Everyone remembers his footwork from the big-man touchdown reception against Clemson, but don’t let defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne’s ballerina-like feet fool you. He was one of the most physical players on the Alabama football team last season.
In fact, his bullish play was the reason Nick Saban and Brian Daboll – UA’s offensive coordinator at the time – trusted the defensive tackle to block on short down-and-distance situations on offense. With the junior now gone for the NFL Draft, those are some big (and agile) shoes to fill.
The first place Alabama will look to replace Payne’s physicality, particularly on defense, will likely be Isaiah Buggs, and the senior said he is ready to accept more of a leadership role in Payne’s absence.
Also factor in 308-pound returnee Raekwon Davis and you have the two players who will bookend Alabama’s pass rush in 2018. With linebackers Terrell Lewis and Christian Miller returning, the Crimson Tide’s defensive line knows that more physicality could result in dangerous space for UA’s speedy pass rushers to wreak havoc this season.
“It starts up front,” Buggs said. “In any game situation, no matter who we play, it starts up front. The front seven, we have to be physical, the most physical on the field.”
New defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski will try to create that push, and the coach has a reputation that bodes well for the Crimson Tide. Last season Miami, where he coached, ranked first nationally in sacks, in large part because of Kuligowski’s defensive line. Prior to his stint with the Hurricanes, the coach produced five first-round draft picks in 15 years at Missouri.
“When you have a coach like that who has produced that many first-rounders, you know that you hired the best,” 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.”
Buggs recorded eight tackles across Alabama’s final two games last season, including two that went for losses. After remaining healthy for all 14 games last season, Buggs is one of the few remaining members of the Alabama pass rush that received a heavy dose of game-time action. The junior-college transfer weighs 287 pounds, around 20 pounds lighter than Payne weighed last season.
As for playing on offense like Payne, Buggs isn’t closing that door just yet.
“Whatever they need me to do, I’ll do it,” Buggs said.
Another player who survived the wave of injuries is defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, who also played all 14 games last season, with great numbers against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn.
“He’s very fundamentally sound, and he’s a great player,” Buggs said of his teammate. “He knows everything on defense play-wise. He’s going to have a big role this year.”
The Crimson Tide will likely rotate Buggs, Davis and Williams on the field this fall, similar to how they operated around Payne. That can require some position shuffling on each play, but Williams and the other young linemen switching spots doesn’t worry the veteran.
“Everybody is switching around and changing up, and learning new positions,” Buggs said. “Everybody looks great doing it.”