TUSCALOOSA -- Whether it was Jonathan Allen's spear-sack of Texas A&M's Trevor Knight or Tim Williams slinging Tennessee's Josh Dobbs for an 8-yard loss last season, attacking quarterbacks has become a viral art form at Alabama.With a nation's best 106 sacks the last two seasons, a relentless pass rush has undoubtedly been one of the most prominent attributes of the team's defense in recent years.
But after graduating five members of its first-string front seven from last season — who accounted for 67.6 percent of its NCAA-leading 54 sack total — Alabama's pass rush has been a point of concern for coach Nick Saban this preseason.
"We have work to do on pass rush," Saban said last week. "Not only how we pass rush, because we have guys that can rush, but how you affect the quarterback. And it's not just sacking the guy.
"You have to able to affect the quarterback, the rush has to control the guy in the pocket, and we need to continue to work on that."
With the graduations of Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson, along with linebackers Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams, Alabama's rebuilt front seven will include two first-time starters at both end and outside linebacker spots. Also senior spot-starter Rashaan Evans is taking over at the Mike linebacker position full-time after stepping in during last season's College Football Playoff.
Redshirt junior Christian Miller is an expected starter at outside linebacker along with 262-pound redshirt sophomore Anfernee Jennings. Senior Da'Shawn Hand and sophomore Raekwon Davis are believed to be the frontrunners to flank returning starting nose guard Da'Ron Payne at defensive end.
Echoing his head coach's sentiments, Evans believes any sort of significant pressure on a quarterback can be beneficial, even if it doesn't necessarily involve a sack.
"Anytime you can put any type of pressure on the quarterback, it affects him over time in the game," Evans said Monday. "I feel like if I can get a hand on him or get a hand in his face just to try and rattle him a little bit, I feel like that will help."
Added Miller: "Even if I just affect the quarterback, I know I'm getting into his head, and that's my job."
Providing defensive pressure is as much an act of mental influence as it is physical influence -- both for the quarterback feeling it and the defender providing it.
"Look, you have to make decisions in pass rushing just like you have to make decisions when you're covering a guy, just like when you're batting in baseball -- is it a ball or a strike?" Saban said. "Do I use this move based on the way the guy sits? How do I push the pocket? Do I go outside (or) inside? Do I stay in my lane?"
In a situation where even the slightest hesitation can result in an over-aggressive defender taking himself out of a play, proper instincts can make all the difference.
A disciplined pass rush will be important against No. 3 Florida State and sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois, whose mobility in the pocket can create time for his receivers to get open.
Evans said players too eager to get a sack can take themselves out of position.
"You have to respect quarterbacks like that," Evans said. "All you can really do is just get as much pressure as possible."
Saban is more concerned with getting pressure than with sacks.
"I think affecting the quarterback, pushing the pocket, not letting a guy step up in the pocket to make throws down the field is really significant to playing good pass defense and being an effective pass-rush team," Saban said. "If you get pushed by the quarterback, you're playing with 10. If you don't push the pocket in the middle, the quarterback can step up and throw, and see the field (or) do whatever he wants and (can) attack the middle of the field."
Evans said sacks will come with the disciplined pass rush Saban wants.
"I feel like if you just try to get pressure on him, those things will add up to when you do get a sack, it'll be a clean sack," he said.
This article is written by Alex Byington from The Decatur Daily, Ala. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.