TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It’s as close to a passing of the torch as you’ll find at Alabama.
Rolando McClain set the standard at middle linebacker under coach Nick Saban before relinquishing his duties to Dont’a Hightower. From there, Hightower turned the keys over to Nico Johnson, who set things up for C.J. Mosley, one of the more versatile players at the position under Saban. Mosley made way for Trey DePriest, who helped last year’s star, Reggie Ragland, along the way.
Ragland, a projected first-round pick in this year’s NFL draft, helped nurture Reuben Foster during last season’s national championship run. Foster will eventually do the same for those behind him. But for now, it is his time to be the man in the middle of Alabama’s defense.
“It just gets better and better,” Tide linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said of Foster’s leadership. “I remember telling him in the offseason program, ‘I remember when I first enrolled early, he seemed like the younger guy, kinda like me. And now he’s definitely taking that leadership role.’ Like coach Saban said, he’s being that ‘alpha dog’ who is leading the defense, telling guys, ‘Let’s finish this,’ and leading by example.”
Added Tide outside linebacker Ryan Anderson: “Reuben has been a leader in his own way since he’s been here. He just hasn’t had to do certain stuff. He’s been a behind-the-scenes guy. But he’s Reuben. He’s a leader. Everybody respects him. When he says something, everybody listens. It shouldn’t be that much of a drop-off. It will be good.”
Foster turned down entering the NFL draft to return to Tuscaloosa for his senior season.
Some of his new responsibilities include putting the defense in the right position. In Alabama’s scheme, the middle linebacker looks to the sideline and gets the call from the coaching staff before relaying it to the rest of the group on the field. If there’s an adjustment or a check to be made, it’s usually the middle linebacker who is in charge of making sure the defense is on the same page.
Tide tight end O.J. Howard has already seen Foster doing those things in practice.
“He’s a leader over there. He calls the plays, calls the signals for them,” Howard said. “He’s moving sideline to sideline very well. He’s a field general. I’ve seen a lot of improvement in Reuben.”
In his three years in the program, Foster said he’s “progressed” a lot. Early on in his career, Foster’s violent hitting worked against him. He routinely suffered shoulder stingers from lowering his head when tackling. He seems to be past that, but admitted it took “practicing on tackling” to break the habit.
In terms of growing as a leader, Foster said it helped having the opportunity to watch Mosley, DePriest and Ragland.
“Just always work hard and show the young guys to never give up,” Foster said of what he learned from his former teammates.
Last season, Foster played in all 15 games and is credited with eight starts. He finished second on the team with 73 tackles (48 solo), including eight tackles for loss. Foster mostly served as the inside linebacker in the Tide’s nickel package, which Alabama played the majority of the time. Foster likely won’t come off the field much this year, which means he’ll have to take his game to an even higher level.
“Reuben played very well for us last year,” Saban said. “I don’t think we have any players that are good players who can’t make improvement. Michael Jordan and (Steph) Curry are probably two of the most dominant players in basketball and any time you watch a video about either one of these guys, all they talk about is what they have to do to get better. That’s the expectation we have for any player on our team regardless of what they’ve done in the past or how good they’ve been.
“We don’t have anybody in the room who’s as good as Curry or Michael Jordan, so I think everybody has a lot of room to improve, so that’s what we tell players. That’s knowledge of the position, that’s consistency in performance, it’s better tackling, it’s better pass coverage, becoming a better blitzer. We can go on and on and on and I think every player can improve. Reuben played a lot of good football for us last year, but I think he’ll be the first one to tell you that there are things he can improve on, and certainly we’re going to focus on every one of those things this spring.”