TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Not knowing exactly what to expect is an interesting problem that both Alabama and Fresno State have in preparing for the game on Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
The Bulldogs don’t have a good grasp about who might line up at linebacker for the Crimson Tide, and Alabama has the same problem regarding the Fresno State offense. Jeff Tedford hasn’t been a head coach at the collegiate level since he was at Cal in 2012, and since then he spent the 2015 season leading the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League.
“We’re looking at Cal; the head coach came from Cal,” junior linebacker Keith Holcome said about the film study. “We know what kind of offense they are — spread it out, fast, up-tempo — so we’re working on that. But really, we’re looking at film like that, but we can’t freak ourselves out. We have to settle in and do what we’re capable of doing, making calls, making the right adjustments.”
But who will be executing those calls and adjustments is anyone’s guess at this point. Senior Shaun Dion Hamilton, who was playing his first game since suffering a torn ACL in his left knee during the SEC Championship Game, was the only starting linebacker not to suffer a major injury against Florida State last Saturday.
Junior strong side linebacker Christian Miller (biceps) is out for the season along with reserve sophomore Terry Lewis (elbow). Senior weak side linebacker Rashaan Evans (groin) and sophomore Anfernee Jennings (ankle), the hybrid Jack position in Nick Saban’s scheme, could be out a couple of weeks.
Thanking God for a successful surgery. Road to recovery starts now. Be back in no time.
— Anfernee Jennings⭐* (@anferneejenning) September 5, 2017
But there’s another repercussion that’s gone unnoticed and could be a bigger concern: Those four players were also Alabama’s best pass rushers.
Coming into the season, the pass rush was the most unsettled aspect of the defense, especially considering the players the Crimson Tide lost to the NFL. With Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson and Jonathan Allen accounting for 28.5 of last year’s 54 sacks, Alabama led the nation for the second straight season.
More important than sacks to Saban is affecting, or often containing the quarterback. He likes to call his “quick-twitch” outside linebackers who move up to the line as pass-rusher “rabbits.”
“We have got a lot of guys with a lot of ability,” Hamilton said. “I am sure Coach Saban and them are going to put the best guys on the field.”
It won’t be a simple solution, though. You get the feeling Alabama didn’t know who to list at strong side linebacker on this week’s depth chart released to the media, which had Miller and Lewis.
Individual drills Wednesday were led by former walk-on Jamey Mosley and sophomore Mekhi Brown. Freshman Christopher Allen looks like he could be used as a specialist like Williams, who ironically was also from Baton Rouge, La., and freshman defensive lineman LaBryan Ray has been getting a crash course at the position to provide depth.
Joining them was senior defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand, perhaps to be more in the mix in passing situations. Yes, that made him a 288-pound rabbit — insert Harvey joke here about the Oscar-winning 1950 film starring Jimmy Stewart.
“Da’Shawn Hand doesn’t play outside linebacker,” Saban said. “LaBryan Ray is a guy that has never played it. He is a guy that we’re looking at that position. We’ll see how he develops.
“There are certain ways we can play our defense where we only need to play one outside linebacker. So if we need to do that we certainly can do that. We’ve done it before in the past.”
Alabama also made due against the Seminoles, and was juggling linebackers even before the injuries.
For example, on the first series, Alabama came out in the nickel package featuring Hamilton, Evans and Jennings at the linebacker spots behind the front line of Hand, Da’Ron Payne and Isaiah Buggs.
Lewis was the first reserve linebacker to enter the game on third-and-1, which was converted, and then Alabama went dime with Holcombe and Jennings. The next combination was the same as third-and-1, followed by the nickel grouping again.
Notably absent was Miller, who was believed to be dealing with a hamstring injury. It’s unclear when the biceps injury occurred, but he entered the game when Jennings came up hopping on one foot in the first quarter. Specifically, he was in pass coverage on the play Hand tried to knock Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois into next week.
Evans didn’t play in the second half after returning the blocked field goal. Lewis hurt his elbow while reaching out for the quarterback before Damien Harris’ blocked punt in the third quarter.
As each was sidelined, the reserves became more noticeable. Holcombe and sophomore Mack Wilson became fixtures in the interior. Freshman Dylan Moses got into the game on more than special teams.
The official stats didn’t list Alabama with any pressures, but CFBFilmRoom.com’s review credited the Crimson Tide with nine. Each Florida State offensive lineman except the center yielded at least one.
Three were by players who were hurt in the game. Three were by defensive backs as Alabama blitzed from all over. The other three were by Davis, Buggs and Hamilton.
Deondre Francois was pressured on 41 percent of his dropbacks vs Alabama, 2nd highest rate of his career. pic.twitter.com/jhjdsvFWST
— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) September 5, 2017
That mix is probably how the Crimson Tide will proceed for now. Saban indicated earlier this week that Holcombe and Wilson could play outside if necessary, but they’re needed to fill Evans’ void like they did when Alabama shut out FSU during the second half.
Holcombe had a fumble recovery and nearly picked off a pass, while Wilson had 3 tackles and an interception.
“I think it was pretty smooth with me and Shaun,” Holcombe said. “We’ve been playing together for a while, I mean all the way back to the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game. I just thought it was the coolest thing ever getting out there, actually talking to him [and making calls]. But we all just kind of gel, pretty much the entire defense, to be honest, clicked and gelled once we got into a rhythm, and we need to keep that momentum going.”
The Crimson Tide will call on everyone to step up, plus may play more nickel and dime coverages until Evans and Jennings return.
Otherwise, all Alabama can do is insert younger players and get them up to speed as much as possible before SEC play in two weeks. Easing them in would be more ideal, but may no longer be an option.
“We’ll still play base,” Saban said. “We’ve got other guys that we’re working at those positions. We won’t have a choice but to play base in some of the games that we have down the road. We have to use this time to develop the players that we have.”
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