‘Bro, it’s your defense’: Alabama lost a superstar and somehow got better, thanks to Dallas Turner

AS JALEN MILROE gets more comfortable at quarterback, as the offensive line gets its act together, as penalties and turnovers continue to mount and an offensive identity only now begins to come into focus, one thing has kept the Alabama dynasty on life support and within earshot of the playoff conversation: its defense.

Through five games — admittedly a smallish sample size but not insignificant, either — the Crimson Tide have given up 4.42 yards per play against FBS opponents, which ranks ninth nationally. Turnovers and pressures are up from last season. Opposing quarterbacks’ ratings are down.

It has been a while since an Alabama defense has looked this good, on pace to allow fewer than 300 yards per game for the first time since 2017. Against Ole Miss two weeks ago, it held the Rebels to 10 points, their fewest in an SEC game under coach Lane Kiffin and well short of their previous average of 52.7 points per game. And lest that be labeled a fluke, Ole Miss hung 55 on LSU its next time out.

Last weekend, Alabama kept Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers, the SEC’s No. 2 all-time leading passer, in check to the tune of 107 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. And lest that be labeled a fluke as well, Rogers was coming off 487 yards passing against South Carolina.

Does this all mean the return of vintage Nick Saban defenses? It’s probably too soon to tell. We’ll learn more Saturday when the Tide travel to Texas A&M (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS) for the first time since they gave up 41 points in a loss there two years ago. But while we wait, it may be time to ask an important question: How, after losing arguably the best defensive player in college football in Will Anderson, did the defense get better?

Credit cornerbacks Malachi Moore and Terrion Arnold for stepping up. The same goes for linebackers Deontae Lawson and Chris Braswell. But the place to start is the man who on paper was tasked with replacing Anderson.

Dallas Turner spent the past two seasons quietly making a name for himself as one of the best young players in the country — a blend of speed, agility and strength that’s perfectly suited for the modern edge rusher. Playing opposite Anderson at outside linebacker, the South Florida native flourished in a role that was part sidekick, part understudy. His 12.5 sacks during that time were solid, ranking in the top 50 nationally, but they were dwarfed by Anderson and his FBS-best 27.5 sacks.

When Anderson left for the NFL draft in January, he pulled Turner aside and told him pointedly, “Bro, it’s your defense.”

Anderson, drafted No. 3 overall, said he told Saban the same thing, stressing that the outside linebackers set the tone.

“[Turner] can be one of the best to come through Alabama,” Anderson told ESPN. “He would always say, ‘Bro, I wanna do what you do.’ And I always told him, ‘Do better than what I did.’ And I honestly believe he can do that, 100 percent.”

That includes surpassing Anderson’s 17.5 sacks and 34 tackles for loss as a sophomore, he said.

“I truly believe that,” Anderson said. “I know the type of hard work he puts in. I know his mentality. I know the grit and the love that he has for the game, that he can go out there and do all those things.”

After posting 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble against Ole Miss, Turner wore a T-shirt with a likeness of himself flexing in uniform. Soft-spoken, he let his attire do the work.

Written in all-caps above the cartoon image were the words, “NO LIMIT.”

It’s what Turner feels about Alabama this season — “There’s no limit to how good the defense can be,” he said — and how coaches feel about his potential as one of the most gifted edge rushers in college football.


TURNER’S FOOTBALL ASCENSION was first written in code on a PlayStation outside of Seoul, South Korea. It was 2001, and Delon Turner was nearing the end of his professional career for Ulsan Hyundai Mobis Phoebus of the Korean Basketball League when he and a roommate passed the time during an off day by playing Madden.

They competed in full seasons against one another with simple rules. They each allowed the other to create one player and give that player an unlimited rating, making that player the best on the field.

Delon’s roommate created a running back and named him after his son, Jaylen. And because Delon couldn’t tackle the 99-rated Jaylen with anyone on the roster, he made a 99-rated defensive end as a countermeasure.

