- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There's a healthy dose of expectations and optimism surrounding the new-look Alabama defensive line this spring. Like its counterpart on offense, so much has changed in the trenches from a season ago: nose guard Jesse Williams is gone, along with starting defensive end Damion Square and former top reserve Quinton Dial.
But unlike the offensive line, which is seeking to replace three All-SEC starters, there's no hint of an expected of a drop off in production from the defensive front. In fact, it's quite the opposite. If there is an area on defense that's in need of the most improvement, it might be the defensive line, particularly the pass rush.
Alabama failed to finish in the top 25 nationally in sacks or tackles for loss last season, trailing eight other SEC teams in negative plays. With underclassmen such as Jeoffrey Pagan and Xzavier Dickson a year older, the hope is that those numbers will improve.
"We've got some really talented guys and guys that work really hard on the defensive line, Pagan especially," Alabama tight end/H-back Harrison Jones said. "I see those guys really stepping up and filling the spots that were left open last year from guys leaving the team, big team leaders like Damion Square and Jesse Williams and guys like Quinton Dial.
"That's something that's going to be a big part of our team this year the defensive line stepping up and I feel like they're doing a good job of that so far."
Pagan, who has played as a reserve his first two seasons, admits the pass rush "struggled a little bit" in 2012. He said he welcomes the task of improving upon it as well as the personal responsibility of rising up the depth chart to a possible starting role. He added on five pounds from a year ago and wants to make his game more well-rounded, stopping the run and the pass.
"I've gotten better," he explained. "I've grown as a person, I've learned from great players."
Pagan credited Square for teaching him what coaches couldn't -- the intangibles of the game. And now that Square is gone, it's fallen on the broad shoulders of Ed Stinson to captain the defensive line. Stinson, the lone returning starter on the line, added 10 pounds to his already stocky frame and has developed into a leader among his peers.
"Ed's like the old guy on the D-line," Pagan said. "He's like the father. He's like somebody we can always go to if we need help."
Stinson's experience has proven to be a direct benefit to Dickson, who has split much of his spring between outside linebacker and defensive end this spring, following a path once taken by the now-veteran defensive lineman. Dickson started seven games and appeared in all 14 contests last season at Jack linebacker in 2012-13, finishing tied for third on the team in quarterback hurries. If the talented junior takes to defensive end, he could prove to be a valuable asset for coordinator Kirby Smart.
As UA linebacker C.J. Mosley explained: "The more spots you know -- versatility -- the more time you spend on the field."
But the biggest weapon could be one that's not yet been unveiled. Dalvin Tomlinson, a former three-star defensive tackle who missed all of last season recovering from surgery, has drawn rave reviews from coaches and teammates. UA coach Nick Saban hinted prior to the Iron Bowl that Tomlinson might have been an option rushing the passer last season had he not gotten hurt. Now he's healthy and 21 pounds bigger than the day he enrolled.
"Dalvin, I call him a different man," Pagan said. "He's got big hands, he's big, strong, powerful, he's fast. Dalvin's definitely somebody I think is going to come in and be able to make an impact on the D-line, definitely help this team with pass rush because we struggled a little bit with the pass rush. I think Dalvin can definitely help us out in that area."
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