Spring Outlook: D-Line needs to improve

There's probably not a single position on the squad that Bama more desperately needs improvement from than defensive line. But given hard realities of graduation and the NFL, it frankly may not be realistic to expect significant progress right away.

It doesn't take a football genius to know that defensive execution begins (and often ends) on the line of scrimmage. In front of every linebacker who's setting records for tackles, you'll always find tough linemen willing to take on the blocks and free up the backer to make the hit. Likewise, even an All-American cornerback will get burned if he's forced to chase his man all over the field due to an anemic pass rush.

Generally Bama's D-Linemen underachieved in 2003, and prospects for the immediate future can't be considered that much better.

Nautyn McKay-Loescher and Leslie Williams, two scholarshipped seniors off last year's squad, finished their eligibility. And two juniors, Antwan Odom and Ahmad Childress, have declared early for the NFL draft. Fans can debate the wisdom of such decisions all they want (Odom will be drafted; Childress probably not), but the end result of two big bodies lost remains the same. Veteran walk-ons Jonathan Brunson and John Paul Bevel, who saw limited action last year, have also graduated.

Defensive end Todd Bates will return to action this season.

On the positive side of the ledger, no less than five linemen that sat out last year will be available in 2004 and during spring drills. Keith Saunders (6-4, 231), Wallace Gilberry (6-2, 239) and Justin Johnson (6-2, 248) all took a redshirt their first season on campus and now appear poised to contend for playing time. Rudy Griffin (6-0, 284) sat out last season after transferring in from the Citadel. And after serving a one-year suspension, Todd Bates (6-4, 253) returns raring to go.

On balance, it's not a bad tradeoff from 2003 to 2004. But McKay-Loescher, Odom and Childress represent an awful lot of SEC snaps that will have to be replaced somehow.

On passing downs especially, the line between "end" and "tackle" is hardly set in stone, but eight athletes were listed at defensive end on Bama's 2004 spring roster:

NOTE that both Johnson and Griffin (Griffin especially) will almost certainly end up taking snaps at tackle, if they manage to earn playing time on Saturdays.

Wallace Gilberry (#92) talks with Chris Harris (#91) during practice.

Anderson (6-5, 239) and Bates start spring as the clear front-runners to start. Both need to continue to add strength (especially Anderson), but they're tall enough and fast enough to present match-up problems rushing the passer.

After losing a year's eligibility to what most fans consider a too-harsh punishment for inadvertently using a banned substance, Bates especially is primed for a huge season. Which is good, because the Tide defense will need that (and more) from him in 2004.

As much due to McKay-Loescher's failure to step up as anything else, Anderson ended up starting the second half of last season. He has legitimate talent, but the Oklahoma native must have another productive year in the weight room.

Like Anderson and Bates, Chris Harris (6-5, 241) has the size to play end, but so far he hasn't put it all together. He'll be a redshirt sophomore next year, and now is the time for Harris to step up and prove he can compete in the SEC.

After wowing the public with a dominating performance in last year's Alabama/Mississippi high school all-star game, fans have been anxiously waiting for Gilberry's debut. He looks like a tackle, but plays like an end. Very quick, Gilberry excels rushing the passer. Interestingly, his redshirt freshman counterpart, Keith Saunders, looks like an end but loves to mix it up in the running game. No one is expecting instant stardom, but if both Saunders and Gilberry can earn a role in the playing rotation for next year that would be huge.

Besides Johnson and Griffin (both of whom we expect to end up at tackle), four other athletes were listed at tackle on the spring roster:

Academic concerns forced Bryant to briefly consider declaring for the NFL, but at this point he expects to graduate before the start of the season and thus "earn back" his fourth year of eligibility. Coupled with the significant conditioning work he has to do to continue to lose weight, Bryant's next few months promise to keep him plenty busy--both in the classroom and under the tutelage of Bama's strength coaches. Bryant's 44 tackles ranked 10th-best on last year's team. He was a steady player, who was improved the last several games. But Alabama badly needs for Bryant to step up his play and finally approach his vast physical potential.

Jeremy Clark (#99) started for most of last season.

As much due to inconsistency from Ahmad Childress as anything else, Jeremy Clark ended up starting last year as a redshirt freshman. Clark is a talented player with the potential to be very good, but there is no question that Bama's coaches were often frustrated last year with the lack of production from older defensive tackles on the squad.

Dominic Lee played last season as a true freshman, because the team needed him. At times he was effective, showing real promise at the position. Other times he looked like the first-year lineman he was. A naturally powerful athlete who is also very quick, basically the sky is the limit with Lee. But he'll need to use last season as a learning experience, getting stronger while also improving his technique and every-down effort.

A well-conditioned Bryant coupled with improving sophomores Lee and Clark would be an excellent start at building an effective playing rotation at tackle. Of course it'll take more than three to handle the load at tackle, but three other viable possibilities will try to catch the coaches' attention this spring.

After moving to tackle J.P. Adams (6-3, 262) earned some playing time last season, and there's no reason to think he can't continue to improve this year. A junior now after transferring, Griffin is a bowling-ball of an athlete who could help in a nose tackle role. He's no different from virtually every young defensive lineman in that Justin Johnson thinks of himself as an end, but his best bet for playing time at Alabama will be on the inside. His speed is nothing special for an end, but good enough for tackle. With another year of work in the weight room, Johnson could follow Adams' lead as a walk-on end who winds up taking snaps on the inside.

The Tide signed several excellent D-Line prospects this year, one of whom (Chris Turner) will transfer in from junior college and potentially play right away. But that's fall, and this is now.

Mark Anderson should start at one defensive end spot.

At this point fans might term Alabama's 2004 defensive line outlook as "Desperately Seeking Seniors." If the Tide has any realistic hope of actually improving from last year's production level and becoming a real asset to Bama's defensive statistics rather than otherwise, then most of that burden will fall to Anthony Bryant and Todd Bates.

Both veterans have more than their share of question marks surrounding them right now, but if everything goes well over the next several months it's not unrealistic to hope that they could enjoy all-conference-type seasons. Is that probable? No. But hope does spring eternal, especially at the start of spring drills.

In the "No Time Like the Present" category, sophomores Chris Harris and Dominic Lee have a chance to make a dramatic impact on the Bama defense. Most linemen need a year or two to adjust to the rough play, even brutality, of big-time football. That's nothing to be ashamed of. But if either (or both) Harris and Lee could somehow manage to skip a rung or two on the maturation ladder, it could pay big defensive dividends for the Tide in the fall.

NOTE: Both Kyle Tatum (6-7, 282) and Taylor Britt (6-4, 278) are listed at defensive tackle on the official spring roster. But BamaMag.com has learned that they will be tried at offensive tackle and offensive guard respectively in the spring. Of course it's entirely possible that experiment will fail and they'll end up back on defense, but for now we're listing them on offense. Look for the two to be mentioned in our offensive line spring preview later this week.

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