Alabama searching for ‘alpha dogs’ on defensive line


James Ogletree

Over the last two springs, Alabama’s calling card, its defensive line, has lost a considerable amount of talent to the NFL draft. Four D-linemen have been selected in the first or second round of the draft since 2016, and another, Da’Ron Payne, is expected to go in the top 20 picks in less than three weeks.

Not only does that make a revolving door of talent up front, but the team must also find some “alpha dogs” whose aggression and hatred of losing pervade the entire team.

“Defensive line is one of the areas that can set the tone on defense with how you control the front,” coach Nick Saban said. “Those guys are big guys, and when they’re physical and aggressive, I think it sets the tone for everybody on defense. I think we need to make progress in that area.”

Redshirt sophomore Quinnen Williams said Saban addressed the defensive linemen and encouraged each of them to step into that type of leadership role.

Williams said this year’s D-line wants to set the tone for the defense like it has in years past by holding every defender accountable to give full effort and getting everyone lined up in the right spots.

Of course, new defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski is playing a big role in that as well. He was hired away from the University of Miami in February after the Hurricanes’ defense ranked in the top ten nationally in several categories last year.

Kuligowski played offensive tackle under Saban at Toledo in 1990, and caught his attention with his tough, physical play. Saban said that has translated to his coaching.

“Coach Kul is amazing, man,” Williams said. “He just comes in with a great personality, a great hard-head type of mentality. That’s what we love. That’s like what he instills in us. He wants us to be hard-head working guys. We got to push that onto the linebackers, the linebackers got to follow with the DBs, so everybody can have the same mentality as the coaches.”

Kuligowski and the rest of coaches aren’t just trying to figure out who will be the leaders; they’re also trying to figure out who will play which positions.

“It doesn’t matter, for real,” Williams said. “I really feel comfortable anywhere. Wherever Saban thinks I should play, that’s where I’m going to play. We’re doing our own jobs. So, if I play end, nose or anywhere on the field, everybody wants me to do it at 100 percent, and I expect everybody else to do their job at 100 percent.”

Payne was the team’s nose tackle last season, and is leaving a very large hole in the middle of the D-line. Luckily, spring practice offers plenty of time and opportunities to move players around and see where they fit best.

Saban has said he has concerns about the entire defense, not just at nose guard. He said Williams has gotten some time there, and the team is confident about his ability to contribute, as well as the potential of freshmen Phidarian Mathis and Stephon Wynn, Jr. The team also signed a junior college nose guard, Tevita Musika, who will arrive in Tuscaloosa in late May.

Offensive guard Josh Casher said all of the players vying for spots along the D-line have earned playing time with their hard work.

“Each and every one of them brings a different type of intensity to the game,” Casher said. “I know it’s a spot the players want to have, but one thing about it is [all of them] have been busting their butts. They want to prove to themselves that they can get the position, and each and every one of them [has] been working really hard.”

Amid coaching turnover, injuries and uncertainty about depth, players know the man in charge has always been the symbol of consistency and stability.

“Coach Saban, he’s going to put the best, he’s going to recruit the best, he’s going to hire the best,” Williams said. “So you feel confident in whatever he does, so you really don’t have a problem with whatever he does because you know whoever he brings in, they’re going to be the best. You know who he’s going to bring in is going to help you.”