28 September 2009
The Alabama football team did practice today, but there was no access to the media - the first time in Nick Saban's tenure at Alabama that a Monday practice has been closed. Since we don't have a practice report for you, I thought it would be a good time to start taking a look at exactly how Alabama is going to attempt to replace Dont'a Hightower.
What exactly is Bama looking to replace? In just three games Dont'a had 16 tackles, with four of them for a loss. The numbers don't tell the true story, though. Not only was he the will linebacker in the base and nickel packages, but he also slid outside to a hybrid linebacker/defensive end position in the dime, as well as in specialty pass rush packages. He was responsible for stopping the run, rushing the passer, and covering receivers.
In other words, it's a big loss. So how do you replace a player that fulfills so many different roles?
You don't. No one player could manage it. In fact, the entire group of guys at the will linebacker couldn't do it. Instead, what we will likely see are some scheme changes that allow for a number of different guys, from different positions, attempt to fill the various roles that Dont'a filled.
While Rolando McClain is the most talented guy on the defensive side of the ball, Dont'a is the most versatile. And that makes him, in some ways, harder to replace.
Before you start canceling your early December reservations in Atlanta, though, Bama is talented enough to be successful without him. Bama is also well coached enough to successful without him. And that combination of talent and coaching talent should allow Bama to move forward without him.
The easiest way to approach this is to go role by role, and look at who might be able to fulfill certain duties that Dont'a was asked to carry out.
Base Defense - Will Linebacker
In the Tide's base 3-4 defense, Dont'a was the will linebacker. A quick look at the depth chart will tell you that Jerrell Harris is the backup at that position. One problem... Jerrell is ineligible until the South Carolina game. So the Tide is actually looking for a third option at this position.
The reality is that while the 3-4 is Bama's base defense, the Tide probably spends better than 70% of its defensive snaps in nickel and dime packages. That could obviously change if teams decide to go at the Tide with a two tight end, I-formation look. And with Hightower out of the mix, some teams might try that - LSU probably would have even with Dont'a in the mix.
We'll go into replacing him in the nickel and dime in a bit. For now, it's the 3-4 open for discussion, and specifically the run stopping aspect of things. Who are the candidates?
--- Cory Reamer - he's technically the starter at the sam linebacker spot, so moving him over would create the need for someone to play at the sam. Cory has played the will before, as well as the safety position. He is, outside of McClain, the Tide's most experienced linebacker, so he would be an easy choice.
Cory has had a solid season in somewhat limited time - the sam comes off of the field in the nickel and dime looks. On the year he has five tackles, with one for a loss. If he does move over, look for Alex Watkins, Chavis Williams, and Jonathan Atchison to battle for playing time at the sam.
His experience outside at the sam, combined with his time as a defensive back, make him better in pass coverage than run stopping. He is a cerebral player, though, and can be counted on to be in the right position at the right time. Aside from McClain he is the biggest linebacker with experience.
--- Chris Jordan - he's the current backup at the mike linebacker. That's sort of like being the Maytag repair man. Rolando McClain doesn't take plays off, so Chris has really only seen time on special teams, and in mop duty. The good news is that he's been a beast in both roles. He saw his biggest number of snaps aganist North Texas, and he made seven tackles in that game.
He's still learning the position, after moving to linebacker early in fall camp in 2008. What he lacks in experience, he makes up for in athleticism. While he would offer more playmaking ability than Reamer, he would likely make more mistakes. He's an unknown quantity in pass defense.
--- Nico Johnson - the latest star freshman linebacker, he's pretty much an unknown quantity. The fact that he has played tells us that the staff thinks highly of him. The problem is that I don't have any clue what his strengths and weaknesses as a college football player are. He looked great in the high school all-star games, flying all over the field to make plays.
But playing lineacker in the SEC isn't the same thing. He has been active in limited time - four tackles, one for a loss. But there's just not enough to go by.
Ultimately I think Jerrell Harris will be the go to guy once he's eligible to play. Until then, we might see a bit of a revolving door. Johnson is the wild card, though. Lots of folks seem to think that he's the next great linebacker to play for Alabama, and this certainly creates an opportunity for him to show it.
Reamer is the safe choice, with Jordan coming in somewhere between Reamer and Nico in terms of risk vs. reward. Nick Saban typically sides with the safest choice, which means Reamer. But that also means replacing Reamer at the sam. And at this point, Chris Jordan is more game-ready than any of the three guys backing up Reamer at the sam.
So, my prediction for who plays the will linebacker in the base 3-4 defense -- Chris Jordan.
That likely means that we'll see less corner and safety blitzes, as those guys will need to be more involved in helping Chris play the pass. It also means we might see more blitzing from the will linebacker.
From a run stopping standpoint, it doesn't change things. I don't expect Chris will be as good at stopping the run as Dont'a, but the scheme likely won't change to facilitate the personnel change.
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