24 August 2008
| Cory Reamer - #13 – JR – 6-4 – 228 lbs – 1 Varsity Letter
Prince Hall - #21 – JR – 5-11 – 235 lbs – 2 Varsity Letters
Eryk Anders - #32 – JR – 6-2 – 227 lbs – 1 Varsity Letter
Brandon Fanney - #98 – JR – 6-4 – 257 lbs – 2 Varsity Letters
Rolando McClain - #25 – SO – 6-4 – 249 lbs – 1 Varsity Letter
Charlie Kirschman - #35 – SO – 6-2 – 230 lbs – No Varsity Letters
Charlie Higgenbotham - #45 – SO – 6-0 – 218 lbs – 1 Varsity Letter
Chavis Williams - #55 – SO – 6-2 – 223 lbs – 1 Varsity Letter
Jennings Hester - #42 – FR – 6-3 – 219 lbs – Redshirt Freshman
Alex Watkins - #91 – FR - 6-3 – 225 lbs – Redshirt Freshman
Jerrell Harris - #5 – FR – 6-3 – 215 lbs – True Freshman
Don’ta Hightower - #30 – 6-4 – 250 lbs – True Freshman
Chris Jordan - #36 – FR – 6-2 – 220 lbs – True Freshman
Courtney Upshaw - #41 – FR – 6-2 – 230 lbs – True Freshman
Glenn Harbin - #54 – FR – 6-6 – 245 lbs – True Freshman
Michael Williams - #89 – FR – 6-6 – 270 lbs – True Freshman
Who are the starters?
JACK – Brandon Fanney | WILL – Don’ta Hightower/Cory Reamer | MIKE – Rolando McClain | SAM – Cory Reamer/Chavis Williams.
Who are the primary backups?
JACK – Eryk Anders | WILL – Don’ta Hightower/Jennings Hester | MIKE – Charlie Higgenbotham | SAM – Chavis Williams/Jerrell Harris.
If you take a look at the list of guys in bold you would probably think I was crazy to say that this is the position the scares me the most. After all the Tide has 16 scholarshipped players, along with talented walk-on Michael DeJohn, competing at this position. That must mean that there is considerable depth. With enough guys for the depth chart to be four deep at each position this must be a strength for the Tide. Right?
In a word… no.
The problem for Alabama is that of the 16 scholarship guys at the position only seven have lettered. Of the remaining nine players, eight are either redshirts or true freshman. That is a frightening situation, with the typical problems caused by inexperience exacerbated by Saban's complex and unusual linebacker scheme.
If you look closely you will also notice that there are no seniors. In fact, of the four juniors not one of those guys is a rock steady, experienced guy. Reamer has bounced from defensive back to linebacker without ever really settling at a position. Hall has remained in the dog house since Nick Saban arrived and will sit the first 3 games of the season for disciplinary reasons. Anders has been a career backup, having taken what has seemed forever to adjust from high school defensive end to college linebacker. Fanney has totaled just 7 tackles in his career.
Looking at things statistically, this group returns just 216 career tackles. That is for 16 guys. By contrast, rolltide.com
only lists the top 15 tacklers in Tide history, and #15, Tommy Wilcox, beats this entire group handily, with 243.
Add in the fact that suspended Prince Hall, who has his own wing in Saban's spacious doghouse, accounts for 135 of the 216. Rolando McClain has 75 of the remaining 81 stops, and the other 14 guys have pitched in for, um, uh - six
. Yet those 14 folks must fill at least two starting positions - three for the Clemson game - and all of the backup spots.
Are you starting to understand my concern?
How bad is it, you may ask? Let's talk about it, starting with a description of the four positions and some assignment talk.
In Saban's base 3-4 defense there are two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers. The two outside guys are the JACK and the SAM. The two inside guys are the MIKE and the WILL.
– this position is unique to Nick Saban’s particular brand of the 3-4. This player is a hybrid linebacker/defensive end. He will play at times off of the line of scrimmage, lined up like a true outside linebacker, but more often he will play on the line of scrimmage, with his hand on the ground like a defensive end. He will typically line up outside the tackle box, alongside the defensive end that is inside the tackle. He will blitz, he will drop back in coverage. Ideally this is the guy who is your “playmaker” on the outside.
