Young Linebackers In Defensive Mix

It seems that every optimistic article written about 2008 Alabama football includes a note that the Crimson Tide will rely to some extent on members from the nation's best recruiting class. And that is followed by some brainiac dragging out the old saw that playing freshmen will cost some games.

Those experts don't cite any games that Rolando McClain lost as a freshman middle linebacker starter for Alabama last season.

Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban has suggested on several occasions that freshmen will be a part of this year's team. That doesn't necessarily mean a freshman will be the star (although freshman wide receiver Julio Jones was impressive in Sunday's open practice at Bryant-Denny Stadium). Saban has indicated some freshmen can fit into the playing rotation, at least providing depth.

Most analyses of 2008 Alabama football also start with the negative, the lack of experience at linebacker. That can't be denied. In Bama's 3-4 defense, starters Darren Mustin and Keith Saunders graduated and Ezekial Knight had to give up Alabama football for health reasons. Additionally, Prince Hall—a co-starter last year—is suspended for the first three games of the year. The Bama coaching staff spent a lot of time last spring trying to make back-up tailback Jimmy Johns a linebacker, and that time was wasted by Johns' arrest and subsequent dismissal in the summer.

That leaves McClain (who split time and starting assignments with Hall at middle linebacker), a handful of returning players with little or no experience, and some highly-regarded freshmen.

Kevin Steele has more than a passing interest in the situation. He's the defensive head coach and has specific responsibility for inside linebackers, middle linebacker and weakside linebacker. (Lance Thompson coaches the outside linebackers, strongside linebacker and jack linebacker, a position that is sometimes defensive end.)

There are three very promising freshmen linebackers in Alabama fall camp. Jerrell Harris (6-3, 215) is working at strongside linebacker, but the other two – Dont'a Hightower (6-4, 25) and Courtney Upshaw (6-2, 230)—are working at weakside. Upshaw is also getting some work at jack.

Steele addressed the issue of a young linebacking corps when he met with Alabama media Sunday. He said, "In the college cycle, you only have four years. And a lot of times if you really recruit the right guys, with the early entry into the draft, you only have three years. It's a pretty short cycle, so you have to prepare the youth to play immediately. If you're going to have to prepare to play immediately, then the first criteria is to go get guys who have the ability to do that. And then as a coach, get it taught. There is no reason not to get it taught. If you do that, at some point it will all come together and you'll have a pretty good group of talented young men who can play on Saturday."

Almost all players are physically able to do the work. It's the mental that is most difficult. Steele said, "We do have a comprehensive playbook. It's not hard in terms of there being a lot of little components in it. Once you learn the concepts it all kind of fits together. But there are a little nuances in it. It takes a while to adjust. That process is still ongoing. A coach always wants to help a player to be better. I told one of the freshmen the other day, ‘Look, if you do it all in one (try), I'd be out of work.' Right now I've still got a job."

Steele said after a couple of practices, "The young guys have done a great job of being energetic and being focused, being mature about the process that they are in and not taken back in the shock of what's happening. I think that's a tribute to the young guys. They obviously did a good job in the summer of conditioning and getting acclimated to the way we go about things which is now translating into the football practice and the application of the Xs and Os.

"We've got a lot of guys out there who are very athletic. We've got a lot of guys who have potential to fit into the pieces of the puzzle. But we've got a lot of practicing to do and obviously some scrimmages when we get to that test."

He said Alabama's young linebackers compare well at this stage with others he has coached who have gone on to stardom. "In terms of just putting the numbers on and what you're looking for, they have that. They look the part. They act the part. And they have shown on film in high school that they can play the part. And so far (in 48 hours) we haven't been disappointed."

Nick Saban hasn't been disappointed in Kevin Steele, either. In comments prior to Steele's meeting with the media, Saban said, "Kevin Steele is an outstanding coach, as good a coach as I've ever been around. He is probably as ready to be a head coach anywhere in the country that anybody we've ever had, because he is mature. He has been a head coach before. He does a great job, not only as a football coach, but in the overall administration of what any program needs to do to be successful."

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