There’s no doubt that everything the Alabama Crimson Tide defense accomplished in the 2017 season was done despite horribly bad injury luck. Few could muster memories of a season in which a team overcame a rash of injuries to key players, and for the Tide’s most recent incarnation, those injuries struck at the heart of Nick Saban’s strength: the linebacking corps.
Players who never thought they’d see time in the 2017 season were forced into action, and some of them emerged as stars in the process. Though each injury the defense suffered seemed like it could be the straw that broke the back of the proverbial camel, a roster full of four- and five-star reserves provided defensive answers as the Tide trudged through its schedule and into the playoffs.
The injury issue has already begun to rear its head early in fall camp, as the already-sidelined Terrell Lewis may be a scratch for the whole season and redshirt senior veteran Jamey Mosley was dinged with an unspecified shoulder injury last week. However, the outside linebacker position is the only defensive 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.
The Returning Starters
Anfernee Jennings (Rs Jr) – Jack
2017 stats: 41 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles, 2 passes broken up, 4 quarterback hurries
Despite the loss of Terrell Lewis this summer, the Tide should be fine on the edges as redshirt Anfernee Jennings (6-3, 266 pounds) has grown into his role as a starter at OLB (probably at Jack). The dynamic playmaker and pass rush assassin will be a disruptive force in pressure packages and run defense to be sure. Though oft-dinged in 2017, 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.
Jennings missed the spring while rehabbing from an injury suffered last season in the playoffs against Clemson, but expect him to be back in full force for 2018 with a sharp edge and a lot to prove. Quarterbacks beware.
Christian Miller (Rs Sr) – Sam
2017 Stats: 6 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack
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.
The Returning Reserves
Jamey Mosley (Rs Sr) - Sam
2017 stats: 13 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 2 quarterback hurries, 1 pass broken up
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, 239 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.
Mosley is dinged up as previously mentioned, but Saban categorized his injury as “non-surgical,” which would indicate he will not be out for the season but will rather take time to rehab the injury before returning to contact. Alabama will need the veteran to shore up the edges behind the starters, as he is the most experienced OLB outside of the starting pair.
Chris Allen (So) – Jack
2017 Stats: 6 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 forced fumble, 2 quarterback hurries
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 fared 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. He was also explosive in a larger role during the spring, as he recorded two tackles – both of them sacks – in the A-Day Game.
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.
Jarez Parks (Fr) – Jack/ Sam
(No 2017 stats)
Already on campus as a delayed enrollee (grayshirt) signee is true freshman Jarez 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, practiced with the team last 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.
Eyabi Anoma (Fr) - Jack
(No 2017 stats)
Anoma is already forecast to be the next great pass rusher at Alabama, having drawn comparisons to the likes of Derrick Thomas for his speed and disruptiveness on the edge. Though such a comparison could be considered sacrilege at Linebacker U, there’s no doubt that Anoma’s natural skill set is exciting. He is fast, he is powerful, and he has the instincts of a lion chasing its prey on the savanna. His size is ridiculous for a player so young, as he is 6-5 and 245 pounds heading into the blast furnace of the Scott Cochran weight room. He’ll only get stronger and faster from there, and that must be terrifying for opposing offenses.
Anoma may not be a Day 1 starter with so much edge-rushing talent stacked in front of him, but he will be a play-maker, and will likely make a considerable impact in his first season in Tuscaloosa. Though he won’t start immediately, he’ll get more playing time that probably any other Saban-era freshman linebacker since C.J. Mosley.
Cameron Latu (Fr) – Sam
(No 2017 stats)
The other half of Alabama’s freshman pass rushing power duo is Latu, another tall, quick proxy defensive end who will create havoc for lumbering linemen. Latu is 6-5, 246 pounds, and he can move that frame with surprising speed and agility. His first step off the ball is awe-inspiring, and once he learns how to use his upper body against more veteran blockers, he will be an almost unstoppable force from the outside in.
Latu is not as ready for prime-time as fellow freshman Anoma but given the way that Saban likes to rotate in wave upon wave of pass rushers to maintain fresh legs and explosiveness in the second half, there’s reason to believe that Latu will get his shots at opposing quarterbacks as well.
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 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.
Jack – Anfernee Jennings, Chris Allen, Eyabi Anoma, Jarez Parks
Sam – Christian Miller, Jamey Mosley, Jarez Parks, Cameron Latu