Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Profilin' the Tide: Defensive Line

Previously: General Offensive PreviewOffensive LineTailbacksWide receivers, Tight Ends, and H-backsQuarterbacks, General Defensive Preview 
As we shift our focus to the defense, it's best to start up front. The defensive line in the 3-4 is fairly underappreciated as a collective entity; without a strong one, guys like Hightower and Upshaw don't look nearly as good. Alabama linebackers get all the love from the media (and NFL general managers), but the line is what makes all of that possible in the first place. For quick and easy reference, here is the post-spring unofficial depth chart from Roll Bama Roll. 

Alabama loses a couple key players from last year's championship team (NTs Josh Chapman and Nick Gentry); Chapman's starting role is being filled by Jesse Williams, whom had made the move over from defensive end.  Gentry was a solid rotational type guy on the inside, contributing 20 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 5 TFL in his 11 game appearances last season. 

Luckily for Alabama, they do return quite a few faces from last year's team. This won't be a completely inexperienced group by any means, and you can imagine that they will still be supremely talented, even if it doesn't always manifest itself on the stat sheet. 

The Starters 
As mentioned a number of times before, Jesse Williams (6-4, 320) is taking his talents to the middle of the defensive line after playing out the last two seasons at SDE. Normal position switch caveats indicate that no matter how good a player is, switching positions will lead to at least a little slippage in productivity. In this situation, however, I don't think it's all that wise to get your hopes up. 

Yeah, that's Jesse Williams...of course. 
Williams looks the part, and I can't imagine that we will necessarily feel physically overwhelmed at any point in the season, let alone against the interior of Michigan's offensive line (the trio of Mealer-Barnum-Omameh aren't exactly Baas-Pearson-Lentz). Still, a lack of game experience in the position is a lack of game experience, and Michigan might be able to use Williams's own strength and momentum against him with a steady diet of zone runs and quick, West Coasty passes that Al Borges probably dreams about (no bubble screens, obviously...they're undignified). 

"It's a bit more close quarters as far as people, a lot more crunching with a lot of different people instead of just going with the tackle or the gap," Williams said. "It's not too serious."

If you feel like killing just under 6 minutes, here's a video of Williams taking on blocks and doing the general yeoman work--"crunching"--that a 3-4 lineman has to do. 

At the strong side end position, Quinton Dial (6-6, 304) looks to fill Williams' old spot. Dial, a 2009 recruit who had to go the JUCO route before qualifying at Alabama, played his first season with the Tide last year. Although his official profile indicates that he played nose guard at Mississippi Community College, he is a SDE with pass rushing being his forte. However, he only notched 1 sack last season (against Kent State) in his role as a reserve player. He did also tally 24 tackles, 10 of them of the solo variety. 

Damion Square (6-3, 286) will man the other end position. Unlike Dial, the redshirt senior Square is a veteran player for the Crimson Tide. After tearing his ACL in 2009, Square came back to play in all 13 games in 2010 (starting 6 of them) and starting every game last season. If this was MGoBlog, Damion Square would be a "trusted user." 

Square notched 30 tackles, 7 TFL, and 1 sack in 2011. 

The Replacements 

On first glance, there is quite a bit of youth and inexperience backing up the aforementioned starters. On second glance, well...there's still a lot of youth and inexperience sitting on the depth chart behind Square, Williams, and Dial. 

Backing up Williams in the middle is redshirt-sophomore-to-be Brandon Ivory. Ivory is the rare former generic 3-star on the Alabama defense. According to his rolltide.com profile, he was a late commitment, choosing Alabama over Memphis and Southern Miss, which is not unlike choosing to eat at Ruth's Chris over Rally's and Hardee's. Ivory did play some last year, but not a whole lot is known about him at this point, other than the fact that he's appropriately sized for the NT position (6-4, 315). 

Dial's main understudy appears to be Ed Stinson, who started out his Alabama career at the Jack linebacker position. Unlike Ivory, Stinson has some useful game experience. After redshirting in 2009, Stinson notched two starts in 2010. Perhaps the most impressive performance of his career came at home against Penn State, during which he tallied a team high 9 total tackles (5 solos, all on running plays), and a pair of QB hurries. The Nittany Lions couldn't do much at all that day; Stinson's play was a big factor in that (another reason: Rob Bolden). He's dubbed a "consistent run-stopper and a good pass rusher." Personally, I would not be surprised to see him take over the starting role from Dial (which might as well be a nominal designation at this point anyway), although I have to point out that that is just my own opinion; I'm not sure if that sentiment is reflected by Alabama fans. In any case, as the 2010 PSU game demonstrates, Stinson is a guy that can have a significant impact on a game, even in a non-starting role. 
Ed Stinson
Spelling Damion Square at the other end spot is Jeoffrey Pagan, who wears a single digit number, thus reflexively calling to mind other world destroying defensive ends, such as former Gator Carlos Dunlap and Jadeveon Clowney. For whatever reason, I see a single digit number on an SEC team and think "yup, that's a first round draft pick," and I'd probably say this even if the guy had knees constructed solely of Golden Flake potato chips. 

While it's obviously too early to anoint Pagan the next great Alabama lineman, early returns are encouraging. As a recruit, his offer list was a veritable who's who of college football, a list that includes "Norte Dame." Norte Dame exists in an alternate universe in which Tommy Reese doesn't turn the ball over, Freekbass doesn't exist, and bowl victories are so plentiful as to be exorbitant. 

Additionally, Pagan, a true freshman in 2011, did get on the field some. He made six appearances last season, tallying 4 total tackles in the process. I'm not sure how much of a role he'll have on September 1st, but I'd look for him to at least appear in every game this season. 

