When Dont'a Hightower went down this past Saturday against Arkansas, everyone feared for the worst. And, unfortunately, the worst fears were realized yesterday when the MRI results confirmed the initial diagnosis. The good news is that the injury seems to be your basic ACL tear with no additional structural damage to the knee. That likely means that, thankfully, Hightower should return to form by the time Penn State comes to Tuscaloosa for the "real" 2010 season opener, but even so we have now have to fight through the rest of the 2009 season without the services of a legitimate All-American caliber player.
And, frankly, there is no almost no way to overstate just how big of a loss Hightower is to this defense. Truth be told, I think he's probably the single best player on our defense -- even better than Terrence Cody and Rolando McClain, both likely All-Americans in their own right -- and there is no doubt whatsoever that Hightower is the most versatile player on the defensive side of the ball. He can easily play all four linebacker positions, and he was doing an outstanding job playing defensive end when the Rabbit package went on the field in passing situations. He could legitimately play five different positions, all at a very high level, and he was a legitimate three-phase player. It's rare to ever find a linebacker who can legitimately cover in space, stop the run, and rush the passer, but Hightower could do that. Again, there's almost no overstating what you lose with him on the sideline.
Fortunately, the good news is that we are deep at linebacker, and the Alabama defense played very well against Arkansas even in his absence. That latter point should not be underestimated, either. Given some of the struggles we have seen with Ole Miss and LSU thus far, a valid argument can be made that we will have to make it to Atlanta to find an offense as good as what the Hogs put on the field this past Saturday, and at the very least we will be hard-pressed to find many offenses from here on out that are legitimately comparable to the Arkansas attack. Given that, even without Hightower in the game, we nevertheless held the Hogs to seven points, barely 250 yards of total offense, and also caused arguably the best pocket passer we've seen in a long time to complete only 34% of his passes and average only 4.5 yards per attempt. Again, this point should not be underestimated.
In other words, put more simply, losing a player like Hightower is a huge loss, and there is no way you can fully replace a player of his caliber. However, the sky is not falling, black helicopters are not circling above 100 Bryant Drive, and the terrorists have not won. Even without Hightower, we still have a great defense filled with loads of both high-end talent and quality depth throughout the roster, and we still probably have one of top five defenses in the country.
Now, with that established, exactly how do we attempt to replace Hightower?
First, if you look purely at the depth chart itself, Jerrell Harris is listed as the back-up for Hightower at the Will linebacker position, so in a "normal" world he would be the one to step up and fill Hightower's absence. Of course, there is one slight problem with that: Harris has been suspended all year long, and is still unavailable. Now, the consensus of the rumor mill is that Harris will ultimately serve a six-game suspension and return for homecoming against South Carolina (i.e. he will miss two more games, the contests against Kentucky and Ole Miss), and in all honesty, just being completely speculative on my part with no first-hand information whatsoever on the matter, I figure that is probably the likely scenario. However, with that said, we still do not know anything official one way or the other, and Harris' absence could very well last longer than that (something that wouldn't really surprise anyone, I imagine). Hopefully he will indeed return by the South Carolina, but again he's effectively a complete unknown at this point and we cannot rely on him until we get definitive, positive word one way or the other on his status.
What we can say, however, is that when, or perhaps if, Harris returns this season, he will be a pretty big addition to the unit. Harris was a very highly-touted recruit coming out of Gadsden, and after bulking up since arriving on campus -- Harris arrived a bit on the lean side for a 3-4 linebacker at only around 205 pounds -- he had a very good Spring and Fall at the Capstone. Most initially thought that he would play outside at strongside linebacker, but Saban and company have moved him inside to the Will position, and he was the back-up to Hightower prior to his suspension. Harris is still a good 30 pounds lighter than Hightower and he is not a complete replacement, but he is a very talented player who is a fine player in his own right, and his return will help our defense regardless, particularly in coverage in passing situations and chasing tailbacks down on outside runs. Again, he's not a complete replacement, but he's nevertheless a fine player in his own right, and one that would likely start at just about every other school in the conference.
In Harris' absence, true freshman Nico Johnson has been the back-up to Hightower through the first four games of the season. Like Harris, Nico Johnson was also very highly-touted, a unanimous five-star, and I personally made the statement earlier this year that Johnson was the best linebacker prospect the state of Alabama has turned out since Cornelius Bennett some twenty-five years earlier. I still stand by that statement today, and Johnson will be a star at the Capstone. The concern, obviously, is his inexperience, but even so he can prove to be a very valuable player for us. Johnson is bigger and more physical than Harris, and you can rest assured that his name will be called upon much more often with Hightower out for the season and Harris still lingering in NCAA purgatory. Obviously you do not prefer that true freshmen have to take on meaningful roles, but Johnson is a very smart kid who is physically ready to play at this level, and if you think about it that was exact situation Dont'a Hightower found himself in last year.
And that is how things would shake out if the depth chart were an accurate indicator of what happens when a player goes out, but the problem is that is simply not the case. In the real world, many times a player's absence results not in his back-up ascending to fill his role, but instead a complete re-shuffling of players around him to fill his absence.
That is exactly what happened when Hightower went down against Arkansas. Instead of bringing Nico Johnson into the game, we instead took Cory Reamer, the starting strongside linebacker, and moved him inside to the Will position. To fill Reamer's absence, we moved starting Jack linebacker Eryk Anders over to strongside linebacker, and to fill Anders' absence at Jack linebacker, we put Courtney Upshaw into the game. And when we went to the Rabbit package, Upshaw filled Hightower's absence at defensive end. So, in other words, Hightower's absence against Arkansas caused a complete re-shuffling of the linebacker corps, sans Rolando McClain.
