Heading into 2011 we're hearing all kinds of talk about 10 returning starters and how impressive this defense is going to be, but everyone seems to be overlooking one glaring concern: the defensive line. Two names have effectively defined the Alabama d-line over the last few season, Terrence Cody and Marcell Dareus, while less hyped but equally solid players like Brandon Deaderick, Lorenzo Washington, and Bobby Greenwood have helped to make the Tide's defensive front an impenetrable wall. All those names are gone now, and outside of those of us who obsess over this kind of thing to an unhealthy degree, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who could really name a starting two deep if they had to. Put as bluntly as possible, we need someone, anyone, to step up and give this group an identity this season, and as a simple matter of depth and experience that burden is likely going to have to fall on Chapman's shoulders.
While we can fret over a lack of genuine star power at DE, at least the bodies are there. Nearly a dozen scholarship players are competing for playing time there, and there's been enough progress shown from guys like Damion Square, Adrian Hubbard, Ed Stinson, and Quinton Dial to think we'll at least have a reasonably consistent rotation among them. But the NG position? That's a different story altogether.
From the nose, Chapman finished last season with 31 total tackles, 3.5 TFls and one sack, good enough to lead the rest of the returning down linemen in total tackles (Square led the down linemen in TFLs and sacks with 7 and 3, respectively). He showed clear improvement during the spring and is looking his best to date, but the fact is he's simply not the kind of monster in the middle that Terrence Cody was and never will be. That's not a knock on him by any means, he's a fine tackle in his own right, but the two are simply two different types of players. Unfortunately, without a solid rotation around him and a linebacker corps behind him that was in flux and dealing with it's own identity and consistency issues, Chapman simply got lost in the middle for most of last season. Unfortunately, there are still questions about who is going to rotate on the line this year, and especially who is going to help take up the slack in the middle to keep Chapman from playing more downs than necessary.
Looking on the depth chart, it's a little grim. For all the buzz Jesse Williams created when he signed, he's a raw prospect that for the most part got by on size at the JUCO level and will have to continue to learn the nuances of the position (using his hands, getting leverage, etc.) quickly in fall if he's going to be a meaningful contributor. Nick Gentry carved himself a role as a situational player last season, getting in on passing downs as a solid pass rusher from the interior, but he simply doesn't have the size (or even the frame to add the size) to consistently occupy two blockers and hold up when opposing offenses line up and run right at him. He's just not an every down player, and though he has contributed and will continue to do so, it's going to have to be in a limited role. Finally, Brandon Ivory is an unknown commodity after redshirting last year despite a lot of positive talk from Saban himself after his signing:
"The guy moved around on the basketball floor pretty good, dunked it, and could touch the rim and all that stuff," Saban said. "I said a guy who weighs this much and moves that well and plays that well on film and we have a need for big-bodied people ...
"Our criteria for nose guard is a little different than somebody else looking at just a defensive lineman. He seemed to fit the criteria.
Ivory is looking the part and generally played well on A Day, but his name hasn't been heard much so for now we'll have to file him under "wait and see."
Which leaves us with Chapman. He's been in the program since 2007, playing in the first three games of the season before being injured and getting a medical redshirt. He's seen action in every game since, starting two games in an injured Terrence Cody's place during the 2008 season, playing a key role as the preferred NG on passing downs the rest of that season and the '09 season, and starting all but one game last year. During the spring he was indisputably atop the depth chart, and was given the "Lee Roy Jordan Headhunter Award" at the conclusion of fall camp. With 42 career games and 14 starts under his belt, he's the most experienced lineman we've got, and if this unit is going to find an identity and be the same kind of anchor it was in 2009, it's going to be up to Chapman's leadership and experience to get it there.