Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Profilin' the Tide: Linebackers

Previously: General Offensive PreviewOffensive LineTailbacksWide receivers, Tight Ends, and H-backsQuarterbacksGeneral Defensive Preview, Defensive Line 

Did you hear that? That terror-filled screamed reverberating in the distance? That's the sound made when Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower punch through the space-time continuum with reckless abandon, reaching into future times to hogtie the quarterbacks of the future, those that are only small children now, because contemporary targets offer challenges unequal to them. Yes, I am basically comparing them to Predator. That noise, just now, was Don'ta Hightower sacking David Sills, the 13 year old that Lane Kiffin somehow got to commit to USC two years ago: sorry, buddy. At least you're not being coached by Lane Kiffin anymore.* Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower scoff at the "laws" of physics--they're really mere suggestions--and your anatomy's structural integrity. They hit you, and it hurts. 

And now, the good news: they're gone, everybody! They're now the AFC North's and East's problem. Additionally, Alabama lost Jerrell Harris, who more than ably manned the SAM position. Alabama does return some experienced talent--namely, Nico Johnson and CJ Mosley--but losing players of the caliber of Upshaw and Hightower, in addition to a sometimes starter/significant contributor like Harris, is no small task. 

As you know, Alabama's base defense is the 3-4, which asks its down linemen to basically sacrifice themselves so that the linebackers can clean up and make plays. When done correctly, the 3-4 can be a monster of a defense to attempt to attack; the 1997 Michigan defense says hello. Guys like Terrence Cody and Josh Chapman at the nose have allowed Alabama's talented linebackers to do their thing en route to significant chunks of guaranteed rookie contract money. Guys like Rolando McClain, Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, and others, have stood on the shoulders of giants, if you will. 

*Or...are you? Maybe this future time-space is one in which Lane Kiffin is offered the Dallas Cowboys head coaching job, and accepts it...but not before telling everyone in the state of California that Five Guys is better than In 'n Out and putting enough money in every jukebox in the metro LA area to play "Call Me Maybe" for the rest of time. That is plausible. 

The Starters 
Again, the standard "these are somewhat nominal" refrain goes here, but the starters as of right now would seem to look like so: 

CJ Mosley (WLB)-Nico Johnson (MLB)-Adrian Hubbard (SLB)-Xzavier Dickson (JLB)

For what it's worth, Hubbard and Dickson are listed as contenders for both the Jack and SLB spots, but returns from spring ball indicate that Dickson has the reins for the Jack position which Courtney Upshaw vacated in order to go destroy quarterbacks at the professional level. Also, when Alabama shifts to its nickel sets to combat the more wide open teams it faces (e.g. Arkansas), the SLB is the first to come off the field, which is why Jerrell Harris wasn't the constant presence that you'd expect of a starting linebacker. 

There is another scenario in which Trey DePriest fills in at MLB, with Johnson sliding out to Will and Mosley rotating there fairly liberally. Johnson has played both positions, so it would seem that a lot of this depends on how DePriest looked to the staff throughout the spring/will look during fall practice. It's plausible that, against Michigan, Saban will side with his experienced lineup, slotting Mosley at Will and Johnson at Mike, as Alabama will have the rest of the season to work DePriest into the lineup. DePriest will play, though, as Saban loves nothing more than giving offenses multiple looks. Whereas Michigan couldn't do a single thing right under Greg Robinson, the Tide under Saban's robotic tutelage execute multiple defenses with a cold efficiency. 

In short, I've ready many conflicting spring reports and depth charts from various sources across the Great Wide Variably Reliable Internet, so I'm just going to lay out the basics here without sweating the positions, because the positions and their accompanying skill sets are somewhat interchangeable. 

