What Does Alabama Do with 13 Great Linebackers?

Larry BurtonSenior Writer IJuly 22, 2009

KNOXVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 25: Arian Foster #27 of the Tennessee Volunteers is tackled by Rolando McClain #25 and Dont'a Hightower #30 of the Alabama Crimson Tide during the game at Neyland Stadium on October 25, 2008 in Knoxville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The Alabama coaching staff finally has plenty of talent to work with. Two back-to-back No. 1 recruiting seasons will do that to a team.

So what do you do when you have 13 linebackers all hungry for some hits?

Nick Saban as head coach, Kirby Smart as defensive coordinator, and James Willis and Sal Sunseri as linebacker coaches will have something to do and something to say about who'll play where and for how long, but coach Bobby Williams will also benefit.

Williams is the special teams coach, and he will get a lot of help from the ones with limited playing time at linebacker.

"You like guys who can run and like to hit on your kickoff and punt teams," Saban said earlier this year. "We've got some good linebackers who should be able to help us with our special teams who certainly like to hit."

So watching the special teams is one way to see the character of the stars of tomorrow. Remember when Javier Arenas was on special teams only? 

"It's important for guys to get to play. It keeps their heads in the game and gives them a chance to contribute," Saban said. "And we're placing a strong emphasis on our special teams this year."

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Another "experiment" the coaches have toyed with is lining up linebacker Dont'a Hightower in the Jack linebacker position and sometimes letting him play as a defensive end to apply pressure to the quarterback.

There are even linebackers at Alabama this year with enough raw speed who could drop back as a nickel back if needed.

That's versatility few teams have from this spot.

How good are these "other" linebackers in reality? So good that the coaching staff let a starter from last year's linebacker corps transfer away without blinking an eye.

Brandon Fanney will play his senior year elsewhere. After getting in Saban's doghouse over an off the field problem, he is transferring.

Saban has little patience for players who don't follow the rules. Last season's doghouse linebacker, Prince Hall, a former starter himself, found himself in trouble and was sent back to special teams before finally transferring schools.

It is obvious that Saban is not afraid to either demote a veteran who runs afoul of the rules or start a true freshman with outstanding talent, as he did last year with Hightower.

"My policy is simple and easy to understand," said Saban about deciding on starters. "The best guy that works the hardest and follows the program, plays."

This policy has allowed Saban to bring in so many highly ranked players when many of them have veteran starters ahead of them when they first come in.

If you can beat him out, you'll play, period. There are no "favorites" on a Nick Saban team, so these guys come in and play wide open and fight for some playing time.

If that means making a name for yourself on special teams, as a nickel back, or as a reserve who gets a few plays a game, this is a group intent on leaving both an impression on the coaches and opposing bodies on the ground.

And that's just the way Nick Saban likes it.

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