MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) Da’Shawn Hand knew from the first day he stepped onto Alabama’s practice field that translating all that recruiting hype into Southeastern Conference success wouldn’t be easy.
The Crimson Tide defensive lineman was competing for playing time against teammates who were more experienced and nearly as highly recruited, making playing time a precious commodity.
”The very first day it was like, `Wow, OK. This is college football. All right,”’ Hand said.
Two years later, the player rated as the nation’s top prospect by Rivals.com has a shot at continuing to carve a bigger role for the defending national champions.
The Tide must replace star defensive linemen Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson, along with players like key backup D.J. Pettway. Defensive end Jonathan Allen is out for the spring after shoulder surgery. That creates more practice opportunities for backups like Hand and Dalvin Tomlinson, who are splitting the first-team repetitions in Allen’s absence.
Hand’s role increased as a sophomore, when he had 16 tackles, including 6.5 stops behind the line and three sacks. He made two tackles for loss in the national championship game against Clemson.
”I think this is going to be a really productive year for him and he’s certainly had the right attitude about the things that he needs to do to develop and be that kind of player,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
In a program that has made a habit of bringing in top recruiting classes, sometimes even the biggest prospects have to wait awhile to claim starting jobs. All-America linebacker Reggie Ragland didn’t emerge until his junior season. Ditto for fellow five-star recruit Reuben Foster last season.
If he’s been frustrated by the wait for his own shot at a breakout season, Hand isn’t letting on publicly. He said he’s ”just trying to be the best player I can be” and will play whatever role the coaches need him to.
”I know it sounds like I’m kind of repeating myself, but that’s just the God honest truth,” said Hand, who had 56 sacks in his high school career.
The 6-foot-4, 278-pound Hand certainly looks the part. He’s got the ability to play on the edge in three-man fronts and the bulk to move inside, too. Last year’s defensive line group just happened to be one of the deepest and best in college football. Alabama coaches are trying to develop him as an inside rusher for passing situations.
”He’s made a tremendous amount of progress,” Saban said. ”He’s gotten bigger and stronger. He can still run. He’s still a good pass rusher. ”
In the meantime, the player who arrived on campus amid considerable hoopla now is far from instantly recognizable. In fact, an interviewer confused him with 6-2, 230-pound tailback Bo Scarbrough at media day before the national championship game in January.
Both wear No. 9 jerseys, after all.
”I was going on this like little radio thing, and one of the guys was like, `All right, one of the guys that’s gonna be toting the ball next year, No. 9, Bo .”’ Hand said. ”And then the other guy was looking at him like … and I’m just like, `Woah.’ He was like `Yeah, Bo Scarbrough, how does it feel to be behind Derrick Henry?’ And then the guy was like, `Well, I don’t know about that, but he might be hitting Derrick Henry in practice. He’s one of the 14 guys on the D-line.’
”It was a little mix up, but I mean we both have helmets, we’re both big and we both have No. 9.”
Both are also former 5-star prospects trying to win starting jobs.