Despite Another Lost Season, Alabama Teammates Still Have High Praise for Defensive Lineman LaBryan Ray

Defensive lineman LaBryan Ray one of three starters Alabama won't have on the the field against Notre Dame, along with Landon Dickerson and Jaylen Waddle
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The legacy he wants is a simple one, and understandable.  

Technically, Alabama defensive lineman LaBryan Ray is a redshirt junior, and he could possibly return to Tuscaloosa for another season. But how he wants to wrap up his career with the Crimson Tide has been on his mind. 

Unfortunately, he's had a lot of time to think about it. 

When Alabama lines up to face Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff on Friday afternoon (3 p.m. CT, ESPN), Ray won't be lining up with his teammates. Neither will wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, or graduate center Landon Dickerson. 

Injuries have robbed them of this opportunity and you have to feel for them. To work so long, and so hard, only to be on the sideline when the season is on the line, is beyond disappointing. 

Perhaps Ray will have a chance to come back and play in the National Championship Game should Alabama advance, but right now Nick Saban is not saying much about his status. All he offered this past week was "He's not practicing. He is still rehabbing."

The coach had previously offered: "It's a different kind of injury, when you've got an elbow and you're a defensive lineman and you're using your hands every play, I think it takes time to get confidence in your ability to do that, when you've had that kind of injury."

Ray last played against Auburn as a reserve. He didn't suit up for Arkansas or the SEC Championship Game against Florida. 

For the season, the man who was supposed to anchor the defensive line, has been in on 11 tackles. On one he shared a sack. 

"I want to be remembered as someone who went through a lot of adversity," said Ray, "someone who battled no matter what."

The sentiment defines him, regardless of what the future holds. 

Toughness plays a part in it, both physical and emotional. Making a difference does as well, which only contributes to Ray remaining a popular fixture amongst his teammates. 

But for most of them another word first comes to mind, one that ties in with adversity and of those other things, and may not be apparent to those watching from the sidelines or at home on television. 

Leader. 

Sophomore defensive lineman D.J. Dale didn't think the term was strong enough: "Great leader."

"Just his knowledge and his IQ for the game is just outstanding," Dale explained. "A lot of guys come to him. We depend on him to be a leader in our room.”

That's an even stronger legacy. 

There's been a lot of talk about Alabama's defensive development during the bastardized and chaotic 2020 season, with interior linebacker Dylan Moses returning to action after being sidelined for a year, two new starting outside linebackers and the revamped safeties that have led to more than one true freshman being part of the nickel and dime packages in the secondary.

Yet there's been little said about the defensive line, which went through the entire regular season without having played a game at full strength. 

Redshirt sophomore Christian Barmore suffered a knee injury prior to the Crimson Tide's second scrimmage of fall camp and didn't really start looking like his disruptive self until the Georgia game. 

Meanwhile, Ray suffered an elbow injury and found himself watching from the sideline following the Ole Miss game — again. 

"It's not the first time I've faced adversity," Ray said.  

"I can't really complain. Obviously with the adversity I've been going through, this is my fourth straight year, it's definitely challenging, but it's not something that I can't overcome or can't get better from."

The setbacks have been frustrating, though. 

As a high school player at James Clemens in Madison, Ala., Ray was considered by many to be the state's top prospect in the recruiting Class of 2017. 

Ray's name was mentioned alongside Alabama's other top additions that year, including running back Najee Harris, tackle Alex Leatherwood, Moses, wide receiver Jerry Jeudy and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (and ahead of the likes of Jedrick Wills Jr., Xavier McKinney, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III). 

He had that kind of big-time potential. 

“A great player and great athlete," Leatherwood said. "He’s a workhorse."

But as a freshman, Ray suffered a season-ending foot injury that limited his playing time to six games. That was the the first setback, which was compounded in 2019 by a foot/ankle fracture suffered Week 3 at South Carolina after winning a starting job and a promising start to the season

Ray ended up taking a medical redshirt, with only nine tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack to show for the season. 

"I think it was very difficult because it was an ongoing injury, but he worked really, really hard," Saban said. "He's a really good player. We're a different team if he can't play because he's athletic, he can run, he's a decent pass rusher. He's a guy that can do, he can play the run, he can play the point, but he's still athletic enough to play on the edge and give us some push, and he's a good inside rusher.

"We need more guys like LaBryan Ray on our team."

Alabama defensive lineman LaBryan Ray

Ray told reporters in August that he felt 100 percent, and coaches looked to him to be the defense's veteran presence up front this season, only to see more setbacks. Had the Crimson Tide been in a tough position, desperately needing a win or lacking a lot of depth on the defensive line, maybe he could have pushed things and tried to come back earlier. 

Instead, the hope was that by waiting a little longer Ray could come back and finish the 2020 season strong when titles were on the line.

So he rested and rehabbed. Then some more. However, time's quickly running out.   

"I'm not going to lie, it's been challenging at times," said Ray, who kept trying to embrace a stay-positive-and-keep-plugging-away approach. 

"You have to have faith that everything's going to work out, but you have to do your part," he added. "That's what I'm focussed on." 

While that's all been a part of his Crimson Tide existence, it's the other part of Ray's story that tells you that he really knows what he's talking about when it comes to overcoming adversity. 

Ray was six years old when his mother suddenly died from a blood clot in 2004. 

The mother of three boys was 34. 

"They gave me a lot of motivation," Ray said about his father and brothers, who went on to be offensive linemen at Sewanee and Western Kentucky. "We've been through a lot."

So yeah, he was eager to get on the field again. To make a difference when the season's on the line. To bust up the edge. Shut down the run. Play hard. Get off blocks. Make plays. Maybe hit a quarterback or two. 

Be a versatile asset who can do the kind of things that help lead to another championship, while showing the developing prospects just what that means and entails. 

"Technique is huge," Ray said. "Playing at Alabama in a 3-4, you kind of really focus on doing your job. If you aren't doing the right technique it's really going to show. You have to have technique technique to protect yourself, to free up the linebackers,

"You won't have as good of a defense."

He knows, and consequently Alabama's defense is definitely better with him in the lineup, or just being around. 

"He’s one of the leaders in the room," junior defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis said. "We need that in the room right now."

LaBryan Ray, August 26, 2020