Cogs in the machine: A look at Alabama's front seven
TUSCALOOSA, Ala.—They waltzed into the media room of Bryant-Denny Stadium with an unmistakable swagger, like a pack of hunters who had just bagged a prized buck. Last Saturday a few members of the Alabama defense addressed reporters and rehashed what they had accomplished in a 30–16 demolition of previously undefeated LSU. The win earned Alabama control of its SEC West destiny. Suddenly, the path to the conference championship game in Atlanta became much clearer.
The win was great, but it wasn't the only reason Alabama's defense felt pride. Its players were thrilled with how they won, turning the Heisman Trophy frontrunner into a virtual nonfactor on national television. Along the way, Bama reminded the country just how suffocating its defense can be. "We held the best player in college football to 31 yards," senior linebacker Reggie Ragland said. "I'm proud of my team."
LSU's Heisman candidate tailback Leonard Fournette managed those 31 yards on 19 carries against the Crimson Tide. He entered the week as the FBS's rushing leader (193.1 yards per game), but instead of adding his Heisman case, he was stonewalled by a defense that might again be the best in college football.
The Tide rank fourth nationally in yards per play allowed (4.15). By comparison, the last two Alabama squads to win national titles (in 2011 and '12) allowed yards-per-play averages of 3.32 and 4.18 yards, respectively. That means this season's defense stacks up to units that captured championship rings, and advanced stats back up the Crimson Tide's '15 dominance: Their defense ranks No. 1 in success rate, passing down S&P+ and standard down S&P+, according to Football Outsiders.
The key to that efficiency has been a relentless front seven, one that has helped Alabama rank second in the FBS in rushing defense (2.54 yards per carry allowed). It's a seasoned group of juniors and seniors—all four- and five-star signees—who have combined to form a vaunted defensive line and linebacking corps. As SB Nation's Bud Elliott pointed out, Alabama did nothing fancy to smother a then unbeaten LSU team. It was just that talented and effective on defense.
So, who are the faces of the Tide's front seven? Who are the cogs in that offense-stifling machine? Here are the players to know—each of whom could determine their program's fate over the coming few weeks.
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Position: Defensive end
Hometown: Forth Worth, Texas
The anchor of Alabama's defensive line is a freakishly athletic 6' 4", 312-pounder. He is so athletic, in fact, that he blocked an extra point attempt during Alabama's win over LSU by leaping completely over the head of the Tigers long-snapper.
Robinson, who boasts a 32-inch vertical leap, says he has been able to dunk a basketball since he was in seventh grade. While discussing his blocked extra point on Saturday, he explained it plainly. "They kicked a field goal, and it kept going low," Robinson recalled after the win over LSU. "And I told [my teammates], next time I'm just going to jump over the top."
The former five-star prospect from Arlington Heights (Texas) High originally committed to Mack Brown and in-state power Texas, but he flipped to Alabama just before National Signing Day 2013. Since then he has started 24 games along the Tide's defensive line; he earned freshman All-America honors in '13 despite only making two starts that year. This season Robinson regularly attracts double-teams yet leads the Crimson Tide in quarterback hurries (eight) while pitching in 4 ½ tackles for loss, including four sacks. If he leaves school after this season, Robinson is a surefire first-round NFL draft pick. In October ESPN projected the junior as a top-10 prospect on analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s Big Board.
Position: Nose guard
Hometown: Leesburg, Va.
Allen is Alabama's primary threat to break into an opponent's backfield. The junior has come a long way since high school, when he had to learn the basics of playing on the defensive line. The first time Allen lined up at end, for example, the high school sophomore could barely fall into the correct stance.
"Wrong hand down. Wrong foot back," Allen told AL.com in August. "I had literally never been in a three-point stance in my life. That was my first time in high school."
Now Allen is one of Alabama's most disruptive defensive forces. He leads the Crimson Tide with 8 ½ tackles for loss and six sacks. In a 41–23 victory at Texas A&M on Oct. 17, Allen notched four tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble. He has managed to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks despite suffering a shoulder injury against Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 26.
