The exchange between coach Nick Saban and the media following the University of Alabama’s practice Monday afternoon signaled that the pleasantries were over for this spring.
Reporter: “Nick, you have what appears to be some quality depth along the defensive line. I was just wondering how you would assess that group so far?”
Saban: “Why would you … we lost two starters there, is that right?”
Reporter: “I would just … it appears that you have.”
Saban: “Well, what’s appear mean? It just means you’ve dreamed about it and it’s there?”
Reporter: “I said that it appears that you have quality depth.”
Saban: “What, on paper?"
Saban: “What it looks like on paper? We’ve never seen these guys play or seen them take on an SEC lineman or anything like that. But it appears. I like that, it appears. That’s how we form public opinion because someone appears to be good so everyone believes it.”
Reporter: “I asked how you would assess it.”
Saban: “Well, they’ve got a long way to go. I’m not satisfied with the way any of them are playing, if you want to know the truth about it. They’ve got to be more aggressive, physical, play with better leverage, hold the point better, rush the passer better. I didn’t think that last year was one of our best years up front, and even though we have a couple new players competing and Dalvin Tomlinson back, I think all of them have a ways to go.”
Thus, the first strong message of the spring was sent by Saban to both the media and his players. For the reporters, it was to stop making assumptions about anyone who has yet to even compete in a scrimmage, never mind a game, and for the players it’s keep your focus: “You haven’t done anything yet.”
That was a problem that plagued the Crimson Tide when it lost the final two games last season and failed to become the first program of the modern age to win three straight national championships. It’s also something that Saban is determined to keep from happening again.
Granted, he’s been talking about the team’s maturity level and focus since the Crimson Tide returned to the practice fields in mid-March, but this was the first time he’s called out a position group or specific players.
Part of the reason is because even the reporters can see some of the defensive line’s potential.
Although reserve nose tackle Darren Lake is out for the rest of spring after having surgery to fix a pectoral muscle, Alabama’s defensive line already has a very distinct look to it that can’t be ignored.
“Strong and big,” described senior right tackle Austin Shepherd. “They've gotten bigger every year.”
In particular, the Crimson Tide has better size at the end positions, which is reminiscent of when Marcell Dareus played for Alabama in 2008-2010.
This isn’t to suggest that either junior-college transfer Jarran Reed or sophomore A’Shawn Robinson will be as powerful or explosive as Dareus or could develop into the same kind of player (they also don’t have the luxury of playing next to two-time All-American Terrence Cody).
But they do have similar size and versatility.
Dareus was 6'3", 300-plus pounds at Alabama, and he weighed 319 when he was the third-overall selection by the Buffalo Bills in the 2011 draft.
Reed, who played defensive tackle last season for junior college national champion East Mississippi Community College, is listed as 6'4", 310 pounds. Robinson, Alabama’s sack leader last season as a freshman, is 6'4", 320.
“A’Shawn Robinson has a lot of ability, but I think we need to get him in shape and he’s got to play with better focus and intensity, down in and down out, to be more consistent,” Saban said. “Defensively we have a ways to go to improve to get back to the level and our standard of what we like to play here.”
In other words, sure, they might pass the eye test, but at Alabama, that won’t even get you through the second week of spring practice.
Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.