It has been almost a year since Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding sat in an Orlando hotel ballroom three days ahead of the Citrus Bowl and explained how needing to play two freshmen at inside linebacker hurt the defense last season.
“They had their growing pains,” Golding said last Dec. 29. “I had my growing pains and it wasn’t always perfect by any means, but it was the situation we were put in.”
One of those freshman, Shane Lee, has played sparingly on defense as a sophomore this season. The other, Christian Harris, has started all 10 games and grown into one of the team’s most important players entering 2021.
Harris, who injured his shoulder on the first play of last Saturday’s win at Arkansas, remains questionable to play in the SEC championship game against Florida. Harris has practiced “a couple days” this week, Nick Saban said Thursday.
“I think he can play, I just don’t know how effective he might be,” Saban said during his weekly radio show. “That’s probably going to be a game-time decision.”
A year has made a huge difference for Harris, a high school cornerback who was one of the top prospects from Louisiana during the 2019 recruiting cycle. Harris was named as a semifinalist for the Butkus Award and was selected by Alabama coaches as a player of the week following wins over Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Missouri.
Harris leads Alabama in tackles (65), is tied for second in quarterback hits (6) and ranks fourth in sacks (2.5).
Saban said part of Harris’ improvement has been playing next to Dylan Moses, who missed all of last season because of a knee injury and forced younger players into the lineup.
“I think last year playing as a freshman was probably difficult in terms of he was playing with another freshman, so there wasn’t even anybody for him to sort of lean on to make calls,” Saban said Thursday. “There wasn’t a lot of confidence probably in either guy [Harris or Lee]. They played with a lot of apprehension at times in terms of not having a total feel and understanding for what was required of them.
“Through that same knowledge and experience that he’s gained, playing with Dylan this year — who has knowledge and experience to make all the calls — [Harris] plays with a lot more confidence. But he’s very athletic. He can run. I think once players get rid of the anxiety of worrying about what I’m supposed to do, really know what they’re supposed to do, then they can go play fast, make plays. He’s certainly done a good job of that for us all year long.”
If Moses forgoes his extra year of NCAA eligibility and enters NFL draft, Harris could enter the 2021 season — his junior year — as one of the most experienced and important players on the team. The Tide also figures to lose top cornerback Patrick Surtain and possibly cornerback Josh Jobe to the NFL, leaving players such as Harris and nose tackle DJ Dale to help lead the defense next season.
If Harris can play Saturday, his shoulder injury could limit his effectiveness in defending the run. But his athleticism could be an important piece of the puzzle in defending Florida’s passing game and tight end Kyle Pitts.
“Having those kind of athletic guys — like him and Dylan Moses, and the guys we have in the secondary — are really important when a team spreads you out like this. You’ve got to have those kind of guys on the field,” Saban said.
Pitts, 6-foot-6, ranks second in the conference with 11 receiving touchdowns this season.
“He’s one of the mis-match guys that I talked about,” Saban said. “He didn’t play last week. I think that was one of the things that when he plays, they’re a different team. Because they have a lot of other good wide receivers, but when he’s in there and playing tight end, he’s a difficult match-up.
“He’s so big you need a linebacker-type guy to cover him but who’s athletic and who can run at linebacker like he can? And then if you put a defensive back on him, he mis-matches you size-wise. … We certainly anticipate that he will play in our game. He’s an outstanding, outstanding player and a really, really good receiver.”
In addition to Christian Harris, Alabama might not have defensive lineman LaBryan Ray because of a lingering elbow injury. Ray started the first three games of the season before missing the next three because of the injury. He returned to play — but not start — three more games before being held out against Arkansas.
“He’s struggled a little bit with his elbow injury,” Saban said. “It’s been kind of on again, off again. He’s probably questionable for the game.”
Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.