Please just wait one extra week to be really good okay thanks 

Adrian Hubbard (6-6, 248) is a rising redshirt sophomore, meaning that 2012 will be his third season in the program. After taking a redshirt in 2012, Hubbard played in 8 games last season, contributing 9 tackles as a backup Jack linebacker. Hubbard is not quite as big as Upshaw was, which is to be expected given his relative youth. Spring practice was apparently a good time for Adrian Hubbard, capped by a monster performance during the April 14th A-Day game (yes, spring games don't matter something something). Either way, there's not much to say here, as Hubbard's reputation at this point rides almost completely upon the wings of his recruiting hype and optimistic spring ball reports. That is to say that, you know, he's completely unproven. I would be lying if I said that Hubbard isn't the most important player in this group for the 2012 season. 

Hubbard's supreme athleticism led to questions of whether or not he might lace 'em up for Coach Anthony Grant on the hardwood. This did not come to pass, but could you imagine a 6-7 225 guy playing the 4; if he has any sort of basketball skill, his size and athleticism would make him a prime candidate for an NBA career (this is completely speculative, fyi). Although it seems a bit odd to dub Hubbard the "X factor" of this group when another starting linebacker named "Xzavier" exists, I think it is an apt descriptor. The Jack linebacker is the difference between just another solid defense that stops the run pretty well and one that makes life for opposing offenses a futile series of painful failure for approximately 3 seemingly interminable hours. So, no pressure, Adrian. 

Speaking of Xzavier Dickson--whose first name is a spectacular instance of adherence to pure phonetics in naming--is the other linebacker with above average pass rushing ability on the roster. Again, it appears that he's still in the mix for time at SAM, but for now it looks like Dickson will man the Jack position. Otherwise, if Hubbard ultimately wins the JLB competition, Dickson slots in at SAM, replacing Jerrell Harris. Dickson, listed at 6-3 262, is a full 20 pounds heavier than Harris, which would seem to make the decision of whether or not to take him off the field on passing downs even easier. In fact, Dickson worked with the defensive ends last season, notching time as a backup (in addition to some special teams reps). The link includes video of Dickson running around doing drills and such, if you're the sort of person to go on crazed extrapolative benders induced by brief and meaningless practice clips. Either way, he looks the part of the SAM. However, concerns re: experience are even more relevant here than they are for Hubbard. 

Nico Johnson is one of two bringers of experience and linebacking wisdom for the Crimson Tide. As a senior, this group will be looking to him for guidance. Johnson's flexibility is also a boon for the defensive staff, as he has logged starts at both the WLB and MLB positions throughout his career. Save the first LSU game last season, Johnson didn't necessarily light up the stat sheet, but that can be understandably difficult to do when one occupies that same playing field as Hightower and Upshaw. Sometimes, there's just not much left. 
CJ Mosley, for the purposes of this post, can basically be considered a starter. In fact, Mosley and Johnson were marked as "co-starters" during fall camp last year, and they did go on to essentially share the WLB position throughout the season. Mosley dislocated an elbow against Arkansas that caused him to miss 2 games. He also sustained a pretty brutal hip dislocation in the national championship game following that hilarious Jordan Jefferson derp-ception. Regardless, Mosley has participated in spring ball, and although he might not be 100%, he should be ready to go on September 1st barring further episodes of spontaneous bodily dislocation. Mosley had a superb freshman campaign back in 2010; I expect him to build upon that this season. Mosley, at 6-2 232, is the smallest and speediest of the bunch, and there's no doubt that he will have his sights set on Denard during most of the game on September 1st.  He's a dynamic guy that can take an interception and turn it into a touchdown going the other way. As such, Mosley is a nickel specialist, but I wouldn't be surprised if he played a significant percentage of the snaps in the base 3-4 as well. 

The Replacements 
In the middle, we have our old friend Trey DePriest, whom many thought was going to be a Wolverine at one point during his recruitment. Of course, that didn't happen, and DePriest is now a sophomore at Alabama. The continuing theme here is youth, and although it's not as if DePriest was handed the position (Tana Patrick, a once big time linebacker recruit, was competing for this spot), I might be slightly worried about DePriest starting if I was an Alabama fan. There's not much to say here other than the fact that we know the potential is there, it just hasn't had the opportunity to manifest itself on the field. 

