Chris Kirschner/SEC Country
Da'Ron Payne will be the leader of Alabama's defensive line in 2017.

Alabama football: New-look DL not expected to take a step back in 2017

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama football may not have the big names along its defensive line this season, but there’s a chance the Crimson Tide could have more quality depth than it did last season.

Last year, the Crimson Tide relied heavily on Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson and Da’Ron Payne to man the front.

Compare that to the 2015 championship season when Alabama football rotated anywhere from seven to nine defensive linemen depending on the matchup. This season, Alabama football may get back to more of that.

“I think there are obviously some talented players there that haven’t played a lot,” coach Nick Saban said of the defensive line. “Those guys are going to have to develop consistency in performance. One of the goals we had coming out of spring practice, we wanted to make some improvement in the consistency up front.

“I think the players have the capability of doing it. We have a lot of new faces there. This camp is going to be real critical for how those guys develop and the consistency that we play with.”

Payne is back for his junior season to anchor the Crimson Tide’s defense. He’s the most experienced player of the group. Payne finished last season with 36 total tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.

Look for Payne to be a three-down lineman this season.

“He played some three-down last year. He’s really worked hard in the offseason, I think, maybe to get in better shape,” Tide defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said. “It gives him an opportunity to do that. I think with the graduation of some guys, it also opens some doors for him to possible be more of a third-down guy.”

Through three fall camp practices, Hand has been joined by senior Da’Shawn Hand and rising sophomore Raekwon Davis on the first-team defense.

Outside of Payne, Hand has the most experience. He’ll likely be Alabama’s top sack artist from the defensive line position. Hand had 21 tackles and 2 sacks last season.

The surprise of this group has been Davis. He played sparingly throughout his freshman season, but appears ready to take on a bigger role.

“Raekwon has been working hard on his technique and staying in the playbook and he just loves to get things right,” Payne said. “He’s a good guy.”

Davis is competing with junior college transfer Isaiah Buggs for that third defensive line spot. Add in Josh Frazier and redshirt freshman Quinnen Williams, and Alabama has six quality defensive linemen.

Jamar King, Johnny Dwight and freshmen LaBryan Ray and Phidarian Mathis also should factor into the rotation.

Pruitt isn’t ready to call anyone a starter yet.

“Really, we don’t have anybody plugged into any spots,” he said. “I think that’s one of the things that’s very evident here over the last 10 years, Coach has what he calls a rep chart. There is no depth chart right now. We’ve got 11 guys that are competing for three positions and we haven’t even put pads on. So it’s really hard to judge how a defensive lineman is going to play without pads on. We’ll see over the next few weeks.”

Alabama football led the nation in run defense last season, holding opponents to 2.01 yards per carry and 63.93 yards per game. The Crimson Tide surrendered only 5 rushing touchdowns all season in large part because of its stout defensive line.

Don’t expect a dropoff this season.

“Our defensive line will be the same,” linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said. “Our identity is always being physical, playing with effort and toughness. So those guys are going to play like all the guys that came before them. They’re just going to have to embrace the challenge and be as good as those guys that came before them.”