TUSCALOOSA — There were times earlier this season when Lyndell “Mack” Wilson would look across the line of scrimmage and didn’t know what to do.
Manning the all-important Mike middle linebacker spot in Alabama’s defense, Wilson is responsible for disseminating the defensive call before each play, determining any necessary on-field adjustments and then making sure all 10 of his defensive teammates are in the best possible position to properly execute the play.
“The challenging part is not knowing what’s coming, like not knowing what you’re supposed to check, like not knowing what play you can expect to come,” the junior said last month. “Basically, it’s just trying to communicate with everybody on the field, (and) I’ve got to set the defensive line, then I’ve got to make sure the guys behind me got the call, so it’s definitely challenging.
“And sometimes I lose my voice because I’m trying to make sure all of us are on the same page, and that’s something I take pride in, also.”
Of course, if the defensive play caller is unsure of what to do on any given situation, the entire defensive plan can easily fall apart. Which is why, following a disappointing personal performance in a 65-31 win over Arkansas, Wilson rededicated himself to extra film study and understanding every facet of his job.
And with that has come improved communication throughout the entire Alabama defense, which has translated to a much more dominant showing on the field.
After allowing an average of 16 points per game through the first six weeks of the season, the top-ranked Crimson Tide (9-0, 6-0 SEC) has limited its last three opponents to an average of just 10.3 per game, including delivering the season’s first shutout Saturday against then-No. 3 LSU. Alabama has also managed to decrease opponent yards per play from 4.9 through the first six games to 3.8 over the past three.
“I feel like it’s been great,” Wilson said last week. “I hold myself accountable getting extra film every night after practice. I kind of hold (the other defensive) leaders accountable in the other positions — Deionte Thompson, Anfernee (Jennings), Raekwon (Davis) and (Quinnen) Williams on the D-line. I feel like with those guys getting extra film, it’ll make it easier for them to communicate with the other guys and stuff like that.”
And the defensive improvement has been noticeable, especially against the run.
Over the last three games, the Crimson Tide has limited the offenses of Missouri, Tennessee and LSU to just 113 combined rushing yards — including just 12 last Saturday in Baton Rouge, La. — for an average of just 37.7 rushing yards per game, nearly 100 yards south of the team’s mark six games in (134.3).
But how was communication made easier on the field?
Well, with so many inexperienced starters coming into the season, Alabama head coach Nick Saban decided to implement a “make-a-call, give-a-call” procedure before every play.
Think of it like utilizing hand signals over walkie talkies, where whenever a Tide defender receives a call — whether it’s from Wilson or the play caller within his particular position group — they must quickly relay that call right back to show confirmation and comprehension.
“It’s picked up tremendously because not only are we giving the call, but we’re signaling it back to each other to make sure we got it,” junior safety and secondary play caller/distributor Deionte Thompson said last week. “That’s one thing Coach Saban emphasizes, ‘When you get a call, give a call.’ Make sure you’re on the same page with each other (by) signaling it back and forth to each other.”
It’s also allowed the less experienced players, especially within Alabama’s rebuilt secondary, to better hone in on the intricacies of a play through constant repetition.
“I think that these players on defense — we had a lot of young guys that didn’t have a lot of experience playing early on — probably have gotten more secure and more confident in what they’re supposed to do and communicating what they’re supposed to do,” Saban said Wednesday, “And (we) just want to co-sign things. When a guy makes a call, then (they need to indicate) I’ve got the call and then everybody’s on the same page. That’s been a little better for us.”
Of course, with only a handful of seconds to get a play disseminated between all 11 defenders as well as have time for any late pre-snap adjustments, things can get a little hairy at times.
“It can get real stressful, real quick, real fast,” junior nickel-corner Shyheim Carter said. “So we try to practice it a lot. That kind of helps us in the game.”
The last two games, communication has been aided by the fact that Alabama has been on the road, where opposing fan bases aren’t traditionally as loud when their own offense is on the field.
The inverse, of course, means the Tide’s final three games of the regular season being at home — beginning with this Saturday’s Top 20 showdown against No. 16 Mississippi State (6-3, 2-3 SEC) — could create some added complications to proper communication.
Which is why utilizing its improved technique for disseminating play calls remains vitally important.
“When we’re playing away, it’s kind of easy for us because the fans and stuff are not loud and we can kind of communicate and get hand signals at the same time,” Carter said. “I feel like when we play at home, it’s super loud and we have to kind of look each other in the eye and give hand signals because you can’t hear.”