Rawls' availability could be key

Most fans cite the moves of Marvin Brown from fullback to middle linebacker and Mark Anderson from defensive end to Rover, when explaining Bama's newfound depth at linebacker. <br><br>But as much as anything else, the return of Jason Rawls from knee surgery and several off-the-field problems has helped solidify a once-thin unit.

"Spring went a lot better than I thought it would," Rawls said. "At the beginning I wasn't even supposed to be going full-contact. But after the first week I took the Cybex test and came up good enough to go ahead and participate. The first scrimmage was my first day of full contact.

Prior to spring drills the coaches didn't know what to expect. But the addition of a healthy Jason Rawls to the playing rotation has strengthened the linebacker corps.

"Overall, it went pretty well. I've gotten passing grades from the coaches, and I think I'm going pretty good."

Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione concurred. "Jason has had a pretty good spring. In light of everything that he has gone through, we're satisfied with his progress. To hurt your knee for the third time and then to go through the (off-the-field) problems. He's had some personal struggles to deal with.

"He did better than we probably anticipated. Spring practice was good for Jason to get back into a rhythm. And it certainly was good for us to get him in the rotation."

Though details are only available from public records, Rawls was charged with misdemeanor assault back in the early winter for a late-night incident outside of a bar. At the time he was suspended from the team, though Franchione later reinstated him. Then during spring practice he was arrested and charged with passing worthless checks, but indications are that second charge may not have been Rawls' fault.

At this point the Tide coaches are waiting for the final results of that investigation before taking any further action. Following the second incident, Rawls continued to practice with the team, including last Saturday's A-Day scrimmage.

Franchione commented, "With a lot of young men the day-to-day discipline of the game--participating in workouts, the supervision of coaches, the structure of class, practice and study--some guys are better with that structure than without. That was part of this problem in the fall. After he got hurt I know he was mentally disgusted and down about the injury. He got out of his rhythm of practice, which he probably needed."

Along with Mark Anderson at Rover, Rawls (left) and Marvin Brown (right) have strengthened the linebacking position.

That knee injury occurred seven games in, ending Rawls' season. For any athlete, tearing a knee ligament is serious business. But it also marked the third time that Rawls had injured his ACL playing football.

"When it first happened my initial thought was to just take a medical (redshirt) and end it," Rawls related. "But I had the surgery and started going through rehab. My knee started coming back really quick. It was getting strong. While going through rehab I decided to give football another shot. Wearing the brace I'm doing good out there. So I'm going to continue playing."

Knee surgery and the subsequent rehabilitation can be a tough process. And frankly Rawls wasn't certain he wanted to endure the pain for a third time. "Thinking you might not be able to play anymore was really frustrating," he said. "Sometimes I find myself watching (the knee), because you don't want to get hurt any more. I'm doing the thing that I love most right now, which is playing football. And I don't want this to end from an injury. It does get hard trying to protect it all the time."

Before the injury last year Rawls was working at Rover, but the addition of Mark Anderson prompted a move to the other side. Rawls explained, "I was moved to ‘Sam,' which is basically the same. They're both outside linebackers. I feel pretty comfortable there, because I've been at outside linebacker since I've been at Alabama."

As a true freshman Rawls played in only two games (UCLA and Vanderbilt), before his second knee injury ended his 2000 season. In high school, Rawls was considered a pretty good college prospect, until a move from tailback to linebacker caused his stock to climb. Signed by Alabama out of Statesboro, Georgia, Rawls was rated the nation's 67th best linebacking prospect that year.

Prior to spring drills Marvin Brown was moved to defense. But before that decision was made there was talk of Rawls getting reps at middle linebacker. "The good thing about Jason is he is flexible," Franchione said. "You can move him around. That makes him valuable. You don't have to lock yourself into one thing with him. He can do other things.

While rehabbing his knee, Rawls has continued to make gains in the Alabama weight room.

"When a player can handle more than one position, that increases the things that a coach can do with his defense."

Though last year's injury was difficult to accept, Rawls put his down time to good use. "During the time that I was hurt I spent most of my time watching film, so I've picked up on the activities that running backs and wide receivers do," he said. "I can read them better now. I got my share of sacks and tackles. I've improved from last year to this one. I'm making my reads better. I'm following the other linebackers and watching the crossing receivers better now.

"Me and Corn (Cornelius Wortham) are rotating at strongside linebacker. It looks like things are going well."

Just months ago Saleem Rasheed's announcement that he was turning pro left the Tide painfully thin at linebacker. "Back in January we were looking pretty slim, but I think by the time fall two-a-days come here we'll be looking pretty thick," Rawls said. "We've got some good recruits coming in. We've got the JUCO transfer, Derrick Pope, coming in. We're going to have a pretty deep linebacking squad."

Back in January things appeared bleak. But add in Pope, Rawls, Brown and Anderson, and suddenly the Tide linebacking corps looks both talented and deep. Rawls agreed, "We've got some studs out there at linebacker. And everybody is still working hard. After every practice we went back in and lifted weights, trying to be as strong as we can. We want to make the team stronger than it was last year."

"As for me, I need to keep working on my footwork, getting back to the way I was before I hurt my knee. That's not easy working with a brace. I need to maintain what I have and improve on what I've got."

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