DALLAS — Standing next to his teammates, little ol’ Da’Shawn Hand looks petite. The nation’s former No. 1 recruit at his position from a couple of classes ago, now resigned to third string on the depth chart, is an oak tree in a forest of Sequoias.
Only, Hand isn’t small. He’s listed at 6’4” and 273 pounds, which is what you would want your defensive end to look like if you were designing him from scratch. He’s also immensely gifted and destined for stardom, so don’t read into the whole third-string thing too deeply, either.
Hand is merely a product of a unique environment. He is a member of the Alabama defensive line, college football’s deepest, most freakish and scariest collection of human beings.
“They’re like creatures, honestly,” Alabama center Ryan Kelly said. “They just look unbelievable. All huge guys, all long arms, and all of them are as strong as an ox.”
“I call them savages,” defensive back Eddie Jackson said. “Like a bunch of caged animals.”
“Pack of wolves,” linebacker Denzel Devall said. “Wild animals.”
The anchor of the defensive line, defensive end A’Shawn Robinson, is a sight to behold without his pads. He’s a giant block of muscle and mass—a 312-pound 20-year-old who looks nothing like his age would imply. And to top it all off, he has the beard to match the build.
While Robinson might be the centerpiece, he is one of many.
Jarran Reed led Alabama's defensive linemen in tackles. Jonathan Allen led the team in sacks and tackles for loss. This is a collaborative effort.
“I would say up front, they rotate 11 guys,” Michigan State center Jack Allen said. “They're all very talented. They have great hand placement. They're big athletic guys. Very physical.”
This is not the new normal. This is not the sport’s next great trend. This won’t be something easily duplicated—even at a place like Alabama that harvests 5-stars yearly.
Unlike most teams preparing for a game with tremendous stakes—and a playoff game certainly meets those requirements—the most important piece isn’t the quarterback. It’s not the supremely gifted freshman wide receiver. It’s not even the Heisman-winning running back or one of the greatest coaches to ever stroll a sideline.
It’s the brick wall that was built in Tuscaloosa and transported to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl. It’s the defensive line that limited opponents to 962 rushing yards all season, which was No. 1 in the nation. For some unnecessary perspective, North Carolina allowed 645 yards rushing to Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Tuesday night.
Alabama also led the nation in rushing yards allowed per game (74) and yards per carry allowed per game (2.4).
We haven’t seen anything close since 2011. The team? Why, it was Alabama, of course.
The starting defensive linemen listed—Robinson, Darren Lake and Reed—each weigh more than 310 pounds. Not a single player on the three-deep provided at the Cotton Bowl was listed at less than 270 pounds.
|Alabama's Defensive Linemen (Cotton Bowl Media Guide)|
Although there is indeed a defined depth chart, it really doesn’t tell us much.
Because of Alabama’s unimaginable depth up front—and because it lines up in so many formations, a luxury made possible because of the outstanding linebackers capable of playing at the line of scrimmage—the front of the nation’s best defense rarely looks the same.
“I want to take it to Athens with me,” Alabama defensive coordinator and newly minted Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “You think I can do that? Think I’ll be a better coach if these guys come with me? It’s the best group we have ever had.”
What makes this particular defensive line unique from those Nick Saban has built in recent years, however, is the way it has gotten to quarterbacks.
While generating pressure has never been an issue, Alabama has never been a team that produced gaudy sack totals. That changed in 2015. The Crimson Tide finished with 46 sacks in 2015—leading the nation in this department as well.
The linebackers have obviously played a significant role in these elevated totals—especially given how much time some of them spend at the line of scrimmage. But even then, it all starts up front.
“We hardly don’t have to blitz on third down,” Devall said. “We can just rush four and get pressure on the quarterback.”
This has also had an impact on the secondary, which dramatically improved in 2015. The same can be said about the other side of the ball.
Beyond simply being paired with an exceptional group, the Alabama offense has benefited from it. On game days, they are one collective, cohesive unit.
But in practice, this is what the offense is up against.
When quarterback Jake Coker first arrived from Florida State, he got a glimpse of his new everyday life. He went from practicing against a defense ripe with gifted linemen to, well, practicing against a defense ripe with more of the same.
“Either I was going to get a lot better,” Coker said. “Or I am going to be in a lot of pain. They’re a big part of the demeanor we establish as a team. They do a lot to create that mentality.”
“Everyday in practice we play the best defense that we’re going to play,” offensive tackle Cam Robinson said. “Period.”
The same can be said for the three teams Alabama will compete with for a national championship. They haven’t seen anything like this. Frankly, not many have.
In a sport so consumed by points, yards and touchdowns, the key to Alabama’s latest title run exists in the barricade that has been assembled over the years.
It is not a single player or even players—it is a much larger conglomerate that is bordering on unfair. If you want to win it all, this is what you're up against.
You have to deal with the “savages” first.
Recruit rankings courtesy of 247Sports.