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SUPERLATIVES: 2021 Alabama Football Report Card: Linebackers — The man in the middle mattered the most

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Controversial, but hear me out: Henry To’oto’o made the Alabama defense a well-oiled machine.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 10 CFP National Championship Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last season, Will Anderson Jr. was the best player in the country. Period. He earned my Heisman vote. He did win the Bronco Nagurski “defensive Heisman,” along with a U-Haul truck worth of awards. Few people have been able to change a game from a defensive spot like Will did, and though some have come close, we haven’t truly seen that kind of one-man dominance since Ndamukong Suh was a wrecking crew with Nebraska a dozen years earlier.

What Anderson did was simply mind-blowing. He averaged over a sack a game, led the nation in total sacks, and had so many other records (including setting a record for combined TFL/Sacks), that it beggars belief. In fact, his pressure rate on quarterbacks was unfathomable: On 81% of his rush attempts, he was credited with a sack, a pressure, a TFL, or a hit. Every down, Will was coming...and 4 out of 5 times, there wasn’t a damn thing you could do about it.

It seems odd then to say that on a linebacking unit that was one of the most ferocious in the country, with the single best player in the country, that the man who made the most difference to Alabama’s 2022 linebacking corps was Vol transfer Henry To’oto’o. When Henry was healthy, it was an entirely different defense than we’ve seen in several years. The man in the middle has been the piece missing from Alabama’s defenses for almost half a decade: a high-intensity player that was outstanding in coverage, understood the defense, could get everyone in position, and one who ultimately made plays.

Henry led the team in total tackles (112) and TPG (7.47). He was 6th in TFL (9), had 3 PBU, defended 7 passes, forced two fumbles, had 12 QB hits, 4 QB pressures, and even picked up 4 sacks from his MLB spot — which is not a position that typically generates much rush.

The result of having a healthy leader in the middle is that alongside Alabama’s stellar defensive line, the Tide fielded a front-seven that was every bit as good as (and in some ways better than) their much-touted rivals in Athens: Alabama led the nation in sacks, with 35.5 of them coming from the linebacker positions.

Alabama surrendered an absurd 2.66 YPC this year, and it wasn’t just production against scrubs. Against teams with winning records? 3.15. In SEC play? 2.95. In the SECCG and Playoffs? 3.76. Even in losses, it was very tough to move the ball on the ground. Alabama surrendered just 4.67 YPC in Georgia II, and before Mathis’s injury, UGA was averaging closer to 3.25 YPC. And bad teams had no shot. Teams at or below .500 average hit just 1.96 YPC.

In fact, only twice did Alabama surrender 4 or more YPC — at Florida, and in the CFPCG. Not even the ground-first Aggies came near 4 YPC in their upset win.

Alabama also led the nation in tackles for loss. with 64 of the Tide’s 121 coming from the starting four linebackers.

If Will Anderson and Dallas Turner and Phil Mathis made the Alabama defense feared, it was Henry To’oto’o and Christian Harris who were the drive train that made it run smoothly.

Which brings us to some other guys who may have gotten lost in Anderson’s brilliance and To’oto’o’s stellar healthy play. Dallas Turner, obviously, deserves a mention. If Will Anderson were not on this team, Dallas Turner would be the one getting all the hype entering 2022. Last year, the true freshman earned PT in all 15 games and rang up 10 TFL (4th on the team), and was third in recorded sacks (8.5). and fourth in QB Hurries.

If Dallas Turner is what happens when youth is realized, then Drew Sanders is the almost man. He almost had a monster season. I’ve never seen someone come so close to generating so many sacks and missing out by about half a second. Still, he was third on the team in QB Hurries, and still managed to pick up 4 sacks of his own. Drew is very close to breaking out, and don’t be surprised if it’s this season either.

Then there’s the seemingly forgotten man, the veteran rock who probably did more on this team to earn a big paycheck in 2021 than anyone not named Jameson Williams: Christian Harris. No. 8 has been put in some bad spots throughout his career, but with a solid group around him, and a true MLB helming the defense, Harris had an outstanding season. He was second on the team in tackles behind Henry, second in TFL behind Anderson, he had 3 PBU, 4 passes defended, and forced 2 fumbles. He was also credited with 7 hits and 4 pressures. And his game against Georgia in the CFP Championship was a masterclass of intensity and versatility.

Even Chris Braswell showed improvement. He got on the field in a dozen contests, picked up a pair of sacks, blocked a kick, broke up two passes, and had 4 TFL. About the only real bummer was Chris Allen once again getting injured in what was supposed to be breakout season for him. But, in the one game he did play, Allen was very good. He had three tackles, forced a fumble, had a sack, and had a TFL. Alongside Jaylen Moody’s AWOL campaign, this was about the only demerit in a season that you would be hard-pressed to find fault with.

All around, it was an outstanding effort: from the superstars to the role players to the young guys...and it all began with the man in the middle.

Final Grade: Banged Up Henry: B+
Final Grade: Healthy Henry: A+

Poll

Grade the 2021 Alabama Linebacking corps

This poll is closed

  • 52%
    A+ — This will be the best unit on the field in 2022 as well.
    (154 votes)
  • 28%
    A/A- — I have impossible standards
    (84 votes)
  • 14%
    Bish — Losing Chris Allen mattered and Drew Sanders needs to break through
    (41 votes)
  • 3%
    C-ish — They missed too many tackles early in the season when Henry was hurt
    (11 votes)
  • 0%
    D/F — I’m an opposing quarterback and Will Anderson haunts my dreams. Stop. The blood, oh god, make the blood stop.
    (2 votes)
292 votes total Vote Now