Looking back at the 2010 season, Alabama’s secondary took a brunt of the criticism when it came to discussing the Crimson Tide’s shortcomings.
With the inexperience back there, it comes as no surprise, but when talking with players now, they feel like an area that the team lacked ferocity and consistency was the pass rush.
Alabama ranked sixth in the SEC with 27 sacks for losses totaling 177 yards. During Alabama’s 2009 national championship season, the Tide collected 32 sacks for losses totaling 265 yards.
As junior linebacker Dont’a Hightower puts it, the front seven gave quarterbacks the precious seconds needed to make plays on the defense, which was painfully obvious in the Tide’s three losses last season, especially against Auburn.
“Last year, we lacked the speed part, getting after the quarterback,” Hightower said. “This year, I think it’s what our defense is about, getting after the quarterback. Last year, losing that one or two seconds, or giving the quarterback that extra time, that made a big difference. If we can get there faster, that relieves pressure off the defensive backs.”
Alabama doesn’t have the commanding defensive linemen it’s had in the past, but the key to a powerful pass rush should come from the linebacker corps, a group that has rebounded from youth and injury to be considered one of the best, not only in the league, but the entire country.
“I think that we have a little different type team this year defensively,” coach Nick Saban said. “In the last few years we have had, always had, dominant down guys that had pass-rush ability.
“I'm not sure we have those kind of dominating down guys right now. We're trying to develop some of those guys as younger players. We have more linebacker types that are pass-rushers. This is one of the key ingredients of playing the 3-4, is your linebacker guys are going to have to be your pass-rushers because the down guys are going to be bigger and not as effective rushers. So that's where a lot of our pass-rush is going to come from.”
One of the players that rush is going to come from is Hightower, who is two years removed from a devastating knee injury. He was never 100 percent last season and didn’t shed his knee brace until the bowl game, but as the first day of practice gets underway Friday, Hightower is finally flying around like his old self and understands that he’s being looked at as a driving force for this Tide defense.
Hightower is one of the more versatile linebackers, playing both inside and outside at the “Jack” position. Helping him out in the pass rush will be senior Courtney Upshaw, who spends most of his time at the Jack and is also back from a nagging injury. Upshaw proved to be Alabama’s top pass-rusher, leading the team with 14.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
Couple those two with super sophomore C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson, and backfields could be trembling when Alabama’s defense steps on the field.
“It’s one of the most athletic groups to come through Alabama in a long time,” Hightower said of the linebackers. “You won’t see a group of guys work harder in the country.