Alabama has been spoiled the last three 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 three of the most dominant front-seven performances (2015, 2016, and 2017) of the last two decades.
Nick Saban’s horses up front have been a terror for opposing teams, 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 Da’Ron Payne anchoring the defense in the last several years, 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 Payne and role-player Da’Shawn Hand, 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 starting 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 players like Payne and Hand, but it’s a legitimate projection given the talent on board.
Key Returning Players/ Starters
Raekwon Davis (Jr) - Defensive End
2017 stats: 69 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery
Alabama’s talent disparity over other teams regarding the defensive line is almost unfair. The defensive line recruiting classes for the Tide routinely feature primarily four- and five-star prospects who have largely been developed into NFL-capable veterans during their time in T-Town. One of those four-stars, defensive tackle Raekwon Davis, is a sure-fire starter in 2018, as he is The Mountain (a Ser Gregor Clegane-type of Mountain) of the 2018 defense, measuring in at 6-7 and 316 pounds.
As a steady contributor during his sophomore campaign, Davis happens to be the most veteran lineman the Tide currently has on the roster. Though only a junior, he has spent a lot of time on the field learning the speed of the game alongside several players now starting in the pro ranks. Down the stretch in 2017, Davis was largely unstoppable, and as the most veteran member of the retooled defensive line, he will be a leader in the trenches. He picked up where he left off last season in this spring’s A-Day Game, piling up eight tackles, two sacks, and two passes broken up. With obvious physical advantages, he is a living Hulk in the wall of the defense, as evidenced by his sophomore clips. Davis was one of the most exciting players on the Tide roster in 2017, as he has rare size and exemplary power, which will be on full display for the big man as he locks down a dedicated starting role. Though he’s listed as an end, he is versatile and can play inside if needed, depending on the package. 2018 could be the year he stakes his claim to first-round consideration in the NFL Draft, as 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.
Isaiah Buggs (Sr) – Defensive end
2017 stats: 51 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks
Isaiah Buggs is another in a long line of former defensive junior college signees who has thrived 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 lock down the end opposite Davis in Bama’s aggressive system up front.
Rated a three-star recruit out of high school and a four-star coming out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, the 6-5, 286-pound end was a steady contributor up front for the Tide in 2017. The huge end combines speed and quickness with power off the edge. Despite his large size, Buggs is a tremendous athlete with light feet and great balance(he can dunk a basketball, for example). 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 has improved in his time at Alabama, which will give Bama another seasoned stalwart up front who can take advantage of the doubles that opposing offenses will undoubtedly throw at Davis.
Quinnen Williams (So) – Nose tackle
2018 stats: 20 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks
Williams is neither a returning starter nor a stereotypical Nick Saban nose tackle. He’s light for the position when compared with Bama noses of the past (he comes in at 6-4, 289 pounds), but the forecast that he will lock down the starting slot in the middle is a testament to Saban’s pivot to a lighter front as well as Williams’ tremendous athleticism. From the time he arrived on campus, teammates (like none other than current Redskins starter Jonathan Allen) lauded Williams’ natural ability and work ethic. In his third year in Tuscaloosa (after redshirting as a freshman), fans of the Tide defense just may learn first-hand what the powerful tackle is capable of accomplishing.
Williams was used in a reserve role last season, yet he still recorded 6.5 tackles for loss. He kept that momentum going this spring, as he had a dominant effort in the A-Day Game, recording six tackles, two sacks, and three quarterback hurries. After losing Payne to graduation, Alabama appears to be in good hands with the ferocious Williams, who will star against tempo offenses and any team that prefers to throw rather than pass.
Johnny Dwight (Sr) - Defensive Tackle
2017 stats: 9 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack
Dwight wasn’t the most heralded lineman coming out of high school, but after a season of rebuilding the defensive line in 2017, he began to garner playing time. That trend will continue for Dwight this season, as he’ll once again be counted on to perform as a key reservist for a Tide front that doesn’t have very many veterans in the trenches.
Dwight (6-3, 300 pounds) could be a role player at tackle, as he 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. Back at tackle for a second season, there’s no telling whether Dwight will see much playing time at either position. Odds are, however, that he’ll get his most significant playing time to date.
LaBryan Ray (So) – Defensive End
2017 stats: 5 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack
Do not sleep on LaBryan Ray as a disruptive presence for the Tide DL rotation this season. Sure, he only saw a little playing time as a freshman…but the fact that he saw playing time as a freshman at all speaks to his talent, as meaningful freshman playing time is rare for all but the most dynamic of big men in a Saban defense. His stats en toto aren’t eye-popping, except for the fact that half of his five tackles registered as TFLs. He has all 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 be the next man up behind Davis early in his playing career.
If his play in the spring is any indication, Ray will be used as a powerful option at end behind Davis and Buggs, as he recorded four tackles, two sacks, four tackles for loss, a pass broken up, and two quarterback hurries. His performance rivaled that of the more established veterans on the team, shining a spotlight on Ray’s enormous upside.
