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Depth is key to Alabama's defensive dominance up front

Christian Barmore has moved on to the NFL, and LaBryan Ray is back on the injury report, but Alabama's defensive line is just as distributive as ever.

According to sources in attendance, the Crimson Tide’s defense dominated the team’s first scrimmage over the weekend, tallying a handful of sacks on each of Alabama’s three scholarship quarterbacks. Part of that production was due to a few missing faces on the first-team offensive line as Evan Neal and Chris Owens were held out while Kendall Randolph suffered a sprained ankle during the workout. However, the Tide’s talented front seven would have likely still made life difficult for a full-strength unit.

“I felt like we did a pretty good job,” junior defensive lineman Justin Eboigbe said. “I think it was the first opportunity to really play live football and to, you know, let the young guys get a chance to play and for us to have a chance to see where we are and to grow for the next scrimmage.”

Alabama has a history of keeping the front end of its defense well stocked. The Tide has produced 12 draft picks on the defensive line over the past six years, including eight first- and second-round selections.

Jonathan Allen stepped in for A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed in 2016, earning the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Bednarik Award. Daron Payne took over the unit the following year before Quinnen Williams took home the Outland Trophy in 2018.

Barmore, who has led the line the past two seasons, was selected by the New England Patriots in the second round of this year’s NFL Draft. While this year’s Alabama unit might currently be devoid of a marquee name, it’s positioned nicely for another successful reload. The Tide’s strength this season is better defined by its depth than its stars.

Following Saturday’s scrimmage, Nick Saban said his team has “eight or nine guys that might be able to contribute in that rotation.” That’s not even counting preseason All-SEC outside linebackers Will Anderson Jr. and Chris Allen, who essentially serve as defensive ends in certain packages.

Saban didn’t list his eight or nine possible contributors, but it isn’t difficult to guess some of the names he’s referring to.

Despite his injury, Ray is certainly on the list as he enters his fifth year with the program. The same can be said about fellow redshirt senior Phidarian Mathis, who holds a leadership position on the team. D.J. Dale is entering his third season as the starting nose guard while fellow juniors Byron Young and Eboigbe have both started games in each of the past two seasons. Tim Smith has seen time with the first-team unit during practice this fall, while fellow sophomore Jah-Marien Latham was pictured making a tackle on starting running back Brian Robinson during the scrimmage.

That’s seven players without even including Rivals100 freshmen Damon Payne and Monkell Goodwine.

“I feel like we can roll very deep,” Eboigbe said. “I feel like having young guys step up and be able to contribute is a big thing because you need to remain fresh on D-line. I feel like the better we are fresher, the better contribution we can put to the team.”

Alabama’s returning starters — Dale, Eboigbe, Mathis, Ray and Young — have a combined 52 starts over the past two seasons. However, while the veterans figure to help add on-field stability, leadership duties have been handed out to every member of the unit.

“I feel like everyone contributes as a leader, holding everyone accountable,” Eboigbe said. “It doesn’t matter how old you are or how young you are. If you ain’t picking up on what you need to do, I feel like we can all hold each other accountable to get each other pushing to get through whatever we need to get through and to get to the point where we need to be, and that’s to become a better defensive line.”

Last season, all four of Alabama’s permanent team captains were offensive players as DeVonta Smith, Mac Jones, Alex Leatherwood and Landon Dickerson were all selected for the honor by their peers. Over the first few weeks this fall, it's apparent that the Tide’s defensive players will have a bigger say in the team’s success both on and off the field.

“I think taking the next step is understanding that you’re supposed to do your one of 11 no matter who you are, and do your one of 11 to the best of your ability,” Eboigbe said. “Have faith in what you are doing and know that the guy beside you is going to do the best of their ability… Understand that if you do your one of 11, we’re going to be pretty good.”

Alabama's defensive line goes through drills during practice. Photo | Alabama Athletics
Alabama's defensive line goes through drills during practice. Photo | Alabama Athletics