Nick Saban’s Alabama finished Signing Day with the No. 1 class for the eighth time in nine years. All the trademarks of a Saban team seem likely to continue with the infusion of these 27 new recruits, all but one (a kicker) rated as four-stars or higher.
The Tide signed a lot of five-stars …
The class includes defensive end Antonio Alfano, a 6’4, 285-pounder whom some see as the country’s No. 1 recruit. It has No. 1 offensive tackle Evan Neal, a 6’8, 360-pounder keeping Bama’s pipeline of freakishly large and athletic OL alive. And it has Trey Sanders, the latest No. 1 RB in Bama’s backfield.
… but they already had a lot of five-stars when they lost by 28 to Clemson, so bringing in another load of similar talent might not be quite the answer.
The Tide had Raekwon Davis and Quinnen Williams anchoring their DL, former five-star Jonah Williams at LT, and former five-star RBs Najee and Damien Harris at RB along with five-star QB and Heisman finalist Tua Tagovailoa behind in 2018. Yet they gave up 471 yards and 34 points to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, then got crushed by Clemson in the National Championship.
While Alabama’s 2019 class was largely complete before the Tide took on Oklahoma or Clemson, it’s worth trying to figure out how much of an immediate difference these freshmen will make against teams like the ones they’ll likely face in the postseason.
Bama couldn’t finish drives against Clemson. Can 2019’s class help avoid that?
The Tide have always been designed to control the trenches. Their flirtations with a more open spread offense in 2018 were about punishing teams that didn’t pay the run enough attention.
The three main Alabama backs combined for 31 carries against Clemson, which yielded 163 yards at 5.3 ypc, but zero TDs and little hope of matching the Tiger output. Tagovailoa was confused by Clemson’s defense and threw two costly INTs due to misreads.
One obvious area for improvement would be a more developed passing attack.
The Tide included two QBs in their 2019 class, both four-stars. Is either likely to win a duel against a top spread offense in 2020?
The higher-rated is Taulia Tagovailoa, the younger brother of Tua. He has a similar skill set but is shorter, slower, not as strong or accurate, and a touch more jittery in the pocket.
Their other is Paul Tyson, a great-grandson of Bear Bryant’s. He’s a 6’5 pocket passer with less mobility but a strong arm capable of good touch.
Those two faced in the Alabama HS quarterfinals, with Tagovailoa’s Thompson team winning, 37-13. Tagovailoa was 12-of-21 passing, but for 8.3 yards per throw with two TDs.
He did some real damage early in a fashion similar to his older brother, using the threat of his legs to open up receivers in the RPO game:
That’s a good, old-fashioned zone-read, but with the option of throwing a slant after pulling the ball. Tagovailoa is effective at using his legs to create windows.
Tyson’s team (Hewitt-Trussville) started locking things down with man coverage, and Tagovailoa went fairly quiet while running keep-option plays that freed up Iowa-bound RB Shadrick Byrd behind Alabama-bound OT Amari Kight.
Of Tyson’s 225 completions for 3,193 yards on the year, 174 and 2,705 went to two receivers. Tagovailoa’s team put its best senior DB on Tyson’s bigger target, played a safety over the top against his more explosive option, and played one-on-one on everyone else.
On this play, Tyson’s big-play threat is on the left side, covered up with a safety over the top, and his chain-mover is running a hitch. He throws the flag route to one of his other receivers, who can’t beat man coverage, resulting in an interception.
Tyson went 13-of-34 for 5.3 yards per attempt, with two TDs and three INTs on the night. That said, he might be the more promising passing prospect. Either way, the Tide are a long way from matching a Trevor Lawrence or Kyler Murray once Tua leaves.
Bama’s added a lot of blue-chips on defense, but having a lot of blue-chips didn’t help the Tide against Clemson’s Lawrence.
Alabama’s rebuilt secondary fell victim to the freshmen tandem of Lawrence and Justyn Ross, who matched the Tide’s run game output with just 10 passes that produced six catches and some huge third down conversions.
The Tide had an all-blue-chip lineup of DBs and a dime package designed for matchup immunity against spread teams like Clemson and Oklahoma. They had size at corner with 6’2 Patrick Surtain II and 6’1 Saivion Smith.
But that wasn’t enough against Clemson’s big, skilled wideouts.
At least Bama’s group enters 2019 with more experience. Surtain was a true freshman, strong safety and dime LB Xavier McKinney was a true sophomore, and none of the upperclassmen starters were seniors nor long-term returning starters.
Even with experience, Alabama’s complexity is a potential pitfall. While Saban has leaned more on his nickel and dime packages, they’re just parts of the playbook.
Alabama committed early busts that set the tone against Clemson:
Busts happen to young secondaries, but also when a secondary is carrying a lot of checks while the opponent is just moving fast, finding matchups, and taking deep shots. Alabama not only needs continued infusions of talent and skill, but also perhaps a simplified approach against top spread offenses.
Another issue against both Clemson and Oklahoma was that Bama’s pass rush often depends on big linemen. Against the pace of those spread teams and given the need to chase skill players down the field, bigger DL tend to wear down. Quinnen Williams, Alabama’s relatively lean star nose tackle, needed oxygen on the sideline against the Sooners. The Tide managed zero sacks against Lawrence and struggled to get to Murray after the opening minutes.
It’s not clear that Bama’s new crop will solve the problem of an offense like Clemson’s.
Bama adds seven extremely talented defensive linemen who should ensure Alabama can continue to deploy NFL-bound DTs. However, Alabama can only play two or three of them at a time and doesn’t rotate as effectively as you’d think, some of these guys will likely never break out from the pack, and their dependence on bigger bodies has been part of their issue against HUNH spread teams.
There’s only one edge-rusher in the group, and then a pair of big ILBs who might not fit on the field when other teams go four- or five-wide to fling the ball around. The previous year, the Tide took a few edge-rushers and a lighter ILB, but 2019’s class appears fairly unbalanced. At some point, even if you assemble four of the best at one position, there are diminishing returns for loading up at a certain spot.
The crop of DBs is strong and fairly deep, but also the lowest-rated portion. The ultimate concern is whether any can erase the matchup problems against Clemson, or else allow Saban to develop conservative, zone-heavy schemes to erase passing windows and avoid the need for one-on-one defenders.
The offensive portion of this class tells a similar story.
Alabama recruited a single WR — a blue-chip player, but one of the lower-rated additions — and a huge crew of OL along with potential superstar RB Sanders. The Tide have weapons at WR and more in the 2018 and 2019 classes, but they haven’t been building their roster to emphasize the passing game once Tua and some of his classmates leave.
Bama’s class is essentially business as usual. It’s the deepest and most talented collection of physical brutes, looking to run the ball and stop you from doing likewise.
But if Clemson or a similarly talented postseason opponent can again push the action out to the perimeter with the passing game (easier said than done, even for Clemson), the Tide’s newest No. 1 class might prove as susceptible as the previous groups.