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Meet the New Guys: Linebackers

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Dylan Moses, Vandarius Cowan, Markail Benton, and Chris Allen all make their appearances

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We are now into the heart of the football dearth that is the offseason, and those of us fanatics are really split into two camps: those that use the offseason correctly in order to take a rest from football, and those who are so far gone in their addiction that they refresh Roll Bama Roll every 30 minutes or so for any new morsel of football #HotTakes.

I fall in that second category.

So, in order to sate the ceaseless appetite of you content-hungry savages, I will offer you a set of opinions based off of my spending way-too-much time watching every highlight and play I could find of the four linebackers in Alabama’s recruiting class of 2017.

As always, I will make references to SPARQ and Z-scores as a measure of a players athleticism.

As I mentioned in the first “Meet the New Guys” article, I am this year including a 0-10 scale for what I think will be a player’s immediate impact (how much he does for the team his freshman year) and his potential (how good I think he will end up being).

I pull all recruiting rankings from 247sports.com’s composite ratings, and all physical measurements are from ESPN.com, which integrates in verified Nike combine data.

At the linebacker position, Alabama will be replacing Reuben Foster, Tim Williams, and Ryan Anderson. That’s one NFL draft first round lock and two more that have a chance at being first rounders themselves. Fortunately, the position group was already deep, with seniors Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton ready to step in. Unfortunately, those guys are both seniors, which makes the 4 incoming freshman that much more important... If not for 2017, then for 2018.

Without further ado, it’s time to meet the new guys.


VanDarius Cowan

We’ll start with the elephant in the room. Yes, Cowan was kicked off of his high school football team halfway through his senior year. No one ever really released details as of why, but it had apparently been a long-term attitude issue, and then a dumb personal foul in game was the straw the broke the camel’s back.

Nick Saban did his vetting and decided that Cowan was worth keeping, despite the potential attitude problem. That’s really all I know, and all we’ll ever know.

At 6’4” 226, Cowan could stand to add quite a few more pounds on his frame. In fact, I would guess he’ll end up somewhere near the 245-250 range by the time he’s an upperclassman. He’s an exceptional all-around athlete— testing well for a linebacker in every area, though not really excelling at any one trait. His Z-score of a 1.30 means he’s in the 90th percentile of athleticism for linebackers.

He also played defensive end in high school up until his senior year, when he moved to a middle linebacker.

Pros

As you would expect from one who was once a defensive end, Cowan excels in areas such as taking on and shedding blockers, driving with his lower body, and blitzing. He’s very powerful, playing with much more force than a 226 pound linebacker should be able to.

He’s adept at setting an edge against outside runs, often knocking the offensive tackle or tight end backwards and then being able to shed to the left or right to either make the tackle or force the running back to a teammate. As a pass rusher, he has a good speed rush and an exceptional bull rush.

Cons

Can he be effective as a cover guy in the passing game? I don’t know. Usually, if a player has no highlights showcasing a certain skill, then I can assume it is probably a weakness of his.

He also doesn’t strafe very well, often having to turn and run to be able to get anywhere laterally. That leads me to believe my first assumption that his pass coverage is likely going to be sub par.

He also has poor tackle technique. He often goes high and misses, then dragging the offensive player down with a single arm after he goes by. It worked in high school, but SEC players will break those arm tackle attempts almost every time. Cowan has the power to be a devastating tackler, but he will have to work on his aim.

Prediction

I think Cowan will need a redshirt this year. He’s a bit more of a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker who can be a hybrid pass-rusher and stand-up linebacker.

If the new contestants for Alabama pass rushers (Terrell Hall, Christian Miller, Anfernee Jennings) don’t take the job by the horns, Cowan will look to try to break into the rotation there to prevent having to redshirt.


Markail Benton

at 6’2” 237, Markail Benton is likely already as big as he’s going to get. He chose not to publish his 40-yard dash, so I have to assume that it wasn’t very good. Nor were his vertical jump or powerball toss scores. However, his 20-yard shuttle time of 4.27 seconds is quite impressive for a 240-pound linebacker.

If I had to guess based off the numbers we do have and what I saw on his video, I would put his Z-score at around a 0.4.

Pros

It only took a few minutes of watching his highlights to see why his 20-yard shuttle is so much better than his other tests: Benton has exceptional footwork. Backpedaling, cross-stepping, strafing, or changing directions, Benton can do it all seamlessly. He’s quick out of cuts and quick to react and make decisions.

As you can guess, this all makes him quite effective in zone coverage. He can pass off receivers and change directions to follow another without a hiccup, and can then break on throws much quicker than a QB expects.

In the run game, he can flow through traffic and avoid blockers with ease and few running backs are able to juke by him without him getting a hand on them.

