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The Future of the Alabama Defense

Nick Saban has made a slight change to his recruiting strategies, while also acknowledging the need to adapt in order to stop spread offenses. Lets talk about some changes that might be on the horizon.

Kevin C. Cox

When Jonathan Allen -- a defensive end from Virginia -- committed to Alabama, most people immediately assumed he would play the Jack linebacker position.  Considering Allen weighed only 263 pounds, this assumption was a reasonable one.  Before the 2013 season, here is a list of all the recent Alabama defensive ends along with their weight ...

Jeoffrey Pagan -- 290

Ed Stinson -- 292

Quinton Dial -- 304

Damion Square -- 286

Jesse Williams -- 310

Marcell Dareus -- 306

Within their 3-4, two gapping defense, Alabama needs all of their defensive linemen to be on the larger side, in order to be able to effectively control the blocker opposite them at the point of attack.  At just over 260 pounds, Allen doesn't fit the bill, so the thought that he would move away from defensive end seemed logical.  But then fall practice started, and during the media viewing portion of practice, Allen spent all of his time with the defensive ends.  And once the season started, when Allen saw the field, it was exclusively at defensive end.  With both Pagan and Stinson off to the NFL, Allen will slide in as a full time starter.  It's uncertain who will start opposite him, but as of right now I would say the odds on favorite is D.J. Pettway, who weighs in at 250 pounds.  Furthermore, given these recent developments, I wouldn't assume Da'Shawn Hand (260 pounds) is headed for linebacker either.

So it's pretty clear that Alabama wants to get lighter and faster along the defensive line. Nick Saban has mentioned this on multiple occasions, including this past weekend when talking with Rashaan Evans.  The reason our ears should perk up at this is because you can't change personnel to this extent without adjusting the scheme.  And that's why, after playing a mix of 3-4 and 4-3 (with either the JACK or SAM often playing on the line) for the past several years, I think Alabama might be slowly making the transition to more of a permanent 4-3.

Now I've made mention of this possibility in the past, and it's usually met with the same response -- 'Nick Saban has been using the same defensive scheme for a long time, and he's not about to change it'.  Well first of all, Saban has, on more than one occasion, adapted his defensive scheme in order to stay ahead of the curve.  The constant evolution of new offensive strategies demands these adaptations.  Furthermore, Bill Belichick, a huge influence on Saban, has moved away from his 3-4 defense (a defense that he has used even longer than Saban has) in favor of a 4-3 defense.  No coach is above change, if he believes that change will help win football games.

The truth is that college offenses have begun to make Saban's 3-4 a thing of the past.  His defense is designed to stop a traditional, pro-style offense, that favors running the ball between the tackles.  That's what any 3-4, two gapping defense does.  The nose tackle controls both A gaps while each defensive end controls one of the B gaps and one of the C gaps.  This allows the linebackers to read their keys and make a play on the ball carrier, without having to worry about controlling a gap.  But these defensive schemes tend to struggle against spread offenses, if the talent level is somewhat even, because the defense just doesn't play fast enough.  Instead of attacking gaps and matching the speed of the offense, 3-4 defenses tend to play at a slower pace, one that isn't ideal for combatting spread offenses.  One of the biggest issues in the Auburn game, for example, was that the linebackers simply weren't playing fast enough.  Instead they were spending too much reading their keys and getting caught up in trash once they diagnosed the play.

On top of all that, Alabama's defensive personnel is ideal for a 4-3, one gapping defense. Allen, Hand, and Pettway are perfect 4-3 defensive ends.  If you've been disappointed with Alabama's inability to pressure the quarterback without sending a fifth or sixth pass rusher, those guys going one on one with offensive tackles will be a nice change.  A'Shawn Robinson could play in any scheme, but he has surprising quickness and burst for a man his size, attributes that could go to waste as a two gapping nose tackle.  Reuben Foster and Trey DePriest are downhill linebackers, better suited to be attacking gaps in a 4-3 defense than reading the play and taking on blockers.

There are other possibilities, too.  They could go with four linemen, but play A'Shawn Robinson at defensive end and have his half of the line play two gaps while the other, lighter half, plays one gap.  Bill Belichick has done this in the past and Pete Carroll is currently doing this.  The only issue is that this scheme is a bit more complex, and with so many young players slated to get significant playing time next year, it may be too much for them to handle.  And that's the other benefit of moving to a 4-3 -- by and large it's a simpler defense than either a 3-4 or a hybrid 4-3/3-4.

Regardless, I don't write this article to guarantee that we'll see a significant scheme shift in the coming years.  Instead, my only purpose is to present the facts, which I'll sum up below ...

1) Alabama needs to get faster and more athletic along the defensive line in order to better defend spread offenses.  Nick Saban has acknowledged this on multiple occasions.

2) Alabama is recruiting lighter defensive linemen, many of which can't reasonably be expected to play a two gapping defense.

In order to accomplish number 1 and best use the players mentioned in number 2, I'm of the opinion that they should transition to more of a permanent 4-3 -- which, I want to stress, is different than the 4-3 that they currently sometimes play, because the defensive ends will actually be 4-3, one gapping players.

I know that after the losses to Auburn and Oklahoma many of you were/are concerned with the prospect of Alabama stopping talented, spread offenses.  Well, I think it's safe to say Nick Saban acknowledges this problem exists, and I'm certain he's already hard at work at finding a solution.  Maybe this is it.