Smart Looking For Men At Inside Linebacker

Between the end of the 2014 Alabama football season and the start of Crimson Tide spring football practice which is scheduled for March 13, some important things happened regarding a key Bama position, inside linebacker. Two positions, actually.

Alabama’s regular defense is a 3-4, meaning three defensive linemen and four linebackers. As has often been pointed out, the Tide is almost never in that defense because a nickel back (Star in Bama nomenclature) is used against the popular spread offenses.

But even when the Tide has four linebackers in the game, there are two inside and two outside. The two inside linebackers are weakside, Will, and middle, Mike. Over the years, inside linebackers have said they can play either Will or Mike. (Outside linebackers are strongside, or Sam, and Jack.)

One thing that has happened that is huge for the Crimson Tide defense is that last year’s weakside linebacker and leading returning tackler from last year’s 12-2 Southeastern Conference championship team elected to return. There had been an expectation that Reggie Ragland (6-2, 254) would opt for early entry into the NFL draft. Ragland was All-SEC last year and a finalist for the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker.

In his first year as a starter, Ragland was in on 95 tackles (45 primary stops) with 10 ½ tackles for losses of 27 yards, two sacks, a pass interception, a forced fumble, three fumble recoveries, a quarterback pressure, and three passes broken up. And who can forget that interception against Texas A&M, picking off a high bullet just a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

Another notable activity regarding the position was Kevin Steele leaving Bama as inside linebacker coach to become defensive coordinator at LSU. That was followed by Tide Coach Nick Saban moving Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart to inside linebackers coach from coaching safeties. (Mel Tucker was brought in from the NFL to coach safeties.)

With the return of Ragland, Smart has to find only one new starter. At safety, for the second consecutive year, new starters must be found at strong safety and weak safety.

The one new starter will be replacing Trey DePriest, who completed his three-year starting career at Mike. He played alongside C.J. Mosley for two years and Ragland last year, was the Tide’s third-leading tackler last season (behind safety Landon Collins and Ragland), and earned All-America. DePriest also inherited the play-calling responsibilities from Mosley and that will be a key responsibility for an inside linebacker this year.

The poor performance by the Alabama defense in the Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State notwithstanding, Bama played well enough defensively through most of the season. The Tide alowed only 18.4 points per game (despite giving up 44 to Auburn in the regular season finale and 42 to Ohio State) and allowed only 102.4 rushing yards per game (unfortunately inflated by allowing 281 against the Buckeyes).

This is no time to look back, though. Through the current off-season program and the 15 days of spring practice (ending with the A-Day Game April 18) men must be found to step up at almost every position.

Unfortunately, even with the return of Ragland, the cupboard is somewhat bare at middle linebacker.

Although Bama coaches may have a different view, a reasonable assumption based on 2014 is that top candidates at middle linebacker will be 6-1, 244-pound upcoming junior Reuben Foster, and 6-0, 233-pound sophomore Shaun Dion Hamilton. Other than Ragland, the only men listed at weakside linebacker are redshirt freshman Keith Holcombe (6-3, 213) and sophomore Walker Jones (6-2, 234).

Foster was listed as the top back-up at both middle and weakside for the Sugar Bowl. Known for his dramatic hits, particularly on kickoff coverage, he started the West Virginia game when DePriest was suspended and he played in all but the Tennessee game, primarily on special teams. He was in on 22 tackles, 11 as the primary tackler. He had two tackles for loss and a sack.

Hamilton, who also played primarily on special teams, was in on three tackles. Jones had very limited playing time.

There is also the chance that Bama coaches will look at some men who have been playing on the outside, such as senior Dillon Lee (6-4, 243).

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