DePriest did see some game action last season as a true freshman, notching at least one tackle in every game save the Georgia State and Auburn matchups (in which he either didn't play or didn't make his mark on the stat sheet). In the season opener against Kent State, DePriest tallied 10 total tackles. Playing Kent State is like training on Dagobah, though; you might do some things, but how impressive or ultimately meaningful is it until you prove it in a competitive environment (i.e. SEC play/Darth Vader)? 

Tana Patrick is another player competing for time in the middle. The name should be vaguely familiar, as Michigan was once in on Patrick's recruitment several years back. Unfortunately, Patrick will be a redshirt junior this season, having yet to make his mark on the field. Patrick (6-3 236) has seen game action the last two seasons, but apparently nothing meaningful enough to write home about. At this point, it looks like he'll be DePriest's backup. 

The rest of the list here contains mostly fresh faces. Jonathan Atchinson (6-3 236), who looks to back up Dickson/Hubbard at the Jack position, will be a redshirt junior this season. He has the reputation of a guy with speed and play-making ability in the backfield, which is pretty much what the JLB spot calls for. He'll be in the mix, but it's anybody's guess how much of a factor he'll be against Michigan. 

Alabama also boasts talented early enrollees Dillon Lee and Ryan Anderson. Lee has practiced both on the inside and outside positions, whereas Anderson seems to be strictly an outside linebacker. If either play against Michigan, then something has probably gone terribly wrong for either Alabama or Michigan. 

General Spring Minutiae/Encomium That Results In A "Bristling" Saban

We already know about Nico Johnson and CJ Mosley. They've been around and will likely be tasked with calming guys down...with Denard across the way and a hyper-electric stadium, a little nervousness on the part of guys like Hubbard, Dickson, DePriest would be understandable (especially early on). The good news for Alabama is that Mosley seems to have recovered from his hip injury quite nicely
"I wouldn't say 100%, but I'm just getting there every day. Rehabbing is going pretty well. I did a little rehab over spring break, but overall I'm feeling good at practice running around."
That was as of late March, so he should be fine by September barring any further aggravation.

Roll Bama Roll on Adrian Hubbard's A-Day performance:
The standout on defense yesterday was unquestionably Sam linebacker Adrian Hubbard, who may have had the best spring of any player on the roster. He was a consistently dominant force yesterday and could possibly be considered one of the defensive stars at this point. By putting him at Sam linebacker with Xzavier Dickson at Jack, Nick Saban and company effectively have two Jacks on the field, which largely makes for a true 5-2 base defense and provides countless alignment possibilities.
So, I'm not sure the distinction between what Dickson and Hubbard will be doing on the field is all that significant. Some more Hubbard praise on ESPN's SEC Blog
Hubbard had a monster spring for the Crimson Tide. He takes over for Courtney Upshaw at the Jack position and the people at Alabama think he might be the Tide's top pass-rusher this fall. The rising sophomore earned the Dwight Stephenson Lineman of the Game Award given to the spring game's most valuable lineman after registering seven tackles, including four tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks.
From a late March practice report re: Hubbard and Dickson: 
In one drill, Alabama had not only six defensive backs in the secondary but outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard was deep in the middle, too. Hubbard is a 6-foot-6, 237-pound redshirt sophomore-to-be who backed up Jack linebacker Courtney Upshaw last season. Hubbard was a football and basketball star in high school. He looks as if he can be a playmaker on the defense, but in the secondary in a dime defense? Perhaps that means sophomore-to-be Xzavier Dickson is targeted more as the pass-rushing Jack linebacker.
While the SLB/JLB positions aren't set in stone, one thing is for sure: Saban will throw a more than a few looks at Michigan, no matter who is on the field for the Tide. Borges has all summer to come up with a way to combat each set; however, at the end of the day, Denard and Co. need to go out and make Borges's schematic etchings come to life. Even the best laid plans can combust when crossing the river separating conception and reality. 

