Could this be Nick Saban’s best defensive line ever?

Tuscaloosa, Ala.–There was a reason they called him “Mount Cody.”

At 6-5, 354 pounds, Terrence Cody was a mountain of a man who did one thing extremely well for Alabama in 2008-2009. With his size, strength, and surprising quickness as the nose tackle in Nick Saban’s 3-4 defense, Cody clogged up the middle on every play as it always took two players to (attempt) to block him.

In a 2009 game with Tennessee in Tuscaloosa, Cody shoved his way through the middle of the UT line not once but twice to block field goals. The second block came on the last play of the game and preserved a 12-10 win. Alabama went on to go 14-0 and win the BCS national championship.

In years past, the perfect nose tackle  in the 3-4 defense would look just like Terrence Cody.

But not any more. With the proliferation of the no-huddle, up-tempo offenses, said Alabama Coach Nick Saban, today Mount Cody would have a tough time getting on the field.

“What the no huddle does is those guys (like Cody) have got to go by the wayside,” Saban said on a recent visit to his office. “Cody at the 3-4 nose was a good as anybody you could ever have. But in 12 out of 14 games we played last year he would have had a limited role.”

It’s simple, really. The up-tempo no-huddle offense is designed to do two things: 1) Run a lot of plays and score a lot of points and 2) limit the ability of the defense to substitute freely, thus causing  fatigue..

“Once you get a guy like that on the field you can’t get him off,” said Saban. “He gets tired quicker. There a lot more loose (sideline to sideline) plays. Guys have to run a lot more.”

This is no small thing for the defense. One of Saban’s strengths as coach is his ability, working with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, to put together personnel groupings on defense based on down and distance and field position. So the group of players on the field for third and two would be different that the group for third and eight.

“I think it starts with the NFL philosophy that we always had that a lot of college teams didn’t,” said Saban. “You would have specialty players and specialty defenses. If a guy is a really good pass rusher you draft him for just that. You put him in the game just for that. If you play a 3-4 and a guy is a good nose guard you draft him just for that.”

The offense’s counter to Saban’s ability to bring in wave after wave of talented players for specific situations was the no huddle offense. In the no huddle the offense dictates the tempo and the substitution patterns. If the offense plays continuously and does not substitute, then the defense for the most part can’t substitute. So the up-tempo teams took away an important weapon in Saban’s arsenal. And anybody who has listened to Saban over the past few seasons knows he’s not particularly thrilled about that.

“You just can’t play as many specialty players because you don’t have the freedom to substitute,” said Saban. “The offense totally dictates that. It is what it is.”

So what’s the adjustment for the defense? Again, pretty simple. For the past three seasons Saban and his staff have recruited defensive linemen who are a little smaller, a little quicker, and have a bit more stamina so they can stay on the field longer no matter the down and the distance. They can also play multiple positions on the line.

“You have to recruit more guys who can play every down and they are harder to find,” said Saban. “But the last few years we tried to recruit a little different type of guy and it’s helped us.”

Meet A’Shawn Robinson, the new prototype of the Alabama defensive lineman. Robinson, a junior from Fort Worth, is solid at 6-4, 312 pounds. He has played all three positions on the defensive line with equal effectiveness. He has the endurance to stay on the field for extended possessions. He’s played in 27 games with 15 starts in his first two seasons.

“He is a big, strong man,” said center Ryan Kelly, who has had the job of blocking Robinson in practice. “You can see from the end of last season and until the end of spring practice until now that he has developed.

“The good thing is we’ve got a bunch of guys that are a lot like him.”

It’s going to be hard for anybody to match Alabama’s depth of defensive linemen that includes returning starters Jarran Reed (6-4, 313) and Jonathan Allen (6-3, 283) along with, Darren Lake (6-3, 315), Dalvin Tomlinson (6-3, 294), D.J. Pettway (6-3, 270), Da’Shawn Hand (6-4, 273), sophomore Josh Frazier (6-4, 315) and freshman Darren Payne (6-2, 315).

It is a lean, mean bunch, said Robinson.

“We push each other in practice because we know in order to be good we have to keep pounding it,” said Robinson, who has dropped about 10 pounds from last season. “Our guys know we have to be versatile and be ready to adapt to anything the offense throws at us. We’re all learning to keep our weight down so that we don’t get dog tired.

“We’re all basically the same kind of player but each of us can do a little something different. We know that we’re only as strong as our weakest link.”

It has been said and written that this could be Saban’s best collection of defensive line talent since he arrived at Alabama in 2007.  He does not refute it.

“Guys like A’Shawn, Jarran and Jonathan are really good people,” said Saban. “They do exactly what they’re supposed to do the way you are supposed to do it. They practice hard all the time and set a good example to the other players. I like this group.”

Saban believes these players are quick enough to run with the up-tempo offenses but also strong enough when the Crimson Tide faces the few conventional running teams that are still on the schedule.

“When you play Arkansas, Georgia and LSU you still better have some guys who can thump with them,” said Saban. “We believe these guys can do that.”


Next stop: Arkansas

Could this be Nick Saban’s best defensive line ever?

| College Football, SEC |
About The Author
- Tony Barnhart, known as "Mr. College Football," is an analyst for The SEC Network.