The big uglies. They aren't pretty, but they get the job done. And this year's defensive line could be the most talented unit, top to bottom, on an extremely talented football team.
Stocked with talent from wave after wave of top-ranked recruiting classes, Alabama has an embarrassment of riches along the defensive line. The unit is not only ripe with pure ability, but it's seasoned with veteran leadership to boot. While Alabama's defensive lines have been seen as underperformers in past incarnations of the Crimson Tide, D-line coach Bo Davis' squad appears to be ready to rival the best lines of Saban's tenure as a coach.
Alabama returns nine of 10 defensive linemen who saw substantial action in 2014, with the only departing senior being nose tackle Brandon Ivory. There are at least three legitimate early round NFL Draft picks among those nine, including the likes of A'Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen. Alabama's defensive line was so good last season that the unit finished ranked first nationally in adjusted line yardage, as determined by FootballOutsiders.com (click here if you don't believe me.) The defensive line was part of a defense that stopped the opposing running back at or behind the offensive line 26.4% of the time (fifth nationally). The Tide defense finished 2014 ranked fourth against the run nationally, in large part because of the nasties up front.
The defensive line is nothing if not diverse, fire-borne in the kiln of SEC competition. The SEC West in particular has a myriad offensive styles. Gone are the days of "three yards and a cloud of dust," as now defensive coordinators and their charges must be prepared to stop not only the traditional smashmouth style of Arkansas and LSU, but the spread, uptempo offenses of Auburn, Ole Miss and Texas A&M. Such diversity requires an equivalent amount of diversity in personnel, and Saban and his staff have worked to recruit not only the 300 pound interior linemen required to stuff the run, but the lighter framed, more athletic players needed to stop the likes of the Aggies. At least, Nick Saban thinks so.
"I think you need that in our league because we're going to play three or four teams that are sort of I formation, two-back run teams, which we haven't seen a lot in the last couple of years so we're going to need some big, physical guys to play against that; and then we're going to play a lot of spread teams in which we're going to need to be more athletic. So I feel like we have nine or 10 guys who can make a contribution, and every one of those guys have things that they can improve on. They all worked hard during the summer and are good shape, so that's a good start. But we need that entire group to improve."
The Presumed "Starters"
One needn't study the Alabama defense for long before learning that the term "starter," at least so much as it applies to the defensive line, represents an exercise in folly. Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have developed a philosophy in recent years that tailors the starting lineup to the team that the Tide is facing in a given week. The starters change from week to week based on the opponent, and that opponent's prevalent style of offensive play. Because of the aforementioned diversity of offenses in the league, the defensive line that is perfectly suited to stop Arkansas' power interior running game may not be as adept at stopping Texas A&M's spread passing attack.
But for the sake of averages and simplicity, one can consider the three linemen most likely to start against the average opponent in 2015 as Robinson at tackle, Reed at tackle and Allen at weakside defensive end. (Keep in mind, the other traditional "end" spot in Saban's brand of 3-4 generally involves a hand-in-the-dirt linebacker as a proxy defensive end...however, the focus of this article is the defensive line so we'll leave the linebackers for another article.
Everyone knows Robinson well from his exploits in his first two campaigns at the Capstone. Though he has reportedly lost weight heading into fall camp, Robinson is still a behemoth, tipping the scales at 320 pounds on his 6'4" frame. In 2014, the big tackle was a force with which to be reckoned, dominating double-teams regularly en route to a 49 tackle performance (with 6.5 tackles-for-loss, three passes broken up, four quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.) Robinson is the kind of rare talent that combines fantastic size with agility and speed that is quite simply unnatural for a man of his girth and stature. Though it may sound ridiculous, the tackle is the most athletic 320 pound man one will find on an SEC roster this season, and he looks to leverage that talent and an extra year of experience to lead a defensive line that will strike fear into opposing coordinators.
Fellow tackle Reed presents quite the bookend for Robinson, as he too is mountainous at 6'4", 315 pounds. Reed, in his second year at Alabama after two years in junior college, took advantage of Robinson's frequent double-teams last season, making a name for himself while victimizing unfortunate guards and tackles who had the task of blocking him man-on-man. With tremendous strength and burst, Reed has also drawn the attention of NFL scouts with his 54 tackles, 6.5 tfls and a sack in 2014. If last year was his coming out party, look for 2015 to be the year that Reed cements his place as an early round draft pick next spring.
Allen is one of the players Saban and company signed to give the defensive line more athleticism. The 6'3", 272 pound end has bulked up in his time in Tuscaloosa, but the junior retains great length and speed from the outside edge. Though not viewed as the dominant pass rusher that many expect from a Bama defensive end, Allen is very solid in run defense, and he can be counted upon to tie up his blocker routinely, giving other player room to make plays. He displays tremendous penetration against opposing lines, as evidenced by his 11 tfls in 2014 (along with 32 tackles, seven qbhs and five sacks.) He is an intelligent player who puts himself in position to make plays while leveraging the typical double-teaming of his line mates, and NFL scouts have taken notice of his skill.
