TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At first, Nick Saban scoffed at the idea of his defensive line having good depth. After a lecture on the merits of perception, he said he wasn’t at all happy with the group. Alabama might appear loaded, but the veteran head coach wasn’t interested in how his defensive line appeared.
“I’m not satisfied with the way any of them are playing, if you want to know the truth about it,” he told reporters on March 31.
And then people actually listened.
“I’ve been getting asked that everywhere I go, like we’ve got a bad defensive line,” he said a week and a half later. “We don’t have a bad defensive line. They’re doing fine.”
So which is it? The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
“They're improving,” Saban said following Saturday’s scrimmage. “But we're still not striking up front, playing as physical, converting pass rush, getting the kind of execution that we need, doing the little things right, especially when we're doing stunts and pressures.
“So I like the way they're working and they made improvement, but I think there's certainly a lot more that we can look for.”
While Saban’s feelings toward the defensive line have wavered throughout the spring, the players themselves appear largely pleased with their progress. They have a new coach (Bo Davis), new teammates (D.J. Pettway, Jarran Reed) and a new mandate (rush the passer).
Losing former defensive line coach Chris Rumph to Texas hurt initially, said sophomore defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson. “It was a shock to hear,” he said. But then he got to experience the energy and enthusiasm Davis brings.
“He’s a pretty fired-up guy on the field,” Tomlinson said, describing Davis as being more hands on as well. “He makes us be aggressive out there.”
Veteran nose guard Brandon Ivory agreed: “Davis is pushing us to the limit. ... He brings a lot of energy. He’s always fired up, hyped. I say that’s a good thing to have.”
The hope for Davis is that a renewed sense of energy translates into production. Last season Alabama ranked a paltry 81st nationally in sacks (22) and tied for 94th in tackles for loss per game (5.3). This season Davis is asking his players to read less and react more. In other words, he wants them to play fast.
“Last year we didn’t get enough sacks across the defensive line, we didn’t feel like,” Tomlinson said. “So this year our main focus is getting to the quarterback. So we’re trying to be more aggressive off the ball and more explosive.”
Ivory isn’t the pass-rushing prototype at 300-plus pounds, but he’s seen the linemen around him change into a group that’s better equipped to chase down the quarterback.
“We’ve got guys that are pretty good at rushing the passer like D.J. Pettway, Jonathan Allen, more smaller guys and quicker who can get after the quarterback more,” Ivory explained.
Maybe more so than in years past, Alabama has the “quick-twitch” defensive linemen Saban covets. Pettway and Allen certainly fit that mold. So do Tomlinson, Dee Liner and incoming freshman Da'Shawn Hand, a five-star prospect from Virginia. Even 320-pounder A'Shawn Robinson will be an asset in the pass-rushing department. He finished first on the team in sacks (5.5) as a true freshman last season.
But don’t run down the roster with Saban. Don’t tell him what the defensive line looks like on paper.
Maybe listen to the players themselves, however.
“We’ve been having our ups and downs,” Tomlinson said, “but throughout the spring I think we’re going to come together as a defensive line and be a great defensive line all the way across the front.”