- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
Editor’s note: Every Tuesday and Thursday between now and national signing day, TideNation will review each position and look at who figures to start, who could rise up the depth chart and who might be on the way. Today we’ll look at the defensive ends.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The defensive line has been a veteran unit at the University of Alabama this season, highlighted by seniors Damion Square and Quinton Dial. The duo has helped the defense uphold its lofty status as the tops in the country in yards allowed. Their ability to rush the passer as well as help in run support is something that comes only with age and experience -- knowing how and when to maintain their lanes and gap assignments.
But when Square and Dial leave for careers beyond The Capstone, who will inherit their positions on the defensive line? How will their replacements balance the desire to sack the quarterback with the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of coach Nick Saban's intricate 3-4 scheme?
Alabama has struggled to generate a consistent pass rush this season and could look to improve upon that in the coming years. The talent waiting in the wings could allow for such a move. As the Crimson Tide get bigger and more athletic under Saban, there are great options.
Battling for No. 1: Alabama rotates defensive linemen, so expect some combination of three or four defensive ends to play significant snaps. Junior Ed Stinson started all 13 games this season and figures to do the same next year. He could be joined by either sophomore Jeoffrey Pagan or Freshman Team All-SEC selection D.J. Pettway. Both are upgrades in terms of speed and athleticism at the position. They combined for seven tackles for loss and three sacks this season.
Strength in numbers: The depth is where it gets interesting as defensive coordinator Kirby Smart can mix and match based on down and distance. LaMichael Fanning is as gifted a physical specimen as you'll find, but the question for the sophomore is whether he can put it all together. His suplex in Columbia, Mo., showed both facets of his game -- his strength and his occasional lack of discipline. Freshmen Korren Kirven and Dalvin Tomlinson could both find their way into the rotation. Saban said earlier in the year that Tomlinson would have been a third-down pass-rusher had it not been for his season-ending injury.
Help on the way: Alabama already has two of the top five defensive end prospects in the country committed. DeMarcus Walker (6-foot-4, 280 pounds) and Jonathan Allen (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) have the look of Jack linebackers in Saban's 3-4 scheme as it stands now, but give them time with strength coach Scott Cochran and that could change. The biggest unknown is Robert Nkemdiche, the country's No. 1 prospect, who is considering Alabama but may favor Ole Miss, where his brother currently plays. He's a longshot who could play right away if he chooses the Crimson Tide. Another prospect to keep an eye on is five-star Montravius Adams, who is listed as a defensive tackle but could play the three-technique on the outside like Square. Uncommitted four-star and No. 3 defensive end prospect Tim Williams has Alabama and LSU at the top of his list but could end up a tweener in the mold of Walker and Allen if he stays at his current size.
3dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough