Not many would question that with year after year of top-ranked recruiting classes coming to fruition at the Capstone, the 2016 Alabama roster will be loaded with talent. Though the Tide saw a large number of senior (and junior) statesmen from the 2015 championship squad depart Tuscaloosa, there is no shortage of returning stalwarts (like Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, Reuben Foster, ArDarius Stewart, O.J. Howard and Cam Robinson, to name a few) who will man this year's Crimson Tide roster.
But in past seasons, it has not only been the contributions of the players everyone knows are NFL bound that has made Alabama successful. Each year, someone emerges from the background, Ghilli-suited snipers who step out of the foliage and reveal themselves as the next assassins of the Tide's gridiron foes.
The Tide defense saw the departure of almost irreplaceable talents like A'Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Cyrus Jones and Reggie Ragland. With the exodus out of Tuscaloosa (and into the NFL) following last season, there will be opportunities a-plenty for defensive players to step up and write their names in crimson flame for the Tide defense in 2016. Who are they? Let's discuss...
Ronnie Harrison (Safety)
The 6-3, 216 pound sophomore out of Tallahassee's FSU University School is hardly an unknown for those who paid close attention to the Tide's 2015 Championship run. After garnering praise from Coach Nick Saban as an early enrollee participating in spring practices last year, the ferocious safety parlayed his work ethic into special teams playing time early in the season. There, Harrison made an impact early on, blocking a punt against Middle Tennessee State before being bumped up to the defensive two-deep at safety.
Working primarily at the Money (dime) position, Harrison began to assert himself as the Tide's heir apparent at safety. With limited playing time, Harrison was still able to amass 17 tackles, a sack, a quarterback hurry, a forced fumble and six passes broken up. Add to that the fact that Harrison was tied for second in interceptions on the team with two (behind fellow safety Eddie Jackson), and one can get a firm grasp on the kind of season the true freshman had.
Though lightly regarded prior to being offered by Bama, Harrison is shaping up to be another in a long line of heavy-hitting, head-hunting safeties to don the crimson and white. With Geno Matias-Smith moving on, Harrison is the odds-on favorite to join Jackson as part of Alabama's safety tandem. While not yet a safety on par with Mark Barron, Landon Collins or Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, Harrison definitely has the potential to evolve into one of the conference's elite performers at the position, and this year he'll get the playing time to prove himself.
Da'Ron Payne (Defensive line)
Not long after arriving at Alabama, the coaching staff pronounced 5-star defensive lineman Da'Ron Payne (best...football name...ever) as one of the strongest players on one of the strongest teams in the SEC. After all, Alabama is widely regarded as one of the most well-conditioned squads in the conference (and if you don't believe it, ask Scott Cochran...just make sure you put in some ear protection). The 6-3, 319 pound man-mountain arrived on campus at 340 pounds, but on the advice of his coaches, he trimmed down to improve his quickness and balance. But that didn't mean a loss of strength mind you, as Payne benches in excess of 500 pounds, and as a freshman was only rivalled by Derrick Henry with the team high on the power clean with 345 pounds. In high school, he could do 25 reps of 225 pounds, which incidentally, is a feat many pro prospects struggle to accomplish at the NFL Combine.
There are plenty of weight room warriors who never materialize into gridiron greats, but don't expect to count Payne among that number. Payne is strong and athletic for sure (he ran a 5.0/ 40 at 345 pounds), but he is equally as tenacious as a run-stuffer and pocket-collapser. While he may indeed be the second coming of A'Shawn Robinson (the skill sets, size and athleticism are shockingly similar), because of the presence of Robinson and fellow tackle behemoth Jarran Reed, Payne saw limited playing time as a freshman. However, the fact that he got any playing time in Alabama's legendarily deep 2015 defensive line rotation is a testament to his ability.
With Robinson and Reed now pros, Payne is expected to be part of Alabama's starting defensive front few with Jonathan Allen, Da'Shawn Hand, Dalvin Tomlinson and Tim Williams. And for teams that were expecting an easier time against Bama's 2016 defensive line, this incarnation of the big uglies could be even more potent with a developed and seasoned Payne leading the charge and plugging the middle.
Christian Miller (Linebacker)
Christian Miller has been an A-Day warrior for the Crimson Tide, though he's not yet been able to parlay his spring prowess to the autumn chapters of his football career. The 6-4, 230 pound linebacker was an interesting story coming out of high school: a 5-star linebacker from Columbia, S.C. with a former Gamecock for a father and a Clemson grad mother who chose instead to join Nick Saban at Alabama.
Highly lauded as one of the best linebacker prospects in the class of 2014, Miller raised hopes at Alabama with his performance in his first A-Day Game, as he terrorized the passers for two sacks and was a generally disruptive force on the edge. He was an elite pass rusher in high school, and has shown flashes of that at Alabama despite a 2015 season in which he recorded no stats while playing in 12 games.
A player with Miller's pedigree (his dad Corey Miller also played for the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings in the ‘90s), measurables and high school accolades (he was a Parade All-American) has to eventually have a break out season, and 2016 may just be the year. With Alabama's linebacking corps as thin in terms of experience as it's been in four years, Miller will be counted upon to be a flexible, dynamic (likely) Sam in Jeremy Pruitt's defense. He looks every bit the part: he has great length and range, with long arms and nice closing speed. According to teammates, not only is he a fantastic pass rusher, but he has the length, instincts and athletic ability to drop into coverage and serve as a proxy safety when the scheme demands.
Alabama has Foster leading the charge in the linebacking corps, but they will need Rashaan Evans and Miller to adapt to new roles and play a bigger part in the defense. Much like Reggie Ragland, Miller is a talented, highly-lauded prospect who has been patiently waiting in the wings to flex his talent and live up to his 5-star billing. This season may be his opportunity.
There are numerous other players who have generated buzz on the Tide defense coming out of the spring, such as linebacker Anfernee Jennings, tackle/ end Da'Shawn Hand and defensive back Kendall Sheffield. Any one of these guys could work their way into substantial playing time this season, as there is plenty of room for new faces with the departure of so much top-flight talent. Time will tell, but keep your eyes on these guys as the summer progresses, as any one of them could be the next big thing.
(Tomorrow, we'll focus on the potential break-out players on the Tide's offense...with one special teams addition.)