Problem solved? Linebackers could be key — in a positive way — to Alabama's success in Iron Bowl
The biggest storyline of Alabama’s season has been the amount of injuries the defense has suffered at linebacker. That topic has been a constant topic, and Iron Bowl week will be no different.
Well, it will be different, actually. Why? Well, there appears to be hope.
That hope stems from several things.
First, there are the players who were projected to start at linebacker heading into Week 1 and actually have played a majority of the season — they’ve been excellent. That small group consists of Rashaan Evans and Anfernee Jennings.
Evans, who stepped into the starting lineup permanently to replace the departed Reuben Foster, has been everything the coaching staff could have hoped for and more.
He’s racked up 45 tackles (9.5 for loss), 5 sacks, 5 QB hurries and a forced fumble while lining up as an off-ball linebacker and on the edge. His versatility has been crucial to Alabama’s success defensively, as the Tide rely on his ability to effectively find the ball in a variety of ways.
Jennings was forced to miss a couple games early in the season, but he’s been a presence on the edge since his return in Week 4. His impact hasn’t been reflected much in the sack department, but Jennings has actually been Alabama’s best pass rusher overall.
Despite missing time due to injury earlier this season, Anfernee Jennings is Alabama’s leading pass-rusher pic.twitter.com/jUdRMlnRrF
— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) November 17, 2017
It hasn’t been only those two, either.
The second reason for feeling hopeful is the potential return of Christian Miller — and maybe even Terrell Lewis — in the near future.
At this point, Miller is a lot closer to returning — he could even be back for this week’s Iron Bowl. He isn’t a complete linebacker like Lewis, but he was projected to be Alabama’s best pass rusher heading into the season.
Even if he were to return for the Iron Bowl, it would probably be in a limited capacity — potentially seeing snaps as a rotational pass rusher. That wouldn’t significantly affect the amount of time that Rashaan Evans sees on the edge, but it would provide a boost to both the inside and outside linebackers.
The biggest concern for Alabama (at least recently) has been the loss of senior Shaun Dion Hamilton at Mike linebacker.
Hamilton didn’t get the recognition that other inside linebackers have for the Crimson Tide over the years, but he played an important role. His loss was most certainly noticeable against Mississippi State in Week 11.
The concern surrounding that loss might have been somewhat alleviated on Saturday, however.
Linebacker Dylan Moses replaced Keith Holcombe — who struggled in his first career start against the Bulldogs last week — in the starting lineup, and he put on quite the performance against Mercer.
The next great Alabama LB?
Dylan Moses had himself a day for the Crimson Tide today. pic.twitter.com/FfGG9yWN6r
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) November 18, 2017
It isn’t always wise to put stock into someone’s performance based off statistics alone, but Moses’ stat line adequately reflects the impact that he had in the game.
The true freshman led the team in tackles with 11 (four for a loss) while also chipping in a key interception with a minute to go before halftime. The Bears were threatening on the Alabama 16-yard line, but Moses jumped a pass, ending any chance at a score.
It’s the speed Moses provides at the Mike position that could make the biggest difference against Auburn.
Moses can play sideline to sideline, something Holcombe can’t do. That attribute will go a long way in determining whether Alabama can stop Auburn’s run game that features Kerryon Johnson — who has rushed for 1,172 yards and 16 touchdowns on 220 carries (5.3 yards per carry).
The run game has been Auburn’s offensive identity for years, and it’s something that Alabama must limit in order to get the Tigers out of their comfort zone.
It’s crazy how much can change in only a week.
Only a week ago, there was serious concern surrounding the state of Alabama’s linebackers with the Iron Bowl quickly approaching.
Fast forward to now, and the Tide might be in a much better position than anyone originally thought — thanks to the return of Miller and the emergence of Moses.