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Alabama Football Recruiting 2015: Linebackers

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A preview of the upcoming linebacker recruits.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

In the lineage of Rolando McClain, Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, and C.J. Mosley, the Crimson Tide has been notorious for consistently housing the best linebackers in college football. This year, seniors Trey DePriest and Xzavier Dickson have valiantly led the Tide's linebackers into battle.

In 2015, both DePriest and Dickson will have graduated and moved on. Junior Reggie Ragland has had a tremendous season, and there is a chance he could turn to the NFL a year early. Sophomores Reuben Foster and Ryan Anderson will return for sure with enough experience for me to consider them both to be returning starters. Behind them, junior Dillon Lee has been a favorite around RBR for years, though he still has not cracked the playing rotation too often. Bringing up the rear is the next generation of talent. Sophomore Tim Williams and freshmen Rashaan Evans, Walker Jones, Keith Holcombe, Shaun Dion Hamilton, and Christian Miller all seem to be smaller than the massive prototype we have become accustomed to under Saban, but are much better athletes (especially Williams and Evans. Have any of you noticed how fast those two are? It's INSANE. They're gonna be terrifying coming after QB's from both sides, mark my words).

The Scheme

As noted earlier in my series, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart's defense is extremely versatile. This is paradoxically both my favorite and least favorite thing about them. (Mainly because it makes my job harder, as I really have to scout for two different defenses). Technically, the base defense at Alabama has been the 3-4 (three D-lineman, four linebackers). However, with the rise of spread offenses, HUNH, cheating Barners, etc., etc., that package only gets used a couple of times per year. We actually spend more time in the 4-3, and even more than that in a 4-2-5 (one linebacker subs out for an extra defensive back) nickel.

Typically, the designations for each linebacker are the Sam, Mike, Will, and Jack. I'll quickly go over the role of each label in Saban's defenses before moving on to the newcomers.

The Jack is probably the most well known among Bama fans, and Courtney Upshaw played this position perfectly during his time. The Jack is exclusive to the 3-4, and like a 4-3 defensive end, will rush the passer from the weak side (the side of the offensive line without a tight end, outside of the offensive tackle) almost every play. The Jack often lines up in a three point stance with the defensive line, rather than standing up. In running plays, he is to make sure the runner does not beat him around the edge on any counter plays. The Jack will almost never be expected to drop into pass coverage.

The Sam is what is know as the strong-side outside linebacker in both the 3-4 and the 4-3. He will be positioned on the same side of the offensive line as the tight end. The Sam's main job is to hold down the edge in running plays, and force the running back back into the interior of the defensive line. In pass coverage, he typically will be responsible for either covering the tight end in man coverage, or the flats on his side in most zone schemes. Since Upshaw's departure a few years back, Saban has mostly hybridized the Sam and Jack, making it so that both players are capable of playing weak side and strong side as pass rushers and run stoppers. This allows them to play left and right sides of the field, and any defensive audibles called because of a tight end motioning to the opposite side are much quicker because the players only swap roles with each other, rather than running to the opposite side of the line. Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson, and Ryan Anderson all interchangeably play the Sam and Jack this season.

The Will is the weak-side inside linebacker in the 3-4, and the weak-side outside linebacker in the 4-3. The role is similar in both forms of the defense, although he is slightly more responsible for attacking through the inside gaps in the line in the 3-4 than in the 4-3. The Will is responsible for chasing plays sideline to sideline and cleaning up any missed tackles by the line. He is also responsible for covering tight ends running down the seam (the center area between the safeties). I personally dubbed the Will the "Screen Whisperer," as an elite player at that position will always be the first player to snuff out a running back screen. Typically, the Will is going to be the fastest and most athletic linebacker on the roster. C.J. Mosley was one of the best Will's I have ever seen, and Reggie Ragland has taken over that role admirably this year.

Lastly, the Mike is the true middle linebacker. His role is the same for both a 3-4 and a 4-3. Rolando McClain and Dont'a Hightower were both elite Mike Linebackers in their day, and Trey DePriest has been a solid starter there the last three years. The Mike is often referred to as the "quarterback" of the defense, as he is typically the player to call audibles and set up the plays given to him from the defensive coordinator. The running back is almost always his number one responsibility, whether it is a pass play or a run play. The Mike is expected to be powerful enough to shed blocks and stop inside running plays in their tracks (back in the good days of football, the collision between a leading fullback and the Mike linebacker on every run was one of the most epic, earth-shattering moments you'll ever see). The Mike typically covers the running back on pass plays. If the back stays in to block, the Mike has to know to change his assignment to a blitz, while keeping an eye on the back to make sure he isn't faking the block. In other words, the Mike is an extremely mentally taxing position.

