Going into preseason practice, North Alabama offensive coordinator Ryan Aplin had a lot of returning pieces to work with from a squad that averaged 25 points per game during last season’s 7-3 record.
Defensive coordinator Steadman Campbell doesn’t have that luxury, as he tries to replace seven starters, including the entire defensive front, after allowing 24 points per game in 2018. So, it’s no wonder he’ll be one of the most interested people in Braly Stadium when the Lions have their first full scrimmage Saturday afternoon as he evaluates his defensive players.
Earlier this week, Campbell said his biggest concern is finding the right mix to fill in the gaps. He knows he has two good linebackers in Christon Taylor and Will Evans, and an outstanding defensive back in K.J. Smith. It’s the rest of the pieces that he’ll be watching closely in the first scrimmage.
“The biggest concern is just the new faces we have penciled in that will play a lot of snaps,” he said. “We feel really good about our personnel, but you never know in the heat of battle those guys that haven’t done it before how they are going to react.”
In the early going, Campbell has been pleased with what he’s seen from the defense.
“I like the kids,” he said. “They have practiced well and have played well with each other, but we have to continue to get better. The experience thing will come with time.”
As the Lions get deeper into camp, Campbell and the rest of the defensive coaches will begin to zero in on which players they think will help the most this season. While each day is an evaluation, Campbell said usually after the second scrimmage they have a good idea of who can contribute immediately.
“But you never know for sure until that ball kicks off,” he said. “Until it’s a real game, you never know for sure.”
Some positions, he said, can take a little longer to identify.
“Safety or defensive back, it may take three or four games into the year with all the communication and checks they have to do,” he said. “Other positions, like defensive end, it doesn’t take as long. You see that pretty quick. It’s different by position and what you do scheme wise.”
In the search for linebackers, Campbell likes what he has seen from senior Jalen Dread, who played in 10 games last season, and from freshman Caleb Dawson and redshirt freshman Jakob Cummings. Junior college transfer Kendric Haynes is expected to also have an impact.
Smith and A.J. Bracey give the Lions two strong defensive backs, but Campbell is looking to fill around them. Smith is moving to the nickel position from safety, which means the Lions will start two inexperienced players.
So far, there has been an emphasis placed on giving as many players significant reps as possible so coaches can get a good sense of who can help quickly and where.
“We’re trying to find the best pieces,” Campbell said. “We want to give everybody a good shot at standing out. After the second scrimmage we will move forward from there. We are looking for whatever is best for the defense and gives us the best chance to be successful."