Alabama Football: Can Tide Defense Generate Turnovers in 2014?

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Alabama Football: Can Tide Defense Generate Turnovers in 2014?
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Safety Landon Collins is Alabama's reigning turnover king.

There are four players on the 2014 University of Alabama football team who recorded at least one interception last year. There are five overall if you include the previous season. 

Meanwhile, the only three players who had fumble returns in 2013 are all back, while an additional remaining player had a recovery.

There are essentially the same players in both turnover categories: safety Landon Collins, linebacker Trey DePriest, cornerback Eddie Jackson and linebacker Dillon Lee (he had the 2012 interception). Cornerback Cyrus Jones had two picks but never came up with a loose ball.

While the numbers appear to be a little surprising, they’re the kind of statistics that can be typical of a defense that needs to replace at least seven starters.

However, that kind of turnover isn’t unusual for the talent-rich Crimson Tide defense, which had safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, linebacker Adrian Hubbard, defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, and safety Vinnie Sunseri leave early for the National Football League in addition to the seniors.

Which then leads to the question, how can Alabama be expected to generate turnovers this season?

It’s something the Crimson Tide struggled with last season, when they tied for 80th nationally out of 123 teams in turnovers gained.

We’ll start with fumbles, since they’re especially unpredictable. Since Nick Saban arrived in 2007, Alabama has only had three players force more than two fumbles in a single season: Courtney Upshaw with four in 2010 and Eryk Anders and Hubbard with three in 2009 and 2012, respectively.

Considering that fumble recoveries are such a right-time, right-place thing, it’s not surprising that no Alabama player has recovered three in a season during that same time span, although Collins, DePreist and Jackson all had two in 2013.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Alabama hasn't had that many footballs bounce its way of late.

Year: Fumbles, fumbles recovered

2007: 15-5
2008: 20-10
2009: 17-7
2010: 19-4
2011: 18-7
2012: 24-11
2013: 20-8
Averages: 19.0-7.4

As for interceptions, Alabama had its worst showing of the Saban era, which at least partially reflects the Crimson Tide’s problems at cornerback last season. At one spot, Deion Belue was trying to play through an injury, while the other resembled a game of musical chairs.

Interceptions by year

2007: 19
2008: 15
2009: 24
2010: 22
2011: 13
2012: 18
2013: 11
Average: 17.4

During the seven seasons before Saban’s arrival, Alabama averaged 12.4 interceptions, with a low of six in 2001 and high of 18 in 2002. Those were also pretty good defenses under the direction of coordinator Joe Kines, finishing second nationally in total defense in 2004 and in the top nine of every major statistical category in 2005.

Before Saban, the last time the Crimson Tide had at least 20 interceptions in a single season were the 22 recorded in 1992, the most recent national championship prior to 2009. The program record is 25 (1979).

Most Interceptions by Nick Saban-coached players
Name School Years Total
Corey Webster LSU 2002-04 16
Robert Lester Alabama 2010-12 14
Mark Barron Alabama 2008-11 12
Rashad Johnson Alabama 2007-08 11
Aric Morris Michigan State 1996-99 9
Five tied with seven

Compiled from team statistics

In comparison, Saban’s Michigan State teams averaged 12.4 picks (with a high of 15 in 1995) and his LSU squads 15.2 (21 in 2003). So, despite last year the coach had enjoyed his most success in that statistical category at Alabama.

Arkansas and Ole Miss can especially attest to that, as they’ve been the opponents Alabama has notched the most interceptions against since 2007.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix made some big interceptions for Alabama, including this one in the BCS National Championship Game.

Teams Alabama plays every year

Team, Interceptions
Arkansas: 15
Ole Miss: 15
LSU: 11
Tennessee: 10
Mississippi State: 8
Auburn: 5
Texas A&M: 2*

*The Tide and Aggies have only played twice as division rivals

Non-division SEC opponents

Florida: 5
Georgia: 4
Kentucky: 4
Vanderbilt: 3
Missouri: 2
South Carolina: 2

Florida, of course, is on the schedule this season.

The guess here is that opponents will initially challenge Alabama’s young cornerbacks, but as they improve opponents will go after the new safety next to Collins. Something similar occurred both in 2010, when Robert Lester made eight interceptions—the most of any Saban-coached player in a single season—and in 2012 when Clinton-Dix had five. 

As for who might eventually make the most turnovers, it’s almost always a safety in Saban’s defense, and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is back as the position coach after handling the interior linebackers for three seasons.

“He just coaches us at a different level, trying to get us to understand it from his point of view because he played the position and he knows what’s going on; it’s his defense,” Collins said about Smart this spring. “So basically, it’s a tremendous thing for us safeties because he sits down and goes step by step on what we need to do and what will make us a better player.”

Consequently, the junior is the clear front-runner, especially since he led the Crimson Tide in turnovers gained last year despite not being a starter the first month.

Tide's Annual Leaders in Turnovers Gained
Year Name(s) Number
2007 Rashad Johnson 6
2008 Rashad Johnson 6
2009 Mark Barron 7
2010 Robert Lester 9
2011 Mark Barron and Dee Milliner 3
2012 Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Robert Lester 5
2013 Landon Collins 4

University of Alabama team statistics

“He's gotten stronger, faster and has more knowledge of the defense,” Saban said. “Landon's certainly a guy who is a great competitor and really works hard every day to try to improve and has a really good attitude about it. I think he's trying to affect other people, be a leader, set a good example, encourage others to do things the way they need to do it.

“When he understands what he's supposed to do, he really plays fast and is effective. I think the more knowledge and experience that he gets, the more consistently he'll be able to play that way, and that's certainly our goal for him.”

Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All statistics were compiled by the author from University of Alabama and other annual team statistics. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

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