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Alabama A-Day What to Watch: Inside Linebackers vs. Running Backs

Some newer faces meet a familiar scheme

<p zoompage-fontsize="15">NCAA Football: Alabama at Vanderbilt

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” - Winston Churchill.

For the better part of a decade, what Alabama’s inside linebacker corps has given opponents is pain and frustration and negative plays in spades. And they live for it.

At the heart of Alabama’s 3-4 scheme lies the inside linebackers. Perhaps no position is as critical on that side of the ball as the monsters in the middle. To place the opponents in sure-passing situations requires shutting down the run; to shut down the run requires the inside linebackers to read the play in front of them, to be speedy enough to pursue the ball from the inside-out, to be physical enough to take on blockers, and then be a sure tackler to clean up the play.

It is no coincidence that Nick Saban has put every starting inside linebacker in the NFL; nor is it mere chance that some of the Tide’s most iconic recent defenders have held down the middle (nor that they are some of the most decorated players either): Demeco Ryans, C.J. Mosely, Rashaan Evans, Reuben Foster, Reggie Ragland, Dont’a Hightower, Rolando McClain — just in the past 11 years.

That pipeline shows no signs of drying up in 2018. Junior Mack Wilson, a seasoned hard-hitter will be asked to assume a full-time job this year — to do do more, including leading the front seven and dropping into the middle on pass coverage. Joining Mack will be the understudy, if you can call him that, reserve Sophomore Dylan Moses. The natural progression has led him to a chance to take the other inside starting spot, though you can expect a few hiccups along the way as he matures. Is he ready? Physically, certianly so. His recognition will get there with reps.

This A-Day, the new-look inside linebackers draw the unenviable task of containing the best running back tandem in the nation: Senior Damien Harris has the opportunity to leave as Alabama’s all-time leading rusher, despite sharing the field with as many as three other backs throughout his career. Najee Harris’ role will increase this year, with the departure of Bo Scarbrough — and he is a man that needs no introduction. Likewise, his sophomore counterpart is another beast to contain out of the backfield. By the end of the season, Hillcrest’s Brian Robinson seemed to be putting it all together. He’s had a great spring too. If his improvement is as demonstrable as was that of Damien Harris, it will be hard to keep him off the field. Then, there’s the utility back that is perhaps the most punishing of all: Junior Josh Jacobs spent much of last year hindered by a lingering hamstring injury. But, if he is healthy, his combination of power, footwork and excellent contributions in the passing game, can be game-changers.

All four backs will be looking to prove that they deserve the ball the most. The first part of their competition culminates Saturday afternoon. But they have to get by some of the best in the business first — watch this matchup.