Alabama’s defense in 2017, despite horribly bad injury luck, overachieved as the Tide claimed its 17th National Championship over an excellent Georgia team. Bama always has a star-studded defensive roster to be sure, but given other stellar personnel groupings in the last few years, the 2017 defense had more question marks across the board than it is accustomed to.
However, those defensive answers came as the Tide trudged through its schedule and into the playoffs. The defense was a big part of a 2017 effort that resulted in yet another title for Nick Saban at the Capstone. The downside to that success is that several key playmakers on the defense – players like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison, Da’Ron Payne, Da’Shawn Hand, Rashaan Evans, and Shaun Dion Hamilton – will be auditioning for their future NFL employers this spring rather than manning the trenches in crimson and white.
That leaves the Tide with more questions than answers at key positions this season, with almost every unit searching for the next All-American candidate to fill out the roster. However, the outside linebacker position is the only position with a deep, established pecking order, and after a season in which the three top candidates to start at Jack and Sam all lost considerable playing time to injury, it is a group of players that is hungry for action in 2018.
Fortunately for Alabama, there is only one outside linebacker who left the team in the offseason: redshirt junior Mekhi Brown. Brown, who was involved in some unfortunate ugliness on the sideline during the Tide’s most recent playoff run, elected to leave the team for Tennessee State weeks after the natty. That loss is not a great one for Alabama, however, as Brown was primarily a special teams contributor who had not yet distinguished himself enough to earn a starting role at OLB in his years in Tuscaloosa.
The Returning Starters
The top three players who will rotate at the outside linebacking positions (namely the Jack and the Sam) were all injured (to at least some degree) for long stretches of 2017. Two of those players, specifically redshirt senior Christian Miller (6-4, 244 pounds) and junior Terrell Lewis (6-5, 256 pounds), were lost in the first game of the season against Florida State, and were thought gone for the season. Redshirt junior Anfernee Jennings (6-3, 262 pounds) suffered multiple injuries in 2017 which limited his playing time, putting the Tide’s best three edge-rushing threats on the sideline at times throughout the season.
However, all three players are back in full-effect in 2018, though Jennings will reportedly take it easy this spring while he rehabs a knee injury that occurred the Tide’s opening round playoff victory over Clemson. Despite that, his role as a starter at OLB (probably at Jack) is all but certain, as the dynamic playmaker and pass rush assassin has little left to prove at this point. Jennings still managed to start 11 games through his injuries, and he amassed 41 tackles, six tackles for loss, a sack, two forced fumbles, two passes broken up, and four quarterback hurries through the season. He is huge and aggressive, with great speed and block-shedding skills. If he stays healthy, he could quite possibly be the Tide’s most intimidating pass rush threat, though his skills against the run are polished as well.
Miller was only able to play in four games last year due to his long recovery after a catastrophic injury in the opener, but in that time, he recorded six tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack. He is an excellent edge rusher who fares well against the run as an edge-setter. He is also a veteran, having played in a total of 31 games across the span of his career. For Miller, this could be the breakout year that 2017 was supposed to be before his injury, and Alabama will benefit from a driven, determined senior OLB with the skills to match his drive.
Lewis is a physical specimen who can do a little bit of everything for the Tide from either the Jack or Sam position. He is rangy, athletic, and aggressive, and can bounce between the Jack and Sam roles as needed. Like his teammate Miller, Lewis only saw action in four games last season due to injury, but he made that playing time count with 16 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, and a pass broken up. That sack was a critical one, as it came late in the championship game against Georgia, a play which snuffed a Bulldog drive and forced a field goal.
While there are only two positions and three presumed starters, it’s important to note that Saban loves to juggle personnel into specific packages based on the offenses run by upcoming opponents. He also likes match-ups, so one can expect that though only two men can wear the starter label at a time, each of these three will see plenty of playing time situationally.
The Returning Reserves
The OLB position is better situated than any other position on the defense when it comes to quality, seasoned depth, as all five players among the reserves have at least a game’s worth of playing time to their credit.
