"Everything starts up front — the fact that we do have some defensive linemen coming back that have some experience is vital in terms of leadership ability and helping mentor some of the more inexperienced guys. Even though we’ll have some new linebackers, I think those guys up front can make the linebackers’ job a little easier if they do things they’re capable of." – Nick Saban
If everything in Nick Saban’s defense starts up front, then everything up front starts in the middle. Tide fans are well aware of the importance of not only consistent play at the nose from a starter, but also the ability to get quality snaps from the backups. Terrence Cody benefited greatly from Josh Chapman, while Chapman benefited from having Nick Gentry and Jesse Williams. The only season in which we didn’t have quality backups up front was 2010, and I think that’s likely all I should have to say on the subject to get my point across.
After a breakout season spent mainly at DE, Jesse Williams is now devoted full time to anchoring the line at nose tackle. At 6-4 320, the senior JUCO transfer is likely more suited to playing in the middle, but with a dearth of ability on the ends and a season veteran in Josh Chapman, Williams was needed more as a "swing" player, working inside and out as the situation dictated. As is the case with most 3-4 linemen, his stats weren’t particularly gaudy (24 stops, 4 TFLs, and half a sack), but he did "affect the game" and his arrival helped turn a defensive front that was a liability in 2010 into one of the most dominant in the history of college football. Nick Saban praised his development over the course of 2011 and into spring and fall of this year:
"Jesse's a very smart guy," Saban said. "He's very prideful. He's a hard worker. It's really important to him to get it right. He competes with a lot of character. He has improved and improved last year dramatically through the season and was a very, very consistent player for us."
"He's really doing a great job," Saban said. "I think he has just continued to improve through the spring and this camp. I think he can be a guy that can really affect the game up front."
Williams is obviously the best choice to fill the void at NT, but questions remain about the position. First, it’s no secret that we like to rotate our NTs - especially on third down - so how much Williams factors into the nickel package is up in the air. Not only did we lose Josh Chapman from last year’s line, we also lost top interior pass rusher Nick Gentry. While finding a true backup to Williams is going to be a priority going forward, there is an immediate need to fill those situational roles.
Sophomores Brandon Ivory and Jeoffrey Pagan have emerged as the top contenders in fall camp. Both worked with the second team defense on A Day, with Pagan being named one of the Ozzie Newsome Most Improved Freshman award winners. Both saw precious little playing time last season, with most of each’s snaps coming in mop up time or against Georgia Southern when most of the DL starters played sparingly.
Having one player separate himself as the top backup would go a long way towards cementing the defensive line depth and allow the staff to use the rest of the NT depth in situational roles. Freshmen Wilson Love and Darren Lake will be the top two candidates competing for those roles. Love redshirted last season, and Lake is a true freshman. At 6-3 315, Lake in particular has the size to be a consistent interior presence moving forward, but as a raw prospect he will need to be brought along into the defense as opportunity allows.
Moving outside, the Tide returns senior Damian Square at one end and has a heated battle between senior Quinton Dial and junior Ed Stinson at the other. Square led the line in total tackles (32) and tackles for loss (7) last season while working opposite Jesse Williams, and will be counted on to be a leader on the defensive line this season, a role he seems to understand and is prepared for:
"I go out every day and perform every day," Square said. "I go in the weight room I work hard for my team, and watch extra film on my opponent so that I can compete at a high level. So that when the team looks around and asks, 'Is Damion Square doing his job?' the answer will be yes."
Opposite Square, the battle for the starting role rages on between Quinton Dial and Ed Stinson. Dial played in 12 games last season and has been a key backup the last few seasons for the Tide’s defensive line, so odds are the senior will be tabbed as the primary contributor. On the other hand, Stinson, after moving to DE from Jack linebacker in 2010, has steadily improved, coming in second among the returning linemen with 5 tackles for loss and seeing time in all thirteen games last season. Whoever wins the starting job is almost a moot point between them since the linemen rotate so often, and having two capable contributors at one of the end spots is welcome news.
Finding capable backups at DE is one of the key battles in fall camp, with both LaMichael Fanning and D.J. Pettway emerging as candidates for playing time. Fanning redshirted last season, but was a four star prospect out of high school and considered the #25 DE in the country by Rivals. He worked with the second team defense on A Day, recording one tackle. Pettway similarly redshirted after being considered the #13 strongside DE in the country by Rivals, and worked with the first team defense on A Day, though he did not record any tackles.
Overall, with four seasoned players across the line and a capable group of backups that includes at least some playing time, the Tide’s defensive line is in better shape than it was heading into 2010, but the ability to identify situational contributors and developing depth is still a concern.