During the San Joaquin Valley’s endless Indian summer of 1997, the Turlock High varsity football team notched five shutouts in Central California Conference play. Supposedly, we had the most in the section that year. Our accomplishment finally caught the attention of the Modesto Bee’s horrible high school football reporter, and he begrudgingly wrote an article about our defense.
Nick Kindred, our nose tackle, boiled down his role on the defensive line:
“My job is to go out there and look fat. Not get tackles, look fat and let Mark do all the work.”
It’s a rudimentary view of a defensive lineman, but it’s accurate. There’s no glory, shoe contract or a date with the homecoming queen. A defensive lineman is the team’s champion who clashes in a five-yard bubble of sweat and blood. His actions on any play can make or break a defense, and the crowd wouldn’t know it.
The 49ers haven’t had a high-performing defensive lineman since Justin Smith retired. While Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner are still developing, the team hasn’t had a lineman set the tone for a quality defense that can stop an offensive attack.
It may cause fans to make a sour face and ask, “Why are they taking ANOTHER defensive lineman?!” However, choosing a versatile lineman in the first round of this year’s draft may build the base of a defense that will dominate trench warfare for the next decade.
If you haven’t already, take a moment and introduce yourself to Jonathan Allen, a senior defensive lineman from the University of Alabama. He played 50 games for the Tide and is entering this year’s draft with the Nagurski Trophy, Bednarik, Lombardi and Hendricks awards and as a unanimous all-American selection.
Allen is the most talented player I’ve watched this offseason. Let’s get the few negative parts of his game out of the way so we can talk about his greatness. There were a few plays where Allen was slow to get off the ball and ended up in a wrong position. When he was playing head up or outside shade of the tackle, if he had a slow get-off, he’d get lazy, caught up in the scrum and not set the edge. In fact, Pro Football Focus listed this as one of Allen’s biggest concerns: “When he does lose on first contact, can get engulfed.”
You could nit-pick and claim that Allen’s not big enough to play the interior in the NFL. At 6’3, 286 pounds, it’s a fair observation. However, I disagree. Size doesn’t always equal talent or productive play. He’s a mountain on the line of scrimmage that rarely gives ground to his opponent. With the right coaching, Allen could refine the deep skillset he’s bringing to professional football.
Allen’s explosion is second to none. Against Texas A&M, he was lined up outside shade of the left guard. He made a quick swim move to his right, leaving only a feeble running back to try and stop Allen. The running back tried to cut Allen, but Allen went into full Kryptonian flight mode and flew over the block, landing with his face square in the quarterback’s chest.
During the same game, Allen found himself scooping up a fumbled quarterback-running back exchange and scoring a defensive touchdown.
There was a fantastic film of Allen playing in the Peach Bowl against Washington last season. It was shot from behind the quarterback, so I could easily mark all the positions Allen played on the defensive line. Alabama asked him to play anything from a wide-9 to nose guard in a 3-4 defense. Keeping in mind, the film might have missed plays and my poor counting skills; I estimated Allen played 50 snaps, mostly from the left side. During the Peach Bowl, Allen predominantly played an interior line position, that is anything from a 6-technique to a 0 position. I highly recommend you take a look at it.
Pro Football Focus stated that Allen “had few opportunities to 6-technique.” While we do not benefit from an all-22 film, I saw Allen play head-up and outside shade of the tackle quite often. Plus, there isn’t a real difference playing a 4-technique or a 6-technique. If you can dominate the line of scrimmage like Allen, then expect to see success anywhere in the trench.
Allen already has the right mentality to play defensive line in the NFL: He’s okay with little glory. The 49ers can trade down a bit and still land Allen to bring the defense back to what it was just a few short years ago.