While the Crimson Tide isn’t in nearly as bad of shape in the front seven as it was coming off the 2009 national title, the linebacking corps is undergoing a much greater identity overhaul than the defensive line and will have to count on the stacked depth and the limited game experience of the two returning starters. Replacing the production of first round draft pick Dont’a Hightower and second rounder Courtney Upshaw will be no small task considering the two linebackers were two of the Tide’s three leading tacklers last season with a combined 137 stops and 13.5 sacks, most of those sacks coming from Upshaw. Thankfully the middle linebackers have plenty of experience between them while the outside linebackers showed promise over the spring, so the drop off could ultimately be negligible.
The most experienced player of the bunch is Nico Johnson, a 6-3 245 senior who has spent the last few years as a top back up and situational starter. While Johnson has 16 starts to his credit, many of those came in 2009 when Johnson was called on to replace the injured Dont’a Hightower. With Hightower back in 2010 and last season, Johnson became more of a run stopping role player, rotating often with C.J. Mosley at WLB. Though Johnson started only seven games last year, he’s the leading returning tackler for the Tide with 47 stops, including one sack and 5.5 TFLs. Most expected that his experience and seniority would lead to a move to Mike linebacker, but surprisingly Johnson is still rotating with Mosley during the first few days of fall camp. Mosley, a 6-2 232 junior, has been working with the starting defense since his true freshman 2010 season. Though he was a raw prospect at the time, and particularly suspect against the run, his pass coverage skills made him an asset early and he’s been the preferred linebacker in passing situations over Johnson. Though Johnson has improved over the last two seasons, he is still first and foremost a run stopping specialist and will likely continue in that role.
Starting at Mike linebacker will most likely be sophomore Trey Depriest. At 6-2 245 he has the size that Saban has typically preferred in the middle, and though he did not start in 2011 he played significant snaps as a true freshman and even filled in for Mosley during the BCS National Title game after he was forced out of the game with a hip injury. Depriest was one of the more highly touted members of the Tide’s 2011 signing class and could have had his pick of college destinations, boldly stating his collegiate goals were to play as a true freshman, start as a sophomore, and win the Butkus Award as a junior before entering the NFL draft early, and so far he’s right on track. Depriest finished last season with 25 tackles. There’s no clear cut standout among the backups inside, though, and developing depth will be a priority early. True freshmen Denzel Devall and Reggie Ragland were both four star prospects in the 2012 signing class and are currently working behind Depriest, Johnson, and Mosley, but they are raw prospects despite their talent and hopefully won’t be needed during significant game situations.
Moving outside, one of the best surprises so far in the fall is the work of Tana Patrick at Sam. The SLB position had been one of the least utilized since Saban’s arrival despite some standout performances there. Corey Reamer in particular surprised many by solidifying a starting role outside in 2009, but even he was routinely one of the first players off the field in favor of the Tide’s nickel package that season. Not until 2011 did Alabama consistently utilize the Sam and remain in it’s base 3-4 alignment, with the credit needing to go the emergence of Jerrell Harris as a true every down player. Unfortunately Harris graduated last season, leaving that position open once again for someone to make it relevant. Adrian Hubbard, who most consider a Jack linebacker prospect, has flipped back and forth between the two outside spots and will likely continue to do so, but Patrick’s emergence outside could mean good things for the Tide front seven. Like Harris, Patrick was one of the top linebacker recruits in the country when he signed with Alabama, and also like Harris he spent the first few years of his time in Tuscaloosa bouncing from one position to another without finding a place to contribute. Hopefully he’ll continue to imitate Harris by locking down the SLB spot and performing at the same high level this season to give the front seven that much more versatility in 2012. Currently working behind Patrick during fall camp are freshman Dillon Lee and junior Jonathan Atchison. Atchison had surgery last fall to repair a torn bicep, but has been fully cleared to participate in fall camp.
On the other side, finding someone to fill the shoes of Courtney Upshaw will be a tough task, but two candidates have emerged so far over the spring and fall. Adrian Hubbard, a 6-6 248 sophomore, finished the spring with the Dwight Stephenson Lineman of the Game Award after a seven tackle, four TFL, and three sack performance in the A Day game. Though he’s flipped back and forth between Sam and Jack, he’ll primarily be utilized as a pass rusher no matter where he lines up. Hubbard had two offseason hernia surgeries after the conclusion of spring camp, so remaining healthy may be a concern this fall. Behind him is 6-3 262 sophomore Xzavier Dickson, who also played a significant role at Jack during the spring, lining up there with the first team defense while Hubbard moved over to Sam. Dickson played in seven games as a true freshman last season. Considering the Jack linebacker is more often than not ask to put his hand down and line up at DE, it's no surprise that reserve defensive linemen Anthony Orr and Chris Bonds have both been getting a look here as well.
Whoever lines up at Sam or Jack, though, is more than likely going to be a matter of semantics this season. With Hubbard's experience at both outside positions and a quality player in Dickson, plus the potential emergence of Patrick, the front seven will have a very versatile mix of skill sets to mix and match. For example, during the A Day game Hubbard routinely lined up at Sam while Dickson put his hand down on the opposite side of the line, giving Alabama for all intents and purposes a 5-2 front. Its that sort of versatility that should give the Alabama front seven a good shot at remaining a dominant unit in a coming season without it's two biggest names from last season.
On the whole this is a talented group with a load of potential thanks to the phenomenal recruiting of the past few seasons, but it is somewhat faceless compared to the last several seasons when names like Rolando McClain and Dont'a Hightower were being thrown around as All American candidates. Still, with as good of a three man rotation in the middle as anyone in the SEC and a deeper defensive line than in 2010, there shouldn't be near as much drop off from the linebackers as we saw the last time Alabama was coming off a national title season. This is still one of the top units in the SEC.