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Previewing the Crimson Tide: Linebackers

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Two starters from 2014 have departed the Capstone — who replaces them in 2015?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Similar to the running backs who serve as their counterparts on the other side of the ball, the Saban era at Alabama has been characterized by outstanding linebacker play. Players such as Rolando McClain, Don'ta Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, and C.J. Mosley have parlayed stellar careers at the Capstone into lucrative ones in the NFL, and the current bumper crop of talent suggests we will be adding more names to that list in the near future. To keep things reasonable, I’m going to focus on the players I expect to get significant playing time as a linebacker this season, at the potential expense of some younger players who may see some reps on special teams and in garbage time.

Inside Linebackers

Reggie Ragland

2014 was an ascendant year for the senior leader of this defense. The 6’2”, 252 pound Ragland was primarily a special teams player and spot contributor on defense in his first two seasons at Alabama, but with the departure of C.J. Mosley to the next level, he had the unenviable task of replacing perhaps the finest linebacker coached by Saban. After a somewhat uneven start to the year, the light had fully come on for Ragland by mid-season, and he ended up third on the team with 10.5 tackles for loss. A versatile player, Ragland could slot in to any spot in the 4-3 or 3-4 alignment, but will serve as the WILL[1] linebacker for the Tide. Ragland is a capable player in coverage, but is particularly effective against the run, matching strength with great instincts and technique to navigate traffic and get to the ballcarrier. Prior to last season there was some question as to whether Ragland would fulfill the promise of his lofty five star rating, but a repeat of last year’s performance in 2015 will ensure his name is called early in the 2016 draft.

1 | JTad Josh Chatham does a nice job breaking down the different LB positions in the Tide’s 3-4 defense here, if you need a refresher.

Reuben Foster

Reuben Foster arrived with much fanfare, famously tattooing his arm with the revolting API logo only to flip his commitment late in the process to the Tide. Like Ragland, Foster spent his first two years as a spot player on defense, but has made a name for himself with huge hits on special teams, most notably the detonation of Leonard Fournette in the LSU game last season. You know the one:

That will never, ever get old. It’s also illustrative of what has been the main concern with Foster since he joined the Tide: a tendency to drop his head on hits, a dangerous technique that can lead to all manner of spine and neck injuries, not to mention the stingers that have plagued Foster during his time at the Capstone. Reports throughout the offseason suggest that better tackling technique has been the primary focus for the 6’1”, 240 pound junior, and that his improvement in that area has him in the mix to man the inside spot opposite Ragland for Alabama. The most recent news indicates he will primarily do so in the Tide’s nickel and dime packages[2], ceding the starting job in the base 3-4 defense to the next man.

2 | Which the Tide are in more often than the base package, making Foster more or less the starting MIKE.

Shaun Dion Hamilton

A true sophomore, Hamilton appeared in all 14 of the Tide’s games last season, albeit primarily as a special teams contributor. After a strong offseason, the 6’, 229 pound Hamilton appears to be the man opposite Ragland inside for the Tide this season. Long lauded for his intelligence[3], Hamilton is noted for already having great command of the system at this stage in his career, as well as making impressive progress in the weight room the second he stepped foot on campus. Like Foster, Hamilton is a big hitter, and although we haven’t seen that side of him much in game situations yet, that is more a function of opportunity than anything else. That won’t be an issue anymore, as Hamilton will be on the field quite a bit this season.

3 | He was valedictorian at Montgomery Carver, so the guy gets it done in the classroom too.

Dillon Lee

Lee was involved in a three-way battle with Hamilton and Foster for the other inside spot during the offseason, and received some reps with the first team at times, so it seems appropriate to discuss him here. However, much like Ragland the 6’4”, 242 pound Lee is a versatile player capable of manning any of the linebacker spots in the Tide’s 3-4 system, and as he appears to have been surpassed by Hamilton and Foster inside the majority of the senior’s work may come on the outside this season. A special teams stud from day one, Lee is actually the starting SAM linebacker in the base package according to the coaching staff, but sees more limited playing time on account of the Tide not spending much time in the base alignment. In lieu of a recurring starting assignment, look for Lee to be more of a rotational player who frequently fills in at both inside and outside backer spots.

Outside Linebackers

Ryan Anderson

Anderson served as a capable backup to Xzavier Dickson in 2014, tallying 8 tackles for loss and nine hurries while appearing in all 14 games for the Tide. With Dickson’s departure to the NFL after last season, the 6’2”, 258 pound junior appears to be the next JACK linebacker for the Tide. The JACK is a hybrid DE/LB position that requires a quick, powerful player who focuses on rushing the passer, but must be capable against the run as well. This is an apt description for Anderson, who has shown flashes of tremendous ability over the past couple of seasons, and will now have an opportunity to leverage those skills on a more regular basis. Anderson was momentarily entangled in a domestic violence issue[4] in the offseason, but he has been practicing consistently with the team through the fall and will almost assuredly start against Wisconsin.

4 | He kicked a car.

Rashaan Evans

Evans’ recruitment was eerily similar to that of Foster[5], in that he was a highly-rated linebacker recruit happily plucked from API’s backyard at the eleventh hour. Much like Hamilton, the 6’3”, 225 pound true sophomore mainly saw time on special teams last season, but did get some snaps at outside linebacker as well. The name of the game with Evans is explosion, as he has tremendous burst off the line of scrimmage and is shaping up to be a lethal pass rusher. Anderson will be the primary JACK linebacker this season, but Evans will be in the rotation at that spot along with the next guy.

5 | Instead of an embarrassing tattoo, we can thank API via Evans for “pre-built and hidden by code”. Which, oddly enough, applies to this article…

Tim Williams

Williams is another member of the 2013 recruiting class that produced Anderson and Foster. The 6’4”, 230 pound junior got spot work last season at outside linebacker, producing 1.5 sacks on the year. Williams really started to emerge during the offseason and absolutely blew up at A-Day, where he accounted for five tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and two quarterback hurries on the afternoon. As noted, look for Williams to split time with Evans as the backup JACK linebacker, but don’t be surprised if he gets time at the SAM spot as well.

Denzell Devall

And finally we arrive at the last starter from this corps in Denzell Devall. The 6’2”, 252 pound senior contributed from day one, appearing in all 27 games from the 2012 and 2013 seasons and picking up three starts in the latter year. Penciled in as the starting SAM linebacker in 2014, Devall struggled with injuries, missing 6 of the Tide’s 14 games on the year. After missing the spring recovering from offseason surgery, Devall returned healthy to practice in the fall and stepped right back in to his old role as the starting SAM[6]. Denzell’s game is probably best characterized as “yeoman-like”; he does not show up in the stat sheet often and rarely has his name called on game day, but is technically sound and capably executes the requirements of his position. If he can stay healthy, the Tide should be more than set at these positions in 2015.

6 | In the subpackages the Tide run more often than their base package, in which the starter is Lee, as previously noted.

Other Names of Note

The scary part about this group is how many young, talented guys not listed above are waiting in the wings for an opportunity this year or next. Redshirt freshman Keith Holcombe featured prominently in the inside linebacker battle during the offseason, and will more than likely see time there this season. Fellow redshirt freshman Christian Miller continues to impress with his explosiveness as a pass rusher, and may play his way into time at SAM. Two younger brothers of Alabama legends, Jamey Mosley and Walker Jones, are around as well, but do not appear to be headed for significant playing time. The Tide also welcomed several true freshmen in the 2015 recruiting class, but given the plethora of talent ahead of them on the depth chart, expect many of them to redshirt this season.

ROLL TIDE