'Bama gets linebacking reinforcements
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP)Jerrell Harris is no longer just No. 2 Alabama's best scout team linebacker. Nico Johnson isn't primarily a special teams player anymore.
The Crimson Tide's talented young linebackers are reinforcing an already strong group led by All-American Rolando McClain and pass rushing threat Eryk Anders.
Harris returns for Saturday night's game against No. 22 South Carolina after serving a six-game NCAA suspension for a rules violation. He's competing for the starting job with Johnson, a freshman who got his first significant defensive action against Mississippi.
Tide quarterback Greg McElroy gained plenty of insight into Harris' abilities going against the scout team defense during the suspension.
"He gives great effort. He's a fast, athletic player. He's very rangy for a linebacker, and he's slippery," McElroy said. "Jerrell is one of those guys that has all the talent in the world. Just understanding the defense, getting a good confidence in being assignment proof is where he really needed to step up. He made those steps."
Harris and Johnson were both rated among the nation's best linebacker prospects out of high school, and were among the top players in their recruiting classes the past two years.
Both are 6-foot-3 and about 225 pounds. They're vying to fill the spot on the nation's No. 2 defense left vacant with inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower's season-ending knee injury.
Tide coach Nick Saban said both players can contribute. Harris moved over from outside linebacker in the spring.
"Jerrell is a very good athlete, a good player," Saban said. "We thought he had a role in our defense back in (fall) camp. He's obviously been out of it for a very long time. He's very athletic, very instinctive. He's a playmaker. He hasn't played a lot at that position even though we moved him to that position last spring. We'll see where he's at and try to develop him and see how he can help us."
The Tide's defense didn't miss a beat against Ole Miss, allowing just three points and 197 total yards.
Johnson had three tackles in the game. McElroy compares his demeanor to cerebral former Tide linebacker DeMeco Ryans, now with the NFL's Houston Texans.
"Very much a team player," McElroy said. "Very respectful player. Really just wants the best for this team."
Even without Hightower, the Tide still has some depth and star power at linebacker.
McClain leads the team in tackles and has two sacks and a pair of interceptions. Anders and end Marcell Dareus are tied for the team lead with 3.5 sacks.
Anders was the guy most on South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier's mind when he was asked about McClain.
"They're all very good. He must be No. 32, is he? No, he's 25," Spurrier said. "We've been watching No. 32, Eryk Anders, trying to figure out who's going to block him."
Cory Reamer blocked a punt and recovered a fumble on a punt return against the Rebels. Sophomores Courtney Upshaw and Chris Jordan have also logged significant playing time.
"They are a come-after-you type of defense," Spurrier said. "They don't want to concede a 2-yard run. If they can tackle you behind the line they want to do it, most plays not all the time. They're an attacking-type defense but they lay back when it's time to. They play very fundamentally sound."
South Carolina has a standout linebacker of its own, Eric Norwood. He has a league-leading six sacks and two interceptions.
"He's a very good player. He's a heck of an athlete," Norwood said of McClain. "Just for somebody his size to go out and do what he does, he's pretty good at it. But as far as comparing me to him, I'm not really gonna go there and make the comparison. We're two different players."
Reamer says the Tide's linebacker corps provides lots of variety, too, especially with the addition of Harris. He had 15 sacks as a senior at Gadsden City (Ala.) High School.
"He's a great linebacker," Reamer said. "This is going to be exciting for us. He's unbelievably athletic. He's got great speed, great instincts, and he's bulked up a lot in the offseason. He's definitely ready to be an inside linebacker. He just brings another aspect to the game that maybe I couldn't bring or Dont'a didn't have or Nico didn't have.
"Everybody's got their own unique aspects that they bring to the linebacker position."