TUSCALOOSA — The day before suffering a potentially season-ending knee injury, Dylan Moses described Alabama’s locker room as “very calm” and “focused” ahead of its season-opener against Duke.
“It's very calm, guys aren't really … I mean, we're hyped, but it's more so like a calm-type thing going on, because we're focused,” the junior middle linebacker said Monday. “We have a deal going, we just want to worry about one game at a time, one practice at a time, just keep getting better, fix our mistakes, and don't put too much on our plate that we can.”
But following news of Moses’ devastating ACL injury Tuesday night, that calm has seemingly been replaced by a steady uneasiness as the Crimson Tide enters Saturday’s season-opener against Duke with three true freshmen starters in the heart of its defensive front seven. Add in two more rookie starters in offensive guard Evan Neal and kicker Will Reichard and nearly 20 percent of Alabama’s first-team unit will be made up of true freshmen.
It’s an unenviable situation to say the least, especially with two of those true freshmen starters — Mike ‘backer Shane Lee and Will ‘backer Christian Harris — manning the two integral inside linebacker spots.
But as Alabama head coach Nick Saban made clear to his players and the media on Wednesday, the ability to persevere and overcome such unexpected adversity is what can ultimately define a winner.
“It's also a character check for everybody on our team to be able to keep the faith, to respond to adversity the way they need to, to accept the challenge and to rise above the challenge,” head coach Nick Saban said. “(We need to) support each other, support (the) young players that are going to have to play, and just kind of go from there. That's the only choice we have.”
Of course, no team on Alabama’s schedule this season is going to have sympathy for a program that’s hauled in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class in eight out of the last nine years and won five national titles in the last 10 years.
Which is why the onus is on Saban and his players to go out Saturday and prove the Crimson Tide is still the same dominant powerhouse that it’s been in the past decade.
“We're excited about this team. I really like this team. I like the character of this team,” Saban said. “These guys have worked hard, tried to do things the right way. We're looking forward to playing somebody and kind of seeing where we are.”
Alabama’s record-setting offense last season returns six starters, including Heisman Trophy favorite quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and his Top 4 targets from a year ago in Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith and sophomore Jaylen Waddle. That receiving quartet combined for nearly 3,600 yards and 38 touchdowns on 201 receptions last season and could be primed for even more production this season under first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
That said, how Sarkisian utilizes his plethora of weapons will be interesting in this game, especially given the potential first-half absences to three junior starters in Smith and running backs Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr., who are reportedly facing internal suspensions after missing a recent team function.
Sarkisian has said his West Coast-based scheme starts with a strong ground game, which could be difficult without of the team’s lead ‘backs at his disposal — at least for the first half.