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Alabama 2023 Fall Football Preview: Inside Linebacker has the most talent we’ve seen in years

The Jimmy and Joe issue has been solved

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 31 Allstate Sugar Bowl Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If there were any position group that is flying well under the radar, and that ought to have Tide fans excited, I’d put my money on this group.

For a decade, Alabama had monstrously talented players on the inside, both off-ball and at the Mike spot. Then, something happened following the loss of Rashaan Evans to the NFL — that talent pool mysteriously, enigmatically dried up. As we saw with so many other groups, the rotating parade of position coaches just missed on players. And missed again. And missed again. There was a team-wide dysfunction at almost every position in identifying talent, developing it, and translating those raw skills to the field: defensive line, safety, offensive line, inside linebacker, and lately wide receiver.

But this was one of the biggest areas of lingering concern.

The Tide defense functions by funneling plays to the outside, with the interior tackles two-gapping to control the LOS, and then allowing the linebackers to clean up in space: never concede the middle of the field. So, Alabama has to be fundamentally sound right up the middle: at the nose, at ILB, at free safety. And it all begins with stopping the run, which is where ILB is so critical.

For an off-season primer on Alabama’s base defense, the two-gap 3-4 scheme, click the box below!

Our philosophy on first and second down is to stop the run and play good zone pass defense. We will occasionally play man-to-man and blitz in this situation. On third down, we will primarily play man-to-man and mix-in some zone and blitzes. We will rush four or more players versus the pass about ninety-percent of the time.

In all situations, we will defend the inside or middle of the field first – defend inside to outside. Against the run, we will not allow the ball to be run inside. We want to force the ball outside. Against the pass, we will not allow the ball to be thrown deep down the middle or inside. We want to force the ball to be thrown short and/or outside.

But the talent not only had not been there on the inside, in those cases where it was present, it was not being developed or used properly. The Tide even had to go to the Portal to snag undersized, big-hearted Henry To’oto’o from the Vols to man the inside the last two years. And in other cases, some tantalizing talent simply never materialized into starter form, or materialized too late — see Jaylen Moody.

That is why we are very happy to see that Alabama, for the first time in almost a decade, has tons of dudes at ILB. There aren’t going to be starters out of necessity; they’ll be the starters because intense competition bore them out to be the best man at the spot.

And the dirtiest secret of all: there may not even be true starters on the inside — a heavy rotation of personnel groups could be in the offing.

The Departed:

Alabama lost the undersized, but fundamentally-sound, two-time All-SEC MLB Henry To’oto’o from the heart of the defense. Henry was a very solid Mike, particularly in pass coverage. He was almost always in position on running plays, but he was simply too light. At a generous 215 pounds, many backs in the SEC outweighed him, as did most quarterbacks. Coupled with a nagging shoulder injury, it set up a formula for arm tackles and busted plays up the gut. He was a very smart leader, communicated well, and got guys lined up properly, which had been an issue. But perhaps his biggest loss will be felt in leadership and communication. Henry was a firebrand.

Also gone is key reserve Jaylen Moody. Many had expected for the last several years that Moody would eventually be that guy out there. But, he never matured into that player. Indeed, 2022 looked to be the breakout year for the 5th year player out of Conway, but all season long he battled a shoulder injury, and missed a few games while not being as productive as we’d have liked to see.

That opens up both spots for immediate playing time. And absolute dogs are wanted.

Which brings us to...

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 16 Georgia Spring Game Photo by John Adams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Beefy Contenders:

Senior Trezmen Marshall — The Georgia transfer was simply a depth chart casualty on a loaded UGA front seven that has seemed to hoard quality linebackers of late. (There is a world of difference between the top 4-5 ILB and the next 5-10. Alabama has been getting far more of the latter). He’s a senior, so this is a make-it-or-break-it season for the former blue-chipper. He was used sparingly at UGA, and even in his fourth year at Athens didn’t quite get the looks many expected him to.

One reason is perhaps that he’s just a beefier guy. If Henry To’oto’o was too lean, Marshall is almost too buff: at 6’1”, 235-240, he’s a throwback player to an era of big hitters on the inside. And, really, that is what Marshall brings to the table: avicious hitter who’s rarely out of position. Guys won’t be running through arm tackles. He’s also been singled out as getting it, meaning having a deep understanding of the defense. And he could take the MLB spot based on his sheer knowledge, ability to get folks lined up, and tackling prowess alone.