While the top three returners are all NFL caliber defenders, the true strength of Bama's defensive line comes through its incredible depth. With a solid ten player rotation along the line, Saban and Smart have quite the toolbox for dealing with the diversity of offenses they'll see in 2015.
Among the top returning back-ups on the Tide roster are D.J. Pettway (6'3", 265 pounds), Dalvin Tomlinson (6'2, 290 pounds) and Darren Lake (6'3", 315 pounds.
Pettway and former juco teammate Reed made quite a splash in 2014, brining instant improvement to an Alabama defensive line that had, in the previous season, borne the barbs of criticism. Pettway was used primarily as a situational pass rusher as a strongside defensive end, and in that role, he flourished. Pettway had the best year of his career as a junior, marking 23 tackles, 2.5 sacks, three tfls and five qbhs. Off the end, Pettway was a terror for opposing tackles, blending speed and power to break into the backfield often...and often in disruptive fashion. Expect his impact to be even greater this season, as the Tide coaching staff has confidence in his ability as a pass rusher.
Junior Dalvin Tomlinson has had moderate success in his time at Alabama, though injuries and the presence of guys like Robinson have led to somewhat limited opportunities for greatness. With a huge frame and a "fast-twitch" quickness, Tomlinson is pre-fabricated as the kind of defensive tackle needed to line up against fast-break offenses like the one fielded by Auburn. With an ability to play with speed and quickness, Tomlinson will see an increased role against the kinds of uptempo offenses the Tide will see in conference play this season.
Darren Lake has also been a bit-player in Alabama's defense for the previous three seasons, relegated by injury and the performance of his teammates to a supporting role, often late in blowout games. That's not a knock against Lake's ability, but rather an endorsement of the riches the Tide enjoys at the position. Lake is the prototypical run-stopping tackle, as he has great strength and intimidating size. The big tackle only played in seven games for the Tide in 2015, in that time making five tackles with a quarterback hurry. As long as the Tide has teams like Arkansas and Mississippi State on the schedule, guys like Lake will have a place on the roster.
In the last two recruiting classes, Saban and staff have put an emphasis on recruiting the Tide linemen of the future. With the presumed departure of Robinson and Allen after the 2015 season, as well as the graduation of Reed, Pettway and Lake, Alabama will need experienced role players in order to field a line of similar quality in 2016.
Fortunately, Alabama has four- and five-star talent at the position, and those players will likely see the field during significant action this season. Topping that list is former five-star defensive end Da'Shawn Hand. Ranked as one of the premier players in the nation in the 2013 recruiting class, Hand has the kind of talent that makes scouts drool. As a freshman in 2014, the 6'4", 273 pound Hand saw playing time for the Tide, recording seven tackles, two sacks and two tfls. With great size, speed and a greater understanding of the Tide defensive scheme, Hand may have a coming out party in 2015 as part of the Tide's regular rotation at end.
Another highly-regarded newcomer on the line is tackle Josh Frazier (64, 315 pounds). Already the size of a typical SEC defensive tackle, Frazier displayed good instincts in the spring and into the early portion of fall camp before suffering a mild injury. Frazier will be expected to contribute as part of the rotation in 2015, as his power and tonnage will be needed in relief of Robinson and Reed.
As was the case with Hand in the previous recruiting cycle, the Tide has at least two freshmen who could see significant playing time as situational players in the coming season. Topping that list is massive freshman defensive tackle Daron Payne, a former five-star recruit who, like Hand, was fancied one of the premier players available in the 2014 class. Payne is physically gifted with size and strength, as he has already established himself one of the Tide's weight room champions in his burgeoning career. The youngster reportedly already maxes out at 500 pounds in the bench press and 345 in the power clean, which is simply amazing for a player who couldn't lift his own (albeit considerable) weight as a high school sophomore. (See here for more on his weight room exploits...) Payne could be the A'Shawn of the future, and if he follows that trajectory, expect to hear his name called quite often as a freshman.
Mekhi Brown (6'5", 240) is a four-star recruit who committed early and held his commitment despite charges from regional rivals during the recruiting process. Brown, while seemingly thin, has a frame that can grow along with him. He is very agile and (to use the parlance of basketball) "long," with a huge wingspan that allows him to get separation from opposing tackles and present quite the startling silhouette for quarterbacks. He will become more effective with additional work under the aegis of Scott Cochran, but don't be surprised to see him get a little action as a pass rusher in 2015.
A few players remain as unknowns, with meager playing time to their credit while at the Capstone. Count in this group the likes of sophomores Johnny Dwight (6'3", 300 pound DT) and O.J. Smith (6'2", 330 pound DT). Both guys have the measurable to contribute, and Smith was regarded a four-star talent coming out of high school.
Regardless of which three (or sometimes four) defensive linemen toe the line at any given time, it is certain that Alabama will rely on the unit to be the glue that holds together a largely unproven linebacking corps and a young secondary. The defensive line has the chance to be historically dominant, and they will need to be to mask other potential deficiencies Alabama may encounter in the remainder of the defense.