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A Salute to the Alabama Seniors: Reuben Foster

The hard-charging linebacker with the Auburn tat on his forearm returned for his senior season and has been nothing short of dominant

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Alabama vs Clemson
Reuben Foster...human cruise missile.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

He’s from Auburn. His cousin played for Auburn. He has an Auburn tattoo on his right forearm. One would figure those roots would run deep, right?

But Reuben Foster shocked many on both sides of the state when he committed to the Alabama Crimson Tide after a protracted recruitment effort from both teams (among many others). A seeming Auburn slam-dunk, Foster decided instead to roll with the Tide, even dressing up like Nick Saban (Practice Field Edition) for his official announcement on National Signing Day in 2013.

The affable athlete from the Plains seems nice enough outside of the context of football, but once between the sidelines, he becomes a human Tomahawk cruise missile (see Exhibit A…) After announcing his presence as a special teamer during his freshman year, the torpedo-like defender who made a name for himself as a mauling, explosive tackler has risen through the ranks to a starring linebacker role. This season has been the pinnacle of his career thus far: as the premier MLB and quarterback of the front seven, Foster has proven himself not just a talented ‘backer, but a great leader as well.

Like so many 2016 seniors, Foster could have easily left following his junior season and enjoyed a profitable early start to his NFL career. Instead, he chose to return with his fellow defenders to both better his draft stock and potentially win another championship.

After a season that saw him gather numerous national accolades, one of those missions has been accomplished. Foster is considered a first-round selection in the 2017 Draft. The other half of that overarching goal remains to be accomplished, as the Tide prepares for its third consecutive playoff run and a first-round match-up with the Washington Huskies.

The High School Years

Foster was a special type of high school player. He was an overachiever (with a pedigree that featured previous college players in his family) who had all the talent to command offers from most regional SEC and ACC schools. One of the most amazing things about Foster is that as a prep star, he achieved at a high level not just at one high school, but at two different high schools in two different states. Talk about consistency of performance…

Foster began his high school career at Troup County High School in LaGrange, GA under head coach Charles Flowers. He won a starting role as a sophomore, recording 112 tackles and proving himself worthy of the responsibility bestowed upon him as an underclassman. As a junior, Foster caught the attention of college recruiters with a breakout season that saw him record a whopping 185 tackles (144 of them solo), along with 34 tackles for loss and 18 sacks. That year, Foster was named the Georgia AAA All-State Player of the Year and a first-team All-State selection at linebacker.

After the 2011 season, Foster’s family moved across the state line to Auburn, AL, where he joined the Auburn High School football team under head coach Tim Carter. Despite the life change, Foster continued to excel as a senior, as he accounted for 102 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, and six sacks in 2012. After a stellar senior season, Foster once again received statewide accolades, as he was a first-team All-State selection and the 6A Lineman of the Year.

Following his senior season, Foster played in the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Classic, as well as the Under Armor All-America game (he was named defensive MVP). Foster was rated the number one Inside Linebacker prospect, and he was a first-team All-USA selection by USA Today. He was a consensus five-star prospect among the major recruiting services, and was rated the number two overall player available in the 2013 recruiting class by Scout and PrepStar. All major services agreed that he was the top player available in the state of Alabama.

Foster originally committed to Auburn, but after a relentless recruiting effort by Saban’s staff, Foster flipped and committed to the Tide over the two other finalists for his services, specifically Auburn and Georgia.

The College Years

After arriving at the Capstone, Foster became an immediate contributor to Saban’s defensive machine. His combination of physical prowess, a large athletic frame, and unusual speed for a man of his size made him a perfect fit for the newly-minted Saban anti-spread defense that was still in the proverbial foundry. Because of the proliferation of the HUNH spread offenses in the SEC, Saban was confronted with a decision: continue to play a traditional, lumbering, brutalizing style of defense designed to derail pro-style offenses, or pivot to a lighter, faster, more flexible style of play that would feature smaller, more athletic players designer to negate the advantages created by spread offenses.

Like his classmate Jonathan Allen, Foster was crucial to this change in philosophy, as he offered ridiculous speed for a larger-framed linebacker, and he had the athleticism to shrink spread spaces and fluidly react to misdirection from offenses such as those run by Auburn and Ole Miss. Also, Foster’s ability to drop into coverage without becoming a liability was also a lynch-pin of the new Saban style of defense, and he is among the most adept of college ‘backers when called upon in coverage.

In 2013, as a freshman Foster saw most of his playing time as a special teams head-hunter, as he had numerous teeth-rattling pops on return men, earning a reputation as one of the Tide’s most physical overall players. Foster played in nine games, spelling former Tide ‘backer Trey DePriest in addition to his special teams contributions. He recorded nine tackles with a tackle for loss.

Foster’s career trajectory began to ascend as a sophomore, when he received his first career start in the 2014 season opener against West Virginia. He played in 11 games and continued as a special teams performer in the meantime, recording a total of 22 tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack. Foster’s playing time was still somewhat reduced due to intermittent, non-serious injuries and the abundance of linebacking talent on the Tide roster. However, it was clear that he would be the next great Tide linebacker before ending his days in Tuscaloosa, a prospect which came to fruition in the final two years of his college career.

As a junior, Foster became a full-time starter alongside the likes of veteran senior linebacker Reggie Ragland and up-and-coming star Shaun Dion Hamilton. In his expanded role, Foster shined, become the bane of running backs and underneath receivers alike. Foster was second on the team in tackles with 73, including eight tackles for a loss, two sacks, three quarterback hurries, and nine passes broken up. He was named Defensive Player of the Week by the coaching staff in the games against Mississippi State and Auburn, though he enjoyed probably his best game of the 2015 campaign against Tennessee, as he recorded 11 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, and a pass broken up. Foster also had a tremendous game in the National Championship against Clemson, as he made nine tackles and a tackle for loss.

