Inside Linebacker Is Tide Strength

The scene is a familiar one. The quarterback looks over the defense and points out the middle linebacker. The middle linebacker is obvious in most defensive schemes, and it's important for the offense to know where he is. Against Alabama, that can be a bit of a problem.

Alabama has two inside linebackers in its base 3-4 scheme, and even when the Crimson Tide is in its more common alignments of a nickel or dime package, the middle linebacker (Mike) and the weakside linebacker (Will) are on the field.

Because of the way Bama moves its defensive personnel, it is difficult to determine who is playing where in some cases. For instance, last season Dont'a Hightower was listed as the middle linebacker. In the game-by-game starters as listed by Alabama, Hightower started 13 games – the first four at middle linebacker and the last nine at weakside linebacker. Meanwhile, Nico Johnson (seven games), Jerrell Harris (three games), and C.J. Mosley (three games) were also listed as starter either at Mike or Will.

This year, Hightower is listed as the middle linebacker. Harris has moved to strongside linebacker and isn't expected to be in the mix inside. Johnson and Mosley are expected to have a heated competition and both can be expected to see plenty of playing time at Will.

One of the feel good stories for Alabama football this year is the return of Hightower to the form that made him one of the nation's top linebackers before suffering a knee injury against Arkansas in 2009. He returned to play last year, but by both his account and that of Coach Nick Saban, Hightower didn't have that burst through most of 2010. When Alabama played Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, Saban said that Hightower looked to be back. In the spring, Hightower continued to get high marks.

Hightower (6-4, 260, junior) is more than just a fine football player. As the middle linebacker, he is expected to be able to call defensive signals and be a leader in practices, games, and off the field. He's trying to fill the shoes of one of the best Tiders ever, 2009 Butkus Award winner Rolando McClain.

As can be seen by the movement of linebackers last season, there can be some interchange, particularly regarding players at the two inside spots. It does seem, though, that Johnson and Mosley will battle at will. Johnson

Johnson (6-3, 245, junior) is, like Hightower, on the Butkus Award pre-season watch list.

Mosley (6-2, 234) finished third in tackles for Bama last year with 67 (behind safety Mark Barron's 75 and Hightower's 69) and earned Freshman All-America. He is best remembered in his first year for two pass interceptions – one returned 35 yards for a touchdown against Florida and the other returned 41 yards for a touchdown against Georgia State.

Tana Patrick (6-3, 236) is a third year sophomore who is considered a very physical player who should factor in at an inside linebacker position.

When Alabama suffered its losses at tailback this summer (owing to transfers and injuries), it was only natural there would be some speculation about possible moves of players from other positions to running back. And it was just as natural that one of the first names mentioned would be Chris Jordan. The 6-3, 240-pound senior was a four-star running back in high school. Jordan was in the linebacker rotation at will early last year before suffering a hamstring injury in the Florida game.

There is some excitement in the Crimson Tide camp after freshman Trey DePriest entered The University for spring drills. DePriest (6-2, 232) was listed as the nation's number one middle linebacker prospect and a five-star player by, and his play in the spring backed up the ranking.

Alabama has a couple of senior walk-on linebackers in DeMarcus DuBose (6-1, 240) and Rowdy Harrell (6-0, 219).

This is one in a series looking at each position for the upcoming Alabama football season.

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