Coming out of high school, no one knew exactly what to expect out of Darren Lake, a 6'3", 324 pound defensive tackle prospect out of York, AL. But in his time at the Capstone, Lake proved more than just a man-mountain on the roster sheet, but rather a steady, run-clogging presence in the middle of the Tide defense when called upon to spell the starters.
Lake played at least half of his career in the shadow of future first-round draft picks A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed. But even the best defensive linemen need to breathe, and when Bama's top tackles needed rest, it was Lake who boldly stepped into the void, clogging run lanes and taking on double-teams in the heart of the Bama line.
While other Alabama defensive linemen finish their Capstone careers more highly regarded as NFL prospects, Lake leaves Tuscaloosa with two National Championships and the knowledge that he was an integral part of an Alabama defense that could arguably go down as the best of the post-Bryant era at Alabama.
The first thing about the gigantor tackle that caught the eye of recruiters was his pure size. Lake was huge, even as a high school senior. Of course, Alabama S&C Coach Scott Cochran honed Lake into a muscular 324, but even as a young player, the tackle had the kind of tonnage Coach Nick Saban prefers at nose in his run-stopping iteration of the 3-4.
Lake wasn't the highest rated defensive recruit Bama targeted in the class, but neither was he an afterthought. Lake was rated 184th overall prospect in 2012 by Tom Lemming's Top 200 and the 12th ranked defensive tackle nationwide. He was considered a consensus three-star defensive lineman by the four major recruiting services (Rivals, Scout, 24/7 and ESPNU), as well as being ranked the 20th best overall prospect in the state of Alabama. The Sumter County High School prospect was rated the 38th best defensive tackle by 24/7, and Lake was number 16 on the Mobile Press-Register Elite 18.
Lake wasn't just all size and potential, either. In his senior season under Coach Andre Pickering, Lake was a dominant force. He posted 48 tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles, one pass broken up and one safety, numbers which earned him recognition as an Alabama Sports Writers Association first-team All-State performer at defensive tackle. Following his senior season, Lake (naturally) elected to play at the University of Alabama over an offer from the Tennessee Volunteers.
The Early Years
Lake, because of his natural ability for the nose tackle position as utilized in Saban's defense, saw fire early and often as a true freshman. Eschewing the redshirt that many Tide defenders unceremoniously earn after arriving on campus, Lake was thrown into the fray, playing in eight games in 2012. Lake performed well for a newcomer, and his stats, while not particularly impressive, are respectable for the position and his place in the hierarchy at the time. Lake had three tackles credited to his stat line, with one all-important tackle for loss against the Auburn Tigers in his first Iron Bowl.
In 2013, Lake saw increased playing time as a back-up nose guard, as he played in 13 games for the Tide defense. While largely flying under the radar due to his block-absorbing role in the middle of the Tide line, Lake managed to buoy his stats considerably, accruing 15 tackles (including five tackles in what may have been the best single game of his career against Kentucky.) Things looked promising for Lake, as he ascended the (non-existent) depth chart and appeared to be poised for an even greater role in 2014.
Lake, the Upperclassman
Unfortunately for Lake, two things happened in 2014 that stymied his ascension to a role as an every-down defensive lineman for Alabama. The first was the proliferation of the HUNH (hurry-up, no-huddle) offense. Saban had learned, in 2012 against Texas A&M and in 2013 against Auburn, that the HUNH was something that wouldn't go away, and his traditional, monstrous front 7 was ill-suited to combat the speed and agility of the new wave of offenses. While in the past Lake was tailor-made for Saban's run-stuffing units, with the popularity of new-fangled offenses, it became clear Saban needed lighter, longer, more athletic defensive lineman to combat the trend.
And then there was the emergence of A'Shawn Robinson coupled with the arrival of Jarran Reed on campus. The duo gave Saban the perfect defensive lineman paradigm for the new world of college football: big men with power and the athleticism of lighter men. Both fast-twitch players were exceptional fits for Saban's evolving defense, and their ability played out in their performances on the field.
Because of the move away from the heavy nose, and the emergence of top-flight line talent on the Alabama defensive line, Lake never got that starting role he had worked towards as an underclassman. That said, he was still a top reserve, and saw plenty of action as a junior and senior. In the Tide's 2014 playoff run, Lake was featured at times against old-fashioned, man-ball defenses, where his size was still a plus. For example, three of Lake's five tackles in the 2014 campaign came against perennial run-based powerhouse LSU, a figure which marked a season-high for Lake. He also had a quarterback hurry on the season, as he demonstrated the ability to crush the pocket inside-out when not doubled by opposing offenses.
Again, because of the stellar nature of his fellow linemen, Lake saw a reduced role in his final year in Tuscaloosa, though he was a quality, reliable reserve player on a defense that could have been the best of the Saban era (and beyond.) As a senior on a National Championship-winning squad, Lake was credited with three tackles and one pass batted down.
Again, in a draft class heavy with defensive line prospects, Lake is not expected to be a first- or second-day draft pick. He is projected as the 99th best defensive tackle (out of 223) by nfldraftscout.com, while walterfootball.com rates him as the 23rd best defensive tackle in the upcoming draft. Lake will likely end up a free agent if an NFL team elects to give him a shot due to his size and the fact that he played for four years in the Saban defense.
Lake's measurables (outside of his size) aren't breath-taking, as he was clocked at 5.29 in the 40. A Combine invite and a solid pro day could boost his stock considerably, as any team that runs a 3-4 defense could appreciate his sheer girth and power. After all, in a 3-4, the role of the nose is to absorb blocks and hold the point as an immovable object. If nothing else, Lake proved himself quite capable in that role, and if not for Robinson and Reed, he likely would have had a much larger role in Alabama's 2014-2015 defense.
Though Lake didn't have the stats or the flashy performances that made his fellow defensive line teammates household names in the state of Alabama, he was a solid, steady situational player who helped provide Alabama's front seven with historically-great quality depth. Whether or not he gets a chance at the next level doesn't diminish the fact that the Tide senior was a critical part of a team that won three SEC Championships and two National Championships during his tenure.