Alabama history is full of stories about underdogs who played important roles in big games and for great teams. But it wouldn't be honest to say most Tide fans were fired up at the notion of a 6'0", 280-pound walk-on starting in the middle of the defensive line on a team trying to post a winning record in the SEC.
As it turns out, Griffin acquitted himself well. While he was not a flashy playmaker, he handled his assignments, played unselfishly and tied up offensive linemen while Cornelius Wortham, Demeco Ryans and company finished things off from their linebacker positions.
Alabama's challenge in 2005 will be to replace its top statistical leaders at both tackle and end. Anthony Bryant led the defensive line in virtually every category – solo tackles, total tackles, sacks and quarterback hurries. While Mark Anderson and Wallace Gilberry got most of the press at defensive end, it was steady Todd Bates who led his unit in tackles.
Bryant and Bates are gone, though, leaving Alabama to look for a pair of players that, first and foremost, can stay healthy.
Such was not the case among Alabama's other defensive tackles last year. Aside from Griffin, who managed to stay in one piece throughout the season, Jeremy Clark, Justin Britt and Dominic Lee all spent more than their fair share of time in the doctor's office.
Clark was a starter last year opposite the Bryant/Griffin duo. His size makes him a "tweener" – bigger than ideal for an end, perhaps not quite big enough to be an SEC tackle – but he has developed into a solid, dependable player that doesn't make many mistakes.
Griffin now moves into a starting role by himself instead of splitting it with Bryant. Griffin isn't much of a pass rusher, but he can be hard to move against the run. The key for both Griffin and Clark, however, is to be not just solid against the run, but a force. Alabama ranked 2nd nationally in total defense last year, but only 37th against the run. As seen in the Music City Bowl against Minnesota, a large part of that number was due to some softness up the middle.
It's interesting, therefore, that the players behind Griffin and Clark may actually be better prospects, but haven't yet been able to crack the starting rotation. It may not take long for sophomore Justin Britt to do that, though. Britt was very active and a quick learner as a true freshman in 2004. His most memorable moment was a sack against Mississippi State that came at a crucial moment. Alabama needs a true playmaker in the middle, and Britt might be it. If he cracks the starting lineup, look for him to replace Griffin as a starter instead of Clark.
Dominic Lee might be the most talented tackle Alabama has, but persistent injury woes (as well as conditioning issues) have kept him on the bench for most of his first two years. Lee is a prototypical college nose guard, but has explosiveness other players his size lack. Coaches and fans alike hope this is the year the lights go on for Lee.
Chris Turner would have competed for a starting job, had he stayed with the team. Turner suddenly quit the team in the spring, leaving Alabama to wonder what he could have achieved had he stayed. In his one year, Turner put up some eye-popping stats: 10 total tackles, four of them for a loss, and a sack in what was a very limited number of snaps.
With Turner gone, Alabama took a look at several walk-ons in spring drills. J.P. Adams and Justin Johnson, both defensive ends originally, had solid springs and looked able to play at least a series or so in fall games to spell the starters. Allen Long, who missed part of spring with an injury, is another option.
At defensive end, Bates didn't get the press of teammates Mark Anderson and Wallace Gilberry, but he was still second among linemen in sacks (5.5), led in tackles and was just as good against the run as he was the pass. Replacing him will be Gilberry's job full-time in 2005. Gilberry had some of the most absurd stats of any defensive lineman in Alabama history in 2004 – he recorded 28 tackles, 13 coming from behind the line of scrimmage and 6.5 sacks, despite not starting a game. On the downside, Gilberry is small for a defensive end, and one has to question how the change from the brutish Bates to the smaller Gilberry will affect Alabama's run defense.
Anderson came to Alabama as a linebacker-end combo player with the reputation as a good pass rusher but not much else. It was odd, then, to see Anderson collecting only 1.5 sacks in 2004. But he was good against the run, and often the energy the opposition spent trying to keep him out of their backfield resulted in Bates or Gilberry getting turned loose on the other side. Nonetheless, Anderson needs to continue to improve as he begins his senior season.
The top reserve on both sides will be Chris Harris, who went from the verge of being considered a recruiting bust to a solid player in his redshirt sophomore year. Harris was strong against both run and pass, and pushed Gilberry for a starting job in the spring. Keith Saunders also figures to get more playing time in 2005. He didn't record a single tackle in 2004, but had a breakout spring and gave the Tide OL fits during scrimmages. Like Gilberry, Saunders is on the small side for a defensive end.
Unlike tackle, where walk-ons stepped forward in the spring, Alabama had trouble developing end depth. Stephen Kulback and Tremayne Wright are on the squad, but both figure to get passed quickly by signees.
Fortunately, Alabama signed a ton of players on the defensive line. At tackle, Byron Walton is set to report at 6'4" and around 300 pounds. He'll almost certainly play as a freshman if he can get comfortable in the scheme. Brandon Fanney and Lorenzo Washington can play either tackle or end. Expect Fanney to get the first shot at snaps between those two.
Brandon Deaderick may have the most upside of any Tide defensive line signee. He figures to top out around 6'4", 270, with great speed and quickness. Travis McCall could line up at fullback, tight end or middle linebacker, but defensive end is his natural position. Baron Huber and Zach Schreiber were linebackers in high school, but both could move to defensive end. Late signee Eryk Anders will report as an outside linebacker, but could move to defensive end if he outgrows the position. Of all Alabama's defensive line signees, only one player, Antonio Forbes, failed to meet academic requirements for entry.
Summary: If the Alabama defense had a weak link in 2004, it was probably the middle of its defensive line. While more help is on the way in the form of the new signees, the key issue here is for Alabama's existing tackles to get better and stay healthy, especially while the new players get accustomed to SEC football. The more fans read about Britt and Lee challenging for playing time, the better they can feel about the health of this unit. A less-talked-about issue is whether Gilberry can go from being a highly effective situational player to a full-time, all-situation starter at defensive end. Don't be surprised, too, to see one of Alabama's walk-ons at tackle emerge as did Griffin a year ago.
2004 Players: DT Anthony Bryant (12 games, 10 solo, 12 assists, 3 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 QB hurries), DT Jeremy Clark (12 games, 6 solo, 14 assist, 2 TFL, 1 PBU, 0.5 sacks), DT Rudy Griffin (12 games, 4 solo, 13 assist, 3 TFL, 1 FR), DT Dominic Lee (8 games, 2 solo, 11 assist, 1 TFL), DT Justin Britt (11 games, 3 solo, 9 assist, 2 TFL, 1 sack), DT Chris Turner (8 games, 5 solo, 5 assist, 4 TFL, 1 sack), DT Allen Long (1 game, 1 assist), DT J.P. Adams (no stats), DE Todd Bates (12 games, 23 solo, 25 assists, 8 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 1 FR, 4 QB hurries), DE Mark Anderson (12 games, 23 solo, 18 assists, 11 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 8 QB hurries, 2 FR, 2 FC), DE Wallace Gilberry (12 games, 14 solo, 14 assists, 13 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 7 QB hurries, 2 FR, 2 FC), DE Chris Harris (12 games, 6 solo, 10 assists, 3 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 QB hurry), DE Keith Saunders (no stats).