Alabama defenders trying to measure up to own standard


By John Zenor - AP Sports Writer



TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Alabama’s defense is trying to once again measure up to those ridiculously high standards set — by the Crimson Tide, of course — during a giddy run of defensive dominance.

The Tide fell short at times last season. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart made sure his players knew that, informing them when preseason camp opened that they did a worse job of meeting the team goals than their last seven predecessors.

That means Alabama gave up too many big plays and third-down conversions and forced too few turnovers for Smart’s liking. Led by linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson, the Tide will be trying to change that this season.

“There’s a lot of guys that feel like we want to bring ‘Bama back to where it was, ‘Bama-style defense,” linebacker Ryan Anderson said. “Everybody’s hungry.”

The 2014 Alabama defense was still awfully good — except when it counted the most, against Ohio State in the national semifinals, and before that versus Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

Both teams pelted Alabama with eight plays of 20-plus yards and four that went for at least 40 yards, though the Tide did hold on for a 55-44 win over Auburn before losing to the Buckeyes (42-35), with a stronger SEC championship game performance against Missouri in between. That’s 86 points allowed in two games compared to the 2011 defense that gave up just 106 points in 13 games.

Alabama gave up 456 passing yards to Auburn’s Nick Marshall and 230 rushing yards to Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott

It’s enough to leave a defense that still ranked sixth nationally in points allowed and fourth against the run with an inferiority complex, if only by comparison to past groups. The Tide, after all, led the nation in a combined seven major defensive categories in the national championship seasons of 2011 and 2012.

The increasing prevalence of fast-paced, spread-you-out offenses makes similarly stingy numbers harder to come by. Alabama allowed 18.4 points a game last season.

Defenses, including Alabama’s, have been forced to adapt.

Smart, entering his ninth season running the Tide defense, said Alabama’s 2011 defense, which shut out LSU in the national championship game, faced five run-pass option plays. Alabama encountered more than 120 last season, he said.

“Obviously the game has changed, the teams we’re playing have changed, and we’ve had to evolve with it,” Smart said. “That team was a big, physical presence team that was good at stopping the run, had two first-round corners on it. And both played well. In recent years, the run-pass option has evolved to make offensive football a little bit better, and we’ve had to change with that.”

Smart has moved back to his old position coaching inside linebackers after Lance Thompson left for a job at Auburn. Coach Nick Saban hired former NFL defensive coordinator Mel Tucker as secondary coach.

Former top recruit Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton are battling for a starting job at inside linebacker. Former five-star prospects end Da’Shawn Hand, linebacker Rashaan Evans and cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Tony Brown also are trying to carve out bigger roles.

The question mark lies in the secondary, which has been victimized at times the past two seasons. The Tide must replace safeties Landon Collins and Nick Perry.

Cyrus Jones and Brown, who started twice as a freshman, are among the returning cornerbacks while Eddie Jackson has moved to safety.

Safety Geno Matias-Smith has heard the criticism and knows the defensive backs have much to prove.

“Every year we go over our statistics in the secondary,” Matias-Smith said. “Our secondary has been decreasing as far as the rankings. It hasn’t been good. We definitely know it’s a problem and we definitely know when big plays happen, it’s normally the secondary. We’ve just got to change that.”

By John Zenor

AP Sports Writer

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