Alabama's pass rush under Nick Saban has always been potent enough to place in the upper half of the SEC but this season they could make a push to be the best.
The Tide's two best years in this department were first in 2009 when they tallied 31 sacks for third in the SEC and 30 in 2011, fourth in the SEC.
The amount of success this year's unit will have is steeped in mystery as there are no thoroughly proven pass-rushers like Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw.
The potential is there, however. All it's going to take for this unit to put up crazy numbers is a bit of cohesion and success by all players during blitzes. Let's take a look at the Tide's pass-rushers starting with the defensive linemen.
It's all going to start up front with new nose tackle Jesse Williams. It will be up to him to control the line of scrimmage and take on the double teams, and there will be a lot of double teams because there may not be a center in the nation that can take him and his 600 lb. bench press on alone.
Williams had a lot of success playing left defensive end last year. He wasn't exactly Marcell Dareus, but his size and athleticism are pretty close. All he needed was some experience and now he has it.
He made one sack and caused three quarterback hurries in 2011, and now that he better understands the Alabama defense and honed his technique, he just might expand on those numbers from a more difficult position.
On his sides he will have two excellent defensive ends in Damion Square and Quinton Dial.
Veteran starter Damion Square reprises his role as the Tide's right defensive end. At 6'3" and likely near or at 300 lbs., Square is a powerful end with a lot of lean body weight.
Square also had one sack and forced three quarterback hurries last season, but his primary job was to make sure Upshaw was free to make plays. In that regard, he was successful as Upshaw ran wild most of the season. Square made three sacks in 2010.
Can Square finally break out and become more than just a decoy for Alabama's Jack linebacker? That will still be his primary role, but he'll be expected to get to the quarterback himself as well.
On the other side, Quinton Dial will take Williams' place at left defensive end. Dial is a big name that Alabama fans have been waiting a long time to see in a starting role.
Dial committed to the Tide back in 2008 but ended up playing the 2009 and 2010 seasons at East Mississippi Community College where he played defensive tackle and saw less action than he should have in 2011.
He looked to be a star backup who would push for starting time all year, but after a blatant late hit on Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson, which visibly infuriated Nick Saban, he was put in Saban's "dog house."
After that hit, he was benched for the rest of the Arkansas game and barely played against Ole Miss the following week.
One late hit doesn't display issues with discipline, and he hasn't made a mistake like since then.
At 6'6", 304 lbs., Dial is built like a defensive tackle which is perfect for a 3-4 defensive end.
His long arms and strength are going to allow him to really push the pocket and provide a consistent threat on the side opposite of the Tide's Jack linebacker. Here are the linebackers that will pressure the passer:
The linebackers are highlighted by a possible new starter at either Jack or Sam linebacker, 6'6", 248 lb. Adrian Hubbard.
He's not quite as bulky as Upshaw was at 6'2", 272 lbs., but when it comes to combination of size and speed, Hubbard has a distinct advantage.
Hubbard made a big impact in 2011 as a redshirt freshman and followed up a great season with an incredible spring practice.
He will maintain Alabama's pass-rushing threat from the outside, but can he eclipse Upshaw's 9.5 sacks from last season? If the spring game against Alabama's offensive line is any indication, then it's certainly possible.
Hubbard is guaranteed to start at Jack linebacker. He can play Sam linebacker as well, and you will see him moving between the left and right side of the line frequently.
For a time I was convinced that Xzavier Dickson, a true freshman in 2011 (and 6'3", 240 lbs. at the time), would be the eventual starter at Jack linebacker. That nearly changed after Hubbard gave a great showing in the spring. Nearly.
Dickson is now at 262 lbs. and has been used both on the defensive line as well as Jack linebacker and could be a solid candidate to start there this year.
As reported by Don Kausler Jr. of The Birminham News, according to Saban, however, there won't be much difference between Jack and Sam this year. Saban said
We have two outside linebackers. If you say 'Who are we going to play at the end of the day?' The two best outside linebackers. Not a Sam, not a Jack. Hubbard played Sam for a long time, he's played Jack some. Xzavier Dickson's played Jack. We've got Dillon Lee playing Sam, lots of young players competing at the position. All those guys are going to compete, but at the end of the day when we play against regular people, we're going to play the best two outside 'backers.
If Dickson has improved his play as much as his weight, then he could easily become a starter along with Adrian Hubbard.
If not, then Saban won't break tradition and continue to start an upper-classman at Sam, and it will likely be Jonathan Atchison.
If things play out as they should, it will be Dickson at Jack and Hubbard at Sam, but like Nick Saban said, the two best OLBs will be played regardless of Jack or Sam.
The middle linebackers are where the real meat is at for Alabama, and the group this year just might be better than the last, provided one guy lives up to his hype.
That guy is Trey DePriest. The 6'2", 242 lb. sophomore looks to be making a push to become the starting Mike linebacker. Dont'a Hightower's shoes could easily be too big for him to fill this year, but if history repeats, it will be an achievable feat at some point in his career.
Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley, who split time almost straight down the middle in 2011, both return and will contribute heavily.
They are the most experienced game contributors at middle linebacker on the roster, Johnson especially.
Some will say that neither can play Mike linebacker, but if Saban is willing to play his two best outside linebackers, regardless of Jack or Sam, then it wouldn't be a stretch to think he may just play his two best inside linebackers as well.
DePriest made quite a showing on special teams last year but has proven very little during regular game time. Johnson and Mosley, however, have extensively proven their value to the team.
Johnson's experience and ability to be a leader would make him an excellent Mike linebacker. He earned three starts as a true freshman at Will in 2009 after Dont'a Hightower was injured in the Arkansas game.
Many forget that Hightower started his career at Will linebacker and only played the first three games in 2010 at Mike before finishing the season at Will and subsequently became the starting Mike linebacker in 2011.
Johnson was a 5-star recruit coming out of high school and just as highly touted as DePriest, Mosley and Hightower. He played the Mike position just as much as Hightower did before 2011 started.
Mosley has displayed a certain excellence in the pass-coverage game, but he can force the line of scrimmage as well and make plays in the backfield. His two sacks and 4.5 tackles for losses are a display of this.
Regardless of who the starting middle linebackers are, they are going to be used heavily in blitzes.
Even with some new faces in the secondary, Nick Saban likes to let them do their thing and let the linebackers do their thing. That's why Alabama blitzes so often.
Alabama's pass-rushing attack is going to be something else this year.
Will they rack up more stats than the Tide's historic 2011 defense? Maybe, maybe not. They will, however, be a terror for opposing quarterbacks.
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