I have to apologize to all of you football content-crazed junkies for how long it took for me to get this third installment of the Meet the New Guys series written. Lets just say that I was in the middle of a war with my internet service provider (without naming names) and just leave it at that.
Anyway, we’re now moving on to the last part of the defense, the big boys up front, the defensive line. In his early years at Alabama, the Nick Saban defensive linemen were often massive space eaters who garnered little attention nationwide. In the last few years, however, that has begun to change. A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen, and Dalvin Tomlinson have all been some of the best players on their respective defensive squads, and Da’Ron Payne will aim to continue that streak in 2017.
However, Payne will be the only returning starter, with D’Shawn Hand and Josh Frazier the only back-ups with much experience. As such, the three men signed in this recruiting class just might be the most immediately important players of the whole class.
As always, I pull all rankings from 247sports.com and all measurements from ESPN.com, who compiles Nike combine data. I will be referencing SPARQ and Z-Scores freely throughout the piece when speaking of a player’s athleticism.
A five-star prospect for a reason, LaBryan Ray is one of the best players in Alabama’s recruiting class, and would be the best player in years for many other teams across the nation. At 6’5” 270, he’s a physically imposing specimen with a blend of speed, quickness, and power that adds up to an exceptional 1.33 Z-score. While none of his tests stand out on their own, all four are quite impressive for someone his size.
Ray played nearly every position along the defensive line, from a nose tackle to a wide-9 defensive end. He’ll likely do the same for Alabama, similar to how Jonathan Allen has been used the last couple of years.
Lateral quickness is easily Ray’s best trait. When playing in a 2-gap role, he can easily wait and react to a running back’s cut or the direction of the play and still be able to stay in position and contain the runner in the backfield. To combine with that, he has one of the best swim moves I’ve seen from a high school lineman, as he can rip one way or another and shove his blocker to the side while preparing to make the tackle on the other side.
His lateral agility come from great footwork. He never seems off balance, always has his feet moving, and is ready to change directions on a dime, making him exceptional at defending read options and play fakes.
While many defensive linemen tackle by just kind of falling on top of the ball carrier, Ray usually strikes with the ferocity of a linebacker, going for the kill shot rather than just dragging someone down with his weight.
He also has a knack for batting passes at the line of scrimmage, which is something that is less of a technique and more of just some innate feel for doing it.
He doesn’t seem to have the upper body functional strength to take on double teams without being totally enveloped. This lack of strength is also apparent when he tries to bull rush a lineman— let’s just say it isn’t always very effective.
He also needs a little work with his hand technique. I like to a see a defensive lineman who swats and slaps at the arms of the blocker to prevent him from ever getting a solid a block. Ray’s hands tend to die once engaged, and then come back alive once he goes for the swim. .
He’s also not put a whole lot of tape out there as a pass rusher, and has mostly specialized in defending the run. I think he has the ability to pass rush, but just hasn’t shown it yet.
I think there’s little chance that Ray doesn’t find the field somehow as a true freshman. With the depth depleted already and his raw talent, I think he’ll start the season as a reserve in blowout situations, but will be getting 10-15 snaps per game by the end of the season in meaningful moments.
A true defensive tackle, Phidarian Mathis is a little bit of a departure from the type of linemen I’m used to seeing in Saban’s recruiting tendencies. He’s more of a tilted nose/1-tech for a 4-3 defensive than the 0-tech and 3-techs that we usually see.
Athletically, his vertical jump and 20-yard shuttle scores are a bit worrying. Though they don’t have to be high for a defensive lineman, scores that low potentially indicate a lack of proper weight training, translating to a meager explosiveness on the field.
Where LaBryan Ray lacked a bull rush, Phidarian Mathis specializes in it. Once he gets moving forward, it becomes like a boulder going down hill— it can’t be stopped. He’s best when shooting the gap between the guard and center and charging straight ahead towards quarterback or running back.
As such, he’s a much better pass rusher than you’d expect of someone his size. Even if he doesn’t break free for a shot at the QB, you can probably expect that he’ll be pushing his blocker backwards into the face of the passer.
Back to the boulder rolling down a hill analogy, the best way to stop him is to get in his face early. If an offensive lineman attacks him before he has time to get his momentum going forward, it will more often than not neutralize him for the rest of the play. He also has little lateral agility, which really hurts his ability to play in a two-gap role.
As a pass rusher, he needs to learn to use his hands and try to incorporate some moves other than a straight bull rush into his game.
I think he’ll end up redshirting this year, as Da’Ron Payne and Josh Frazier will likely hold down the nose tackle all season for the tide, with seniors O.J. Smith and Johnny Dwight holding the experience edge as backups.
A 3-star recruit from Ruston, LA, Buggs left for junior college as a 6’3” 245 pound defensive end, and exited two years later at 6’5” 280. I don’t know what they fed him down there at MGCCC, but it worked.
As with all JUCO recruits, we have no SPARQ testing data available. So, using my eyeballs, I’ll tell you this: the man is fast. Much faster than a 280 pound guy should be.
He’s a unique pass rusher in that, despite his 280 frame, he’s a talented speed rusher. He plays almost exclusively as a 4-3 defensive end— a 7-technique— and prefers to rush off the blindside. He’s got a lightning-quick first step, and then has the speed to beat a tackle around the edge. He can even close out the process by going low and bending back around toward the QB without having to go far behind him.
He’s also agile enough to stop his speed rush and cut back in, throwing his blocker off balance (a move we’ve been quite accustomed to seeing from Tim Williams). In run defense or interior rushes, he’s quick enough to feint and juke at the line of scrimmage to get past a blocker without ever having to engage.
In the run game, he can get low and drive through double teams, often submarining under the linemen to get an unexpected tackle on the ball carrier. He’s strong enough to have a fairly effective bull rush too.
He’s shown very little as a two-gap lineman, spending most of his time just attacking the edge. He’s likely too big to become a jack linebacker for Alabama, so he’ll have to learn to be a two-gap defender too.
When rushing the QB, he depends on his speed to keep blockers from ever getting their hands on him. When they do, he often has trouble disengaging.
As a JUCO transfer, the expectation is that he’ll come in and be ready to play from day 1. That doesn’t always happen, but in this case, I suspect it will. I fully expect him to be a starter at best, rotational pass rusher at worst, by day 1 of the 2017 season.