No. 2 Alabama's deep, diverse line pivotal to title game run
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) Run up the middle against Alabama and you're likely to be greeted by powerful big men like A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed. Drop back to pass, and there's a fair chance explosive pass rushers such as Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams will be in hot pursuit.
The most impressive part of the second-ranked Crimson Tide's formidable defense has been a front line that is both deep and diverse, even by `Bama standards.
The line thoroughly controlled Michigan State in a 38-0 semifinal thrashing, smothering quarterback Connor Cook and clamping down on the run. Doing the same against Clemson and dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson in the national championship game Monday night in Glendale, Arizona, will be easily the biggest test of all for that group.
However, Watson & Co. haven't faced a bigger challenge either.
''They're by far clearly the best that we've seen,'' Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. ''I mean, they're as good as it gets in the country, No. 1 in about everything defensively, but the biggest thing is they just have great depth in their defensive line. I mean, they roll them guys in there, play a lot of guys, a bunch of subs, and they all play at a really, really high level. That's why they're a great team.''
Sure, the Tide offense has quarterback Jake Coker, Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and wide receiver Calvin Ridley. Defensive backs Eddie Jackson and Cyrus Jones also have had terrific seasons.
No part of the team has been more pivotal to the Tide's success than a front seven that starts with Robinson and Reed, backed up by linebackers Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster and Williams. Robinson, Reed and Ragland are projected as likely first-round NFL draft picks.
''We've never had one this deep,'' Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said of the front line. ''This group is pretty deep. They can roll in and out and not drop off a lot. They take pride in that.''
Alabama leads the nation in run and scoring defense and sacks, and is second in total defense.
No Nick Saban defense has averaged this many sacks (3.57 a game) since his 1999 Michigan State team anchored by Julian Peterson (3.73 per game).
This one has done it with an array of stars, personalities and diverse talents:
-THE RUN STOPPERS: Reed and Robinson are both 6-foot-4 and listed at a shade under 315 pounds. Reed has 56 tackles, almost all against the run. Robinson is a consensus All-American and Outland Trophy finalist who also is a strong pass rusher. Teammates say he's a freakish athlete, as evidenced by his hurdle of LSU's line to block an extra point attempt.
-THE PASS RUSHERS: Allen and Williams are the headliners. Allen has 12 sacks, including two against Michigan State. Williams is listed as a linebacker but his primary job this season is clear: Get the quarterback.
Williams has 19 tackles - and 10.5 sacks.
''Tim's probably one of the most unique guys on the team,'' Alabama tight end O.J. Howard said. ''His pass rushing skills are probably, I think, the best out of everybody. Fast, hard to block, so quick, kind of small but I mean he's just very different from a lot of people, man.''
THE BAKCUPS: This group includes former five-star signees Daron Payne and Da'Shawn Hand, along with guys like Dalvin Tomlinson and D.J. Pettway.
The makeup of the defensive line has changed since Barrett Jones was playing offensive line for the Tide, practicing against the likes of Marcel Dareus and big Terrence ''Mount'' Cody earlier in the Saban era.
It's built just fine to stop runners like LSU's Leonard Fournette (31 yards, 19 carries) and passers like Cook, adapting to the increasingly prevalent spread offenses without sacrificing too much beef.
''It's a testament to coach Saban of how he's understood that he needs to adapt, and the times of being 360-pound noseguards, those guys aren't going to play as much because of the kind of spread that teams are playing,'' said Jones, who was part of three Alabama national championship teams. ''You need those pass rusher guys. He's adapted, and this is a great example of that.
''Just having first of all a depth that I've never seen on any defensive line in college. Just full of guys that can both rush the passer and stop the run, who obviously work together as a unit in a way that we haven't seen in a long time.''