Alabama returns two linebacker starters from 2003 in outside man DeMeco Ryans and middle 'backer Freddie Roach, as well as 2001-02 starter Cornelius Wortham, formerly a strongside linebacker but now challenging Roach for the starting job in the middle. The loss of Derrick Pope at strongside linebacker is not insignificant, but Ryans will slide into that spot and one of Bama's best athletes, Juwan Garth, will move up into the first team job at weakside linebacker.
Generally speaking, the strongside linebacker lines up on the tight end side and has primary responsibility for stopping the run, but might also be called on to cover the tight end or a back in passing situations. The weakside linebacker also has primary responsibility for run coverage, but can drop back into the secondary. The middle linebacker is the team's tough guy against the run and in Alabama's pressing scheme has a chance to be the leading tackler.
It is hard to imagine a more solid performer than DeMeco Ryans. As the weakside linebacker last year, Ryans turned in a team-high 126 tackles, second only to the Alabama record 134 by Woodrow Lowe in 1973. (For those wondering about Lee Roy Jordan and a host of other great Crimson Tide tacklers, most schools, including Alabama, did not begin keeping defensive statistics until the early 1970s.) He had a school record 25 tackles against Arkansas, one of five double-figure tackle games. And the 6-2, 225-pound junior was Academic All-SEC with his 3.5 grade point average in management. Ryans was also a regular as a true freshman in 2002.
Backing Ryans at strongside linebacker going into fall camp is Terrence Jones (6-0, 205), who saw playing time as a true freshman last year. Because he was on special teams, Jones was the only true freshman to play in all 13 Tide games in 2003. Juke King (6-0, 220), who came to Alabama as a strong safety candidate in 2001, will work at strongside linebacker this year. He had some playing time at fullback as a redshirt freshman in 2002, then was a back-up linebacker last year.
No one questions the ability of Juwan Garth, who moves up to first team at weakside linebacker for his sophomore season. Throughout his true freshman year in 2002, then-Coach Dennis Franchione had to resist the temptation to play Garth, who was outstanding on the Alabama scout team. Last year Garth saw action in 12 games (missing the Mississippi State contest with an injury) and had three starts in games Bama opened with an extra linebacker. He was the Tide's seventh-leading tackler and earned Freshman All-SEC. Garth, 6-2, 208, is considered to be the Tide's top all-around athlete, no surprise since he was all-state in both football (defensive back and wide receiver) and basketball.
The only scholarshipped player behind Garth at weakside linebacker is Demarcus Waldrop, who was redshirted as a true freshman last year. Waldrop has great speed for a linebacker (he was third in the state in the 100-meter dash as a prep senior), but he is a bit undersized at 5-11, 200.
Middle linebacker should be a strong position for Bama with the return of Freddie Roach (6-2, 245) for his junior year and the move of Cornelius Wortham (6-1, 237) from strongside to middle for his fifth and final season.
Roach was the Tide's fifth-leading tackler last year, including 15 against Arkansas. Roach also started 10 games at middle linebacker his freshman season in 2002, playing alongside Wortham. Roach had been redshirted in 2001. In 2002 he was Freshman All-America and SEC Freshman Defensive Player of the Year. He was Bama's sixth-leading tackler as a freshman and also had an interception return for a touchdown in his first college game against Middle Tennessee.
Although Wortham was ahead of Roach through most of the spring and going into fall work, Bama Head Coach Mike Shula down-played that ranking. "They are both very important and both will play a great deal," he said. Wortham is another smart football player, an Academic All-SEC performer who earned his degree in May. He played in every game as a true freshman in 2000, was Bama's fifth-leading tackler as a 10-game starter in 2001, and was second on the Tide tackle list in his 10 starts in 2002. He injured his elbow in pre-season camp last year, forcing his redshirt season.
Earnest Nance, a 6-3, 208-pound redshirt freshman, is listed as the third middle linebacker. Nance has not been in a real football game since midway through his senior year of high school in 2001. He suffered a knee injury that resulted in him delaying entrance into Alabama until prior to the 2003 season and was redshirted last year. He was an outstanding two-way player (running back and linebacker) at powerhouse Courtland before his injury.
Alabama signed one player expected to compete at linebacker. Curtis Dawson will likely be the biggest linebacker in camp this fall as he reports in at 6-1, 255. While there have been suggestions that the 2003 Alabama High School Lineman of the Year play on the defensive line, Dawson has the speed and mobility to play linebacker.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one in a summer series of looks at Alabama's football positions for 2004.