Three years ago, he was the No. 1 football recruit in the country. He held more than 90 scholarship offers.
In a class made up of magnificent freaks—Leonard Fournette, Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers, Adoree’ Jackson and Deshaun Watson, the quarterback he will face Monday night in the championship game for the second consecutive year—Da’Shawn Hand was thought by many to be the freakiest of all.
The 6’4″, 260-pound defensive lineman out of Woodbridge, Virginia, could have played anywhere. Ultimately, he committed to Alabama, a destination for fellow football freaks looking to tap into their potential.
There, not long after he arrived, he bench-pressed 225 pounds more than 40 times as a true freshman.
“It was 42 or 43,” Hand, now a junior, said. He couldn’t recall the exact figure, in part because he didn’t view this as anything out of the ordinary. Although since 2012, only one player has eclipsed 40 reps at the NFL combine, the ultimate scouting mecca.
Hand’s freshman frame, almost free of body fat, has since acquired 20 spectacular pounds. His neck is now akin to the base of a mature oak tree.
He looks the part of a generational football talent, a prototype: a lineman with NFL size and a shocking amount of burst.
“His combine is going to be freakish,” said Hand’s former high school coach, Karibi Dede. “I can almost guarantee he’s going to break the bench-press record. He’s going to run a crazy 40. He’s going to do things that people haven’t seen.”
It’s all there. All of it. And yet, entering his final game of his third year with the program, Hand is a backup. Lost in a diabolical rotation, he plays behind arguably the best player in the country, potential No. 1 overall draft pick Jonathan Allen.
Hand is the very definition of Alabama’s startling talent overflow, a cog in the talent factory that is Crimson Tide football. But he sees a future free of the lower rungs on the depth chart.
“I have the mentality that I get what I earn,” Hand told Bleacher Report. “Hard work pays off. Whenever my time is, it’s going to be my time.”
Patience is no longer a word exercised in recruiting. When a blue-chip prospect fails to deliver early on, the assumption is something has gone wrong.
For Hand, this couldn’t be further from his reality. This is precisely why he signed with head coach Nick Saban. To be pushed. To struggle. To take on the most difficult path to stardom imaginable.
“To watch kids shine and get the level of exposure that came out in the same class as him, I’m sure weighs in the back of his mind,” Dede said. “He’s just got to stay the course. The idea that he’s in a reserve role is nothing to be ashamed of.
“He’s a national champion and getting ready to perhaps win another one. He’s in a great position.”
Two days before Alabama’s 24-7 dismantling of Washington in the Peach Bowl, Hand sat away from the spotlight during his team’s media day in the Georgia Dome.
As cameras and microphones swarmed others in the room, the prospect most programs dream of landing once in their existence sat quietly at a table with a few teammates in a gray pullover. A walking boot guarded his left foot, although he didn’t seem concerned by the unexpected wardrobe addition.
“My foot is cool,” he assured with a smile. “It’s all good.”
A mere 50 feet away, Allen fielded a barrage of questions from the media.
The cameras cracked at his presence. The lights flashed. The red lights of tape recorders and iPhones lined the table.
Allen, a senior star on a team occupied with stars, is used to this by now. But it wasn’t always that way.
Like Hand, Allen wasn’t gifted a starting role on the defensive line the moment he arrived. He had to earn his time, just like everyone else on the roster, which he did near the end of his sophomore season and into his junior year.
To see the field, he had to conquer his own defensive line first, the place where Alabama’s greatness begins.
“It’s frustrating,” Allen said of the wait. “You want to be out there playing more than you are. But you have to just make every play count.”
Allen turned the wait into a seventh-place finish in the Heisman vote and a future worth millions of dollars. The expectation is that Hand, with only one season of eligibility remaining, will do the same when he anchors a defensive line that will look much different than it does now.
“He’s improved tremendously,” Allen said of Hand. “When he came in, he was a young guy who relied on pure athleticism to make plays. He’s where I was last year at this point. I’m expecting him to have a big year next season.”
Through almost three full seasons, Hand has accumulated 43 tackles and seven sacks. He’s totaled 12 tackles for loss. Against Washington, he finished with one tackle.
When Allen needed rest, Hand ran onto the field. While on the sideline, he waited anxiously, helmet on, hoping to tag in.
But it was only a year ago that Hand showed he could do more, a lot more.
Aiding a defensive line that exhausted itself chasing Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson around all evening, Hand finished last year’s national title game with two tackles for a loss and four tackles overall.
It wasn’t just the numbers, either. He was everywhere that night. When given extended snaps, up against the team’s toughest obstacle of the year, he shined.
Those who watched Hand throughout high school knew a game like that was coming.
A prodigy in Virginia, Hand garnered national attention by his sophomore season. From there, the interest only grew as word of his performances spread throughout the area and beyond.
