Spotlight turns to Pope

Filling the gap is nothing new for Derrick Pope. With the recent losses in the Tide linebacking corps, suddenly he's become one of the most important players on the team. <br><br>"I can play three positions on the field," Pope said. "I can play middle linebacker, outside linebacker and even strong safety, if needed."

His coaches would probably be a tad concerned about pass coverage, but at 6-0, 226 pounds, Pope would certainly be a monster at strong safety. However, given the recent injury to Cornelius Wortham, right now Pope is much more valuable at strongside linebacker. "We're moving him around some, from inside to the strongside," Tide Head Coach Mike Shula said. "Derrick is the type athlete you can move around. That really helps our depth at linebacker.

"I feel good about Derrick and his ability to play winning football."

Derrick Pope (#6) reaches for the fumble versus Georgia. (Associated Press)

Neither the biggest nor the fastest linebacker on the field, Pope nevertheless plays with an instinctive aggressiveness that keeps him always around the football. Shula commented, "Whenever the offense makes a big play, Derrick always seems to be near the football. That's just the type camp he's had. I feel good about playing him at any linebacker position."

One of the top weight lifters on the squad, Pope has built himself into an SEC linebacker. "That was something that helped me out," he said. "Being able to lift the weight that I can lift helped me be able to move people around. Being as strong as I am for my size helped me out."

Last season Pope shared the middle linebacker spot with Freddie Roach. Together they totaled 128 tackles at the position. This past summer Pope drove himself furiously in his workouts, aiming to make his final season his best. He talked about his goals, "I want to work on getting stronger and faster. I want to focus more on what I have to do. I have a goal to start next year.

"I want to be a starter and to lead the team in tackles."

Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers Coach Joe Kines believes Pope has the talent to achieve that goal. Speaking of Pope's knack for making the big play, Kines said, "We've got to find a way to get him on the football field. He's a ‘sho nuff' football player."

Pope was actually Bama's leading tackler from the middle linebacker position last season.

With Brooks Daniels withdrawn from school and Cornelius Wortham temporarily sidelined with an elbow injury, Alabama needed someone to step up and make plays. Time and time again during fall camp, Pope has been that man.

"Derrick is like a bad check," Kines said with a laugh. "He just keeps bouncing back."

Pope is good friends with both Daniels and Wortham, so their problems are the last way he would have wanted to get his chance. But he knows that both support him in achieving his goals. "This season I plan on being a leader on the team," Pope said. "It would be an honor to be one of the captains. I'm going to focus on leadership all this year. I don't really talk a lot, but I try to show it on the field. I'm the type leader that leads by action.

"Being a leader is just being a good person overall. I'm going to do my best to show leadership."

From the beginning of fall camp, Coach Shula has observed the results. "Derrick plays with a lot of enthusiasm," Shula said. "He's definitely one of our leaders on the squad. The guys look up to him.

"With Derrick, it's not false emotion. It comes from the heart."

After transferring in last season from Garden City Junior College, Pope was Alabama's fifth-leading tackler with 65 stops. He played in every game, earning starts against Vanderbilt, LSU and Hawaii. "Even though I didn't start, I think I did pretty good for my first year," Pope said in looking back. "I think if I had started some more games and played more, then I could have had even more tackles than that. But it's all about a team effort anyway."

Neither the biggest nor the fastest, Pope has built himself into an SEC linebacker.

Even in his part-time role, Pope quickly proved he could make the big play. His stat sheet included five tackles for a loss, one sack, three quarterback pressures, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He also returned an interception 61 yards versus Arkansas.

"Since I wasn't starting, I felt that (making the big play) was something I had to do," Pope said. "I had the thought that once I got in the game, I had to make a big play for me to stay in the game.

"Making those big plays was part of my mindset."

For now Pope is a valued starter. What will happen when Wortham returns is anyone's guess, but Pope just wants a chance.

"I want to come back, have another good year and give back to the fans and to the team," he said. "I'm hoping to make it to the NFL, and I plan on having a big year in 2003."

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