TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For weeks, University of Alabama sophomore defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne wanted to be sure that everyone knew he had scored a touchdown.
It was especially true in the Crimson Tide locker room, where he couldn’t help himself more often than not. When anybody did anything, Payne was quick to remind him that he had scored six points at Ole Miss—just in case he may have forgotten.
“I’m tired of hearing Da’Ron Payne,” junior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said. “He scored a two-inch touchdown. He’s thinking that he ran 100 yards or something.”
If it seems like the Crimson Tide defensive players are having fun this season; they are, and not just because undefeated Alabama is No. 1 in the rankings. The unit leads the nation in rushing defense and is a threat to score on any given play.
It’s done so seven times already with three on interceptions and four fumble returns, all by different players and none during junk time. No other team in college football has more than four (Ohio State and Wyoming), and the total matches the number of offensive touchdowns South Carolina has scored.
Add in two touchdowns on punt returns, and Alabama’s defense and special teams have outscored the opposition in three of the team’s six games—and yes, the players do keep score among themselves.
“Most of the guys are like, ‘Shoot, we didn’t score this game. We didn’t score that game,'” junior linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “So, hopefully, this game everybody will score.”
Granted the passing defense had some issues against Ole Miss and Arkansas (“I don’t know if anybody noticed, but I wasn’t the happiest camper in the second half or after the game,” head coach Nick Saban said after facing the Razorbacks), but this is a different group for the Crimson Tide, both on and off field.
While there are always a variety of personalities on any unit or group that tries to perform cohesively, with this defense, the players are as different as where everyone’s geographically from. In addition to the in-state products, it features players from Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Hollywood knows that a diverse group of characters coming together can be a winning movie formula, such as Armageddon or The Lord of the Rings. Only in this case, it’s with a ridiculous number of talented football players, nine of whom were once considered 5-star prospects by Scout.com. The Crimson Tide’s version of a leading man is undoubtedly senior defensive end Jonathan Allen.
“He’s the center of our defense—the heart and soul of it,” senior linebacker Mark Anderson said. “That’s our dude.”
So Allen’s the one to ask about how the players stand out away from football.
- Who’s the best cook on the defense? “Me…no, no, Da’Shawn Hand,” Allen said. “He can really cook. I don’t know if he really tells people that.”
- Who’s the best eater? “Josh Frazier.”
- Who’s the workout warrior? “Da’Ron Payne.”
- Who’s the quietest? “Dalvin Tomlinson.”
Tomlinson might be the most interesting player on the Alabama roster and also the most underrated. Yet his teammates rave about him.
“I don’t know if you can tell, but he’s really a difference-maker on the front,” Allen said. “That’s my dawg, man. He’s funny.”
Away from the game, Tomlinson is usually pretty laid-back and often smiling. But he plays with a mean streak and is deceptively bigger and faster than he looks. Anderson guessed the other day that his teammate weighed around 280 pounds, only to be shocked to see the scale needle go up to 310.
“He doesn’t play like it,” said Anderson, who’s even more impressed by what Tomlinson can do with his hands. “I don’t know if he took jiu-jitsu or something in the jungle.”
Actually, a lot of it comes from playing other sports in addition to football. Tomlinson was the goalie for his high school soccer team and a prize state-champion wrestler (the video of which is still making the rounds in the Alabama locker room). He only lost twice.
“The first one was my first-ever varsity match, and I was nervous and lost by points,” he said. “The second one, I got disqualified for hip-tossing a dude onto his neck.”
Tomlinson wasn’t trying to hurt his opponent. He executed a move his coach called for when he was way ahead and missed on the follow-through.
Regardless, it all helps explain how he can get off blocks so well and knock down passes.
“Ryan just thinks I’m a freak of nature,” Tomlinson said.
- Who’s the loudest player? “Ryan Anderson,” Allen responded.
- Most intimidating? “Gotta go with Reuben Foster.”
Actually, Anderson gives Foster a run for his money when it comes to intimidation, but there’s another side to both that fans rarely get to see.
Anderson is also the comedian of the defense, challenged only by junior defensive back Tony Brown.
