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Alabama Crimson Tide 2021 Fall Football Preview: Inside linebackers

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Nick Saban has his coveted veteran leadership in the middle of the defense.

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The 2019 season was a tough one for the interior of the Alabama defense. Both projected veteran starters at inside linebacker, Josh McMillon and Dylan Moses, suffered season ending knee injuries in the preseason. Unfortunately, there was little in the way of experienced depth on the roster that season, leaving two true freshman to man those critical spots, only one of whom had enrolled early.

It’s clear that Nick Saban is committed to ensuring that something like that never happens again. He’s hoarding linebackers like Phil Fulmer hoards his donuts. Some attrition from this group is inevitable and probably necessary for a healthy 85 man roster, but for the 2021 season, this is where we are.

The Starters

#8 Christian Harris, junior

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Harris is everyone’s favorite breakout candidate this season. After a tough freshman season that saw him battle through despite arriving on campus in the summer, after playing safety at the high school level, and immediately being thrown into the fire at Will, his play rounded into form as the season progressed. As a sophomore in 2020, he brought the hit stick all season and made a beautiful interception against Notre Dame in the semifinals while blanketing the tight end downfield. He was all over the field in the national title game win over Ohio State, calling the defense and making plays. Harris is a legitimate contender for the Butkus Award and could hear his name in the first round of the NFL Draft with a big season.

#10 Henry To’o To’o, junior

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I should technically put Henry on the newcomers list, but it was fairly obvious from the beginning that he was brought in to start. For whatever reason, Henry made the ill-advised decision to go to Knoxville rather than Tuscaloosa back in 2019, but he did start immediately and performed at a high level. He has 22 starts under his belt and, based on Saban’s comments during camp, sounds like the starter at middle linebacker. This will free Harris up to use his athleticism at Will. Like Harris, To’o To’o is a potential first round candidate.

Key Backups

#42 Jaylen Moody, senior

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You have to feel for Moody. He played quite well whenever Moses or Harris were nicked up last season, and seemed to be in line to start before To’o To’o was brought in. Still, he can expect to see some significant reps this season. He is a senior, but like every player was granted an additional year of eligibility. It will be interesting to see if he decides to give it another go in 2022. There seems to be potential here.

#35 Shane Lee, junior

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Lee was forced into duty as the starting MLB in 2019 before taking a back seat last season. He has consistently been running with the second string in camp. Lee is quite stout at 6’0”, 240 lb. but has reportedly slimmed down a bit in hopes of picking up some speed.

#32 Deontae Lawson, freshman

Another guy who should be on the newcomers list, Lawson burst onto the scene in the spring game, making plays all over the field. Ranked as the #7 ILB in the country per the 247sports composite coming out of Mobile Christian in the 2021 class, this early enrollee has a chance to make some noise this season if given the chance.

Reserves

#37 Demouy Kennedy, sophomore

The 6’3”, 220 lb. Kennedy drew comparisons to fellow Theodore product C.J. Mosley coming out of high school. The #3 ILB in the 2020 class has all kinds of athleticism and would likely be in line for a starting job this season just about anywhere else. He will be difficult to keep off the field in 2022, and may well get a few looks this season.

#33 Jackson Bratton, sophomore

Bratton is another highly rated prospect that will likely have a difficult path to playing time this season. Kennedy’s running mate in the 2020 class was the #10 ranked ILB coming out of Muscle Shoals High. He and his family seem to be Alabama lifers, but the path forward is pretty crowded for him.

Newcomers

#36 Ian Jackson

Jackson is a player who generated quite a bit of buzz during his recruitment despite being the lowest rated LB on this list. The 225 lb. freshman out of Prattville was ranked as only the #27 LB in his class, but it was clear that the staff made him a priority. He is likely to take a redshirt this season, but should make some noise down the road.

#40 Kendrick Blackshire

Blackshire made waves on the recruiting trail for his hulking physique that is more befitting for a NFL veteran than a kid out of high school. Down around 13 lbs. to 232 since he’s been working with David Ballou and Dr. Matt Rhea, Blackshire has a great chance to be the next thumper in the middle of the Alabama defense. He, too, is likely looking at a redshirt this season, however. The depth chart is just too crowded.

Synopsis

This group was already going to be deep and talented, and adding To’o To’o sent it over the top. Moody will likely rotate in quite a bit, but for the most part Saban likes to stick with a pair of LBs in the middle. Harris and To’o To’o should be the best duo in the nation this season and will go a long way toward getting this Alabama defense back to the top of the heap.