Moving forward, it's hard to exactly say how we will look to replace Hightower. Arkansas runs a pretty complex variation of the spread passing attack, and it's asking a lot of a true freshman to come in and take over a starting role in the middle of a game against an opponent of that caliber. Of course, though, that's not to say that we won't choose to simply use Nico Johnson as the starter at Will linebacker and move everyone else back to their original spot, now that we aren't facing such a complicated offensive attack and that Johnson will have more time to prepare. Or we may continue with the Anders, McClain, Reamer, Upshaw pas de quatre. I have no clue what we will do specifically, and frankly I wouldn't be surprised if the matter was hotly-debated amongst the coaching staff late Saturday night and through Sunday. Now, just being completely speculative on my part, I imagine we will probably stick with Reamer at Will linebacker, but again that is all speculation on my part. You'll have to tune in at 11:21 this Saturday against Kentucky to find out for certain.
Now, assuming that Reamer indeed does stay at Will linebacker, we can analyze a bit on what that will entail. Admittedly he played a fine game against the Hogs on Saturday, but unfortunately Reamer is really a fish out of water playing inside. He is naturally more suited to play outside linebacker, and he simply cannot really do anything as well as Hightower did. On the other hand, though, Reamer has always been the underdog, and frankly he really shouldn't even be here, objectively speaking. He was a lowly-recruited two-star safety coming out of high school who fought through serious knee injuries, and yet somehow nevertheless made the transition from undersized 3-3-5 linebacker on a bad defense into a starter on an elite caliber 3-4 defensive unit. Reamer simply doesn't fit the bill physically, but then again he never really did that in the first place. For lack of a less profane way of stating it, all Reamer does is work his ass off Sunday through Friday, and then play his ass off come Saturday. He's a career overachiever who will probably continue to be an overachiever the rest of his career, and even though he is clearly a step down from Hightower, we'll do well enough if Reamer sticks inside.
The real concern with Reamer playing inside, most likely, is not so much his play but the ripple effect that it will have at Jack linebacker. With Anders having to move to outside linebacker -- mixed with season-ending ACL injuries to Damion Square and Dont'a Hightower -- suddenly Courtney Upshaw is really all you have at Jack linebacker. Once you get beyond Upshaw, you have to scrape the proverbial barrel. You could play Ed Stinson, the Jack linebacker signee of the 2009 class, but the clear preference right now is to redshirt him, and while you could also move Tana Patrick over to Jack linebacker, again the clear preference is also to redshirt him as well. 2008 signee Glenn Harbin could be a possibility, but I really do not think we want him to be forced into a meaningful role right now; he's still developing as a player and likely still searching for a true position as well. Likewise, Alex Watkins spent his first two years at Jack linebacker, but he struggled greatly there and is seemingly doing much better in his role at strongside linebacker. Again, that's not an ideal solution. Bottom line, with Square and Hightower out for the year with season-ending knee injuries, keeping Reamer inside (which probably forces Anders to strongside linebacker), really puts us in a pinch for depth at Jack linebacker.
Now, just playing Nico Johnson inside at Jack linebacker would alleviate the depth concerns everywhere else. Anders and Upshaw could remain at Jack, the three-deep at strongside linebacker could remain unchanged, as well for the two-deep at Mike linebacker. Chris Jordan could continue to serve as the top back-up at both inside linebacker positions, which many think he is right now. Obviously the downside of doing this would be forcing a true freshman into a very difficult situation, and there would be growing pains, you can take that to the bank. Nevertheless, Johnson is a budding star and his time in Tuscaloosa is coming sooner rather than later. At some point, much like last year with Hightower, perhaps you can only allow your future star to stand on the sideline for so long, and perhaps that time has come now for the Andalusia product.
And furthermore, as an additional point, we shouldn't trick ourselves into being so myopic in viewing this situation. Truth be told, there are many more possibilities out than just the Cory Reamer and Nico Johnson possibilities analyzed previously. Saban loves for his linebackers to be versatile, and we actively teach them all of the positions, so we could be quite flexible here. We could keep Reamer at Will linebacker and, once (or if) Harris returns, let him start at strongside linebacker, which would allow the Jack linebacker rotation to be unaffected. Or, we could move Chris Jordan into the starting role at Will linebacker -- and again, many think he was the top back-up to McClain and Hightower at the inside linebacker positions anyway -- which likewise would leave the rest of the linebacker corps unchanged. Or, when / if Harris returns, we could let him start at Will linebacker. And there are even more possibilities, so again we shouldn't be so myopic to think that the solution here is simply an either / or scenario with Cory Reamer or Nico Johnson getting the starting nod in Hightower's place. We will probably get some indications this week in the practice reports, but again, we'll just have to tune in at 11:21 this Saturday against Kentucky to find out for certain.
Either way, the point remains that Hightower's loss hurts badly and his impact will not be fully replaced regardless of how we choose to address this situation. Nevertheless, we were a great defense with Hightower, we were a great defense without Hightower against Arkansas, and we should still be a great defense moving forward without Hightower. Again, it's a painful loss, but the sky is not falling, and for now we should just all confidently hope for the best.
Get well soon, Dont'a.