Alabama Football: 2021 Defensive Line could be best yet

: Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via USA TODAY Sports
: Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via USA TODAY Sports /

Allow me to acknowledge that Alabama Football did lose its most disruptive lineman, Christian Barmore, to the NFL Draft.

Barmore’s absence from this team may have an impact early on in the 2021 season. While spotty at times last season (part of this was due to injury), he came on in a big way towards the end of 2020, saving his best for the national championship game. Losing such a force on the interior will be difficult.

Even without Barmore, I believe this group is 2015-esque.

Remember those guys? Nick Saban teams have some all-time positional groups at the University of Alabama. The 2012 and 2020 offensive lines. The 2018-2019 wide receivers. The 2011 secondary.

2021 Alabama football defensive line has the potential to be the best since 2015

The 2015 defensive line may be the best.

That unit consisted of A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed as the starting defensive ends in Saban’s 3-4 base. You know who was technically a backup in that group? Jonathan Allen. The same Jonathan Allen who had 12 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss by season’s end.

Dalvin Tomlinson played a bunch that year. As did DJ Pettway, Da’Shawn Hand and then-true freshman Daron Payne. Senior Darren Lake was an anchor at the nose guard spot.

That’s eight guys Saban and his staff knew he could trust to rotate in and out in meaningful parts of a game. The 2015 Alabama football defensive line aided in holding opponents to a stingy 73 rushing yards per game and, also, accounted for 20 of the defense’s 51 sacks.

All of this is to illustrate my point: the 2021 defensive line group has the potential to be as good as the 2015 one.

Going into that 2015 season, Saban and then-defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart, knew they had at least five guys with enough talent and experience to impact the team: Robinson, Reed, Allen, Pettway and Tomlinson. The emergence of Payne and the continued development of then-sophomore Hand was a welcomed addition.

The 2021 team has six guys with the prerequisite talent and experience to impact this team: redshirt seniors LaBryan Ray and Phil Mathis, juniors D.J. Dale, Justin Eboigbe and Byron Young and sophomore Tim Smith.

You could make an argument that Smith only began playing down the stretch in 2020, but he did make an impact to the tune of a sack and 2.5 TFLs.

Ray missed healthy portions of the last two seasons, but even in a situational role in 2018, he racked up six TFLs and 2.5 sacks.

Mathis was arguably the 2020 group’s most consistent performer. He totaled 31 tackles and five TFLs in a role that could be summed up as thankless at best.

Then you have the three juniors in Dale, Eboigbe and Young who’ve played a bunch of football since their freshmen seasons. That season Dale won the nose guard spot during the spring and Young and Eboigbe were thrust into action following the early-season injury to Ray.

While Dale spent a lot of last season playing with a nagging knee injury from the season before, he, Young and Eboigbe built upon solid freshman campaigns. The stats aren’t gaudy, but the depth they provide in an era of high-speed offense is pivotal.

This brings us to 2021. How will the defensive line look this upcoming season?

The base 3-4 will probably have Ray, Mathis and Dale on the first team with Eboigbe, Smith and Young as the change-ups. Don’t be fooled by what the fall depth chart reads. All of these guys will be seeing the field. Depending on how the opposing offense comes out, you could see as few as two on the first play.

While Dale will be the primary anchor of the unit, it’s not a guarantee that he’s the nose guard who will have the sexiest numbers. That will probably be Smith.

I see Tim Smith’s role in the defense as similar to Marcell Dareus’ in 2009. That season, Dareus came in primarily during “dime rabbit”, passing situations. What resulted was nine TFLs and 6.5 sacks.

And Smith may be more athletic.

If healthy, Ray will probably be the other third-down lineman with Young, Eboigbe, Mathis and Dale subbing in and out during first-and-second-down situations.

Who will step up to help the aforementioned players? Will redshirt junior Stephon Wynn finally break out? Can sophomore nose guard Jamil Burroughs add depth at nose given his mop-up duty snaps last season? Perhaps heralded true freshmen Damon Payne or Monkell Goodwine will provide a spark late in the season when depth will be most important.

What is so exciting about the 2021 defensive line unit is anything is possible. Will they account for as many sacks as the 2015 squad? Maybe not. With the number of mobile QBs on their schedule, it may not be possible.

Ultimately, the greatest signifiers of success for the 2021 unit are their ability to stop the run (something that’s been missing from the last few Alabama football defenses) and cause breakdowns in the opposing offense that allows for edge-rushing beasts like Chris Allen and Will Anderson to wreak havoc.

Next. After 10 spring practices .... dark

I believe they can do it. And I believe they will be mentioned in the same breath as 2015 when it’s all said and done.