Return of Rawls improves depth at linebacker

When Tide fans discuss this year's linebacking corps, the talk usually focuses on returning starters Cornelius Wortham and Brooks Daniels, or redshirt freshman middle linebacker Freddie Roach, or even JUCO sensation Derrick Pope. <br><br>But Tide Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers Coach Carl Torbush is also pleased with the return of Jason Rawls to the rotation. "If Jason can come back healthy, he's got the tools," Torbush said.

ACL injuries are an unfortunate fact of football. But with modern surgery and rehabilitation techniques, most athletes return as good as new.

However, Rawls' injury luck has been frankly horrendous.

Rawls (#43) and Cornelius Wortham (#16) sit, following a practice last season.

His first knee injury occurred in high school, when Rawls' senior season at Statesboro (Georgia) High School was ended by an ACL tear. His freshman season at The Capstone was also cut short, when he suffered another ACL tear in the second game versus Vanderbilt.

The 2001 season started off well for Rawls. He played 124 snaps at outside linebacker for the Tide, accumulating nine tackles and two pass deflections. Contributing well as a backup LB, things were looking up for Rawls. But versus Tennessee bad injury luck floored him yet again, as he suffered the third ACL tear of his career. "He was playing pretty well last year until he got hurt," Torbush said.

"When it first happened my initial thought was to just take a medical (scholarship) 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."

Rawls performed better than expected during spring, and his physical progress has continued this summer. Torbush, for one, has been impressed, "For Jason to come back from that knee injury, to go through spring and perform that way, to do what he's done in the weight room, there is no doubt that if Jason Rawls is well and with us he'll be a contributor.

Last season Rawls worked mainly at Rover, but having gained strength in the weight room he's been moved to strongside linebacker. At this point he is listed second string, backing up Cornelius Wortham. "Jason's not as tall as you'd like, but he's got the confidence," Torbush said. "He's strong, he's physical, he's smart."

One of the more powerful athletes on the squad, Rawls will play mainly at strongside linebacker. But he could slide inside if needed.

Resulting from poor decisions and an entirely different kind of bad luck, Rawls also had to overcome several off-the-field problems. Academic troubles and an altercation outside of a bar last winter put him deep in the Tide coaches' doghouse. Rawls accepted his discipline and had worked his way back from those problems, only then to be accused of passing bad checks.

Though garnering more than its share of embarrassing publicity at the time, that charge subsequently proved to be false, and his position coach is proud of Rawls' turnaround. "We hope it continues," Torbush said. "Academically he still has to work, and I think socially he's trying to do things right.

"He got a bum rap on that one deal--that check thing, which was pitiful. I never did see a retraction by anybody in the paper. Maybe they put it under the obituary column."

Those troubles are now behind him, and Rawls is concentrating on preparing for the season. If he can stay healthy, Rawls will be a part of the rotation at outside linebacker. Plus, with his strength he could get some snaps at middle linebacker as well. Torbush explained, "You like to have extra guys that can play inside or out. Cornelius, Freddie (Roach), Derrick (Pope) and Jason--all those guys can play inside if we need them. Jason will play basically outside, but he can play inside. That versatility is nice to have."

Juke King will also play strongside linebacker this season, while Brooks Daniels and Mark Anderson handle Rover. "Heading into spring practice I was worried about being even two deep at linebacker," Torbush continued. "But I think after going through spring that Jason will give us the six guys that we need--and really seven, counting Pope."

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