Bama's knockout artist

Heading into Saturday's game, most pundits will give Auburn the edge at linebacker--and rightfully so. Senior Tigers Dontarrious Thomas and Karlos Dansby are both All-SEC (even All America) quality. <br><br>But thanks to Derrick Pope, Bama's ‘backers will have the proverbial "punchers' chance."

Defensive Coordinator Joe Kines explained. "Derrick is like a heavyweight boxer. He's going to come at you out of left field and take his best shot. And if you don't watch out, he'll knock you out.

"The personality of our defense changes now that he's back."

There were precious few plays for Bama fans to cheer in last Saturday's loss to LSU, but Derrick Pope laid the wood to unsuspecting Bengal Tiger athletes more than once. "I have to do what I can," Pope said. "Because of my size, a lot of people overlook me. When I hit them I have to make them realize who I am."

Derrick Pope (#6) and DeMeco Ryans (#35) tackle the Oklahoma ball carrier. Now recovered from injury, Pope is once again delivering blows for the Bama defense. (Getty Images)

Standing 6-0 tall and weighing only 226 pounds, Pope will be neither the biggest nor the strongest nor the fastest linebacker at Jordan-Hare Stadium. But he may very well be the biggest hitter, setting the tone for Bama's defense.

"Him coming back healthy actually gave us more energy," middle linebacker Freddie Roach explained. "Having him out there, jumping around and having a good time, you don't want to be the weak link. He's going to be excited, DeMeco Ryans stays excited, so when both of them are in there with you, you don't have a choice but to be ready to play."

"I try and bring confidence to the defense," Pope said. "Try to get the players and coaches and fans excited. Make a big hit and try to get everybody up on their feet."

Despite missing all of one game and significant portions of several others, Pope is fourth on the team in tackles with 82, easily within his his personal goal of 100 stops for the year. And Pope leads Bama's linebacking corps in sacks (four) and quarterback hurries.

Now healthy again for the first time since the Arkansas game, Pope has resumed his role as emotional leader of the Tide defense. "He's back fresh, and that's been evident," Head Coach Mike Shula said. "His speed to the football... He plays recklessly and comes up with hits. We're going to need that again this week."

"Derrick's probably the meanest one of the bunch," Roach explained. "I think maybe I'm between him and DeMeco. He brings a lot to the table. I'm just happy he's on my side."

Redshirt freshman Juwan Garth added, "Derrick is very enthusiastic. You can tell at the beginning of practice how that day is going. He tries his best to pick us up, whether it's making a joke or pushing us to get us going. He does what he can to be a leader."

With help from Juwan Garth (#42, left) and Freddie Roach (#8, top), Pope punishes an LSU runner. (Barry Fikes photo)

Away from football, Pope is as calm and polite a young man as you'd want to meet. But on Saturdays in the fall he roams the field looking for contact.

"It's just being aggressive," Pope explained. "That's the game of football. You can't be soft playing this sport. If a guy is bigger than you, you have to give it all you have to beat him. I try to do that every play. Almost all those guys are bigger than me. I have to go hard every play to beat them."

Exemplified by athletes like Juwan Garth and DeMeco Ryans, Alabama has its share of young and physically gifted linebackers. But Pope adds a vital ingredient. Garth commented, "He's the old guy. He's been around for a couple of years, so it means a lot for him to step up like that. We listen to him, if he has something to say. He keeps us going in the right direction. He's a good guy on the field and off the field. You can't ask for more."

Speaking just loudly enough so that Pope, who was standing nearby, would overhear, Roach delivered a friendly jab at his friend. "He's the oldest one and the ugliest one. We've got a lot of linebackers better looking than Pope," Roach said laughing. "No, he's the oldest one. He leads the bunch. Anybody can tell you that by watching practice and how he plays.

"There's no question who's the leader of the linebacking corps."

Pope deflects the praise back. "I look at Freddie and DeMeco as two great linebackers. We still compete every day in practice to try and get ourselves better. I wouldn't say that I'm the leader by myself. I look to them, too."

Shorter than ideal for a linebacker, Pope more than makes up for any deficit with aggressive play and an eagerness to make the big hit.

Coach Shula has said that Pope and Shaud Williams are "the spirit" of this Bama team on defense and offense respectively.

"Derrick provides leadership," Shula said. "He's a vocal guy, but beyond that he comes up with plays. He hustles and pursues to the football all the time. That kind of play is contagious. Other guys see that and catch fire."

With Roach, Garth and Ryans all coming back next year, clearly Bama's linebacking corps will be in good hands. But for now the old guy is the one setting the pace.

"It's just something you have to do," Pope said of making the big hit tackling. "Sometimes the coach puts you in the right place, sometimes it's just natural talent. When it works out that I get a shot, I try and get the job done."

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