‘Bama’s defense stingy as ever despite youth

Published 9:25 pm Monday, September 15, 2008

TUSCALOOSA – Javier Arenas heard the skeptics who wondered about Alabama’s defense before the season.

All those lost stars. A shuffled line. An influx of newcomers.

Surely the offense would have to shoulder most of the load, right?

On the contrary, the defense has more than done its part in the Crimson Tide’s fast start, allowing only one offensive touchdown in the first three games as Alabama rose to No. 9 in the rankings.

Skeptics? What skeptics?

“We’re not really playing to impress anybody,” said Arenas, who replaced cornerback Simeon Castille. “We’re playing to impress ourselves. We don’t really focus on things like that, but after the dust has settled after the game, after we’ve played up to our expectations, then we might think about things like that.

“Then we might be like, ‘Hey, people thought this’ or ‘people expected this.’ We don’t dwell on that too much, because that’s a distraction.”

Alabama (3-0) has not endured any of the expected growing pains after losing six starters and having a seventh potential starter, linebacker Prince Hall, suspended for the first two games. A depth chart littered with freshmen and sophomores hasn’t been an obvious detriment either.

So far, the Tide has actually been better on defense leading up to Saturday’s Southeastern Conference opener at Arkansas. The reasons start in the middle of the line. Junior college transfer Terrence Cody, a 360-pounder, was an instant starter at nose tackle, a key position in the Tide’s 3-4 defense. He forced and recovered a fumble against Western Kentucky.

Cody has spearheaded a defense that leads the nation against the run, allowing only 43 yards a game and 1.9 yard per carry. The Tide hasn’t yielded a run longer than 13 yards.

“It’s huge to have that big tackle in the middle,” said defensive end Lorenzo Washington, last year’s starting nose tackle. “Ever since the fall camp started I knew what kind of potential this defense had and I knew we would be better anyway just because everybody understood it a lot better. But Terrence, having him in the middle has been a big addition. He’s been doing a great job for us and he’s elevated everybody’s play on the defense.”

The Tide hasn’t filled every void left. Alabama hasn’t found a pass rusher like Wallace Gilberry and has only five sacks and two interceptions. Gilberry had 10 sacks last season.

The defense also ranks a middling fifth in the Southeastern Conference in total yards allowed and sixth against the pass.

Still, Alabama has practically had a brick wall in front of its goal line. The only points in the first three games have come on three field goals, a kick return, and a 30-yard fourth-down pass for a touchdown in a blowout win over Western Kentucky last weekend.

The TD was set up by an interception at Alabama’s 36 in the second quarter of a 41-7 win. With that improbable score, the defense’s streak was over.

“We were upset, but we saw it as a challenge to forget about it,” Arenas said. “You’ve got to have a short memory. Let’s see if we can forget about it, that’s what we were saying. That’s exactly what we did.

“We went on and played two more drives, played hard-nosed football and got what we wanted.”

Despite its youth, Alabama’s best defensive performance came in the opener against Clemson, allowing zero net yards rushing in a 34-10 win against the only high-profile opponent so far.

“I think it gave us a lot of confidence because those guys had a lot of good skill players and we knew they could make plays,” safety Rashad Johnson said.