Opponent Scout: Alabama

The Maneater spoke to The Crimson White sports editor Alexander Plant about the vaunted Crimson Tide.
Sophomore running back Larry Rountree is wrapped up by Alabama defenders during Missouri's 39-10 loss at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018.

When Missouri opens its season on Saturday night, they’ll face an Alabama team coming off one of its most disappointing seasons of the Nick Saban era.

That says much more about the program in Tuscaloosa than it says about the 2019 team, which came within one or two plays against LSU and Auburn of an undefeated season and a sixth consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff. It was, and still is, an otherworldly talented Crimson Tide team, which enters Columbia as the No. 2 team in the country.

In an interview with The Maneater, The Crimson White sports editor Alexander Plant discussed Alabama’s roster and what the Tigers can expect to see from it at Faurot Field.

The Maneater: Missouri’s new coach, Eli Drinkwitz, said earlier today that this is one of Nick Saban’s best Alabama rosters. What, if anything, has Nick Saban said about Missouri?

Alexander Plant: Saban hasn’t really said much about Missouri, other than the fact that y’all have 12 players out in the opening game [in a press conference on Tuesday, Drinkwitz said that the number is actually 7]. Saban has been pretty quiet as far as game planning for Missouri — he’s been focusing on the team’s improvement as a whole, with a new offense and a new defensive leadership.

TM: Alabama is obviously stacked at most if not all spots, as they are every year. What do you think their strongest position group is?

AP: Definitely middle linebacker, and that is just because of Dylan Moses. With him missing last year, I think that was the difference-maker with LSU and Auburn. I think if Dylan Moses plays those games, Alabama could definitely beat Auburn and definitely beat LSU. Both of those games were decided by less than five points. This year, with him returning, that defensive leadership, signal-calling, being able to have that high-IQ presence is definitely the most important thing to this team, because defense is usually the most important thing when it comes to Alabama football in general.

TM: Between Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, who’s the biggest threat on the offense right now?

AP: In terms of versatility, I think it’s Jaylen Waddle. He can just do anything. He’s a great deep route runner; if you give him a screen pass he’s great. He just has great agility, so he’s a good guy at making somebody miss. In terms of route-running, it’s definitely DeVonta. I definitely think that out of the three receivers last year, he was the best [at route-running], even over Jerry Jeudy. But in terms of versatility — which I think is more important than route-running — it’s Jaylen Waddle. He’s just an all-around package for any kind of scheme that you wanna go with.

TM: As always, you guys lost plenty of talent to the draft. Who are some lesser-known players who could step into a larger role and star this year?

AP: I think Malachi Moore, who made the starting lineup in the depth chart this year. I think he doesn’t have a lot of experience, but he’s definitely the guy to look at to take over that Xavier McKinney role — good role-playing defensive back who can stop the run, protect the pass, play zone, play man. Just an all-around toolbox of a player. So he’s definitely going to be the key to an inexperienced defensive back core.

TM: You mention the defensive back core. Tell me about these cornerbacks, Patrick Surtain II and Josh Jobe.

AP: As always with every Alabama team, there is that one good defensive back, whether that’s Eddie Jackson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Xavier McKinney. Surtain is going to take over that vocal leadership. Obviously, Dylan Moses will be doing much of the signal-calling, but it’s Surtain’s job to communicate those signals to the defensive back unit. I definitely think his IQ, as well as his experience, is going to be extremely helpful to such a young, inexperienced defensive back core. And last but not least: Josh Jobe, who made the starting lineup with the depth chart that came out yesterday. Saban has said a lot of good things about Jobe. They’re really encouraged by his effort and his growth this offseason, so I definitely think we’re going to see a lot out of him on the back end or on the weak side of the defense.

TM: Tell me about the quarterback, Mac Jones. What are his strengths and weaknesses?

AP: I was going to say floor general, but this isn’t basketball. He is the field general. He reminds me a lot of AJ McCarron; his play style is more of an under center, single back, play-action pass quarterback, a lot of that is going to be seen this year. Those are definitely his strengths, he’s more of a rely on the run quarterback, kind of a game manager, but his weaknesses are the fact that he doesn’t have that superstar playmaking ability. He lacks that ability to extend the play, like a Tua [Tagovailoa] or a Jalen Hurts the last three years, so I definitely think that he’s going to struggle there if Alabama needs him to make a big play. But with this Alabama defense and running game improving in the last couple years, we should definitely see less and less of the offense relying on the high-paced, playmaking, deep-ball system for Mac Jones, basically.

TM: So, what I took away from that is that this is a more traditional Alabama quarterback and therefore will be a more traditional Alabama team?

AP: Absolutely. I think it’s going to be a lot more reliant on Najee Harris, who I think is going to have a really good year.

TM: You mention Najee Harris and the run game, what can you tell me about the big offensive linemen this year?

AP: Alright, so to get started, Evan Neal — I’ve been watching a lot of his workout videos. He is an absolute freak of an athlete. I think this is one of the most talented lines that we’ve had in a very long time. We’ve obviously had a lot of NFL-caliber talent, but I think this the best experienced talent, with [Alex] Leatherwood, [Landon] Dickerson and Neal all getting great playing time last year. Basically, I think this is less of a pass-protecting offensive line and more of a run-blocking offensive line, and that’s what Alabama thrives on — chewing the clock, running the ball down the field.

TM: What needs to improve if Alabama is going to win those close games against LSU and Auburn that they couldn’t win last year?

AP: A lot of our problems that have stemmed from these past few years have to do with trying to get into a shootout with these teams. If you think about the last three losses — Clemson, LSU, Auburn — they’ve continuously tried to outpace them on offense, which has never been Alabama’s offensive play style with Nick Saban. It worked for one national championship three years ago versus Georgia, but I think that previous Alabama teams rely on a solid game-managing quarterback, a great running game and a solid defense. I definitely think we’re going to see a return to that this year, with less of a playmaker in Mac Jones and more of a game manager.

TM: Can you see a scenario in which Alabama loses this game?

AP: Honestly, no. Unless there’s a COVID outbreak right before the game.

Edited by Maia Bond | mbond@themaneater.com

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