“Ryan, sometimes when he talks to you, he reminds you of your older uncles,” Tomlinson said. “He just sounds like he’s got an old soul, and it’s just funny.”
But Anderson is just as boisterous as a linebacker. Although Allen (4.0 sacks) and fellow senior linebacker Tim Williams (3.5) get more attention, Anderson leads the Crimson Tide in both tackles for loss (7.5) and sacks (4.5), and has forced two fumbles.
Meanwhile, Foster could win an in-house Mr. Personality contest.
For example, after the senior interior linebacker lost weight during the offseason to play at a faster speed, Foster claimed to feel like a Ferrari. When asked what kind of car reserve linebacker Keith Holcombe would be, he laughed and said of the two-sport athlete who also plays baseball despite dealing with diabetes, “Kind of fancy. Give him a Maybach.”
“He’s just got one speed,” Foster said. “He motivates me. He’s got one speed. He don’t let nothing get him down. I’ve never seen someone like that.
“He’s on go 100 percent.”
Foster gets similar praise from teammates, like how he never downshifts. He’s also unmistakably the hardest hitter on a team of hard hitters. At Ole Miss, Foster hit the quarterback so hard that he gave himself a black eye. He shrugged it off by saying, “He’s a tough guy.”
“The play he hit Chad Kelly, I stopped, and my jaw dropped like, ‘Dang.’ I was scared. I was scared for him,” Anderson said. “I don’t know where he came from. I was running, and it was ‘Bop! Like what was that?’ I should have known it was [No.] 10.
“Reuben is a monster.”
No one’s arguing the point.
- Who’s the best dresser? “Eddie Jackson.”
- Who’s the most serious? “Minkah Fitzpatrick.”
When asked for the first word that came to mind when hearing some of his teammates’ names, Allen said “explosive” for Williams, “dependable” for Anderson and “playmaker” for Jackson.
He might be able to say the same now for Fitzpatrick after the sophomore cornerback picked off three passes against Arkansas and returned one for a 100-yard touchdown.
“As soon as I caught the ball, Eddie had tapped my arm,” Fitzpatrick said. “He was like, ‘Come on,’ and he pointed to the left side of the field, and it was wide-open. So I just had to take a chance. I know Coach Saban probably wasn’t happy at first, but I think he was happy with the end result.”
It was Fitzpatrick’s third career interception return for a touchdown, tying him with Antonio Langham, C.J. Mosley and Jackson for the school record. Jackson, a senior safety, also reached the end zone on a punt return against Ole Miss.
Both have developed a reputation for paying attention to small details, which ties in with their appearance, approach and preparation. That, in turn, helps lead to things such as Fitzpatrick’s third interception, especially since he had seen that play before.
“You want to look at leverage, like where the receiver is on the field, what formation they’re in,” Fitzpatrick said. “Some offenses run the same plays out of the same formations. So like, say the receiver’s closer to the hash, he’s probably trying to run across the field trying to get away from you. If he’s further from the hash, he’s probably trying to get inside of you.”
Finally, there’s Mr. Energy, Brown, the defensive back who has matching big hair that makes him almost impossible to miss on or off the field. He’s an All-American in track for the Crimson Tide and has become a force on special teams.
“Always has the juice,” Hamilton said about Brown, who finished serving an NCAA suspension in September and is just getting going this season. “Tony is a maniac.
“He hits like a lineman.”
Overall, it’s quite a group that’s still coming together (remember, Alabama had three freshmen in the dime package last year) and obviously hitting its stride in some ways after having to insert six new starters this season.
The unit isn’t prefect, but its competitive edge could be the deciding factor in Alabama’s attempt to win a third straight Southeastern Conference championship and College Football Playoff appearance.
Last week, the inside talk was about how none of the linebackers had managed to put points on the scoreboard yet. It ended at Arkansas with Williams’ scoop-and-score off of a sack and fumble by Hand, as Alabama found yet another way to score.
“That’ll ignite a defense,” Anderson said about defensive touchdowns while essentially refusing to acknowledge Payne’s contribution.
“He’s just hating,” Payne said. “He can’t talk about me until he gets a touchdown. He almost had one in the Kentucky game.”
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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