TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama football fans that were worried about the losses of key defensive players need not let their hearts be troubled.
The Crimson Tide has a lot of its key players from last season returning outside of cornerback Patrick Surtain II, linebacker Dylan Moses and lineman Christian Barmore. The defense experienced far less turnover among its veterans than Alabama’s offense did, translating to a certain level of confidence among fans that the Crimson Tide’s defense would be ready to go in 2021.
Ironically, it was the team’s younger players, not veterans, that shined in Saturday’s A-Day Game. With a large group of veteran players out due to injuries, the younger players received a larger amount of playing time than they typically would, resulting in opportunities for them to make standout performances.
Among those veterans missing from the game were linebackers Will Anderson Jr., Drew Sanders, Christian Harris and Shane Lee; defensive linemen Phidarian Mathis and Braylen Ingraham; and defensive backs Malachi Moore and Marcus Banks.
For the Crimson Team, a younger player that had a standout performance was sophomore linebacker Chris Braswell. On Saturday, Braswell accounted for five tackles — three of those tackles being sacks — and a forced fumble.
Following the game, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban noted Braswell’s progress.
“Chris really did a nice job last year when he was on the scout team, really made a lot of progress, showed some ability to pass rush, really challenged our offense on a daily basis,” Saban said. “So we knew he was ready to step up and be a guy that we can count on and have a role for this year. He did a nice job all spring long. I think he’s got a much better grasp of the defense, the system, what his job is.
“I think he’ll be a guy that will certainly add depth to that position, but I also think, because of his pass-rush ability, will be a guy that we try to find a role for.”
Braswell most likely took up a larger role on A-Day than previously anticipated due to Anderson being absent due to an unknown injury. However, his performance on Saturday definitely turned some heads heading into the summer break.
The second young player was freshman defensive back Ga’Quincy ‘Kool-Aid’ McKinstry, who had three total tackles, a pass breakup, an interception and a fumble recovery for the White Team.
McKinstry has been one of the Alabama fanbases’ favorite newcomers, and with good reason. In high school, McKinstry was named Alabama’s Mr. Football following his senior season for his efforts on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
Junior linebacker Jordan Battle said that McKinstry is fueled in practice by the criticism he takes from Saban in practice, and the result has been a solid defensive back that makes plays not only in scrimmages but in practice as well.
“Every day coach Saban gets on him about getting better and he feeds off of it,” Battle said. “Every day he gets better with trying to get things corrected and today showed that he’s made a lot of improvement and he made a lot of plays out there.”
Other standouts of the day were redshirt-junior linebacker Jalyn Armour-Davis and junior defensive back DeMarco Hellams, both on the Crimson Team. Armour-Davis totaled just three tackles but also broke up three passes. Hellams led both teams in total tackles with 12 and also had a pass breakup of his own.
While a large portion of the team's leaders were unable to play due to injuries, there were still some that made contributions on Saturday. Battle totaled seven tackles while sophomore defensive back Brian Branch recorded two. On the defensive line, juniors Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe each tallied two tackles and one quarterback hurry apiece.
With so much young and old talent on the gridiron in the 2021 season, Alabama’s defense is primed to have improvement from last year — a year that saw them finish as the top team in the SEC by allowing the fewest points per game from opposing offenses.
While the yards allowed were pretty high on both sides with the Crimson Team allowing 385 total yards and the White Team 276, both teams performed well against the run. The White Team limited its opposition to just 52 rushing yards combined between three rushers, while the Crimson Team held its four opposing rushers to just 31 combined rushing yards.
On the day, there were five combined turnovers between the two defenses — two interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
There is certainly a lot of improvements that Alabama needs to make on both offense and defense heading into the 2021 season. However, after a year that didn’t have a spring football season nor an A-Day Game in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Crimson Tide already has more preparation for next season than they did at this same time last year.
And we all know how last season turned out for the Crimson Tide as it hoisted its 18th national championship trophy into the air down in Miami.