The defensive line was the strongest part of Alabama’s 2015 national championship team. The defensive front wreaked havoc on quarterbacks, leading the nation in sacks while also taking away the inside running game from every opponent the Tide faced. Alabama’s 2015 defensive front not only featured NFL talent on the first team; it also had the depth to continuously rotate linemen throughout a game.
Last year’s line lost two players to the NFL Draft, A’Sbawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, who were both selected in the second round along with two other Crimson Tide defenders, Reggie Ragland and Cyrus Jones. The number of defensive players drafted could have been one higher if defensive end Jonathan Allen had made the jump to the pros after his junior year. Instead, Allen, who led the team and was second in the SEC in sacks in 2015, chose to return for his senior season.
Allen could have been selected higher than Reed or Robinson had he entered the draft due to his superior pass-rushing skills. One of Allen’s largest responsibilities this season is to become the vocal leader for the defense and possibly the “Alpha dog” that seems to emerge for the Tide every year.
Filling in the other two spots on the starting defensive line will be two linemen that were also integral parts of last year’s defense. Sophomore Daron Payne returns to plug the middle of the defensive line, hoping to follow up on the strong first impression he made as a true freshman.
Despite the overflow of talent that last year’s defensive line featured, it was Payne who emerged to take the starting role in the team’s base defense. Payne was mostly used against run-heavy offenses such as LSU and Arkansas. He played a hand in shutting down top running backs such as Leonard Fournette and Nick Chubb. This season, Payne’s role will expand to an every-down interior lineman. Expectations will be high for Payne in his second season, but the fact that he was able to earn a starting role on last year’s defense says everything about his potential.
Dalvin Tomlinson is another defensive lineman who should gain an expanded role in 2016. Last year, Tomlinson provided the added depth that made Alabama so dominant on the defensive front. Tomlinson recorded 34 total tackles and also showed off his aptitude for batting down passes at the line of scrimmage, leading all linemen with six pass breakups. Like Payne, Tomlinson should be more of an every-down player in 2016.
Alabama might not have the same depth on the defensive line as it did a year ago, but to be fair, there are few teams in college football history that have. That said, there are several talented young players on the roster. They will all have the chance to make an impact the same way Payne and Tomlinson did in 2015.
One name fans should become better acquainted with at the end of the season is Da’Shawn Hand. He came to Alabama as the No. 1 player in the country in 2014 but was buried on the depth chart for much of his first two seasons. That won’t be the case in 2016. Instead, Hand will be an active part of Alabama’s rotation at defensive line, which should result in enough reps to live up to his billing from high school.
The 2015 Alabama defensive line set a high bar for future Alabama teams, but this year’s defensive line group has the talent to create its own legacy and measure up to 2015’s production.