Alabama has been spoiled the last two seasons with what many consider generational defensive line talent. The Tide has fielded units stocked with seasoned, talented future NFL Draft picks, and the results have been indisputable, with two of the most dominant front-seven performances (2015 and 2016) of the last two decades.
Nick Saban’s horses up front have been a terror for opposing offenses, forming an impenetrable wall against usually-potent running offenses (LSU and Auburn), and upping the ante with a pass rush that could disrupt the timing of even the most well-oiled passing games. With players like A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen, and Dalvin Tomlinson anchoring the defense, Alabama’s front has become a springboard for big men who aspire to play at the next level.
While this year’s line will hurt for the departure of particularly Allen, all is not lost. After all, the Tide has the luxury of replacing five-star players with other five-star players. Though the level of experience across the line is shockingly low, the talent level couldn’t conceivably be higher. Because of the way the Tide rotates its defensive linemen and uses specific packages to match opposing offenses, there are many players on this year’s roster who have some considerable experience, even if they don’t bear the “returning starter” label.
Despite the lack of a veteran presence, make no mistake, there won’t be much of a drop-off for this year’s incarnation of the Alabama defensive line. It’s ridiculous to even say that for a line that lost talent like Allen and Tomlinson, but it’s a legitimate projection given the talent on board.
Key Returning Players
Da'Ron Payne (Jr) - Defensive Tackle
2016 stats -36 tackles, 1 pass broken up, 3 quarterback hurries, 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, 310 pounds) is one of the strongest players on the Tide roster (and by proxy, the SEC), and he has been since he stepped on campus as a freshman in 2015. He reportedly squats more than 600 pounds like his teammate Hand, but he benches an amazing 500-plus 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...
The 2016 season saw Payne emerge as a force in the heart of the Bama front. The gargantuan tackle used steady playing time to hone his technique to better apply his superhuman strength, and the results spoke for themselves. He doesn’t only bull over centers and guards: he uses his hands, sheds blocks, and uses leverage to sling blockers like he’s shewing flies from his meal. Payne is not just an anchor to the defensive front these days: he is a true force and inflictor of pain on opposing offenses. He is A'Shawn 2.0 and then some, and he could have made a similar impact as a freshman without the incredible depth Alabama fielded at tackle in 2015.
Payne is not just the presumed starter at the nose…he is also the line’s most veteran player at this point. He has more starts under his belt than any other defender in the top-seven, and he’ll need to be a physical force as well as a leader in the huddle. Smart money says he has a stellar season, and that he is on a trajectory that will pay big dividends for both him and the Tide. Payne is good now, and he's only going to get better. Opponents, beware.
Da'Shawn Hand (Sr) -Defensive End
2016 stats: 25 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sacks
Da'Shawn Hand (6-4, 288 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 three seasons were rather quiet, as the talented senior waited behind current NFL players, but he will definitely emerge with more playing time in 2017. While Jonathan Allen was the star of 2016, Hand is the star of the present at Alabama, with 2017 as 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. In the last year, Hand has added a little bulk to his frame, picking up an additional 10 pounds that will aid him in every-down SEC trench warfare.
There was a time when Hand could be considered the sleeper star of this Alabama defense. However, as a senior starter, he must provide not only leadership, but a high-caliber performance at end if Alabama is to continue its recent tradition of dominant defensive fronts.
Raekwon Davis (So) -Defensive End
2016 stats: 4 tackles, 1 sack
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, will see the field as a potential starter in 2017, as he is The Mountain (a Ser Gregor Clegane-type of Mountain) of the 2016 class, measuring in as a freshman at 6-6 and 327 pounds. Davis has since shed a little weight down to 315 pounds, but he is still a massive, powerful man.
As a contributor in seven games during his freshman campaign, Davis is an odds-on favorite to see time at a combination of end and nose this season (depending on the package). There’s stiff competition between Davis and juco transfer Isaiah Buggs for the starting role, but Davis appears to be the lead horse in that race. With obvious physical advantages, he is a living Hulk in the wall of the 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 was one of the most exciting adds to the Tide roster from the 2016 class, as he has rare size and exemplary power, which will only grow under Cochran's tutelage. He is in the right place at the right time to make an early splash given the Tide’s thin depth in the front four. Once he works out a few technical details and gets some seasoning, he will be a force that opponents will rue facing.
Joshua Frazier (Sr) -Defensive Tackle
2016 stats - 8 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 sack
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 three 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 played as a reserve in fourteen games last season. Given the lack of veteran players on this Tide team's defensive line two-deep, that experience should position him for increased playing time this season out of sheer necessity. Frazier is a block-eater with a low center of gravity, and against traditional pro-style teams like LSU and Arkansas, he will be counted on to perform with increased playing time. While not 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.
