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Alabama Football Recruiting Class of 2021 Breakdown: Linebackers

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The true lifeblood of any Alabama defense, Nick Saban doubled down on recruiting quality linebackers for the second year in a row

Alabama v LSU Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

In case you’ve missed it, we’ve spent the last few weeks taking an in-depth look at every newcomer for the Alabama offense in the 2021 recruiting class:

QB/RB/TE

Wide Receivers

Offensive Line

Defensive Line

Like I said last week, this series of articles is looking a bit different this year. The onset of Covid-19 last spring left all of the Nike combines cancelled, so we wound up with absolutely no verified testing or SPARQ data. On top of that, most players wound up with shortened senior seasons, so there’s even fewer highlights than normal to look at.

Regardless, we’ll be breaking down all we can about each prospect and trying to project how they’ll fit on the Crimson Tide in years to come.

For the purposes of dividing things up, the edge rushers who technically play mostly on the defensive line will be included in this article, as Saban’s defensive scheme considers them to be outside linebackers.

All ratings are from the 247Sports Composite.

Kendrick Blackshire

A massive rock of a human being, Blackshire made rounds on social media last year with a picture that looks like a professional body builder put on football pads:

Like other high school athletes that came to Alabama with already legendary body stature (Bo Scarbrough immediately comes to mind), Blackshire already missed a year of high school football with an ACL tear (his junior season). At 6’2” 245, he’s shaped more like the inside linebackers we saw in the early days of Saban’s career, and less like the taller, leaner guys we’ve seen the last few years.

Playstyle

Blackshire is a true Mike linebacker who’s at his best making huge tackles around the line of scrimmage and stonewalling run plays. He’s got an enforcer mentality who doesn’t just tackle opponents, but intimidates them into wilting before he arrives. He’s not even a guy that’s out for the big hit, either. He’s actually a very technically sound wrap-up tackler that also just so happens to be built like a brick wall and stops ball-carriers with a bone-jarring abrupt halt.

He’s as good or better than most defensive linemen at shedding blocks, and has a highlight reels-worth of sending offensive linemen sprawling in the second level, either by swimming around them or just blowing them backwards.

When chasing someone down to the sidelines, he’s got a very unexpected and also kind of terrifying closing speed with a long stride.

With someone of his build, though, comes the expected drawback of a lack of short-area quickness and change-of-direction. Can he play in pass coverage against modern offenses? That will be the big question that will differentiate if he becomes an impact starter early in his career, or has to spend a lot of time working on that from the bench.

Scheme Fit

Were this 2010, I’d say that Blackshire would be a shoe-in superstar talent for the Mike linebacker in Alabama’s defense as soon as the position came open.

It’s not, though, and the Alabama middle linebackers have much more versatile roles in terms of switching with the Will and even the Sam backers to do much more flats coverage and disrupting RPOs. While his intimidation factor will definitely work in his favor, I think he’s got some work to do to round out his game and fit all the responsibilities of an Alabama Mike linebacker.

Prediction

It’s highly unlikely we Blackshire on the field this year with so much depth at the position ahead of him already. That said, I think his combination of straight-line speed, sound tackling, and mentality will make him a prime candidate to be a kick-off gunner early in his career.

I think he’ll be in the thick of the competition to replace Christian Harris in 2022, though, but there will be a LOT of competition from the other inside linebackers in this class and the previous one.

Deontae Lawson

Lawson definitely has to get some credit for being the only Tide commitment for over a month back in March of 2020. While the entire fanbase was having a come-apart over the lack of recruits, the Mobile native stuck with his commitment and is the core member of the recruiting class, in my opinion.

He’s a borderline 5-star player by the composite, and is actually a 5-star, top-30 player in the nation by 247s own rankings.

Coming in at under 220 pounds, Lawson is a bit small for an Alabama linebacker, though right in line with many of the Tide’s recruits over the last few years (all of whom quickly add some weight once arriving in Tuscaloosa).

Lawson is already practicing with the team, and is wearing #32. Alabama’s had some good luck with undersized linebackers out of Mobile that have worn that number in the past.

Playstyle

Lawson is a versatile, new-age off-ball linebacker that can play Mike, Will, or Sam, as long as he’s getting to tackle someone. He’s extremely instinctual, seeming to always be in place to make a tackle no matter where a ball carrier goes... and not having to run especially hard to be there. He’s great at slipping through traffic and keeping blockers from ever even locking onto him, and that leads to a lot of tackles for loss.

He displays some of that same spatial awareness in pass coverage as well, though he wasn’t tested there all that much in such a small high school division.

As a tackler, he’s a great wrap-up tackler that’s incorporated some of the “rugby tackle” concepts that the NFL has been trying to go to. He gets low, puts his shoulders in the opponent’s thighs, wraps, and rolls. And he’s comfortable enough doing it that he isn’t just hanging on while dragging someone down, he’s stopping them in their tracks and flinging them backwards.

Scheme Fit

Lawson is not going to be a line-of-scrimmage Jack linebacker for Alabama, but he can absolutely play the Mike or Will from day 1. He’s the kind of tackler with good instincts and pass coverage ability that he can really fit perfectly into pretty much any scheme you want.

Prediction

Like I said with Blackshire, it’s unlikely we see Lawson much this year with so much established depth at inside linebacker. However, there will likely be multiple open roles in 2022, and he’ll be in the mix to win it. I think Lawson winds up being a 2-3 year starter for the Tide.

