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Alabama 2018 Spring Football Preview: Defensive line

Two starters return, but who else will step forward?

CFP National Championship presented by AT&T - Alabama v Georgia Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Raise your hand if you thought little-used sophomore defensive lineman Raekwon Davis would lead the team in sacks in 2017. No one raised their hands? Good, you’re all telling the truth.

Yes, part of that was due to the ridiculous amount of injuries in the linebacking corps; but a defensive lineman has led the team in sacks in four of the last five seasons, including the past three.

The unit loses two veteran starters, returns two starters, brings in a trio of new faces, and has a whole lot of talent waiting in the wings.

The Departed

Da’Ron Payne

Payne never put up gaudy stats - just three career sacks and five tackles for loss - but he was a force in the middle of the line. The former 5 star from Birmingham cracked the defensive line rotation almost immediately and made the lives of interior offensive linemen miserable for three years. Payne’s early departure for the draft leaves a big hole, figuratively and literally, in the middle of the defensive line.

Da’Shawn Hand

Hand was also a 5 star recruit, committing to the Tide over Michigan way back in 2013; but he never quite lived up to all the hype. Hand had some early flashes, including an impressive performance in the national championship as a sophomore. He was just a rotational player until his senior year. A knee injury kept him out of three games in 2017, but he still managed 9 starts in 11 games.

Returning Starters

Raekwon Davis

Davis had his breakout season in 2017. The true sophomore ranked third on the team with a nice 69 tackles and led the team in sacks with 8.5. Davis, who is 6’7 and listed at a svelte 306lbs, was 4 star recruit out of Mississippi; and he contributed as a freshman, notching a sack against Mississippi State before really seizing his chance the following year. Davis gave us a glimpse of what he could do during A-Day; and he picked up right where he left off once the season began.

Isaiah Buggs

Originally from Ruston, Louisiana, Buggs spent two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College before spurning the homestate LSU Tigers for the Crimson Tide. He made a splash in his first season in Tuscaloosa. Buggs was credited with 13 starts, racking up 51 total tackles, including 10 against Texas A&M. He only recorded 1.5 sacks, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t affecting the quarterback. Buggs’ seven quarterback pressures tied him for second on the team.

Other Returns

Quinnen Williams

Williams redshirted his first year before becoming a steady presence in the rotation - and in some jumbo packages on offense. He played in every game and really came on strong late in the season. Despite not being a starter, Williams was fourth on the team in tackles for loss with 6.5. And now he’s in prime position for a much bigger role in 2018. Williams has largely been the third guy behind Buggs and Davis this offseason, and he’s even gotten some work at nose tackle.

Johnny Dwight

Dwight, a redshirt senior, has not seen a ton of playing time in his career. He redshirted his freshman year, bounced between the defensive line and tight end the next year, and didn’t see any action the year after that. Dwight finally found a role last year, playing in six games; and he’s got a shot at a bigger role this year with the hole at nose tackle.

LaBryan Ray

Ray was another member from the phenomenal Class of 2017. Ray, a 5 star recruit, worked his way into the lineup by the Ole Miss game and saw action in the following five contests before a broken foot suffered in practice sidelined him for the rest of the season.

Phidarian Mathis

Mathis, a 4 star recruit from Louisiana, was one of ten members of the Class of 2017 who redshirted this past season. At 308 lbs, he’s tied for the heaviest member of the defensive line with Raekwon Davis and Stephon Wynn. Mathis should see the field in some capacity in 2018, likely at 0 or 1 technique.

The Newcomers

Stephon Wynn Jr.

Wynn was one of the just two defensive linemen the Tide originally signed in their 2018 class. He was listed as a defensive end on recruiting websites; but, at 6’4, 308lbs, he seems likely to play inside. Wynn has a leg up on his fellow newcomers as he’s the only one on campus for the spring.

Christian Barmore

Barmore was a fairly late addition to the class, committing on December 20. He was initially committed to Temple, but he backed off his pledge after his stock rose enough to earn offers from more prestigious programs.

Tevita Musika

With only two defensive linemen committed by the end of National Signing Day, Alabama had to turn their sights on the JUCO market. They landed on Musika, a defensive tackle at the College of San Mateo. He likely won’t be a top option, but Musika will provide much-needed depth in the middle.

Projected Depth Chart

DE: Isaiah Buggs/LaBryan Ray

NT: Johnny Dwight/Phidarian Mathis AND Stephon Wynn/Christian Barmore AND Tevita Musika

DE: Raekwon Davis/Quinnen Williams

I’ll be honest; projecting a depth chart here is tough for me. With how much time the defense spends in nickel formations, we could see plenty of 2-4-5 (only two defensive linemen) with only Buggs and Davis out there.

Against some of the more run-heavy teams, we’re probably more likely to see a true nose tackle like Dwight out there. However, I do think it’s going to be hard to keep Quinnen Williams off the field; and I expect to see him on the field with Buggs and Davis.