Position: Defensive end
Hometown: Goldsboro, N.C.
Reed, the third cog on Alabama's defensive line, was accustomed to winning even before he arrived in Tuscaloosa. He helped claim a junior college national title as an all-region defender at East Mississippi Community College in 2013. That season Reed played on a defense that included current Alabama end D.J. Pettway and Ole Miss linebacker Christian Russell. Reed's recruitment included verbal commitments to North Carolina and Ole Miss, but eventually he elected to play for Alabama.
Reed started 13 games as a junior last season, earning recognition as an All-SEC honorable mention. His 55 tackles last fall were the most by a Tide defensive lineman since Wallace Gilberry in 2007. Reed, who considered leaving for the NFL after last year, now ranks second on the team with 39 tackles in '15.
Position: Jack linebacker
Hometown: Bastrop, La.
An injury-plagued 2014 campaign limited Devall's impact as a junior, as he suffered a high ankle sprain that required surgery. But after sitting out spring practice, Devall has bounced back to become a force in Bama's linebacking corps. In nine starts this season, the 6' 2", 252-pounder has three tackles for loss, including one sack, while ranking third on the roster with five quarterback hurries. Alabama plucked the blue-chip prospect out of the recruiting grasp of LSU and Texas A&M. Last week Devall notched two tackles in the Crimson Tide's win over his home-state Tigers.
Position: Sam linebacker
Hometown: Buford, Ga.
Before preseason camp Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart called Lee "a man of many positions." Indeed, Lee's versatility sets him apart in the back end of the Tide's front seven, where he has lined up at inside and outside linebacker over his four-year career. This spring he earned the team's Sylvester Croom Commitment to Excellence Award for his effort on the field during workouts.
Lee isn't likely to blow up a box score—he has 17 tackles this season, including one sack—but after making just one start in his previous three seasons, the Georgia native has earned three in 2015. His most recent came last week against LSU, and Lee made the most of his chance: He lit up the crowd with a third-quarter interception of Tigers quarterback Brandon Harris. The Tide turned Lee's pick into a touchdown four plays later, and it all started when the senior recognized a similar play call from the first half. "When they ran it again in the second half, I just turned and ran as fast as I could to get the underneath throw," Lee said.
Position: Mike linebacker
Hometown: Madison, Ala.
Ragland might play on defense, but he fancies himself something of a quarterback. The senior works constantly to keep Alabama's defensive linemen aligned properly in the heat of games. Against LSU, he says that's a big reason why the Tigers couldn't run the ball. "The big guys up front wouldn't let that happen," Ragland said. "I tried to get them lined up, and they did their job. They stuck their blockers up front."
Ragland, who came to college with an SEC-ready frame (6' 3", 245 pounds), first became an impact player on Alabama's defense as a sophomore in 2013. He played in all 13 games as a backup linebacker and on special teams. But after the departure of standout linebacker C.J. Mosley, Ragland slid into the starting lineup in '14 and became an All-SEC pick and a Butkus Award finalist. The senior flirted with the idea of leaving for the NFL draft after last season, but followed the footsteps of Mosley—now a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens—and stuck around for his final year of eligibility in Tuscaloosa. Now Ragland is Alabama's leading tackler (74 total), and some of his hits are more jarring than others.
Position: Will linebacker
Hometown: Auburn, Ala.
Auburn fans surely haven't forgotten Foster, who flipped from Alabama to Auburn during his recruitment before flipping back to the Tide just before Signing Day in 2013. The nation's top-rated inside linebacker prospect then poured salt in the wounds of Tigers fans by dressing as Nick Saban to sign his Letter of Intent.
Now a junior, Foster has made his biggest impact on the Tide's defense after two seasons primarily involved on special teams. He currently ranks fourth on the team in tackles (40), with five starts at inside linebacker. Foster has also established a reputation for big hits; his crushing tackle on Fournette in last November's matchup with LSU was basically made for YouTube.