As far as experienced backups go, Undra Billingsley will be a redshirt senior in 2012 and has seen game action in just about every single game the past two seasons at defensive end. Re: 2011 recruits, DJ Pettway and LaMichael Fanning look to figure into the rotation this season after taking redshirts last year. 

As far as the incoming class goes, Nick Saban apparently recruited defensive tackles like RR recruited Lilliputian slot receivers. Given the nature of the 3-4, I'd imagine that there is some significant flexibility there with respect to a high school DT being either a college NT or a SDE. The Tide signed a whopping five DTs in the 2012 class (3 3-stars, 2 4-stars), and understandably so. Alabama had to move Jesse Williams to the interior despite ideally wanting to keep him at end, and it doesn't appear that there is much in the way of established quality backing Williams up. With that said, I'm not sure that any of the incoming recruits here deserve specific mention, mostly because I doubt any of them notch meaningful time on September 1st. 

General Spring Minutiae/Encomium That Results In A Bristling Saban 

Spring practice has long since ended, so this section may or may not be obsolete at this point. Regardless, Damion Square has some nice things to say (i.e. boilerplate spring talk) about the new iteration of the Alabama defensive line: 
“We are very big but very athletic,” Square said of the defensive linemen. “Not saying that the guys before weren’t athletic but these guys -- pretty much all across the board they can play any position up front and get the job done.” 
 He may be right re: athleticism, but the whole "last year's guys were good and all but look at us now" isn't a new thing. Let's not forget that Alabama won a national championship last season.

On the heels of the A-Day game, RBR had this to say about the DL:

On the defensive side of the ball, the rotation at defensive end was as strong as expected, holding up well at the point of attack and disrupting numerous plays against quality competition. Jesse Williams was very impressive at nose guard, but here too depth remains a legitimate question. Brandon Ivory looks to be taking a step in the right direction, as does Jeoffrey Pagan, but whether either of them could be called upon to anchor the line against top-flight SEC competition is unknown. Both need more time in the strength and conditioning program and better hand work. 
Jeoffrey Pagan notched a pair of sacks in the A-Day game. Otherwise, the rest is boilerplate spring talk.  The line performed admirably for the most part, working to hold Jalston Fowler to 22 yards on eight carries. TJ Yeldon did rack up 189 yards of total offense, but he was playing with the second-team offense.

Things To Think About/Watch Out For/ARE WE GONNA DIE?
  • As usual, starting with the question first: maybe, but probably (hopefully) not. That's not to say that Alabama's defensive is not very good, it's just that it's not as world destroying as you might imagine. Also, it's important to remember that any issues either team might have will be underscored by the simple fact that this is the first game of the season. 
  • As mentioned before, but can Jesse Williams get acclimated to the nose in time for the Michigan game? Again, no matter how good Williams was at end, playing nose is a completely different animal. Williams's size and/or general modus operandi as a player lead one to believe that he'll be just fine, but until you see a guy do it on the field he remains somewhat of a question mark. With that said, if he's absorbing or splitting double teams from Barnum and whomever with regularity, Michigan might not get into the double digits in this game. That is, of course, the worst case scenario. 
  • Damion Square seems to be locked in at one of the end positions, but other side seems slightly open-ended. Quinton Dial appears to be the starter as of right now, but Ed Stinson showed some serious ability in his first year on the line (after moving from the JLB position). Both have seen playing time, and while not exactly the most experienced players ever, they are certainly not green. This will be a position to monitor once fall practice starts. 
  • Alabama is as athletic as you'd imagine them to be on the defensive line. The odd man front presents a different sort of challenge for Denard Robinson and Al Borges. With Williams in the middle and speed up the edges, Michigan will need to bring arguably its most creative gameplan since the Capital One Bowl against Florida if it wants to put up enough points to have a chance to win this game. 
Meaningless Grade That I Will Give Out Anyway 
Alabama's situation up front is not nearly as dire as Michigan's; however, questions still remain, questions that likely won't be answered until Michigan and Alabama hit the field on September 1st. Although Jesse Williams looks to be another standout in a long line of ground game destroying interior defensive linemen, he is still relatively new to the game of football. As such, it's not unreasonable to expect some growing pains with this position switch. Additionally, the rest of the depth chart at the position is not exactly that much rosier than what Michigan is currently staring in the face. 

On the bright side, Alabama does have a lot more depth at end. Damion Square and Dial/Stinson should provide a nice run-stopping presence paired with good pass rushing ability. There's a bevy of talented options, young and old, backing up the starters here, and Michigan should expect to see at least a couple of them on gameday. 

Again, meaningless grade and all, but I'm going with a B+ here. This line will be pretty good when all is said and done, but I don't get the feeling that this is a unit that will completely outclass Michigan's offensive line. With that said, if the opposite turns out to be true, then this game will turn out to be an ugly, losing version of the Sugar Bowl. 


  1. Excellent article, but I'll give you just a bit more history on Jesse Williams. He was a JuCo transfer from Arizona Western where he played nose tackle for 2 seasons. Bama got him for his nose abilities, but was move to end last year since Chapman had the nose locked down. I think his moving back to the nose position will be comfortable for him. Also, he has to line up against last years Outland trophy winner at practice every day. so I suspect he will be ready for Sept 1st.

  2. Appreciate it (and thanks for the insight...I'm assuming you're a Bama fan). I probably should've known that, but I actually wasn't aware that Williams was brought in specifically for the nose position. Like I said, he definitely looks the part. I've honestly been trying to be as critical as possible with these previews and there hasn't really been all that much to point at as representing even a semblance of an obviously glaring weakness. I would feel much better about containing Williams if we had David Molk coming back, but we'll have to make do.

    Either way, it'll probably be clear by the end of the first quarter whether or not Michigan will be able to run between the tackles with consistency.