Spring Look-Ahead: Defensive Line

Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE

Two of three defensive line starters, including the line's only all-SEC player, are gone. Sounds bad, right? Guess again. There's talent coming back, including experienced talent at every position, and Nick Saban just sewed up his best defensive line recruiting class at Alabama by a long distance. The real question may be whether Saban sticks with the three-mammoths system or goes speedier to juice the pass rush and combat the spread.

Of the three prominent departees, starters Jesse Williams and Damian Square and key reserve Quenton Dial, only Williams, a rare combination of strength and quickness, looks to be difficult to replace. But Bama will not be hurting at the nose. Brandon Ivory already proved himself in 2012, spelling Williams all season and being pressed into greater service when the starter was hampered by injury late in the season. The Tide run D stayed strong with Ivory in the middle, the only real measure of a nose tackle's effectiveness.

Darrin Lake spelled Ivory when Williams was injured in 2012, and held his own. The staff is said to be impressed with his talents, and he will challenge Ivory in the spring. 320-pound 5-star true freshman A'Shawn Robinson could be in the mix as well if he dedicates himself to learning the playbook.

Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson are clear leaders at the defensive end positions. At 285 and 282, respectively, they're probably more athletic than the departed Square and Dial, and may prove to be more disruptive. Stinson easily led the Tide's defensive linemen last year with 8.5 tackles for loss--Dial was second with 5--and Pagan had 23 tackles and 4 TFLs off the bench.

The depth picture, however, is far less clear. How it shakes out may well turn on Alabama's defensive philosophy going forward, as the available talent makes two directions possible.

The recently-prevailing direction is something that you would notice as soon as you saw the Tide defense trot on the field. For the last few years, Alabama's front 7 has been big. Real big; bigger than NFL. Bama has routinely fielded nose tackles in the 310-360 pound range and defensive ends in the 275-320 range, and they've been backed by 240-260 pound linebackers, to boot.

The consequences have been predictable: over the last five years, Alabama has given up only 2.79 yards per carry and 82.2 yards a game rushing. Over that period, the Tide's run D has led the nation twice, finished second twice, and finished tenth in the 2010 "off year." Sacks: not so rosy. Alabama has averaged 2.2 sacks per game over that period, and has only finished among the top 25 teams in sacks once, 2012's 16th-place finish.

At the same time, there has been a generic short-term trend throughout much of college football to spread the field and attack defenses with speed, while the long-term trend favoring passing offenses has continued its slow but seemingly inexorable march. That factors into this discussion, as big guys are obviously easier to beat when you can get one of them out in space in a one-on-one situation than when you try to attack them as a group.

Nick Saban famously asked whether the spread is what we want football to be. While that may be a good question, what we want football to be and what football is are two different matters, and what Alabama is built to handle is a third.

Last year Alabama won 11 blowouts and had three excruciatingly close games: all against more or less pass-oriented teams, counting LSU which was indeed pass-oriented against us, throwing 36 times and getting nearly 70% of their yards through the air. Does that mean a change is in order?

Might a guy like Xzavier Dickson, who weighed in at 263 last year, find himself at defensive end? How about Ryan Anderson, a high school blue-chipper currently listed on the roster as a 252-pound linebacker--jack or end? What about 263-pound 5-star incomer Jonathan Allen--an end? Could even a guy like 235-pound true freshman Tim Williams, said to be a terror off the edge, get playing time at jack? At end?

Or will big A'Shawn Robinson get his start at the end like behemoths Dial and Williams before him instead of at nose tackle as speculated above? Will 2012 redshirts Korren Kirven and Darren Ball, 292 and 295 respectively, slot into the DE depth chart or will they get their chances inside?

Pagan and Stinson can fit in whether the Tide goes big or small at DE this year. The same can be said of 6'7", 298-pound LaMichael Fanning, who may compete for a starting job if he begins to live up to his immense potential, and perhaps of yet another blue-chip incoming DL, Dee Liner, who sports a relatively-chiseled 275 pounds. But there's more playing time to be divvied out, and where it lands among guys like Dickson, Anderson, Allen, Williams, Robinson, Kirven, and Ball may tell us how Saban plans to build the Bama defensive line going forward.

That's something to be curious about. Watching this star-studded freshman class work its way into an already-solid rotation is something to look forward to.

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