An Early Look: Linebackers

Sometimes, Alabama-friendly media members that cheer for the team in addition to covering them paint a rosier picture of the team than might actually exist.

In terms of Alabama's 2004 linebacker corps, however, perhaps the mainstream media should have listened to the UA-friendly media more.

If they had, they would have realized much more quickly that Alabama's linebackers were indeed some of the best in the conference. An admission of that fact has come to light somewhat in recent days, with both DeMeco Ryans and Freddie Roach being named to the SEC's Preseason First Team. Even though Alabama's secondary garnered huge praise in 2004 for their pass defense work, it is the linebacker corps that will form the foundation for Alabama's defensive success in 2005.

Leading the group is DeMeco Ryans, who gave brief consideration to jumping to the NFL before deciding to return for his senior year. Ryans is one of the SEC's smartest human beings, not just one of its smartest players. He is rarely out of position and makes the most of his athletic ability. He excels against both run and pass, and will be the leader of this unit.

Freddie Roach's path to the starting middle linebacker job has taken some odd twists and turns. Roach was an instant sensation as a freshman, but slumped a bit as a sophomore. He started the 2004 season off on the bench, but when Juwan Simpson (known to UA fans as Juwan Garth until now) got hurt early in the season, Roach shifted from the middle to the outside and re-energized his career. Roach spent the rest of 2004 hopping around between several positions. He was a middle linebacker on one snap, a defensive end the next, then an outside linebacker. He won't move around so much in 2005, however. He'll stay at middle linebacker, where he is the only player there with significant experience. The only concern for Roach is lateral mobility.

If Juwan Simpson can return to the form he displayed as a redshirt freshman, the unit as a whole will be the best in a conference full of very strong ones. But Simpson backslid a bit as a sophomore, part of which can be blamed on injury. Unlike Ryans and Roach, Simpson has more of a safety's build. He is deft in pass coverage, but struggles a bit against the run. He'll need a strong start in 2005 to fend off challenges from younger, bigger linebackers.

Unfortunately for Alabama, young and big are not words that describe the top backups across the board at the moment. Outside linebackers Demarcus Waldrop and Terrence Jones are quite small for the SEC. Jones is 6'0", 210 pounds – which makes him three inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than Waldrop, who is the size of some cornerbacks. Nevertheless, Waldrop is very active and put up good production numbers in 2004 given the amount of snaps he played. Jones' primary attribute is speed. He can clock a legitimate 4.5 40-yard dash, making him able to travel sideline to sideline to make plays.

Marcel Stamps was a wide receiver for much of his true freshman campaign, but where he made his greatest contributions was on special teams. Stamps moved to linebacker at the end of the year and almost immediately began competing for playing time. At 6'3" and close to 200 pounds – and still growing – Stamps figures to push both Jones and Waldrop.

Middle linebacker could be a problem spot in terms of depth. Juke King started one game for Alabama in 2004, but lost the backup job to walk-on sophomore Matt Collins in the spring. Collins is strong and has a good build, but lacks mobility. King is more athletic and has more experience, but Collins appears to have better instincts for the position and is much better against bigger running backs. Expect this battle to continue through fall camp. Walk-ons Brent Nall and Kenneth Vandervoort could get into this mix as well, while Jake Wingo could add depth outside.

Trying to figure out who among the signees will stick at linebacker may be futile at this point. The big name here is Prince Hall, who if he gets cleared to play, could be the top backup in the middle from game one. Hall says he is qualified, but there has been no official word from school sources.

Aside from Hall, Alabama technically signed no linebackers in this class, but have several players who could end up there. Zach Schreiber is a big guy who was very productive as a rush end in high school. He could back up the strong side or move to defensive end. Baron Huber could play the strong side or in the middle – or he could go to end, or perhaps to tight end or fullback. Travis McCall is the real wild card; his natural position is defensive end, but like Huber, he could wind up at middle linebacker or at several positions on offense. Late signee Eryk Anders figures to get his first look at outside linebacker, but his final destination may also be defensive end. Cory Reamer and Sam Burnthall were signed as safeties, but either or both could move to linebacker at some point. Burnthall, who is a likely grayshirt, may not be with the team in 2005.

The wild card in the bunch is Jimmy Johns. Signed as a quarterback, Johns is 6'2", 230 pounds and is thought to have a bright future on defense if he gets lost in the quarterback shuffle. But he is likely to stay on offense for at least the 2005 season.

Summary

Alabama doesn't need immediate help from its signing class, but it wouldn't hurt. Assuming health doesn't become an issue, both Roach and Ryans figure to be first-day picks in next year's NFL draft. Juwan Simpson must get over his sophomore slump, but Alabama has had few linebackers as athletic as he. Jones and Waldrop may be small, but they were able backups in 2004 and figure to only get better. The only cause for immediate concern is whether Matt Collins, who was listed as Roach's backup coming out of the spring, is up to the task of playing 15 or more snaps on defense every game. The hidden concern is for Roach, who didn't excel in this defense until he started moving around between spots, a scenario that is not in the plans for 2005.

2004 Players

MLB Cornelius Wortham (12 games, 39 solo, 60 assists, 3 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT, 3 QB hurries, 1 FR), OLB DeMeco Ryans (12 games, 46 solo, 32 assists, 7 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 2 QB hurries, 1 FR, 2 FC), MLB Freddie Roach (12 games, 28 solo, 29 assists, 9 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 PBU, 5 QB hurries, 1 FR, 2 FC), OLB Juwan Simpson (10 games, 18 solo, 14 assists, 4 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 3 QB hurries, 1 FR), OLB Demarcus Waldrop (12 games, 9 solo, 13 assists, 4 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU, 2 QB hurries, 1 FR, 1 FC), Terrence Jones (12 games, 9 solo, 9 assists, 1 TFL), OLB Marcel Stamps (12 games, 3 solo, 6 assists, 1 KB), MLB Juke King (12 games, 2 solo, 1 TFL) MLB Matt Collins (12 games, 2 assists)


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