Poor Blake Barnett couldn't have known what he was getting in to.
The five-star prospect was so excited when he signed at Alabama, enrolling early before the spring semester in hopes of competing for the starting job at quarterback in 2015. And for a while, he hung in the race, pushing Jake Coker and Cooper Bateman well into fall camp. But then reality hit. Playing as a true freshman wasn't in the cards, and instead he was relegated to scout team QB.
It was there that Barnett got an up close and personal look at what makes Alabama tick. Staring down the defensive line every day in practice, he heard their leadership as much as he felt their pain. He became their crash-test dummy with every bit of his lanky 6-foot-5, 190-pound frame tested against a unit that, according to defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, never takes a snap off and prides itself on bringing the same intensity Monday through Friday that it showed during game days this season.
"We had to peel them off him each day," Smart said.
Barnett survived this season, but he was one of the few quarterbacks in college football who can say they did. Just ask Michigan State's Connor Cook, who was sacked four times and threw two interceptions thanks to the line's constant harassment. At one point during the 38-0 loss, Cook was caught on camera saying of Alabama's defense, "They're f---ing everywhere."
Smart, who is splitting his time as coordinator while he prepares to become Georgia's next head coach, knows the feeling. He said before the Cotton Bowl that the defensive line "cornered me in a room and said that if I didn't stay, there would be an altercation." He was joking, of course, but if there was ever a group of players capable of throwing their weight around in that fashion, it's them.
If Nick Saban is the architect of Alabama's success this season, then A'Shawn Robinson & Co. are his chief enforcers.
"They want to go hit people," Smart said. "I'm like, 'Whoa, slow down, boys.' You almost have to hold them back. You worry about them injuring a scout-team player or injuring themselves, but they're not worried about that. They're thinking, 'We need to go play good, so we need to go practice good.' And when they set that tempo they turn around to the linebackers and they jump on them and they jump on the DBs when they're not out thudding guys.
"So the demand is there and when you've got that as a coach, step back and let them go."
* * *
Alabama wasn't right last year.
You talk to coaches and players and they'll tell you how the chemistry was off before they lost to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff. It's clear now that everyone wasn't pointed in the same direction and a lack of vocal leaders let the problem fester. According to linebacker Reggie Ragland, there were off-field issues that never came to light and players who were more concerned with the draft board than the scoreboard.
"Guys were all over the place," Ragland said. "They were saying one thing and doing another."
Not so this season.
Not under the watchful eye of Alabama's defensive line.
Where before players were too afraid to call out teammates, there's now an entire position group of players willing and able to let their voices be heard.
"A'Shawn Robinson will do it. He'll do it in a heartbeat," Ragland said. "A'Shawn will call you out on anything if he feels it's not right. He helps run the team."
It's not done in secret, either. Robinson will make a scene in front of everyone and not think twice about it. And when he talks, teammates listen.
"Have you seen A'Shawn?" Ragland asked incredulously.
To Ragland's left was the 300-pound defensive tackle with deep-set eyes, a thick beard and a menacing stare. When Robinson lowers his voice, he's not someone you think about saying no to. "That's a lot of guy over there," Ragland said.
Robinson was once afraid to speak up, and now Ragland can sum up his tone in three words: "Rough. Loud. Direct."
"He's a scary guy," said safety Eddie Jackson, "especially when he starts screaming and yelling and you know he's really mad. When you see that expression, you know he's time to buckle down."
The same could be said of defensive tackle Jarran Reed. As a junior college transfer last year, he didn't see himself as being in a position to "assert himself," according to Saban. But now that he's comfortable, Saban said he's impacting the entire team.
Said Ragland: "I had to tell him, 'If you speak, guys are going to follow you.' Ever since then he's been going."
* * *
Side by side, Reed and Robinson are a combined 625 pounds of brute force.
Throw in 283-pound defensive end Jonathan Allen and there's nowhere to hide.
"The way we feel is either you're with us or you're against us," Allen said. "If you're not helping this team out, you're against us. And if you're against us, we have nothing to say to you.
"I hate to be like that, but it's a train you need to either get on or get off."
Talk about throwing down the gauntlet.
"We feel like we're all grown men here and you've got to be held responsible and do your job," Allen explained. "As long as you do your job, we won't have no problem with you."
If that sounds like rule by intimidation, it's because it is.
But instead of bucking at the heavy-handed leadership, players seem to have embraced it.
Jackson said that it's been fun to watch when Robinson lowers his voice and booms, "Y'all better tighten up!"
"You go out there and you just see them," Jackson said." They're jumping around. They're hyped. They're pumped. 'Let's go, y'all! Let's go!' They really lift us up in the secondary. Just watching those guys go out there and do what they do, it really affects you to come out with your A game and play your best."
Said linebacker Denzel Devall: "It keeps everybody on go-mode. You get out there in practice and no one is going to slack around."
According to Robinson, the line's mentality has been to be "Tyson aggressive."
"Mike Tyson dominated everything," he said. "So when we go out there, we make sure we dominate everything and be the aggressor at the point of attack from day in and day out."
Reed said that's it's not a matter of who is a star player and who isn't. If something is wrong, someone is going to speak up.
"Everybody has bought into the program," he said. "Last year we were doing things a bit different, but this year everybody is mentally focused on the job that's at hand."
That comes as music to Saban's ears.
While the perception might exist that Saban is a dictator, that's not exactly the case. He demands accountability, sure, but how that comes about is immaterial. If he can let go and allow players to police themselves during practice, then all the better.
It's a big reason why Saban said on Wednesday that this team has been "fun to coach."
Unlike in years past, he hasn't had to worry as much about the message getting through. The defensive line has helped force-feed his so-called "process" and lead Alabama to the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T against Clemson on Monday (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).
"You're not harping on people to try to get them to do the intangible things that should be a given," Saban said. "You're just teaching them what you'd like them to do in that particular game because they sort of buy into doing those things and understand that it takes what it takes. That's been a good thing. That's why this team has improved.
"When I say, 'It's a long season; they chose to be here by doing the right things,' that's exactly what I mean."
But that's only half-true.
After all, when Robinson and his crew of linemen are shoving you in the right direction, it's hardly a choice.