Alabama entered the season starting four new players in its secondary, with top cornerback Patrick Surtain the only holdover from those who played full-time roles in 2019.
Through five games, the group’s inexperience has shown.
Alabama’s defense ranks 77th in the nation in allowing opponents to convert 46 percent of third downs, and it falls 75th in giving up 13.2 yards per opponent completion this season. The Tide’s defense has allowed 10 passing touchdowns in five games.
Coach Nick Saban sees a common thread in some of the defense’s worst moments.
“Every time there’s an explosive play, most of the time the safeties are involved in it,” he said during his Wednesday night radio show.
Alabama’s starting safeties this season have been sophomore Jordan Battle and redshirt junior Daniel Wright, although sophomore DeMarcco Hellams has subbed in place of Wright at times and played the first half of an Oct. 17 game against Georgia when Battle was serving a suspension for targeting.
Only Battle saw significant action on defense last season, playing in the team’s six defensive-back packages. Hellams began this season in that “Money” or dime defensive back role, although freshman Brian Branch took over those duties against Tennessee last Saturday.
The Tide also has a freshman starting in the “Star” or nickel cornerback role, and a first-year starter in Josh Jobe at outside cornerback opposite Surtain.
“I think our corners have actually played halfway decent in a game,” Saban said Thursday night. “We haven’t given up a lot of plays. We’ve put a lot of pressure on those guys in terms of how they’ve had to cover. We don’t play a lot of soft coverage where it’s easy for them.
“But the safety play has not — we’ve not tackled really well. Had a lot of missed tackles. We’ve made some poor adjustments. We’ve played the ball poorly on several occasions that gave the other team big plays.
“So I think the players are actually learning from all these mistakes and they’re actually improving as we go. We’re just going to keep coaching them and coaching them, and try to make them realize what they have to do to be better players.”
One problem for the safeties this season, Saban continued, has been eye discipline.
“Just to get the eye control right, to key the right things and look at the right things, has been a real challenge for us,” he said. “Just the discipline and eye control. Looking at your man when you’re playing man-to-man. Just those things in and of itself have been a real problem but we are getting better. We are getting better as the year goes on. I think that’s why points allowed has come down.”
Alabama’s defense has shown improvement over the past six quarters, beginning with the second half of the Georgia game. It has given up only 17 points over that span, compared to 72 points in the previous six quarters.
The Tide’s next opponent, Mississippi State, brings the nation’s fifth-leading passing offense to Tuscaloosa. Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” offense uses four wide receiver sets that are likely to keep Alabama in its six defensive back look.
“[Eye control] is gonna be a big thing in this week’s game because they’re going to pass the ball a lot, they run draws, they run the ball on occasion,” Saban said. “But if you don’t key the lineman for run-pass, you’re going to be wrong all the time.
“One of my big pet peeves with the safeties — and I say this all the time — is, ‘See a little, see a lot.’ Because if you see a lot, you don’t see anything.”
Saban compared Mississippi State’s offense to the “Run and shoot” offense used by the Houston Oilers in the early 1990s against Saban’s Cleveland Browns defenses.
“We were so physical when we played that [the Oilers’ receivers] didn’t want to play, because the safeties were so physical,” he explained. “When you have really good safeties on your team, it makes a big difference.”
Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.