TUSCALOOSA ― Game week has finally arrived for Jerrell Harris.
Suspended for the first six games of the season for violating NCAA rules, second-ranked Alabama’s mysterious linebacker is now eligible. What that will mean for the ever-changing linebacker lineup remains an enigma even for those closest to the situation.
The season-ending injury to Dont’a Hightower two weeks ago created a carousel for the remaining linebackers who have been searching for the right combination. Freshman Nico Johnson was the latest addition to the starting lineup as he moved into Hightower’s old spot at Will (inside) linebacker for Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC) in a 22-3 win at Ole Miss on Saturday.
The latest edition of the depth chart has an “or” between Johnson and Harris atop the list at Will. Just who gets the starting nod for the 7:45 p.m. Saturday visit from No. 22 South Carolina (5-1, 2-1 SEC) will likely remain a secret until the defense hits the field.
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“Those two guys will compete and get reps this week and later in the week, we’ll have to make a decision as to who is most ready to play in certain roles, relative to how both guys can contribute,” coach Nick Saban said. “I think both guys can contribute. (Johnson) did a good job, especially the first time out.”
Saban previously said Harris was a potential starter coming out of preseason practice, but the eligibility issue limited his reps in practice after learning he couldn’t play in the early-season games. Coming out of Gadsden City, Harris was among the top-50 recruits nationally by a number of recruiting services.
As a freshman, he saw limited action as an outside linebacker and special teams player. His one tackle with the defense was recorded against Tennessee.
Neither Harris nor Johnson was available to reporters Monday, but a few of the starting linebackers were. Rolando McClain, the other inside linebacker in Alabama’s 3-4 scheme, complimented Johnson’s three-tackle performance in what was his first start at Alabama. When asked about Harris, he had trouble talking about specifics.
“I don’t know,” McClain said. “He hasn’t played with us yet, but he is a hard-working guy in practice. It’s a lot different between practice and a game. I can’t say what he brings because he hasn’t played in a game. But I know in practice he brings a lot of speed and he’s very physical and he’s a good player and we’ll see.”
Cory Reamer had been floating between the Sam (outside) linebacker and Will since Hightower’s injury. Even though two younger players are now seemingly in a competition to take that inside position, Reamer couldn’t say with certainty if he was back full time at his outside spot.
“Probably,” he said. “Who knows?”
As the days get colder, Reamer said he’s also seen a lot of maturity developing for Johnson. The highly-recruited Andalusia product took time adjusting to the in your face coaching at Alabama.
“(Johnson) was taking all the comments (Saban) said — or how he said it — instead of what he said more personally than he should have,” Reamer said. “He beat himself up because he wanted to be what coach knew he could be. And he wanted to do everything perfect. We finally talked to him and settled him down and let him realize that can’t take it how he’s saying it.”
The trickle down effect of Johnson and Harris moving to Will and switching Reamer back to Sam meant a demotion for Courtney Upshaw. A starter at the other outside (Jack) linebacker position, he was moved back to the backup when Eryk Anders was rotated back from the Sam.
The only starting linebacker not affected by the movement was McClain who’s team-high 42 tackles is 10 better than Mark Barron’s second-best total.