Louisiana Natives Lead Alabama Defense Against LSU
When Alabama's defense takes the field at Tiger Stadium against LSU on Saturday night, several of its key contributors will be playing close to home.
Inside linebackers Christian Harris and Dylan Moses, outside linebacker Christopher Allen and defensive lineman Phil Mathis all played their high school football in the Bayou. As they prepare to lead the Crimson Tide against the defending national champions, here's a look at how all four are leading the Alabama defense this season.
Next to each player's name is the number of times he has earned Defensive Player of the Week honors from the Alabama coaching staff. The staff selects several players after each game. Below that are his season stats through 8 games and the name of his high school.
Christian Harris (5: Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Auburn)
57 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 2 pass breakups, 6 hurries
University Laboratory School (Baton Rouge); 5 minutes from Tiger Stadium
Harris struggled at times during his freshman season without the guidance of Moses, the veteran Alabama linebacker and Harris' longtime friend. But he has blossomed as a sophomore in just his second-ever season as a linebacker, being named one of 16 semifinalists for the Butkus Award.
"He gained a ton of amount of confidence through the course of the season," junior corner Patrick Surtain II said. "Last year, he was a freshman. He was a bit antsy sometimes, but as the season went on, he got confident. But now this season, he’s even more confident. He’s more physical, flies around to the ball. He’s a great player.”
Harris played corner and running back in high school, but he was converted to linebacker in college and became a starter when Moses and another veteran linebacker sustained season-ending injuries last year.
His athleticism has always been clear, as coaches often use him to rush off the edge or blitz up the middle, but understanding the nuances of how to play linebacker has taken more time.
"One thing I think I did pretty well with coming into [this] season was really getting in the run game, understanding my gaps," Harris said. "Last season I started to understand that week by week, and I think I've continued to improve on that. I've been trying to improve on my coverage as well, and mainly communication — being able to know what my assignment is, but not just my assignment, everybody else's assignment so I can be able to, with Dylan also, help everybody else line up and put them in position to execute."
Now that Harris has been in the system for two years and has Moses next to him to expedite his learning curve, he's developing into a leader who motivates his teammates and offers timely reminders.
"Christian actually gets us on track," safety Jordan Battle said. "Sometimes when we go on the field, Christian’s telling us, ‘Stay up. Be communicating. Communicate out there. Get everybody on the same page.’ So, once everybody’s on the same page, we all play fast and it makes us a little better.”
Dylan Moses (2: Georgia and Mississippi State)
56 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 1 interception
University Laboratory School (Baton Rouge); 5 minutes from Tiger Stadium
When Moses returned from a serious knee injury and recorded 2.5 tackles for loss in the season opener against Missouri, it seemed like all was well.
But in subsequent games, Moses didn't look like the self-assured leader and captain he was expected to be. He looked a step slow, unsure of his assignments and hesitant to dive into a pile to make a tackle.
"I think, you know, he probably had to get his sea legs back under him early in the season after missing one entire year of football," coach Nick Saban said. "But I think he's much more confident now. I think he feels better about the role that he's in in terms of assuming command and leadership and making calls and trying to help other players play better. So I'm very pleased with the way he's progressed throughout the year.”
On a game broadcast earlier this season, it was reported that Saban and defensive coordinator Pete Golding believed Moses was wearing himself out trying to micromanage every detail of the defense.
Just do your job, they told Moses, and let your teammates do theirs.
“It was a lot, actually. From the beginning up until now, I felt like I had to find my identity again, as well as lead the younger guys and then try and be a signal-caller," Moses said. "I had a lot on my plate at the beginning of the season and I had to level things out, balance things out. I have met with Coach Saban on multiple occasions just to help me out and all. That has helped me out a lot, and like he said, I have been playing better throughout the games this year.”
Moses remains on the team's leadership group and has been a captain in three of eight games this season. Though he had to miss last year's matchup between Alabama and LSU, he was still dressed out on the sidelines, a gesture that teammates said galvanized them to play the crucial rivalry game.
“I really wanted to be out there with my teammates," Moses said. "I wanted to give them an extra push, extra motivation. One of their leaders isn’t out there, but he’s willing to come out there and dress up and give them the support that they needed in that particular time frame. It definitely meant a lot to me.”
Christopher Allen (5: Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Georgia, Mississippi State, Auburn)
9 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 4 hurries
Southern University Laboratory School (Baton Rouge); 18 minutes from Tiger Stadium
Allen, like Moses, began his career with promise before missing an entire season due to a knee injury. But unlike Moses, he didn't come to Alabama already as a household name, and he was also buried on the depth chart behind future NFL players like Christian Miller, Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis.
Even last year, though, when Allen scarcely saw the field while backing up Jennings and Lewis, Saban told reporters that he believed the team had not two, but three outside linebackers who could be "very productive players."
That might have foreshadowed Allen being a reliable starter this year, but not many would have predicted that he would lead the SEC with 9 tackles for loss in eight games.
Allen isn't flashy like Lewis, the 6-foot-5 athletic marvel who's now with the Los Angeles Rams. He's more like Jennings, or to go back a bit farther, former Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson: a strong, powerful edge-setter who wins with effort and toughness more than with twitch or explosiveness.
"You know, Chris has got great size; he's got power," Saban said of the 6-foot-4, 250-pound redshirt junior. "I think [Allen and freshman OLB Will Anderson] sort of contribute to us playing better on the edges, to have a little better pass rush."
While the coaches have always believed in Allen's potential, it was a matter of getting him more comfortable with his role in the defense.
"I think it was a guy that was a little unsure, at times, of exactly what was expected of him. You know, sometimes guys are like that: They're afraid to pull the pin and actually do what they know they're supposed to do. And I think once players mature past that and develop the confidence [in what coaches ask them to do]... I think we start seeing production, and I think that's definitely what's happened with Chris."
Phidarian "Phil" Mathis (1: Mississippi State)
4.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 3 pass breakups, 3 hurries
Neville High School (Monroe); 3 hours from Tiger Stadium
You could make a case that Mathis, who before this season was best known for losing the starting nose tackle spot to D.J. Dale last year, has been Alabama's most impactful defensive lineman in 2020.
He plays with a palpable energy, usually dancing while he emerges from the tunnel in Bryant-Denny Stadium. He's been known to run several yards downfield to make tackles, and he even took a flying leap to force a fumble against Auburn.
"The guy’s got a really, really good motor," Saban said. "He plays hard all the time, and his production has increased with those improvements. I’m really pleased with him; I think he sets a really good example for the young guys so we’re pleased with that as well."
His versatility has been the most impressive part of his breakout as a redshirt junior. At 312 pounds, he still has the size to play on the interior of the defensive line, but he's now developed more quickness and has even been used in pass-rush situations on third down.
"It’s tough going against him because he’s such a good overall player," right guard Emil Ekiyor Jr. said. "He can pass rush [and] he can play the run, so he does a good job. He’s been real productive this season, and it’s been good to see him do his thing."
In his first three seasons at Alabama, Mathis recorded only one assisted tackle for loss. But in eight games this year, he has 4.5, which leads all of the team's defensive linemen.
“I’ve just always done what has been asked of me, just being a team player," Mathis said. "If you want to play, it really doesn’t matter where the coach wants to put you, you’re going to go out there and do it. So I don’t mind just being a team player first.”