Marshall may not have the mobility or athleticism of some contenders on this list, but I have a very hard time seeing how he won’t be on the field more often than not. Kevin Steele likes aggression; Marshall is one of the most aggressive players on the team. He’s not a Trey Depriest clone, but that kind of savagery and big frame in a somewhat limited package make for a good analogy. He’s also the only one of the bigger linebackers with the potential to play at the Middle.

But, Marshall is not alone in the “big ole’ hoss, run-stuffer” category. There are two other players on the roster that profile similarly to Marshall: RS Sophomore Ian Jackson and Junior Kendall Blackshire. For Blackshire especially, now is the the time. Like Jaylen Moody, so much has been expected out of him for so many years, and yet he never quite put it all together. He has seen some reserve action, and plays plenty on special teams. But if it doesn’t happen this season, then it simply won’t at Alabama. Like Blackshire and Marshall, Jackson is another 6’1ish, 235ish plugger, one of those sure-tackling space-eaters on the interior. He sometimes seems to be the forgotten man, and that’s fair: he is. But that’s because he’s been practically non-existent. At least with Blackshire, people know his name and have expectations. For Jackson, you’d be hard-pressed to find half a dozen diehards that even know his name, much less position.

The problem for both Blackshire and Jackson is that by bringing in an experienced reserve at the very same spot, and with the very same build, it all-but signals that the Tide staff still are not comfortable with either one of these players on an every-snap basis. So, it’s time for some real talk: Don’t be surprised if one or both wind up in the Portal at some point.

The Lanky Contenders:

RS Sophomore Deontae Lawson — If you want to know who that dude is, the guy that can take over the Reuben / Rashaan role, this is likely your man. He’s big enough without being a fireplug. 6’2”, 225ish on a frame that looks and plays and bit lither than he is. That size allows him to hold up against the run, while still having the speed and power to get to the inside and peel away into coverage. There’s a reason he worked his way into the rotation last season.

Will it happen this year for Lawson? Very well could. But he’s going to be pressed by some other players on this list.

Sophomore Jihaad Campbell — Admit it: You want Campbell to play just so Gumps in the Buckle of the Bible Belt are publicly cheering for Jihaad, right? Or is that just me?

Like Lawson (and Jefferson), Campbell has some wheels. The tallest of the ILBs, he cuts a svelte figure at 6’3”, 230. If that sounds like a pass-rusher frame, it won’t surprise you to know that he arrived in Tuscaloosa as exactly that: an edge. Outstanding lateral quickness, great power on a taller frame, good tackler. He saw some action last year, and looks to be worked more heavily into the rotation this season, even if he’s not an outright starter. But don’t overlook that potential either.

There will be definite packages for him, particularly with the blitz-happy Kevin Steele calling the shots. Bringing Campbell inside with Dallas Turner is a nightmare.

RS Freshman Shawn Murphy — You’d really expect better speed out of someone with his frame (6’2”, 225), but Murphy just hasn’t cultivated it yet — that, or he lacks a high-end. But he does play a lot faster than his straight-40, particularly excelling at lateral motion. There may be a role for Murphy in short yardage and standard short passing downs. To me, that’s where he seems to fit the best. Because, while his lateral speed and awareness are excellent, that actual lack of a top-end matters tremendously with pursuit angles. He could just be better in roles that keep the play in front of him.

Justin Jefferson — This guy is exciting. By far the fastest of the linebacker prospects, the Juco is reported to run a verified sub-4.4. Admittedly, part of the reason for that is that he was a bit undersized, much more of a Henry To’oto’o / Rashaan Evans type, than a Reuben-type. Reportedly playing at 215 won’t cut it in the SEC. And the learning curve from community college to the Big Show is apt to be tough to sort out as well. Jefferson will play, you can absolutely count on that. But he may take a full year to learn the system and add enough bulk on his frame to hold up, while not sacrificing his greatest asset: speed.

So, there you have it: the Tide’s inside linebacking corps goes a legitimate 6-7 deep, with different players having different strengths, across two basic body plans. Identifying the group leader will be of utmost importance to not just the linebacking corps, but the defense in its entirety. So too will Alabama need to sort out a rotation for the off-ball guys, the pure run-stuffers.

There is no shortage of candidates; and, assuming that everyone is reading from the same hymnal, don’t be surprised if we see tons of substitution this year, with many unique personnel packages designed around the strengths of the roster.

Much will depend on the intangibles here — motivation, coachability, discipline, etc. — but for the first time in a very long time, Alabama seems to be loaded at inside linebacker.

Roll Tide