TUSCALOOSA — After losing 2/3rds of its defensive front and its top three sack leaders from a year ago, Alabama’s pass rush was a point of concern coming into the season.
And one game in, there’s clear room for improvement to be made in that department, especially if senior defensive end Raekwon Davis has anything to say about it.
“We still need more pressure on the quarterback,” Davis said after Saturday’s 42-3 season-opening win over Duke. “We still got to be able to disturb the pocket and just rush (the quarterback). We’ve got to get better at that.”
While sacks aren’t the sole indicator for creating a pass rush, they represent the most fan-friendly statistical gauge of how much pressure a quarterback faces in a game.
And if its one-sack effort against Duke was any indication, Alabama could stand to make things a little more difficult in the pocket when it takes on New Mexico State in its home opener at 3 p.m. Saturday from inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“We’re always trying to improve pass rush,” Tide head coach Nick Saban said on Wednesday’s Southeastern Conference coaches teleconference. “We’re always trying to improve ways we can affect the quarterback and certainly that’s something that we’re working on this week with the type of team we’re going to play against.”
Alabama’s lone takedown of Duke quarterback Quentin Harris came on a second-quarter bull rush from junior outside linebacker Terrell Lewis, who was admittedly amped for the opportunity after missing all of last season recovering from an ACL injury.
“Kinda mad I didn’t get as much as I wanted to,” Lewis said of his sack total, flashing a smile after the game. “It was important to set the tone (defensively) as far as my role on the team and I was already anxious just to play in general, so just adding onto that sentence, it was about time to make my presence felt.”
But outside of Lewis’ one all-out blitz, there wasn’t much in the way of a consistent pass rush Saturday. In fact, the Blue Devils’ defense doubled up the Tide in tackles for loss (four to two) in the game, with the first of those TFL coming on the first defensive play of the game from freshman nose guard D.J. Dale.
Of course, to hear Saban explain it, bringing down Duke’s quarterback was never part of the game plan, which centered more so around containing the dual-threat Harris.
“Sacks really have nothing to do with how successful you are on defense,” Saban said dismissively. “… We wanted to compress the pocket on (Harris) and make him throw from the pocket, and we did that.
“We hit him a few times. We pressured him a few times. We only sacked him once, but we did a pretty good job of (limiting) him (from) making plays with his feet, which was the goal of the game.”
Still, between the offseason departures of Isaiah Buggs, Christian Miller, Jamey Mosley, Quinnen Williams, and Mack Wilson to the NFL and Eyabi Anoma and Kyriq McDonald to transfer; as well as the season-ending injuries to linebackers Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon (and Cameron Latu’s position change to tight end), Alabama must replace between 60-70 percent of its total pass rush from last season. The aforementioned players accounted for 44 of the 64 quarterback hurries, 70.5 tackles for loss and 31 ½ of the 45 total sacks in 2018.
That’s a lot of defensive production to make up for, which is where improvement from players like Davis and junior end LaBryan Ray come into play.
"I think pass rush-wise, we did some good things (against Duke) but there is still a lot to improve on,” Ray said Tuesday. “As a D-line — really as a whole team — we got to focus in, I think, more on our technique-wise and we can be more successful (as pass rushers) that what I think is the goal."
Of course, that’s not to take anything away from Alabama’s stout defensive effort Saturday, limiting Duke to just 204 total yards, a 3-of-12 conversion rate on third downs, and five three-and-outs in the game, with a 30-yard field goal representing the lone score. The Tide’s experienced secondary also forced three turnovers in the contest, a positive sign for a unit that got exposed during last year’s postseason.
Senior corner Trevon Diggs factored into two of those turnovers, recovering a forced fumble by sophomore Patrick Surtain II midway through the third quarter and hauling in one of Alabama’s two interceptions in the final minute of the frame.
“I had given up a pass the first time for not playing the ball, so this time I was playing the ball,” Diggs said Monday of his interception. “I started to get a feel for things. I just turned my head and caught the ball in my fist, just caught it.”
But while there was plenty that went right for the Tide in Saturday’s opener, even Saban will acknowledge it was far from a complete defensive effort.
“Oh yeah, there’s always things that we need to improve (on),” Saban said Wednesday. “(Duke’s) best runs in the game were on (our) mental errors, (including when) the defense didn't slant the right way one time because we didn’t call it correctly. … We didn’t play the ball on the deep part of the field very well. There’s a ton of things that we can do better, and we’re certainly focusing on trying to get those things right this week.”
CB Knott's football career over due to medical concerns: Nigel Knott's football career at Alabama appears to be over after the redshirt junior cornerback from Mississippi was medically forced to step away from the game recently.
"Nigel Knott has been redshirted medically, for some of the medical issues that he had," Saban announced Wednesday evening. "He's in school here, we want to support him and help him get an education. He was a very good teammate for a lot of our players. He worked hard, did a good job in this program, but the medical staff felt like it was not in his best interest to continue to play football."
Knott has been absent from team activities since this summer, addressing unspecified "medical issues" that he and the team have spent the last month trying to work through.
Knott was a highly-rated four-star member of Alabama's top-ranked 2016 signing class that never quite developed like many of his classmates, redshirting his first season on campus before seeing limited action in 12 games over the past two seasons. Knott recorded one career tackle on special teams last season against Arkansas.
Saban also updated the absence of redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Hunter Brannon, who hasn't been at practice since the start of the regular season.
"He's got medical issues that we're dealing with," Saban said of Brannon. "He's not been cleared to come back and play, and what the future holds for him is still sort of a question mark, whether he'll be able to come back and play or not. So we'll just have to wait and see how that plays out."