That Marcel Dareus had such a dominant year in 2009 really didn't come as a surprise to those who knew him. Most outside the program, however, didn't expect that kind of production from the talented young sophomore. This isn't the first time the dominant young defensive lineman has been underestimated though.
It was fairly late in the 2008 recruiting season before Dareus started coming to the attention of schools around the south. The youngster from Huffman High School in Birmingham, Alabama was considered a sleeper by most programs. However, Nick Saban's Alabama staff realized his potential and made him a priority from the start.
The Tide coaching staff had no doubt what Dareus was capable of accomplishing on the field. Their only concern was if he'd be eligible in time to enroll in the fall. When he scored an 18 on the ACT the winter of his senior year, he immediately received a written offer from Alabama.
Still, he would need a strong finish in his final high school semester to maintain a high enough GPA to be eligible. Three A's and two B's on his final report card eliminated those concerns.
Though he visited North Carolina and took a trip down to the Plains, most insiders felt his recruitment was over the second he stepped foot on the Alabama's campus. Dareus left the Capstone saying, "I was blown away."
Despite only making four tackles as a freshman, the light seemed to come on for the youngster late in the season. So impressed was the coaching staff that he was named as mammoth nose-guard Terrance "Mount" Cody's backup against LSU.
His combination of a non-stop motor, brute strength, and nose for the football had earned him the nickname of "The Beast." In the two scrimmages that took place in fall camp before the 2009 season he managed to rack up four sacks.
With NFL quality size, strength, and speed, many insiders considered him the most talented defensive lineman on the Alabama roster. Nick Saban's non-existent depth chart listed him as a backup to senior Brandon Deaderick headed into the Tide's opener with Virginia Tech. All that changed, however, when Deaderick was wounded twice during a hold up just days before the Tide's opener with Virginia Tech.
With insiders raving about him I wrote an article after news of the shooting broke. In the story I pointed out that Dareus was ready to make his mark.
I was immediately attacked by a Hokies fan who felt I was being a homer for suggesting that Deaderick's backup might have been the most talented defensive lineman on the team. Despite the negative response it wasn't hard to stand by what I'd written. Every once in awhile a player comes along that is considered a "can't miss" type prospect and Dareus was that type player.
The "Beast" didn't disappoint. Dareus totaled a sack and a half against the Hokie's and was one of several on the Tide's front seven that kept constant pressure on Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
He ended the season leading the Tide in sacks, as well as leading all defensive lineman in tackles and tackles for loss. He capped off his coming out party by being named the Defensive MVP in the BCS Championship game.
Dareus sacked Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, knocking him out of the game just a few ticks of the clock after the coin flip. Alabama defensive end Brandon Deaderick wasn't even sure who it was that had laid the lick it happened so quickly.
"I saw somebody fly up out of the corner of my eye and I thought it was Nico (Johnson) or somebody, but man, Dareus really drilled that dude," said Deaderick. "I didn't know he was hurt right away. I didn't know until two series later that he was out (for the remainder of the game)."
Dareus then picked off a shovel pass from McCoy's backup and returned it for a touchdown with just a few seconds left in the first half. His score turned out to be the winning points in the game.
And he did it all of course as a backup, starting only four games all season long.
Dareus was admittedly surprised as to how well his year had gone. "When I came out of Birmingham, I was a mediocre recruit. I didn't think I was going to accomplish all this."
With the graduation of the Tide's entire starting defensive line from this past season, No. 57 will anchor a 2010 group that may be lacking starts but not experience. They will lack the overall size of the 2009 group but should be able to make up for it with improved athleticism.
Dareus will need to continue to improve, as will his linemates, if the Tide is to be able to defend its SEC and National title.
With Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart having to replace both starting corners and safety Justin Woodall, the Alabama defensive line will need to be able to generate constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks to help the young secondary out, particularly early in the season.
Dareus is the type of player that makes those around him better. If he can elevate the already strong play of nose guards Josh Chapman and Kerry Murphy, as well as fellow end Damian Square, it will open up many more options for the Bama D. Among them are allowing the Tide to play the nickel and dime sets that Saban's defense's are known for without having to blitz extra backers every down.
This particularly comes in handy against strong passing offenses and teams that run the spread.
Opposing offenses will be forced to pick their poison in 2010. Concentrate on shutting down the "Beast" on passing downs and the Crimson Tide's "Jack" linebacker Courtney Upshaw could very quickly have a quarterback either seeing stars or laying on his back looking up at them.
Don't double team him, however, and a sack or a tackle behind the line of scrimmage is almost a given.
This time next year it's likely Dareus will be preparing for the NFL combine should he choose to declare for the draft a year early. Odds are he will go into that draft expected to be a high first round NFL draft choice.
That's not too bad for a kid from Birmingham that just three short years earlier could only manage a small handful of offers to play college football.