TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — That old itch returns to Barry Krauss’ stomach every once in a while.
Catching the occasional Alabama football practice brings the former Crimson Tide linebacker back to the days he spent on the same plot of land.
Now a 52-year-old sideline reporter for the Crimson Tide Sports Network, Krauss knows his age prevents a return to the field. Stepping onto the field nowadays would mean competing with one of the nation’s best linebacking units.
“I couldn’t hang with those boys,” Krauss said with his commanding voice that progressively grew louder. “Those boys, let me tell you, blow me away. … Standing on the sideline and just feeling those hits, I’m fascinated that I played at that level.”
And it’s not as if Krauss was a walk-on who played sparingly.
His tackle of Penn State’s Mike Guman in the final minutes of the 1979 Sugar Bowl has been immortalized in living rooms across the state where the painting of that play hangs. After the famous goal-line stand helped the Tide win another national title, Krauss played 11 seasons in the NFL. He was drafted sixth in 1979 by the Colts, an organization with which he still does broadcasting work.
The linebackers delivering the hits this season — Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower and Eryk Anders — are the top three tacklers on the one of the best defensive teams nationally through three games.
Comparing the current group of Tide linebackers with the crew Krauss played with isn’t easy. The game has changed too much for accurate comparisons with his teammates, who included Ricky Gilliland, Rich Wingo and Wayne Hamilton. Krauss has noticed one of the intangibles that made his teams so successful is also present with this group of linebackers.
“I see that trust out there, and it’s really cool,” Krauss said. “When you can communicate and collaborate out there on the football field, and nobody panics and everyone is calm, it’s exciting to watch.”
More than 30 years after leaving Tuscaloosa for an 11-year NFL career, Krauss sees similarities in the practice routine. Nick Saban runs a tight practice, just as Bear Bryant did. Nobody walks, discipline is tight and players help coach each other.
Watching McClain work with Hightower last season was instrumental in developing him into an All-American caliber player this year. McClain leads the team with 18 tackles followed by Anders’ 16 and Hightower’s 14. It is Anders, the Jack linebacker, who has been a pleasant surprise to Krauss.
Generally seen as undersized at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, Anders stepped right into the job focusing on pass rush when Brandon Fanney (6-4, 257) was kicked off the team. His 0.5 sacks and team-high three quarterback hurries show his unwillingness to accept the perception of his size limiting production.
“I’ve always been undersized, and I played D-line in high school,” Anders said. “It’s just something that I’ve got a knack for, and it comes naturally to me. I just try to play tough and aggressive and not let anybody push me around.”
Anders said he has yet to speak with Krauss, but his spirit embodies a lot of what his predecessor sees as tenets of a good linebacker.
In his day, Krauss said the linebackers formed what was known as the “LB Club.”
“We’re a special breed,” he said. “I’ve always been told linebackers are a special breed. We’re the ones who lead the defense. If we aren’t hitting and creating the tempo, nobody else will. We’re expected to be at a higher level at all times.”
As a linebacker who transitioned from the college game to the pros, Krauss definitely sees the potential in McClain and Hightower to do the same. McClain is eligible for the draft after this season, and Hightower could bolt after 2010.
Still, he wants to see them stick around and win “a couple” of national titles at Alabama.
That possibility is real, Krauss said, because he sees many of the same qualities in this team that were present in his national championship season.
“They’re encouraging each other, and they’re not selfish,” he said. “That’s the difference. That’s a huge intangible that Nick Saban has been able to bring.”