TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Phidarian Mathis insists the defensive line is the fun group on the Alabama football team.
At least it has been during his time with the Crimson Tide.
Mathis didn’t miss an opportunity for some fun recently during fall camp. Some members of the Million Dollar Band drum line were at the football practice facility and Mathis couldn’t help himself.
“Growing up I always wanted to play drums,” Mathis said. “I wasn’t missing my opportunity. It’s always been something I love. It was a pleasure playing with the band.”
Mathis, from Winer, Louisiana, likes to have fun with his defensive line teammates, too. One of the activities they do together is gather at Mathis’ house for a cookout. Louisiana style.
“I’m a Louisiana boy, so I have to bring the crawfish out,” said Mathis, who also cooks gumbo for the defensive linemen when it gets colder in the fall and winter. “They come over every crawfish and gumbo season.”
For the entire Crimson Tide defensive line, Mathis has to make sure there is enough.
“I made about 30 pounds when they all came over in July,” said Mathis, a senior.
It’s a lot of fun for the defensive line. But cookouts, fishing, playing drums or just hanging out together in the player’s lounge is more than about fun.
“We find out a lot about each other,” Mathis said. “We find out about each other’s background, and can relate to each other.
“We build that bond and that carries over on the field.”
A strong chemistry has been built by Mathis, senior LaBryan Ray and junior DJ Dale, the top defensive line leaders.
Ray earned playing time as a freshman, but has dealt with a series of injuries in his career, having two seasons cut short and a third limited to seven games. He was dealt another blow in the summer with a groin injury, which caused some missed time in fall practice.
“I hate it for LaBryan,” Dale said. “I just tell him take it one day at a time. I know that’s something that everyone says, but it’s a process coming back from those injuries.”
When Ray is on the field, however, his presence is felt. After missing time last season with an injury, he returned to the national title game against Ohio State to help Alabama win its 18th championship.
Mathis earned his way into the rotation his first two seasons and was a full-time starter in 2020. He had 30 tackles, including five for a loss, as part of a unit that help opponents to just 113 rushing yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry.
Dale is a two-year starter with a much bigger role as a team leader this season. But the junior doesn’t see himself, Mathis, or Ray as sole leaders of the line.
“It’s a series of guys,” Dale said. “A lot of guys have stepped up on their own and have become more vocal. It doesn’t matter the age group, a lot of guys lead by example and doing the right thing. A lot of guys have stepped up.”
It’s for that reason Dale thinks this year’s Alabama defensive line can be special. The depth is there, but so is the versatility.
“We have a lot of guys on the line and a lot of guys that can play multiple positions,” Dale said. “So, the sky is the limit for this group of guys this year.
“It’s so important, playing in the college game, to have fresh legs at the defensive line position. We have guys that can rotate in for different reasons. There won’t be a drop-off no matter who is in. It will look the same.”
Mathis agreed, and is eager to see what his younger defensive line teammates can accomplish and bring to the table this season. Guys like Tim Smith, Byron Young, Ja-Marien Latham and Stephon Wynn Jr.
“Hopefully all of our young guys coming back will get a chance,” Mathis said. “I’m pretty sure all those guys will step up and do well this year.”
Goals are important for every football team, and it’s no different for Alabama. All players want to be the best they can be and exceed expectations. But the mindset for the defensive line is not on individual accomplishment.
“Everyone has the same team goal, and that is to be the best we can be,” Dale said. “The more we accomplish as a team the more we can accomplish as individuals. The main thing is to think team first and be a team player. Then all that individual stuff will come.”
Stopping the run game is where the defensive line earns its keep. That’s always the goal for Alabama, and it usually works out well. The Crimson Tide was 17th in the nation in run defense last year, and third in the SEC.
That goal hasn’t changed. If the defensive line has its way, there will be just as much more fun on the field as off it this season.
“We want to be more dangerous stopping the run,” Mathis said. “That’s where it all starts. We set the tempo of the game, so we want to go out and establish stopping the run early. We want to stop the offense on third down and get off the field.”