TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama coach Nick Saban doesn’t often refer to players as starters during spring practice, but there occasionally are exceptions to that rule.
It’s okay to pencil in linebacker Rashaan Evans and defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand at the top of the depth chart ahead of their senior seasons. Saban likes how both players have developed throughout their careers.
“Both guys have made a significant contribution and played a lot of football around here,” Saban said Monday. “We think both of them are really, really good players. I think both of them have responded well as starters this spring and are starting to show some leadership. I’ve been really pleased with those guys.
“So, hopefully they’ll continue to improve and grow and they’ll become the kind of people who can impact other folks on our defense, so that not only do they play great football, but they help others do the same.”
Both Evans and Hand arrived in Tuscaloosa as supremely talented 5-star prospects in Alabama’s 2014 class. The 247Sports composite listed Hand as the No. 7 overall prospect while Evans checked in at No. 11.
The 2014 cycle featured players like Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett, LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Alabama’s Cam Robinson and Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, all of whom left school early this year for the NFL draft.
Evans and Hand likely would have been a part of that group had there not been so much talent ahead of them at their respective positions.
“It was a humbling experience, but I’m glad I went through it,” Hand said of waiting his turn. “God has no mistakes in a man’s life, so I was just riding the wave. I just kept chopping at the wood, and now’s my time.”
Added Evans, “All it does is build character. You become unselfish. You become more about the team and when you have that type of mindset, your individual success is going to come anyway when you’re thinking about the team. Those things I have learned here overall under Coach Saban, I feel like those are the most important things you can take here and to the next level.”
Evans got his first taste of being a starter last season when he stepped in at inside linebacker after Shaun Dion Hamilton went down with a knee injury in the SEC Championship Game against Florida.
Making his first career start against Washington in the playoffs, Evans matched his career-high with 7 tackles and had 1 sack. He topped that total in the national championship game with 11 stops (6 solo) while registering a half sack vs. Clemson.
There were some early struggles with injuries and learning his assignments after making the switch from edge rusher to inside linebacker. Now, Evans is completely comfortable running the show in the middle.
With Hamilton still rehabbing, Evans is the only returning inside linebacker with significant experience.
“I would say really don’t make the stage bigger than what it is,” Evans said of what he learned in the playoffs. “Play with my eyes, being able to trust my instincts and things like that. The fact that I had success playing on the stage that I did, I feel like just playing in a regular game would be a lot easier now.”
Hand was once the No. 1 player in the country throughout the 2014 cycle, but when he showed up to Tuscaloosa, the Tide had a laundry list of defensive lineman ahead of him.
There was A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson to name a few. Those guys are all gone, and Hand is a lock to be a starter at this point. He’s one of Alabama’s most experienced defensive lineman along with rising junior Da’Ron Payne.
When given the opportunities, Hand has performed well. Hand has 7 sacks for his career. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he topped that number this season given his natural abilities.
“It’s a very important season for me just because I have to showcase my athleticism,” Hand said. “I’ve been waiting. I’ve been working, so I’m just ready to showcase.”
Based on what we’ve seen from spring practice, Alabama is likely to have a very experienced secondary. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Anthony Averett, Ronnie Harrison, Hootie Jones and Tony Brown are all upperclassmen.
The few questions surrounding the defense center around depth in the front seven. Having players like Evans and Hand should make replacing guys like Reuben Foster, Allen and Tomlinson a little easier.
Heading into his senior season, Evans has his sights on winning the Butkus Award as the nation’s best inside linebacker. He tweeted the message earlier this offseason.
“Absolutely,” Evans said when asked if he was serious. “I believe in that tweet and I’m going to keep it up for the rest of the season.”
For Hand, he’s ready to remind people why recruiting analysts felt he was one of the 10 best prospects in the country back in 2014.
“How hungry am I?” Hand said. “To be honest man, I don’t even know how to answer that question. That’s how hungry I am. It’s immeasurable, for real. We’re all very hungry.”