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Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Offseason storylines: Generating a rush

By Alex Scarborough

Editor's note: The season is over and the Alabama Crimson Tide are national champions yet again. But what happens next? TideNation examines the most pressing storylines of the offseason as the Tide gear up for another title defense.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There's a lot of good that could be said about the Alabama defense of 2012. It was strikingly efficient and balanced. The Tide finished No. 1 against the run nationally and No. 7 against the pass. They gave up the fewest points per game in the country and put a bow on it all with a dominating performance against Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship.

Reggie Ragland
Rising sophomore LB Reggie Ragland made an impression on special teams in 2012, and looks to do so on defense in 2013.
But for all the applause there is one area of the defense's game that was markedly silent: the pass rush. For all Alabama did well, it did not pressure the backfield enough in 2012. UA had 10 fewer tackles for loss than a season ago, and that was with one extra game to play. While the total of 35 sacks wasn't meager historically speaking, it wasn't a consistent effort. There were four games this season where Alabama had no more than one sack.

The problem? There wasn't a dynamic pass-rusher to be found. Sam linebacker Adrian Hubbard led the way with seven sacks, three coming in the final three games. But beyond him, no one had more than four. Seven players had two or fewer sacks on the year.

"I don't think we have a dominant rusher like we had a year ago," coach Nick Saban said early in the season. "I think we have guys that as a unit and as a group can be effective. I think it's a combination of not rushing on a consistent basis and not covering on a consistent basis that has been one of the problems that we've had. ... It's not just the pass rush, it contributes to it to some degree, sometimes. But it's also the discipline of everybody doing what they're supposed to do in rush as well as coverage. And when we pressure, people have to do what they’re supposed to do."

Saban tried to generate a consistent pass rush throughout the year, but never quite found the right player to get after the quarterback, this year's answer to the Courtney Upshaw of seasons past. Freshman All-SEC selection D.J. Pettway was moved from defensive end to Jack linebacker during bowl preparation and showed flashes, albeit sporadically.

Across the defensive line, Alabama will become more youthful. Seniors Jesse Williams, Damion Square and Quinton Dial all depart for the NFL, opening up opportunities for younger, more athletic linemen to fill their shoes. Pettway will certainly play a part -- after all, Saban liked his pass-rushing skills enough to change his position late in the season -- as will Ed StinsonJeoffrey Pagan, LaMichael Fanning, Chris Bonds, Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake.

But Alabama's 2012 signing class could be the difference, most notably the linebackers. Saban and the coaching staff signed a quartet of four-star linebackers last February, all of whom were ranked in the top 10 nationally at their position. Tyler Hayes and Reggie Ragland made an impact this past season on special teams and are poised to bring the same type of athleticism and burst to the defensive side of the ball in 2013. Dillon Lee, who intercepted a pass against Michigan but saw his playing time fall off as the season wore on, will try to crack the rotation at linebacker. He and fellow outside linebacker Ryan Anderson do have one strike against them, though, after being sent home from South Florida for a curfew violation.

Still, the combination of Ragland, Hayes, Lee and Anderson, along with freshman Denzel Devall, who racked up two sacks at outside linebacker in 2012, could bring a needed boost of energy to the maligned pass rush. A contributor from the 2013 class would be a welcomed surprise for the staff as Alabama already has two of the top five defensive ends in the ESPN 150 signed.