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Meet the New Guys: Defensive Line

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Who will fill the giant holes left behind by Quinnen Williams’ and Isaiah Buggs’ move to the NFL?

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

After spending the first month working on the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and offensive line, I’m now moving on to the defensive side of the ball. The Tide defense has really taken some attrition in the depth department over the past couple of years, so Nick Saban really focused on that side with this recruiting class (which is funny to say, considering the Tide signed two of the top 10 players in the nation on the offensive side of the ball).

With five defensive backs, four linebackers, and six defensive linemen, the Tide could field an entire starting defense from one class and still be able to substitute every defensive lineman.

Speaking of, with Quinnen Williams and Isaiah Buggs both moving on to the pros, there will be some hot competition for the two vacated spots to get playing time alongside Raekwon Davis. There are a number of players already waiting in the wings, but the six freshmen coming in will all be looking to make their mark early.

As usual, I will be referring to SPARQ, an analytical tool used to quantify and compare a player’s athleticism.

I pull all my rankings from the 247Composite, and all heights, weights, and athletic tests are from ESPN, since they pull data from the Opening combines. However, most of the players have changed somewhat in their weight since participation in these combines last summer, so their college-arrival size may be much different. I just keep that old weight because it shows what size the player was when he ran that 40-yard dash.


Ishmael Sopsher

Sopsher was probably the most drama-filled recruiting battles the Tide faced in the 2019 class (and there were quite a few of them). Once a 5-star and top-10 recruit, Sopsher put on weight and notably struggled during the All-Star camps after the season, seeing him fall down the rankings all the way to #47.

Sopsher was considered an LSU lean for much of his recruitment, but Alabama always pursued heavily. At one point, he made it known that he would only go to the team that would offer a scholarship to his older brother (a no-star JUCO recruit). Then his brother wound up not academically qualifying anywhere, and Sopsher must have decided to cut his losses, as he wound up signing with Alabama in February.

He didn’t post impressive numbers in any of his athletic tests, but they were all okay for a 330-pound mountain of a person, and he’s still in the upper 60% of collegiate defensive linemen.

Pros

Funny enough, Sopsher is just as effective as an edge rusher as he is a pure nose tackle. He may be massive, but he’s got an innate ability to time snaps and then has surprising speed to get around the end. He may not have run the best 40 yard dash, but in a 10 yard box, he can run down anyone on the field.

In run defense, he can either create havoc by just barrelling between two linemen and knocking down everyone in the vicinity, or he has the patience (most of the time) to stack up the lineman in front of him and then shed either left or right to cover two gaps and take down a ball carrier.

He’s a highly energetic player who’s always going at top speed and is usually hopping around between plays, ready for the next one. Combine that with his feel for jumping snaps and an almost running back-like ability to slip through traffic without anyone really getting a hand on him, and you have defensive tackle who can really create a lot headaches for the opposing offense.

Sopsher’s high school play reminds me of when I studied Jedrick Wills Jr. a couple of years ago: wherever he goes on the football field, he’s usually surrounded by carnage.

Cons

When you’re 330 pounds and can move as fast as Sopsher can, slowing down just isn’t easy. Physics is a cruel master. Once he accelerates, it takes a lot of real estate for him to be able to change directions or stop, creating the potential for racking up roughing the passer penalties.

He can also be neutralized by offensive linemen that catch his initial burst and manage to lock into him. He doesn’t show much in the way of being able to actually break blocks, whether by bull rushing, spinning, countering, or swimming. His hands aren’t very active in that regard, and these situations usually just come down to pure strength— which he always wins in high school, but won’t in college.

Prediction

With Quinnen Williams off to the NFL, the nose tackle job is wide open for a new starter. Phidarian Mathis had some flashes as a reserve last season and is the favorite to win the job— in fact, Mathis has been my pick for a while for a breakout season next year. However, that was before I actually spent some time watching Sopsher. Now I’m not so sure. I think Sopsher will make a strong push for the starting nose tackle job.

I’m going to tentatively predict that Mathis still wins it, but Sopsher is solidly second team and will rotate in more and more as the season goes on.


Byron Young

Just one year ago, Young was a considered a defensive end and was playing at around 250. He bulked up his senior season to become more of a defensive tackle, and is now a powerful 290 pounds. He didn’t post any verified testing numbers but is a prototypical size for an interior lineman in Nick Saban’s defense.

