With four players down, Tide works to rebuild linebacker corps
TUSCALOOSA — Alabama’s worst fears were realized.
Two days after both were injured in Alabama’s 24-7 season-opening win against Florida State, Crimson Tide outside linebackers Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis will miss the remainder of the season, coach Nick Saban revealed Monday afternoon,
In his postgame news conference after the game, Saban initially labeled both players “very questionable.” On Monday, he said both will require season-ending surgery in the next few days.
“We hate it that we lost these players,” Saban said. “They’re both good players. They both made significant improvement. They both played well in the game. But this is an opportunity for somebody else to step up and be able to play at a high level as well.”
Starting outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings (sprained ankle) and inside backer Rashaan Evans (groin) are questionable with what Saban termed “significant injuries that won’t be long term,” leaving the Tide down four linebackers — three of whom are pass-rushing threats on the outside.
Miller, the Tide’s starting Sam linebacker who dealt with a hamstring injury throughout preseason camp, suffered a biceps injury. He played sparingly in the second half, finishing the game with three tackles and one for loss.
Listed as Miller’s backup at Sam on the Crimson Tide’s two-deep depth chart, Lewis went down midway through the third quarter. He walked off the field under his own power, bending his right arm back and forth at the elbow as he walked inside the Alabama medical tent.
He emerged minutes later with his arm in a sling. Lewis finished with five tackles, including one for loss.
“It definitely sucks with two guys going down, but like I said before we just rebuild,” said Shaun Dion Hamilton, the Tide’s starting Mike linebacker who himself just recovered from a torn knee ligament. “Next guy’s up. All the guys who get recruited here are top guys, so it’s time for them to grow up.”
Where Alabama goes from here is still murky. Junior Keith Holcombe played in relief of Evans for most of the second half, though sophomore Mack Wilson also saw time. Both could conceivably slide outside, too.
Hamilton, Holcombe, true freshman Dylan Moses and Wilson were the first four inside linebackers going through drills during the open portion of Monday’s practice.
And, whenever he’s able to return, Evans has experience cross-training at both inside and outside linebacker.
“Mack can play outside linebacker; Holcombe can play outside linebacker,” Saban said. “But if we move them out then we’ve created another issue for us at another position. We have some young players who we think can develop. Obviously, they don’t have the experience, but we’ve played young players before.”
Moses, an early-enrollee who was one of eight true freshmen to play against the Seminoles, is Holcombe’s co-backup. Classmate Chris Allen, who arrived in the summer, is Mosley’s at Jack linebacker.
“We feel like some of those guys can make a contribution,” Saban said. “We need to develop confidence, so they have a good understanding of what’s expected of them when the game comes.”
Mosley, sophomore Mekhi Brown and VanDarius Cowan were the first three players in outside linebacker drills Monday. Also with the group was freshman defensive end LaBryan Ray, who had not worked with a group other than the defensive line all preseason.
A 6-foot-5, five-star prospect who was the No. 1 strong-side defensive end in the 2017 recruiting class, Ray now joins a long, youthful list of players thrust into more prominent roles.
“We have a lot of good young guys and I already told them that if y’all need anything from me I am willing to help and watch extra film with them or whatever,” Hamilton said. “I know me and all the other coaches and some of the leaders are going to do what we need to do to get those guys ready.”