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8. Defensive tackle
This one has flown under the radar a bit in large part to the ease by which Quinnen Williams replaced Da’Ron Payne last year. Now’s a good time, however, to ask yourself whether Alabama can bank on a relative unknown player rising to not only meet, but exceed the challenge two years in a row.
Unlike the other position battles above, there really isn’t any competition here. This is going to be Phidarian Mathis’ job to lose. Mathis started slowly in 2018 but by the end of the year, was probably the second-best reserve at any of the DL positions behind only LaBryan Ray. No one is expecting him to be Williams Part II, but no one was expecting Williams to be Payne Part II, either. The real question here is what depth looks like.
Ray isn’t a nose, and he’s expected to start at the T/E combo position, anyway. Raekwon Davis has the size to play in the middle but he brings more disruptiveness to the defense if allowed to play on the edge. That leaves Tevita Musika as the only holdover NT from 2018, and Musika played virtually none in the second half of the year. Stephon Wynn Jr. and Christian Barmore are expected to play big roles as reserves this year, but whether they can do it at the nose tackle slot is another matter.
Alabama brought in D.J. Dale in for early spring work; he’s no doubt a nosetackle, but Dale was considered more of a long-term prospect at the time of his signing. Neither Justin Eboigbe nor Antonio Alfano are thought of as ideal nose types, but Alfano is a good enough prospect as an end or outside tackle that he might be good enough to bump Davis inside on early downs.
Summary: There is talent all over the place here, more in fact than there was last year, overall. Experience is at a premium and the issue of “fit” is of even greater concern. Also, Alabama’s decision to move on from Craig Kuligowski as defensive line coach – a move that caught many off-guard given Kuligowski’s proven track record of developing pass-rushing linemen – in favor of Brian Banks signals a core change in philosophy. Alabama isn’t expected to be quite as aggressive up front in 2019, or at least more mindful of its risk/reward ratio. The players that can execute assignments are going to rise to the top of the depth chart.
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