Dede, now a Louisville assistant, coached Hand his senior season at Woodbridge. A former player and coach at Auburn, Dede had no idea what he was inheriting when he first took the job.
Then the phone calls started. Not just from coaches, but the media as well. They wanted to speak with one of the country’s elite prospects. Some wanted to broadcast his life on a reality TV show.
“It was just amazing to watch him go against high school guys,” Dede said. “He could do anything on the field that he wanted to.”
These days, the stories regarding Hand’s strength are almost mythical. It wasn’t just the way he tossed around a barbell with 45-pound plates attached to each end with ease.
It was the way he would toss a weighted medicine ball at his trainer, Kevin “KJ” Johnson, a former boxer, who had to gather himself the first time Hand’s pass connected with his torso.
“It felt like a cannonball had hit me,” Johnson said.
It was the way Hand would regularly push his trainer’s equipment to the brink and sometimes beyond. The sound of resistance bands snapping like firecrackers would fill the air.
“If we were doing an explosive exercise using bands,” Johnson added, “they were in constant jeopardy.”
While working with Hand in a drill, Dede wanted to see how all the weight-room brilliance would translate.
“You’re not going to hurt me,” he told him.
When Hand made contact with Dede’s chest, the coach couldn’t believe the force.
“He knew he could hurt me and didn’t even apply everything he had,” Dede said. “I couldn’t believe how strong he was.”
Before he reached high school, though, Hand’s schoolmates questioned whether all that size would ever be put to good use. Was he just a big kid with scant football skills or a drive to develop them? This drove Hand to begin a daily workout routine of 600 pushups and situps a night.
“I’ve seen him do 200 pushups straight without burning out,” Dede recalled. It’s a routine, according to his former coach, that has followed him to Tuscaloosa.
All of it, the strength, sacks and production, led to a ravenous recruitment. With so much interest, Hand and Dede tried to be honest with coaches and teams that were out of the running. Not rude, but open.
When Hand visited Alabama, however, he was hooked. With an eye on the NFL, this was a natural fit. It seemed like the destination that could push him further than any other.
“He [Saban] made a comment when he was recruiting Da’Shawn,” Dede said. “He told him that guys have every opportunity to come in and play as a freshman. But if we get a bunch of freshmen starting on our football program, then we haven’t been recruiting and developing the right guys over the past few years.”
Hand committed to Alabama in November 2013. He was not promised anything beyond an opportunity. As Saban does with all of his recruiting pitches, he does not guarantee snaps or playing time like other coaches and programs.
“He just challenges you to be the best,” Hand said of Saban. “It’s the competition and also the success of the program. It humbles you and teaches you the right way to do things.”
Hand also liked the fit for reasons that are close to him—reasons beyond football that he doesn’t share with anyone outside his inner circle.
When Dede first heard his player talk about life after football, he was blown away. He had never heard an athlete of his caliber, at his age, see beyond the sport at which they excelled.
Many of the players that Hand came in with—Fournette, Peppers, even Alabama tackle Cam Robinson—likely will be paid millions of dollars to play football in the next few months.
But Hand’s prospects, while bright on paper, don’t come with the resume of his classmates.
That’s the price for playing for a college football dynasty.
Of the 55 players drafted since Saban arrived, almost none stood out as a freshman or sophomore. They had to wait their turn. Just like those before them, just like those after them.
Still, Hand could leave Alabama for the draft after Monday night’s game if he so desires.
“The physical foundation is impressive, and he has shown bursts of elite ability,” an NFC scout said of Hand. “If he came out now, I doubt he’d be a first-day pick, but he wouldn’t last past the second day on potential alone. If he goes back, there’s no telling how much he could help himself.”
Allen was in a comparable position last season, with more film and playing time to work with.
Hand faces a similar but still unique decision. Those who were with him before he arrived in Alabama would be surprised if he declared.
“I don’t believe you’ve seen the best of him yet,” someone close to Hand said. “And I think he shares that belief.”
There’s a phrase Saban uses with the entire team that has stuck with Hand.
Be where your feet are.
For those waiting for their time at Alabama, no phrase is more appropriate. It’s a matter of staying grounded, no matter the situation.
Hand’s moment is coming. Perhaps it will arrive Monday night, a fitting stage for a breakthrough and a worthy encore. Or perhaps it will come next fall, when he will be expected to be a star on what will still be, even with all the departures, one of the best defensive lines in the country.
He will be the one holding back a collection of talented, hungry underclassmen desperate to see the field. That’s just the way it’s done in Tuscaloosa.
At some point in the near future, Hand’s hard work will pay off.
At Alabama. On bench day at the combine. In the NFL, where his size and abilities will fit right in.
“You come here and you work,” Hand added. “You earn what you get.”
Recruiting ranking courtesy of Rivals.
Read more Alabama Crimson Tide Football news on BleacherReport.com