The massive sophomore has added bulk this season at 6-5, 294-pounds, thanks to 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 contributor in much the same way that Saban used A’Shawn Robinson and Da’Ron Payne early on in their respective careers. But this season, Ray will be much 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 (R Fr) – NT
2018 A-Day stats: 4 tackles
Though Mathis redshirted in his first season in Tuscaloosa, the huge nose tackle (6-4, 310 pounds) figures to provide a little depth in the center of the line, as well as an option when the Tide matches up with pro-style, run-heavy offenses. With Williams projected as the starter, Mathis will give Saban’s defense a heavier set up front with the bulk more associated with the run-stuffing position.
Mathis has surprising quickness for a big man, and though he didn’t record any stats as a redshirt, his skill set was on display this spring, when he posted four tackles in the spring game. While he may not be quite the pass rusher that Williams is at the position, he offers that space-eating, gap-snaring size that Saban has traditionally coveted for his tackles. Against the LSUs and Georgias of the world, a player like Mathis will always have a role in Saban’s defense. Even though he hasn’t made any starts, his familiarity with the system should be a strength after a season in the classroom.
Galen Richardson (So) – Tackle
(No stats in 2017)
Richardson, a walk-on, has the physical tools to serve as a journeyman on the Alabama defensive line, especially if injuries strike an already thin front. While he hasn’t recorded any stats to date and remains a bit of an enigma, the converted high school offensive tackle has decent lean, a big frame (6-3, 296 pounds), and a lot to prove.
Christian Barmore (Fr) – DT/ DE
Barmore is representative of the type of player that Saban has started recruiting since the advent of the HUNH up-tempo offenses that have become the norm in college football. He is a hybrid player, a lineman who can seamlessly flex between the end and tackle positions while maintaining the core physical characteristics that make one successful inside or out.
The freshman may get a chance to work his way into playing time this year due to a rather inexperienced corps of big bodies in front of him. And if he does, the former four-star will start on an early path to living up to the hype that surrounded his recruitment. A favorite of many defense-centric coaches in the SEC (among them Georgia and Florida), Barmore enters the fray with a 6-5, 292-pound physical presence. At Alabama, he’ll fit right in whether he plays tackle or end.
Stephon Wynn, Jr. (Fr) – DT
Another hybrid lineman, Wynn has more of a tackle body than fellow freshman Barmore at 6-4, 299 pounds. But just because he fits the tackle mold doesn’t mean he won’t flex outside to the end in situational packages during his time at Alabama. He has surprisingly good feet and leverage in the pass rush, especially when one considers he’s a true freshman. Those tools won’t be left to whither in Tuscaloosa, and if his work ethic matches his physical gifts, he may work himself into playing time as a journeyman as others have before him. Of note: Wynn was listed as injured and out of service by Saban last week after he suffered a “non-surgical injury” which the coach categorized as a ligament strain. While it is not believed Wynn will be out for the entire season, Saban did comment that he will miss some time as he rehabs from the injury.
2017 stats (Juco): 42 tackles, 6 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
Musika is the newest member of Saban’s Juco Lineman Project, following in the footsteps of players like Jesse Williams, Terrence Cody, Jarran Reed, and teammate Isaiah Buggs. The San Mateo Community College star was only rated a three-star by some recruiting services coming out of California, but he is expected to be an early contributor to the Tide defense in his first year in T-Town.
The massive tackle (6-1, 338 pounds) is the heaviest option the Tide has along the defensive front, and once he learns the system, could become a run-stuffing force in the middle of the line. A 338-pound nose can eat up a lot of space, and if he can work his way into the rotation and soak up doubles, it could give the Tide a tool to help free up the edge for dynamic playmakers at end (Davis and Buggs) or OLB (Christian Miller or Anfernee Jennings). Musika is an intriguing addition to the Alabama roster, and if he can learn the system, he could be a force when Alabama plays traditional power running teams this season.
The Tide also has a few more players listed on the roster as defensive linemen 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 Taylor Wilson (6-0, 231-pound junior), Mario Osborne (6-4, 273-pound junior), or Quindarius Watkins (6-4, 229-pound sophomore) have any experience or stats. That said, in an apocalyptic injury scenario, any of these players could be called up into service.
Alabama starting defensive line could prove itself to be the most talented in college football this year. The potential is there, and the ceiling is just that high. That said, the health of the starters will determine a great deal regarding the success of the unit, as the depth behind the top-three is somewhat shallow. 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 2018.
Defensive End: 1. Raekwon Davis 2. LaBryan Ray 3. Christian Barmore 4. Galen Richardson
Defensive Tackle: 1. Quinnen Williams 2. Johnny Dwight 3. Phidarian Mathis 4. Tevita Musika
Defensive End: 1. Isaiah Buggs 2. Quinnen Williams 3. Stephon Wynn 4. Galen Richardson