Oh, Xzavier...how we've only now come to know thee...
Though he joined the Crimson Tide in 2011, much of his career has been spent in the background, playing also-ran to the likes of Courtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower and C.J. Mosley. But 2014 was the year of Xzavier Dickson's emergence, as he was part of one of the fiercest Bama pass rush units of the Saban era. For much of his time at the Capstone, Dickson has been a back-up, but in his final season at Alabama, he boosted his draft stock and became a sack machine for the Crimson Tide.
Dickson came to Alabama following an illustrious high school career at Griffin High School in (you guessed it) Griffin, GA. As a high school defensive end, Dickson excelled against both the pass and run, chocking up impressive numbers, with 19 sacks as a senior to go along with 25 tackles for loss. Though most of his time was spent on the defensive side of the ball, because of his athleticism (Dickson has been clocked at 4.78 in the 40, which is impressive for a 268 pound man), he also saw time as a tight end, where he had 10 receptions for 200 yards during the final year of his prep career.
Because of his gaudy statistics and impressive measurables, Dickson was highly touted as a defensive end prospect, and was recruited not only by Alabama but by high-profile schools such as Georgia, Florida and Notre Dame. Coming out of high school, he was ranked the 22nd rated strong side defensive end in the ESPNU150, 48th in the Rivals 100 as well as being ranked the fourth-ranked defensive end prospect of his signing class. After being selected as a first-team All-State defensive lineman in both 2009 and 2010 at Georgia's AAAA level, Dickson was invited to the UnderArmor All-American Game, where he displayed the skills that led to his coveted status. On that big stage, against the nation's best high school football talent, Dickson managed six tackles and 1.5 sacks.
The early years
With advanced physical measurables and above-average talent, combined with Tide coach Nick Saban's penchant for playing talented young players early in their careers, Dickson was a lock to see the field in his freshman campaign as the Tide worked to build the defensive line depth it enjoys today. Though not tabbed as a starter in Saban's patented 3-4 attack, Dickson saw time at the pass rushing "jack" linebacker spot in seven games of his freshman season. As can be expected for a young player in a complex defensive system like the one used at Alabama, Dickson's impact was measured as he acclimated to the speed of the college game. His stat line for that first season included three tackles and, in a harbinger of what was to come, 1.5 tackles for loss.
In 2012, Dickson saw more time on the field at the jack position as became more comfortable with the system. His time on the field was well-spent, as he played in all 14 games for the eventual national champions, with six starts among those 14 games. In that time, Dickson amassed 33 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and four quarterback hurries.
Dickson's defining moment(s) as a Crimson Tide player came in the 2012 SEC Championship Game, a match-up between the Tide and a plucky Georgia Bulldog squad led by veteran quarterback Aaron Murray. In a back and forth game, the Tide found itself behind at times, and the game went down to the final play before being decided when former Bama linebacker C.J. Mosley tipped a Murray pass that was caught short of the goal line as time expired. Dickson played a role in the Tide's stemming of the Georgia surge, as he accounted for two solo sacks of Murray, helping Alabama clinch a spot in the 2012 National Championship Game against top-ranked Notre Dame.
Dickson, the Upperclassman
Not much can be said about Dickson's performance the subsequent year. Though he had worked himself into the every-down rotation of the Tide's defensive line and played in 13 games (Dickson was suspended for Alabama's Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma) on the season at the jack position, one wouldn't know it by viewing his season stat line. Expected to have a break-out season in 2013 (he was a consensus second-team All-SEC selection in the preseason), that success simply didn't materialize for the linebacker, as he recorded only 13 tackles (five solo), two tackles for loss, one sack and one quarterback hurry.
What Dickson lacked in performance in 2013, however, he more than made up for with his 2014 campaign. As the veteran member of a Tide defense that has become one of the top units in the nation (ranked 2nd against the run), Dickson was a force for opposing offensive line coaches to corral. Dickson combined polished technique and mauling physical power to overwhelm opposing blockers en route to a 37 tackle (27 solo) performance in 2014, contributing to the Tide's standing and final seeding in the four-team College Football Playoff.
Dickson's 2014 stat line also cemented his prowess as a pass rusher and improved his draft stock dramatically, taking him from free agent material to a likely late round selection. His physical explosiveness led to eight sacks, 10 quarterback hurries and 10.5 tackles for loss on the year. Dickson even contributed in pass defense with his tremendous reach and instincts, batting down two passes at the line of scrimmage.
While the season's ends remain untied, expect Dickson to be a force in the Tide's semi-final match-up with the Ohio State Buckeyes. With an untested third-string quarterback under center for OSU, Dickson's skill set could come in handy as the Tide defensive line attempts to "disrupt the passer," to use the parlance of Saban himself.
While Dickson's name doesn't appear on the "hot list" of NFL first day picks at the present time, his stock has risen in 2014 and could further improve with strong performances in the Sugar Bowl (and potential national championship game) and at Alabama's Pro Day. Currently, Dickson is considered as a potential sixth-to-seventh round draft pick, and is currently rated the 15th ranked outside linebacker (among 239 eligible draftees) in the 2015 NFL Draft.
While Dickson's NFL future remains uncertain, it is important to note that he has been a part of two national championship defenses (to varying degrees) and has a chance to become one of the few lucky but deserving Crimson Tide players to wear three national championship rings.