2014 Alabama Spring Practice Unit Preview: Defensive Line

Stacy Revere

The defensive line has been a strength for Alabama in recent years but football is changing and that means 'Bama must adjust or be left behind.

As we move closer to Spring practice one of the units that most ‘Bama fans will be (or at least should be) watching closely will be the defensive line. Two starters are gone from a group that excelled at times in 2013 (see LSU) and then fell apart when the team needed them the most. (Auburn)

[insert statement from 2008-2013] This unit has the potential to be the most explosive and dominating defensive lines Nick Saban has had at Alabama. [/insert statement from 2008-2013] I feel like a broken record at this point but just looking at the returning players, their size, physical make up and production from last season, this may just be the year it all comes to fruition.

An old face makes his return this Spring as Bo Davis replaced the departing Chris Rumph as defensive line coach back in January. In 2010 under Davis, his last year at Alabama, the 'Bama defense ranked #1 in rush defense. (Alabama finished 7th in rush defense in 2013). Even with Davis returning and the influx of talent, I don't see the Bama DL turning into Clemson (DE's who can rush the passer but struggle against physical offensive lines. See FSU game) but I do expect a more aggressive approach. So, with the wealth of talent and the type of players 'Bama has recruited lately at his disposal will the mush rush return or will Saban allow Davis to release the proverbial beast?

The HUNH

Like it or not, college football has changed and unless the newly proposed 10 sec rule, which will allow for defenses to substitute more often, is actually voted into existence, offenses will continue to dictate the pace of the game. (much like they've done for decades).

The question most ‘Bama fans have been asking for the past few months after the losses to both Auburn and Oklahoma is "What will Saban do to combat the HUNH offenses?"

To adequately answer this you must first ask some qualifying questions:

1. Can the defensive line be blamed for the defense's struggles against HUNH teams?

If the answer is No then move on to the next level of the defense. Honestly, I'm disinclined to answer yes here because I do feel like the linebackers played a large part in the loss to Auburn but the defensive line is certainly part of the problem. If they weren't, Auburn wouldn't have ran for nearly 300 yards. So, if the answer is yes, then you must ask:

2. Is it a schematic or talent issue?

Answer: In my opinion, both.

You may remember Gumping On Saturday penned an article where he talked about the ever changing landscape of college football and what adjustments Saban may make:

The truth is that college offenses have begun to make Saban's 3-4 a thing of the past. His defense is designed to stop a traditional, pro-style offense, that favors running the ball between the tackles. That's what any 3-4, two gapping defense does. The nose tackle controls both A gaps while each defensive end controls one of the B gaps and one of the C gaps. This allows the linebackers to read their keys and make a play on the ball carrier, without having to worry about controlling a gap. But these defensive schemes tend to struggle against spread offenses, if the talent level is somewhat even, because the defense just doesn't play fast enough. Instead of attacking gaps and matching the speed of the offense, 3-4 defenses tend to play at a slower pace, one that isn't ideal for combating spread offenses. One of the biggest issues in the Auburn game, for example, was that the linebackers simply weren't playing fast enough. Instead they were spending too much reading their keys and getting caught up in trash once they diagnosed the play.


GOS is right, some type of major adjustment by the staff has to be made. We can't continue to trot out Mt. Cody type players and expect different results. But GOS also makes a point that any speculation on changes made to the over-all defensive scheme or base set is just that, speculation. Thank god we are a blog and we get to speculate all day long.

The good news is we won't have to wait long to find out if the plan is to move away from the 3-4 and to a more "traditional" 4-3, something Saban ran at LSU. And if current recruiting practices are a glimpse into the mind of Nick Saban, change is a comin..

My gut feeling is that a complete move to the 4-3 is not likely to happen but as GOS also mentioned in his is post, a type of hybrid 3-4/4-3 is a viable option. And as Jtadpole said at the end of last season, a move to a four man front would not be a complete overhaul since the Alabama defensive line spent nearly 50% of the time in a four man front in 2013.

Who is gone, who is back?

Gone are starters Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan who combined for 41 tackles but only 4.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks. Where the team will miss Stinson and Pagan the most may be in run support since both were in the 6-4 290 range. But have no fear, the staff has recruited size along the line with players like A'Shawn Robinson (6-4 320) Josh Frazier (6-3 334) and O.J. Smith (6-2 330).

Add to that list guys like Da'Shawn Hand (6-4 260) and D.J. Pettway (6-3 255) and it becomes quite evident the staff targeted players who could play fast along the line of scrimmage but who could also stand up in the run game against offenses like Auburn and LSU.

(Click player's name for 2013 stats)

DE
1 Jonathan Allen 6-3 264
2 D.J. Pettway 6-3 255
3 Da'Shawn Hand 6-4 260
4 Dakota Ball 6-2 270

Speed, quickness and more speed.

Alabama fans have been crying for more sacks and this year they may finally get their wish. Since the 'Bama staff moves around their DE's quite often it'll be interesting to see how the staff uses Allen, Hand and Pettway. Depending on the down and distance, any of these players could play a one gap or move inside to a two gap assignment.

NT
1 Brandon Ivory 6-4 310
2 Darren Lake 6-3 324
3 Johnny Dwight 6-3 298
4 O.J. Smith 6-2 330
5 Jarren Reed 6-4 305
6 Wilson Love 6-3 286
7 Josh Frazier 6-3 334

Honestly, all these guys could easily convert to a 4-3 DT if that is indeed the path Saban chooses. There is also enough flexibility here for the staff to use the hybrid type DL mentioned, where the DT's play a 1-4 technique (see image below) and the other a more traditional 4-3 DE 5-6 technique.

D-line-alignment-and-gaps-copy_medium

DE/DT
1 A'Shawn Robinson 6-4 320
2 Dalvin Tomlinson 6-2 287
3 Dee Liner 6-3 281
4 Korren Kirven 6-5 281

Depth, Alabama has it.

A'Shawn, who could be Alabama's version of Ndamukong Suh, is the rare type of player that at 6-4 320 lbs is versatile enough to play both inside and outside but who can also get after the QB on 3rd and long, evident by his 5.5 sacks.

Liner, Kirven, Hand and Tomlinson, who you may remember was receiving a fair share of hype coming out of summer practice and looked to be playing very fast for his size against Va Tech before going down with a season ending injury, all have the size to also play either DT or DE position. Like Robinson, all four (especially Liner and Hand) have the speed to rush the passer. If, and again I emphasize if, Alabama goes to a 4-3, the personnel is clearly there.

To be completely honest, I am absolutely giddy thinking about the potential of this line in 2014. It is chock-full of budding stars. It has the size to play against traditional offenses like LSU but also the speed and depth necessary to sustain four quarters against the HUNH's at Auburn and Ole Miss. Tomorrow we'll look at some examples of Alabama rushing the passer but for today, sit in awe and wonder at the group of players the staff as put together for our personal enjoyment.

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