Thus far, we’ve broken down all of Alabama’s new football players at the offensive line, defensive line, receiver, and tight end positions. To keep with the trend of alternating offense and defense while working our way further away from the line of scrimmage, today will consist of the massive, elite class of linebackers that Nick Saban signed this year.
Here’s my usual set of rules for my methodology on these Meet the New Guys pieces:
Over the years, I’ve used SPARQ as a metric for quantifying athleticism and normalizing just how athletic someone is relative to his position. If you want a more in depth explanation, click the link below:
If not, the TL;DR version is this: Bigger, faster, and stronger = higher score.
Unfortunately, this specific class of Alabama recruits were not as active in Nike’s camps as many other classes in the past, so less than half of the recruits actually have SPARQ scores this year. I do, however, have a huge database of previous recruits with scores, so for some players that took an incomplete set of tests, I can actually get a pretty decent estimate just based on previous athletic comps. But I’ll always denote which tests are verified and which are “fill-in-the-blanks”
Finally, for all rankings, I will use the 247Sports Composite, which takes into account the 247, Rivals, and ESPN player rankings. Each of the three differ slightly, so for solidarity, I stick with the composite every year.
Alabama signed six players who are “linebacker types” in the 2020 recruiting class. They make up four of the Tide’s top five recruits in this class, and all but one of them are ranked in the top 65 players in the nation.
Basically, Saban saw what happened with linebacker injuries the past three years and said “no more.”
A back-to-back class 6A first team linebacker for the state of Alabama in 2018 and 2019, Jackson Bratton racked up a ridiculous 281 tackles in only two seasons as a true middle linebacker. He has already enrolled at Alabama and has been practicing with the team since January.
His athletic test numbers are a bit dubious. The 4.6 forty and 4.1 shuttle are both tremendous numbers for a 235-pound linebacker, but they were self-reported and not verified. And then I used athletic comps to guess what his vertical, powerball, and SPARQ would be. If those numbers actually hold up, they he’s closing in on being a full two standard deviations above the average linebacker.
Bratton is an all-around, prototypical Will linebacker. His best attribute is his quickness to chase down ball-carriers on outside runs, screens, and scrambles (a breath of fresh air after the Tide struggled so much with that this past year). He’s comfortable navigating around blockers, receivers, and other carnage to nimbly slip through and make tackles before the offensive player gets around the edge of the defense.
That same quick first step serves him really well when blitzing up the middle, and he’s often able to jump snaps and make a quick sack just by surprising the offensive lineman. When he does get blocked, he does a good job of using that same speed in tandem with a low center of gravity to hit the blocker with a jolt of energy and knock them backwards.
As of now, I think he’s solely a Will linebacker, as I’m not sure he has the size/strength yet to hold up as a true Mike linebacker, and he’ll likely have to learn how to occupy blockers and shore up holes against a straight forward run game.
That said, teams that run the ball up the middle are becoming less and less prevalent, and his sideline-to-sideline chasing ability is perfect against the many horizontal spread offenses he’ll face in the SEC.
I think Bratton is an immediate contributor on special teams on day one. He’s too energetic of a chase-and-tackle guy to not be on kick coverage. And I think he’ll absolutely be a full-time starting middle linebacker by his 3rd year.
Demouy Kennedy is a player that was a middling to low four star guy up until last summer, when he made some major impressions at camps and began shooting up the boards. Then he had an utterly dominant senior season to become the top player in the state of Alabama and earn a 5th star on Rivals’ site. He won class 7A lineman of the year and was on the first team All 7A defense in 2018 and 2019.
The 4.52 forty yard dash isn’t verified, but it is a number he was reported to run at Alabama’s summer camp last year, and had similar reports from a camp at Auburn. And, watching him play, I believe it’s accurate.
Like Bratton, Kennedy is already enrolled at Alabama.
I’ve made it no secret over the past few months that I though Kennedy was the most important signing for Alabama this year. The Tide sorely needs someone at linebacker with that combination of aggressive mentality and explosive ability that can truly intimidate an opposing offense and bring more energy to his own defense.
Kennedy is a mash-up of the versatility and body-type of Rashaan Evans with the missile-imitating tackling force of Reuben Foster.
