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Alabama Spring Football 2017: Linebackers return little experience, tons of talent

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The 2017 Crimson Tide will replace three NFL-caliber linebackers. Who will step up and become the next great at Linebacker U?

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama
Rashaan Evans will be a key cog in Bama’s rebuilt linebacking corps
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

While several schools claim the “Linebacker U” title, few of them can match the sheer volume and consistency of linebacker talent produced by the Alabama Crimson Tide, particularly under the reign of Nick Saban.

In the pre-Saban era, such luminaries as Lee Roy Jordan, Cornelius Bennett, Derrick Thomas, Keith McCants, and DeMeco Ryans all wore crimson and had legendary careers at the Capstone (and beyond, in some cases). Since Saban set foot in Tuscaloosa in 2007, however, the flow of NFL-ready linebacker talented has been as unceasing as the mighty Black Warrior River: players like Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower, C.J. Mosley, Courtney Upshaw, Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster, Tim Williams, and Ryan Anderson have upheld the long linebacking lineage that keeps Alabama’s defense as a standard bearer in the NCAA ranks.

Though the faces may change, the standard that Saban has set for the position remains unchanged. Corners and defensive linemen may get the spotlight and the NFL money, but it is the linebackers that are the engine in Saban’s defensive machine. Part of this stems from the elite athletes that Alabama recruits for the position. Alabama doesn’t just favor size in its ‘backers, but rather searches out a combination of size, elite speed, aggressiveness, discipline, and football IQ in its future linebackers. Because of these qualities, the Bama linebacking corps is extremely versatile, handling duties as diverse as pass rush, interior run stuffing, and coverage. The Bama ‘backers do it all, and it is that ability to do all of those things at a high level that allows the other components of the Tide’s defense to be more effective in their respective responsibilities.

Because of the importance of the linebackers in Alabama’s defense, there is no small concern in the fact that the Tide lost three stellar performers in Foster, Williams, and Anderson. Three-quarters of the starting linebackers from last season have moved on. That’s not to say there is no experience behind them, as the reserves in Alabama’s system see an above-average amount of playing time. But outside of the recovering Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans, Alabama’s linebacking unit will be heavy on potential but light on starting experience.

How will it all shake out? Spring is the time that ascending players make their moves, and the starting picture for 2017 will begin to become clearer in the coming weeks. Let’s take a look at what we know (and what we think we know), and draw a bead on the role players in the Tide’s linebacking corps for 2017.

Presumed Starters

One word before beginning this exercise: as has been the case in previous season under Saban, the personnel groupings at linebacker tend to be dynamic. Players will line up at Jack on one play, and shift to Sam on another. Alabama’s defensive personnel groups are sometimes situational, and so expect some fluidity in terms of positional designations. It will be spelled out in great detail below when it comes to specifics, but keep in mind that the personnel in a specific position will shift about depending on the need.

There’s no question that once senior Shaun Dion Hamilton (6-0. 233 pounds) heals from an ACL injury suffered in the SEC Championship Game last season, he will be back as the starting Will linebacker. Hamilton has been a steady riser through the ranks in his time at Alabama, and last season, he was having his best campaign in crimson prior to the injury, with the third-most tackles on the team. Hamilton is fluid and explosive, with the Ferrari speed (to use Foster’s metaphor) to assist in coverage but the power to close quickly on opposing running backs. One can’t undersell Hamilton’s role as a leader on the defense, as Saban will count on him as one of a very few veterans in a corps that will count on a lot of new players in 2017.

The other returning senior with several starts under his belt is Mike/ Sam Rashaan Evans (6-3, 234 pounds). Evans came into his Alabama career as a pass rushing specialist given his elite speed and elusiveness around the edge. While his strength was the pass rush early in his career, he struggled somewhat with interior run defense, a factor that limited his playing time and kept him as a situational contributor of likely passing downs. However, when Hamilton went down late last season, Evans was forced into the fray at Mike, and despite a few hiccups, he acquitted himself nicely down the stretch by developing as a well-rounded player who can rush the passer, drop into coverage, and put his nose in the middle against the run. Expect Evans to continue his development, as his athletic upside is immeasurable. He will likely spend time at both Mike and Sam, as his veteran presence is needed in the middle, but his explosiveness around the end is too great to be shelved.

