The Alabama Crimson Tide have had the luxury of possessing arguably the best off-the-ball linebacker in college football, virtually, every year that head coach Nick Saban has been in Tuscaloosa. Star players like: Rolando McClain, Dont'a Hightower (New England Patriots) and the recently departed C.J. Mosley (Baltimore Ravens) have starred in succession as inside linebackers in the Tide's 3-4-based outfit.
As one could imagine, being the primary signal-caller of one of the most complicated schemes in football takes a special kind of player. Senior Trey DePriest has enjoyed a good deal of success playing alongside Nico Johnson (Kansas City Chiefs) and Mosley for the first three years of his career. Now he's being asked to fill Mosley's lofty shoes at the "Will" position in the defense. But is he better served playing the "Mike" role like he's grown accustomed to?
To really get the gist of what of skill set fits exactly which position, one must understand the roles of both positions.
The "Mike," or middle-inside backer, is the player shaded towards the strength of the offensive formation. This position is a tough one to play, literally, as it's designed to sift through traffic on most plays. Players must have the ability to apply the stack-and-shed technique in the run game, but must also possess the ability to drop into area coverage. Additional duties include: man coverage on tight ends and slot receivers; the hired gun in the manufactured-pressure game.
Johnson parlayed this role into a fourth-round selection in the 2013 draft. At 6'2", 249 pounds, he was the perfect blend of size and physicality that it takes to fulfill the duties of the "Mike" backer.
DePriest has a ton of the same qualities...and then some.
As a person who last played the "Mike" linebacker, albeit at the semi-professional level, there's a deep appreciation for this above sequence. The ability to apply the stack-and-shed technique is a lost art in football. It certainly was an aspect that was lost on yours truly.
Being switched to an inside linebacker position, from normally playing strong safety, due to the defense only having only one safety position (4-4-based defense), I encountered a lot of problems. While my athleticism, and ability to chase down ball-carriers, worked extremely well on the back-half of the defense, it had very little to do with the ability to take on and defeat blocks.
My production plunged when I was asked to take on fullbacks and linemen all game long. While I was still money in coverage, I was often stonewalled and rendered useless in the run game (at least in my mind).
Here DePriest took on one of the most imposing figures in football, in the 5'11", 271-pound behemoth of a fullback J.C. Copeland, and disposed of him rather easily. He then proceeded to stonewall the extremely physical Jeremy Hill (6'2", 236 lbs) -- for a very minimal gain.
That is a lot more impressive than the average fan realizes. Not possessing stack-and-shed ability doesn't mean a player is not tough or physical, it's just an innate style of play that some have and others don't.
DePriest certainly has it.
The "Will" 'backer in the Tide's defense is the money position. This player has the benefit of playing towards the open side of the formation -- meaning after the Mike takes on the block, the Will is responsible for the cleanup. The Will usually makes the calls/audibles for the unit as well.
This player has to have sideline-to-sideline athleticism; he must be able to man short zones; must have great blitzing ability; must have a complete understanding of not only the defense, but the opposing offenses as well.
Former star backer McClain is arguably the greatest defensive player of the Saban era -- as he personified all those aforementioned qualities. At 6'4", 259 pounds, he meshed those qualities with some serious physical gifts.
For my money, Mosley was every bit his equal.
Here we see what made Mosley special: read-and-diagnose ability, quickness and sure tackling. At 6'2", 232 pounds, Mosley wasn't the imposing figure that McClain was, but he may have been a more fluid athlete.
But both were well versed in the intricacies of the game.
Sometimes it seemed as though Mosley was from another planet with his ability to read and diagnose. This undoubtedly came from extensive film study, along with his god-given ability. It's no wonder he will be in charge of replicating the production of Ray Lewis (Baltimore Ravens) -- who is possibly the greatest linebacker ever.
Lewis was known for being two, sometimes three, steps ahead of offenses. Lewis, McClain and Mosley are all three explosive athletes that make impact plays -- not only in the run game, but in the pass game as well.
