TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Being the big man in the middle has taken on a new dimension for University of Alabama nose guard Da’Ron Payne, who isn’t used to being called a leader.
“Being from where I came from, I just like to sit back and listen and just learn,” said Payne, last season’s primary cog for the nation’s No. 1 rushing defense. “But now guys are coming to me asking me for advice and stuff. It’s something like a learning curve.”
It’s an important one as well. Not only for Payne, a junior who was once hailed as a 5-star prospect out of Shades Valley High School in nearly Birmingham; but potentially crucial for the 2017 Crimson Tide.
How well the line develops will likely be the most important element in determining the success of Alabama’s defense, barring injuries.
Alabama will greatly miss linebackers Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams — every starter minus Shaun Dion Hamilton, who tore an ACL in the SEC Championship Game. But what the unit lacks in experience it more than makes up for in depth and talent. Rashaan Evans is poised to have a bigger role and Christian Miller is in place to contribute more in the pass rush.
On paper, Crimson Tide linebackers are a stellar group.
Meanwhile, the secondary has a veteran look to it even with the departures of Eddie Jackson and Marlon Humphrey. Every player in the first-team nickel formation that reporters saw during Tuesday’s practice was a junior or senior, something Alabama hasn’t been able to have in quite a while.
Questions in Alabama crimson
Granted, there are depth concerns, but next year is expected to be a strong one for defensive backs in recruiting. Help is likely on the way.
In contrast, the defensive line has questions with depth issues and more unproven players than at the other spots.
For example, at 6-foot-7, 303 pounds, sophomore Raekwon Davis has obvious size. Jamar King, a junior college transfer last year, provides a unique element of experience. But neither nor Davis played much in 2016.
“Both guys have made a lot of progress in the course of last year,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “They both had really good offseasons. They both, I think so far this spring, they have shown some of that improvement and I think the biggest thing with them would be consistency. We feel like both guys can do it.”
Alabama needs both players to continue developing and make contributions. Until prospects LaBryan Ray and Phidarian Mathis arrive in the summer (and possibly Jarez Parks, although there still isn’t a roster spot open for him), the defense has just nine scholarship linemen.
Even when the true freshmen are in the mix you don’t see too many defensive linemen at this level make significant impacts during their first year. Could one of them be like Dexter Lawrence (Clemson) or Ed Oliver (Houston)? Sure, but no one will have a read on that until the fall and Alabama can’t count on that.
Saban came out last week and said, “I think Isaiah Buggs can be a good player.” That was a good sign, as Saban doesn’t often single out new players following their first practice. Redshirt freshman Quinnen Williams is another player the coaches are looking to be part of the rotation.
Wait and see
As a result, the defensive line might have a different feel from previous Alabama teams during the Saban era (since 2007), but there’s really no formula for the position group as whole.
For example, the 2009 national championship team had two-time All-American nose guard Terrence Cody clogging up the middle. There also were Brandon Deaderick and a developing Marcell Dareus, who was the third overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
When Alabama won back-to-back national titles in 2011-12, the defensive lineincluded Josh Chapman, Ed Stinson, Jesse Williams, Damion Square, Quinton Dial and Jeoffrey Pagan. All were drafted in the fifth or sixth rounds except for Square (who probably should have been).
The 2015 team had terrific talent and unparalleled depth, led by A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson. In a way, Alabama’s biggest problem was that it could only play three linemen at a time.
That unit also included the three young players who could be the primary starters this season with Payne, Da’Shawn Hand and Joshua Frazier. Like Payne, Hand was a 5-star prospect in the 247Sports composite rankings, but at defensive end.
Alabama has already taken a page from that 2015 defensive line, which in addition to its depth was known for many of the key players losing weight during the offseason to better combat no-huddle offenses that were designed to wear defenses down.
“The way teams are playing now, it’s more fast-paced and just on the ball,” said Payne, who is trying to get down to 308 pounds after playing closer to 320 last season. He began the spring at 312. “I’ve just got to get ready for that.”
Davis, who was listed at 315 at the end of last season, lost weight as well, while Frazier is holding steady at 315.
So versatility and being able to stay on the field longer are obvious goals for both the line and the defense in general. But when asked if they would be a strength of the Crimson Tide this season Payne honestly answered: “I don’t know. I think it’s good.”
We’ll all find out together.