He didn’t have a son of his own yet, so he picked a name at random: Dallas.

Fast-forward two years and a return to the U.S., the name stuck. But the unique story of Dallas’ birth didn’t end there.

“As [my wife] was giving labor,” Delon recalled, “I was watching the Pro Bowl.”

The stars aligned perfectly as Delon handed down not only his athletic ability but his work ethic as a professional athlete. Dallas seemed to understand the big picture at a young age, like when he gave up a promising basketball career, which had included a coveted Team USA invite, to focus on football. He went to American Heritage High School to get coached by former Miami Dolphin Pat Surtain. And sensing he needed a change of scenery before college, he transferred to St. Thomas Aquinas, where he would receive coaching from another former Dolphin, Jason Taylor, a first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the best defensive ends to ever play the game.

“God blessed Dallas with a lot of talent and length and height and size,” Taylor said. “So you combine that with the skills learned on the basketball court — your lateral movement, your foot quickness, your hand-eye coordination, instantaneously going from offense to defense and having to backpedal and turn and open your hips and roll and run and all the things — and then you transplant that into a kid that has some dog in them and is highly, highly competitive and physical and hungry, it’s a nasty combination.”

But the thing Taylor said he appreciated most about Dallas was how open he was to coaching. Already a high-profile recruit once he got to St. Thomas Aquinas, Taylor said Dallas “wanted to be pushed.” So much so that Delon hired pass-rush specialist Javon Gopie to work with Dallas starting his sophomore season of high school. Gopie said Dallas told him right off the bat, “These are the things I’m great at, but I want to be more intentional and become a smarter pass-rusher.”

When Nick Saban came calling, Taylor didn’t sugarcoat what an Alabama offer meant. Taylor, who was coached by Saban for two years in the NFL and credits him with taking his career from good to great, told Dallas, “You have to be willing to go there and work and grind and be coached hard.”

“That place isn’t for everybody,” Taylor said, “and he didn’t shy away from it.”

Dallas considered Georgia, Florida, Michigan and Oklahoma. But he said, “My family trusted Nick Saban and the coaching staff over there to help me get where I need to go.”

Delon said there was one more factor that helped seal the deal.

Delon recalled the family visiting campus for a game against No. 3 Georgia when a newcomer named Will Anderson stood out, racking up four tackles and a quarterback hurry. Anderson would go on to register seven sacks in his final six games as a true freshman.

Dallas told Delon after the game, “If that guy can do it, I can do it.”

And then when it came to other colleges, “everybody else was a distant second,” Delon said.


TURNER WAS QUIET when he got to Alabama. Naturally reserved, he watched Anderson and veterans like Chris Allen work and kept his distance at first.

Anderson was having none of that, though, welcoming him to the team with some good-natured ribbing about his weight.

“Dallas,” Anderson chided him, “you’re a little big to play outside linebacker.”

Truth be told, Turner was in fine shape. He just needed time to find his place on the defense, starting out on the bench until Drew Sanders suffered a season-ending injury five games into the 2021 season.

By that time, Anderson had already taken Turner under his wing, teaching him patience.

“From the get-go, it was an easy relationship to build,” Anderson said. “He came in with his head on right, he was willing to listen to the older guys in the room, and he just wanted to be great. And when you have guys like that, who share the mentality that I have, we just gravitate towards each other.”

By a shared mentality, Anderson meant, “Whatever it takes to be great.”

Like Anderson, Turner came on late as a freshman, registering all 5.5 of his sacks in his final seven games.

The two became close — “That’s my best friend, my little bro,” Anderson said — spending countless hours in the film room studying one another.

“It was never a competition between me and Will,” Turner said. “Because I always knew Will was good. I knew when I came in that people were going to be better than me. So I just tried to look at it as just be a sponge, just soak up everything.”

Anderson said Turner taught him a few things, too, like what techniques to use against certain offensive tackles.

