Alabama needs linebacker Foster to play smarter and stay healthy
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. _ Ask any football coach if there’s any benefit to a veteran player being out with an injury and he’ll almost automatically say that it’s an opportunity for someone else.
Right now that might be Reuben Foster.
Granted, the sophomore interior linebacker was going to be in the mix and challenge for significant playing time this season anyway, but with senior weakside linebacker Trey DePriest out for a few days with an undisclosed injury Foster has been getting more first-unit reps.
During both Sunday’s Fan Day and the observation part Monday’s practice Foster primarily lined up next to junior Reggie Ragland at the two interior spots (Mike and Will).
“I actually texted him after practice last night, I said “You’ve come a long way. You still have a ways to go,” defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “But he’s comfortable in the huddle now, he can command the huddle. He can make the calls, he can make the adjustments.”
That’s a far cry from a year ago when Smart said Foster looked “lost” on the field and didn’t know where to go or the intricacies of the scheme. Playing hard was never an issue and even former Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri admitted that he was probably the one teammate who hit harder on a regular basis.
To give an idea of Foster’s potential, when he was a prize prospect 247Sports rated him as Alabama’s top recruit in the signing Class of 2013. He was listed as the top player in the state, the best interior linebacker in the nation and the sixth-overall talent.
The next five additions for the Crimson Tide, which had the nation’s No. 1 signing class, were running back Derrick Henry, defensive lineman Jonathan Allen (who at the time was considered a linebacker), tight end O.J. Howard, wide receiver Robert Foster, and defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson. All were considered 5-star prospects.
But the linebacker out of Auburn High School essentially knocked himself out while making a tackle during a scrimmage and ended up wearing a neck support after also sustaining a stinger.
“Reckless abandon,” Ragland described his play. “He’ll come down and hit you.”
Knowing they couldn’t quite fully unleash him yet, coaches only used Foster in nine games last season and he made 12 tackles. However, during A-Day he took a knee to the head while trying to make a tackle and wound up on the sideline again. Before he got up ESPN microphones caught Nick Saban saying, “That’s what we have to fix.”
“The big thing with Reuben is staying healthy,” Smart said. “He’s got to stay healthy, he’s got to take care of his body. He’s got to so his rehab, and strengthen all his areas.”
Should he do so, Foster figures to be as strong candidate to at least part of a rotation, which Alabama appears poised to do with both the interior and outside linebacker spots.
While the Crimson Tide won’t work in full pads until Tuesday — which will be a big test for Foster, who teammates say is playing with more maturity — so far the focus has been on the three veterans with each group: DePriest, Foster and Ragland on the inside, and junior Denzel Devall, junior Dillon Lee and senior Xzavier Dickson at the wide positions.
Among those looking to work into their ranks include early enrollee Shaun Dion Hamilton (ILB) and fellow true freshman Rashaan Evans (OLB).
“We’re going to have to play some freshmen there,” Smart said “Whereas before we always had four guys that could play that position, now we’re sitting around and only one or two that are really proven to play and we need four guys to be able to play inside linebacker and play well for us.
“If anyone gets injured at that position it’s going to be really tough.”
Regardless, Alabama will have at least two new starting linebackers when the Crimson Tide opens the season in Atlanta against West Virginia on Aug. 30. While everyone’s roles still have to be define, and a lot can happen during the next three-plus weeks, no one would be surprised to see Foster on the field for that first snap.
“He’s different from C.J. (Mosley), maybe a little more explosive, a little faster,” Smart said. “C.J. was a little better in space and a little better athlete when it comes to change in direction. That’s an area that Reuben is going to have continue to improve on.”