Quick: name the last time Alabama’s defensive line didn’t have game-changing players...and I don’t mean under Nick Saban — I mean ever. When the “weakest” class of recent vintage, 2012, featured just two current NFL players, you see what some in SEC country take for granted: world-class linemen. And, though it is a trope, it is up front where championships are won. Nothing in the modern game has changed that equation either; it is no coincidence that Clemson and Alabama, owners of the two nastiest defensive lines of the past four seasons, have met in the playoffs for as many consecutive seasons.
However, the Tide entered this Spring with a lot of questions along its front, with just ole’ man Raekwon Davis returning. Second-team All-SEC Isaiah Buggs will be collecting NFL paychecks in two weeks. And, perhaps of most concern, the Unblockable Bar of Soap, Quinnen Williams, is vying to become the first pick of the NFL Draft. Number 92’s loss is an especially hard pill to swallow. It’s hard to simply replace a generational talent posting the best season by a defensive tackle since Ndamukong Suh.
Or is it?
For good reason, we’ve been high on this defensive line class, which has the potential to be an historically good one. The class is loaded at the strong-side, and features a several interior players that can also move to the outside and provide a pass-rush.
A quick note on Q’s incumbent, though. Phidarian Mathis is poised to have a breakout season at the nose. Rotating in for Q last season, Mathis saw action in 11 games in 2018, posting 18 tackles and a forced fumble. But, though 48 was quietly very good in his Redshirt Freshman campaign, don’t take that starting spot for granted: there is a crop of outstanding young early enrollees pressing for playing time.
Meet mammoth 330-pound D.J. Dale from Pinson; an even bigger unblockable bar of soap who has earned constant praise this Spring for his high motor, his work habits, and his on-field production. For his size, Dale’s mobility is almost unfair:
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.
Dale, who many thought would take a redshirt this year alongside Braylen Ingraham, could wind up being one of the steals of the entire class....as much as a four-star ESPN200 player can be overlooked.
The star of the group from the crootin’ rankings is No. 1 overall prospect Antonio Alfano. You hate to say this about 18-year-olds with all of three months of college ball under his belt, but Alfano is as can’t-miss a player as Minkah Fitzpatrick.
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.
Here’s the catch, though: Despite that well-earned praise, Alfano is himself being pressed for playing time at SDE by fellow freshman early enrollee Justin Eboigbe. Don’t forget that name, either. Tennessee, Clemson, FSU and Georgia were pressing hard for the four-star pass-rushing end from Highland Park. And, given how he’s already seeing playing time with the first team, it’s possible that he could have even been underranked by the services. Scott Cochran’s vaunted Fourth Quarter program has already helped mold Eboigbe into a more complete and physical player too: He’s already put on 20 pounds of muscle, bulking up to 283.
On the Weakside, almost forgotten, is 4-star Kevin Harris. Harris, an early enrollee signed to provide an immediate pass rush, will likely end up at OLB when all is said and done. But, he is a player that can easily be slotted at the end and rush from the defensive line.
Did we mention that Byron Young — an ESPN100 4-star DE/DT, isn’t even on campus? Nor is Ishmael Sopsher — one of this year’s most coveted interior linemen.
It’s going to be a fun few years watching these guys...and the future begins on Saturday.
Ed. Note: This is the second of a four-part What to Watch on A-Day series leading up to the game. Today, we’ve covered Three Questions on Offense and the Freshmen Defensive Line. Tomorrow, we’ll examine the coaching. On Friday, on our sister Roll ‘Bama Roll Podcast: Episode 10, we’ll pick up other areas to watch, including the inside linebackers and safeties. Like Pokemon, you gotta’ catch ‘em all.