It's the Quarterback of the Defense Who Will Have the Biggest Impact on Alabama's Playoff Chances
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When it comes to the University of Alabama football team, everyone’s a critic, especially teammates.
When true freshman middle linebacker Shane Lee made an interception on the first play of last week’s 38-7 victory at Mississippi State, it was a huge moment. Not only was it his first career pick, but set the tone against an SEC opponent.
However, despite being surrounded by friendly jerseys off the botched slant attempt, Lee was brought down by the player who gave him the ball, Tommy Stevens. It didn’t matter that the quarterback is listed as 6-5, 236, Lee took some grief for it.
"You're supposed to stiff-arm the quarterback or something,” senior safety Jared Mayden said. “You can't get tackled by the quarterback."
Regardless, Lee had probably best game yet, with 10 tackles to go with the interception.
"That was big,” Mayden added. “First drive out and you go get an interception. That's probably something that also helped him calm down. Once you realize you can really play with everybody in the league, now you're just getting to the thinking part."
Getting to the don’t-think, just-react stage has been an ongoing thing this season as Alabama could play six freshmen on defense when the Crimson Tide hosts Western Carolina on Saturday (11 a.m. CT).
That’s just with the starters. There’s just as many on the second-team as well.
Go back to the start of the season and only two original starters are expected to be available in the defensive front seven, outside linebackers Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis. None of the defensive linemen are expected to play.
It’s a good thing the longstanding belief that every freshman who gets on the field translates into a loss at some point is no longer held because if so Alabama wouldn’t be even at .500 this season.
“We still have the occasional mental error by some of the younger guys that shows up, but I thought this was his best performance, most consistent game and I see him sort of starting to develop confidence in what we’re asking him to do and how he’s going about doing it on a consistent basis,” Nick Saban said about Lee.
As noted here earlier this week it often takes a player at Alabama at least a full year to get everything down, offense or defense, and Mayden noted that he needed almost three.
Lee’s had the extra responsibility of being the signal-caller for the defense, who is expected to call out pre-snap adjustments as well. He’s been getting help in that area, but LSU was able to exploit it by lining up in different ways and quickly snapping the ball.
You can be certain that Auburn’s going to try and do the same thing next week, if for no other reason than to see how Lee reacts.
“He’s a really good player, even though he’s young,” senior defensive back Shyheim Carter said. “He’s still got a lot to learn and improve on, but he’s a really good player. He’s a starting linebacker as a freshman and that speaks highly of him. I feel he can get the job done, whether tackling or making the right call or anything.”
Although Alabama’s schedule has been widely criticized this season, the way November is playing out is helping Lee’s development and preparing the Crimson Tide defense for its regular-season finale.
Alabama just saw a run-dominated spread offense at Davis Wade Stadium, and this week faces the kind of dual-threat quarterback that has given the Crimson Tide trouble. Tyrie Adams has topped 11,000 career yards, include 2,519 rushing – which is more career rushing yards than anyone on the Alabama roster.
Granted, Auburn freshman quarterback Bo Nix hasn’t done much running this season (especially since his backup left the team and is set to transfer), but he can and will probably need to do so against the Crimson Tide.
So watching how Lee and the other freshmen handle things this week is more important than most fans realize.
To take it a step further, while most will be focused on the guy taking snaps this week, Mac Jones in for injured Tua Tagovailoa, it’s probably the quarterback of the defense who will have the biggest impact on whether the Crimson Tide can still make the College Football Playoff.
Alabama was thought to have two can’t lose players this season, with middle linebacker Dylan Moses the other. Combined with Josh McMillon also suffering a major knee injury, Alabama’s had two true freshmen at the heart of the defense – and every opponent has attacked them.
"I really see the maturity in him, from being all over the place when he was first announced as a starter,” Mayden said about Lee.
“I knew he was overwhelmed but the coaches helped him learn, we helped him gain confidence in calling, because you do need to call. But overall, he's just getting mature. I think now you can see him not being so kind of confused or sporadic. He's come into his own."
That doesn’t just mean that Alabama can make better adjustments. The coaches can call more things and attack in different ways.
The area it will be the most noticeable isn’t against the run, but the pass-rush, benefiting Jennings and Lewis.
Remember, this is Alabama, where good isn’t considered good enough, and the defense is supposed to be excellent.
It’s getting there, and will benefit from bowl/playoff practices when freshmen often dramatically improve. Only the season’s on the line over the next 10 days.
"That's what we expect, I'm pretty sure that's what fans expect, alumni expect,” Mayden said. ‘That's the Alabama standard of defense. Outside of the second drive, [Mississippi State] didn't score again. That's the example that this Alabama defense has been trying to show everybody."
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 27 (328.9); 12 (17.5); 40 (137.3); 18 (114.50)*
*Through Mississippi State game