Senior among them is redshirt senior Jamey Mosley (6-5, 248 pounds), a former walk-on who earned considerable playing time last year due to a rash of injuries and held down the Sam position while his teammates recuperated. Mosley had his best year in crimson in 2017, playing in 13 games (with three starts) and recording 13 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, two quarterback hurries, and a pass broken up. While maybe not as explosive as some of the other players at the position, Mosley was solid and stable, giving coaches a good option who can do anything asked of him well. He will provide depth at Jack and Sam given his ability against the run and his tremendous size for either position.
Sophomore Chris Allen (6-4, 242 pounds) is another young linebacker who was called up into duty last season due to injuries to the starters, and he faired well for a true freshman. In 2017, Allen played in seven games, and in them he was responsible for six tackles, a tackle for loss, two quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble. Expect to see Allen grow into a bigger role this year, as his performance was good enough under pressure last season that he will likely emerge as a go-to reserve when the starters need a breather. He can play either Jack or Sam, but seems to be more in the mix at Jack now.
Fellow sophomore VanDarius Cowan (6-4, 236 pounds) is another young player who saw his role expand last season due to attrition, though he seemed a step behind Allen on the learning curve. That said, Cowan’s ceiling as a player is sky-high at Sam, and he could very well work himself into increased playing time this season to build upon his two-tackle performance in 2017. Like Allen, Cowan has the size to play Jack, but he’s fast enough to fill in at Sam if necessary.
Rounding out the returning reserves is redshirt sophomore Ben Davis, a former five-star recruit who has yet to emerge as a force at outside linebacker for the Tide. After bouncing between ILB and OLB in his first years in Tuscaloosa, it appears likely that if Davis is going to earn increased playing time, he’s going to do it at Sam, as he has a big body and the speed to play sideline to sideline once he masters the intangibles. Davis played in the Tide’s contest last season with Mercer but recorded no stats.
While there will only be one true newcomer to the OLB position this spring, there are a bevy of talented outside ‘backers en route to the Capstone this summer.
Already on campus as a delayed enrollee (grayshirt) signee is true freshman Jerez Parks (6-4, 256 pounds). The big-framed Parks was rated a four-star prospect in the Class of 2017, and after waiting a semester to enroll, is now on campus in Tuscaloosa and can practice with the team this spring. Parks has tremendous upside, though it may be unreasonable to expect him to break into meaningful playing time this season with so many experienced, talented linebackers ahead of him on the depth chart.
Parks will get a head start on the task, however, as the field will only get more crowded after the Class of ’18 arrives on campus. Bama signed five linebackers in the most recent recruiting class, and four of them project as outside linebackers for Alabama. Among them is five-star phenom Eyabi Anoma (who could play either OLB, ILB, or DE for Bama), four-star Jordan Davis, and four-star Cameron Latu. While Latu and Davis are talented to be sure, of this group Anoma is the most likely to make an early impact. He is a ferocious pass rusher who fits Saban’s Jack linebacker mold, and he is too talented to sit the pine for long. None of those players will be in T’Town this spring though, so Parks will have the early leg-up.
Jack – Anfernee Jennings/ Terrell Lewis, Jamey Mosley, Chris Allen, VanDarius Cowan, Jarez Parks
Sam – Christian Miller/ Terrell Lewis, Jamey Mosley, Ben Davis
With so many departures on the defensive side of the ball, the Tide is fortunate to have a well-rounded, deep personnel grouping at the Jack and Sam positions for 2018. Barring injury, it will represent the class of the defense, and the pass rushing expertise of the outside linebackers will help to mask a developing defensive line that lacks a developed, explosive pass rusher (outside of maybe Raekwon Davis) and a secondary that will break in new starters at every position.
Alabama will depend on the depth of the OLB corps early in the season, and as the rest of the defense progresses, they will become a weapon Saban and defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi can use to disrupt opposing offenses and force running offenses into the heart of the Tide defensive front.