Whereas Anderson overwhelmed opponents with his strength and speed, Turner was a tactician. Their go-to moves even coincided with their nicknames: Anderson went by “Speed-to-power Will” while Turner went by “Stab Club Dal.”

Offensive lineman JC Latham said he constantly has to be on the lookout for Turner’s lethal “ghost” move, where he deploys a stutter step and curls under contact to get to the quarterback.

“Dallas has a pass-rush repertoire that allows him to dive deep into many different things,” Latham said. “So even though both [Turner and Anderson] are extremely talented, extremely great, they have two different types of styles to play.”

Anderson got all the publicity. He even picked up the catchy nickname, “The Terminator,” from then-offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.

Turner flew below the radar. “It’s just Dallas for now,” he said.


REPLACE WILL ANDERSON?

As in, replace an All-American and one of the best defensive players to ever come through Alabama?

No, Saban wasn’t buying that premise at all.

“You don’t kind of look at it like somebody’s replacing somebody,” he said. “You look at it like, what do you need to continue to help develop that guy to play well.”

Gopie has seen the long arc of Turner’s development — the five-star prospect with his pick of schools, the standout freshman at Alabama and the perceived sophomore dip last season, going from 8.5 sacks in 2021 to four sacks in 2022. Gopie said the numbers are a bit misleading because Turner was still affecting the quarterback as a sophomore. And the analytics back that up, showing a pressure rate of 12.2% vs. 13.8% the year before. Turner’s third-down pressure rate actually improved 4.9 percentage points.

But Gopie recognized the pressure entering Turner’s junior season. With Anderson no longer rushing off the opposite edge, it was fair to wonder how effective Turner would be.

“Last year when Will was projected a top-five pick, I think Dallas knew at that moment, ‘OK, my time is coming and it’s time for me to be able to lead the group,'” Gopie said. “He’s no longer the young guy anymore.”

Gopie said it has been encouraging to see Turner lean on his family and the pass-rush community he has been a part of during the offseason in South Florida, working with pros like Greg Russo, Shaq Lawson and Bradley Chubb.

“I think leaning on everybody that he has in his corner has really really empowered him to embrace this position,” Gopie said. “And he’s excited for it.”

At SEC media days this summer, Turner acknowledged what was at stake in what could be his final season in college. ESPN rates him a consensus top-10 pick in next year’s NFL draft.

A reporter reminded him that no Alabama player during the Saban era has gone three years without winning a national championship. But before the reporter could finish his sentence, Turner pointed to his ring finger, where a piece of jewelry should be.

Remembering the losses the past two seasons and hearing all the criticism of the defense has been like adding fuel to their collective fire, Turner said.

When Anderson said he “cried [his] eyes out” after Alabama suffered its second loss of the 2022 season at LSU, Turner said he was right there with him.

“But I feel like [Anderson] has taught me some things leadership wise to how to lead the team in the right direction,” he said. “But I feel like now we have all the right pieces now that we need all the right guys in the locker room, all the leaders that we need, too, to get to where we need to go.”

Turner promised he’d take “full ownership.”

That accountability showed after a Week 2 loss to Texas. Turner took it personally, calling it “sickening” that they gave up 34 points at home. The next day, the veterans on the team called a players-only meeting to clear the air. Turner called it a “come-together moment” in which they “set the tone of what it’s going to be on Saturdays.”

In the three games since, Turner has been a man on fire, with 17 tackles, two forced fumbles and 5.5 sacks, which is second most among Power 5 players this season.

Don’t look now, but Turner’s rate of sacks per game (1.1) and tackles for loss (1.5) are both higher than Anderson’s last season.

So how good can he be?

Taylor said there’s no limit.

“As good as he wants,” he said. “He’s an ultra-talented kid. Got a lot of bend, really good twitch, long, powerful. I mean, he’s got everything. The length, the hand usage, plays a great pad level. He’s as competitive as any kid I’ve been around. He’s very gifted. Now the rest is up to him.”

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