Crimson Tide looks to revamp defensive line

Kevin Connell

For any number of reasons, Alabama lost its way in 2013.

Could it have stemmed from a lack of maturity? Or did complacency simply settle in during perhaps the most notorious two-game stretch of Nick Saban’s Alabama coaching career, one where the Crimson Tide suffered back-to-back losses against Auburn and Oklahoma to end the season?

Or maybe it was at least partially due to a defensive line that statistically had its worst season in Saban’s seven years at the University.

Saban said the latter is certainly one explanation for last season’s disastrous end-of-season collapse.

“I think they got a long way to go,” Saban said. “I’m not satisfied with the way any of them are playing, if you want to know the truth about it. They’ve got to be more aggressive, physical, play with better leverage, hold the point better, rush the passer better. I didn’t think that last year was one of our best years up front.”

Though Alabama’s defensive lines in Saban’s base 3-4 defensive scheme are generally more responsible for freeing up space for other teammates to make plays than making the plays themselves, the unit’s statistical production came nowhere close to meeting standards last season.

Defensively, Alabama ranked 80th and 86th in sacks (22) and tackles for loss (69) nationally in 2013. In the two proceeding seasons, 2011 and 2012, the Crimson Tide finished no worse than 30th in both statistical categories.

That performance can, in some ways, be attributed to why Saban wants to return this year’s team to 2007 Alabama, his inaugural season with the Crimson Tide.

(See also “Defensive line talent mixture of young, old“)

“I said back in the beginning [of spring] that we’re starting over in terms of starting a new program and going back to re-emphasize the basic fundamental things that we thought made the program successful to start with,” Saban said.

Along with the return to basics comes Alabama’s new defensive line coach, Bo Davis, who returns to the program that he previously held the same role in 2007-2010 under Saban.

The goal is for the unit to rush the passer better, and a new mentality with Davis as coach could make that happen, redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson said.

“His coaching style is more aggressive, hands-on,” said Tomlinson, who has shown promise despite only playing in one game in his UA career due to two separate knee injuries during his first two years on campus. “We just play more faster and aggressive and do less reading before we take off. Now it’s just like the way we play we’re more fast-paced, so we get to the quarterback quicker.”

In his previous coaching stint at Alabama, Davis, who replaces Chris Rumph after three seasons at Texas, helped guide the Crimson Tide to three straight top-5 finishes nationally in total defense before his departure.

Among the former defensive linemen he previously coached at Alabama are current NFL players Wallace Gilberry, Marcell Dareus and Terrence Cody, as well as Brandon Ivory, a holdover from Davis’ defensive line unit in 2010, who is a returning starter and senior this season.

(See also  “Defensive linemen step up, fill key spots“)

“I had coach Bo Davis my freshman year,” said Ivory, a nose tackle. “He’s a pretty good coach. Making sure everybody gets reps and makes sure they’re participating in practice doing what they got to do to get better.”

One of those players receiving reps is A’Shawn Robinson, who as a true freshman in 2013 had a team-high 5.5 sacks and was second on the team with eight tackles for loss. But even he hasn’t been immune to Saban’s criticism of the unit this spring.

“A’Shawn Robinson is a guy that has a lot of ability, but I think we need to get him in shape, and he’s got to play with better focus and intensity down in and down out to be more consistent,” Saban said.

Other players returning include sophomore Jonathan Allen, who, along with Robinson, could compete for a starting job at defensive end; backup nose tackle Darren Lake, who is out for the spring after having surgery on a torn pectoral muscle but is expected to return by the summer; and sophomores Korren Kirven and Dee Liner.

On top of that, junior college transfers D.J. Pettway and Jarran Reed joined the team this spring, and incoming freshmen Da’Shawn Hand, Josh Frazier, Johnny Dwight and O.J. Smith are all set to arrive this fall.

Still, Saban said that depth isn’t all that it “appears” to be, especially with last season’s starting defensive ends Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson gone this season.

“We lost two starters there, is that right?” Saban said. “What does ‘appear’ mean? It just means you’ve dreamed about it and it’s there? On paper? What it looks like on paper? We’ve never seen these guys play or seen them take on an SEC lineman. But it appears.”

Tomlinson, though, said he and the rest of the defensive line have not taken offense to his coach’s condemnation, but instead have used it as an incentive.

“We’ve been having our ups and downs, but throughout spring I think we’re going to come together as a great defensive line and be a great defensive line all the way across the front of the line,” he said.

(See also “Saban addresses player maturity, new hires“)