TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — “It’s either go hard or go home” is what defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs said after arriving at the University of Alabama at the beginning of the semester. For him, they’ve become words to live by.
Although the Crimson Tide signed a monster recruiting class in February, maybe Nick Saban’s best yet, with 16 early enrollees there are plenty of players who figure to begin making their mark at Alabama in the fall.
But as the team closes in on A-Day and the end of spring practices, Buggs has established himself as the early player to beat in terms of making an immediate impact.
He’s a little more experienced than nearly everyone else, is already in the mix to potentially start and, perhaps most importantly, fills a definite need for this version of the Crimson Tide.
That’s what Buggs was referring to when he made the “go hard” comment, because he knows anyone Alabama recruits from the junior college ranks is expected to challenge for a regular role from Day 1.
“I know if I’m at Alabama I’m here for a reason,” he said on National Signing Day.
Yet whether Buggs wins a starting job this season is almost secondary to his adding depth to the defensive line, where Alabama has gone from having almost a surplus of talented and/or proven players (it’s a position a team can never have enough) to it being a concern.
Over the last two years Alabama has lost Jonathan Allen, Dakota Ball, Darren Lake, D.J. Pettway, Jarran Reed, A’Shawn Robinson and Dalvin Tomlinson.
Between them, you’re talking about more than 200 games of experience, 600 tackles, 100 tackles for a loss and 50 sacks. Those numbers don’t include Ball’s playing time at tight end, either.
That Alabama returns a starter in junior defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne, and has senior defensive end Da’Shawn Hand ready to step in speaks volumes about the kind of depth the 2015 line had.
But now? Not so much.
“I think Isaiah Buggs can be a good player,” was Saban’s initial offering at the start of spring practices.
He elaborated after last Friday’s scrimmage:
“I think he’s gotten better every practice. [You need] discipline to play this kind of defense where everybody has a job to do and it’s important for you to do your job and stay in your gap and play your gap, I think some of that stuff is a little new to him. But I think his effort has gotten better and better, he’s getting in better condition and I think he’s played better each day.
“We’ve still got to improve on certain things from a discipline — I’m not talking about discipline personally, I’m talking about discipline to do your job all the time, rather than always trying to make the play. There’s a difference in that. You always want to try to make the play but you’ve got to make the play doing your job.”
That’s something that should improve as Buggs gets more comfortable with the scheme and what’s expected of him. As he does, he’ll push senior defensive end Josh Frazier and could end up being a better option in certain situations or against certain opponents. It’s something to keep in mind when Alabama takes the field for Saturday’s A-Day scrimmage.
It’s the one time when the newcomers really take center stage at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and fans will get their first comprehensive look at players like running back Najee Harris, wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, tackle Alex Leatherwood, linebacker Dylan Moses and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
They all were considered consensus 5-star recruits along with defensive end LaBryan Ray, who has yet to arrive.
Overall, Alabama’s latest signing class features 12 players who were listed as 5-star prospects by one of the major recruiting services: 247Sports, Rivals, ESPN and Scout. The other six were Buggs, tackles Elliot Baker and Jedrick Wills, linebacker VanDarius Cowan, and wide receivers Henry Ruggs III and Devonta Smith. Of them, only the junior college transfers Buggs and Baker are on campus.
Buggs, listed as 6-foot-5, 292 pounds, was labeled a 5-star talent by Scout.com. The other services all had him as a 4-star prospect, in part because he only has two years of eligibility remaining. Yet Rivals rated him to be the top junior college player in the nation, Scout and 247Sports had him both second and ESPN fifth.
Last season at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College he notched 75 tackles, including 10 for a loss, and 3.5 sacks. The year before he was credited with 59 tackles, including 8 for a loss, and 4 sacks.
But the thing that’s really making him stand out so far with the Crimson Tide is his effort.
“He’s always working hard,” Payne said.
That’s his ticket to playing time and even more.
“It’s there for me,” Buggs said. “The only way it won’t happen is if I mess that up.”