At one point last month, Torbush was talking about doing everything that he could to turn Saleem Rasheed into first-round draft choice. But the former Tide captain's decision to leave early has radically altered the look of Bama's returning linebacking unit. "I hate that Saleem is gone, because there is no doubt he is one of the best football players we had on defense," Torbush said. "He was getting to the point where I thought he had a chance to move to a different level. He'll be an outstanding pro football player--a great special teams player."
Originally the plan was to play Rasheed both inside and out, while steadily working Freddie Roach into the lineup. "If Saleem had stayed, then he would have played some Mike (middle linebacker) and some Sam (strongside linebacker). And Freddie would have played some inside and Sam as well. And we would then rotate Cornelius (Wortham)."
It's not like Bama's linebackers are back to square one. After all, two of three starters (Wortham and Brooks Daniels) are returning. But Torbush will earn his salary strengthening a painfully shallow bench. "We need to find out what we can do and what individuals can do," Torbush said. "We've got a better idea right now than we did going into the fall, but that's something we've got to do a good job of this spring.
"But I do think once a couple of new guys come in, that will alleviate the depth problem. Right now it looks like some of the new guys have got to be able to give us some backup help at least."
After spending the early part of fall at strong safety, redshirt freshman Juke King was moved to outside linebacker. Now the 228-pound athlete stands as Alabama's only available reserve linebacker also on scholarship. "Where Juke will play partly depends on what we do with the other guys," Torbush explained. "We'll work him some at Rover and Sam, but he won't play Mike."
Besides King, several walk-ons are listed as linebackers on the Tide roster. The group includes Robert Allen (5-11, 218, Fr), Brad Biel (5-11, 215, Jr), Adam Campbell (6-0, 220, Fr), Brandon Dean (6-1, 230, So), P.J. Fletcher (6-2, 213, So), Carl McInnish (6-1, 190, Sr), Matt McMullin (6-2, 225, Fr) and Alex McSorley (6-2, 215, Fr). All are hoping to make a name for themselves in the spring. "We've got some walk-ons to look at," Torbush said. "But somebody is going to have to step forward."
Given the paucity of scholarshipped bodies listed at linebacker, it's probable that at least one or two athletes will be moved during the spring. And Torbush has his eye on a redshirt freshman with an interesting combination of size and speed. "Mark Anderson intrigues me a little bit," Torbush said. "He looks like some of the taller linebackers I used to have at North Carolina. He's a tall guy, 6-3, 6-4, and athletic."
Anderson consistently impressed the coaches this past season. But though he's gained up to 220 pounds, that's still too light to be an every-down lineman in the SEC.
On the other hand, the weight is plenty big to compete at linebacker. Torbush explained; "Mark needs to gain more weight to play defensive end, but at linebacker he's got a lot of the skills that you're looking for. He's a possibility. What we'll do this spring is take a look at him at both positions, and make sure we put him in the right place."
Spring is at least partly a time for experimenting, and fans should expect other athletes to get a look at linebacker, too. "We've talked about several other guys as well," Torbush said. "But no decision has been made yet."
Help could be on the way in the form of incoming freshmen. Demeco Ryans, Greg McLain and Earnest Nance all signed last Wednesday and are expected to play linebacker for the Tide. "The rest of our depth will have to be manufactured by some of the guys coming in," Torbush said. "We hope they'll come on to summer school, which will help them get into the Alabama routine of academics, athletics and social life. That will help them be even better next year."
Depending on how other signees' academics shake out, both McLain and Nance could arrive in September or delay their entry into The University until January of 2003. But there is no doubt that Torbush is hoping at least one newcomer can contribute during the season.
"I tell the new kids, ‘your job and your responsibility is to come in as a freshman and try to beat somebody out,'" Torbush related. "'If you do and you're good enough, then you will play as a freshman. If you're not, then depend on your coaches to play you when you are ready.'"
By redshirting every freshman but one last season, Franchione demonstrated his preference for holding youngsters out their first year on campus. The decision to hold keep the redshirt on is sometimes difficult. But contrary to recent practice at Alabama, this Tide staff can be counted on not to waste a year for no good reason.
Torbush gives an example from 2001; "There is no doubt the last four or five games that Freddie (Roach) could have helped us. But could he have helped us enough to want to take back the redshirt year? We weren't sure of that. If we were playing for the SEC championship, then 'Yes.' But we were not.
"And now by being redshirted, he has four seasons and a chance to possibly be a four-year starter."
For Torbush and his fellow defensive coaches, identifying and developing quality backups at linebacker will remain a goal all through spring and summer. But Bama's Defensive Coordinator is absolutely confident in the ability of his front-line players. "I do think that linebacking group can be a very solid SEC unit," Torbush said. "I have absolutely no qualms about their work ethic, about their mental and physical toughness, about how they respond to my coaching."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sophomore Rover Jason Rawls was not included in this article, because at this point his future on the team is uncertain.