Starters: Isaiah Buggs, Raekwon Davis, Quinnen Williams
Backups: LaBryan Ray, Stephon Wynn, Phidarian Mathis, Johnny Dwight
New arrivals: Christian Barmore,Vita Musika
If you’re wondering what kind of a difference an assistant coach can make with a football team, keep your eye on Alabama’s defensive line this season.
Following last season the position group was considered a huge concern for the Crimson Tide, second only to the defensive backs who lost all six starters in the dime package
Two out of the three starters were departing, along with their coach to the NFL, plus there was an obvious lack of depth at the one place an SEC team can’t afford it.
The depth is still an issue because there’s only so much a head coach can do during an offseason, but heading into fall camp the defensive line is widely being hailed as a major strength.
The turnaround in outlook began in February, when Nick Saban hired one of the first college players that he coached, Craig Kuligowski. In 1990, he was a bruising offensive tackle at Toledo.
“He was a very tough, physical guy,” Saban said in the spring. “We ran the ball a lot back in those days and when we needed to we’d run right behind him.”
“[Kuligowski] was a good leader and he has a great reputation as a coach, and he’s done a good job so far.”
“Coach Kool,” as he’s called, arrived from Miami, where he spent the previous two seasons and just had three defensive linemen selected in the 2018 NFL Draft. However, he’s better known for his 15 years at Missouri, where he coached 24 all-conference players.
From 2009-2015, Kuligowski had four players selected in the first round and eight overall, during a time period in which Missouri had only 27 players drafted. The group included the 2013 and 2014 SEC Defensive Player of the Year winners, with Michael Sam (18 tackles for a loss, 10 sacks) sharing the first award with Crimson Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley, and Shane Ray (22.5 and 14.5, respectively).
Yet he had just one consensus 5-star recruit and one 4-star player to work with according to the 247Sports composite rankings. The rest were considered 2- and 3-star prospects whom he helped develop.
“When you have a coach like that who has produced that many first-rounders, you know that you hired the best,” senior end Isaiah Buggs said. “He's coming along and learning the new system very well. We're all just getting along. We're going to be great this year.”
Note that Buggs didn’t say good, but “great.”
Considering how the unit played during Alabama’s final scrimmage, A-Day, no one should doubt its potential. Even though the coaches mandated no blitzing and played just vanilla packages, the line notched five of the first-team defense’s seven sacks. The first-team offense never reached the end zone and managed just two explosive plays, one on a quarterback scramble and the other on an underthrown deep ball the receiver adjusted to for the catch.
That’s despite Alabama having just seven defensive linemen on the roster for the spring.
The Crimson Tide has since added a freshman from the most recent signing class, and landed a junior college transfer well past National Signing Day.
Although Da’Ron Payne and Da’Shawn Hand had between them played in 94 games, Buggs and massive junior end Raekwon Davis (6 foot 7, 308 pounds), are two of the three players on the entire defense who started more than two games during the 2017 season.
Buggs started 13 games during his first season at Alabama and was credited with 51 tackles, including four for a loss and 1.5 sacks, and seven quarterback pressures. The numbers were good enough that the junior college transfer from Mississippi Gulf Community Collegecould have tried to go pro.
Davis made six starts as a sophomore. With the potential to be a first-round selection with a top-notch year, he led the Crimson Tide in sacks with 8.5, and was third in tackles with 69.
"He'll extend out and you're just sitting there going like this [has arms extended] and you can't do anything,” senior offensive lineman Ross Pierschbacher said. “There's nothing you can really do. It's like, if he gets his hands on you, you're done.”
Buggs and Davis are also high-energy players, which the other players feed off emotionally.
There’s a lot of talent behind them, yet very little experience.
Sophomore LaBryan Ray (6-5, 280) figures to step up into the rotation in a big way and early enrollee Stephon Wynn (6-4, 308) was a prize recruit who should get immediate playing time.
Also in the mix and helping out in the middle are senior Johnny Dwight (6-3, 301) and redshirt freshman Phidarian Mathis (6-4, 308). Vita Musika is the late addition who was largely ignored in recruiting due to academic reasons but turned things around just in time.
“I’m very excited about that,” Buggs said.
Nevertheless, the player to watch is Quinnen Williams (6-4, 289), who won the starting nose tackle job during the spring.
Teammates have been talking about his potential for two years. As a reserve redshirt freshman in 2017 he was fourth on the team with 6.5 tackles for a loss, to go with 20 tackles, two sacks and three hurries.
Plus, he’s exactly the kind of technique-driven player that Kuligowski’s been known to develop.
So the potential’s there, along with the talent. But perhaps the biggest sign of the unit’s progression may have been when Saban called it out in the spring for being behind the offense. He wasn’t talking about statistics or production, necessarily, but leadership — nor would have done so if they weren’t ready for the challenge.
“We were like the defensive line runs things around here, like in the past you had Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, Dalvin Tomlinson, A’Shawn Robinson —a lot of great leaders on this defensive line who really ran the defense and made sure everybody was in order,” Williams said. “We just really want to be that defensive line.
“So we don’t want to have no fall off from last year to this year, and we really just want to take that role of being the alpha dogs of the defense, making sure everybody is doing what they’re supposed to do and taking accountability of everybody.”
This is the sixth story in a series previewing every Alabama position group for the 2018 season:
• Running backs