Whether it was glue, tape or papier-mache, Alabama did whatever it could to keep its pass rush together last season. Now UA will have to rearrange again.
Nine different linebackers missed games last season due to injuries, and seven of those players were making significant contributions to the team prior to going down.
Two of the most notable losses from that group were Terrell Lewis and Christian Miller, who served as some of Alabama’s more experienced players on the second level of defense. Both made triumphant returns to provide needed linebacker depth before the College Football Playoff.
With Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans moving on to the NFL, the Crimson Tide’s rescuers on defense will have to mold into the top unit without much in-game action last season.
“We’re physical enough, we’re an athletic group, we’re a long group, so we have a lot of stuff,” Lewis said of the current linebackers. “We just have to get that experience on the field, that gameplay. I feel like a lot of us didn’t get enough time to get a feel for the game. I know me and Christian, we sat out a lot, but we saw it from the outside view looking in and we know what we can improve on.”
Miller, a redshirt senior, missed 10 games last season with a biceps injury. Lewis, now a junior, missed the same amount of games with an elbow injury. Both players are expected to become vocal leaders on defense this season, especially with former linebackers coach Tosh Lupoi’s promotion to defensive coordinator this offseason.
“I really want to step up and lead on and off the field,” Miller said. “I want to embrace this last year and do everything I can to make my presence known with the guys, with the coaches, with the (program).”
Lewis and Miller combined for 14 total tackles across Alabama’s final three games last season. Before their injuries they totaled eight tackles, including two for loss in the Crimson Tide’s opener against Florida State.
Scrimmages will be a good opportunity for that group to get back into the flow of a game, and the speedy pass rushers are hoping their returns will result in more production from the Alabama pass rush this season.
“I think we can do a better job on third down,” Miller said. “I know in one of our meetings we talked about our third down percentages and I think that’s one thing that would help. Increased pass rush on third down and get off the field.”
Anfernee Jennings, another key piece of the Alabama pass rush, is already missing time this spring while he recovers from the knee injury he suffered in the semifinal game against Clemson. Jennings closed the season on a tear for Crimson Tide, recording 11 tackles and five-and-a-half tackles for loss in his last two games. The redshirt junior is expected to return sometime this spring.
“Anfernee, he was a guy that kept me uplifted throughout the whole injury process,” Lewis said. “He kept me uplifted. So, to see him step up while I was hurt, and then he gets hurt, and I have to step up for him. I just took it personal kind of, like it’s my turn to step up for me. And I told him before the (national championship), ‘I got you bro, I promise we won’t lose this game.’”