Make no mistake, Alabama fielded one of the deepest defensive front seven's in the history of the college game in 2016. With NFL second-round picks Jarran Reed and A'Shawn Robinson playing alongside Jonathan Allen, Alabama was huge, fast, aggressive and disruptive.
Reed and Robinson are obviously gone, but don't look for Alabama's defensive line to step back much, if at all, in 2016. Alabama had a huge win in the offseason when Allen announced his plans to stay for his senior season. Couple Allen with salty senior Dalvin Tomlinson and emerging stars Da'Shawn Hand and Da'Ron Payne, and Alabama once again has the makings of a historically-good defensive front.
While experienced depth could be an issue for the Tide if the injury bug bites, few teams can boast the talent that Alabama has on the roster along its defensive line. Allen and Tomlinson are known commodities, and Hand and Payne have evolved into monsters. But who else will fill out the rotation? Alabama made hay last year by being able to throw wave upon wave of large, aggressive men at opposing offenses, and the defense will again be best served if there are plenty of options along the defensive line in 2016. Sure, Allen, Tomlinson, Hand and Payne will see the bulk of the playing time, but who else will step up? Let's take a closer look...
Jonathan Allen (Sr) - Defensive End
2015 stats - 36 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, 3 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles
First off, let's just make it clear that the end and tackle designations in Alabama's defense are something of an exercise in folly. Alabama uses a base 3-4, but you're just as likely to see a 4-3 depending on the opponent. And within that versatility, you may see a guy like Allen line up at tackle and end in the same game, depending on the personnel package Saban has decided to use against a specific opponent. In other words, let's not get hung up on those specifics, as anyone who understands the Alabama defense likewise understands those designations are somewhat fluid.
That said, Allen (6-3, 294 pounds) can play any position on the defensive line, in any defensive configuration. He's added some 11 pounds of muscle in the offseason, which should be terrifying for opponents who watched Allen rip through offensive lines last season like a bull in a Swarovski outlet. Maybe it had something to do with the constant doubles drawn by Reed and Robinson, but Allen quietly arose as possibly the premier defender in Alabama's front seven, and getting him back on the roster was a huge "get" for the Tide.
Allen recorded 36 tackles, which is nothing spectacular...until one realizes that a full third (12) of those tackles were sacks. Allen spent so much time in opposing backfields in 2015 that they legally could have charged him rent money. Allen is an elite lineman, with raw power, excellent hand technique, a diversity of pass rushing styles, an excellent grasp of defensive systems and the beef to serve as a dynamic, athletic run-stopper. If he has truly recovered from his off-season surgery, Allen will likely prove himself first-round worthy as the leader of another outstanding Alabama defense.
Da'Shawn Hand (Jr) - Defensive End
2015 stats: 16 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks
Da'Shawn Hand (6-4, 278 pounds) is the next man up at defensive end for Alabama, and he is a highly lauded one at that. Projected as a future NFL Draft pick coming out of high school as a five-star recruit, Hand seems to be following a similar trajectory to the one enjoyed by Allen at defensive end. His first two seasons were rather quiet, though the talented junior began to emerge with more playing time as 2015 wore on. By the time the National Championship Game rolled around, Hand was a steady contributor, accounting for four tackles (two of them for losses) against Clemson. While Allen is the star of the moment, Hand is the star of the future at Alabama, and 2016 will be his coming out party.
Hand is ahead of the curve on the technical aspects of playing the position, with good hands and good technique. He is explosive off the snap, and routinely beats offensive linemen to the point of leverage, with power and fast-twitch quickness. Hand is one of the strongest players on the team, as he reportedly squats 600 pounds and can bench 445 pounds, while retaining the agility and athleticism to run a 4.8/ 40.
While many teams will have to focus on Allen or pay the price, Hand may be the sleeper star of this Alabama defense. Expect to hear his name called early and often, as this season could set the stage for him to seize the reigns of the Tide defensive front in 2017.
