TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — If there was one unit on the Alabama football team that didn’t give much cause for preseason concern it was the linebackers.
Expert after expert ranked the group among the nation’s elite, and The Sporting News named it the best in the country. But that was before Brandon Fanney officially was kicked off the team, leaving the group without the team’s third-leading tackler from 2008.
So the Crimson Tide coaches have been doing a little experimenting in the first week of practices as defenders are trying new positions to find a new Jack linebacker, a hybrid of a defensive end and linebacker in coach Nick Saban’s 3-4 defense.
Eryc Anders filled in as the starting Jack in April’s A-Day game, when Fanney was suspended, and has drawn praise from Saban in the early stages of the preseason workouts. The senior from San Antonio also has played some at the Sam linebacker spot in practice.
“Maybe after eight or 10 practices, maybe after two weeks of practices, maybe after 20 practices, at some point in time if some combination of guys looks like it’s going to be best for our team, then that’s when we’ll make a choice and decision about that,” Saban said. “But I think we have some good players, and I think we have some good candidates. I think there is lots of opportunity there for lots of players.”
The two players who are all but assured of their starting spots are sophomore Dont’a Hightower and junior Rolando McClain, both All-American candidates. McClain appears to be firm in his spot at Mike linebacker, patrolling the middle strong side of the defense, but Hightower has been shuffled to a few different places.
The sophomore is taking reps at Jack. Cory Reamer, last season’s starting Sam, moved to Will in one of last week’s practices. Defensive lineman Milton Talbert has practiced a little with the linebackers in a move Saban called “experimental.”
With an extra emphasis being placed on rushing the passer after recording just 26 sacks last season to rank seventh in the SEC, whoever plays Jack will be expected to disrupt opposing quarterbacks. The hiring of new linebacker coach and former Carolina Panther assistant Sal Sunseri, an All-American linebacker at Pittsburgh, signified Saban’s commitment to getting more pressure on the passers
“Coach Sal came from the Carolina Panthers, where he worked with John Fox, who is one of the best in the business at rushing the passer,” Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “He’s brought a lot of new ideas and a lot of energy, and, hopefully, we can improve that.”
Hightower, who came in as a true freshman in 2008 to pick up 64 tackles as the Will, said he looks forward to working with Sunseri and sounded interested in taking on that job at Jack.
“I think Jack is a little bit easier than Will, because, the majority of the time, you are pass rushing,” Hightower said. “It’s not easy, but it’s a little bit easier than being in the middle.”
Hightower listed other contenders for the job, including Courtney Upshaw who got some time at the position last season. Then there are a healthy stable of highly-touted freshmen, including high school All-Americans Nico Johnson and Tana Patrick, who could compete for playing time if needed.