Redshirt junior Christian Miller (6-4, 240 pounds) has waited in the wings for three years now behind more recognizable names, but anyone who has watched Alabama’s last several A-Day games has a bead on what he brings to the table. Miller has the potential to be an elite performer at the position, as he has elite pass rushing prowess and a nose for the ball. Miller has been the stereotypical linebacker regarding his development at Alabama: he has elite potential, but has seen little consistent playing time early in his career (mostly because of the horde of elite talent ahead of him on the depth chart). But as ‘backers before him, he has now ascended to a probably starting role that will allow him to illustrate his skill set in an explosive way. Miller is aggressive and athletic enough to see time at either Sam or Jack, so expect to see him shift around and attack the pocket from both sides of the formation until he settles into the natural fit.

Alabama’s Jack linebacker position is different from the typical linebacker role in both form and function. The Jack doesn’t physically look like a linebacker, but rather a smallish defensive end. He doesn’t drop into coverage, but is rather dedicated to the pass rush and sealing the edge against the run. Redshirt sophomore Anfernee Jennings (6-3, 265 pounds) has been impressive at Jack in his limited opportunities at playing time. Physically, Jennings is a monster, and he combines that physicality with solid speed and a crimson-red mean streak. Another spring game warrior who has drawn rave reviews from Saban in the past, Jennings has been biding his time behind Williams and Anderson, waiting for a chance to prove himself worthy of the position. Jennings is a name that may not be well-known at the moment, but expect him to make quite a splash this spring and into the fall beyond.

The Reserves

The result of top-rated recruiting class after top-rated recruiting class plays out in the Tide’s depth, as Alabama has a second line that many teams would covet as starters. Though Alabama doesn’t have a ton of experienced starting depth, what it does boast is a corps of able, uber-talented players who have earned time as role-players.

As previously stated, though Hamilton is the presumed starter at Will heading into 2017, his reduced workload this spring as he recovers from the injury will leave room for others to make names for themselves and carve out playing time at the position. This creates an ideal situation for two promising young former five-star linebackers to gain a toehold on playing time while learning the ropes. Expect to see a good bit of sophomore Mack Wilson (6-2, 231 pounds) in Hamilton’s absence, as he proved his mettle last season on special teams, where he became known for the devastating licks he put on opposing players (ala a young Reuben Foster). Wilson is a prototypical linebacker, with speed (dude ran a 4.59 40 this spring…sizzling fast), size, and raw physicality on his side. He isn’t afraid to lay a jolting blow on an opposing ball-carrier, and his instincts are excellent in pursuit and reading angles. Wilson will be the next great Alabama linebacker, regardless of what position he settle into.

Another young player who will vie for time while Hamilton recuperates is redshirt freshman Ben Davis (6-4, 235 pounds). Davis took a redshirt in his initial campaign while he learned the defense. However, he is every bit as capable and athletically-gifted as Wilson, and the competition between the two for the spot behind Hamilton will be fierce. In the initial practice of the spring, Davis worked a good bit at Sam, and he’s versatile enough to play outside early, or inside later in his career. Davis, the son of an Alabama legend, was raised in the game, and his football intelligence is reflective of that exposure. He plays fast and with confidence, and combined with his physical measurables, he will be a nightmare in run defense for years to come.

While Evans likely has the Mike position locked down in most cases, because of his pass rushing ability, he may also see time at Sam. When that happens, expect the heady, hard-nosed redshirt junior Keith Holcombe (6-4, 230 pounds) to slide over into the Mike role. Holcombe is a dual-sport athlete (he also plays baseball) out of hometown Hillcrest High in Tuscaloosa, and he is a gritty, tough player who is rarely out of position and will not be run over. Holcombe is extremely savvy, and despite his scant playing time, his command of the defense will make him the ideal candidate to fill in at middle linebacker when Evans flexes out to the edge.