Cons

He had knee and shoulder surgeries at the end of his senior season. He reported that neither will affect him at all for next season, but you never know for sure with these things.

Benton also struggles when taking on blockers, often getting quickly overwhelmed and taken totally out of the play. He’s not much of a blitzer, either.

As a tackler, he tends to go for big hits, but doesn’t wrap up very well (think Reuben Foster in his early years, but without as much force).

Prediction

Like Cowan, I don’t think Markail Benton will be ready to contribute this year, and will take a redshirt. Eventually, he’ll probably look to carve out a role as a pass-coverage linebacker or QB spy in nickel and dime packages.


Dylan Moses

I’m sure all of you are well acquainted with the child prodigy who was offered scholarships by LSU and Alabama as early as his 8th grade year. The athletic freak of nature was long considered the best prospect in this entire class up until a few players started to pass him over the last year.

He played running back for most of his high school career, but began to focus solely on being a linebacker after he transferred to IMG Academy.

Every single athletic test he took displayed elite results, from speed to explosion to quickness, Dylan Moses is an athletic freak. His Z-score of 2.54 puts him in the 99.5th percentile of linebackers, and is really better than what most linebackers will test in the NFL combine each year.

Pros

His athleticism is his biggest strength. You just don’t see many linebackers with the speed to cover from sideline to sideline, catch running backs from behind, and cover receivers and tight ends in the passing game like Moses can. His straight-line speed is exceptional, but his ability to stop and start or turn on a dime is even more impressive, especially at his size.

An underrated part of his game is how instinctive he is. Not only does he have the speed to recover, he’s been around the game enough (and trained at IMG) to have developed quick reactions and anticipation to make him be able to play even faster. Because of this, he’s extremely effective both in diagnosing outside run plays and dropping into zone coverage.

He also displays a more consistent tackle technique than most do in high school. He wraps around the opponent’s thighs and rolls, following the newer form of tackling that is being emphasized by many teams in the NFL.

Cons

Despite his ability in zone coverage and his athleticism, Moses actually isn’t all that great in man coverage. He has the speed and quickness to stay with his man and keep him from breaking after the catch, but he isn’t very good at positioning himself to break up a throw, often getting bodied-out by bigger tight ends in slants and seam routes.

Though a great form tackler, Moses has very little of an “enforcer” aura to him. Most of his tackles are of the drag-down variety, rather than the soul-crushing hits that break the will of the opponent.

He also is not very effective around the line of scrimmage. He struggles to shed blocks once an offensive lineman has his hands on him, and he gets pushed backwards more often than not. As a blitzer, he’s only effective if he can use his speed to shoot through the line before a lineman is able to lock on.

Prediction

Dylan Moses will likely be the top candidate in 2018 to replace Rashaan Evans, but will have a tough time breaking into the rotation with Evans, Shaun Dion Hamilton, and Mack Wilson all already at the top of the pack. He’ll likely find a role on special teams, as a linebacker with that kind of speed would be perfect for the kickoff team.


Chris Allen

Everywhere that Dylan Moses is a speed and finesse linebacker, Chris Allen is the enforcer. Already a hulking, long-armed monster, Allen could easily put on 25 more pounds and become an absolute monster.

Though he didn’t publish his 40 time, his twenty yard shuttle, vertical jump, and powerball toss are all quite good for someone his size. I would estimate that his Z-score would be around a 1.0.

Last week, I mentioned that Xavier McKinney was in the running for my favorite player of the class. Now we can add in Chris Allen to that list.

Pros

Like Vandarius Cowan, Allen also has a good bit of experience as a defensive end as well as a linebacker. When you think of a player with an explosive lower body, Allen embodies that. When he tackles someone, he goes low and then uncoils into them, sending offensive players sprawling and flying backwards through the air.

He does the same to would-be blockers, unloading into linemen much bigger than him with enough force to knock them yards backwards, often disrupting the quarterback or running back.

With his long arms and long legs, he has great length and has a deceptive long speed, allowing him to chase down running backs to the sideline much more effectively than his size would have you believe.

Cons

He has little experience in pass coverage, and will have a lot of work to do there. On top of that, his footwork when backpedaling or strafing in really awkward and clunky, meaning that not only will have have work to do mentally to get ready for pass coverage, but physically as well.

Prediction

Allen reminds me a lot of Donta Hightower when he was coming out of high school. I could see him becoming a middle linebacker or a defensive end/jack in the future, depending on what he wants to focus on.

I think he’ll end up more as a defensive end though, and he’ll be a really good one in a couple of years. I think he’ll end up getting some playing time in blowouts this year, filling out the depth behind Hall, Miller, and Jennings as pass rushers.