TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At a school known for cranking out top-notch linebackers, there are several names used to compare the next rising star.
Most recently, Rolando McClain was the gold standard at Alabama. Now it’s C.J. Mosley’s turn to carry the baton. His progression has him in position to make the biggest noise on Alabama’s grandest stage: The Iron Bowl.
As the Crimson Tide’s third leading tackler, the middle linebacker has the assignment of the year attempting to contain Auburn quarterback Cam Newton at 2:30 p.m. Friday when the second-ranked Tigers come to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“Since he’s played he’s been a playmaker for us, whether it’s tipping ball, batting balls, getting interceptions or making lots of tackles,” coach Nick Saban said. “It’s very challenging -- especially with all the multiples that we see and it seems like it’s getting worse every year in terms of what the offense presents to the defense, in terms of what different things, formations and adjustments -- to have a freshman who doesn’t have a whole bunch of resource of information to go on to be in a position where he’s having to make all these adaptations.”
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Linebacker Nico Johnson -- a starter as a freshman last season -- is listed alongside Mosley atop the depth chart at the same middle linebacker position that McClain owned in his three years in Tuscaloosa. The same attributes that Saban listed for Mosley were among those he used for McClain, who was drafted eighth overall by the Oakland Raiders following his junior season last fall.
In the battle to replace him permanently, Mosley appears to be nosing ahead with his play as of late.
His heady play brings back memories of McClain in Hightower’s mind while setting Mosley above himself.
“He’s a little smarter,” Hightower said. “He’s a lot smarter than I was as a freshman which makes it seem that there’s a little Rolando in him.”
He’s even a little ahead of McClain’s pace statistically at this point in his rookie season that ended with 75 tackles.
McClain, though, made it known against Auburn in 2007 that his name would soon stand aside some of the greats in Tide history. He made 15 tackles in a loss to the Tigers, intercepted a pass and ran it 23 yards before getting tackled on the Auburn 19.
Mosley, on the other hand, doesn’t go down after his interceptions.
On the two occasions he stepped in front of an opposing quarterback’s pass, Mosley returned the picks for touchdowns. He had a 41-yarder in Thursday’s win over Georgia State and another that covered 35 yards against Florida in a game last month.
In the record books, he is tied for the single-season mark he needs just one more to tie the school career record for interceptions returned for touchdowns trailing just Antonio Langham’s three.
On a team that leads the nation with 21 interceptions, the freshman linebacker is the only to find the end zone.
That fact isn’t lost on safety Robert Lester, the SEC leader who ranks second nationally with seven picks.
“I was talking to (C.J.) after the game and I was like, ‘Teach me how do you do it?”’ Lester said. “Because I’ve had seven opportunities to take an interception return (for a touchdown) and I wasn’t able to do it. He’s gotten the ball twice and he’s been able to score (two) touchdowns. He really didn’t tell me anything.”
Mosley was not available for interviews per Alabama’s policy barring true freshmen from speaking to reporters.
He’s done plenty of his talking on the field since earning his first start of the season at South Carolina. In the five SEC games that followed, he’s totaled 40 of his 60 total tackles and hasn’t had fewer than nine in his past three league games. Against Mississippi State, his 11 stops lead all defenders and his pass break-up on a third-down play killed a Bulldog drive.
For the season’s he’s broken up seven passes and defended seven others while recording 1.5 tackles for loss including a half of a sack and hurrying quarterbacks on two other occasions.