Pros

Young is a highly technical lineman who is prototypical interior player for Nick Saban’s 3-4 base defense. He’s excellent at taking a block head on and then shedding at the last second to take down the ball carrier. In both his pass rushing and run defense, Young displays a feel for balance by setting up his blocker in one direction and then cutting back the other with a swim move or sidestep. He can also spin off of a block and into a tackle if his blocker over commits.

He’s great at swatting at an offensive lineman’s hands and keeping them from ever managing to get inside shoulder pads and locking him down in a block.

He is also a powerful tackler who hits more like a linebacker, rather than just falling on the ball carrier like many defensive linemen.

Cons

Young is a bit limited in both his speed and size. He’s not the biggest guy around, so he can be overpowered if he’s being double teamed or hit head-on in a short yardage situation. He also doesn’t have the size to really be a havoc-causing bull-rusher and just force the offensive line backwards.

He’s also just not that fast of a runner. Speedier ball carriers will easily out run him around the edge of the line.

Prediction

Young is already a highly technical player and will need mostly to focus on building up his athleticism with Scott Cochrane in the weight room. He’ll likely get some playing time in blow-outs here and there this season, but keeps it under 4 games and gets the redshirt. Long-term, he’ll be a solid rotation guy for multiple years and may even get to be a starter by his final year.


D.J. Dale

One of the more forgotten recruits of the 2019 cycle, Dale is a throwback nose tackle in the mold of guys like Terrance Cody and Josh Chapman— huge. He enrolled early at Alabama and has already trimmed some excess weight down to a more svelte 314 pounds at 6’3”, and took on the jersey number of 94.

Pros

Dale actually played just as much defensive end as he did tackle for his high school team. His style is pretty similar to graduating Tide lineman Isaiah Buggs in that he possesses lateral quickness and instincts that he uses to be really good at cleaning up plays. He may not be the guy to mess up the offense’s rhythm in the first place, but he’ll be right behind to make sure nobody slips past the line of scrimmage. One of his best traits is his ability to stop his rush and sniff out screen plays before the running backs breaks away for a bunch of free yards

He’s got quick feet for someone his size and can use them to swim around or sidestep an offensive lineman right off the snap.

Also he’s a 330-pound short yardage running back. Give him the ball within three yards of the goal line, and it will be a touchdown.

Cons

Dale doesn’t actually use his weight to his advantage and generally plays like a much smaller player. He’s not all that effective at clogging up the middle of the line of scrimmage and bulling his way through blockers, nor holding his own against double teams.

Prediction

I think there will just be too many linemen in front of him this year, and Dale doesn’t play at all in 2019. He takes a redshirt and continues to trim down to the 300-305 range to make better use of his lateral quickness in the future.


Antonio Alfano

When Antonio Alfano first committed to Alabama last summer, he was a top-100 player and a high 4-star. Our own CB969 texted me shortly after he committed and said that Alfano would absolutely be a 5-star player by the time the 2018 season came to an end.

Well, he did. Then he went and dominated the All-Star circuit and shot into the top 10. 247 Sports actually ranked him as the #1 overall player in the entire nation, though Rivals and ESPN weren’t quite that high on him, so his composite ended up at #5 overall.

He’s one of the most athletic players that Alabama has ever signed. He has a 36.6 vertical jump and 46-foot powerball toss indicate other-worldly explosion in both his lower and upper body, and his forty and shuttle times were both elite scores for someone his size

Alfano enrolled early and took #56, and has put in some work in the weight room to bulk up to 288 pounds. He’s as college-ready as you’ll ever find a high school prospect.

Pros

In his senior season, Alfano averaged 9 tackles, 1.2 sacks, 3.3 tackles for loss, and 2 QB hurries every single game. Absolutely phenomenal and game-changing numbers.

In raw explosiveness, Alfano might be the most terrifying edge rusher I’ve ever watched. He’s playing at a totally different speed than everyone else on the field. High school tackles don’t have a chance as he blows past them around the edge, and he has the flexibility to bend around the corner and absolutely level the QB.

He’s not just a speed rusher, either. He can counter back inside and across his blocker with the kind of fluidity that you normally only see in elite edge rushers under 250 pounds, like Rashaan Evans or Tim Williams. If they try to submarine block his legs out from under him, he has the pure athleticism and balance to keep his feet— or regain them— and still make a tackle.

