Alabama hoping linebackers coalesces after season in flux
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Alabama’s Rashaan Evans doesn’t even try to downplay how disruptive injuries have been to the Crimson Tide linebacker corps.
“The injuries, they mess up a lot of things. They mess up chemistry, they mess up schemes,” Evans conceded on Friday, as Alabama prepared for its College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson in Monday night’s Sugar Bowl. “We’ve lost some guys, gained some guys, we lost another guy. ... We just have to do what we can do with what we’ve got.”
Fortunately for Alabama, college football is unlike any sport in terms of the monthlong hiatus between the end of the regular season and the major bowl games. It’s hard to know how Alabama’s defense will coalesce around players at several positions who’ve had limited snaps this season. But at least they’ve had time to get healthy, study their opponents and work on technique under the tutelage of defensive-minded coach Nick Saban, defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and their positions coaches.
“Coach Pruitt and Coach Saban have done a great job keeping us level-headed and not making us overreact about something like this, which a lot of teams would,” said Evans, who missed several games at his linebacker position with a groin injury. “We’ve done a great job of doing what we can do with people we have. And the guys that are here now, they’re going to play a good game. I promise you that. They’re going to be well prepared. They’re minds are going to be clear.”
Linebackers Dylan Moses, Hootie Jones and Shaun Dion Hamilton are unavailable to play in the Sugar Bowl. The Moses’ injury perhaps speaks most to Alabama’s ill fortune at the linebacker spot; it happened during a practice after he’d made it to the end of the regular season healthy.
Jones, meanwhile, was injured during Alabama’s Iron Bowl loss to Auburn. Hamilton started the first nine games of the year before injuring his knee against LSU in early November.
But Alabama has gotten back three potentially important members of its linebacker corps, including a pair of players in Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis who could bolster an edge pass rush that has been relatively anemic this season by Alabama standards. Miller and Lewis missed nearly the entire season after getting hurt in the season opener against Florida State.
Also back for ’Bama is Mack Wilson, an inside linebacker who wasn’t all that effective in his return against Auburn, but who could very well be a step quicker now.
Pruitt said Wilson played much of the season with a foot injury that required surgery after the LSU game.
“We’ve had to limit what he could do at practice,” Pruitt said. “The fact he’s been back obviously will help us, especially with Dylan being out. We’re excited to have him back. We need him back. He was playing really well until he got hurt. So we’ll see how he plays in this game.”
Pruitt said the return of Lewis, Mack and Miller “provides us depth, and we’ve got guys who are now kind of playing the positions that they played over the last couple years.”
Pruitt, who will be leaving to take over as head coach at Tennessee after this season, said that while Alabama is fortunate to be getting regulars at linebacker back in their regular spots at the season’s climax, there could be some residual effect of having to move players around earlier this season while trying to fill holes in the lineup.
“It’s been an unusual year,” Pruitt said. “It’s probably hurt some of the young guys’ growth and development.”
Alabama plays a 3-4 scheme, meaning in a good year, outside linebackers will pile up sacks. This season, Alabama’s 31 sacks ranks 25th nationally, well behind second-ranked Clemson’s 44.
Still, it’s not like Alabama had a lot of busts on defense. The Crimson Tide ranked second nationally in total defense, giving up an average of 257.8 yards per game.
“They keep saying there are a lot of injuries, but they just keep rolling guys in there,” Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliot said. “Really the linebacker position is the one that probably gives them the biggest issue just because they ask those guys to do so much.
“But when (Wilson) was in there, you saw him come back from his foot injury later in the season versus Auburn playing at a high level,” Elliot added. “One of their best players on defense is (Evans), the way that he runs around. So I anticipate that with the time off, they have an opportunity to get those guys healthy and really haven’t seen them go away from what they do. They just keep plugging guys in and asking those young guys to step up.”
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