Among the highlights of a standout season opener for the University of Alabama defense were the three men up front. They helped hold Duke to 3.3 yards per carry; sophomore Phidarian Mathis set a new career high with five tackles.
Alabama is no stranger to strong defensive line performances, individually and collectively. Doing it the way it was done against Duke, however, is bucking the trend.
UA did not rotate defensive linemen in its season opener as it has become known for doing in recent years, with the top three of Raekwon Davis, DJ Dale and LaBryan Ray taking almost all of the snaps. Fresh bodies eventually got reps when the game got out of hand — and presumably will do the same on Saturday against New Mexico State — but the first-half work rates stand out relative to UA’s recent history.
“I don’t really know, every play I just try to focus on doing my job and doing my best at that time,” Ray said of the workload. “I don’t really mentally think about it so I just go in there and play my best every snap.”
In the first half against Duke, Alabama’s starting front of Davis, Dale and Ray was together on more snaps than it was apart. The fourth lineman, Mathis, played just four snaps in the first half, most often in Davis’ place. There were times when Dale and Ray were given breaks — mostly on third down when UA substituted linebacker Christopher Allen into its pass-rush package — but Ray only missed one first-half snap.
Freshman Byron Young did get on the field early in the third quarter and the reserves got some snaps in the fourth quarter, but the first half rotation was thin compared to previous years.
Take the 2018 season opener against Louisville, for instance, when five defensive linemen played at least five snaps in the first half; Mathis played six snaps in the second quarter alone against Louisville, compared to four in the first half against Duke.
In the 2017 opener against Florida State, UA used six defensive linemen in the first half — and that includes Da’Shawn Hand playing 35 snaps, the most of any UA defensive lineman in the first half of a season opener over the last three seasons. In that game, Isaiah Buggs, Joshua Frazier and Quinnen Williams all played between nine and 14 snaps.
There is the caveat for the Florida State game of Jimbo Fisher and his slow-paced offense, allowing for more frequent substitutions than most college football offenses.
There is also the fact that Duke ran fewer first-half plays (27) than Louisville (29) or Florida State (35) did. Even in rotating less than usual, no one lineman took on an outsized workload: Ray played 26 first-half snaps against Duke, just as Davis played 26 against Louisville. Hand’s 35 and Da’Ron Payne’s 33 against Florida State are the true outliers, but again, the Seminoles forced UA to cover eight additional snaps than Duke did.
Even with fewer snaps to cover in this instance, there is no guarantee that it will be the case in the future. Alabama coach Nick Saban expressed a desire to find more options for when that day comes.
“We’ve got lots of young players at that position that we’re trying to develop, so that’s certainly something that we’re working on to try to develop some of these young players so that we can get the kind of depth that we need to sustain the season,” Saban said.
In the interior, that would fall to freshman Stephon Wynn Jr. and senior Tevita Musika. Mathis is listed as Davis’ backup, so that answer is already in place.
A key piece to this puzzle will be freshman defensive end Justin Eboigbe. He missed all week one practices and the Duke game with a foot injury; he has not been seen with the defensive line in any of the media viewing periods this week, including Wednesday’s practice.
Saban said Eboigbe’s day is coming, but it won’t be immediate.
“Justin was a guy that was in the two-deep and has been injured,” Saban said, “and we hope he will come back in a week or two.”