become a mainstay among the nation’s elite ball-stopping units in that same time span. In the past four seasons Alabama has finished third, second, fifth and first in the country in total defense and captured two of the past three BCS National Championships.
Although head coach Nick Saban and his defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have constructed a dynastic defense in Tuscaloosa, there were questions heading into the 2012 season about whether or not the D would suffer a drop-off from the national title unit of last season. Even by usual Saban standards, the 2011 Alabama defense was out-of-this-world good; the Tide led the nation in total defense, rushing defense, passing defense, yards per game, yards per play and scoring.
The word domination doesn’t even do justice to that stat line.
The 2012 unit took the field minus seven starters from a season ago, including five that were selected in the first 35 picks of the NFL Draft. It seemed that no team – even one that reloads each year as effectively as Bama – could avoid feeling the effects of such significant losses. Simply plugging in new cogs, no matter how talented they are, wouldn’t be enough.
Fast forward to end of the 2012 regular season, and it appears that the Crimson Tide did (technically) suffer a drop-off on the defensive side of the ball.
Just barely, though.
Alabama enters this weekend’s SEC Championship showdown with No. 3 Georgia as the nation’s best total defense once again. Sure, the Tide isn’t first in rushing defense (they’re second), passing D (third there) or yards per play (second again) as they were last year, but the “drop-off” has been minimal and it still ranks first in scoring and yards per game.
Given the losses it suffered, the performance of the unit this season is nothing short of remarkable. It’s especially impressive at linebacker, where the Tide lost two of its most important pieces, Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, to the NFL.
Playmaking linebackers have been critical to the success of Alabama throughout its historic run of dominance. Saban’s defense requires big, physical ’backers capable of stopping the run from the inside out while also having the athleticism to hit their coverage drops, match receiving patterns and break on the ball.
Current Oakland Raider Rolando McClain fit that mold and led the Crimson Tide in tackles in ’08 and ’09 (95 and 105, respectively). He also racked up 26.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks across those seasons. Last year, Hightower led the team in takedowns (85), while Upshaw terrorized quarterbacks with 9.5 sacks and a team-high 18 TFL.
The void left at linebacker by the departure of Hightower and Upshaw included a combined 137 tackles, 29 TFL and 13.5 sacks last year alone – sizeable to say the least. The Crimson Tide has filled that void with stellar play from a committee of backers, most notably senior Nico Johnson, junior C.J. Mosley, and a pair of sophomores in Trey DePriest and Adrian Hubbard.
Johnson and Mosley were contributors in 2011, splitting time at the inside linebacker spot next to the All-American Hightower and combining for 84 stops. This season, the duo has shined in his absence.
Mosley leads the team with 92 tackles through 12 games. The leap that he made from his sophomore to junior season – he’s on pace to triple his tackling production from last year – helped him play his way onto semi-finalist lists for the Bednarik and Butkus Awards. Mosley has four doublt-digit tackling performances this season, including a career-high 14 against Texas A&M, and he’s had at least six stops in nine games.
He also has two picks this year, one of which he returned to the house against Michigan.
Johnson has been stout in the middle next to DePriest, and the two have combined for 104 stops this season. Johnson has developed a reputation as a run-suffer, helping the Bama defense shut down the inside run and limit opponents to just 77 yards per game on the ground this year, not too far off their 2011 mark. DePriest has doubled his production from his freshman season and looks ready to lead the line-backing corps moving forward, along with a fellow second-year standout in Hubbard.
Reminiscent of the departed Upshaw, Hubbard has put consistent pressure on quarterbacks this year. The imposing 6-foot-6, 248-pounder has made his mark with team highs in sacks (five) and tackles for loss (nine), and has combined forces with Mosley to wreck opposing backfields. Replacing a player like Upshaw is almost impossible, but Mosley and Hubbard have tag-teamed their way to numbers very similar to their old teammate’s last season: 15 TFL, nine sacks and four forced fumbles.
Despite following such a tough act last year, these Bama linebackers have made their own mark in Tuscaloosa and maintained an elite level of play for yet another year. Alabama lost talent from across the defense in the offseason, so the ’backers certainly aren’t the only players that have elevated their play, something Mosley acknowledged on Monday.
“Yeah, it's a great system,” Mosley said of the Saban/Smart scheme. “But you have to have great players and players that are willing to work and willing to do the right thing and execute their jobs for the system to work.”
Mosley said that the entire defense has to execute in conjunction to be successful, with the front seven playing its responsibilities within the scheme and trusting the secondary to do the same.
So far in 2012, the entire Alabama defense has played very well. But it’s the linebackers who are once again headline of the unit for the Crimson Tide, and the results are very similar for Saban and company.