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Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Spring evaluation: Defensive front seven

By Alex Scarborough

Editor's note: TideNation will use this week to look at the four major positions on the football field and how their outlook has changed after spring practice. Today we examine the front seven:

Who's leading?

It's been a long time coming, but the front seven finally belongs to C.J. Mosley. He'll be the full-time starter at inside linebacker for the first time in his already successful career, and he'll be flanked three returning starters in Xzavier Dickson, Trey DePriest and Adrian Hubbard. As always under coach Nick Saban, the personnel groupings will be varied. Denzel Devall will play a key role in the rotation at linebacker, as will several young players who spent last season waiting in the wings.

The defensive line won't be as blessed with experience, though, as Alabama deals with the loss of two starters and a lead reserve. But what the Tide miss in seasoning, they will make up for in depth and versatility. Brandon Ivory will start at nose guard, but Darren Lake isn't far behind. Jeoffrey Pagan, a long-time reserve, steps into a starting role at defensive end opposite former starter Ed Stinson, who should provide the flexibility to move inside after packing on an extra 10 pounds this offseason.

Rising stars

Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will have the depth and versatility to create several packages with the front seven depending on down and distance, personnel and more. Defensive end LaMichael Fanning is poised to break out of his shell after flashing otherworldly athleticism this past season, as could his freshman cohort Dalvin Tomlinson, who has repeatedly earned the praise of the coaching staff of late. A former state wrestling champion and blue-chip prospect, Tomlinson could be a difference-maker rushing the passer.

A triumvirate of young linebackers could play a similar role as niche weapons on defense. Ryan Anderson, Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland each signed with Alabama in 2012 and the impact of their decision is ready to be felt. Anderson and Lee are both capable of playing outside or inside linebacker and Ragland, who played primarily on special teams last season, is a big body in the middle to stop the run,a la Nico Johnson in 2012.

Coming soon

Most likely to make an impact: Alabama needs help rushing the passer, and Jonathan Allen might be the freshman best equipped to make an impact there. The Virginia native and former No. 3-rated defensive end is long, lean and athletic. And, according to his scouting report, "when he can't be disruptive with penetration, he can be tough taking on blockers." He will have his hands full, though, as he'll have to learn to play with his hand on the ground and standing up at outside linebacker this fall.

Also arriving: Reuben Foster (No. 1 ILB), Walker Jones (No. 26 ILB), Dee Liner (No. 4 DT), Darius Paige (No. 21 DT), A'Shawn Robinson (No. 11 DT), Tim Williams (No. 5 DE)

2013 outlook

Alabama is slowly shifting the look of its front seven, and that process will take a step forward this season as Saban aims to combat the rising tide of mobile quarterbacks by increasing his efforts to get more athletic defenders on the field. Mosley, whose sideline-to-sideline speed is already among the best in the nation, is the man to lead the charge against offenses such as Texas A&M and Ole Miss. But, as UA found out last season, it takes more than just one man to spy the quarterback. It's a collective effort that extends to the line and broadens out to specialized packages.

Tomlinson, Fanning and Lee will find themselves playing those important roles, while old hands such as DePriest and Hubbard take on greater responsibilities.

Hubbard, specifically, could be the difference between good and great for Alabama's defense. The rangy outside linebacker finished last season strong with three sacks in the final three games, the result of which was tangible well beyond his own stat line. He'll have to continue that success because a sack often causes a ripple effect. The offense has to account for those who can collapse the pocket, leaving others to make plays. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw have been gone for nearly two years now. It's time for a new playmaker to emerge, and Hubbard is the likeliest candidate.