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Spring Look-Ahead: Linebackers

It's hard to take the balanced approach to writing about Alabama's 2013 linebackers. Face it, the Tide is flat-out loaded. If you are a Bama fan who appreciates good linebacker play--as if there were such a thing as a Bama fan who doesn't--stock up with popcorn before September.

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It starts with C.J. Mosley. Mosley was not a "starter" last year, but his 107 tackles was the most by any Bama player since Demeco Ryans recorded 126 in 2003. A case could be made that Mosley was Alabama's most productive linebacker the minute he stepped on the field as a true freshman in 2010, and it has frankly been difficult for this writer to understand why he has spent much of his career platooning (another case could be made that his absence during a fair part of the 2012 LSU game nearly cost us that contest). Seeing what C.J. can do as an all-the-time player is one of the things I'm looking forward to most about 2013. Color him All-American, and do it in bright, bold colors.

Starter or not, he had a heckuva 2012, adding in 8 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 3 hurries, 2 picks, 2 break-ups and a forced fumble to those 107 stops. He played an increasingly physical and disruptive game without giving up a bit of his reputation as a shadow in pass defense. Among all returning NCAA players, only Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen, with four, has more career TD interception returns than Mosley's three.

Bama's other inside ‘backer will be Trey DePriest, who would be the star on most teams. DePriest's 59 tackles was second on the squad, and that is likely to improve since he will no longer be sharing time with Nico Johnson, a guy who may find playing time easier to come by in the NFL than he ever did at Bama.

Unless DePriest finds himself sharing time with true freshman Reuben Foster, that is. Foster caught a lot of grief from Tide fans as his oft-told tale of travels and tattoos unfolded, but all that chatter ceased abruptly over the course of a few chilly days in early February, when his long, strange recruiting trip ended happily in Tuscaloosa.

Presuming Foster's flair for the dramatic doesn't re-surface and he fits in and works hard, he will have every chance to see plenty of playing time this year. If you don't believe me, just check out the film (perhaps skipping the offensive highlights in the first 35 seconds, which are interesting but not really what we're here for.) You can tell when Reuben hits ‘em: they stop. The young man is big, mean, quick, and a sure tackler with a nose for the ball.

Although none in recent years have been as highly-rated as Foster, Bama seems to come up with a blue-chip linebacker recruit every year. Last year it was Reggie Ragland, who played in 10 games as a true freshman but couldn't crack the Mosley/Depriest/Johnson trio at the top. Ragland will be fighting Foster for playing time, and trying to hold off fifth-year senior Tana Patrick, who has never lived up to his blue-chip promise, as well as two more true freshman who got playing time last year, Dillon Lee and Ryan Anderson (although Anderson was on the outside ‘backer chart last year).

This is where it gets complicated. Under Saban, Alabama has played a 3-4 defense, with three mega-sized defensive linemen, two inside linebackers playing traditional linebacker roles, and two outside linebackers. Or so they've claimed, anyway. In fact, Alabama's "jack" linebacker position has been enough like a standard defensive end position to completely blur the distinction. The jack lines up with his hand on the ground for pass-rushing and run defense, only rarely dropping back into pass coverage--probably doing so no more frequently than a defensive end in a standard 4-3 set.

In reality, then, Alabama's defensive set has been more of a 4-3, or a 4-2-5 in the frequently-seen nickel packages. It was a boon to verbal clarity when Nick Saban finally let the cat out of the bag in December, admitting that Alabama plays 80% 4-3.

But as much as I'd like to declare the myth of the jack as a "linebacker" over, and analyze that position with the defensive line, puzzling out exactly who is a "linebacker" and who isn't got even more complicated in 2012. That's because Adrian Hubbard got a lot more playing time last year at the "sam" linebacker position--typically a standard outside linebacker-type position--than sams have gotten in Bama in recent years. To complicate it even more, the sam position was less of a standard outside linebacker position in 2012 than previously, as Hubbard often seemed to be playing a position that was very jack-like, and sometimes actually played jack.

Confused yet? I sure am.

Whatever he was doing last year, Hubbard did it well. He was clearly the Tide's most disruptive player in terms of getting into opposing backfields, with his totals of 11 tackles for loss and 7 sacks ranking well ahead of any other Tider, and his 3 forced fumbles also leading the team. Hubbard is a pre-season all-star candidate who could play his way into an early departure to the NFL with a strong season.

Tyler Hayes would probably have been the leading candidate for the backup sam slot but for his criminal sweet tooth. Instead, fifth-year senior Jonathan Atchison may be the backup, with Dillon Lee possibly in the mix as well. Should Hubbard be hurt, Bama's response may be simply to not play the sam much.

Xzavier Dickson was listed at jack last year, but his 5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks were a notable drop-off from 2010-11, when Courtney Upshaw threw up 32.5 TFLs and 16.5 sacks over the two-year period. The downgraded pass rush from the jack position was probably one of the reasons Alabama struggled in pass defense a few times last year (although I wouldn't discount the role of excellent opposition quarterbacking in those struggles).

Dickson will have to fight to keep the starting job this year, and may in fact be moved to defensive end at least part-time. Whether he moves or not, Denzell Devall, who ended his true freshman season as a backup jack getting increasing playing time, may have the inside track on the job. When in, Devall seemed to get a better pass rush push than did Dickson, recording 2 sacks, 3 hurries, and a forced fumble in significantly less playing time. And don't forget incoming phenom Jonathan Allen. The high-school defensive end was the highest-rated defensive lineman Nick Saban has signed at Alabama, but figures to be a jack at Bama, at least in 2013. The 263-pound Allen has reportedly been timed at 4.5 in the 40, and while that may not be entirely believable, it probably really does mean he runs a 4.7 or so. If he learns the playbook rapidly, he could press for the job. Ryan Anderson may be a factor, too.

In short, at Bama's jack position the youth is young but the talent is talented. There is every reason to believe production at jack will pick up in 2013, maybe a lot, and the competition should be fun to watch.