Alabama regrouping defensively after shaky SEC start

Alabama photo by Kent Gidley / Alabama safety Xavier McKinney (15) and outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings (33) struggled at times last Saturday to contain Ole Miss freshman quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, who rushed 25 times for 109 yards in the Crimson Tide's 59-31 win.

Alabama is 5-0 and No. 1 in the national rankings entering its first open date of the college football season.

That's nothing new.

What is different about this year's Crimson Tide is a defense that is 38th in yards allowed among Football Bowl Subdivision teams, and that's amid the easier portion of a schedule that includes the annual November dates against LSU and Auburn. Alabama resumes play Oct. 12 with a visit to Texas A&M, which also has this weekend off.

"This will be a great opportunity to get better," senior defensive end Raekwon Davis said. "It's not about what the other teams are doing. It's about what we're doing. There is a lack of focus, and we're not executing plays. We're not tackling well, and penalties are killing us.

"We lost contain on the quarterback several times in this last game, and little mistakes like that definitely shouldn't happen."

Alabama was expected to dominate Ole Miss in every facet of last Saturday's 59-31 mismatch inside Bryant-Denny Stadium, and that was certainly the case with the Tide offense. Junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa set a single-game program standard with six touchdown passes, while junior receiver DeVonta Smith set single-game receiving marks with 274 yards and five scores.

It was a different story defensively, as Alabama allowed 476 total yards and 279 rushing yards to the Rebels. True freshmen did most of the damage, with quarterback John Rhys Plumlee and running backs Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner combining on 46 rushes for 239 yards, or 5.2 yards per carry.

"We gave up a lot of points, so people are going to keep saying the same thing about us not being able to play defense," Tide junior safety Xavier McKinney said. "As a defense, I really don't like giving up points, especially when we have an offense that's so good. They play so well every game, and we try and match them as best as we can.

"Right now we're not doing that, and it's frustrating."

The Tide defense has endured many more setbacks than its offensive counterparts, beginning with the season-ending injuries to starting inside linebackers Joshua McMillon and preseason All-American Dylan Moses before the opener against Duke. Then starting defensive end LaBryan Ray underwent foot surgery after three games and will be sidelined until early November in the best-case scenario.

Five true freshman defenders have started for Alabama, including nose tackle DJ Dale, who earned the job after Quinnen Williams bypassed his final two seasons of eligibility and became the third overall pick of the 2019 NFL draft.

"We've had some adversity to overcome," coach Nick Saban said. "Obviously we're playing some young guys on defense, and we're not really satisfied with the way we're playing defense right now, especially not being able to stop the run effectively, which is something we've always been able to do around here pretty well.

"I think that's a team thing. I don't think it's just about the defensive line or just about the linebackers. It's how you play on the perimeter and tackle on the perimeter and how you contain the ball and how you play the ball."

Alabama has struggled defensively in both of its Southeastern Conference games, with a 47-23 win at South Carolina on Sept. 14 coming despite the Gamecocks running 86 plays that produced 459 yards and 31 first downs. Gamecocks quarterback Ryan Hilinski, another true freshman, threw for 324 yards and two touchdowns, while Rico Dowdle rushed 12 times for 102 yards.

McKinney was not surprised to see some similar plays by the Rebels.

"They grabbed some of the stuff that South Carolina ran on us and did that, and that's what every team will do," he said. "They will find stuff that we've struggled with. A lot of times when people make big plays, it's off of our mental errors.

"Once we eliminate those, we'll play better."

Due to this season's schedule, FBS teams are getting two open dates instead of one for the first time since 2014. Given Alabama's defensive youth, the Tide stand to benefit from the extra break as much as anyone.

Which could result in Alabama looking more like Alabama in the weeks ahead.

"I don't think there is any question about the fact that the more repetitions they get, the more opportunities they get to learn and the more exposure they get to things that other teams are going to do to them," Saban said. "You have an opportunity to do that in a bye week, when you don't have to get ready for one particular team. I think it will help these guys and help their knowledge, because you can't coach experience. The players have to get it, and this offers them that opportunity."

Said senior outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings: "The season doesn't stop right here. We still have a lot of room to improve, so we're going to attack our weaknesses and fix this."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.