TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When it comes to Alabama fans having things to worry about for the 2019 season, topping the list is the linebacker position.
As a whole, the group might be the best in college football.
However, the angst stems from the lack of proven depth in the interior, and the thought about what might happen should the Crimson Tide suffer a key injury.
Heading into his junior year Dylan Moses is one of the favorites for the Butkus Award, which goes to the game’s outstanding linebacker. Not only was he Alabama’s leading tackler with 86, including 10 for a loss and 3.5 sacks last season, but now he’s also the signal caller on defense.
“My freshman year I struggled with it at first,” he said. “I’m more sort of a perfectionist. I try and get everything right, and you know you are going to mess up from time to time. But it took me eleven months to learn the defense.
“My entire sophomore year, that pretty much secured it. I for sure know it now, so this year, like going through this spring I’m really looking at it like as like a business. I’m not really worried about the plays, not worried about anything else. So every time I step on that field it’s a business-type environment. I literally flip a switch in my head and leader mode, linebacker mode — I got to do what I got to do.”
Consequently, Alabama knows what it has with Moses.
As for the rest of the interior linebackers …
Alabama arguably had four candidates for the other spot during the spring, but only one played next to Moses every day, Josh McMillon. The senior played in 10 games, with 14 tackles and one for a loss last season, but will go into the fall as the starter.
“He does his job and leads,” Moses said. “Kind of like me, he’s not really that talkative. I could say we have a lot in common. For me and him to be in the same room now and leading it, I feel comfortable being beside him and going out on the field and doing it.”
The reserves are obviously even more unproven.
Jaylen Moody, a last-second addition to the recruiting Class of 2018 who was largely overlooked as a prospect, is backing up Moses and had a pick-six during the Crimson Tide’s spring game. He also made the key block on Jaylen Waddle’s 63-yard punt return for a touchdown against Louisiana last season, so he’s shown a knack for big plays.
Shane Lee was an early enrollee and already looks the part. At 6-0, 243 pounds he’s a solid presence. Consider him a favorite to start in 2020 once he gets the playbook and scheme down.
At outside linebacker, through, are two players who could have monster years, Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis.
After suffering a torn ACL in the previous College Football Playoff, Jennings came back and notched 51 tackles, including 14 for a loss and 6.5 sack, to go with a team-high 11 pass breakups, six quarterback hurries and two fumble recoveries. He should only be better a year off the surgery, and is one of the team leaders.
Lewis is a physical freak who has suffered major injuries during each of the last two years, including a torn ACL last summer. He also didn’t play during the spring after having his knee cleaned up in order to be ready for training camp.
But Alabama will be playing their backups a lot as well.
Although frustrated with his lack of playing time, and even briefly putting his name into the NCAA Transfer Portal, the light went on with sophomore Eyabi Anoma this spring. With Lewis out he took the majority of reps with first unit and was one of the team’s most improved players. At minimum he figures to be a regular part of the pass-rushing package.
“He's doing a good job,” Nick Saban said. “He's working hard. He's learning a lot. I think he's responding very well to Sal (Sunseri) with Sal coaching him. He's doing much better in school. Being responsible and trying to do the right things and respond to people the right way. He's certainly making a very positive contribution to the defense.
“I certainly think that's our expectation for him and if he continues this way I'm sure he's going to make a huge impact.”
So should Chris Allen. Alabama missed his pass-rushing presence last season as he was sidelined by a knee injury. Although he played just seven games as a freshman, making six tackles and forcing a fumble, he’s a difference-maker.
While Jerez Parks and Ben Davis are next up on the depth chart, they might be quickly challenged by two incoming freshmen.
Christian Harris is the third linebacker on the roster who hails from the Baton Rouge area in Louisiana, joining Moses and Allen. He’s a versatile player who may contribute on special teams immediately.
To give an idea of his athleticism, the 6-2, 239-pound Harris played wide receiver, safety and returned kicks for University Lab’s back-to-back state championship teams in 2017 and 2018.
Finally there’s maybe the best name on the team, King Mwikuta. The Georgia product is listed as 6-5, 240 pounds and has a lot of quickness off the edge.
“It’s really just finishing,” Moses said was the key. “I feel like last year we’d start the game off first half, do good, the offense would put up a lot of points, and in the second half we’d be more relaxed. I just feel like this year we can’t look at the scoreboard. We’ve got to finish the game and just dominate, just keep putting our foot on the opposing team’s throat and just finish.
“That goes into a game situation and throughout the entire season because guys get tired toward the end of the season. I just feel like we need to finish.”
This is the sixth story in a summer series previewing the 2019 Crimson Tide: