If the Alabama defense is to rank among the elite nationally in 2014, at least a couple of breakout performances will be required from an inexperienced but ridiculously talented group of linebackers. It's no secret that replacing a legitimate first-round, every-down, do-everything leader in CJ Mosley will be next to impossible for any one player. Indeed, this is one of those situations where several players will need to elevate their play collectively in order to maintain the same level of production. In addition, starting SLB Adrian Hubbard will have to be replaced following his decision to enter the NFL Draft.
In the past four classes, Saban and company have assembled what amounts to an embarrassment of riches at the linebacker position. Unfortunately, on-field results have been somewhat mixed from this unit offering an interesting combination of promise and questions this spring. Today we will review the key players individually and discuss how they fit within the defense.
Trey DePriest: Entering his senior season, DePriest carries the reputation of a throwback run-stopping thumper at the MLB position, a solid tackler who is adept at reading the play while limited in coverage and a step slow getting to the edges. To this point he has often come off the field in nickel packages but this year hopes to prove to NFL scouts that he can become an every-down player. Endorsed this offseason by CJ Mosley himself, watching DePriest's progress will be interesting throughout the spring and fall. Color me somewhat skeptical here as I tend to subscribe to the idea that you can't teach speed. DePriest seems much closer to Nico Johnson than CJ Mosley to me, which is no insult considering the fact that Nico found his way onto the Kansas City Chiefs' roster his rookie year.
Reuben Foster: Foster will forever be remembered for his wild recruitment process involving a transfer, commitments, de-commitments, and a certain infamous tattoo, but he hopes to change that conversation this spring. To be sure, this young man has loads of talent and may have the best chance of anyone on the team to become that every-down superstar. He backed up DePriest at MLB in 2013 but at over 240 pounds with legit 4.6 speed he has the flexibility to play just about any of the LB spots. I am very excited to see what 2014 holds for Mr. Foster. Rumors have suggested that he had some trouble picking up the defense last season, but with a full season and spring practice under his belt, I have high hopes.
Dillon Lee: At 6'4", 240 pounds with 4.6-4.7 speed, Lee has all the tools to become a key contributor as well as a fan favorite this season. A four-star prospect from Buford, GA and part of a superb 2012 LB class, Lee managed an interception in the first game of his true freshman season and showed out as a special teams monster in 2013 with several big hits in kick coverage and a scoop-and-score TD after a blocked punt vs. Colorado State. Sporting a blond quasi-mullet that extends out the back of his helmet and the size to match-up with most TEs, Lee plays a fast and sometimes reckless style that fans love to watch. Of course, this style of play also typically leads to some very memorable big plays along with the occasional gaffe caused by a mis-read or over-pursuit. Having garnered a bit more playing time than the others in this category, one would have to assume that Lee has the inside track to one of the vacated starting jobs.
Reggie Ragland: Ho, hum. Another five-star prospect waiting his turn for two seasons in hopes of becoming a key contributor on the Alabama defense. After putting on about 15 pounds while in Tuscaloosa, Ragland now pushes 260 pounds on his 6'4" frame which is huge for a LB in any scheme. His size would normally dictate that he play with his hand on the ground, but Reggie is something of an athletic freak who fits the mold of the "fast-twitch" player Saban is emphasizing and may remind fans of Tide legend Rolando McClain in build and style. Ragland should have plenty of opportunities this season and could play inside or outside. It wouldn't surprise me if Ragland is used in something of a utility role.
Ryan Anderson: Anderson was a heralded prospect in his own right, rating as a consensus four-star prospect out of Daphne. Unfortunately for him, he arrived on campus the same year as Ragland and Lee, which has limited his opportunity for playing time. Listed at 255 pounds, Anderson is another hybrid-type player who will likely have to work hard in order to see the field despite considerable talent that would undoubtedly secure a starting role on most SEC rosters.
Returnees with something to prove:
Denzel Devall and Xzavier Dickson. Devall and Dickson amounted to a two-headed starter at the Jack LB position. More on them below.
Rashaan Evans: From Bud Elliott, National Recruiting Analyst: Evans is a really special player. He has excellent quickness off the football. He has the frame to eventually play at north of 250 pounds. He has great length to keep opposing blockers out of his breast plate. He has excellent lateral agility and the ability to strafe down the line while keeping his shoulder pads square. He has a good balance, keeping a solid football position, which allows him to play blocks with power, even against much bigger defenders. And he is surprisingly good in pass coverage considering he plays defensive end in high school.
Evans is just a fun defender to evaluate. There are really no true weaknesses in his game. I think he should play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, as it will allow him to rush the passer a lot, but also play in space.
'Nuff said. Evans is a phenomenal athlete who will push for immediate playing time.
Shaun Hamilton: Hamilton managed to graduate early and enroll in January, so we will get an opportunity to see him in the spring. By all accounts, he is a physically and mentally mature young man who has the potential to be a great one. At 6'0" and 240 lbs. he projects as your classic middle linebacker.
Christian Miller: From our own Slice of Life: Almost universally regarded as the best outside linebacker in this class, Christian Miller has a bit of a pedigree. His dad played for the Gamecocks in the early '90s, then had a nine-year career in the NFL. Honestly, when I watch his tape, the thing that impresses me most about Miller is his motor. His speed/tackling/play-making skills are all good, but this kid plays with so much energy it will make you tired just watching him.