He can play pretty much any linebacker position, but I think he’ll be best in the same role as Evans played throughout his career— mostly a blitzer and occasional edge rusher early on, but evolving into a true Mike linebacker that becomes the heart of the defense.
Kennedy really plays at a different speed than everyone else on the field, and he was playing 7A high school ball in Mobile, AL, so it’s not like he was playing against a bunch of small school chumps. His highlights are full of him blowing up blockers, blowing up ball-carriers, and chasing people down from behind on the opposite side of the field.
He’s comfortable lining up out as a slot cornerback if needed, and made plenty of plays in pass coverage, so he really will be able to play in pretty much any situation.
The biggest issue for him will be to slow down a little at times with his tackling. He’s got a tendency to aim and launch, and that leads to ball-carriers sometimes being able to cut back inside on him. In high school, he made a lot of those tackles with one hand anyway, but will be much more difficult in college.
Despite the depth returning, I think Kennedy quickly becomes a top back-up in multiple linebacker positions as a true freshman, and may even carve out time as a rotational role player. Like Bratton, I think he’s got too much speed and energy to not play on special teams from day one.
And then I will boldly predict he’s ready to take over as a starting inside linebacker in 2021 after Dylan Moses moves on.
Quandarrius Robinson used to be the top player in the state of Alabama until Kennedy leapfrogged him, and Robinson slid from a 5-star player last summer to a high 4-star over the course of his senior season.
He’s a tall, lengthy player with phenomenal explosive athleticism. His forty yard dash and shuttle are both excellent numbers for a linebacker, but the 38 inch vertical is much better than most wide receivers in the NFL draft. His powerball toss number was a bit low, but he actually self-reported a 42ft toss (not verified). If that is accurate, it would bump his SPARQ up to a 118 and the 97th percentile, which would be the most athletic player in Alabaam’s recruiting class.
Robinson is an interesting player who spent time at safety early on in high school before moving to defensive end his final two seasons. He’s still less than 220 pounds, but actually played a 5T defensive end for a 3-4 defense for his high school (which is a position where you typically see 270-300 pound players).
As such, he’s still a bit of an unknown and a high upside project as a collegiate player. Alabama might see him as a Jack linebacker and nearly full-time pass rusher, or they might look at his experience at playing safety and think he could make for an explosive pass-coverage guy who can blitz.
He’s actually already shown a good understanding of being able to take on blockers at the edge and shutting down runs. He’s got the power to be able to hold his ground against an offensive lineman, and still has the speed to disengage and chase down a guy with the ball. As such, I would guess that Alabama would be looking to groom to be a versatile Sam linebacker who can contain outside runs as well as drop into pass coverage or pass rush.
I don’t think we see a whole lot of Robinson in his first couple of years. If he sticks around, I can definitely see him bulking up and carving out a role as a rotational 4th linebacker on base downs, similar to the role that Denzell Devall played a few years ago.
Listed as the nations #1 overall athlete, Drew Sanders has been a five star, top 25 player for a couple of years now. He was originally an Oklahoma commit, but flipped to Alabama back in April last year.
His forty, shuttle, and vertical are all very good to great numbers for a linebacker of his size, but his powerball toss drug down his SPARQ score a little. But, hey, a little perspective. He’s still an 86th percentile athlete compared to all linebackers across college football. He also has a blistering 10.9s 100 meter dash that indicates tremendous long speed.
Sanders did self-report some testing numbers that would make him an utterly ridiculous athlete. 4.48 forty, 4.12 shuttle, and a 46 powerball. If those numbers are accurate, he’d have 127 SPARQ, a 99th percentile athlete, and be a close athletic comp to Dylan Moses in terms of sheer athleticism. Those aren’t verified, though, so we’ll stick to the numbers that are.
In 2018, he played more off-ball linebacker and had 119 tackles. Then he moved to a pass-rushing role as a senior and his tackle numbers dropped, but he got 11 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. At the same time, he rushed for 357 yards and 11 touchdowns while also notching 734 receiving yards and 12 more touchdowns his senior year. Oh, and he threw 5 touchdown passes.
