TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There are few things that are a certainly in Alabama these days. Springtime brings both beautiful weather and horrific storms. The words politics and scandals continue to frequently go together. And on paper Nick Saban may have more talent on his roster than any other program in college football.
So every year, players work their way into earning playing time and starting roles as the Crimson Tide continue to challenge for the national championship on a consistent basis. Just about all of them were hailed as a being a top prospect, and have NFL aspirations, so the competition can be nothing short of fierce.
But obviously not everyone can start, and some have to wait their turn, which can go against their nature and everything they’ve experienced before. It may be because the person ahead of them on the depth chart is better, has more experience, or the player simply isn’t ready. Often it’s a case of all three.
When they do get that chance, and are ready for it, the results are usually what everyone hopes and expects. Just ask senior linebacker Rashaan Evans, who was hailed as a 5-star prospect out of Auburn, Ala., in 2014, but now sounds like a budding team leader if not coach.
“All it does is build character,” he said. “You become unselfish.”
Consequently, when trying to figure out who might be Alabama’s next breakout player the conversation has to begin with Evans and running back Bo Scarbrough because of the way they stepped up during last season’s College Football Playoff.
Specifically, when interior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton suffered a torn ACL in the SEC Championship Game, Evans replaced him and made a big play during a goal-line stand. He subsequently tied his career high with seven tackles against Washington, while also notching a sack, and topped that with 11 tackles, including six solo and a half-sack, against Clemson.
During those same three games, Scarbrough had 11 carries for 91 yards against Florida, 19 for 180 yards and two touchdowns against the Huskies, and 93 rushing yards before suffering a fractured leg against the Tigers.
They’ve already had their breakout games.
So have many of the other players who are stepping into starting roles this season as Alabama has to replace six players on defense and five on offense in the base formations.
Senior De’Shawn Hand, another former 5-star recruit, is poised to step in for Jonathan Allen, having already played in 39 games. At the other defensive end spot, Josh Frazier has 26 games of experience.
It’s the same at most of the other positions. Safety Hootie Jones has played in 31 games. Wide receivers Robert Foster and Cam Sims have been in 22 and 39, respectively. Tight end Hale Hentges has appeared in 29 games, with five starts.
Consequently, Alabama’s real breakout player for 2017 figures to be outside linebacker Christian Miller.
The redshirt junior has been around for a couple of years, but with the Crimson Tide’s depth at linebacker has had some trouble getting on the field. Last season he landed a regular role on special teams and played defense mostly at mop-up time, tallying 16 tackles, including 2.5 for loss and two sacks, with four quarterback hurries.
His most notable play so far may have been when making one of the key blocks on Eddie Jackson’s 85-yard punt return for a touchdown against Ole Miss — a week after No. 47 made his first career tackle.
So far this spring, Miller has looked like the player to beat at strongside linebacker, which is the player who usually gets substituted out when the nickel package is used in the secondary, but he also can double as a pass-rusher. It’s an area that Alabama will need players to step up as the top four sack leaders from last year have moved on (Allen and linebackers Ryan Anderson, Reuben Foster and Tim Williams).
“We’re pleased with the progress that he’s made,” Saban said about Miller. “I think the thing we’ve always tried to do is get him strong enough that he can go out there and sustain playing at the point. He’s made an improvement in that area and certainly can help us in the pass-rush category. That’s something that getting a little bigger, helping him turn speed into power, [is] certainly something that would help him be a more effect rusher.”
Listed as 6-4, 240 pounds, Miller now looks the part, whereas a year ago he was on the roster as weighing 230 even after redshirting.
Besides, if he needs any extra motivation Miller only has to look behind him at practice, where early enrollee Dylan Moses is doing everything he can to get on the field as quickly as possible.
To use the obvious mantra/pun, it’s Miller’s time, beginning with Alabama’s first spring scrimmage Saturday.
“He has been a guy who has played his role, hasn’t complained at all. He has been that type of guy who has been a team player,” Evans said.
“I feel like teams need those kind of guys. He may not have had as much playing time as he wanted, but to be able to come up and actually get a role now, actually play, forget about those things that happened in the past and play to his role now is his biggest trait.”