Joining Holcombe in relief at Mike is the flexible redshirt sophomore Josh McMillon (6-3, 241 pounds), another uber-talented, highly regarded linebacker prospect who can play both Mike of Will depending on the need. McMillon is an athletic freak at his size, with great closing speed and a physical presence in the middle. His versatility is a plus given the flexible nature of Alabama’s linebacking roles, so expect his playing time to expand in the coming season.

The likely second man up behind Jennings at Jack would be the massive sophomore Terrell Hall (6-5, 251 pounds). Hall is naturally gifted enough to be a dark horse to edge out Jennings and break into the starting line-up at Jack, but that remains to be seen this spring. Hall is a physically specimen, a true defensive end in the body of a linebacker. He mauls the pocket and has explosive speed in pursuit. Hall will be a force on Alabama’s defense for the remainder of his Crimson Tide career, and that legacy will more than likely begin with an expanded role at Jack in 2017.

With a variety of players who can go at Sam and/ or Jack, a number of players could step into second string roles on the edges of the linebacking corps. One Tide ‘backer who has been waiting for a chance to live up to his family name is redshirt junior Jamey Mosley (6-5, 244 pounds), the younger brother of Tide legend C.J. Mosley. The younger Mosley has incredible size and sound athletic ability, as he played quarterback in high school as well as linebacker and defensive line. Mosley could potentially get a look at Sam, as his size and strengths are perfect for the position.

Another gangly edge-rusher who will see playing time at Sam is redshirt sophomore Mekhi Brown (6-5, 241 pounds). Brown was a defensive end in high school, and though he’s seen scant playing time to date in Tuscaloosa, one can expect that with long arms and great athleticism, his future will be at either Sam or Jack in Saban’s defense. He has great height, good speed, and his technique has improved over the raw skills he displayed as a prep player. Again, he could figure into the depth picture at either outside linebacker position, though with a history as a strong pass rusher, he could eventually be a better fit at Jack, where he can focus on setting the edge and raiding the pocket.

The Newcomer

Though Alabama has several 2017 linebacker signees coming in the summer, the lone early-enrollee at linebacker is freshman phenom Dylan Moses (6-3, 234 pounds). There’s no reason to repeat his recruitment history, as everyone should be well-abreast of that by now. Moses is physically no freshman, as he steps on campus with the physique of a veteran of Scott Cochran’s legendary strength and conditioning program. The young linebacker is cut from stone, with elite speed (he ran a 4.46 40 this spring…at 234 pounds!), and controlled aggressiveness that will instantly put him in the running for substantial playing time this spring. The IMG Academy graduate could fit in almost anywhere in Alabama’s linebacking corps. He could play at Will behind Hamilton, or with his size, he could take on a role at Sam. With seasoning, he could be the second coming of Reuben Foster at Mike. He saw time outside in the first practice, but there’s no telling where he will end up. There’s literally no position among linebackers that he couldn’t play, so it will be interesting to watch that shake out this spring.

Moses is the kind of “generational” athletic talent that Alabama seems to recruit year in and year out, but there’s something about Moses that is special. While his fellow freshman will likely fall in behind their more veteran counterparts when they arrive later on in the summer, Moses has the ability to stand tall with the starters from the day he steps on campus. He really is that good, so don’t be surprised if the redshirt comes off and he is a contributor from the first game on.

While some would be panicked at the thought of losing such elite linebacking talent, at Alabama, the modus operandi remains “next man up.” The benefit of Saban’s recruiting makes such a philosophy a possibility rather than a hope, and with row upon row of linebackers arrayed like shark’s teeth waiting for an opportunity to bite, there shouldn’t be any fall off in the Tide’s defense this year (even with the losses of Williams, Anderson, and Foster.)

While little is revealed in spring for strategic reasons, the mindful observer will be able to discern the lead horses for specific familiar roles in the Tide’s reloading defense. There will be some ebb and flow in terms of position as newcomers work in different roles to discover the best fits. But with as much talent as Alabama has on the roster, such tinkering with personnel groupings is to be expected and embraced.