One pattern in the Nick Saban Era of Alabama football is that over that nine-year period there has been the occasional “promotion” of a weakside linebacker (Will) to middle linebacker (Mike). Both are inside linebacker positions in the Crimson Tide’s 3-4 defense of three down linemen, two inside linebackers, and two outside linebackers.
As regular Bama watchers know, Alabama actually is almost never in this 3-4 scheme. The evolution of offensive football to more wide receivers has dictated an Alabama defensive change – frequently dropping a linebacker for a nickel back.
We have been examining the best players at every position under Saban from 2007 to 2015 and completed a look at offensive players. This begins the defensive look at a position that has packed all-stars on top of all-stars – the inside linebackers. Because men like Dont’a Hightower, C.J. Mosley, Reggie Ragland, and now Reuben Foster began as weakside linebackers and then moved to the Mike position – which is ordinarily the play-calling linebacker – we are considering the inside linebackers as a group.
It is a group of stars; some would say superstars.
Rolando McClain was Saban’s first star inside linebacker, starting in 2007-09 and finishing his three-year career as an All-America and winner of the Butkus Award as the nation’s best college linebacker. He ranked fourth in tackles as a freshman in 2007 with 75, and then first in 2008 with 95, and first in the 2009 national championship season with 105. McClain was drafted by Oakland in the first tround, the eighth overall selection.
McClain was followed by Dont’a Hightower, who was the weakside linebacker alongside McClain in 2008, when he was a Freshman All-America and fourth on the team with 64 tackles. That was the plan for 2009, but Hightower suffered a season-ending knee injury and missed all but four games. He came backat middle linebacker in 2010 and was All-SEC and second on the team in tackles with 69. Hightower elected to return for his fourth season in 2011 where he was instrumental in Alabama winning the national championship. He was Bama’s leading tackler with 85 and was All-America. He was drafted in the first round, 25th, by New England.
Nico Johnson was the starter in 2010-11 at weakside linebacker alongside Hightower, and then next to C.J. Mosley for the 2012 national championship season. Johnson had 33 tackles in 2010, added 47 in 2011, and made 55 in 2012. He was drafted in the fourth round by Kansas City.
Trey DePriest was a year behind Johnson and alternated with him for the 2012 season at weakside linebacker. He was second – albeit a distant second to Mosley – in tackles that year with 59, and third in tackles with 55 in 2013. He finished his four-year career with 88 tackles, third on the team, in 2013.
C.J. Mosley became Alabama’s (and Saban’s) second Butkus Award winner in 2013 and was All-America in both 2012 and 2013. Mosley was a backup in 2010 and 2011, but a productive backup with 67 tackles in his freshman year and 37 as a sophomore. He led Bama with 107 in the 2012 national championship season and 108 as a senior in 2013. Mosley was drafted in the first round, 17th overall, by Baltimore
Reggie Ragland succeeded C.J. Mosley as starter in 2014 and, like Mosley, elected to return for his senior season and in the 2015 national championship season was unanimous All-America, Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, two-time Butkus Award semifinalist, and also semifinalist for Lombardi and finalist for Bednarik and Nagurski trophies, all major defensive player awards. He was second in tackles in 2014s with 95 and led Tide in tackles as a senior with 102.
Taking into account all the skills demanded of an inside linebacker, including leadership and play-calling, we would rank C.J. Mosley No. 1 and Reggie Ragland No. 2 as our choices for the two starting inside ’backers on a Nick Saban’s Alabama Fantasy Team, but we wouldn’t quarrel with selections of Rolando McClain and/or Dont’a Hightower.