In 2019, Alabama’s entire front seven had some struggles that have never really been seen during Nick Saban’s time in Tuscaloosa. His teams have had relatively ineffective offenses, special teams, and secondaries at different times, but the front seven has always been a consistent strength of the team.
Then 2019 hit. Along with ALL of the linebackers getting injured, the defensive line was replacing two starters from the 2018 season. And then two of the new starters got injured, leaving the Tide with a rotation of true freshmen and a perennially underachieving senior. It led to the worst run defending in Tuscaloosa since 2007.
In 2020, though, things are looking much more promising.
Raekwon Davis- The multi-year starter at DE/DT never quite lived up to the hype he received from a phenomenal sophomore year as a rotational pass-rusher. His combination of size, athleticism, and flashes of pass rush ability as a sophomore in tandem with his slowly-but-consistently-improving run defense throughout his career led to him becoming a second round draft pick by the Miami Dolphins despite a lack of tangible production.
Tevita Musika- A last minute JUCO addition after the 2018 recruiting class whiffed on a couple of high profile defensive linemen, Musika could have been starter-quality material as a nose tackle for Alabama back in 2008-2013. But with modern offenses making the 330-lb run-stuffing nose tackle about as situationally important as a staple remover, Musika only really saw time on goal line efforts.
Returning (from injury) Starters
LaBryan Ray- Once a 5-star recruit, Ray saw time as a rotational piece his first two years at Alabama as a situational pass rusher and the rare defensive lineman with the speed and smarts to drop into pass coverage as needed. He was slated to get his first year as a full-time starter and likely the centerpiece of the DL in 2019, but was injured at the start of the season and missed the whole year.
He returns for his senior season looking to make up for lost time and finally prove he can live up to his potential as a top recruit 4 years ago.
D.J. Dale- Alabama’s 2019 recruiting class featured a glut of highly rated defensive lineman in which Dale, a nose tackle with limited pass rushing ability, was the lowest rated and mostly an afterthought. Instead of accepting his role as a depth signing, the giant man with samurai hair showed out all offseason and won the starting job as a true freshman, showing tremendous explosiveness, power, and disruption at the start of the season.
He sustained a knee injury a few games into the season and continued to play, but his effectiveness obviously dropped each week as he hobbled into the end of the season, finally missing most of the last few games.
A number of players rotated who got the starting nod last season in relief of Ray and Dale. They aren’t quite true returning starters, but they aren’t just depth, either.
Byron Young- A top 100 recruit who could play end or tackle at 290 pounds, Young, a true freshman, quickly gained favor with the coaches for his trustworthiness and stepped in for Ray immediately after the injury. He didn’t flash much in his 5 starts, but also didn’t flash in a bad way, either. Expect him to contend for a starting spot.
Justin Eboigbe- Coming in the same class as Young and Dale, Eboigbe was more of a 280-lb edge rusher as opposed to an interior lineman. Explosive? Check. Big Hitter? Also check. But he didn’t quite have the technical prowess that Young did coming in and dealt with a preseason injury, so it took him longer in the season to get playing time. He wound up with 2 starts, but had a nice 3 tackles for loss with only 10 total tackles.
Phidarian Mathis- A big nose tackle with some nice athleticism out of Louisiana, Mathis redshirted as a freshman in 2017, then was a key reserve at the end of the 2018 season, where he caught the attention of a few fans for some high-effort plays chasing wide receivers and running backs down the field and to the sidelines. Most expected him to step into the starting defensive tackle role in 2019, but Dale beat him out. Mathis wound up with 2 starts and 28 tackles when covering for Dale’s injury.
Christian Barmore- One of only two interior linemen from the 2018 class after the inaugural Early Signing Day shenanigans, Barmore was an explosive, chaotic player in high school with very little polish to his game. He took a year to redshirt, then exploded onto the TV in 2019 as a rotational pass-rush specialist on passing downs. His 6 TFLs and 2 sacks were not indicitive of just how disruptive he was as an interior pass rusher.
Though fans clamored for more Barmore all season, Saban continued to keep him in a rotational role with only 2 starts, then mostly deflected any questions about it. Some have thought it might be issues with assignment-sound football, emotional issues, or conditioning.
Whatever the case, he did enough to warrant a significant amount of preseason hype, even nationally. The question is, can he improve on whatever his issues were last season to get a bigger role?
Stephon Wynn- A fairly highly rated recruit from IMG Acadamy, Wynn joined Barmore in the 2018 class and made the field as a true freshman while Barmore took a redshirt. With the training from IMG, Wynn was a much more consistent player, if more limited, athletically. He saw the field a little in 2019 as both an end and a nose tackle, but pretty much only in blowouts.
Braylen Ingraham- Another one of the massive DL class of 2019, Ingraham is a big edge rusher who had to add some weight to become a true defensive lineman for Alabama. He played in a couple of games in 2019, but ultimately took a redshirt.
Ishmael Sopsher- Yet another 2019 freshman (think Nick Saban was making certain he didn’t have a repeat of the 2018 class?), Sopsher was a borderline 5-star nose tackle who doubled as a 330-lb edge rusher against the poor high school saps tasked with blocking him. He took a redshirt his first year to work on his conditioning and learning how to play a 2-gap scheme, and has dropped 20 pounds to a svelte 310 and has drawn some attention this fall on the message board rumors.
Jah-Marien Latham- A small-school, undersized, underrated nose tackle, Latham projects as one of those pass-rushing nose tackles that could be a diamond in the rough wreaking havoc on 3rd downs in a couple of years. He could potentially swap to offensive line, but I think it would be a mistake to not have his level of aggression gearing up to rush a QB.
Jamil Burroughs- Once a top 100-recruit as a junior, Burroughs had some conditioning issues before his senior year and dropped in the rankings. He’s a massive 330 pound nose tackle with a whole lot of strength and not much pass rush.
Tim Smith- Finally, we have one of the more hyped players of the 2020 class. After trimming some weight heading into his senior season, Smith developed an incredible first-step quickness for a 320 pound player and wound up absolutely dominating the All-Star camps in January, earning a 5-star recruit status. He may need to continue to drop another 5-10 pounds to get to where Alabama tends to like their defensive linemen.
Left Defensive End- LaBryan Ray, Byron Young, Braylen Ingraham, Jah-Marian Latham
Defensive Tackle- D.J. Dale, Phidarian Mathis, Ishmael Sopsher, Tim Smith, Jamil Burroughs
Right Defensive End- Justin Eboigbe, Christian Barmore, Stephon Wynn
Though most expect Barmore to be the guy, I believe that Saban’s official depth chart will have Eboigbe as the starter. Barmore will be the primary backup at defensive end and will also move to an interior rusher at nose tackle on many 3rd down plays. He won’t be a starter in name, but will see just as much playing time as the other three starters.
Eboigbe, meanwhile, has continued to draw rumors and good reviews all offseason, so I’m expecting a big jump going into his sophomore year.