Johnny Dwight (Jr) - Defensive Tackle
(No stats in 2016)
Johnny Dwight finds himself in much the same position as Frazier, 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, 300 pounds) could be a role player at tackle, as he definitely has desirable size for the position. However, the depth chart has been thick in front of him, so much so that 2015 saw him getting spring reps at tight end rather than defensive tackle. Now, back at tackle on this season's official roster, there's no telling whether or not Dwight will see much playing time at either position. Odds are, however, that he’ll get his most significant playing time to date.
Quinnen Williams (RS Fr) -Defensive End
(No stats in 2016, redshirt)
Though listed as a tackle, Quinnen Williams (6-4, 285 pounds) looks more like an end than a tackle. With a large frame, Scott Cochran helped him add some 20 pounds of good weight since he arrived in Tuscaloosa, making the former four-star recruit a leading candidate for an increased role in Alabama front. Whether he ultimately plays tackle, or sticks at end (where Alabama is somewhat shallow behind 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 freshmen (true or redshirt) in the line rotation if their play and maturity warrant it. Williams will break into that rotation during fall camp, as he is explosive enough to make an impact.
Jamar King (Sr) -Defensive End
2016 stats – 2 tackles
Another player who will provide additional depth at defensive end is senior Jamar King (6-5, 290 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, long arms, 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.
Isaiah Buggs (Jr) – Defensive End
2016 stats (Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College): 102 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, six sacks, three forced fumbles
Isaiah Buggs is another in a long line of defensive junior college signees with an opportunity to make an impact immediately upon arriving at the Capstone. Because of the aforementioned depth issues for the Tide this season, particularly at end, Buggs will be counted upon to seamlessly slip into Bama’s aggressive system up front and make a name for himself.
Rated a three-star recruit out of high school and a four-star coming out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, the 6-5, 295-pound end was unstoppable against juco competition. He was rated the number-two juco prospect overall, and with good reason. The huge end combines speed and quickness with power off the edge. He’s a speed-rushing end, but with a nearly 300 pounds of inertia backing that speed, he brings elite power to the position as well. His technique will need polishing, but that’s a tweak the Tide staff shouldn’t have much trouble making, as Buggs has all the raw talent he will need to make an early impact on the Tide front.
LaBryan Ray (Fr) – Defensive End
Do not sleep on LaBryan Ray as a potential contributor to the Tide rotation this season. Sure, he’s a true freshman who is brand-new to the system. But he has all of the physical measurables and surprisingly refined technique for a player his age. With a thin rotation ahead of him, he may be called upon to contribute in some form or fashion early in his playing career.
The massive freshman steps on campus at 6-5, 272-pounds, but with a frame like that is certain that he will add weight under the Scott Cochran regimen. His size is but one component of his potential stardom: he has great hands, quick feet, solid technique, elite balance and body control. Given the depth situation, Ray will be a first-year contributor in much the same way that Saban used A’Shawn Robinson and Da’Ron Payne. In time, Ray will be more than a contributor, as he is likely the next star in a long line of stars to man Bama’s ferocious defensive front.
Phidarian Mathis (Fr)- Defensive Tackle
Mathis is a little less heralded than fellow Class of 2017 recruit Ray, but he has the potential to make an impact in a somewhat depleted Tide roster (in relative terms). The 6-4, 306-pounds true freshman is a run-plugging force in the middle, with good strength and the physical prowess to become a fantastic run defender in his time in Tuscaloosa.
While Mathis may take a redshirt this season if all goes as planned, the Tide could be one key injury away from seeing the freshman have a role earlier than expected. He has elite talent against the run, and he is an above-average pass rusher from the interior for a player of his experience level. Whether or not Mathis will break into the rotation early is unknown, but if needed, he has the raw talent to be competitive.
The Tide also has three more players listed on the roster at defensive end who haven’t been mentioned much in preseason projections about the depth chart. However, if there was to be a rash of injuries along the front (perish the thought), these players may be pressed into service. Neither John Keith (6-2, 248 pound senior), Daniel Powell (5-11,246 pound sophomore), or Taylor Wilson (6-0, 276 pound sophomore) have any experience or stats. That said, in an apocalyptic injury scenario, any of these players could be called up into service.
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 2017.
Defensive End: 1. Da’Shawn Hand 2. Quinnen Williams 3. Jamar King
Defensive Tackle: 1. Da’Ron Payne 2. Josh Frazier 3. Johnny Dwight 4. Phidarian Mathis
Defensive End: 1. Raekwon Davis 2. Isaiah Buggs 3. LaBryan Ray