Dalvin Tomlinson (Sr) - Defensive Tackle
2015 stats - 34 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack
With the departure of Reed and Robinson, Dalvin Tomlinson (6-3, 307 pound) is one of the few remaining seasoned "big bodies" along the Tide defensive front. Though Tomlinson is a mountain of a man, he was described by Saban during his recruitment as the type of "fast-twitch" defender the coach wanted to revitalize his defense in the era of fast-paced football.
Tomlinson isn't the kind of player who is going to post the gaudiest of stat lines. He won't necessarily be a household name. What he will do is routinely tangle the middle of an offense, eating blocks and clogging running lanes in disruptive nature. Tomlinson's ability to soak up blockers like a Sham-wow will make the going all the easier for Allen and Hand (along with Jack linebackers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson), and he is therefore a valuable component in the Tide's base 3-4. Not to mention, the big nose brings a veteran presence to the squad, as he has seen a little bit of everything in his time in Tuscaloosa.
While sophomore Da'Ron Payne may very well earn the starting role at some point in the season, Tomlinson's veteran stature will likely earn him a few starts in the 2016 campaign.
Da'Ron Payne (So) - Defensive Tackle
2015 stats - 13 tackles, 0.5 sack, 1 pass defended, 1 forced fumble
Opposing defenses will do well to avoid angering Da'Ron Payne...they won't like him when he's angry.
A physical freak out of Birmingham, Payne (6-2, 319 pounds) is already one of the strongest players on the Tide roster, and has been since he stepped on campus as a freshman in 2015. He reportedly squats 600 pounds like his teammate Hand, but he benches an amazing 500 pounds. Arms should rip out of socket when attempting such a feat, but Payne was able to do it as a true freshman. Let that sink in a little...
Payne saw a little playing time as the season wore on in 2015, spelling the likes of Robinson and Reed while polishing his skills. While the gargantuan tackle was still somewhat raw, a year in the system (and the weight room) should reveal Payne as a true force and inflictor of pain on opposing offenses. HE is A'Shawn 2.0, and he could have made a similar impact as a freshman without the incredible depth Alabama fielded at tackle in 2015.
A player like Payne has such a high ceiling that's it's feasible to expect him to beat out Tomlinson for the starting role by season's end, if not by season's start. Regardless of whether he "starts" at tackle, there's no doubt Payne will be an integral part of Alabama's line rotation, which will be slightly less deep than last year's unit. Payne is good now, and he's only going to get better. Opponents, beware.
Joshua Frazier (Jr) - Defensive Tackle
2015 stats - 4 tackles
Joshua Frazier (6-4, 315 pounds) came in as a heralded four-star tackle and has continued to work on his game while being somewhat buried by the stellar depth at the position in the previous two campaigns. However, make no mistake that he has what it takes to compete for a spot in the crowded tackle rotation at Alabama, as he has raw power, phenomenal size and good technique for the position.
Frazier only played in four games last season, but given the lack of veteran players on this Tide team's defensive line two-deep, that four games should position him for increased playing time behind Tomlinson and Payne this season. Frazier is another block-eater with a low center of gravity, and against traditional pro-style teams like LSU and Arkansas, he will definitely have a chance for increased playing time. While not as seasoned as Tomlinson or as physically explosive as Payne, Frazier is a solid member of a rotation that will get deep by the middle portion of the Tide's schedule.
O.J. Smith (So) - Defensive Tackle
2015 stats - 1 tackle
Another four-star who has spent much of his time at Alabama buried beneath historical defensive line depth is O.J. Smith (6-2, 315 pounds). The big-bodied tackle has spent much of his time on the scout team to date, but he is climbing his way into the rotation at the tackle position, despite three solid players who likely fall before him in the pecking order.
Smith definitely has his work cut out for him, but he has great size for the position. He hasn't seen much playing time, and given the options in front of him, likely won't see much on-field time again this season. #BamaProblems
Johnny Dwight (So) - Defensive Tackle
(No stats in 2015)
Johnny Dwight finds himself in much the same position as Smith, for similar reasons. Though there isn't much experienced depth at tackle, there is a tremendous amount of talented depth at the position, players who have outstanding measurables but who just lack live-fire seasoning on the SEC gridiron.