In a nickel defense, one of either the Sam or Jack comes off the field, while the other moves to a defensive end and a 3rd defensive back comes into the game, leaving the Mike and Will as the only true linebackers. In Saban's dime defense this year, the Will comes out of the game from the nickel defense, and Landon Collins moves down into his spot as a safety/linebacker hybrid, while Geno Smith takes Collins' old spot deep.

Now that I have that torrent of vocabulary and information out of the way, lets get on to what you really want to hear about!

The Newcomers

Last Name First Name Position State Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ Z-Score
McMillon Joshua OLB TN 4 217 15 6030 246 4.92 4.53 26.4 35.0 79.11 0.30
Brown Mekhi WDE GA 4 56 4 6050 218 4.84 4.56 30.1 34.0 68.76 0.53
Anderson Keaton OLB AL 3 530 36 6010 215 4.50 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A

Compared to the last three classes, this class is nowhere near as athletic or star-studded. However, with the logjam of depth players from those classes I mentioned at the top of the article, it may be best not to add too many linebackers

Joshua McMillon

McMillon is a prototypical Mike linebacker. at 6'3" 246, he is already powerful enough to take on blockers on running plays in the center of the field, and has the frame to add even more size and power. He boasts a knack for disengaging from blockers when needed, and also forcing them backwards into the play. As a tackler, McMillon shows a very strong technical foundation, and he almost always has perfect form: placing shoulder pads into the thighs of the runner, wrapping with his arms, and using his momentum to roll and bring the runner to the ground. However, his biggest strength is his mental ability and leadership. He diagnoses plays and reacts in a what we southern folk like to call a "jiffy." Football is a game of inches, and every nanosecond wasted thinking is the difference in the offense getting that extra yard for a first down. McMillon boasts a 4.3 GPA at his high school, and plans to major in Aerospace Engineering (good luck) at UA, choosing the program over Vanderbilt and Michigan.

Coach's take: Joshua McMillon
"Number one, he’s a role model," Saulsberry said on Friday. "He’s what you want in a student athlete because he’s a student first. That translates on the field. When you have a kid that does everything in the right order in the right way, it makes it much easier for kids to follow them..." "He has a high football IQ and he’s able to move from side to side as well as any linebacker that I’ve had," Harmon said. "When he rushes the passer, you better have three people blocking him because he knows how to attack, dip his shoulder and also get his hands up. So screens, quick passes, he eats those up...." "The main thing he’s going to have to work on is being inside the box and taking on linemen that are bigger than him so he needs to work on his leverage," he said. "But I think he’s a natural middle linebacker because he has the height, the strength, as well as the speed and the tenacity."

As evidenced by his 0.30 Z-score, McMillon did not test too well athletically. A large reason for that is his leaves-much-to-be-desired 4.92 forty yard dash time. His lack of speed is also fairly obvious in his video, and I can foresee him having similar issues as guys such as Trey DePriest and Nico Johnson have had.

McMillon is an extremely technically sound player with a great knowledge of the game to go along with a prototypical NFL linebacker build. He has experience at both middle linebacker and as a rush defensive end. All of this kept pointing me towards one familiar player: Dont'a Hightower. Hightower came into Alabama at a similar size (6'3" 248), as a defensive end projected to play middle linebacker. Hightower's best qualities were always his leadership, IQ, strength, and versatility... Pretty much the same as McMillon.

Keaton Anderson

Anderson is a bit undersized at only 215 pounds, and it shows in his play style. He is a hair-on-fire, scrappy player that is near the ball at the end of almost every play. He is best suited as a Will linebacker, so that he can chase plays from sideline to sideline, rather than be consumed by blockers in the center of the field. He is a decent tackler, but looks more like a defensive back making a tackle than a linebacker. He didn't test for Nike's SPARQ, but did record a 4.50 forty yard dash, which is freakishly fast for a linebacker. And that time shows on the field. Anderson is like a missile coming in from random places all over the field on blitzes, and can catch running backs from behind on a breakaway.

Oh, and remember what I said about wanting a Will to be a "Screen Whisperer?"  (Watch #9)

Anderson

Unless Anderson can put on some weight and strength, he will never be more than a situational player, but he could be weapon in the linebacker/safety hybrid position that Landon Collins plays in the dime defense. If he can bulk up, he could become a very fast Will linebacker down the road.

