Spring Outlook: Plenty of talent at linebacker

Fans worried about how good their team will be next year should probably pay extra attention this spring to the linebackers. Because with three full-time starters back and another part-time starter, the unit should be very good.

It's not that Alabama didn't lose some quality players. Certainly they did. Derrick Pope finished an all-star caliber career and was voted permanent captain for his efforts. Brooks Daniels wasn't on the team last year, having dropped out of school for personal and medical reasons. But since at one time he planned to rejoin the squad this winter, Daniels had been included in previews for next year. Unfortunately for Alabama (hopefully not unfortunately for Brooks), those plans have changed. Daniels has decided to play pro football next year. Two quality walk-ons, Brandon Dean and David Simmons, also finished their eligibility.

On the plus side of that balance sheet, two athletes that took voluntary redshirts last year can be added to the depth chart. Both Demarcus Waldrop and Earnest Nance sat out the 2003 season as true freshmen but will compete this year. And though his redshirt wasn't voluntary, Cornelius Wortham's dislocated elbow is now completely healed. The former starter at strongside linebacker will play as a fifth-year senior.

Waldrop and Nance are unproven, but arguably Bama's available linebackers this spring are more talented than last year.

Freddie Roach (#8)checks out the scoreboard during game action.

The recent shift of Wortham from strongside to the middle makes Bama's list of inside backers very impressive. In all, six athletes are listed as "MLBs" on the spring roster, including three on scholarship:

  • Freddie Roach
  • Cornelius Wortham
  • Earnest Nance
  • Matt Collins
  • King Gladney
  • Chris Jackson

A two-year starter, Roach (6-2, 245) is a steady performer on the inside. He's better against the run than the pass, but when Roach takes the proper angle he's capable of dealing pain to ball carriers. The Killen native is actually big enough that as the saying goes he's probably just "two biscuits away from defensive end," but there is no question that middle linebacker is his natural position. Sharing his spot with Derrick Pope as a freshman, Roach had 63 tackles. Last season he started all 13 games for the Tide and was Bama's fifth-leading tackler with 85.

Entering spring as essentially the co-starter, Cornelius Wortham (6-1, 237) gives Bama a talented one-two punch on the inside. He sat out last season after separating his elbow in fall drills, but Wortham has been a steady performer for his entire career. Coach Shula said one reason Wortham was moved inside was to ensure Bama was tougher against the run. After three seasons Wortham has 165 tackles to his credit.

Earnest Nance (6-2, 203) still needs to add weight, but he's got the height and wide shoulder to handle middle linebacker. He redshirted last season but showed flashes during the several Sunday scrimmages held for athletes that didn't play on Saturdays.

Spring has forever been the time when hope springs eternal in the hearts of walk-ons, and three good ones are listed at middle linebacker, redshirt freshman Matt Collins (6-1, 230), junior King Gladney (6-1, 230) and freshman Chris Jackson (6-1, 230).

Ryans has been excellent his first two seasons. (Barry Fikes photo)

The pre-spring roster lists six athletes at strongside linebacker, but we believe one will work instead on the weakside. Our list:

You never want to over-hype a player, but Ryans (6-2, 225) is clearly the rising star of Alabama's linebacking corps. With continued improvement, he has a chance to be the Tide's next great linebacker. He's smart, strong and relishes contact. Ryans plays the game like a 10-year veteran, displaying a natural feel for the play and which way the offense is headed. Last season he started most of the year at weakside linebacker, but when Pope was injured he easily slid over to the strongside, which is probably his ideal position. But truthfully, Ryans could also excel on the inside. He's that good. As a sophomore the Bessemer native led the Tide with 126 tackles. And his coaches say he can get better still.

We list Juke King (6-0, 220) as the back-up, though Terrence Jones will also get reps at the position. King struggled getting into game condition last year after undergoing off-season knee surgery. He took most of his practice reps last season at middle linebacker, but strongside is his best spot.

Three quality walk-ons will try to catch the coaches' eyes this spring, including sophomore Kyle Bennett (6-2, 218), freshman Kenneth Vandervoort (6-3, 210) and sophomore Allen Long (6-2, 254).

Considered the pass coverage specialists among the linebackers, we list three athletes on the weakside:

Garth should inherit the starting slot on the weakside.

One of the best all-around athletes on the team, Juwan Garth (6-2, 208) played in 12 of Bama's 13 games last year, earning starts against Georgia, Southern Miss and Mississippi. As much as anything, Wortham's move to middle linebacker was to make room for Garth to start on the weakside (after Ryans slid over to strongside). Fast and blessed with good "hops," basically the sky is the limit for Garth. He'll need to add more weight to take on blockers and running backs, but he can be as good as he wants.

Ideally Jones (6-0, 205) would have redshirted last season, but he was needed to provide depth in case of injury. He worked mainly at strongside linebacker in practice, but his size projects better for the weakside. Playing almost exclusively on special teams, Jones participated in all 13 of Bama's games. He finished with 11 tackles.

Demarcus Waldrop (5-11, 200) did sit out last season. At his size he could possibly project at strong safety, but Defensive Coordinator Joe Kines likes him at linebacker.

Given that he led the team in tackles last season, it's not really accurate to describe DeMeco Ryans as a "Rising Star," but that may very well be the case. Look for him to be Bama's next All-SEC player on defense. And if he keeps racking up 120+ tackle seasons, All-America isn't out of the question.

Wortham represented the Tide last year at SEC Media Days.

It would be fair to call Cornelius Wortham Bama's "Comeback Kid." He probably could have played in the last few games last season, but given how that year played out everyone is happy now that he didn't. If all your starters stay reasonably healthy, all a good defense really needs is four excellent linebackers, and Wortham fills that last slot.

"Talk time is over, now prove it" probably applies to both Juwan Garth and Freddie Roach. Both have been highly touted and have played very well at times. But 2003 should be their year to prove they deserve to be considered upper-echelon linebackers in the SEC.

In the "Just Give Me a Chance" category, Terrence Jones, Earnest Nance and Demarcus Waldrop need to use spring practice to prove to the defensive coaches that they can be trusted on Saturdays. Some of the '04 signing class could end up at linebacker, but the Tide didn't recruit any backer-only type athletes. That places the onus squarely on the backs of Jones, Nance and Waldrop. Alabama needs this group to come through and provide minutes.

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