With a year remaining in his collegiate career, Alabama’s Da’Shawn Hand has yet to live up his recruiting hype.
In a 2014 recruiting class that featured future top-10 NFL draft picks Leonard Fournette and Myles Garrett, Hand was considered the best of them all — rated the No. 1 overall recruit in 2014 by Rivals.com. But while his aforementioned classmates were starring in college, Hand was waiting his turn.
“I’ve been waiting, I’ve been working, I’m just ready to showcase” A confident Hand told a collection of reporters following one of the Crimson Tide’s spring practices.
He’s sat patiently as teammates have gone on to lucrative paydays at the next level. It would be easy to get frustrated, but, publicly at least, Hand has done nothing but work to get better and prepare for his opportunity. He’s sat in the background as the likes of Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson got their chance.
2017 is supposed to be Hand’s time.
Take a peek at any preseason NFL draft watch list and you’ll see Hand’s name, often a borderline first-round pick. Part of that is Alabama bias. (Why wouldn’t a starting ‘Bama D-lineman be in consideration for the first round?) Another reason is Hand’s pedigree. A Bleacher Report “too early” mock draft published in May had Hand going seventh overall. A Fox Sports projection has him as a first-round pick. So does the Sporting News.
We’re used to this path by now: Top recruit, ‘Bama defender, top draft pick. The wait is finally over for Hand, now a senior, who will assume a starting role along the Crimson Tide’s front for the season opener against Florida State on Saturday.
It’s easy to see why many project Hand to finally evolve into the player he was projected to be coming out of high school. Physically, he’s a flat-out freak, with a frame (6 feet, 4 inches and 288 pounds) and reach advantage that allow him to line up either inside or outside.
There’s an issue, though. Hand hasn’t had the impact that was expected when he came to Alabama. At least, not in the most important department: getting to, and hitting, the opposing quarterback. It’s not just a case of limited playing time, either. There’s a legitimate reason he didn’t figure more prominently into Alabama’s rotation.
He finished 2016 with just 2 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss.
The tape tells the brutal truth: He’s been excellent at the little things, and poor at the big things he was brought to Alabama to deliver.
Obviously, Hand has natural gifts. And he’s shown an advanced understanding of the nuances of two-gapping as a defensive lineman in a variety of different fronts. His length allows him to control blockers, get under their armpits, and disengage at will. He’ll often disengage and swallow up a ball-carrier all in one stunning move.
But his pass-rushing skills are a different story. For as physically gifted as he looks, he’s not overly explosive, or at least has yet to show it on tape. Too often he’s delayed coming out of his stance. It was even more apparent whenever he lined up next to Allen or Williams.
The other rushers may not win Mr. Universe, but they get off the ball quicker and take the attack to offensive linemen.
Speed isn’t everything, but it would make a player with Hand’s build damn near unstoppable.
His go-to pass-rushing move is the bull rush — dropping his hands and attempting to run through the chest of a linemen. That can overwhelm inferior competition, but it just isn’t as effective against comparable athletes who can drop anchor and absorb his initial strike.
Without the power move he becomes ineffective, particularly when he’s lined up outside. He simply doesn’t have the bend or flexibility to worry offensive tackles, often leaving himself upright as he tries to press the pocket and make life uncomfortable for quarterbacks rather than hitting them.
He gets into a decent position, with his outside arm free to do damage — swat the tackle away or reach out to the quarterback. But he’s unable to sink his hips in order to free himself from the tackle’s hold. Instead, the O-lineman plays keep-away and Hand is able to do little more than chop his feet and run beyond the quarterback.
In 2015, he played mostly in garbage time at defensive end, but got some reps inside. In 2016, he featured in certain sub-groups, when the defense jumped into reduced or bear fronts and needed Hand’s anchor and length to maintain gap control despite the numbers disadvantage.
His 2017 role should be as an interior rusher, likely slotting into the spot vacated by Allen. He doesn’t have Allen’s twitchiness or short-area speed, but he’s more likely to collapse the pocket lining up over a guard. Outside, he’s merely an average player. Nick Saban doesn’t do average, no matter the recruiting ranking.
Hand’s job thus far has mostly been to clog lanes and help those around him get more favorable matchups.
That’s an admirable quality. And it’s something at which he excels — making life easier for those around him. But it’s not a skill set that allows one to take over a game or earn a first-round draft selection.
With his size, and feet, he should do those things.
On passing downs he’s vacillated between acting the part of a 1-gap-and-go rusher, where he’s struggled, and playing the relief man — soaking up some of the burden inside and, again, freeing up those around him to play 1-on-1.
“It’s a very important season for me just because I have to showcase my athleticism,” Hand told SEC Country’s Marq Burnett during the spring. Perhaps a move inside will allow him to regain the athletic advantage that he’s lost lining up outside against premier tackles — most notably, sinking his hips and improving his contact balance (flexibility is the major concern).
The defense certainly needs it.
Creating disruption might not be as easy for Saban’s side as it’s been in recent years. The defense ranked sixth in overall havoc rate last season and 11th in adjusted sack rate. This season, the Tide are replacing their top-5 sack-getters and will be fielding a less-agile front.
The blue-chip talent remains, but the style will be altered. The dip-and-rip duo of Anderson and Williams are gone. And players such as Allen, one of the most dominant interior rushers in modern college football history, don’t exactly grow on trees, even for Saban and Alabama.
They’ll likely be dominant (aren’t they always?), but it will be through power, not agility.
Rather than a slew of rushers careening in from the edges and beating offensive tackles before they can even get into their pass set, the pressure will likely come inside-out. Junior sensation Da’Ron Payne will provide the bulk of the pressure, but the Tide need Hand to pick up some of the pass-rushing burden.
That’s a big ask based on the last couple of seasons, but it’s what Hand was brought to Tuscaloosa to produce.
Forget the recruiting rankings. Forget the hype. Forget the first-round expectations.
It’s time for Hand to deliver — not just in our minds, but on the field.