Alabama's defensive versatility, depth give coaches numerous options
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. _ After participating in 24 games and who knows how many practices since arriving at the University of Alabama in 2012, the moment finally arrived on Sunday.
That’s when it hit junior linebacker Reggie Ragland that he’ll be making a major contribution to the Crimson Tide this season, not just on special teams but with the defense
“I got to thinking and got to jumping around in my room like, ‘It’s finally time, it’s finally here!’” Ragland said. “A couple of friends downstairs in my apartment called me to see if I was all right and I told them ‘I’m good.’”
When Alabama opens the season against West Virginia in Atlanta on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2), Ragland will likely make his first career start. According to the Crimson Tide’s initial depth chart released Monday he’ll be at weakside linebacker next to senior Trey DePriest at middle linebacker.
However, sophomore Reuben Foster is listed as an “or” option at both spots, and Alabama’s players on the field for the first play – and every one after that — will largely be determined by which personnel group the Mountaineers insert.
“That’s why it’s so hard to put a depth chart out,” said Nick Saban, who has a lot of defensive depth to work with at everywhere except inside linebacker.
A perfect example is on the defensive line, where Alabama is looking to rotate 10 players in three spots and has sophomore A’Shawn Robinson listed first at nose guard even through he’s an end in the base defense.
“If we’re playing against a team that was in regular, we would play A’Shawn at five-technique and (Brandon) Ivory at nose because they’re the best guys to stop the run,” Saban explained. “In nickel situations, we try to get more athletic when we play nickel so now whether it’s Jarran Reed or A’Shawn they kind of go in and play nose and three-technique with some of our other guys, whether it’s Jonathan Allen or Dalvin Tomlinson or whatever, so that we’re a little bit more athletic in the pass rush part of it, got a little more speed on the field, guys can chase down screens better, all those types of things.
“Then we’ve got enough edge guys now with (D.J.) Pettway and (Xzazier) Dickson and Denzel Devall and even Rashaan Evans has shown a lot, Tim Williams when we get him back in the fold. We have a lot more versatility to play guys at different positions. So A’Shawn’s not really playing nose in regular. I don’t know how to write all this on the depth chart.”
The players who probably won’t get a lot of playing time unless Alabama gets a big lead against the Mountaineers are reserve nose guards Darren Lake and Joshua Frazier, but they’ll be in the mix more against other teams down the road.
Alabama and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart didn’t come close to having that kind of versatility last season, when Allen and Robinson were thrust into the rotation as true freshmen behind ends Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson, and that was pretty much it. They played well, but with better defined roles both are poised to make bigger contributions.
“I think that up front, defensive line-wise, we’re a lot better than what we were last year,” Saban said. “I think we have more guys who have more experience that are more ready to play. I think we’re a little more athletic up front.”
Consequently, teammates like Ragland have been raving that the “Defensive line looks real good,” as does the improved pass push.
“I don’t know if it’s the coach or the commitment or what, but they’ve gotten a lot harder to block in practice just by grabbing hands to certain moves they use,” senior offensive tackle Austin Shepherd said. “I can definitely see a complete difference in them. I think it’ll be better pass rush, better run block stop, all that.”
Meanwhile, at the linebacker spots Devall is listed on the depth chart as the starter at strongside even though last season he lined up at Jack – Saban’s hybrid linebacker/defensive end spot. Junior Dillon Lee, who spent most of training camp at Sam has slid over to help provide some interior depth as Alabama is going to see almost non-stop spread attacks until it visits Arkansas on Oct 11.
DePriest is coming off a knee injury sustained the first weekend of training camp while Foster has a history of neck and head injuries from lowering his head when making tackles. The only other interior players are freshmen, although sophomore Ryan Anderson can play there as well.
“That’s what created a lot of problems with his stingers,” Saban said about Foster. “We’ve had to re-sort of teach him how to take on blockers, how to tackle, so that he is not doing that. Now he’s been able to stay healthier and he’s been able to make it through scrimmages and he’s not had the same issues.”
Teammates also say that Foster is using his hands and getting off bocks better, while the playmaker part of his game has never been an issue. He’ll be in the mix, but for now Ragland’s the player who will be working in C.J. Mosley’s former spot.
“I’m hoping to have a break-out season, make plays as everyone on the coaching staff has taught me to do,” Ragland said.