October 18, 2021

‘Fast, physical’ Alabama defense ‘looking pretty strong’ entering opener – AL.com


It turns out “The Terminator” is actually a nice guy.

Not long after arriving at Alabama as a five-star recruit last year, outside linebacker Will Anderson’s instant impact as a pass rusher earned him the intimidating nickname from the movie long before his time.

But Anderson and now-starting quarterback Bryce Young have been the first sophomores to graduate from Nick Saban’s prohibition on freshmen speaking to reporters. And for most of Anderson’s early time in front of the camera, it would have taken more than a cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger to wipe the smile off Anderson’s face.

“People always say that,” Anderson said Tuesday of his easy-going demeanor. “They always say, ‘You’re so different on and off the field.’ When I get on the field, I have to switch it. Like I don’t want to go out there and get embarrassed by anybody.

“It’s a different Will Anderson when I step out on the field, you know what I’m saying?”

The Anderson on the field last year put him on track to potentially be Alabama’s best pass rusher in a generation. He is a preseason first-team All-America pick by the Associated Press and a first-team all-SEC selection by both coaches and the media.

Yet he is hardly alone among his teammates in earning all-conference recognition. Christian Harris (coaches, media) and Henry To’o To’o (media) were other linebackers on the first team, as was defensive lineman Phil Mathis (coaches, media) and defensive backs Josh Jobe (coaches, media) and Malachi Moore (coaches, media).

Add in defensive lineman LaBryan Ray (second-team media, third-team coaches), safety Jordan Battle (second-team media and coaches), defensive lineman DJ Dale (third-team media) and outside linebacker Christopher Allen (third-team media and coaches), and nearly all of Alabama’s starting defense enters the season with some sort of preseason honor.

Entering Saturday’s opener in Atlanta against Miami, expectations have been raised for a group that returns largely intact after leading the SEC in allowing only 19.5 points per game last season.

“I think as a defense as a whole we’re looking pretty strong, especially our linebacking corps,” Harris said Tuesday. “I think we all blend in really well together. The communication flows really well and the speed is amazing, you know, like it always is. I’m pretty excited to see what we’re doing, what we’re gonna do.”

Up front, Alabama is expected to rotate among a deep group of linemen that lost only Christian Barmore, the team’s leader with eight sacks last season. Four players — Mathis, Dale, Justin Eboigbe and Byron Young — are listed as starters or co-starters on the depth chart, but the predominance of sub packages will likely mean two linemen on the field at once from those four as well as Tim Smith and, when healthy, LaBryan Ray.

To’o To’o, the Tennessee transfer, will serve as Alabama’s signal caller and will replace Dylan Moses as a starter at inside linebacker.

The biggest question mark of the defense could be the replacement for Patrick Surtain at cornerback opposite Josh Jobe. Fourth-year junior Jalyn Armour-Davis is listed as the starter, although five-star freshman Kool-Aid McKinstry is among the other options, which also include JUCO transfer Khyree Jackson and junior Marcus Banks.

Moore and Brian Branch, who both saw extensive playing time as freshmen last season, are listed as co-starters at “Star,” or nickel back, and could share the field in six defensive back situations.

“They developed a lot,” Harris said. “Very versatile, being able to learn not just their spot on the defense but being able to move around and keep their speed up, and I think that’s the main thing.”

Branch could serve as Alabama’s starting safety Saturday if DeMarcco Hellams, who sprained his ankle earlier this month, is unable to play. Saban termed Hellams as questionable on Monday, and Branch is listed as the co-starter at the position.

No matter the exact group on the field in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Anderson has one goal in mind.

“We just want to get the message out there that we are a fast, physical defense,” he said. “We like to fly around and hit people and have fun.”

It will be the second homecoming game for Anderson, who hails from Hampton near Atlanta, after last season’s SEC championship. Helping him flip the switch from nice guy to The Terminator before kickoff will be some 1990s R&B music.

“Just gets me in my mood, just mellow me out and chill,” he said.

Javion Cohen, will make his first start at left guard, has heard it in practice.

“Imagine giving up a sack and you hear him singing candy rain,” Cohen tweeted Tuesday, referring to the 1994 hit song by Soul for Real.

But don’t expect any apology from the affable Anderson for his impact plays.

“The God-given ability I was given,” he said, “I just take advantage of it.”

Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.