Da'Shawn Hand's smile is infectious. It stretches from ear to ear, and it was on full display when he took on a starring role during Alabama's two College Football Playoff media days.
First, he paraded around the Georgia Dome in Atlanta with a microphone in hand as he interviewed and lampooned his teammates before the Crimson Tide's 24-7 victory over Washington. A week later, Alabama's reserve defensive end took Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, by storm, with more wit, more video cameras shoved in his face and, of course, that boyish grin winning over media members and fans alike before Alabama's showdown with Clemson in the national championship game.
By all accounts, Hand knows how to keep the laughs going and the smiles shining.
But there's another side to Hand that has only been seen in flashes during his three years in Tuscaloosa. There's a more-aggressive Hand, who in spurts has proven to be every bit of the top recruit Nick Saban signed. The hope in Tuscaloosa is that Hand's final year will be a breakout season to remember.
“He’s really taking his [situation] the best way he can," linebacker Rashaan Evans said of Hand. "I know when he gets out on the field [as a starter], he’s gonna ball.”
A gentle giant of sorts during his media day gallivanting, Hand will be called upon for more time in the limelight and more opportunities to show that there is a grizzly bear behind that teddy-bear smile. And on paper, it will be a long time coming since Hand arrived on campus as a five-star athlete with visions of sack records dancing in his head.
But the 6-foot-4, 280-pound Hand hasn't exactly lived up to the hype. In three seasons, Hand has seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss in a reserve role for the Crimson Tide.
Those aren't exactly blue-chip numbers, but that hasn't deterred Hand. Guys such as Jonathan Allen, Jarran Reed, A'Shawn Robinson and Dalvin Tomlinson passed him by to achieve star status along Alabama's front, but he doesn't look at that as a negative. He enjoys the successes of his teammates as much as he enjoys his own, and he has embraced his reserve role. To him, if it helps the team, then he's in the right place.
“It humbles you and gives you a different outlook on things," Hand said. "Hard work is the key to everything.
"You get what you earn."
And this time around, Hand has a chance to earn a lot as a major breakout candidate for the Tide. Not only is Hand physically imposing, but he has the athleticism and agility of a much smaller man. He can play both inside and outside, and his combination of strength and get-off has him primed to end his Alabama career the way many thought he’d start it.
He has also learned from one of the best to ever play for the Tide.
“Da’Shawn’s come a long way," said Allen, who won the Lombardi Award in 2016. "That’s my dog right there, and I’m excited to see what he does, and I’m excited for his future.”
Allen would know. He has been along for Hand's ride every step of the way. Hand considers Allen his "big brother," and the two actually go back as far as their high school football days in Virginia. With Hand playing in Woodbridge and Allen in Ashburn, they kept in close contact and mirrored each other on the field.
During Allen's high school sophomore year, in the fall of 2010, he registered 20 sacks. A year later, Hand totaled 21 as a sophomore. In 2012, Hand passed his big bro with 16 sacks to Allen's nine as a senior. Hand said topping the other on the field served as motivation.
“It was like I was chasing him," Hand said.
Hand chased Allen all the way to Alabama, where he became the ultimate student to Allen's teacher. Allen mentored Hand in his image. While we haven't exactly seen a younger version of Allen, the seed has been planted in Hand's mind that the Allen way is the way to go.
He's lived that life behind closed doors, but it's still been a long road to this point. Hand has every reason to be down about not reaching star status early in his Alabama career. But at a program that churns out NFL talent with ease, Hand is as happy now as he was when he first got on Alabama's campus. The wide-eyed, overly confident (at times) freshman who watched what he thought were slower linemen blow past him during his first college practice has morphed into a smarter player who obsesses over improving.
And while he knows the pressure is coming, Hand dismisses it. He's too busy getting excited about getting back on the field.
“Just don’t think about it so much and worry about what makes me happy," he said.
And that is?
"Success. ... Just like with shooting or painting, you just have to work on your craft.”