Ian Jackson

A speedy, versatile defender, Jackson is a hybrid player that some thought might could be either a big safety or an undersized edge rusher, depending on what he wanted to do. Hailing from just down the road in Prattville, he’s another in-state front-seven prospect, which seems to be something Saban prioritized this year.

Jackson is already practicing with the team in Tuscaloosa

Playstyle

Jackson is an interesting linebacker that reminds me a lot of a slightly less explosive version of Christian Harris as a recruit. He’s a phenomenal blitzer that has a nice repertoire of pass rush moves for an off-ball linebacker, and he’s got a knack for getting his hands on slant passes in zone coverage.

He’s got good speed and is a more in his element when chasing ball-carriers to the sideline than he is trying to take on blocks and standing up a running back at the line of scrimmage. He doesn’t quite have the short-area quickness you might expect from a smaller linebacker, but his straight line speed, good anticipation in coverage, and relentless energy make up for it.

Scheme Fit

Man, if Alabama ran an aggressive zone-blitzing scheme out of a 3-3-5, Jackson would be the ideal safety/linebacker hybrid blitzer.

Christian Harris came to Alabama with this same skillset, and he settled in quickly at Will linebacker after adding a little bit of extra good weight, so that’s where I expect Jackson to slot in as well. He may eventually find a role as a packaged dime or nickel player.

Prediction

I can’t see Jackson really getting on the field anywhere except special teams his first few years on campus. By the time he’s an upperclassman, I think he can develop into a specific role player that can blitz or drop into zone coverage against extremely pass heavy teams or late-game situations.

Keanu Koht

Koht is a high-four star edge rusher that unexpectedly flipped his commitment from LSU to Alabama at the very last second in December, upsetting a whole lot of people in Louisiana (this happened very near the same time that JoJo Earle did the same thing, which made it all the more fun).

At only 215 pounds, he’s definitely a bit too lean right off the bat to hold up on the line of scrimmage as a Jack or Sam linebacker, but give him some time with Rhea and Ballou, and he’ll quickly get up to size.

Koht is already practicing with the team.

Playstyle

Koht is a pure edge rusher who has plenty of practice rushing both the left and right side of the line. He’s primarily a speed rusher who can blow by slower offensive tackles immediately at the snap, and then has the balance and body control to slip around behind them and box the blocker out away from the QB before making the sack.

He’s got scary fast closing speed and will evaporate green grass between him the opposing QB in a blink, and he gets quite a few sacks on QB’s that think they can escape out of the pocket before he runs them down.

He played against a lot of teams that made him the unblocked defender on RPOs, so he’s got a lot of experience in having to make a quick decision to take the running back or go after the QB, which is something he’ll see a lot in college.

However, it also means he doesn’t have as much practice having to disengage straight up blocks, and so he hasn’t developed any real pass rush moves other than the speed rush.

Scheme Fit

Koht is absolutely a Jack linebacker in Alabama’s scheme, and that’s where he’ll spend his career. He’s a pass rusher first and a solid edge defender against the run... particularly in backside pursuit.

Prediction

With Will Anderson and Chris Allen holding down the edge rusher spots and Drew Sanders as the primary backup, no new edge rushers are likely to get any real playing time this year. I think Koht will need a couple of seasons to both add size and work on his ability to shed blocks before he’ll really be ready for SEC play.

Dallas Turner

For most teams, the nation’s top edge rusher and #8 overall prospect would be the crowning jewel of their recruiting classes for the last decade. For Alabama, Turner is only the 3rd best signee in his class.

Turner’s father played basketball professionally overseas, and Dallas was a decent basketball prospect in high school in his own right. After some really productive seasons as a pass rusher in Florida, though, he transferred to the powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas as a senior to try and boost his collegiate prep training, and it paid off with a meteoric rise up the rankings as a senior. He racked up 13 sacks in only 9 games, being named defensive player of the year in Florida while getting a state championship and learning from NFL legend Jason Taylor as his position coach.

At 6’4” 245, he’s already got the ideal, prototypical size for an edge rusher in Nick Saban’s defense.

Playstyle

Turner is about as college ready as high school players come, and honestly he looks the part of an NFL edge rusher already. He’s primarily rushed the left tackle from a defensive end spot, though his team did move him around some to blitz from different linebacker spots on occasion.

He’s got a elite blend of both speed and power and can seamlessly switch between the two to beat any blocker. Speed rush and dip under the tackle for a sack? Sure. Bull rush the tackle into the QB? Check. Nasty inside counter that leaves the poor lineman grasping for air? Also check.

On top of that, when playing against the run, he almost looks like a full-size defensive end with how well he can take a block straight on, stonewall them, and then shed to make a tackle.

He’s also comfortable dropping into pass coverage if need be.

Scheme Fit

Turner is a perfect fit for a Sam edge linebacker for Alabama. He’s a great pass rusher, but his ability to control the edge and blow up runs as well as drop into coverage make him a perfect candidate for the versatile nature of the Sam. Of course, he’d also be a great Jack linebacker as well. I’m sure he’ll play whichever spot is open at any given time.

Prediction

I think Turner will solidify himself on the 2nd team at outside linebacker in tandem with Drew Sanders this season while Will Anderson and Chris Allen hold the starting spots. In 2022, he and Sanders will compete for Allen’s vacated spot, and even if he doesn’t get the starting job, he’ll get a lot of rotational time and will absolutely be a starter by the following season.