Things to Think About/Watch Out For/ARE WE GONNA DIE? 

  • This is another "maybe, maybe not" answer to the question of whether we are going to die or not. Guys like Hubbard and Dickson are reportedly excellent athletes with superior pass rushing ability...but, they haven't done it in actual games that matter yet. While I do believe that they are as talented as Alabama partisans are saying that they are, doing it in practice is different from doing it in a game (let alone trying to get around tandem bike aficionado Taylor Lewan). 
  • How much of the game on September 1st will Bama utilize the base 3-4? According to Saban, Alabama has only played out of the 3-4 approximately 20% of the time of late, with the other 80% accounted for by traditional 4-3 sets (in addition to the nickel). As RBR notes, with Dickson and Hubbard on the field at the same time, it also leaves the door open for some unique 5-2 looks and potential mass confusion on Michigan's part. Either way, with Denard's speed and Michigan's lack of a true power running game, Saban will probably be looking to get as much speed on the field as possible, which probably leads one to believe that September 1st will be a busy day for CJ Mosley. 
  • What will Trey DePriest's role be on September 1st? I would think that he wouldn't be on the field in nickel situations, and when Bama moves to a traditional 4-3 look, Nico Johnson can/will man the MIKE position. The former 5-star 'backer will have his day in the sun, but I'm not sure that the Michigan game will provide his best chance to shine. 

Meaningless Grade That I Will Give Out Anyway
In spite of the talent that exists here, I would be the most worried about this position group if I was an Alabama fan. This group could be given an A based on talent alone, but I have to give them a B simply because, outside of Mosley and Johnson, there is very little game experience to be found. Dickson, Hubbard, and DePriest are all very talented guys that will prove to be very productive players, but it's very difficult for me to imagine them performing on 9/1 at even 75-80% of level that Upshaw and Hightower did last year. No matter how great a defensive mind Saban is and no matter how talented these replacements are, there will be some slippage. 

Ultimately, how much slippage there is will partly determine whether or not Michigan will have a chance at consistently moving the ball. This Alabama front 7 will be very good...but, it is very green. Assuming Michigan's offensive line holds up adequately, I'm confident that a veteran like Al Borges will be able to come up with something to take advantage of Bama's overall lack of experience. Whether that "something" leads to first downs and touchdowns on the field is another issue entirely. After watching Virginia Tech's defense stifle Michigan for most of the game, it's difficult to be too overconfident. Given the multiplicity of the Alabama defense and its overall athleticism, Borges will certainly earn his paycheck if Michigan can score somewhere in the 20s. 


  1. last time we played a Michigan team it was 49-7
    and didn't they beat you ?

  2. Wow Roll Tide Roll-hope all these inexperienced guys can at least hang in there half time-cant wait til Sept 1.

  3. I'm a Bama alum and this is a great breakdown. 9/1 will be great game, two powerhouses duking it out.

    Good luck to you guys and cheers.

  4. Just curious, if Alabama's linebackers get a B, what linebacking unit in the entire country could score an A?

    1. Again...these grades are non-scientific and not that important. But, since you asked, off the top of my head I'd probably say UGA, Michigan State, Stanford, and maybe Penn State (if Mauti has recovered from his knee injury decently enough) are probably at or near that level.

      Listen, I get that Alabama fans are excited about the next wave of highly rated guys who set to take over for Upshaw, Hightower, and Harris, but you seriously cannot expect me to speak about this group without inserting even a single iota of criticism. Come on. Anyway, I said this group could be an "A based on talent alone."

      In any case, this ignores the fact that this silly grade doesn't mean that Alabama won't end up being better...these grades are just offseason predictions based on returning talent AND experience. That's all it is, really.