Alabama football: Healthy linebackers lead to hungry Crimson Tide defense

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerOctober 29, 2011 

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Hunger wasn’t the issue in 2010. Health was.

Alabama linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower clearly weren’t themselves a season ago. Production suffered.

And the hunger only grew.

By September, both had healed, and the Crimson Tide’s first eight opponents certainly felt their presence. Hightower, back 100 percent after a torn ACL in 2009, leads Alabama with 47 tackles in a versatile role. Sometimes he rushes the passer. Sometimes he drops into coverage.

Upshaw sprained his ankle in the 2010 opener, slowing his pass-rushing explosion off the line of scrimmage. That’s hardly an issue this fall with his 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss leading the team by comfortable margins entering the Nov. 5 showdown with No. 1 LSU.

“Both of those guys are really good players, and in our defense, because we play a 3-4, you like guys who are a little bigger because they have to take on blockers,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “You play a 3-4 you can get away with smaller, faster guys -- they still have to be good football players -- but maybe he doesn’t have to take on blocks quite as much. And these guys do a good job of that as well as they are very instinctive, play fast.”

And others have noticed.

Sports Illustrated’s midseason draftability rankings slotted Upshaw 33rd, followed by Hightower at No. 38.

Both were named semifinalists for the Butkus Award, honoring the nation’s top linebacker. Hightower was the national Lott Trophy Impact Player of the Week after possibly his most complete game in an Alabama uniform.

His seven tackles were complemented by an interception, sack, three quarterback hurries and two pass-breakups. It also made him the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Week.

“It was crazy, just being beside him and just like, ‘Dang, he’s a wild animal out here,’” linebacker Nico Johnson said. “It was his in-state team and he felt like he had to show a purpose why he came to Alabama. He felt like Alabama was the better team, so he wanted to prove that.”

Upshaw is more of a specialist, though he found himself on the receiving end of an interception that went for a touchdown at Florida.

As the hybrid outside linebacker/defensive lineman known as the “jack,” his first priority is affecting the quarterback.

The biggest difference Saban’s seen in his development is his size. Entering college from Eufaula, weighing about 240 pounds, the 6-foot-2 senior is now listed at 265.

“I think he played mostly with his hand in the dirt in high school, so he’d never been a stand-up player before,” Saban said. “When players play a different position in high school, the transition is maybe a little more difficult when you go to college. … As he developed confidence, you play faster and with more confidence. He’s always been a good pass rusher, and he’s certainly improved in that regard.”

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