TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The Alabama defense was dealt a significant blow Wednesday when Alabama coach Nick Saban announced that preseason All-SEC linebacker Trey DePriest will miss the Crimson Tide’s season opener against West Virginia due to a “minor NCAA infraction.”
Saban did not disclose the infraction or any more details but said that DePriest would only miss Saturday’s game and will be back for Florida Atlantic.
It’s a significant loss, to be sure, as DePriest was named to just about every preseason All-SEC team, including the media’s and coaches'. But Alabama has the depth and talent at inside linebacker to overcome this loss and shouldn’t miss a beat on that side of the ball against the Mountaineers.
“We’re not worried too much about it,” linebacker Denzel Devall said Wednesday. “We have a great personnel and great players. We’re going to be ready come Saturday.”
The Crimson Tide are already prepared for this, though they didn’t know they were preparing for it at the time.
DePriest was nursing a minor knee injury throughout fall camp and never seemed 100 percent in terms of speed or health in practice. Saban on Thursday declared him “close to 100 percent” but still behind on conditioning.
His injury, though, means Alabama has experience running its defense without him.
"It gave us a real opportunity to be able to prepare if the guy who was the signal-caller, that called the defenses and all those types of things and gets the signals to the front wasn't there. Because we needed to train somebody else to do that," Saban said.
"Even though this wasn't something we anticipated, certainly it was something we were able to prepare for."
DePriest’s injury puts the burden solely on Alabama’s other two starting inside linebackers: junior Reggie Ragland and sophomore Reuben Foster. All three were essentially listed on the Crimson Tide’s depth chart as starters, with Foster in the “/” designation for both spots. All three would have likely played at some point depending on the situation.
Ragland and Foster are both plenty talented and experienced to handle full-time roles.
Ragland was the No. 1 inside linebacker in the class of 2012 and has learned for two years behind C.J. Mosley, DePriest and Nico Johnson in the middle. He was already in line for a lot of playing time this year and will definitely have to take on much of the load Saturday with DePriest out.
He plays a little bit quicker and is more athletic in space than DePriest and can be pointed to as a prototype defender for stopping spread and hurry-up attacks like West Virginia will bring to the Georgia Dome.
“Reggie is a good player for us,” Saban said earlier in the fall. “He’s really had a good camp, had a good spring, a very athletic, explosive guy that has really good size, the kind of inside ‘backer that we like. His knowledge and experience has helped his consistency and performance, and I think Reggie can be a really good player for us this year.”
Foster is the up-and-comer of the bunch.
The top inside linebacker of the 2013 class (Alabama really has it rough these days), Foster’s recruitment was one of the more dramatic for Saban, as the Auburn native flipped from the Tide to the Tigers then back to the Tide.
Foster is plenty talented, but his obstacle has been a poor tackling form leading to frequent injuries. He’s plenty athletic and a monster hitter, but he leans into his hits with his head down, which has led to a couple of neck stingers during his career.
You can see that on one of his bigger hits from his high school career:
That doesn’t work when tackling grown men in FBS college football. He had a similar play to the above one at A-Day on Kenyan Drake, got up looking woozy and was taken back to the locker room with what Saban called a mild concussion.
Saban says he’s overcoming those technique issues.
“Some guys just have habits that are not good in terms of their health and safety,” he said. “Reuben is one of these guys that loved to duck his head when he tackled. I'm not saying he wasn't an effective tackler. That's what created a lot of problems with his stingers. We've had to re-, sort of, teach him how to take on blockers, how to tackle, so that he is not doing that. Now he's been able to stay healthier and he's been able to make it through scrimmages, and he's not had the same issues."
Ragland and Foster are two more-than-capable options to handle full-time duties in the middle of the defense in DePriest’s absence. The defense won’t miss a beat, and Alabama will get a bulk of reps for two of its promising young linebackers.
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