ATLANTA — In their final game of the 2015 season, the Alabama Crimson Tide’s defense did not play up to the Alabama Crimson Tide standard, and so something had to change.
Sure, Alabama won that game, 45-40, against the No. 1-ranked Clemson Tigers. And sure, the victory clinched the Tide’s fourth national championship in seven years. But this is Alabama we’re talking about, and Clemson’s offensive totals — 40 points, 550 yards of total offense and 85 plays — could not have pleased coach Nick Saban.
It was the way Clemson accumulated those yards, though, that prompted the coaching staff to alter the way several Tide players approached their offseason. The Tigers run an up-tempo offense. And the Tide didn’t like that some of their defenders struggled to keep up.
“In the Clemson game last year, we saw how gassed we got on the defensive line simply because they were going fast, and we weren’t running good,” said 6-foot- 3, 305-pound Alabama defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson. “So during the summer, we were like, if you can’t run good at this weight, you have to lose it. Point blank. You have to lose it so you can maintain your explosiveness.
“They want you to be able to be conditioned throughout the game. If you’re in the game for a 10-play drive, you don’t want to get tired and gassed out.”
Alabama has the nation’s most dominant, most productive and most statistically imposing defense. That is indisputable. And it’s possible the Tide would have achieved it all without asking a few of their players to drop a few pounds. But it certainly didn’t hurt.
“We lost the weight, but we didn’t lose the mentality,” Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster said. “So of course we’ve got to keep the tradition going with a hardcore defense. We might be light, but we’ve still got a mentality that we can’t stop.”
Foster might have gone through the most dramatic transformation. The senior from Auburn, Alabama, played last season at 240 pounds, but said he played middle linebacker this year between 220 and 225.
Foster, the Butkus Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker, said Alabama team nutritionist Amy Bragg helped him make dietary changes to lose the weight.
“She played a big part. She texts me every day,” Foster said. “She gives me a list of things that I want to eat. Every day. She fixes my plate for me. She knows I’m a mama’s boy, so if I don’t fix my plate, I won’t eat it. But if she fixes my plate, she’ll fix it up nice.”
He had to cut out beef, mostly, and has been eating more chicken.
“But it’s OK,” he said with a smile.
The Tide rolled through this season ranked No. 1 in scoring defense, rushing defense and total defense, but players and coaches say Saturday’s national semifinal game against Washington in the Peach Bowl represents their biggest challenge to date.
Jonathan Allen, Alabama’s stud defensive lineman and the winner of this year’s Nagurski Trophy as the top defensive player in college football, said UW might have a smaller offensive line than most teams the Tide faced in the SEC, “but they’re still just as physical and probably a little bit faster.”
“They can get out on the perimeter fast on screens and short pass plays,” Allen said. “That’s a little different than what we see in the SEC. They have an explosive receiver in John Ross. (Jake) Browning is a very athletic quarterback who can move in the pocket and extend plays. They have fast running backs.
“They have a lot of talent, but we’re excited for the opportunity. As a defense, you want to go against the best.”
In particular, Alabama seems to hold Browning’s elusiveness in the pocket in high regard.
“He’s pretty aware of his surroundings when it comes to defensive guys rushing him,” Tomlinson said. “He knows when to get out of the pocket when he has to. The offensive line is a whole lot quicker than most offensive linemen, and we just have to affect the whole unit. We have to hit the running back as much as possible, collapse the pocket on the quarterback, bat a couple balls down to get in his head a little bit on the defensive side, and we just have to be aware of the plays they can make.”