I have also included Slice's take on the last two, which can be found at the same link as Miller's:
Ronnie Clark: Ronnie played a number of positions in high school, including linebacker and wide receiver, but he projects as a safety at the next level. Watching his tape, Clark isn't going to blow you away with his speed. He's a bit of a lumbering runner, taking big strides and often picking his way through traffic, rather than bursting through a seam. His tackling form is decent, but there are a number of times where he seem to set his feet early, and ends up reaching to make the tackle. All of those minor critiques aside, Clark does have the build to be a physical presence in the defensive backfield, and could very well be the answer for the strong safety position in '15.
Keith Holcombe: Keith Holcombe is a somewhat lightly regarded recruit (as evidenced by his Rivals non-ranking). Watching his tape, it's partially understandable. Keith has good, but not amazing, speed, and he's awfully thin. Projecting him a couple years down the road with some weight on him, though, there's definitely some promise here. The one thing that stands out is that Keith plays with good technique. He handles blocks well, strings out wide runs, does a decent job in pass coverage, and makes good form tackles. This will be a guy to keep an eye on in '16/'17.
So, where does everyone fit?
Mike: Typically reserved for your big, run-stuffing type, the Mike (or middle linebacker) has to be able to quickly diagnose the play and fill gaps from offensive tackle to offensive tackle. Traditionally, but not always (2013 Alabama is one exception), the MLB is the leader of the defense charged with calling the shots and making sure everyone else is lined up. This is probably the only position among the four that won't be heavily contested. DePriest is a returning starter who will be looked upon as the leader of this unit. As mentioned above, the question will be whether Trey can develop his skills to the point that he is able to remain on the field in passing situations and against spread looks as McClain and Dont'a Hightower were able to do. Foster will likely be listed as the backup here with Ragland in the mix as well. Shaun Hamilton has the talent and smarts to play right away and will be looking to take the reins once DePriest and Foster are gone, so keep an eye on him too. Walker Jones, younger brother of Barrett and Harrison, adds additional depth.
Sam: The Sam, or strong-side LB, is one of two outside LB spots in a 3-4 scheme. Playing on the strong side of the offensive formation, he will often have to deal with the TE or H-back in both the run and pass game. Obviously, a SLB will need to be versatile enough to shed blocks, make tackles, set the edge when needed, and be able to hold up in man and zone coverages. Vacated when Hubbard declared for the draft, this should be a very interesting battle going into camp. Dillon Lee has to be the favorite as his size and skill set fit the role perfectly. That said, the coaches have shown a willingness to go unconventional- in my opinion, Hubbard was somewhat miscast here at 6'6" with limited coverage skills- so Ragland and Anderson could be in the mix with Devall and Dickson longshot possibilities. Keep an eye on Christian Miller as well, as the Sam will likely be his natural position.
Will: The Will, or weak-side linebacker, plays next to the MLB as the second inside linebacker in base 3-4 sets. This is known as a fun position to play on the defense because it allows for more freelancing than almost any other position. Playing on the weak side, there is typically not a TE to deal with which allows the Will to run through holes as they open and play sideline-to-sideline. In short, your premier athlete typically plays this spot. Mosley was a pure joy to watch in this role the past two seasons, and his shoes will be impossible to fill immediately. I look for Reuben Foster to get the nod here and hope to see him fulfill his potential. He will be pushed, however, as there are several other possibilities including Lee, Ragland, and Evans. Evans is certainly a long shot to earn a starting role immediately, but expect to see him on the field early and often as the team looks for pass rushers.
Jack: The Jack linebacker is aptly named as a "jack of all trades" outside LB who will spend time as both a stand-up OLB and a hand-on-the-ground DE as the coaches shift between one-gap and two-gap alignments. This player has two main responsibilities- contain the edge in the run game and rush the passer. While Devall and Dickson each performed admirably against the run, if you are looking for a weak link in the Alabama pass rush over the past couple of seasons this may be it. Saban often talks about the concept of "affecting the QB" in attempt to de-emphasize the importance of sacks, a stance which I generally agree with, but in this case the stats don't lie. Former Jack LB Courtney Upshaw had 16.5 sacks in his last two seasons in Tuscaloosa including 9.5 playing on that transcendent 2011 defense. In that last season he was shut out in the sack department only four times, including once in SEC play- a blowout win over Vanderbilt. Though Devall was the starter in 2013, he and Dickson essentially split duties in this role and managed a grand total of four sacks between them while being shut out in six of eight SEC games including the biggest ones (Devall had two sacks vs. Ole Miss and one vs. Arkansas) plus the bowl game. I fully expect this to be a wide open competition in the spring as there are several hybrid players on the roster. Besides Devall and Dickson, Ragland and Anderson could compete here along with guys like DJ Pettway, Jonathan Allen, and Da'Shawn Hand who were covered in the DL group. Evans could even sneak in here as a situational pass rusher. In any event, there has to be increased production from this position in terms of getting after the passer.
All told, this is easily the deepest and most talented set of LBs in the country with the versatility to allow the coaches to show a plethora of different looks. There is size, speed, agility, and some veteran leadership. If they can avoid some of the inevitable mistakes that come from limited game experience, this group could almost single-handedly solve the issues the Tide has had with spread offenses by simply being athletic enough to play in space and run with the offense's playmakers. Bottom line, this unit will have to hold up against the run and find a way to get pressure on the passer if Alabama is to make the playoffs this season.