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This Year's Model: The '07 Tide, RBs and LBs

The Runinng Backs

Last season, the Alabama rushing attack was supposed to carry the offense while first time starter John Parker Wilson took over at QB and the receiving corp continued to recover from the loss of Tyrone Prothro. As you'll recall, things didn't turn out that way, with both Wilson and WR DJ Hall rewriting the school's record book, and returning starter Ken Darby fell short of not only the Tide all time rushing record, but the 1000 yard mark he had passed in the two previous seasons with 889 yards and a disappointing 4.0 ypc average. A hip pointer in the opener against Hawaii, plus some off the field turmoil in his personal life, meant KD wasn't playing like himself all year, but the o-line, who's woes we addressed yesterday, did him no favors. Darby, of course, is gone, as are Le'Ron McClain and Tim Castille, two excellent blocking backs and, in Castille's case, short yardage rushing threats. This year's backfield is fairly crowded, though it's been thinned out this week with the release of the depth chart for Saturday's season opener. Though Jimmy Johns is the leading returning rusher with 66 carries for 293 yards, he is listed as second on the depth chart behind Terry Grant, a shifty back who's speed earned him a place returning kickoffs last season before an injury sidelined him for the final nine games. He also carried twice against Louisina-Monroe for 22 yards. The fall has been

#10 - Jimmy Johns
kind to Grant, who was considered the favorite to start by just about anyone you might care to ask from the start of fall camp on, and he's impressed his coaches and any observers with his speed and ability to make people miss. Personally, I was hoping he would get the start after A-Day when, during one play, he took a swing pass out of the backfield for good yardage, and was exceptionally excited about the play since the receivers were clearly blocking for Grant, indicating this was a designed play to get the ball in his hands out in space. As for Johns, the "second string" status is no knock on his abilities considering Saban is known to favor two back systems, with a speed back (in this case, Grant) and a power back (in this case John) to compliment him. Johns also made the move to fullback over the fall, though that doesn't mean he'll be used as a blocking back in this offense. He'll instead be utilized as an h-back in the passing game, and will also receive a significant amount of touches rushing the ball.
Jimmy Johns, the University of Alabama's second-leading rusher from a season ago, is taking snaps at running back and fullback, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said Tuesday after practice.

"We've been practicing him at both [positions]," Saban said. "He seems like he's been able to handle that. Fullback is a position that is a tough match-up position. If you look back at the Bill Walsh 49er days, their fullback always had a lot of catches. Maybe not for a lot of yards, but it was always for positive gains."

Listed as true fullbacks are Baron Huber and Jeramie Griffin. They have some big shoes to fill, as the graduated Le'Ron McClain and Tim Castille were often considered the best FB pair in the country. Last season Huber saw action in nine games, mostly during junk time, but suffered an ankle injury against FIU that sidelined him for the final three games of the regular season. Listed as his backup is true freshman Jeramie Griffin, a three start recruit out of Batesville, MS who was rated as the #4 fullback in the country by Rivals. Both of these guys will likely be used primarily as blocking backs for the ground game and in single back sets on passing downs.

The Linebackers

As we addressed in yesterday's preview of the d-line, the new 3-4 defense will utilize a "Jack" linebacker position as well as the usual Sam (strongside), Mike (middle), and Will (weakside) positions. Keith Saunders a senior who previously played at DE the past three seasons, earned the nod at Jack for Saturday. Upon Saban's arrival, he was instantly moved to OLB along with fellow DE Zeke Knight. Both, according to Saban, were better suited to outside linebacker, and were moved to the LB corp to keep them from "getting beat up by not making them play over the tackle all the time." Since Saunders played considerable time at DE over the past three seasons, he will be expected to both move up to the line in 4-3 looks, and play out in space in 3-4 sets. Backing him up, interestingly, is Brandon Fanney. Fanney, as I'm sure many of you recall, was one of the players arrested back in July during an altercation on the Strip. Saban's disciplinary action was never revealed, though he did indicate that those players were given certain responsibilities and, should they live up to them, they would not miss any playing time. It looks like Fanney held up his end of the bargain.

#47 - Zeke Knight
The aforementioned Zeke Knight's quixotic journey through the Alabama depth chart looks finally settled at strongside linebacker. The senior came to Alabama as a receiver after playing both WR and LB in high school. Knight saw action in every game his freshman and sophomore years, but never made much of an impact. Last season he was moved to DE, but injuries and a heart murmur sidelined him for the final eight games of the season. He's made an impact at LB, though, earning the "Lee Roy Jordan Headhunter Award" after spring practice. Backing him up will be Zach Schreiber, a sophomore who played in 12 games last year, recording 5 stops, 1.5 tfls, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery.

The Mike linebacker position will be manned by true freshman Rolando McClain this Saturday, though sophomore Prince Hall started every game at middle linebacker last year as a true freshman and will likely regain his starting job after serving a one game suspension that will sideline him for the opener. McClain, Alabama's #1 overall prospect and the #2 inside linebacker in the country coming out of high school, has been working with the first team, and has been given the playcalling duties on defense for the opener. Even with the return of Hall, he'll still likely see considerable playing time, and could possibly move over to Will linebacker beside him. Backing up McClain is senior Demarcus Waldrop, a veteran without any meaningful starts but who has seen action in every game of his career at Alabama.

And speaking of Will LB, the feel good story of the fall has to be Darren Mustin, a Middle Tennessee State transfer walk-on who earned a scholarship this season and will get his first start on Saturday. Mustin played 73 snaps last season, mostly in relief, and recorded 8 tackles. Backing him up is Marcel Stamps, a senior who saw action in ten games last season, and in all games the previous two. It is unclear where these two will stand after this weekend, as Hall is expected to return to the depth chart, and McClain could easily be moved to the Will position ahead of them if the coaches feel he needs to be kept on the field.