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Alabama Spring Football 2017: Previewing the Defensive Line

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Another year, another exodus to the NFL

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Even by their own lofty standards, the Tide’s accomplishments over the past few seasons were nothing short of remarkable. In three years Alabama compiled 40 wins, three conference titles, three playoff appearances, and one national title, falling a play or two short of a second. While football is perhaps the ultimate team sport — reliant on the cohesion of a diverse group of athletes performing vastly different tasks on every play — it would be hard to argue the defensive line wasn’t at the heart of that success.

Much like this time last year, Tide fans will see another changing of the guard up front. A’Shawn Robinson, D.J. Pettway, and Jarran Reed all left for the NFL after 2016, and this year they will be joined by Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson. That’s a tremendous amount of production to lose in a two year period, but fortunately for the Tide one stalwart remains and, in typical Saban fashion, a bevy of stud recruits await an opportunity to step up into starting roles.

The Departed

Jonathan Allen

Best defensive lineman in school history? It’s difficult to hand out superlatives like that with a school as steeped in tradition and excellence as Alabama, but the prospective top-5 pick in the draft has a pretty good case. Allen leaves the Capstone second in school history in sacks, behind some guy named Derrick Thomas. He also left lugging just about all of the hardware a defensive lineman can win, with a seventh-place finish in the Heisman voting and unanimous All-American honors for good measure. Allen did it all, and with the possible exception of Cam Robinson will be the most difficult player to replace in 2017.

Dalvin Tomlinson

Largely a rotational player for most of his time at Alabama, Tomlinson finally ascended to the starting lineup in 2016, and continued his strong production from previous seasons with 62 tackles, three sacks, four pass breakups and a forced fumble. As you would expect Allen largely overshadowed him a year ago, but the NFL is fully aware of Tomlinson’s potential. Opinions differ on where he’ll end up of course, but look for him starting around the third round, with a strong chance to work into the rotation from day one.

Dakota Ball

After four years of bouncing around from position to position, the erstwhile Ball settled in along the defensive line last year after multiple stints at tight end and H back. Ball contributed 12 tackles on the year, including one for loss and a half sack. It appears as though Ball’s best bet to make the NFL will be as a fullback, but it is unlikely he will be drafted.

Returning Starters

Da’Ron Payne

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The aforementioned stalwart, Payne has been Alabama’s run-stuffing monster in the middle since he arrived on campus in 2015. As a nose guard, Payne doesn’t put up a ton of stats, and at times got lost in the shuffle with the Tide’s other defensive stars a year ago. The big names are gone, however, and this is the year the big man will break out. A freakish athlete — Brent was all exclamatory about this just last week, in fact — study of his film reveals he’s been abusing quality linemen for two years now. Expect tremendous levels of hype if he continues to play at that level this season.

Returning Reserves

Da’Shawn Hand

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The fact Da’Shawn freakin’ Hand was a reserve last year is a testament to how truly ridiculous the Saban recruiting machine has been over the last few years. As you might recall, not only was Hand a unanimous five star prospect, he was #1 overall according to Rivals and the #5 overall prospect in 247’s composite ratings, behind four guys who will go in the first round of the draft this year. He was such a big deal the Washington Post did a 13 part video series on his recruitment. And he’s been stuck behind NFL linemen, present and future, ever since he got to campus.

That is a testament to Hand, as many in that situation would have transferred rather than wait three years for an opportunity. A senior now, Hand is a lock for one of the starting spots alongside Payne, likely in the Allen mold of a pass-rushing specialist that is effective against the run. Hand has accrued seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss in limited snaps over the past three seasons, and it’s possible he exceeds both numbers in 2017.

Raekwon Davis

NCAA Football: Alabama at Tennessee John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Many thought Davis would play a bigger role a year ago as one of the more vaunted prospects at his position, but he saw action in just seven games last season, due in part to the NCAA taking their sweet time clearing him for play. He’s in the mix to spell Payne at nose guard this season, and may see additional playing time when a bigger body (6’7”, 300+ pounds) is warranted.

Joshua Frazier

Another senior, Frazier came to the Capstone as the nation’s #5 defensive tackle and, like Hand, hit the bench behind future NFL linemen. Unlike Hand, that is probably not changing in his final year in crimson. Frazier sees plenty of snaps, appearing in 14 games a year ago, but will continue to be a rotational player in 2017.

Newcomers

Isaiah Buggs

Buggs is the only defensive line recruit from the 2017 class that will be available for spring practice, as LaBryan Ray and Phidarian Mathis will arrive later in the year. Buggs was initially a three star recruit out of high school, but after a couple of seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, he’s added a fourth star and a lot of size. The #2 overall JUCO recruit, Buggs is a pure speed rusher who may end up locking down the other end spot across from Hand, and at worst is a regular contributor next season.

Quinnen Williams

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A redshirt freshman, Williams was a unanimous four star recruit coming out of high school, and has added twenty pounds to his frame since arriving to campus — he now measures out at a hefty 6’4” and 285 pounds. Oh, he was also tearing it up on the scout team, and has already drawn comparisons to Jonathan Allen. There will be a lot of competition for the end spots with Hand, Buggs, and Ray, but Williams has a good shot at snagging one and, like Buggs, should see a ton of snaps at worst.

Others

Jamar King and O.J. Smith both saw some time a year ago, but will continue to be backups alongside Johnny Dwight. Vohn Keith Jr. and Daniel Powell are “break glass in case of emergency” types. Taylor Wilson has the same afro I rocked in high school.

Prediction

These come with the usual caveats, plus the “math ain’t never won nothin’, PAAAAWWWLLL” one that comes with my infrequent forays out of the stats world.

  • End: Da’Shawn Hand, Isaiah Buggs, Joshua Frazier
  • Nose: Da’Ron Payne, Raekwon Davis, Phidarian Mathis
  • End: Quinnen Williams/LaBryan Ray, Joshua Frazier

Someone between Buggs, Williams, and Ray will be the nominal starter across from Hand, but I imagine it ends up more of a timeshare between Williams and Ray (provided the latter is everything he’s cracked up to be) with Buggs serving primarily as a rush specialist and Frazier continuing to see plenty of snaps.

ROLL TIDE