How much of a difference can Alabama’s returning linebackers make?

Alabama football-Christian Miller-Nick Saban-Terrell Lewis-Mack Wilson-Minkah
            Fitzpatrick-injury updates-Auburn-Iron Bowl

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — That they played at all was big.

University of Alabama outside linebackers Christian Miller (biceps) and Terrell Lewis (elbow) were thought to be gone for the season after suffering major injuries in the opener against Florida State. Interior linebacker Mack Wilson had surgery on his foot in early November and was also expected to be out. But with a strong effort, all three were able to suit up and play some at Auburn.

The key word there is some. Now they’ll have a chance to do a lot more.

When the Crimson Tide begin postseason practices later this week, the injured trio will be full-go for the duration of workouts for the College Football Playoff and have more of a presence and impact.

Miller and Lewis missed 10 games and Wilson two, but all hoped to give their team at least an emotional lift in the Iron Bowl. While knocking off the rust, Wilson made a tackle and was credited with a quarterback hurry. Miller also had a solo tackle while Lewis had two assists. None of the three started, and coaches were careful with their reps.

“They all made a contribution and I didn’t see any glaring errors,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the game. “I think everybody out there probably made a few mistakes, but I think it was very helpful that we had those guys back, and we were glad to have them back.”

For the Clemson game, though, their status elevates, like going from part-time to full-time. When factoring in the extra time off plus all the bowl practices, there’s the potential for significant improvement.

Saban’s defense is based on a lot of things, but two of the fundamental aspects that you’ll hear him talk about a lot are “continuity and togetherness.” Knowing what you’re supposed to do on every play is obviously important, but being familiar and comfortable with what everyone is up to and just reacting are crucial.

Think of it as a doubles team in tennis. When a tandem works well together it’s like watching the wiper blades on a car: One goes left so the other goes left to fill the void, and so on. Now imagine 11 players doing the same thing, which is why experience is so important.

Alabama’s defense had six new starters this season, and never fully played together due to injuries. Senior linebacker Rashaan Evans was out for a while, as were senior defensive end Da’Shawn Hand and sophomore linebacker Anfernee Jennings. All-America defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick suffered a hamstring injury against LSU.

Senior interior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton and senior defensive back Hootie Jones are out for the Sugar Bowl, but everyone else should be healed up in time for Clemson.

As for how important continuity can be, consider a Saban comment from earlier this season: “We didn’t execute very well defensively: not stopping the run; not getting off field on the third down; didn’t play great in the red zone. So we have a lot of work to do. We made a lot of mental errors with the new guys playing, in some cases different positions.”

That was after playing Colorado State, when the Rams had 391 total yards and scored 23 points, more than every opponent this season except Mississippi State (24) and Auburn (26).

Having Wilson back at full speed will be important as he can provide some stability in the interior in Hamilton’s absence. So will practicing there every day alongside Evans, with freshman Dylan Moses and junior Keith Holcombe the likely second-team players. All four can completely focus on their roles and not worry about filling in elsewhere.

Alabama was so shorthanded at linebacker this season that it took the redshirt off VanDarius Cowan and even briefly tried freshman defensive end LaBryan Ray there.

“He moves pretty good for his size,” junior defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne said, but Ray quickly moved back. Incidentally, he’s expected to be day-to-day with a foot injury until Alabama heads to New Orleans after Christmas.

“Mack can play outside linebacker, Holcombe can play outside linebacker. But if we move them out then we’ve created another issue for us at another position,” Saban said when the injuries mounted, adding about the young fill-ins: “We need to develop confidence, so they have a good understanding of what’s expected of them when the game comes.”

As for the outside linebacker spots, Miller and Lewis should be able to add a pass-rushing element that Alabama has sorely missed from a year ago. In 2016, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams both notched nine sacks. This season, not including when Evans and others have slid over on obvious passing downs, the strong-side and what Saban calls the “Jack” (the hybrid end/linebacker spot) have a total of one.

Junior Jamey Mosley got his first career sack against Fresno State.

Alabama went from having 54 sacks in 2016, to 31 this season, with just one (and five hurries) against Auburn.

It will have to affect the quarterback more against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m. ET, ESPN), with players such as Miller adding some of what Anderson and Williams had provided.

“Those guys carried themselves well,” Miller said at the beginning of the season. “They came in and attacked every day. They were definitely leaders on this defense. They spoke up.

“They always did what they were supposed to do, so basically I kind of just learned how to just have that alpha dog presence and just speak up and be a leader out there and just play with physicality and toughness — and at the same time, do my assignment. That’s what I got from those guys, and it’s paid off a lot.”

The post How much of a difference can Alabama’s returning linebackers make? appeared first on SEC Country.

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