He can stunt back inside, or even rush from a defensive tackle spot, and absolutely blow up a guard or center into the backfield and then bring down the ball carrier as he tries to run around the flailing offensive lineman.

Most teams would use a tight end or running back to help out their tackle on the edge against him, which never did any good. The second he sped around the tackle, Alfano would just convert every bit of that speed into throwing the extra blocker out of the way without even slowing down.

If he moved inside for run defense, he had no issue taking on a lead-blocking fullback... and then using said fullback to knock down his own ball carrier.

And if all that isn’t enough, he’s deadly fast in the open field and seems to enjoy trying to chase down any ball carriers from behind if they went to the opposite side of the field from him.

Cons

Alfano is the 247 #1 overall prospect in the nation for a reason. He’s a game changer, and is as complete a player as you’ll find.

He does have a tendency to overrun tackles sometimes, and a more elusive ball carrier can slip out of his grasp in the open field. He’ll also have some work to do to really learn to be a patient two-gap run stopper if he wants to be a 3-down interior lineman, and not just an edge rusher.

Predictions

It won’t be easy to keep Alfano off the field. He’s already on campus and will have a full offseason of practice. The real question is where he will play. I think he’ll be at the top of the rotation as a pass rusher from the first game of the season. Kind of a nickel interior rusher like Jonathan Allen was so good at a few years ago. With time, he may wind up supplanting a more senior player like LaBryan Ray to become a full-time starter.

And if that doesn’t happen this season, he’ll absolutely be the unquestioned starter in 2020.


Justin Eboigbe

Though he tested at 265 in high school, Eboigbe enrolled early at Alabama and has bulked up to 283. At his height, he’s still a lean defensive lineman who carries his weight easily and could definitely add more. He only posted his numbers for the vertical jump and powerball toss. The vertical was nothing impressive, but the powerball was fairly decent for a 265 pound player.

Pros

Eboigbe is a tall, lean player with a generally terrifying body build. He’s an incredible edge rusher who is full-speed ahead every play and is quite happy to rush headlong straight into an offensive lineman and knock them backwards. He’s got both the speed and power to be a terror for offensive tackles trying to figure out the best way to keep him from getting to their QB. And he’s got just enough lateral ability to throw out a counter move back to the inside if the lineman starts to cheat outside too much.

When he tackles someone, he’s going for blood. Think Reuben Foster, but as a 280 pound lineman. He’s also got long legs and can really cover ground quickly if he’s chasing a ball carrier to the sideline.

Cons

Eboigbe will have to work on his run defense. Right now, he’s mostly a pin-your-ears-back-and-go pass rusher who’s only goal is to destroy whoever has the ball before they get 2 feet from where they first got the ball. If the offensive linemen get in his face before he gets started, he’ll struggle to break away.

He will also have to get a little more controlled with his tackles. You don’t want to take away the big hits, but there’s always a line to tow there, just like Reuben Foster had to learn at Alabama.

Prediction

I think he gets a few snaps here and there, but ultimately redshirts as he works on rounding out his game.


Braylen Ingraham

At 270 pounds, Ingraham is a little small for Alabama’s usual interior defensive linemen, but too big to be a jack linebacker. He’ll likely add another 10 pounds or so and be an interior linemen in against quicker, more athletic teams.

His 4.88 forty is exceptionally fast for a 270 pound player, and his 43 powerball toss displays impressive strength. His shuttle and vertical tests weren’t quite as impressive though, which lowered his SPARQ somewhat. He’s still in the 87th percentile.

Pros

Ingraham is similar to both Alfano and Eboigbe in that his most impressive trait is his explosiveness off the line of scrimmage. However, he differs from those two a little in that he is built with more weight in his lower body. As such, he’s more adept at pushing through linemen and holding his ground in double teams.

He’s still an explosive pass rusher though, and can fire past an offensive tackle or knock a guard onto the ground within just a few steps off the snap.

Cons

Though quick off the snap, Ingraham doesn’t quite have the long speed that Alfano and Eboigbe possess, and as such can get outrun by smaller ball carriers. He also doesn’t have too much of a pass rush move repertoire, outside of a bull rush or a counter step right off the snap.

Prediction

Pretty much the same as Eboigbe. I think he probably gets a few snaps here and there in a blowout, but redshirts as he works toward adjusting to the college game.