It is the blue chip players that have been the forefront of the Alabama defense in recent years. Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster and Marlon Humphrey were all five-star recruits before they were national champions and first round draft picks.
So were other cornerstones of recent Crimson Tide rosters: A’Shawn Robinson, Landon Collins, Dee Milliner, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and a parade of other players. The 2017 team in Tuscaloosa has its share of superstars, like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Da’Ron Payne.
But it’s also finding roles for more unheralded players. Former walk-ons Levi Wallace and Jamey Mosley have started each of the last two games. Fifth-year senior Anthony Averett scarcely played on defense until his redshirt junior year but has become a lockdown cornerback. Linebacker Keith Holcombe, a local product from Hillcrest High School, was the 21st-ranked member of Alabama’s 24-man signing class in 2014.
“It’s like the backbone of the team,” Holcombe said. “You have guys like Anthony and Jamey, guys who just keep their head down and keep grinding and keep pounding and keep working hard and getting better. That’s what you want, because they’re all giving it for the team. That’s how we want to be remembered.
“That’s how we want to have our team shaped.”
The offense has players who fit the bill as well. Redshirt senior center Bradley Bozeman was once expected to greyshirt. Right tackle Matt Womack was the lowest-ranked player in the 2015 signing class. Sophomore tight end Irv Smith Jr. was the No. 22-ranked tight end in the nation in 2016 and running back Josh Jacobs was the No. 471 player in the country. Both were last-minute additions to the 2016 signing class, and both now hold significant roles. External expectations had little effect on them.
But it’s the defense where Alabama’s blue collar players have had the greatest impact. Holcombe, Mosley, Wallace and Averett all started the last two games for Alabama. They’re fourth- and fifth-year players who bided their team and learned their craft to earn playing time.
“Everybody has a story,” Averett said. “When you first come here, everybody doesn’t get to play right away. I was one of those guys that didn’t. I think it plays out. I’m not the only one. There’s a lot of us that really went through that same process like me. I think it’s very important. It shows maturity. So I think that’s very important to have that bunch on the squad.”
Stats: Second on the team with 17 tackles, including nine against Colorado State. Also has three pass breakups
Then: Holcombe was a well-regarded prospect at Hillcrest High School with other SEC offers but was not among the jewels of Alabama’s signing class. He was listed as an athlete by 247 Sports, ranked below four linebacker signees with Alabama.
Now: Became a key special teams player in 2015 and 2016 and stepped into a starting role as WILL linebacker following injuries in the season opener. Was a special teams player of the week against Fresno State and a defensive player of the week against Colorado State.
“One thing I’ve learned from dealing with the diabetes that I have is hard work. If you keep hard work, you can persevere through anything. That’s one thing I pride myself on taking from my every day life to practice and the games.”
Stats: Has 14 tackles, one tackle for loss and an interception this season.
Then: Averett played mostly offense in high school and moved to cornerback at Alabama. He was ranked as the No. 273 prospect nationally in 247 Sports’ composite and played in one game in his first two seasons on campus.
Now: Earned a starting job in 2016 after competing in camp with players like Kendall Sheffield and Tony Brown. Started all three games this year and got his first career interception against Fresno State.
“We think that you have to have some guys like Anthony Averett in the program who are willing to make the sacrifices to spend the time to develop so that they can become a really good player. I think his example of that is something that other players should look at.”
Stats: Has eight tackles, one interception and ranks in the top 10 nationally with five pass breakups.
Then: Was unranked by recruiting services in the class of 2014 and walked on at Alabama. Weighed about 160 pounds when he arrived on campus.
Now: Added about 20 pounds of muscle and earned a scholarship before the 2016 season along with Jamey Mosley. Provided depth as a junior and came in as a reserve against Florida State to get his first career interception. He’s started the last two games at cornerback.
“Coach Saban used to call me Bo Wallace a lot. That’s because he said he had another player named Bo Wallace a long time ago, and I just reminded him of me. But I always knew he knew me name because I met with him a couple months right after I walked on.”
Stats: Has four tackles, including one sack, and a pass breakup while starting the last two games as the SAM linebacker.
Then: The younger brother of C.J. Mosley took a walk-on offer at Alabama rather than a scholarship at Kentucky, Minnesota, Tulane or Southern Miss. He was 194 pounds then and did not see game action in his first two seasons at Alabama.
Now: Mosley beefed up more than 50 pounds, earned a scholarship in 2016 and started to see the field in spots as a junior. Injuries to the outside linebackers in the season opener thrust him into a starting role in the last two weeks.
“Jamey Mosely has done a good job of doing his job and we’re pleased with the way he’s been able to fill in and prepare well, not make a lot of mental errors, be in the right place. I think that he plays with a lot of effort and a lot of toughness. That’s kind of what we start with and what we build on around here.”
There is no shortage of talent in Tuscaloosa. There’s also no shortage of opportunity, particularly on defense. Seven UA defenders went in the first four rounds of this year’s NFL draft. Four linebackers were lost to injury in the first week of the season.
Replacing that production didn’t come from a week’s worth of preparation in practice. Developing players to step into those roles begins years ago, even before they arrive on campus.
