Senior College Football Columnist

'Bama's supersized linebackers the strength of tenacious defense


You thought Mount Cody was a big problem? Turns out that was actually nothing compared to seeing the size Nick Saban has swarming the field for him at linebacker, terrorizing enemy offenses these days. Dealing with one massive nose tackle is one thing, but super-sized linebackers?

C'mon. Not fair.

Two years ago when Alabama smashed one opponent after the next en route to winning the BCS title, Saban's team was sparked by a fierce defense led by Mount Cody, a.k.a. Terrence Cody, and All-American linebacker Rolando McClain, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. McClain was one of four Crimson Tide defenders selected to the Coaches All-SEC team. That bunch held six opponents to a TD or less. They made Tim Tebow look ordinary in the SEC title game, crushing the defending national champs, 32-13. They knocked Texas star Colt McCoy out of the championship game on the Longhorns' first series.

Now, here's a scary thought: Talking to some coaches who faced that 'Bama defense and had to deal with the Tide this year, they say Saban's got an even bigger, badder and better group in 2011.

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Statistically, the numbers back that up. The Tide is No. 1 in the nation in most key defensive stats: run defense (45 yards per game); pass efficiency defense (83.63); total defense (181 yards per game) and, the most important of all, scoring defense (6.9 ppg). No one has scored more than 14 points on Alabama all season. The team that got those 14, the Arkansas Razorbacks by the way, has a top-20 offense and is averaging 37 points per game. No one else has kept the Hogs under 28 points this season.

"Last year they had 10 new starters on defense and they took some lumps" says Phil Savage, the color analyst for the Crimson Tide Sports Network and a former NFL GM. "Now Nick and Kirby Smart have the entire tool box at their disposal so they're able to make adjustments on the fly. Teams may hit them for a play early but once they get a grip on the gameplan and get dialed in, they shut people down."

Savage says one of the best aspects of the defense is "they're just so physical as a collective unit from front to back and that there is no hesitation in their play. ... You have guys who run 4.7s who play like 4.6."

The numbers are just staggering. The Tide has only allowed one run longer than 20 yards all season (Jeff Demps, 31 yards). On first downs, opponents are averaging just 1.75 yards per run. Maybe the most impressive stat of all: No one has scored a point on 'Bama in the second half since September. People have been basically waving the white flag.

The 2009 'Bama defense had great stats too, but not this great. That unit was second in run defense (giving up 33 rushing yards more per game than this team is). It was second in pass efficiency; second in total defense (yielding 63 more yards per game) and in scoring, surrendering almost five more points per game. Opponents had at least dented them some. Four teams on the season scored more than 20 points.

"They have the best -- and biggest, most physical linebackers in the country," says one of the rival coaches in the SEC. "That's what jumps out at you. That's the biggest difference between Alabama and everybody else. They have (Dont'a) Hightower and (Courtney) Upshaw and those are NFL guys who you just can't match up with. They're 265-pound guys who move like 230 pounders and you just don't see that in college. Most teams have never had one guy like that. They have two."

Upshaw has really blossomed this season into a superstar. He is the Tide's big-play defender, leading the team with 11.5 TFLs (tops in the SEC) and 4.5 sacks. He also had an INT against Florida that he returned for a touchdown. "He could be an inside or outside 'backer," says another SEC coach. "The guy is great with his hands. You can't block him. He overwhelms the guys he goes up against. He can really attack."

One of the coaches interviewed for this article says Upshaw looks like a much different player from 2010. There's a good reason for that, the linebacker says. He suffered a high-ankle sprain in the season opener last year and just didn't have the same explosiveness or the flexibility even though he gritted through the rest of the season. Despite that, Upshaw still managed to pile up 14.5 TFLs. He also looked pretty healthy in the Auburn game where he had 10 tackles and three sacks of Cam Newton.

Hightower, the, um, smaller of the twin terrors at 6-4, 260, is the team's leading tackler with 48 and also has six tackles for loss. "Before they had one great linebacker who you had to really worry about [McClain]," says the second SEC coach. "Now they have two great ones and Saban is a master at confusing your quarterback and disguising things, and since he knows he's got better athletes who he now has confidence in playing the secondary, he's able to do more with his defense. That's a big problem for you."

A few years back, former Alabama linebackers coach Lance Thompson predicted that Hightower would eventually become an even better linebacker than McClain. It's starting to look like he might be right. In 'Bama's last game, against Tennessee (the team Thompson now coaches for), Hightower had seven tackles, three hurries, two pass break-ups, a sack and an interception. It's hard to imagine a linebacker playing much better than Hightower is right now.

Hightower also has a history of playing big against LSU. Last season, he had a season-high 10 tackles against the Tigers in Baton Rouge, and in 2008, he had a career-high 11 tackles when 'Bama beat LSU 27-21.

Behind those two are guys (Nico Johnson and Jerrell Harris) who would be stars at other programs. Saban also has to be thrilled that he has the team's best coverage linebacker, sophomore C.J. Mosley, back after he was sidelined with an injured elbow. Mosley led the team in tackles its last time out in a 37-6 demolition of Tennessee. Mosley, by the way, is 'Bama's smallest linebacker. Then again, at 235 pounds, he's bigger than most teams biggest 'backer in this era when teams have shifted to smaller LBs in hopes of getting up to speed to keep up with spread offenses.

"They're really solid across the front line," Savage says. "Jesse Williams is somebody a lot of people don't know about yet, but he's a freak of nature. He's so big and powerful. He's just got to learn how to play."

The 320-pound Williams, a native of Australia who grew up playing rugby and basketball, is the latest gem that Saban has found mining the junior college ranks to go with Quinton Dial and DeQuan Menzie. Usually colleges are fortunate if they bat even .500 with JC recruits. "They're like 6 for 6 or 7 for 7 with junior college guys, and that's really amazing," said Savage. "He gets guys who come in and produce right away and they do."

Then there's safety Mark Barron, who is as big as most college linebackers and seems like he's been at Alabama so long he was part of that famed goal-line Sugar Bowl stand against Penn State some 30-plus years ago. Barron actually was another one of those first-team All-SEC picks two years ago by the league's coaches. The 6-2, 218-pound Barron is second on the team in tackles and has been a calming influence to the Tide's emerging DBs, Dre Kirkpatrick, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound former five-star recruit with the length and toughness that already has NFL scouts drooling, and 6-foot-1 freshman DeMarcus Milliner. Barron is playing better this year than he did in 2010 because the guys around him now are confident in what they're doing and being told to do. He is just playing now and making plays.

If there is a flaw on any aspect of the Tide defense, it's up front, the rival coaches say. "Oh, they're still pretty nasty there too, but they don't have a [former top-five pick Marcell] Dareus up front, moving all over the place. But they are very solid. That No. 99 (nose guard Josh Chapman) is a beast. They have a bunch of guys there that will play on Sundays, but I'm not sure any of them will be first-rounders. But we'd still love to have any of them on our side."

So would pretty much everyone else.

"You watch this team and two things really sink in," says another coach from outside the SEC, "that Nick Saban really knows how to evaluate talent and he also knows how to develop it."

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.

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