At this point, no less than three returning players (including two starters) are sidelined with injuries. Starting tackle Jarret Johnson has a sprained MCL. Starting end Kindal Moorehead had some cartilage damage in his knee repaired. And major contributor Todd Bates is plagued with chronic problems associated with a inflammed groin muscles.
Taken together, it means that Eggen and the Tide defensive coaches have had to scramble a bit this spring. "We've got some guys stepping up," Eggen said. "Nautyn (McKay-Loescher) has had a good spring. Anthony Bryant has continued to improve. And Antwan Odom is coming off an injury, but each day he improves. He's gaining more confidence. He's starting to understand what he can do when he goes full speed. I've been pleased with the progress. Not satisfied, but pleased."
Though two are currently injured, Eggen had special praise for the Tide's returning senior linemen, including Johnson, Moorhead, Kenny King and Derrick Sanders. Eggen explained, "They've got to continue to work hard, but what's been great is that they've given great leadership. If you look on the field, those three senior (starters) and Derrick Sanders, those were the guys that were leading, working the hardest, sprinting to the ball, pursuing, doing everything that you want players to do. That helped us develop this unit.
Exemplifying Eggen's point, Johnson actually sprained his knee ligament on a classic ‘effort' play, sprinting across the field in pursuit of Tyler Watts on a bootleg. "He was giving it his all on every snap," Eggen said. "And that's obviously what we're trying to instill in all the defense. Particularly on the defensive line."
Coming off double shoulder surgery to relieve chronic pain, Moorehead had been performing well, also, before he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his knee. "Kindal Moorehead probably still needs to get himself in better shape," Eggen said. "But after he comes back he'll be ready in the fall. As he continues to work, he'll gain confidence in his shoulders."
Though the recent injuries have eaten into that confidence somewhat, the consensus among fans is that tackle is a more critical position than end. But Eggen is cautiously optimistic. "Defensive tackle has been pretty good," he said. "Kenny (King) is going to play both inside and outside. Before he was injured, Jarret had as good a spring as anybody. Kenny and Jarret were dominating. Those two were making plays all over.
"Anthony Bryant is coming on. He still has a ways to go, but he's coming on. And then Derrick Sanders has played. So we've got guys that have taken snaps in there. We've just got to see what goes from there."
Of course no discussion of defensive tackle is complete without the obligatory question about the possibility of playing Moorehead some on the inside. "There is a chance," Eggen replied. "We're pretty multiple in terms of all three seniors have played outside, and they've taken snaps inside. We're just trying to find our best combination and also develop as much depth as we can.
"I feel better if we've got eight players or even nine to rotate in there. I think that showed the last half of the season, when we were able to make some plays, force and disrupt the other offense."
Though injuries are complicating things, Eggen believes his unit has added some speed and quickness rushing the passer off the end. "This spring we have talked to everybody about playing fast," he explained. "Attacking the line of scrimmage. And I think the carryover from last fall to this spring has been good. I think we're probably a little quicker right now because of what is going on in the weight room. So yes, I've been pleased with our quickness."
Obviously the availability of Bates and the continued improvement of Odom will be key at defensive end. But the Tide coaches are not displeased with the progress of Gerard Clark. At 6-6, 257 pounds and with good speed, if Clark could develop, the Tide rotation would suddenly get deeper. "He's coming; he shows flashes, you bet," Eggen said. "He's working harder. His work habits are improving. What Gerard needs right now is he still needs to become more consistent. When that happens, then he's a guy that certainly has a chance to factor in next fall."
Though he's working at defensive end, interestingly Eggen played Clark at tackle all last season for a reason. He explained, "End may be Gerard's more natural position, but he needed to be inside to learn how to play with his pad level low. So I left him inside last year, and hopefully that has helped him. He's been able to come forward at times this year, and I think part of that was because he did play inside last year."
Since the squad returned from spring break, the Tide defensive line has been bolstered by the addition of Atlas Herrion at nose tackle. Coach Franchione noted yesterday that the move is not yet permanent, but the coaches wanted Herrion to get in plenty of D-Line snaps just in case. "Of course, he's not near ready," Franchione said, "but he picks things up quickly. I'd like to have several like him. We want him to have a defensive foundation. He already has an offensive foundation."
Another former offensive lineman, Bart Raulston, was moved to tackle permanently back before the start of spring drills. "Bart has some potential, but he needs to develop," Eggen said. "First of all it's hard for someone to turn over and in ten practices be someone that you can notice. There are probably some situations that we're looking at realistically for Bart. Right now he's practicing them all. But he's working hard and starting to understand what he's doing.
"He is improving every day. He's not ready to contribute, but does he have a chance? Yes. Bart has a chance to find a role on this team if he continues to improve."
Depending on how you look at them, the numbers facing Eggen can be daunting. Healthy and proven performers would number no more than four: Odom, King, Bryant and McKay-Loescher. Add in two more that should definitely recover (Johnson and Moorehead) and that total goes up to six. If Bates recovers fully by fall (not a certainty), then Eggen is up to seven. But he won't start getting comfortable with the rotation until those numbers get up in the nine to 10 range.
"No, I'm not satisfied," he said candidly. "I'd take six or seven more. If there is anybody out there that wants to come back with some eligibility, come on back."
Eggen was chuckling when he made the last comment, but it was a wry laugh. "To be honest I wish we had a couple of more, but we don't. So we just look for combinations that can help us and how we can adjust our front. And we'll also play some dime and '30,' which is our three-man front. There is a chance there to help our numbers."
Right now at least the total number of proven D-Line athletes is not what Eggen would like, but he's concentrating on ‘three.' Three returning senior starters.
"It's not a comfortable number to work with, but it's what we have--and we'll do well with it," Eggen said. "It just puts a little more responsibility on the returning players, and that's great. I don't think there are many people around that are going to have three guys with as much experience as Jarret, Kindal and Kenny have."