Fresh off a national championship, and with a likely second round grade in the NFL Draft, Foster joined Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson, and Eddie Jackson in electing to return to the Capstone for his senior campaign. Foster would enter the 2016 season as the heir apparent to the Alabama linebacking dynasty, as he was the leader of the corps and the quarterback of the front seven. However, over the off-season, Foster elected to take the opportunity to further hone his game and impress scouts by losing approximately 20 pounds to increase his speed. In 2016, Foster has been noticeably quicker, while retaining his trademark head-hunting tackling ability.

With Ragland off to the NFL, Foster played alongside Hamilton (until Hamilton’s late season-ending injury), Ryan Anderson, and former fellow Auburn HS star Rashaan Evans. With that critical role in Saban’s defense came the usual accolades, as Foster was named an All-American by Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports, CBS Sports, the Sporting News, USA Today, and Pro Football Focus. He was a finalist for both the Nagurski Award and the Butkus Award (an accolade he ultimately won the Butkus Award as the nation’s best collegiate linebacker).

Foster’s play on the field backed up the preseason prognostication, as he recorded 83 tackles (42 solo) to lead the team, with 9.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, eight quarterback hurries, and two passes broken up. Foster was a wrecking ball against opposing running games, as of his 83 total tackles, 67 of those stops came against the run. Foster is an intuitive defender who anticipates the gaps opposing backs will choose, then he has the physical prowess to attack those running lanes and devastate backs reliably with a ferocious physical style (re: Foster’s ferocious physical style…just ask Leonard Fournette…remember this hit?)

Foster was a key player in Alabama’s 2016 undefeated regular season and SEC Championship, as he was named Defensive Player of the Week six times by the Tide coaching staff (USC, Ole Miss, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas A&M, and LSU). Foster had a career game against Ole Miss in the Tide’s streak ending victory over the Rebels, as he ended with 12 tackles despite being in and out of the second half due to persistent cramps. Foster matched that career-high later in the season against ranked Texas A&M team with 12 tackles, and he recorded a team-high 11 tackles in the Tide’s closely-cropped win over LSU.

After Alabama

Foster undoubtedly did himself a favor by sticking around for an extra year in Tuscaloosa, as out from beneath Ragland’s shadow, the Tide linebacker has blossomed into a full-time, every-down run wrecker and versatile defender. What makes Foster elite is the combination of characteristics he brings to the table for a pro team: he is big, he’s lightning fast, he is an instinctual run-stopper, and he is a high-level coverage linebacker.

Those qualities will make Foster a first-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft. While he was a potential fringe first-rounder in last year’s Draft according to some pundits, the more realistic projections would have seen him go in the mid- to late-second round (which represents a rather substantial drop-off in contract dollars). Foster had to have heard the banter surrounding Ragland’s 2016 Draft drop from a nearly unanimous first-round projection to a second-round pick, as many scouts worried about his coverage ability due to his nearly 260-pound weigh-in at the Senior Bowl. One could speculate that Foster’s off-season weight drop may have been a result of his former teammate’s Draft experience. Afer all, Foster pointedly said he wanted to become a “Ferrari” in terms of his speed, a fact which definitely has not gone unnoticed by pro scouts.

After the weight loss, focus on polishing his coverage skills, and subsequent performance in 2016, Foster has proven himself a prospect who can fit into any style of pro defense. He can stay light and play a flex role that sees him as a sideline-to-sideline run-stopper and coverage ‘backer, or he can bulk back up and be an every-down hitter in a big-bodied defense such as the one run by the Pittsburg Steelers. While he has proven to be a tremendous, intelligent inside linebacker, he also has the speed and instincts to move outside if a team so desires. Foster is the total package in terms of versatility, but he doesn’t sacrifice power and tenacity regardless of which role he fills.

Mel Kiper has gone on the record (even before the 2016 season) as saying that Foster is ultimately an even better prospect than Ragland was last year. He said Foster is quicker from Point A to Point B than Ragland, and he is better in coverage and more versatile in his skill set. He believes Foster will go higher in the 2017 Draft than Ragland went in 2016 as a result. (That said, Kiper thought Ragland would be selected with the 20th pick, so take his prognostication with a grain of salt.)

Because he is an elite, versatile talent who played four years within Saban’s linebacker factory, pro teams are salivating at the prospect of adding him to their respective rosters. Needless to say, it would be a shock if Foster falls to the late first round, let alone the second round. Because of his skill set and record of performance, he is more than likely a top-15 pick. Consult Draft pundits and one will see Foster placing anywhere from fifth to 25th, but the reality is that he likely will go somewhere in the top half of the first round to a team that needs to solidify the spine of its defense against the run (the 49’ers would be a potential landing spot in that mold).

Regardless, Foster is yet another Bama defender who improved his stock by returning for his senior season. Not only will he have the benefit of a chance at another potential championship, but his performance this season and physical transformation have proven him the type of middle linebacker that pro teams covet.

(To see Reuben’s high school exploits, click here. Here is a pretty good clip reel from Foster’s time at Alabama. Here’s another nice highlight package featuring the Human Cruise Missile Reuben Foster. Here’s a breakout reel of Foster’s RIDICULOUS performance against USC to open the 2016 season. If you have a somewhat sad life that is spent watching film…like me…and have nothing else to do, check out this entertaining 40-minute film study of Foster’s game.)