TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — D.J. Dale, Shane Lee, Christian Harris and now likely Justin Eboigbe.
All true freshmen. All thrust into the starting lineup of the Alabama defense.
Dale earned the job at nose tackle in the spring, but the other three have been injury replacements. With junior defensive end LeBryan Ray expected to be out for a while with a foot injury, the front seven could have a majority of first-year players when the Crimson Tide hosts Southern Miss on Saturday (11 a.m., SEC Network).
“He’s a very young guy, but I think he knows the standard for what the D-Line guys do and I feel like he’s going to hold to that standard,” senior defensive lineman Raekwon Davis said about Eboigbe. “I feel like he’s one of the young guys who has stepped up and is ready to show the world he can play big boy football.”
Regardless of if Eboigbe starts, Alabama will be heavily relying on him in the rotation while the lineup continues to get younger.
The loss of linebacker Dylan Moses in particular was evident at South Carolina last weekend, where the Gamecocks heavily challenged the edges and were able to move the ball for 459 total yards even though they tallied just six explosive plays (Nick Saban defines them at as run of at least 13 yards and a pass for 17 or more).
Harris end up getting pulled because he was tentative on his reads, and at times looked like what he was — a true freshman playing in his first real road game. Sophomore Ale Kaho stepped in and will compete for the job this week.
“There’s no plan right now,” Saban said. “We’ll see how guys work out in practice, and if they do well, we’ll play the guy that we think that can do the best job in the game.”
That’s all Alabama can do at this point, but also note that the Crimson Tide has seven new assistant coaches, with new offensive and defensive coordinators this season.
That REALLY makes this uncharted waters for Alabama.
About the only thing one can compare it to is the national championship game at the end of the 2017 season. In the second half, Alabama had to turn to six true freshmen on offense, who led the comeback against Georgia.
It included Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback, Najee Harris at running back, Alex Leatherwood at left tackle and wide receivers Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith.
But it was also the Crimson Tide’s 14th game of the season.
These guys are essentially coming in cold.
Just about every year during the Saban era, Alabama’s had a freshman or two crack the starting lineup, or fill a key role. It’s almost a Who’s Who of the past 12 years including Julio Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Barrett Jones, Cyrus Kouandjio, Amari Cooper and Cam Robinson.
Moreover, since Saban arrived in 2007 no program has had more Freshman All-Americans than the Crimson Tide with 12 (Oklahoma is second with 11).
Alabama's FWAA Freshman All-Americans, 2007-17
2007 Rolando McClain
2008 Julio Jones and Dont'a Hightower
2009 Barrett Jones
2010 C.J. Mosley
2012 Amari Cooper
2014 Cam Robinson and JK Scott
2015 Calvin Ridley and Marlon Humphrey
2018 Jaylen Waddle and Patrick Surtian II
The exception has been on the defensive line, where even Quinnen Williams and Marcell Dareus had to develop. In 2013, Jonathan Allen played in seven games his first year, and Da’Ron Payne saw action in eight in 2015.
Alabama’s played more linebackers as freshmen, yet even most of them were sort of eased into regular roles or split time. For example, as a true freshman in 2007, Rolando McClain started eight of 13 games.
There’s a reason why a freshman has never led the Crimson Tide in tackles, at least not during the modern era.
A big difference is that when most of those freshmen came in the coaches quickly decided that they were too good to keep on the bench. Like Dale, they earned their spots.
For example, Minkah Fitzpatrick was a key addition from day one in 2015, and led that team in interceptions and passes broken up. C.J. Mosley was big contributor in 2010. Jonah Williams was a starter from the get-go, albeit at right tackle for a year before moving to the left side.
“Well, I think we’ve got to work hard with those guys to get them to play well,” Saban said. “There’s no substitute for experience, there’s no question about that. And we do have a lot of young guys playing in the front seven, but the challenge for us as coaches is to try to teach those guys.
“And I think if those guys can get really comfortable with the basics and the basic fundamentals, then their ability to adapt in a game or when different things come up, they’re going to be able to adjust. But you really can’t coach experience into players. You can just try to teach them how to do things, and as they get more repetitions, hopefully, they’re going to improve and develop confidence and that’s our goal with each and every one of those guys.”
Nevertheless, Alabama had to sort of simplify some of the calls on defense, and it still tallied 11 penalties.
Overall, even though we’re only three games into the 2019 schedule, Alabama has already used more true freshman, 19, than any other year during the Saban era.
Alabama Freshmen Players (2007-18)
Totals 136 (11.3 avg.)/101 (8.4)
With only six returning veterans and six true freshmen filling out depth chart on the defensive line (although Antonio Alfano currently isn't with the team), Alabama knew it needed some guys to step up right away. Eboigbe did and that’s why he’s considered the next man up.
“He’s got a fast get-off,” Davis said. “He’s a twitchy guy. He likes to locate the ball fast. He’s very fun to watch.”
On the plus side, Alabama’s defense will come out of this a lot of young, experienced players, who will form the core of future seasons. However, it obviously makes trying to win this year’s national championship only that much tougher.
It used to be that coaches believed playing a freshman would translate into a loss on the field. That’s no longer the case, as programs can’t afford to redshirt their best prospects, especially with the creation of the NCAA transfer portal.
It’s now just part of the game, and something Alabama’s going to have to deal with as best it can moving forward.
“It’s football,” senior cornerback Trevon Diggs said. “Everyone has to play together and play around each other.”