Alabama football: Crimson Tide defensive line becomes dependable after starting season as questionable

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerJanuary 1, 2012 

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- All that talk of ignoring outside criticism is easily spoken, but impossible to ignore.

Hardly oblivious to the preseason chatter, the Alabama defensive line tried to go about its business through the whispers.

“They thought we’d be the weak point,” first-year starter and defensive end Jesse Williams said.

The Crimson Tide still leads the nation in every major measure of defensive statistics. And it’s their dominance, starting with the line, that put No. 2 Alabama in the Jan. 9 BCS National Championship Game against No. 1 LSU.

But those preseason questions didn’t always come from outside the Alabama football complex. At SEC Media Days in July, Alabama coach Nick Saban said there wasn’t a prototypical pass rusher on the line after losing Marcell Dareus to the NFL.

“I’m not sure we have those kind of dominating down guys right now,” Saban said in July. “We’re trying to develop some of those guys as younger players.”

Though the handful of starters didn’t collect the 4.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hurries Dareus had a year ago, they also didn’t collapse under the pressure of filling his shoes. But it’s sometimes hard to quantify the success of a defensive line built to swallow blockers instead of stuffing stat sheets.

Starting defensive end Damion Square has 30 tackles to lead the group. That’s good for ninth on the team behind Vinnie Sunseri (31), who was a third-string safety and special-teams player most of the season.

Quinton Dial, a backup, is the next-best tackler in the group with 24 while starters Josh Chapman and Williams each have 22 stops.

The multiple formations and plays also shuffle the lineup regularly. Senior Nick Gentry, for instance, is a pass-rushing specialist whose 3.5 sacks lead all Tide linemen.

“Depth at that position is critical because, I think, players get tired at that position,” Saban said. “It’s critical to have the best guys in position at the most critical times.

So how do you measure success when numbers and playing time fluctuate?

“I equate players’ success more on do they do their job.” Saban said. “Can they finish plays when they do their job? And that’s probably as important in pass rush and will be very important in this game, because we’re going to play against such an athletic quarterback.”

The infusion of energy from first-year positional coach Chris Rumph also brought a different element to the mix. Coming from Clemson, the quick-witted coach keeps the mood light in practice while keeping the intensity high.

If anyone knows this Alabama defensive line, it’s their offensive counterparts. Left tackle Barrett Jones also acknowledged the unfavorable attention facing the guys across the ball without endorsing it.

“I know personally from blocking them in practice there’s a huge difference from the beginning of the year and now,” Jones said. “They’re just now starting to believe that they’re a strength of this team.”

Center William Vlachos called Josh Chapman “as good of a two-gap nose guard as you can find,” in a 3-4 defense.

“Do we have a Marcell Dareus out there? No,” Vlachos said. “But the way they play as a unit, and they bought into coach Rumph’s coaching, it’s been a unit that’s done their job and done it well.”

And they’ve cut down on a few of the mistakes made a year ago. The costly offside penalties that plagued the line in key moments a year ago are no longer an issue.

That comes with experience and maturity.

“Everybody sort of took on a responsibility of ‘I’m going to do my job well. I don’t want to let the other guys down, because I want to do my job well,’” Saban said. “Even though there were some questions about the defensive line, at the end of the season, I think the guys that played did a really, really good job.”

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