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Alabama Football: Who should be cross-trained for inside linebacker?

Football is all about depth. We know what to expect from players one through 22, but a “we” mentality and a championship mindset starts with the 23rd player on a roster. A coach enjoys having players that can relieve the starters, but still bring a quality performance on the field.

Alabama’s defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart addressed the Tide’s defense a lot on Fan Day. He said Alabama has a long way to go, but he’s optimistic about the talent the team has. Usually, the Crimson Tide has five players trained to play inside linebacker each season. With C.J. Mosley and Tana Patrick in the National Football League, the number has dropped to maybe one or two.

Smart said Alabama is thin at inside linebacker and will have to cross-train players for the position. Trey DePriest recorded 65 tackles (7.5 tackles for loss), two sacks, an interception and a pass breakup last season. DePriest will be the leader of the group, but there are four players Alabama can cross-train.

Junior linebacker Reggie Ragland is an instinctive player. He collected eight tackles as a freshman and finished with 17 tackles in 2013. Ragland understands gap assignments and tackles well in space. Unlike Mosley, Ragland is more of a vocal leader. He has size at 6’2”, 254 pounds, but Ragland also has speed and can run down players from behind. He finished Alabama’s first scrimmage with three tackles.

Junior linebacker Denzel Devall is a freak athlete. In two seasons, Devall has tallied 48 tackles (8.0 tackles for loss) and five sacks. He’s one of Alabama most seasoned outside linebackers, but has the speed and knowledge to play inside. Devall is a good run stopper, but he is an exceptional pass rusher. If he can stay healthy, Devall should be one of the players cross-trained.

Kirby Smart said Reuben Foster didn’t know what he was doing last season. Foster would play with energy and reckless abandon, but would look lost from time to time. With a full season under his belt, Foster is now much improved. He had 12 tackles in 2013 and finished Saturday’s scrimmage with three tackles and a sack. Foster’s thicker than Mosley, but he needs to be more instinctive. Like Devall, Foster is a natural pass rusher. He can stick his nose in on run plays, but Foster loves pressuring quarterbacks.

Despite his upside, Foster’s known to get nagging injuries. A healthy Foster is pivotal to Alabama success on defense in 2014.

DePriest is the leader, but Dillon Lee is still considered an impact player. People refer to Lee as a poor man’s C.J. Mosley in Lee’s ability to find the ball and deliver punishing hits. Like Foster, Lee plays with a lot of energy, but is more instinctive. Lee shined on special teams last season and finished with 16 tackles, two quarterback hurries, a fumble recovery and a touchdown.

Lee was a reserved outside linebacker in 2013, but his style of play could transition him inside. In Saturday’s scrimmage, Lee finished second behind Jonathan Allen with four tackles.

Rashaan Evans and Keith Holcombe are freshmen now, but the potential of both players is very high. Reggie Ragland has gone out of his way to coin both players as “studs.”  So far in practice, Evans has shown quickness off the edge. He is developing pass rush moves and is a hard-hitter.

Holcombe is grasping the playbook. He’s displaying speed in getting to the ball carrier as well as creating pressure on the quarterback. Both Evans and Holcombe will be important factors in Alabama’s future linebacker core.

The Tide even has D.J. Pettway, Xzavier Dickson, Ryan Anderson and Da’Shawn Hand. Dickson has been used a lot at jack linebacker, but can very well play inside. He recorded 13 tackles, two quarterback hurries and a sack last season.

Alabama missed Pettway’s pass rushing abilities in 2013, but with him back, he may be placed at jack or inside linebacker. Hand was impressive in the scrimmage game. He had four tackles and a sack. Hand is listed on the roster as a defensive end, but don’t be surprised if Nick Saban and company stand him up at linebacker.

An inside linebacker’s job involves more than stopping the run and creating pressure. Inside linebackers have to get everyone on defense set for each play.

Many of the guys listed can play inside linebacker, but it will be up to Alabama’s coaching staff to see which player is the most prepare for the role.

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