Tide defense wants to be feared again


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Reggie Ragland hears it when he goes home to Madison, Alabama. He hears it from Alabama coach Nick Saban. He hears it ... "everywhere."

"My friends, they'll be talking stuff, like, 'Y'all don't look like the other teams used to look in '09 and '11,'" Ragland told ESPN.com on Thursday. "And Coach tells us people from the outside don’t believe we’re the same Alabama. We don't play with the same intensity and tenacity.

"They’re not scared to play us any more.

It's the type of feedback that stings, especially for a first-team All-SEC linebacker such as Ragland. But the truth hurts and the truth is Alabama's defense ended the 2014 season not looking like the Alabama defense.

The Tide surrendered more than 500 yards in two of their last three games and 180 or more rushing yards in four of their final seven games. Auburn had a 20-point quarter in the Iron Bowl. Alabama's last two national championship-winning defenses (2011 and 2012) allowed 20 points or more in just three games combined.

Judged on that standard -- during Saban's Alabama tenure, is there any other? -- the defense has regressed. Would most teams accept a unit that ranked in the top 10 nationally in points allowed, rushing yards allowed, first downs allowed and red zone efficiency? A defense with three All-SEC selections? In a heartbeat.

But Alabama demands more from its defense, especially in big games. The Tide have allowed 87 points, 966 yards and 47 first downs in bowl losses to Oklahoma and Ohio State. Auburn rushed for 296 yards in the 2013 Iron Bowl, then passed for 456 in last year's game.

"We’re known for stopping the ball, not making guys get an inch," Ragland said. "I’m a competitor and I can’t stand when a guy gets an inch on me. That’s just the competitor in me, and I hope it’s in everybody. It eats away that [Saban] feels like the defensive side ain’t been the way that it’s been in the past.

"I want to try to get that standard back."

Ragland, who led Alabama with three fumble recoveries and finished second with 95 tackles last season, makes it clear the 2015 team belongs to him and running back Derrick Henry. He turned down an NFL opportunity -- he received a second-round grade -- for a chance to bookend his career with matching national championships. (Ragland played mostly special teams as a freshman on the 2012 championship team.)

The senior saw how Rolando McClain led Alabama's defense before turning over the reins to Dont'a Hightower. Now it's Ragland's turn. He expects help from defensive linemen Jarran Reed and A'Shawn Robinson and defensive backs Cyrus Jones and Geno Smith.

"We have to get back to guys being more demanding of guys, kicking guys off the field, sometimes you might even have to fight a guy to get him to do what he [should]," Ragland said. "That's the stigma the leaders had back then: being hard-nosed, physical guys and not taking nothing from nobody."

Ragland likes what he's seeing so far this spring. Fellow linebackers Rashaan Evans, Ryan Anderson, Dillon Lee and Reuben Foster are adjusting to bigger roles. Alabama returns a lot up front, and though safety is a major question mark, midyear enrollee Ronnie Harrison has impressed Ragland with interceptions and polished tackling techniques.

He also sees teammates calling out each other more.

"You can't be scared to say something to a guy you’re real cool with," he said.

Alabama is a defense on edge this spring. It's the only way to regain the edge when the fall rolls around.

"People said the Alabama defense used to be cocky," Ragland said. "No, it was just confidence because they knew you weren’t going to run the ball on them and you weren't going to get an inch in the passing game.

"We want to get back to what happened back then."