“I would absolutely say that it’s just another example of Alabama’s ability to use all available methods of finding players,” Alabama radio analyst Phil Savage said. “Everyone focuses on high school recruiting, but they’ve done an awesome job in recruiting junior college players. They’ve gotten graduate transfers that have come in and contributed. And now they’ve put the time and investment into Jamey Mosley and Levi Wallace, and the dividends of that, when they need those guys, they’ve been able to come through and fulfill a role. That’s why it’s the most complete program in the country.”
Any number of reasons could lead to players going unnoticed when they were younger. Perhaps scouting services misevaluated those players in high school, but Alabama coaches identified their potential. Maybe they were late bloomers who grew into their frames to become productive players.
But all that is wiped away when they arrive at Alabama.
“Everyone here has a chance to make an impact on the team,” Wallace said. “The coaches treat 5-stars just like the do walk-ons. It’s the same way, same technique. Everything. They do a great job here.”
That isn’t the case everywhere. Team culture varies from program to program in college football. Some programs consider walk-ons to be equal to scholarship players. Some consider them as esteemed pieces of the program that sacrifice their own time to help improve the team. Some consider them to be tackling dummies with a pulse.
Mosley had seen how Alabama treated walk-ons thanks to his long-running relationship with the program. He’d been around the program long enough to feel like walking on with the Crimson Tide was a better option than his scholarship offers.
“We all get treated with the same kind of attitude,” Mosley said. “Coach Saban expects the same from the starters to the walk-ons. If you could be there through a full practice, I don’t think you could differentiate between a walk-on and a scholarship player. Coach Saban expects the same kind of intensity and focus from every player.”
There can still be an adjustment period. Wallace’s 160-pound freshman frame fit more with flag football than the Southeastern Conference. Averett had to learn a new position and a foreign defensive system. Everyone has to learn to play against top competition every day. That can provide some intimidation for an 18-year-old who was once the best player on his high school team.
“I believe pressure makes the best out of people,” Mosley said. “So when you have that kind of pressure, or you have the opportunity or a task in front of you that requires more, you’re going to grow from that. It’s definitely a growing experience. You can grow more from coming here when you have guys that are the same type of athletes that you are.”
In time, all grew into their roles. Teammates praised Mosley for his time spent in film study. Averett said he finally felt ready to play by his third year with the team, but still had to win the confidence of the coaches. Wallace wasn’t on top of the depth chart at the start of this season, but outplayed his competition.
It didn’t come early or easy for any of them. But their time came.
“I don’t know what other people think about me, but I’m going to work hard and do what I have to do to help the team out,” Holcombe said. “So, if other people think of me like that then I’m doing something right.”
Alabama has certainly helped players like Averett, Holcombe, Mosley and Wallace during their careers. But those four players have also helped the Crimson Tide.
Blue chip players like Fitzpatrick and Rashaan Evans will have a large say in the identity of Alabama’s 2017 team. Blue collar players who have grinded out a role through years of dedication – whether or not playing time was there – are part of the fabric of this team.
“I think we have a lot of players on our team that I truly, truly think have very good attitudes,” Saban said. “They’re working hard, trying to get it right, trying to do better. I sort of like this team, but I also think that some of the circumstances that the season has created so far has created some opportunities for some guys.
“But it’s also created some circumstances that don’t allow us to do exactly what we want to do until we get some players back. We’re going to continue to work to improve the players and create roles for the guys that we have. But at the same time, we’ve got to not ask players to do things they’re not ready to do.”
Wallace and Mosley are believed to be the first pair of former walk-ons to start at Alabama since 2007, excluding kickers. Linebacker Darren Mustin and safety Rashad Johnson were both captains that season. It is not the norm in the Saban era, but it isn’t impossible.
“Hard work doesn’t go unnoticed,” Mosley said. “Levi definitely is a hard worker. We’ve been blessed with an opportunity to play this game. I don’t see it as ‘Wow, I’m on the field with these 5-stars, I’m not supposed to be here.’ I feel like I’m in the place where I’m supposed to be.”
There are necessary caveats. Talented players work hard, too. Not every blue chip player sees the field immediately, and not every hard-working walk-on player will become a starter for Alabama. But the path is there for every player who wants to see one.
“It’s a bit of a guess, but I would say that younger players can identify with their teammates that they see themselves as,” Savage said. “In other words, every walk-on there looks at Jamey Mosley and says ‘If those guys did it, I can do it too.’ Other players may look at these guys just starting in their third or fourth year and go ‘You know what, I’ll just keep being diligent and paying attention to what I’m supposed to be doing and I have a chance to get on that field one day.’ I think it builds a lot of motivation across the whole depth chart.”
Averett, Holcombe, Mosley and Wallace have become known for their production this season. Before that, they were known for their work.
“I’ve worked hard,” Averett said. “It’s definitely paid off. I’m blessed for it.”
There are other Alabama players hard at work. Some are starters, and some spend their time on the scout team. In a few years, you may learn some of their names.
Hard work has paid off for plenty of players on this team. It’ll take even more for the Crimson Tide to get where they want to go this season.
“Guys work hard,” Mosley said. “This team works hard. They know what they have to do to get the goal that they want to ultimately achieve, and that’s winning a championship. In order to do that, that comes with hard work. Any goal that you want to achieve comes with work that you have to put in. I think that definitely sets a good example for what we want as the identity of the team.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.