Previewing the 2023 Alabama football defense: Can newcomers merge with veterans?

Alabama’s defense was, like the rest of the Crimson Tide football team, uneven in its 2022 performance.
It held opponents under 21 points eight different times, completing two shutouts over non-conference foes. But road lapses at Tennessee and at LSU helped sink the season. Alabama was 13th in total defense nationally, 10th in preventing third-down conversions (30.5%) and tied for 105th in turnovers forced (14).
The group is replacing six starters, namely Will Anderson Jr., the third-overall pick in the most recent NFL Draft. Kevin Steele is back for his third stint in Tuscaloosa and second as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator. Steele spoke about the Alabama standard in his preseason press conference on Aug. 6:
“This process is built – and it started in ‘07. I was here. It hasn’t gone anywhere, it really hasn’t. Obviously, offensive football has changed. It’s harder on defense right now at this present time than maybe it’s been in a long, long time. But the process is the process, and that’s the things I talked about earlier in terms of physical and mental toughness, relentless effort, dominate your opponent and do your job. It’s just simple principles. Obviously, schematically, we have a defense that can put pressure on offense. I mean, it’s built. We have a lot of moving parts in that regard. And it’s just knowing your job and doing your job.”
Here’s a breakdown of each position group of who’s returning and who’ll need to step up for UA this fall.
Defensive front
Notable players: Dallas Turner, Jaheim Oatis
We’re merging the pass rushers and defensive line into one group here just to highlight how stacked Alabama’s front seven should be on any given snap.
It starts with Dallas Turner, who had the second-most sacks (4.0) to Anderson’s 10.0 in 2022, and seniors Chris Braswell and Quandarrius Robinson. They’ll each need to elevate their play to fill in for Anderson’s dominance as well as give time to promising freshmen Qua Russaw, Keon Keeley and Yhonzae Pierre to learn the system. Keanu Koht and Jeremiah Alexander also return.
On the defensive line, Jaheim Oatis is expected to build off a strong freshman campaign (29 tackles) as a pair of starters departed. Justin Eboigbe will hopefully stay healthy and participate in more than four games. He and Tim Smith are the veterans. Redshirt junior Jah-Marien Latham and a set of former four- and five-star recruits provide plenty of depth. The riser in camp has been second-year player Tim Keenan III. After getting in better shape, Saban said this week Keenan was “playing like a starter.”
Deontae Lawson, Will Howard
Notable players: Deontae Lawson, Jihaad Campbell
Perhaps the biggest question mark on this side of the ball for Alabama is its interior linebackers. Henry To’oTo’o and Jaylen Moody combined for 143 tackles in Pete Golding’s defense, doing a slightly better job stuffing run lanes and pressuring the pocket than in pass coverage.
Their replacements under Steele will be some pairing of Deontae Lawson, a redshirt sophomore ready for a leadership role, Georgia transfer Trezmen Marshall, sophomore Jihaad Campbell and junior Kendrick Blackshire. The unit rounds out with JuCo transfer Justin Jefferson, who Saban said this fall is still adjusting, and second-year players Shawn Murphy and Ian Jackson.
Notable players: Kool-Aid McKinstry, Malachi Moore
Technically Alabama’s star position can be schemed as a strong-side linebacker, but seeing as modern football requires an extra player for coverage purposes, let’s touch on the candidates here. After 31 total tackles, Malachi Moore will be the veteran of the group along with Kool-Aid McKinstry at boundary cornerback. But Moore moreso represents the versatility Saban is aiming for this season.
Jaylen Key, a transfer from UAB, has gotten snaps at safety and star. Earl Little Jr., who had the play of the spring game with a diving interception, looks to see the field after losing his freshman year to injury. And Terrion Arnold, McKinstry’s projected partner on the boundary, has also gotten reps at star.
The other pieces are five-star freshman Caleb Downs, Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Trey Amos and returners Kristin Story and DeVonta Smith. Downs has made a good impression since enrolling prior to the Sugar Bowl, getting many snaps in the spring game at safety. Saban has said the best five defensive backs will play, raising the importance of being able to handle multiple roles.
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Similarly to the Alabama offense, there’s a throwback feel ahead of the 2023 season. There are few holes, on paper at least, among the starters. There’s suitable depth behind them, too. If the Crimson Tide rushing attack can return to its “joyless murderball” era to shorten games and wear down the opposition, the UA defense should be ready to follow suit. The big question will be if the Tide can generate more turnovers.

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