Stuart McNair

Courtney Upshaw heads list of Alabama’s outside linebackers under Nick Saban

Some outside linebackers end up moving to inside spots

Coach Nick Saban has prepared for the new offenses by looking for edge rushers that he called “quick twitch guys,” players who were quicker than some of the outside linebackers in the early years of the Nick Saban Era at Alabama.

That doesn’t mean Bama outside linebackers are small men. The projected strongside linebacker for the Crimson Tide in 2016 is Ryan Anderson, who is 6-2, 253, and the likely Jack linebacker is Tim Williams, 6-4, 237.

As previously discussed in our series looking at the top players at every position at Alabama in Saban’s nine years, the Tide nominally is a 3-4 defense, three down linemen and four linebackers. The outside linebackers are strongside (Sam) and Jack. There are several cases of players starting careers at outside linebacker spots, and then moving inside, but our consideration is for men who concluded at outside.

The year before Saban arrived, Alabama’s outside linebackers were very productive, Juwan Simpson with 86 tackles, Terrence Jones with 57, but both were seniors and gone before Saban arrived. The first outside linebackers in the Saban Era in 2007 were Ezekial Knight and Keith Saunders.

The outside linebackers under Saban have been solid, and one – Courtney Upshaw, who was first team All-America as a senior in the 2011 national championship season – stands out. Upshaw, who was a second round draft choice by Baltimore, made a memorable fumble recovery that was caused by another outside linebacker in the Rose Bowl victory over Texas for the 2009 national championship.

Alabama had a 24-21 lead over Texas with just over three minutes to play when Eryk Anders hit Longhorns quarterback Garrett Gilbert, causing a fumble that was recovered by Upshaw. The Tide went on to get another turnover and two late touchdowns in the 37-21 victory in Pasadena.

Upshaw had 52 tackles, 15 for lost yardage, with 7 sacks and 2 passes broken up as a junior, and 51 tackles, 17 for loss, and 9 sacks as a senior as he ended his career with 7 tackles in the shutout win over LSU in the Sugar Bowl for the 2011 national championship.

Xzavier Dickson is our choice as the No. 2 outside linebacker for Alabama in the Saban Era. He was a starter in 2012 as a sophomore, missed much of his junior year with injury, and then came back with a fine senior season. He had 33 tackles with 5 for loss and 4 sacks as a sophomore in the 2012 national championship season, and added 42 tackles, 13 for loss, with an impressive 9 sacks in his senior season. He was drafted in the seventh round by New England.

Here’s how we rank them behind Upshaw and Dickson:

Denzel Devall and Dickson overlapped a few years and it was a close call between second and third in this exercise. Devall was a regular in 2013-15 and was a Freshman All-America in the 2012 national championship season, and then ended his career as a member of the 2015 national champions. He had 30 tackles, 5 for loss and 3 sacks, as a sophomore; missed six games as a junior; and came back last year with 25 tackles, 5 for loss, 6 quarterback pressures, 4 passes broken up, and 2 forced fumbles.

Anders started only that 2009 national championship season, and is remembered almost exclusively for his caused fumble in the Rose Bowl, but he was very solid in 2009 with 66 tackles, 15 for loss, 6 sacks, and 2 passes broken up.

Ezekial Knight performed well in his only year under Saban in 2007, turning in 64 tackles with 11 for loss, 3 sacks, and 3 passes broken up.

Baseball Hall of Famer and later Alabama Baseball Coach Joe Sewell used to talk about players that he’d like to “buy for what they’re worth and sell for what they think they’re worth.” Adrian Hubbard may be the example Saban frequently cites as a player who might have benefitted greatly from another year of college football, and thus have been drafted high enough to make a good living in the NFL. Instead, Hubbard thought he was ready for the NFL, jumped early, failed to get drafted, and spent last year on the practice squad at Green Bay. He started at Bama in both 2012 and 2013, turning in 41 tackles, 11 for loss, and 7 sacks as a sophomore; and 33 tackles, 6 for loss, 3 sacks, and 3 passes broken up as a junior.

Cory Reamer, a Bama starter in 2008 and in the first Saban national championship season, 2009, turned in 50 tackles in his senior season, 7 for loss and 2 sacks.

Dillon Lee started only one season, but it was the national championship 2015 year. He had been a backup for three years with 41 total tackles, and then as a senior had 27 tackles and 2 interceptions, including a memorable teammate-pleaser that set off a celebration in the last minute of the Cotton Bowl, Bama’s 38-0 win over Michigan State to earn a trip to the national championship game.

Jerrell Harris, a starter in the 2011 national championship season, had perhaps his best game in the Sugar Bowl against LSU for the title. LSU tried an option attack against Alabama, and Harris (along with Upshaw) shut down the outside with seven tackles in Bama’s 21-0 win. He was in on 24 tackles as a junior, and as a senior had 29, including 4 for loss. He was not drafted, but played for Atlanta and Denver in the NFL.

Chavis Williams, the 2010 starter, was a backup for three years in an injury-plagued career that saw him record 17 tackles. He had a brief NFL career with Baltimore.

Brandon Fanney was one of the starters in 2008 and turned in 66 tackles, including 9 for loss.

Keith Saunders, who manned one outside spot in Saban’s first season of 2007, had 33 tackles.


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