TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With Reggie Ragland deciding to bypass the NFL and return to Alabama for his senior season, the Crimson Tide's defense received a big boost.
Ragland is the Tide's top returning tackler after finishing second on the team with 95 stops (45 solo) in 2014. He finished third in tackles for loss (10.5) while adding 1.5 sacks, an interception and three fumble recoveries.
Ragland will be tasked with leading the Tide's defense and the team in 2015.
But like all Tide inside linebackers before him, Ragland needs a sidekick in the middle of the Tide's defense.
The candidates to fill Trey DePriest's spot are Shaun Dion Hamilton, Reuben Foster, Keith Holcombe and Walker Jones.
"I'm really pleased with the way the linebackers have played this spring," Tide coach Nick Saban said. "Reggie's having a really good spring. He's really assumed the role of being a leader. Reuben's had a really good spring. Shaun Dion has had a really good spring. So I'm really pleased with the way those guys have improved and developed. Keith Holcombe has really shown that he can play that position.
"Walker Jones has actually done a much better job this spring. So I'm really encouraged by all five of those guys and how they've played."
Based on the first half of spring practice, Hamilton and Foster appear to be ahead of Holcombe and Jones. The two have been seen splitting reps with the first group during the media's viewing periods of practice. At this point, it's too close for Ragland to say which will be the guy.
"Lot of learning. Both of them very physical guys, both of them very smart, especially Shaun," Ragland said. "I've seen Shaun, some things coach says in the meeting, he applies it to the field right then and there. Reuben, he's doing the same thing.
"Coach has both of them switching out. It's gonna be a toss-up. Both of them really good, athletic guys. Both of them love the game of football. Both of them are very good, talented guys."
Ragland said depending on the defensive package, there could be someone different lining up next to him on every rep.
"Coach had me and Reuben in there at nickel (on Monday)," Ragland said. "Then him (Foster) and Shaun Dion were switching off in regular and nickel. And Reuben did the dime today, too -- dime rabbits and dime. It's a toss-up. Like I said, it's whatever coach Saban and coach (Kirby) Smart want."
Foster, a rising junior, is a former five-star prospect who famously picked the Tide over Auburn, where he grew up. Foster played in 11 games last season, making one start. He totaled 22 tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack. Foster became known for his big hits on special teams, particularly after he blew up LSU running back Leonard Fournette.
As a true freshman last year, Hamilton saw time as a reserve in all 14 games, finishing with three tackles.
"I'd say both of them are about the same," Ragland said. "Both of them are very smart. Both of them are very physical -- can run, hit, tackle, all that."
-- Contact Anniston Star Sports Writer Marq Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.