Alabama’s base defense (in theory, at least) is the 3-4, meaning three linemen and four linebackers. From last year’s national championship Crimson Tide team, here is what isn’t seen in spring practice:
Starting defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen.
Starting linebackers Reggie Ragland, Dillon Lee, Denzel Devall.
Allen is still at Alabama and taking a limited part in Crimson Tide practices, but not participating fully owing to recovery from surgery to repair a shoulder injured last season.
Therefore, six out of the front seven who started most games last year are not a part of Bama spring practice. Alabama Coach Nick Saban has made note of the process that includes “losing 25 per cent of your team every year” to graduation, early entry to the NFL draft, etc.
So now Saban and his defensive coaches aren’t rebuilding 25 per cent of that front seven in the spring. They have something less than 15 per cent starters returning. Make that “starter,” singular.
That 15 per cent is inside linebacker Reuben Foster, a 6-1, 240-pound upcoming senior. Last year he played weakside linebacker alongside middle linebacker Ragland, who was the captain and the signal-caller for the Crimson Tide defense. Many expect Foster to fill that role this season.
The physical part is not in question. Last year, his first as a starter after having had problems with injuries his first two seasons, Foster finished second to Ragland in tackles with 48 primary stops and 25 assists. He made eight tackles for lost yardage and had two sacks. He also broke up nine passes (second on the team) and had three quarterback pressures.
That should not be a surprise. Foster first gained the attention of college recruiters when he was at Troup County High School in Georgia as a sophomore and junior. He transferred to Auburn High as a prep senior and considered signing with Bama’s cross-state rival, Auburn, before choosing the Tide. Scout.com ranked him a five-star player, the number two prospect in the nation regardless of position.
He made his first impressions at Alabama as a member of special teams, and moved up to back-up at inside linebacker prior to last season. In his first couple of seasons he missed playing time with “stinger” injuries, problems in his neck and shoulder injuries that he attributed to poor tackling technique. No problems last year: “Practicing on tackling,” he explained.
Saban said, “"Reuben played very well for us last year. I don't think we have any players that are good players who can't make improvement. Michael Jordan and Seth Curry are probably two of the most dominant players in basketball and any time you watch a video about either one of these guys, all they talk about is what they have to do to get better.
“That's the expectation we have for any player on our team regardless of what they've done in the past or how good they've been. We don't have anybody in the room who's as good as Seth Curry or Michael Jordan, so I think everybody has a lot of room to improve so that's what we tell players. That's knowledge of the position, that's consistency in performance, it's better tackling, it's better pass coverage, becoming a better blitzer. We can go on and on and on and I think every player can improve.
“Reuben played a lot of good football for us last year but I think he'll be the first one to tell you that there are things he can improve on and certainly we're going to focus on every one of those things this spring."
Ryan Anderson, a fellow linebacker, sees Foster as a leader of the defense. “Reuben has been a leader in his own way since he’s been here,” Anderson said. “He just hasn’t had to do certain stuff. He’s been a behind-the-scenes guy. But he’s Reuben. He’s a leader. Everybody respects him. When he says something, everybody listens. It shouldn’t be that much of a drop off. It will be good.”
Foster said that he is part of the leadership that will be needed for 2016 Bama. “Everybody has a leadership role on the team, so it’s been great,” he said. “[Young players] are leaning on me and the whole leadership group of the team. They are doing well.”
Many expected Foster to make an early jump to the NFL after his one year as an Alabama starter. He does not discuss that decision. He does point out that he “progressed a lot by being around great linebackers like C.J. (Mosley), Trey (DePriest), and Reggie Ragland. [I learned] to always work hard and show the young guys to never give up.”
So is this his time?
“It’s all of our time,” he said. “At Bama we do things as a team."