Film Study: Can Alabama LB Reggie Ragland get anymore freakish?
After being in possession of some of the all-time great linebackers in Southeastern Conference history — most notably Rolando McClain (Dallas Cowboys), Dont’a Hightower (New England Patriots) and C.J. Mosley (Baltimore Ravens) — many believed it would be a while until we saw that type of talent again at the University of Alabama.
After all, all three of those players have proven to have scheme versatility as they’ve left head coach Nick Saban’s multiplicative, hybrid defensive scheme and adjusted quite well to a plethora of different defensive outfits.
When McClain bolted for the NFL after his junior season in 2010, the 6’4″, 255-pound defensive signal-caller was projected to be the lynchpin in some team’s 3-4-based alignment as an inside linebacker — mirroring the role he perfected in Tuscaloosa.
Instead, much to the chagrin of many (including myself), he was drafted by an even-front scheme (Oakland Raiders) and charged with the task of being a “Mike” linebacker. As someone who has played linebacker in both schemes, I’m here to tell you there’s plenty of differences that can make or break a player.
Off-field transgressions aside, there were mixed reviews on just how effective McClain was in that scheme, and it wasn’t until last season with the Dallas Cowboys — a “43” front deeply rooted in Cover 2 principles — that McClain proved he was who we thought he was.
For Hightower, the chance to play under the premier defensive mind in the sport, New England head coach Bill Belichick, represented a chance at scheme carryover as many know Saban and the now four-time Super Bowl-winning coach spent some formative years together as the defensive coordinator and HC of the Cleveland Browns, respectively.
But Hightower, unfortunately, went to the Pats as they were undergoing a scheme change to an even-front alignment while looking for the 6’4″, 270-pound freak to play the “Sam” OLB position. After being matched up with countless top-flight tight ends in man coverage, many close to the situation deemed Hightower a bust. (He’s since redeemed himself as a 4-3 “Mike” filling in for long-time starter Jerod Mayo who was injured during last season’s title run).
And then there’s Mosley.
At 6’2″, 235 pounds, many wondered if the former Bama star truly had a home in the NFL as he lacked the prototypical size of a LB with his type of skill set. There weren’t too many 235-pound inside linebackers in the NFL, if any, and most MLB in a 4-3 are north of 250 pounds.
But all he did was make the Pro Bowl and finish as the runner up for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. I can all but guarantee the 16 other teams who passed on him in the draft would like a re-do as Mosley is undoubtedly the next superstar at the position.
But with that being said, Alabama’s current superstar ‘backer, Reggie Ragland, may be the best of them all.
Or at the very least, he’s the most versatile.
One of the quotes that seemed to resonate with the press, recently, was when Ragland expressed how he’d be moved around the Tide’s formation in an effort to get him involved with the pass-rush. If there’s be an Achilles’ heel for the Saban defense, at least as it pertains to the past three or so seasons, it’s the inability to generate a consistent rush.
In that time span, when Bama was in its base “34,” edge-players Xzavier Dickson and Adrian Hubbard attempted to change the plight of the defense. While Hubbard proved to be average at best, Dickson put it all together in his senior season generating the quietest nine-sack performance you’ll ever see.
Now the Tide have a hodgepodge of “Rocket” rushers — most notably Tim Williams ( 1 1/2 half sacks in 2014) and Ryan Anderson (three) — who are aiming to replicate Dickson’s performance.
It’s time to count Ragland in that bunch.
This was one of the most athletic plays made in the entire country last season: Lined up as a hand-in-the-dirt 6-technique DE, Ragland performed a T/E exchange but pulled back once he encountered a double. He then proceeded to show off his amazing leaping ability — and timing — on the way to a fantastic interception.
How many players do you know who have the wherewithal to mission abort on their way to a turnover?
Here we see Ragland lined back up at a 6-technique. He originally took an inside move but peeled back to reassess when he felt he wasn’t penetrating; he then displayed his high-motor in chasing down the quarterback on the way to forcing an intentional grounding penalty.
This is the role that Hightower excelled at in college, but even he didn’t possess the type of sticktoitiveness that Ragland often displays.
Getting after the passer will be no problem for Ragland; he’s also money in the fabricated-pressure portion of Saban’s scheme.
The most impressive thing about Ragland is in his ability to generate at least one splash play per tilt. I distinctly remember one of my old coaches always whispering to me before a game that it was up to me to make a play that galvanized the unit.
I was usually good for one; Ragland has the ability to make several per contest.
Ragland’s propensity for living in the other’s team backfield is none-more apparent than in the above sequence.
People gloss over a major aspect that separates the good from the great: instincts.
Ragland is one of the most instinctual LBs I’ve ever studied, and I’d put him up there with current NFL greats like Luke Kuechly (Carolina Panthers), Navorro Bowman (San Francisco 49ers) and Sean Lee (Dallas Cowboys). ( And, of course, Mosley.)
Just look at how he knifed the gap and made the offensive lineman miss in close quarters on the way to, yet, another splash play; Ragland is a rare breed who can disengage from blocks or make the finesse play.
Ragland is also money in space, similar to former superstar safety Landon Collins, which lends itself to his positional versatility; he can literally excel at all three off-the-ball LB positions in an even-front alignment.
In the above sequence, Ragland hawked down uber-athletic University of Tennessee QB Josh Dobbs in the open field on his way to a turnover-causing hit, which is something we will see a ton of this season.
This particular play stood out for me as it matched Ragland up with college football’s premier tight end, Hunter Henry, in a battle of sheer athleticism. Henry had a pretty good jump on him, but Ragland showed some significant closing speed on his way to getting back into the play.
And while it was called pass interference on the field, there’s certainly room for contrary opinion (especially from Tide fans haha). Ragland already excels in zone drops, and he will only get better in his man coverage as he will play the strong-side inside linebacker next to, perhaps, the Tide’s next great LB, Reuben Foster.
Bone-jarring hits, sideline-to-sideline stops, backfield tackles, interceptions off pure instinct and downfield coverage ability — there’s truly nothing Ragland can’t do between those white lines.
So the title of this piece ends up being a rhetorical question; Ragland can’t get anymore freakish.