Some things in life are certain: Night following day, an angry comment section on web articles, and Alabama football having a great linebacker under Nick Saban’s tutelage.
The list of former greats reads as a who’s who of top NFL draft picks: C.J. Mosley, Dont’a Hightower, Reggie Ragland, Rolando McClain, and, most recently, Reuben Foster.
Now, it’s time for someone new to take over. Enter Shaun Dion Hamilton.
Saban’s defensive structure has shifted in recent years. Rather than play with primarily three down linemen and a joker (a hybrid linebacker/defensive end), he now shifts between power packages and speed packages. But he’s always rushing four.
On the back end, Saban’s team spends upwards of 80 percent of its snaps in nickel or dime defense. Such is the state of modern football. Alabama’s patented pattern-match coverage system requires its defensive backs to always keep the game in front of them, so that they can read the release of receivers and vacillate between man and zone coverage.
Both evolutions combined have put even more emphasis on Alabama’s off-ball linebackers.
Linebackers are now the biggest “freak” position on a field filled with all-everything athletes. They’re asked to do everything.
Four defenders rush, five drop into coverage, and the linebackers must mop everything up underneath. They must run with ferocity sideline-to-sideline, turn and run with tight ends or running backs in coverage, and knife through gaps between the offensive line. Well, that’s if they want to play all three downs. And they best play all three downs.
Saban demands everything. Usually he gets it.
Hamilton is the next guy up. He started alongside Foster for much of 2016. And while Foster went on to deliver a commanding season in the middle of the Crimson Tide’s defense, culminating in a first-round draft selection, Hamilton saw his junior season cut short by a torn right ACL in the SEC Championship Game vs. Florida.
Now he’s the top dog. He’s not playing second fiddle anymore. He’s the guy.
Like everyone who lines up for the Semi-Professional Football Club of Alabama, Hamilton is a special athlete. He’s explosive in small spaces and covers ground in an instant.
It’s most noticeable when he fires downhill, shooting a gap and penetrating into the opposing backfield.
But it’s perhaps most effective when he’s patrolling the middle of the field and able to close on playmakers who leak out of the backfield.
Football is now a series of 1-on-1 matchups in space. You need players who can tackle. Breaking down correctly and playing fundamentally sound are of the upmost importance. But neither is a substitute for having the kind of devastating speed that allows a player to arrive at the ball carrier before they’ve even had time to think.
Explosive linebackers who fly sideline-to-sideline don’t exactly grow on trees, but they’re more readily available now than they have been in any previous era. The truly special ones also possess the ability to flip their hips, seamlessly change directions, and drop into coverage.
Hamilton showed throughout his junior season that he can do just that: He held up well against both running backs and tight ends in man coverage, not simply sitting in a zone and racking up tackle stats.
On the above play, Ole Miss looked to isolate Hamilton 1-on-1 with their best matchup threat, and future first-round draft choice, Evan Engram. Engram’s speed and frame made him an overwhelming collegiate weapon. Hamilton hung with him stride for stride. The linebacker showed good awareness to turn and locate the ball before knocking it away.
Isolating Hamilton — or, more accurately, putting him and a rotating safety in a conflict as to whose supposed to pick a single target up — was one of the favorite ways opposing offenses chose to attack Alabama’s historic 2016 group. Wheel routes, delays, options, double-passes, they tried it all.
Sometimes it worked. Here, against Ole Miss, Hamilton and the rotating safety were caught in a bind. As the safety rotated (part of Alabama’s “match” principle), Ole Miss faked a toss. Hamilton bit on the run and passed Engram off to the safety, who was left flat-footed as the tight end darted past him into acres of space.
Slip-ups in coverage were infrequent, though. Even when defending an opponent’s principle target, Hamilton showed he could turn and run with anyone.
Below: Hamilton shows off his own wheels, along with impressive fluidity against one of many Auburn wheel routes. And once again, he flaunts his coverage chops — turning and locating the ball over his head before making a magnificent play.
Diagnosing and attacking
Although he’s a remarkable athlete, Hamilton’s best skill remains diagnosing and attacking. He reads, then fires. And when he arrives, he brings punishing power.
Turning and running in coverage is necessary. Firing downhill is fun.
Hamilton is like a moving fire hydrant. He’s all of 6-feet, 232 pounds. For comparison, Foster was 6-foot-1, 238 pounds. And C.J. Mosley clocked in at 6-foot-2, 232 pounds.
Hamilton plays in a low stance with a low center of gravity. That allows him to slip under the pads of linemen climbing up to the second level. If you watch closely enough, you probably can see him crack a smile as he bench-presses another linemen out of the way, who, on paper at least, should be able to swat the crafty linebacker away (lowest man wins, baby!).
He slips off blocks, discarding linemen like they’re some kind of nuisance. College football at the highest level shouldn’t look this easy:
Hamilton’s lack of size shows up sometimes. When his technique isn’t perfect, and he doesn’t sink his hips, he can be washed out of the run game by bigger and more physically-imposing blockers. But for the most part, he makes up for it with his intellect, arriving in all the right places at all the right times.
Obviously, working behind Alabama’s all-world space-eaters up front makes life much easier for the linebacker. It helps cover up for any mental lapses and gifts Hamilton space to showcase his skill set. It was the same for those who came before him.
Unlike others, Hamilton has a rare tendency to slink through crevices in the defensive front. While past ‘Bama luminaries shared Hamilton’s ability to sit, read, and fire — with rare quickness — few were able to dance between blockers with such patience and guile.
Understanding of leverage
That all speaks to his overall football intellect — as well as his smaller frame. Hamilton does exactly what Saban demands: His job.
While he’s a playmaker with game-changing speed and power, he doesn’t look to create at the risk of harming the defensive construct. He stays in his lane and executes his assignment.
He plays with patience, even when it looks like his hair is on fire. He may be explosive, but he still performs the simple tasks demanded of him — like firing to the outside shoulder to set a hard edge, rather than trying to knife inside and undercut a block to make a play.
They’re little nuances essential to winning games. And they’re what shift Hamilton from a talented player to an excellent one for this team.
The future looks bright. One star linebacker leaves, another slides into his place.
Here’s the only word of caution: Hamilton played alongside Foster, but now he’s the alpha dog.
Hamilton must slide over to the traditional “mike” spot and pick up all of the pre-snap checks and decisions that Foster previously did. Here’s what Alabama’s defensive pre-snap communication system looks like:
As you can see, it’s much easier to be the one of the other linebackers (three in base, two in nickel). They simply regurgitate whatever the guy beside them shouts. That was Hamilton’s role in 2016: Foster’s echo.
Now he likely will be the linebacker responsible for making sure everyone is aligned correctly and adjusting the call when there’s any kind of offensive motion or shift. Oh, and then he will have to go play, without the luxury of a future first-round pick by his side (or maybe there will be, considering this is Alabama).
Here’s what his responsibilities will look like against a motion that switches the strength of a formation:
Making sure everyone is on the same page, against offenses that are going at warp speed, or rarely substituting, is now as crucial to Hamilton’s game as flowing and setting a hard edge as the force defender.
Add that to his game, and he will join the growing list of all-time great college linebackers churned out by the Alabama Factory.