It won’t be much longer until Alabama takes the field for its season opener against USC in suburban Dallas. For the most part, Alabama’s recent championship teams have been built around strong defenses, which often feature standout linebackers such as Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower or C.J Mosley.
Here’s a look at the 2016 Alabama linebacker corps:
Last season, Reuben Foster played next to Reggie Ragland and solidified his spot a starter after being locked in a position battle with Shaun Dion Hamilton early in the season. Well before he became a star in Alabama’s defense, Foster earned a reputation as one of the hardest hitters on the team thanks to hits like this one on LSU’s Leonard Fournette.
In 2015, Foster proved to be much more than just a thumper. He showcased his effectiveness in dropping back into coverage, ranking second on the team with nine pass breakups. As a senior, Foster will have to pick up some of the duties he deferred to Ragland a year ago, most importantly, defensive play-calling responsibility. Foster likely would have been drafted had he chose to enter the NFL Draft after his junior season, but as a senior his versatility and playmaking ability could greatly improve his draft stock.
While Foster should be on the field at virtually all times for Alabama, the other inside linebacker spot should be subject to some rotation. The two candidates that should gain the most playing time are Hamilton and converted outside linebacker Rashaan Evans. The two juniors should make up the majority of the reps and both bring completely different skill sets to the position.
As a former outside linebacker, Evans possesses speed that isn’t typical of Alabama’s inside linebackers. His speed and pass rushing ability will make him effective against the up-tempo offenses Alabama faces on almost a weekly basis. Evans showed off some of his effectiveness inside during the national championship game last January, when he sacked Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson twice. Against more traditional offenses, Hamilton will likely play more to defend against the run.
As strong as the potential is for whoever eventually makes up the inside linebacker duo, the two outside linebackers should have opposing quarterbacks shaking in their cleats this fall. At one outside spot is arguably the Tide’s most intriguing NFL Draft prospect: Tim Williams. Last season, Williams ranked second on the team with 10.5 sacks despite playing in a situational role. While he would have been a full-time starter on just about any other team in the country, Williams was used as a pass-rush specialist in 2015, playing almost exclusively on third and long. Although he played in limited action, Williams ranked third in the SEC in sacks, finishing behind teammate Jonathan Allen and Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett.
Unfortunately for SEC quarterbacks, Williams will no longer be used in a situational setting. Instead, he’ll be an every-down player and could increase his production as a result of playing more snaps. Williams will, however, have to prove himself against the run, especially when it comes to setting the edge against teams that try to avoid running into the teeth of the Alabama defense.
Williams’ running mate on the outside is Ryan Anderson, who was also an effective pass rusher in limited action last season. While he didn’t have the eye-popping numbers Williams produced, Anderson constantly pressured quarterbacks. His effectiveness in collapsing the pocket largely went unnoticed at times in 2015. Together, Williams and Anderson combine to form the best outside linebacker duo in the SEC.