While DePriest is a very heady player in his own right, he's not quite the athlete of a Mosley. Additionally, it's hard to imagine him having the coverage ability to make a difference in Bama's manufactured-pressure game.
But his ability to stack-and-shed works to perfection from the Mike position. It may be in Bama's best interest to keep him at his incumbent position, because they have a few athletes on the roster who could fill the Will role admirably, but nobody on the roster can match DePriest's ability at the Mike.
Foster arrived in Tuscaloosa with plenty of fanfare. At 6'1", 244 pounds, Foster has good size for the position. He plays with a kamikaze-like approach that will keep him on highlights reels on a weekly basis; his ability to shoot gaps is very reminiscent of Mosley.
The former 5-star recruit is a very physical player, but unlike DePriest he struggles to get off blocks. But when he's protected his explosive play may remind some of former New Orleans Saints' star Jonathan Vilma -- a player who thrived as an outside linebacker in a 4-3-based defense where all he had to do was chase down plays.
Here we see a perfect example of Foster's explosiveness. He shoots the gap and makes the play in the backfield like we've seen Mosley do over the years. Foster has a penchant for not seeing what he hits, as he keeps his head down when he tackles -- which is a complete "no-no."
Not only can you hurt yourself, as Foster did during Alabama's spring game, but you can potentially miss tackles as well. Once Foster corrects his tackling technique, he may be a force to be reckoned with.
But the jury is out in regard to his ability to cover.
Ragland is a flat-out physical beast. At 6'3", 259 pounds he can play numerous positions -- similar to my favorite player Hightower. His 10-tackle performance in the spring game showed the type of potential he has at the inside linebacker position, where most think he's better suited to play on the edges as a pass-rusher.
He has the ability to be a difference maker in the manufactured-pressure game as both a hired gun and a zone dropper. He's that versatile.
Here's where Ragland's versatility can come in handy similar to Mosley's and McClain's. Ragland gets at the proper depth in his area assignment and has the wherewithal, and hands, to force the turnover. He's a better athlete than DePriest and has two years of experience in the Saban-Kirby Smart (defensive coordinator) system.
Ragland has McClain like athleticism and size, but he may better off being covered up at the Will which would allow to fully utilize his athleticism.
Here is where the stack-and-shed ability of DePriest would come in handy. On this goal line sequence, Ragland is charged with the task of taking on the play from the strong side. His natural instinct is to shoot the gap and make the play; he was better off taking more of a two-gap technique and attempting to control either gap the back went to.
With Ragland's superb athleticism, he may have assisted on the the tackle with DePriest spilling the play to the weak side.
Lee is very much in the mold of Ragland; he can play out on the edges as a pass-rusher, and he can play both spots on the inside. He may be his own worst enemy with his off-the-field transgressions, but as he matures his talent is much too immense for him to be kept off the field.
"I think Dillon Lee will be a really good player for us," Saban said after spring practice in March (h/t to Andrew Gribble of al.com). "I think he has a good understanding of what we want him to do. He runs well. He's got good size and plays good block protection, especially at the line of scrimmage."
It's clear that DePriest will hold one of the starting spots, his counterpart should be Ragland -- taking over Mosley's spot at the Will. If Bama were to rely on its even-front schemes, a trio of Lee (WLB), DePriest (MLB) and Ragland (SLB) would be flat-out vicious!
No matter how it shakes out, the Tide are in possession of four NFL linebackers. And that's not counting highly touted freshman, Shaun Dion Hamilton -- who looks to be every bit as explosive as Foster.
But what would be your combination at inside linebacker for the Tide?
Murf Baldwin is a national college football contributor for SBNation.com. Additonally, he covers the Alabama Crimson Tide for Roll 'Bama Roll. He previously covered the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints for Bleacher Report. Are you not entertained? Follow Murf on Twitter.