Competition remains open at inside linebacker


CW / Hannah Saad

At the midway point of the regular season, Alabama’s two inside linebacker positions are still not completely settled.

It’s not a surprise that the two starters, Shane Lee and Christian Harris, are still developing, given that both are true freshmen filling in for injured veterans.

Harris and Lee have been with the first team Harris at Will linebacker and Lee at Mike since August, but there have been expected growing pains. 

In a Yahoo! Sports story published last week, an anonymous coach said his team felt it could use different formations to exploit Lee and Harris’ inexperience.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said South Carolina’s offensive formations on Sept. 21 were a struggle for them, leading coaches to simplify the defensive game plan.

“For the things that are pretty simple, I think it helps them out, and it helps us as a defense,” junior safety Xavier McKinney said. “I think it can be simple, but it’s not as simple as you might think.”

The team inserted sophomore Ale Kaho at two different points against South Carolina to get Harris “settled down” on the sideline. 

Two days later, Saban said that there was no plan at Will linebacker, leaving the door open for Harris to retain the starting job or for Kaho to assume it.

Harris has remained the starter, but Saban has been asked about his freshman inside linebackers nearly every week since. 

On Sept. 18, he said inexperience “can be a little limiting at times” because the defense is only going to run plays that the players are comfortable with.

The next week, he said “both have the right stuff” when it comes to attention to detail and preparing themselves to play in games.

On Oct. 2, Saban likened teaching young players the defense to an Advanced Placement course, saying, “It’s hard to make an A in it.”

Then, last Saturday at Texas A&M, redshirt sophomore Markail Benton played part of the team’s first drive at Texas A&M, again in Harris’ place.

“It was really to try and get [Benton] an opportunity, as well as maybe take some burden off the other guys in terms of what’s on their plate,” Saban said. “So if he continues to do well, it would be helpful to our team that we have four guys on our defense who can play winning football.”

It’s fair to wonder why coaches had the confidence to start Lee and Harris despite their unfamiliarity with the playbook. Both have made impactful plays in the box and in open space, and Saban isn’t the only one who has complimented their ability to prepare.

“It says a lot about those two young men that they have the maturity to be the signal-callers,” Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “They obviously were good playmakers when they came out of high school, but there’s more to it than just being a playmaker. You gotta have command and be able to communicate, and they’ve obviously done a really nice job doing that.”

Lee has made at least five tackles in every game, including tying for the team lead with eight against Texas A&M, and has repeatedly impressed with his sideline-to-sideline athleticism.

Harris has four tackles for loss and 15 total tackles in the last three games.

“On run plays, they’re coming in and hitting gaps real hard,” senior defensive lineman Raekwon Davis said. “I mean, those two young guys are still developing and they’re growing a lot. They’re doing a much, much better job.”

Davis, however, said the team does need to do a better job of stopping the run. Saban has lamented the players’ lack of discipline to stay in their assigned gap. 

Of course, knowing, trusting and executing the assignment is more difficult for freshmen, six of which have played with the first-team defense for the Crimson Tide this season.

“I think when guys don’t have an understanding of [their jobs], you obviously have the opportunity for mistakes,” Saban said. “But if you do understand it, then you’ve got to go out and execute it and know that this is what I’m supposed to do on this play and this is what’s going to help the team defense.”

For the first time in five years, Alabama has allowed at least 20 points and 380 yards to three conference opponents in the regular season. Those three opponents South Carolina, Ole Miss and Texas A&M – rank 72nd, 83rd and 47th in points per game.

It doesn’t get easier from here, as future opponents LSU and Auburn rank No. 1 and No. 40. 

The Crimson Tide has three weeks before it hosts LSU and six before it travels to Auburn for the Iron Bowl, which should be plenty of time to boost the confidence of its youngest players.

“We’re pleased with the progress they’ve made, and we want to continue to try to help them improve, because we’re certainly not satisfied with the way we’re playing defense,” Saban said. “I think, as a unit, we need to focus on improving.”