Sanders is already enrolled at Alabama and is listed as a linebacker on the roster.
Sanders is obviously a versatile player that can play pretty much any linebacker position. He’s a tremendous edge rusher who has a very nice repertoire of moves and techniques (spins, swims, counters) to beat blockers, as well as the speed and athleticism/balance to just be able to go around the edge and duck under the blocker’s arms for a sack.
He’s a powerful tackler, and in the run game, he does a great job of using his long arms to keep blockers away from him and then shed to make a stop.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk a little about his ability on offense. As a receiver, he’s a terrific deep threat due to his height and long speed, and teams that try to cover him like a tight end wind up being being beat deep. On top of that, he’s dangerous carrying the ball. He’s surprisingly nimble and can easily juke someone expecting such a big guy to only run in a straight line.
With Alabama graduating both starters at outside linebacker, Sanders will right in the thick of things to straight up win a starting job as a freshman. The next two guys I talk about on this list will be in the same position. Of the three, I think Sanders is the most likely to be able to beat out some older players from the start.
That said, I don’t think Saban will be too keen on throwing another true freshman into that kind of spot for another year in a row. So I think that we see him a little bit early on in some blowouts, and he winds up being a rotational rusher by the end of the season.
On top of that, I also wouldn’t be surprised if we see him make some cameos on offense in the future.
A top 200 recruit for much of his career, Anderson started getting some attention when he put together a 22-sack senior season and then utterly dominated in the practices and All-Star game in December to become the nation’s top pass-rusher prospect, 5-star, #17 overall player.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any athletic test numbers posted for him anywhere on the internet.
Anderson is already enrolled at Alabama
Anderson had one of the most dominant single seasons as an edge rusher I’ve ever watched for a high school recruit. His speed off the snap was utterly unblockable for high school linemen, and he spent a whole lot of time in the backfield within a second of the ball being snapped without ever being touched.
That said, he’s also really a one-speed, one-direction kind of player. He goes straight at the QB as soon as the ball snaps. If an O-lineman doesn’t get in the way fast enough, he’s already getting the sack. If they do manage to get there in time, then he hits that blocker with the full force of his explosive jump. Past that, though, he’s never really needed to use counters or swims to beat his blockers, and he doesn’t have a whole lot of experience actually taking on a blocker and disengaging to make tackles.
I think he’ll need a year to get acclimated to college linemen not being totally useless against his speed rushes. Then he’ll probably be solely a 3rd down pass rush specialist for a year or two before having a chance to become a full time starter as an upperclassman.
Yet another St. Frances player in the Baltimore-Tuscaloosa recruiting pipeline, Braswell was considered the top edge rusher in the 2020 recruiting class for over two years... until he was passed up by William Anderson at the last minute. He’s still a top-20 player and a 5-star recruit, though. He had a very quiet recruitment and was one of Alabama’s longest tenured commits without ever really making any headlines for anything until he enrolled in Tuscaloosa in January.
Unfortunately, he, like Anderson, didn’t post any testing numbers anywhere.
Similar to Anderson, Braswell was solely used as an edge rusher. He doesn’t quite have that same cartoon speed though, and as such had to work on getting sacks in other ways. His most effective move was to start a speed rush, get the offensive tackle backpedaling, and then using his long arms to shove the lineman back and cut inside across his face to make the sack.
And he did that A LOT.
That same skill also translates somewhat to being able to two gap and shed blocks in the run game, but his light 220 pounds limits his effectiveness as an every down defensive end who can hold up against the run game.
Ultimately, he’s a lot like Anderson in that he’s going to be limited to just being an edge rush specialist early on. He’s not quite as fast, but does have a little more refinement in his ability to disengage from blocks.
I think Braswell’s possible career looks pretty much the same as Anderson. The two will be competing directly for playing time as a 3rd down pass rush specialist over the next couple of years. I think Anderson will be the one most likely to win that competition, too.
Braswell will have some time as a back-up, but I think he’ll have a long road ahead of him to unseat Anderson and Sanders for a starting role a few years down the road. If he doesn’t transfer out, then he could wind up being a senior Jack linebacker that takes over after one of the other two leave for the pros early.