Last year our Jack didn't drop back much, but he was a senior who had spent his entire career as a defensive end, so don't go crazy drawing conclusions from that.
To give you a good idea of what Nick Saban wants from his Jack linebacker, simply take a look at his 2006 Miami Dolphins team and specifically what Jason Taylor
did from this position (62 tackles, 13.5 sacks, 2 picks, 11 deflections). Taylor was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts. That kind of output is down the road for the Tide, at best.
– Called Sam for S for “strong side linebacker.” This linebacker will typically be outside of the defensive end that lines up on the outside of the tackle. It isn’t exactly accurate to say that he is the opposite end version of the Jack. He will both blitz and drop back into coverage, but will only infrequently have his hand on the ground. When the Tide shifts to the nickel package this is typically the position that leaves the field.
Zeke Knight lined up with his hand down more than will Corey Reamer or Jerrell Harris, but Chavis Williams might be used more as Knight was used when he is in.
MIKE – Called MIKE for M for “middle linebacker.” This is the guy who is responsible for making certain that the linebackers and linemen are all adjusting to the same read. He is the true middle linebacker and is responsible for the middle of the field and the gap to the Sam linebacker.
WILL – Called WILL for W for “weak side linebacker.” He lines up inside of the Jack linebacker and is responsible for the middle of the field and the gap to the Jack linebacker. When the Tide shifts into the nickel package he will move to the edge and serve as an outside linebacker.
Now that we've run down the positions, let's have a look at the Tide's 2008 prospects at each spot.
Last year Bama got virtually nothing from Keith Saunders and Fanney at the JACK
, which should be the statistical highlight position. No sacks, no tackles for a loss, and only five quarterback hurries. That's why Bama’s defense struggled to get consistent pressure on the QB from anyone other than Wallace Gilberry.
I have a hard time believing that Fanney will go from not being able to push Saunders for playing time to being a huge play maker, and that gives me concerns about how much production we can expect from this position in 2008. Perhaps the light will come on.
Further complicating things is that behind Fanney is Eryk Anders, who has a grand total of four tackles in his career. He was practicing with the Sams as late as last week, and is massively undersized for the position. He does have the experience of having been a defensive end in high school, and that would be the likely reason that he has adjusted well to the Jack.
Behind these two guys are a redshirt freshman and three true freshmen. Alex Watkins has great athleticism and a good frame for the position, but needs another 10-20 pounds to really hit Jack size. I thought we might see him push for playing time, but the fact that he has been jumped by Anders this quickly after Anders made the move tells me that he isn’t there yet.
A lot of folks hoped that Courtney Upshaw would report to campus and immediately join the 2-deep at this position. While he is a physical specimen and the most athletic guy in the Jack rotation, he is understandably taking some time to adjust to a position that is very difficult to master. Don't count Upshaw out from getting into the rotation by mid-season, but it's not happening yet.
Glenn Harbin is a converted defensive end and Michael Williams was a strong candidate to start his career at tight end, so saying that there is a huge adjustment for these two guys is quite an understatement. Of everybody on the team, Harbin and Williams are the most prototypically built for the position, with big frames and long arms. But again, this is a somewhat unique position and a big adjustment for almost anybody. Both will likely take a redshirt, and either could end up back at defensive end.
If Jack position remains a black hole of production then the other 10 guys on the defense will have to play above their heads in order to make up for a lack of plays here. If this group can somehow give the Tide even marginal production it will allow the rest of the unit to settle into their roles. Our eyes will be on the Tide's Jacks as the season goes along.
position is in almost the complete opposite shape. Returning here are both guys that started at the position last year, Rolando McClain and Prince Hall. Also ready to step into a larger role at this position is Charlie Higgenbotham.
I was critical of McClain in my player profile of him, pointing out that he was a bit inconsistent. That is to be expected of a true freshman playing such a difficult position. The reason for optimism with McClain is that his best two games of the season were Bama’s final two games. That was enough to propel him to Freshman All-American statues – though I must point out that being a part of that All-American team is more about opportunity than anything else.
