HEADLINER: Ed Stinson (SR.)
WHO TO WATCH: Jeoffrey Pagan (JR.)
For the Alabama Crimson Tide, the old cliché “it all starts up front” really does apply to the Tide’s variation of the 3-4 defense. The defensive line is extremely important to the success of the dominant defenses head coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have fielded over the last several years.
Alabama D-lineman have to be big, powerful and nasty. Unfortunately, two of those nasty “space eaters” from last year’s dominant defense are gone: three-year starter Damion Square (DE) and two-year starter Jesse Williams (NT) have joined the ranks of the NFL while senior Ed Stinson (DE) is the lone starter left on a unit that allowed less than three yards per rush, which was first in the nation.
Damion Square not only takes his 92 tackles, 18 tackles-for-loss, 7.5 sacks, and 12 quarterback hurries (9 last season) with him to the NFL, but also 33 career starts as well. Square did not miss a single game, starting all 27,over the last two years. His experience and leadership will be missed as much as his play on the field, where he was dominant against the run and able to get to the QB as well.
Replacing Square will likely be powerful Junior Jeoffrey Pagan, who is actually bigger than Square at 6-foot-4, 290 pounds. The North Carolina native played in all 14 games last year, racking up 23 tackles, four tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. One of Pagan’s biggest advantages is his surprising speed and athleticism for his size. Pagan can be equally productive against the run or pass, as well as in the three-man line and when Alabama switches to a four-man front. Pagan could very well be one of the breakout starts of the 2013 Alabama defense.
Australian native Jesse Williams was a starter on the outside in 2011, then moved inside to nose tackle in 2012, where his pure raw strength and nastiness served him well. A dominant nose tackle is critical in a 3-4 defense, and over the last five years Terrence Cody, Josh Chapman and Jesse Williams have been just that. Alabama fans now await the next in the long line of monsters at the position.
Junior Brandon Ivory is the leading candidate to take over the middle of the Bama D-Line, and he made his case last season in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia. An already banged up Jesse Williams was forced to leave the game in the second half, and Ivory was forced out due to injury as well. With the top two nose tackles gone, Georgia began gashing the usually stout Alabama run defense. Williams and Ivory returned in the fourth quarter to stop the bleeding. The most telling play was the massive fourth-and-short late in the game, where Ivory and Williams combined to put an end to the Georgia drive.
Ivory had 22 tackles, one tackle-for-loss, one QB hurry, and a forced fumble in 2012, but stats aren’t the point of the nose tckle in this Tide 3-4. It’s about forcing double teams and plugging up holes in the middle to allow the talented linebackers behind him to make plays. The 6-foot-4, 310-pound Ivory can certainly play that role effectively.
Ivory may have help at that spot with talented 6-foot-3, 324-pound sophomore Darren Lake and massive incoming freshman A’Shawn Robinson (6-foot-4, 320 pounds). Lake and Robinson will provide much needed depth at that spot and could also develop a solid rotation with Ivory as the season progresses.
Senior Ed Stinson started every game last season and tallied 30 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks, and five QB hurries. Stinson entered Alabama as a prospect at the Jack linebacker spot, but after initially playing there as a freshman he bulked up and moved to DE, where he has developed into an all-around player. Stinson is extremely solid against the run and continues to develop as a pass rusher on passing downs. He will likely be the emotional and verbal leader of the young D-line.
When Alabama moves to a four-man front, linebackers Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson will likely share time with their hands in the dirt rushing off the end, but massive sophomore LaMichael Fanning (6-foot-7, 270 pound) will certainly see the field there as well rushing off the edge. Alabama rotates D-lineman constantly, and Fanning could very well be the first off the bench as the incredibly athletic big man is unquestionably the most physically gifted of the Alabama D-linemen. Redshirt freshman Dakota Ball could see time coming off the bench as well.
Much like the offensive line, Alabama’s D-line is being forced to replace a lot of experience, but since Alabama rotates so many players in each game, the transition could be much easier. Though they never started, Fanning, Pagan, Ivory and Lake come in with plenty of game experience.