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Spring Preview: Defensive Line Could be Alabama's Best Unit in 2021

Crimson Tide assistant coach Freddie Roach has it all this year: size, depth, talent and even experience on the defensive line

• Returning: LaBryan Ray, Tim Smith, Justin Eboigne, Stephon Wynn Jr., Byron Young, Phidarian Mathis, Braylen Ingraham, Jah-Marien Latham, DJ Dale, Jamil Burroughs

• Early Enrollees: DL Monkell Goodwine

• Departed: Christian Barmore, Ishmael Sopsher

• Incoming: DT Damon Payne, DE Dallas Turner, DT Tim Keenan, DT Anquin Barnes

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — If Alabama makes another run for the College Football Playoff in 2021, the defensive line will almost certainly play a huge part (pun intended).

It has the potential to be the team’s best unit, and that’s saying something on the reigning national championship team.

Position coach Freddie Roach has it all this year: size, depth, talent and even experience, to the point that the Crimson Tide might have the most enviable group up front in college football.

It begins with redshirt senior LaBryan Ray returning for another year after missing most of 2019 with a foot injury. He had another setback in 2020, this time with an elbow, and played in seven total games with three starts.

Ray could have easily left for the National Football League, but is aiming to help his draft stock with one more go-around.

DJ Dale, already a junior, has also been dealing with injuries, and like Ray hasn’t been able to cut loose on the field as well as hoped following setbacks. With last year’s spring practices canceled, successfully pushing through to A-Day could do wonders for both going into the fall.

“I had the knee injury and I was worried about that every game,” Dale said. “This [past] year I was still having a little problem with my confidence at the beginning of the year, but each week I’ve gotten better in my confidence and I don’t really think about it no more. It allowed me to play more freely with some injuries.”

The third starting spot could feature a variety of progressing players depending on who develops and the opponent in the fall — as sort of the lines between the lines have blurred. There’s Justin Eboigbe, Byron Young and Phidarian Mathis, who have all been a key part of the rotation, plus Jamil Burroughs earned some playing time as a freshman in 2020.

“He was doing a great job on the scout team, they were having a tough time blocking him over there,” Nick Saban said about Burroughs late last season.

But the player to watch may be Tim Smith, who in terms of disruption looked at times like a continuation of Christian Barmore, a potential first-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft.

During his first season with the Crimson Tide Smith notched 14 total tackles, including 2.5 for loss and one sack, plus had a quarterback hurry, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.

There’s also Stephon Wynn Jr., Braylen Ingraham and Jah-Marien Latham … all only adding to the competition for playing time.

“We’ve become a lot more physical,” Dale said. “We’ve been a lot more physical up front.”

That’s just the players Alabama has coming back.

Saban added another haul in the most recent recruiting class. It included three of the best prospect in the nation with Monkell Goodwine an early enrollee, plus Damon Payne and Dallas Turner joining the Crimson Tide in the summer. The Class of 2021 also included Tim Keenan and Anquin Barnes, who are considered projects with big upside.

That’s arguably five deep on the defensive line.

See? Huge. It's an understatement regarding this group's potential.

2021 Crimson Tide Spring Practices

Roster

Depth Chart

Eligibility Tracker

This is the sixth story in a series previewing Alabama’s spring football practices, which get under way March 19.

Quarterbacks

Running backs

Wide receivers/Tight ends

Offensive line

Special teams