DJ Dale was dominant in high school, as almost all of his University of Alabama’s football teammates were. So Clay-Chalkville defensive coordinator Sean Talsma had to find ways to challenge him, more than the challenge of manning the middle of a defense that allowed 14 points or fewer in nine of its 14 games.
Talsma found individual matchups that challenged Dale — or, should have challenged him. He remembers the Oxford game and a meeting with five-star lineman Clay Webb, now at Georgia.
Dale and the Cougars allowed just six points.
“This kid here is a 5-star, they got you listed as a 3- or 4-star,” Talsma, now at Hewitt-Trussville, said. “We need you to go dominate. When we challenged him, ‘We need you to do this,’ he accepted the challenge and did it. He internalized a lot of things and let it all out on Friday nights.
“It wasn’t just a bunch of stalemates, he won a lot of those battles. I think he’s got a great future ahead of him at Alabama.”
That future starts now.
Dale made the most of a rare opportunity: a chance to start as a freshman on Alabama’s defensive line. He was listed as the starting nose guard on the depth chart going into Saturday’s game against Duke, an opportunity many of the Alabama greats before him were not afforded. It’s partially a product of the circumstances, but those around him know he earned it.
“It’s definitely crazy. When I came in, there wasn’t really an opportunity for freshmen to really play like that, starting,” senior defensive end Raekwon Davis said. “You had Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, you had guys like that, and there was no way you were going to play in front of them because they were dogs.
“Right now, depth-wise, we’re just a little low and DJ’s a dog. He deserves the opportunity to start for us, I feel like he worked hard for that position. Other young guys, like (freshman linebacker Christian) Harris, they worked hard for those positions and they earned it.”
Through watching Dale earn that spot, Davis has built some high expectations for Dale.
“The kid, he’s very explosive. He gives great energy to the ball,” Davis said. “He’s going to be very disturbing this year to quarterbacks, he’s going to be good.”
There’s a reason Alabama hasn’t started a freshman defensive lineman since A’Shawn Robinson (twice in 2013). Adjusting quickly to the rigors of Alabama’s program is hard enough, much less adjusting well enough to thrive in them.
Count Talsma among those that aren’t surprised.
“One of the first things is DJ is such an extremely hard worker,” Talsma said. “He’ll learn something and then teach the guys, regardless of age. He learns really quickly, he becomes a master of that craft and wants to teach other people.”
Davis saw that quality quickly: “Getting him ready, developing him, it was a process. Some kids just don’t get it: the plays, how stuff goes. He studied every night, he was always in the playbook, he was always in the meeting room, he was always doing something to get better.”
Through that ability to understand concepts quickly, Dale earned the chance to let his physical gifts shine on the practice field. On Saturday, as early as the first play, the public will see those tools at work.
“The thing that stands out to me is his hands. He has great hand placement,” Talsma said. “He can bullrush, he can push-pull. He has a lot of tools in the toolbox, and his hand strength and hand placement is what helps separate him from a lot of kids.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson