There’s no doubt that the University of Alabama can be considered Linebacker U, and that reputation predates the stellar run of linebacking talent that Nick Saban has featured in his time in Tuscaloosa. Of all the positions on 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 good news is that half of the Tide’s linebacker equation is well-stocked heading into the 2018 season, as Alabama is ripe with talented veteran outside linebackers to man the Jack and Sam roles. The bad news is that following the most recent 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 led by Bama’s now-departed elder statesmen. But when it comes to their play on the field, Alabama will be well-situated to see little drop-off thanks to the availability of 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.
Mack Wilson (Junior) – Will
2017 stats: 40 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 4 interceptions, 2 passes defended
One would be hard pressed to find a more perfect representation of what Saban seeks in an inside linebacker than Mack Wilson (6-2, 239 pounds). He can do everything. He’s explosive, he hits like a savage, he’s intelligent, and he has the closing speed of an elite safety. He has great bend, effective aggressiveness, pass rushing ability, incredible coverage ability, and a nose for the football. The only remaining component of the typical Alabama linebacker profile that must be developed is his on-field leadership role, a characteristic that can only come with experience. Fortunately for Wilson, 2018 will be the year he will get a starting role and can stake his claim to becoming a member of an elite group of former Tide ‘backers.
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 amongst 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. He had a great spring and emerged as a leader in the heart of the defense, recording seven tackles and two passes broken up in the A-Day Game. Wilson is a definite shoe-in at Will (though there could be some juggling of those specific roles situationally).
Dylan Moses (Sophomore) – Mike
2017 stats: 30 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble
Moses (6-3, 233 pounds) saw time as a true freshman due to the injuries in 2017, and he immediately proved why he is forecast to win a starting role at Mike in 2018. 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.
Moses, like Wilson, does everything that the Tide defense asks of its interior linebackers, and he does all of those things at a high level. He has insane athleticism (both he and Wilson have been clocked running sub-4.6 in the 40), excellent instincts, aggressiveness inside, and fantastic pursuit to the sidelines. The amazing thing is that Moses displayed all those traits in only a handful of starts last year after injuries shredded the roster in front of him. He wasn’t even supposed to be on the field as a starter, and yet, he rose to the occasion and performed like an elite veteran. He will only get better as an established starter, and in Moses and Wilson, the Tide could have the two best inside linebackers in the nation.
Josh McMillon (Redshirt Junior) – Will
2017 stats: 5 tackles
Another long-time reserve player who will be needed to round out the roster is redshirt junior Josh 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. Alabama has two phenomenal linebackers in the inside, but as 2017 proved, it will take more than that for the Tide to run the gamut of a physical season of play. McMillon is one of the players who will be counted upon to step up and contribute.
Markail Benton (Redshirt Freshman) – Mike
2018 A-Day stats: 6 tackles, 1 quarterback hurry
Another player that the Alabama defense will need to emerge into a bigger role is redshirt freshman Markail Benton (6-3, 231 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. That said, he showed out in the A-Day Game last spring, putting up respectable numbers and showing some ability to be disruptive to opposing offenses. He was a high school star with a great first step and solid lateral speed, and after a year of learning the system off the field as a redshirt, 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.
Ben Davis (Redshirt Sophomore) – Mike/ Will
(No 2017 stats)
The puzzling case of Ben Davis continues, as after another spring and fall camp, the once highly-touted five-star prospect still hasn’t generated much buzz nor won considerable playing time. Davis was considered a prospect on par with Wilson coming out of high school, and he possesses the physical measurables of the prototypical Bama linebacker. He’s juggled positions from inside out, and yet he still hasn’t emerged as a clear fit for either role. Despite this, Davis continues to have the raw ability to be a steady contributor for the Tide defense, especially as the unit finds itself in need of depth in the interior of its linebacking corps. If Davis is ever going to emerge, now would be an optimal time for him to do so.
Jaylen Moody (Freshman) – Will/ Mike
(No 2017 stats)
The Tide has high hopes for three-star LB Jaylen Moody (6-2, 227 pounds). While Moody is a likely redshirt, if Bama is once again bitten by the injury bug, Moody may be pressed into action. Moody was on campus through the spring, and his potential has been mentioned by Saban more than once. With a head-start on the other members of his signing class, Moody may get a chance to garner a little early playing time on a roster that is shockingly thin in terms of depth at the position.
Ale Kaho (Freshman) – Will/ Mike
(No 2017 stats)
A late surprise who only joined the Tide in Tuscaloosa in the last two weeks, the former five-star rated Kaho (6-1, 218 pounds) ‘backer originally signed with Washington. However, according to Saban, some academic policies at UW prevented Kaho from enrolling, even though he was academically eligible to attend most other universities. He never enrolled in classes at UW, and as a result, after gaining a release from his National Letter of Intent, he was free to transfer to Alabama and play immediately.
Kaho is an intriguing prospect because of his potential as a hybrid interior linebacker/ safety. He has size similar to that of former Tide safety Mark Barron, but he has the power and instincts of a middle linebacker. It will be interesting to see where he fits in as Saban continues to flex his defense to meet the needs of changing up-tempo offenses and the proliferation of RPOs. But if the young ‘backer is everything he’s expected to be, it will be hard to keep him off the field early.
Alabama’s top two inside linebackers could prove to be the 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.
Will – Mack Wilson, Josh McMillon, Markail Benton, Ale Kaho
Mike – Dylan Moses, Markail Benton, Ben Davis, Jaylen Moody