Hall is a bit of a problem for me. Not only was he suspended from the team for a long period of the off-season, but he will also miss the Tide’s first three games. If this was an isolated thing it would be water under the bridge, but it's not, and by now I have to seriously doubt his ability to remain focused on the task at hand when he won’t see the field for a month.
With that aside, I’m also not a huge fan of him as a linebacker. I will credit him with being a very good tackler. If he gets in front of you, he will put you on the ground. But he takes absolutely terrible pursuit angles, he is constantly out of position, and he is horrible in pass coverage. A lot of those problems could likely be solved with better preparation, and until I see that from him I will doubt his ability to produce on the field at a high enough level to justify taking McClain off of the field.
There has been a lot of speculation that Hall will simply move to the Will when he returns from his suspension, though I don’t see it happening. He wasn’t shifted to the position last season when Rolando McClain was playing well and Darren Mustin was struggling. He is simply not a good player in space, and playing the Will requires that.
On the other hand, Prince appears to be in the best shape that he has been in during his time at Alabama. That's a good sign, and so is the fact that Nick Saban let him back onto the team. But you know the saying… fool me once…
Higgenbotham is a guy that demonstrates what you can do with proper effort and preparation. Nobody is going to mistake him for the type of physical specimen that McClain is, but he was Bama's best special teams player by the end of the year, and young special team stars often become pretty good regulars later in their careers (see, e.g., Rashad Johnson, and I could name a few more). Similar to Mustin last season he simply has a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
and Sam positions could be dependant upon one person – Cory Reamer. He has worked at both positions, and worked as the starter at both positions. After finally knowing that he was going to be a linebacker for an entire off-season Reamer was able to get into the kind of physical shape (specifically gaining up to 228 lbs) that will be required of him at either position.
It looks as though most of his time at the Will will come when Bama is in its nickel defense. In that formation the Sam linebacker typically leaves the field and the Will moves into a more traditional outside linebacker role. That role will have split duties, sometimes blitzing and sometimes dropping into coverage.
Reamer’s experience as a defensive back gives him a huge advantage in the coverage part of his game, but can he stop the run?
When Bama is in the base 3-4 it looks like freshman Don’ta Hightower will get the start at WILL
. More so than any other Tide freshman on defense, the physically imposing Hightower has impressed early and often, especially against the run. He is still adjusting to the coverage packages that come with playing the Will, but his raw athleticism has given him a chance to stay ahead of everyone behind him even in the learning phase.
rotation in the base 3-4 will probably be headed up by Reamer. At just under 230 lbs he is a bit undersized for a Saban Sam, and teams could look to take advantage of running straight at the smallest guy in the front seven. We saw a little of that last season when power rushing teams ran right at Zeke Knight who was also slightly undersized.
I would be remiss at this time to not mention Knight. He was almost certain to be the starter at this position, with the only doubt being over whether he might be moved to the Jack. He was one of Bama’s best athletes on defense last year and clearly grew more comfortable with the position as the season wore on. He was also a leader for the Tide off of the field, and his absence, due to complications with a heart condition, will be felt all year.
His backup last season, Chavis Williams, will be the primary guy behind Reamer and will see plenty of time in the rotation. Despite showing great athleticism and flashes of something special last season, Williams managed only 2 tackles. He has gained some weight, which should allow him to be more physical. If Reamer struggles to stop the run he will be the first guy given the opportunity to fulfill that role, and increased physicality will be an absolute necessity.
The X-factor at this position could be freshman Jerrell Harris. He is still adjusting to the game mentally, but he is an unbelievable talent. As the season progresses he will be more and more difficult to keep off of the field. Size is a problem for Harris' ability to take on tight ends and pulling guards in the rushing game, and that's a tough problem to solve DURING the season. But he has reported to campus in spectacular shape and might see action as early as Clemson.
The three guys I didn’t mention, Jennings Hester, Charlie Kirschman and Chris Jordan have been practicing at multiple positions. Hester is a blue collar type of player. He isn’t enormously gifted as an athlete, but he makes up for any shortcomings that he might have there by working his tail off. A lot of folks have written him off because he was primarily recruited to play in Joe Kines’ defense, but he was re-recruited by Nick Saban and could have a role on this team. His chance could come early if Higgenbotham continues to struggle with a groin injury.
