2008 Tide Must Fill Linebacker Slots

Almost every good baseball team is "strong up the middle." Some believe that must also be the case in football. If so, that may be good news for an Alabama defense that has considerable rebuilding to do. Here is a look at what can be expected of the stop troops in 2008. This is the third in a series of the outlook for the upcoming season.

As for that "strength up the middle," Alabama has returning starters at nose tackle, middle linebacker and safety.

Whoever is manning the nose tackle slot -- returning starter Lorenzo Washington, spring practice phenomenon Josh Chapman or man-mountain Terrance Cody from junior college -- should be able to successfully execute the primary role of the nose tackle, which is to tie up the center and at least one guard. That tends to free inside linebackers up to make plays, and there is no better middle linebacker in the SEC than Bama sophomore Rolando McClain. When all is said and done, and his career in Tuscaloosa is over, McClain likely will be mentioned with the likes or Lee Roy Jordan, Woodrow Lowe, Barry Krauss, Cornelius Bennett, Derrick Thomas and Dwayne Rudd -- the elite of Bama's rich tradition of linebacker.

A problem confronting Nick Saban, Kevin Steele and Kirby Smart, overseers of the UA defense, is who will join "Baby Ro" at the linebacker slots in the Crimson Tide's 3-4 scheme. When spring ended, Cory Reamer was at the other inside spot, weakside linebacker, or "Will," and Jimmy Johns and Brandon Fanney were on the outside.

Fanney plays the hybrid "Jack" position which more often than not seems to be a defensive end (changing the 3-4 to a 4-3), but which occasionally drops into coverage. Johns, the former running back and special teams player, has attracted the most attention in the linebacker corps despite his lack of experience. He worked at linebacker in the spring, beginning at weakside but finishing the spring at the strongside, or "Sam," position.

While McClain is the only lock to start, Reamer, Johns and Fanney will be pushed hard by a freshman linebacker class containing the likes of Jerrell Harris, Don't'a Hightower, and Courtney Upshaw. Hightower projects inside, likely at the "Will," while Harris and Upshaw appear to beheaded for the "Sam" and Jack positions, respectively.

There are two wild cards in the linebacker picture. Prince Hall was in the Alabama doghouse in the spring, but the upcoming junior has been no worse than a co-starter at middle linebacker the past two seasons. If he gets back into good graces (he is on campus after having gone home to California during interim term) and could make the switch to weakside alongside McClain, that would be an obvious plus. Saban has said that Hall must do certain things to get back, and that even then he will be suspended for some period.

Ezekial Knight was the starter at strongside linebacker last year, but his final season is in jeopardy as he has had a second undisclosed health issue. Following the 2005 season, Zeke Knight had a surgical procedure involving a heart problem.

Flanking whoever starts on the nose will be defensive ends Brandon Deaderick and Bobby Greenwood. Amateur coaches among fans and media wonder why Washington isn't tried more at end, as he seems more suited to that spot than noseguard. It could eventually happen, and if it does, Washington could beat Greenwood out. That would still leave Bama with three capable nose guards, counting Chapman, Cody and spring surprise Juan Garnier. Alfred McCullough was a nose man for a while, but his move to end was a big success, as shown by McCullough's stellar performance in the A-Day game when he won the Dwight Stephenson Most Valuable Lineman Award.

Back to the "up the middle" concept: There is no better safety in the SEC than Tide senior Rashad Johnson, but he will need help from a capable partner at the position. Spring ended with Justin Woodall holding the down the strongside safety spot opposite Johnson, but many feel true freshman Mark Barron will be a factor at this position sooner than later. Ali Sharrief is a solid backup at safety, and he could push Woodall, but watch for reports about Barron from early scrimmages.

The cornerback positions were settled coming out of spring with returning starter Kareem Jackson on one side and ace kick return man Javier Arenas on the other. The nickel back was Marquis Johnson, but all who watched the recent "Under the Lights" television special saw that "Number 24" got more than his share of corrective attention from Saban. Even before seeing that, many felt incoming freshman Alonzo Lawrence (famed for shutting down All-America receiver Julio Jones in all-star play) would nose out Johnson for the nickel job, and perhaps even push Arenas for starting honors. Should that happen, Arenas is more than capable of nickel duty, as he showed late last season. True freshman Robby Green could also provide some quality depth. Special teams ace Tyrone King can play all four secondary positions.

Kareem Jackson, like McClain, is expected to leave Bama being mentioned in the same breath with some of the Tide's all time greats at his position -- Don McNeal, Jeremiah Castille, DeShea Townsend and Antonio Langham. All those guys played in the NFL, as should Jackson.

Bottom line: if someone(anyone) steps up at the weakside and strongside linebacker slots, the 2008 version of the Alabama Crimson Tide defense should be a formidable unit.

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