Of all the positions on Nick Saban’s heralded, perennially-great defenses, there is one position that is the pivot point upon which the other two units generally rest: the linebacking position. While Saban’s defenses always need great players at key positions such as corner and safety, linebackers are the fuel that feeds the Tide’s defensive greatness.
The bad news is that following the 2018 National Championship Campaign, the Tide said goodbye to two senior stalwarts at the position of inside linebacker: the oft-injured but uber-talented Shaun Dion Hamilton, and first-team All-American Rashaan Evans. Of course, the Tide defense under first year coordinator Tosh Lupoi will have a tall task in filling the leadership void left by Bama’s now-departed elder statesmen in the heart of the defense. But when it comes to their play on the field, Alabama will be well-situated to see little drop-off thanks to the availability to two former five-stars who will likely emerge as starters at Mike and Will, and a few supporting role players who will be asked to contribute this season.
There’s simply no replacing a player of Evans’ cailber, whether on the field or in the locker room. Evans was as versatile and explosive a ‘backer as the Tide has enjoyed since the time of C.J. Mosley, as he could play inside out against the run, could rush the passer with aplomb, and was even a demon in coverage. He was Saban’s defensive answer to the spread of the hurry-up no-huddle offense, as Evans was a tremendous athlete with speed and power who could run sideline to sideline without wearing down.
Hamilton had all of the tools to be one of the best linebackers in Tide history, and had it not been for a lot of bad injury luck that spanned two seasons, he could possibly have been on of the top-3 ‘backers of the Saban era in Tuscaloosa. After returning from a season-ending injury in 2016, Hamilton was having his best season to date prior to another injury that ended his year.
Both men were veterans of Saban’s system, and their football IQ and understanding of the defense cannot easily be replicated. Both men were team leaders, which represents another intangible quality that Lupoi and the staff must find a way to replace. However, the current roster of Bama ILBs can match the physical aspects of the departing players’ games, and if those already experienced players can step up into starting roles and remain healthy in 2018, there won’t be much drop off at the Capstone in terms of linebacker play.
It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that the lead horses in the race for Alabama’s Will and Mike positions will be two players who saw playing time (and acquitted themselves quite well) last year after a historical rash of injuries ravaged a once-deep Tide linebacking pool. Expect to see a lot of junior Mack Wilson (6-2, 238 pounds) this spring alongside sophomore Dylan Moses (6-3, 232 pounds). Both men are former five-star recruits, and they have some experience to go along with those raw accolades.
Wilson has seen extensive playing time in the last year, especially after Hamilton went down with his injury. A prototypical inside linebacker, Wilson fits the run like a barricade, and his coverage skills are possibly the best among all Tide linebackers (he had four interceptions in 2017 to lead the team…not the linebackers, but the team). The rising junior had 40 tackles total in 2017 and performed at his best on the biggest stage of the season, recording 12 tackles against Georgia in the national championship game. Wilson is a definite shoe-in at Will (or Mike... there could be some juggling of those specific roles throughout the spring).
Moses saw time as a true freshman due to the injuries, and he immediately proved why he is forecast to win a starting role at Mike as a mere sophomore. The freakishly talented sophomore played in 11 games and started in two towards the end of 2017 because of the thin roster depth, and he took those opportunities to make an impression. Against Mercer in his first start, Moses recorded 11 tackles and four tackles for loss. Against Auburn the following week, he had 10 more tackles. He finished the season with 30 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and an interception.
There’s little doubt that barring injury, these will be Bama’s starters inside when the Tide lines up against Louisville in September.
Behind those two standouts, however, there is a little less certainty. One wouldn’t necessarily say that the depth is catastrophically thin behind the presumed starters, but given the Tide’s experiences with injuries last season, there is a little concern given the numbers (and experience level) behind Wilson and Moses.
Redshirt senior Keith Holcombe (6-4, 236 pounds) represents the most seasoned reserve the Tide has on the roster at ILB, but his status is somewhat in question after a proclamation that Saban encouraged him to “focus on baseball” this spring. Given the current numbers at the position, it wouldn’t hurt to have a veteran like Holcombe waiting in the wings, as the steady senior had 38 tackles, three passes broken up, two tackles for loss, a sack, a fumble recovery, and a quarterback hurry last season after being forced into heavy action by injury. Holcombe also has three years under his belt in Saban’s system and could help fill a potential leadership void with the departure of Evans and Hamilton, so he is important piece of the puzzle at ILB to be sure.
Another long-time reserve player who will be needed to round out the roster is redshirt junior Joshua McMillon (6-3, 243 pounds). The South Carolina native came in with high hopes but has been unable to crack the top of the linebacker rotation. That doesn’t mean he isn’t primed for a big season, however. He only has five tackles through eight games played, but he will be needed to provide a little quality depth in the middle.
The only newcomer that will see action at inside linebacker this spring is likely to be redshirt freshman Markhail Benton (6-3, 233 pounds). While certainly possessing the physical measurables desired by Saban in an inside linebacker, the former four-star recruit simply doesn’t have any stats by which to judge his potential. He was a high school star with a great first step and solid lateral speed, and time will tell if the young ‘backer is ready to contribute in a meaningful way in ’18. The Tide will need him, to be sure, especially if the injury waters once again shade rough.
The Tide recruited five linebackers in the class of 2018 – none of which are on campus yet – but only one of those players projects as a sure ILB. Though he won’t be on campus until the summer and therefore won’t be a part of spring workouts, the Tide has high hopes for three-star LB signee Jaylen Moody (6-2, 2225 pounds). While Moody is a likely redshirt candidate in 2018, if Bama is once again bitten by the injury bug, he may be pressed into action.
Will - Mack Wilson, Joshua McMillon
Mike - Dylan Moses, Keith Holcombe, Markhail Benton
Alabama’s top two inside linebackers could prove to be the most elite tandem in the nation by season’s end, as both were highly-touted recruits who have done nothing but improve their games in Tuscaloosa. Both have proven themselves capable of spectacular play and will give the Tide defense a solid footing at the all-important ILB position.
However, the lack of depth at the position must be at least a little harrowing given Alabama’s recent experiences with depth and reserve players. Because of this, expect some of the OLB prospects that will join Bama in the summer to see a little action inside, if for no other reason than to give Saban and Lupoi a little peace of mind given the previous experiences with injuries at the position.