TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When you talk to Alabama redshirt-junior defensive lineman Phidarian ‘Phil’ Mathis, the first thing he’ll talk about is what he and his defense needs to improve on.
For him personally, Mathis believes that this season so far he’s needed to step up in a larger role on the defensive line.
“[I’m] just stepping up and taking on a big role,” Mathis said. “Just helping out LaBryan Ray, especially while him being down and people looking at me to be a leader up front. Especially by me being the next older cat that’s in the room. I’m just taking it day by day, leading the young guys in the room and just being the best I can be whenever I get the opportunity to get on the field.”
Through six games, Mathis has accounted for 14 total tackles and a sack, plus three quarterback hurries and three pass breakups. Combining him along with the rest of the defensive line, that’s a fairly potent pass rush.
Mathis is currently on track to have his best year as a starter for the Crimson Tide despite the shortened season that was abbreviated due to COVID-19.
Alabama coach Nick Saban noted on Mathis’ stepping up into a leadership role and his improvement as a player in his press conference on Wednesday.
“Well, I think Phil has played really well, he’s got his weight down his quickness is better,” Saban said. “That’s the thing that I think has helped him the most. I think he’s playing with a lot more initial quickness, moving better, rushing better, the guy’s got a really, really good motor. 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.”
While the Crimson Tide’s defense got off to a start that has been a little lackluster for many Alabama fans, the defense has shown marginal improvement with each passing week. This past weekend against Mississippi State, the Crimson Tide tallied nine pass breakups, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
That type of play gets to opposing quarterbacks’ heads rather quickly.
Heading into the season, the pass rush and edge were a concern. According to Mathis, though, the pass rush is now one of this defense’s strengths.
“It’s been real great,” Mathis said. “When you’re coming along real well with the pass rush you gotta — like coach always tells them you gotta earn the right to pass rush by stopping the run first. So I mean once we get to stopping the run that’s when we get to pass rush and when we get the chance to pass rush that’s when we get the good chance to get after the QB. You gotta affect them well for our DBs.”
Affect them well they have, and the defense’s pass rush has only improved with each passing game.
Saban agrees with Mathis that while the defense is still far from being perfect, the marginal improvements that the team has been displaying week to week have resulted in solid play.
“I think we’ve gotten a little bit better each week,” Saban said. “I think there’s a lot of room for us to continue to have improvement. We’ve got several young guys playing and those guys, I think, are developing more and more confidence in what they’re supposed to do, how they’re supposed to do it, why it’s important to do it that way. So the mental errors are kind of going down. And we tackled better in the last game, which I thought the Ole Miss game was not very good. And I think we’ve tackled a little better in each game.
Saban noted that the aspects that the defense has improved on will become crucial for the Crimson Tide if they want to remain atop the SEC as the regular season winds down.
“I think those things will be critical in finishing,” Saban said. “We played a little better on third down the last couple of weeks, which is also important to getting off the field, not letting people extend drives on you. So there has been improvement. There’s a lot of things we definitely need to continue to get better at. So I think Dylan [Moses] is a lot more comfortable in his role now as being a leader, calling the defenses, being able to help everybody else do what they’re supposed to do but still do what he’s supposed to do. I think sometimes that can be a little different for guys, but he’s done a really good job of that so we’re making progress.”
Alabama now turns its eyes to LSU, the next game up on the all-SEC gauntlet. The Tigers have had a rough start to the season with an overall record of 2-3 including a devastating 48-11 blowout loss at Auburn this past Saturday.
According to Saban, the Crimson Tide is beginning its preparations for the Tigers on Thursday, ahead of schedule due to the bye week and a day off this past Tuesday for Election Day.
“We are starting on them tomorrow,” Saban said on Wednesday evening. “We are working on them right now so I haven’t really watched that much to say a lot about them. I know they always have good players, always well-coached and they have played well at times this year. I know their quarterback has been out and that has affected them the last couple of weeks but I can’t really comment because I haven’t watched that much.”
If the Alabama defense once again shows improvements, it could be a long night for LSU’s offense.