TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — You've heard of a leap of faith?
How about a position of faith?
If you're an Alabama fan, that's probably the best way to look at the defensive line for the 2019 season.
Heading into the spring, the position group was a huge concern for the Crimson Tide. Not only have two starters, including the Outland Trophy winner for best interior lineman in college football, moved on, but there's little proven depth on the roster.
Only six players returned, plus Alabama had a new position coach as well. Of course it led to a lot of questioning and speculation that the Crimson Tide defense might have a big problem up front, and on paper the line was as unsettled as any unit on the team.
Yet after A-Day, the Crimson Tide’s spring game, things looked better.
“Everything stays the same,” returning starter Raekwon Davis said about the reloading. “Nothing really changes. It’s just part of the process.”
This time a year ago few outside of Tuscaloosa had heard of Quinnen Williams, who ended up being the third-overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft. This isn’t to suggest that Alabama has another defensive lineman about to have that kind of impact, but in terms of talent the cupboard is anything but bare.
The unit begins with Davis, because at 6-foot-7 and with a really long reach he’s the first player that most opposing fans notice on the Crimson Tide defense.
Instead of opting for an early departure, he returned for his senior season looking to make a bigger splash. Davis went from having a team-high 8.5 sacks as a sophomore to being credited with 55 tackles with 5.5 for a loss and 1.5 sacks in 2018.
Instead, Isaiah Buggs led the Crimson Tide in sacks with 9.5 despite having the reputation for being a run-stopper.
Stepping in for Buggs is LaBryan Ray, who appears poised for a breakout season. The junior was credited with 39 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks last season, but now looks the part. At 6-5, 285, he’s that thick type of linemen Alabama loves to have and could potentially play anywhere.
Meanwhile, the talk during the spring was at nose tackle, and who would replace Williams. Initially, Phidarian Mathis appeared likely to step in, yet he’s clearly more comfortable at end.
Instead, early enrollee DJ Dale came in ready to go and finished spring as the player to beat in the middle. At 6-foot-3, 323 pounds, he has a surprising quick step for someone his size, and reminds many of the player whom Williams replaced last year.
“He plays like Da’Ron Payne,” Davis said. “He plays just like Da’Ron Payne.”
Davis wasn’t just throwing praise around, a lot of his teammates made the same comparison.
Nick Saban didn’t go that far (he almost never makes comparisons as a rule), but by the second of three spring scrimmages the freshman was primarily working between Davis and Ray.
“He’s got good initial quickness, good power, strikes, seems to be pretty conscientious, shows a little maturity about being able to go out there and do his job,” Saban said.
That an early enrollee was able to make such a rapid rise wasn’t all that surprising, especially considering the priority the coaches made on the position group during recruiting. The Crimson Tide added six in the recruiting Class of 2019, all of whom were highly touted.
However, many thought if someone would make an immediate impact out of this group it would be consensus 5-star talent Antonio Alfano. He too was an early enrollee along with Justin Eboigne.
“I think some of the other guys have certainly shown us that they have ability,” Saban said. “I think when they get in a competitive situation, they completely just dumb down. They can’t focus. They’re supposed to slant, they don’t slant.
“You can see the talent, you can see the ability, but they’ve got to develop confidence when they hear a call that this is what I do and trust in that and believe in that. And right now in practice, it’s starting to happen.”
The other newcomers are Ishmael Sopsher, Byron Young and Braylen Ingraham, all of whom were considered a consensus 4-star prospect. One or two might redshirt and benefit from a year in the weight room, but Alabama will go four-deep when training camp opens and use anyone ready to contribute.
Between the rookies and the starters is a group of veterans who will be looking to step into larger roles, Mathis included. He’ll likely be the first regular contributor among the non-starters.
After enrolling early last year, Stephon Wynn Jr. suffered a ligament injury that sidelined him for more than a month. He ended up playing in just three games, but now looks ready to step into the rotation.
There was a lot of buzz from teammates about Christian Barmore last season, when he was making things difficult for the starter while on the scout team.
Nose tackle Tevita Misika should also provide some depth at nose tackle after being added to the roster after National Signing Day last year as a junior-college transfer.
So six veterans and six newcomers.
Just a few years ago the Crimson Tide had a ridiculous amount of quality depth on the line, including the likes of Jonathan Allen, Jarran Reed, A'Shawn Robinson, Dalvin Tomlinson, Da'Shawn Hand and Payne.
Alabama wants to get back to having that kind of group. Dale’s development was a step toward that, although it’s one thing for him to be told that he’s similar to a former first-round draft pick and another to start fulfilling that kind of potential as a freshman.
“He just laughs,” Davis said about the comparison. “He tells me he’s going to be better that Da’Ron.”
This is the fifth story in a summer series previewing the 2019 Crimson Tide: