ORLANDO, Fla. — It hasn’t been what was expected, and that has to weigh on one person especially.
Ok, two people in particular. A lot of Alabama fans would like to think that they’re one of them, but in this case we’re talking about Nick Saban and Pete Golding.
It’s been a rough season for the Crimson Tide defensive coordinator, but to use a poker analogy his cards weren’t nearly as good as they could have been.
He also didn’t have the option to fold.
When Alabama takes on Michigan in the Citrus Bowl on Wednesday (noon CT, ABC), the Crimson Tide will be down two more defensive starters. With linebacker Terrell Lewis and cornerback Trevon Diggs opting not to play, Chris Allen and Josh Jobe, respectively, will get a head start on trying to replace them next season.
Maybe the defense can finally take a step toward finding some continuity and consistency, which are considered critical for prowess on that side of the ball.
Instead, the Crimson Tide looks nothing like it did heading into the season, especially among the front seven. Just two of the players Alabama counted on are still in the mix.
Pos., Original starter, Citrus Bowl starter
DE Raekwon Davis (99), Raekwon Davis (99)
DT DJ Dale (94), Phidarian Mathis (48)
DE LaBryan Ray (89), Byron Young (47)
SLB Terrell Lewis (24), Chris Allen (4)
MLB Dylan Moses (7), Shane Lee (35)
WLB Josh McMillon (40), Christian Harris (8)
JLB Anfernee Jennings (33), Anfernee Jennings (33)
There isn’t a coach in the nation who would have thrived in that situation, which Saban recognizes.
“Pete's a very bright guy,” he said last week. “I think he has really good relationships with his players. I think he's been put in a really, really difficult situation.
“[He] has much more patience than maybe I do relative to how he teaches. So I think he's done a really good job.”
In addition to being the defensive coordinator, Golding’s other coaching role is heading the interior linebackers, where he’s had to start two true freshmen all season and the oldest active player is a sophomore. Without Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon, who both suffered knee injuries during fall camp, there’s been no mentor in the room to help, no one they can really turn to on the sideline.
Just having one veteran in the group would have made a huge difference.
“It was a unique deal this year that you lost two guys at the same position, to where you have two 18-year-olds that have never been in the system side by side,” Golding said. “And I think a lot of times they're looking for confirmation, and they're looking for confirmation and the guy beside them that doesn't really know either. And I think that's been the big difference.”
This is the position the Crimson Tide considers the quarterback of the defense, and just hesitating can be disastrous. Players in general say it takes a year just to get everything down at this level, and being comfortable to the point of being able to read and react.
On top of that the Crimson Tide plays in the toughest conference in football, and the opposing coaches are anything but dumb. Every single one of them took advantage, from snapping the ball before Alabama could make adjustments to getting receivers in mismatch situations.
It was learning experience for the coaches as well.
“At times, we put too much on those guys to where they’re thinking instead of reacting. And I think, especially for young football players, to be able to get lined up, set the front, keep the coverage the same and be able to adjust out what you're in, helps those guys,” Golding said. “Sometimes, as coaches, we can think too much. I think we're too damn smart at times and then you try to put them in certain situations to where they start changing a picture and we change a coverage because it's what's best to do.
“However, if you can't execute it, it doesn't matter the call.”
There’s always been an unreasonable belief that freshmen players can immediately step in and the team won’t skip a beat, and Alabama fans got spoiled by the national championship game at the end of the 2017 season.
Tua Tagovailoa came in at quarterback at halftime and sparked the passing game. Wide receiver DeVonta Smith caught the winning touchdown in overtime. Running back Najee Harris led the ground attack and Alex Leatherwood was at left tackle after sophomore starter Jonah Williams left the game with an injury.
Alabama had six freshmen on the field when second-and-26 occurred, the 41-yard touchdown pass to beat Georgia. Even these days, when more and more teams are winning with first-year players, it was almost as unlikely a scenario as former athletic director Mal Moore approving the football team wearing a different-color jersey other than crimson or white.
It was anything but normal.
Plus, the circumstances are different.
The game has become even more rigged for offenses. This season’s four playoff teams were all in the top six in scoring offense.
Alabama has been losing players early for the NFL for years, and it’s taken a toll. This isn’t to suggest that they should have stayed (every player’s situation is different), but image how different this defense might have looked with Quinnen Williams and Mack Wilson.
Then there were the injuries.
Despite that, Alabama didn’t regress. It just didn’t bounce back to the level Saban refers to as the ‘Bama Standard.’
DEFENSIVE YEAR-by-YEAR CHART
Alabama defense national rankings
Year Total (yards), Scoring (points), Rushing (yards), Pass Eff. (rating)
2007 31 (345.5); 27 (22.0); 28 (124.2); 38 (117.21)
2008 3 (263.8); 7 (14.3); 2 (74.14); 14 (106.68)
2009 4 (256.6); 2 (11.7); 2 (78.14); 2 (87.67)
2010 5 (298.0); T-3 (13.5); 10 (110.15); 6 (103.54)
2011 1 (177.6); 1 (8.2); 1 (72.15); 1 (83.69)
2012 1 (252.9); 1 (10.9); 1 (76.36); 6 (103.72)
2013 5 (295.8); 4 (13.9); 7 (106.2); 26 (116.84)
2014 13 (337.0); 6 (18.4); 4 (102.4); 30 (116.53)
2015 1 (266.2); 3 (15.1); 1 (75.7); 8 (105.22)
2016 2 (261.8); 1 (13.0); 1 (63.9); 9 (106.47)
2017 1 (260.4); 1 (11.9); 1 (94.7); 2 (96.78)
2018 16 (319.5); 12 (18.1); 19 (121.3); 23 (115.79)
2019 16 (318.6); 15 (18.8); 36 (135.2); 7 (111.01)*
*So far this season
This group just never had the chance.
“The struggle for any young player in any system coming into college football as a freshman is adjusting to the speed of the game,” Golding explained. “And then I think as many shifts and motions and things like that that they see when the picture changes, those guys being able to -- having to make a call in a split second, you know, and then all 11 guys are waiting on them to make the call, you know, because they're the signal caller of the defense, I think that was a struggle early for them.
"But I think both those guys in the middle of our defense love football. They're extremely smart. They prepare the right way .., and I think they got better throughout the year. They had their growing pains. I had my growing pains. It wasn't always perfect, by any means, but it was a situation that we were put in.”
Wednesday, the defense will again be in a tough spot as former Alabama wide receivers coach Josh Gattis is Michigan’s offensive coordinator. He recruited some of the players he’ll be facing and won’t hold back. Moreover, the Wolverine’s offensive line is full of seniors and quarterback Shea Patterson has faced the Crimson Tide before.
It’ll be interesting to see if the defense as a whole has improved following a couple of weeks of bowl practices, even without Lewis and Diggs.