TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The word that should come to mind is “disruptive.”
It can be both a compliment and have a negative connotation for a football player, especially a lineman. Just ask Alabama redshirt junior center Landon Dickerson.
“Like Coach [Nick] Saban says, ‘Play with emotion, don’t be emotional.’ That’s something I’ve been a liability with a couple of times this year,” he said. “But it's one of those things that, you know, you just have to handle it personally.”
Actually, he’ll have to handle it in another way as well when Alabama visits rival Auburn on Saturday (2:30 p.m. CT, CBS). Dickerson will often be lined up against the Tigers’ prize defensive tackle Derrick Brown, considered one of the most disruptive defensive players in college football.
It might be the most important helmet-to-helmet matchup of the game, although look for Auburn to test freshman left guard Evan Neal as well. In those situations Dickerson will provide assistance when possible, but not at the expense of letting a blitzer into the backfield.
Should Neal struggle, senior Matt Womack has been taking reps at left guard on the second unit as well.
“He’s had a huge impact on just about every game in my opinion,” Saban said about Brown. “We’ve always thought a lot about him as a player and had a tremendous amount of respect for him.
“He’s got great initial quickness. He plays with a lot of power. Uses his hands well. He can disengage from blockers very quickly and push the pocket really well with the power rush. He’s a pretty complete player and as good a player as we’ve played against for a while around here as an inside player.”
Statistically, Brown has four sacks for 29 yards, 43 tackles including nine for loss, and four pass breakups.
Yet the numbers don’t adequately reflect his ability.
A finalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award (defensive player of the year), the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman) and the Wuerffel Trophy (community service), Brown usually forces offenses to assign extra blockers to him and push back the pocket in the middle of the line.
Alabama fans are well aware what having that kind of interior line presence can mean after recently having Da'Ron Payne and Quinnen Williams at nose tackle.
"He's a big, strong, explosive guy," Dickerson said. "He's got a lot of good moves to shed blocks, even in pass rush. He's a respectable player so, you know, that’ll come with game plan this week, how we're going to treat him and the other defensive linemen."
One has to think that Alabama’s coaches had their eye on this game when they moved the 6-foot-6, 308-pound Dickerson to center, a position he had never played before transferring in from Florida State.
Although Auburn's secondary is underrated, everything defensively stems from the Tigers' defensive line. In more than one way it's a little reminiscent of what the Crimson Tide faced against Clemson during the past three playoffs.
In addition to Brown (6-5, 318) there's senior Marlin Davidson, who has been named the SEC defensive lineman of the week three times this season. He's tallied 43 tackles including 12.5 for a loss and 7.5 sacks.
Auburn also has nose tackle Tyrone Truesdell and junior Big Kat Bryant out of what Auburn calls the Buck position. Junior Nick Coe is like the unit's fifth man in that he's listed as the primary reserve at four different spots including outside linebacker.
"Derrick Brown and Marlon are both really, really good players and have been difficult for people to block all season long," Saban said. "They play great team defense. They play with a lot of toughness.
"I think their whole front seven is really hard to block. They’re very physical. They play tough. They play together. They’re well coached. Kevin Steele does a great job with them. ... This is the most challenging front that we’ve played this year."
SEC Defensive Rankings
Category, Alabama, Auburn
- Scoring: T3 (16.2); T3 (16.2)
- Total: 4 (315.3); 3 (306.5)
- Rushing: 7 (130.9); 2 (109.6)
- Pass Effic.: 1 (202.8 rating); 8 (130.3)
Meanwhile, Alabama's offensive line has dramatically improved over the course of the season, especially after finally settling on a starting five. In addition to Dickerson sliding over, junior guard Deonte Brown returned to the fold after serving a suspension and then needing to get back into game shape.
Dating back to the Tennessee game, Alabama’s quarterbacks have only been sacked twice. Granted, junior Tua Tagovailoa suffered a season-ending injury at Mississippi State, but it was on a play he obviously should have thrown the ball away.
Keeping the pressure off his replacement, redshirt sophomore Mac Jones, will be huge on The Plains, especially considering the atmosphere. In his two starts he's 28-for-34 for 510 yards, six touchdowns and no turnovers, but that was against Arkansas and Western Carolina at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“I think for Mac it was a good game for him to stay back there and really sharpen his axe, work on some things that he wanted to work on," Dickerson said after the 66-3 victory over Western Carolina. "I think it’s good for him, he had a great game.
“It sort of what you expect with next man up."
Meanwhile, the running game has only been getting better, with junior running back Najee Harris establishing himself to be as much of a big-play threat as anyone on the Crimson Tide. In addition to finishing with 146 rushing yards against LSU, he became the first SEC player in 20 years to have both a rushing and receiving touchdown in three straight games.
"Great running back," Dickerson said. "He can hit the hole hard, he's can run fast. He really just makes us look good."
About the one thing that hasn't looked good with the line of late have been penalties, including a pair of major infractions by Dickerson for late hits. The first was blatant, but the second was a borderline call.
Either way, he's someone everyone on the Auburn defense will be looking out for. Dickerson's the kind of player if he isn't engaged with someone, he'll go find someone to hit.
Should it be someone already entangled with another Crimson Tide lineman, the defender stands no chance. The tricky thing is knowing where to draw the line.
"It comes with experience playing the game," Dickerson said is the primary difference between playing aggressively and getting a penalty. "That’s really it."