Mekhi Brown

Although Brown is listed at 218 pounds by 247Sports, he has reportedly bulked up to about 240 this season. At 6'6" Brown's frame is unique.

Remember Adrian Hubbard? One of the most physically tantalizing and potential-ridden players that has ever played at Alabama? He had tremendous length, impressive speed, good character, and solid tackling skills. But his most impressive skill, however, was his innate ability to get his 6’6" 250-pound body to completely disappear. We all expected great things out of Hubbard, but he just never lived up to what we considered his potential. So rather than cutting ties and moving on from the idea of a really tall linebacker, what does Nick Saban do? Go out and recruit a clone.

Enter Mekhi Brown. The 2nd longest tenured commitment of the 2015 recruiting class, he has been extremely vocal in the recruiting world trying to convince others to follow him to Bama. Brown says he runs a 4.6 forty time, which is extremely impressive for someone his size. Also a basketball star, Brown plays at Carver High School-- with a 3.7 GPA, I might add-- in Georgia as a 3-4 outside linebacker who specializes in rushing the passer. Coincidentally, Jarvis Jones (remember, the 2012 sack-monster from Georgia that Fluker manhandled?) also played the same position at the same high school. Not coincidentally, Mekhi Brown was given Jones’ old number.

Obviously, his school thinks highly of him.  And I would have to agree. I was immediately drawn to how long his arms and legs are. He almost looks like an eagle coming down on its prey as he prepares to tackle a ball carrier. Speaking of tackling, do you remember playing the NCAA games (thanks O’Bannon) on your Playstation?  You would be running through a wide-open hole in the line, and suddenly a D-lineman would just kind of magnetize himself to your running back and make the tackle? Then you would proceed to throw a controller at your friend, starting a 2-year Cold War with them… I can’t be the only one, right? Right?!

Well, that’s what Brown looks like. He just reaches out and latches onto the ball carrier with his absurdly long arms, even if he’s being blocked or out in space with a shifty little guy.

As a pass rusher, he does a great job of firing himself into the blocker, and then shoving them backwards and out of his way with, yet again, his ridiculously long arms (is that getting repetitive yet?). However, he does not have much in his arsenal of moves and disengaging techniques. Outside of one really nice spin, I never saw anything other than bull rushes and swims. One thing I look for in a player engaging a blocker is how much hand movement they have. Chopping, slapping, and swatting like a girl in hissy fight makes it really difficult for an O-lineman to get his hands on the rusher. Brown does not do that very well. He uses his hands to push the blocker back, and that’s it. Fortunately though, he realizes this. In an interview after his junior season, Brown said that he knew he was raw in his technique, and that was one reason he wanted to play for Nick Saban. If he knows that is a weakness, than I have full confidence he will strive to improve that.

While listed as a DE/LB hybrid by most sites, he doesn’t seem to have the pure ability and instincts to be an impactful pass rusher. I think he is better suited to blow up tight ends and lock down outside lanes on the strong side. But he is still an experienced pass rusher, and that versatility meshes well with Saban’s desire to have the Sam and the Jack to have interchanging roles. And don’t forget: those long arms will be up in the air on the right side of the field, which is closer to the ball on any right-handed QB. In an ideal world, that should lead to more tips at the line of scrimmage.

For fun, here’s a quick athletic comparison for Brown with the combine (remember, guys with 3-4 years of college strength training) numbers from Adrian Hubbard and the similar Dion Jordan, a 2013 NFL first rounder:

Last Name First Name Height Weight 40 Yard Dash 20-yard Shuttle Vertical Jump
Brown Mekhi 6050 240 4.84 4.56 30.1
Hubbard Adrian 6060 257 4.69 N/A 38.5
Jordan Dion 6060 248 4.60 4.35 32.5

Obviously, I'm really excited about what Brown could become for Alabama, if he can avoid the void disappearing that Adrian Hubbard fell into.

Other Guys to Watch Out For

One reason I've been pushing back talking about the linebackers is because I keep expecting Adonis Thomas to commit soon. The former Florida pass rusher has visited Bryant Denny a couple of times this year, and has had nothing but positive comments every time. I fully expect the elite prospect to commit to us by National Signing Day.

I'm really excited for the potential of Mekhi Brown, and he's one of my favorites in the class of 2015. If you couldn't already tell from my wordiness, I really love linebackers, and had a lot of fun writing this one. I'll finish up the series next week with the defensive line, and expect it to be just as annoyingly wordy. In the meantime, lets go beat that cow college across the state. Roll Tide