Dwight (6-3, 306 pounds) could be a role player at tackle, as he definitely has desirable size for the position. However, the depth chart is thick in front of him, so much so that 2015 saw him getting spring reps at tight end rather than defensive tackle. Though still listed as a tackle on this season's official roster, there's no telling whether or not Dwight will see much playing time at either position.
Quinnen Williams (Fr) - Defensive Tackle
Though listed as a tackle, Quinnen Williams (6-4, 265 pounds) looks more like an end than a tackle. However, with a large frame, Scott Cochran will have him adding good weight in no time, at which point the former four-star recruit will definitely have a role in Alabama front. Whether he ultimately plays tackle, or sticks at end (where Alabama is somewhat shallow behind Allen and Hand), there's no doubting Williams' skill set is what the Tide will need in the coming years.
That said, because of the aforementioned depth issues, Williams' skill makes him an excellent candidate for early playing time. As was the case with Hand and Payne, Saban is not above playing true freshmen in the line rotation if their play and maturity warrant it. Williams could very well break into that rotation during fall camp, as he is explosive enough to make an impact.
Raekwon Davis (Fr) - Defensive Tackle
Alabama's talent disparity over other teams in regard to the defensive line is almost unfair. In the 2016 class, the Tide added two four-stars, a five-star, an underrated three-star juco transfer and missed on a high-end four-star who didn't qualify. One of those four-stars, defensive tackle Raekwon Davis, could see the field early in situational packages, as he is The Mountain (Ser Gregor Clegagne type of Mountain) of the 2016 class, measuring in at 6-6 and 327 pounds.
Davis will face a lot of depth in front of him at the tackle position, but if the forecasts are correct, the big man will be climbing the ladder from day 1. With obvious physical advantages, he is a living Hulk in the interior of a defense, as evidenced by his high school clips. He was quite honestly a Goliath running roughshod through outclassed blockers as a high school senior, and after adapting to the speed of the college game, there's no doubt he will be quite a weapon.
Davis is one of the most exciting adds to the Tide roster from this most recent class, as he has rare size and exemplary power, which will only grow under Cochran's tutelage. Once he works out a few technical details and gets some seasoning, he will be a force that opponents will rue facing.
Terrell Hall (Fr) - Defensive End
Another possible early contributor, five-star end Terrell Hall (6-5, 250 pounds) could be just what the Tide needs to shore up suspect depth at defensive end, where there are no defined options behind Allen and Hand. Sure, the jack linebacker serves as a proxy end in Saban's defense, but in regard to pure, natural defensive ends, Hall will be a nice add to the roster who can earn early playing time as part of the end rotation.
With a huge wingspan and good height, Hall proved himself as an explosive edge rusher in high school. He'll be called upon to develop other facets of his game at Alabama, but he has the natural talent to eventually become a superstar at the position for the Tide in subsequent years.
Jamar King (Jr) - Defensive End
2015 stats (Mendocino Community College) - 53 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 7 sacks
Another player who could provide additional depth at defensive end is incoming junior Jamar King (6-5, 285 pounds). King had a stellar career at Mendocino Community College (CA), and though only rated a three-star prospect in the class of 2016, he is underrated as a pass rusher from the edge. King is fast and slippery, with great range, solid hand skills and quick feet. While he hasn't competed against SEC caliber competition, he excelled at the junior college level, is a mature 27-years-old, and could be called upon to step into the fray (like other juco transfers in the recent past...Terrence Cody, Jesse Williams Reed and Pettway come to mind) immediately.
At nowhere is the embarrassment of talent riches more apparent than along Alabama's defensive line. While depth along the line could arguably be an issue early on, given the Tide's desire to rotate waves of linemen over the course of a game, by mid-season experienced depth will likely no longer be much of an issue. There is great benefit to stocking up four- and five-star defensive linemen, and Alabama is ready to reap that harvest in 2016.
Projected Depth Chart - Defensive Line
Defensive End - Jonathan Allen, Da'Shawn Hand, Jamar King, Terrell Hall, Quinnen Williams
Defensive Tackle - Dalvin Tomlinson, Da'Ron Payne, Josh Frazier, Raekwon Davis, O.J. Smith, Johnny Dwight