Kirschman is struggling to find a place. He has bounced from Sam to Jack and back. He's not big enough or athletic enough to be successful at either position. He's still young so there is time for him to find a position that makes use of his skills. But right now I would be surprised to see him anywhere but on special teams.
Jordan is new to the linebacker position, having just moved there last weekend. It would be easy to assume a redshirt, but if that were absolutely the case, he might have stayed at running back. Presumably he was moved because there was a thought that he could possibly get onto the field this season on defense. He is big and athletic, two things required to be good in the middle. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him getting early looks on special teams before possibly earning some time in the rotation later in the season.
During the early part of the season a lot will be put onto McClain, Fanney, and Reamer, and of those only McClain has shown the ability to be successful. The smart thing to expect to see is some struggles from this group early, for example against Clemson's powerful running game.
But there is talent on the squad, even if overly youthful, and with Kevin Steele and Lance Thompson coaching the linebackers the group could not ask for better instruction. That coaching, even more than the overall athleticism of the young guys, is where I hang my optimist's hat. These two guys are among the best in the business and should be able to maximize the talent that they have been given.
With the defensive line having been improved and at least half of the secondary being rock solid, if Bama can get consistent production from the linebackers then this defense could be very good. Conversely the line and backfield are probably not so good that they can completely rescue us if our linebacking struggles.
This group's performance will be the key to the 2008 Tide defense.
glen55's quick takes
Hat's off to nxojkt for another very nice explanation of the mechanics of Saban's D, this time for linebackers. I'm looking forward to DBs.
While I mostly agree with nxojkt's individual assessments, I'll fight back a bit on behalf of our returning inside backers.
As nxojkt noted, Prince Hall has 135 of the group's 216 career tackles. From my perspective, you're getting pretty close to all you need to know right there. He can tackle, and he can hit, and I'll generally take that over an unproven freshman - or over a guy who would've had more of those tackles himself if Prince hadn't beaten him out last year.
While Prince is not much on coverage, he DOES have a nice knack for getting into seams in the zone. He had one big pick last year and was close to picks 2-3 more times. That's kind of an iffy proposition, but it's better than most large inside backers can offer, and I wouldn't be surprised if the coverage skills of the new, slimmed-down Hall Version 2.0 are improved.
He's also an effective blitzer, something we're not overly endowed with. My money says the Will job is his, at least on non-nickel downs, once he comes back.
I see Rolando McClain
playing at an All-American level by season's end, if not right from the get-go. [Note: I don't
expect him to get All-American publicity, but that's another story. . . .] As nxojkt noted, McClain finished strong last year, and with a true freshman, strong finishes often equate into strong starts for the following season.
Bear in mind that McClain was fourth on the team in tackles even though he missed all or most of four games with injury. If he had averaged the same 7.9 tackles per game during those four that he averaged during the other 9, he would have led the team with 103 tackles. Not too shabby for a TF.
I see this guy joining the Tide's impressive linebacker pantheon before he leaves.
Since Jack is pretty much a Saban-only position without a counterpart elsewhere either for physical characteristics expected or for assignments, you've got to figure there is automatically going to be an adjustment period whenever Saban goes to a new team. We're in the second year of ours, and I think we're still adjusting.
We've got some Jack prospects. They just need to build up and get ready. I'm not expecting more than a moderate improvement over last year's paultry results. If we don't see it this year, hopefully we'll see real improvement next year.
Our big linemen, along with physical safeties like Woodall and Barron, should help us offset any run-stopping weakness caused by our inexperience at linebacker. I think. That proposition will be put to the test in less than a week.
I wish we had Prince Hall for the Clemson game, and I wish even more we had Zeke Knight for the entire season,but there's a certain advantage to be gained by playing sink-or-swim with the young 'uns. As much as we want a good season this year, to some extent we're still really building for the future, and it will be a plus next year if Hightower, Harris, and Upshaw have some game time under their belts.
After the off-season we endured at linebacker, if we get even half-way decent production from this group, you really have to give it up for the coaches.