In addition to wanting more rotation along the defensive line, Todd Grantham also had something to say about the inside linebacker position. I don’t know if there was a more turbulent position on the team in 2012 than ILB. Ogletree was a rock, but even his four-game suspension factored into the story.
We began to hear a lot about the position’s role in communication among defenders. It’s the job of a middle linebacker to identify the offense’s formations and get the defense adjusted and lined up correctly. In 2012 you had a situation where the more experienced players who could do a better job aligning the defense weren’t necessarily the best athletes or tacklers, and a younger player like Amarlo Herrera was better at making the plays but maybe not as good at quarterbacking the defense.
This issue came to a head in Shawn Williams’ midseason tirade. The “soft” challenge to his fellow defenders got the most attention, but Williams also had some things to say about the inside linebacker position.
“As a player, that’s what I want. I want to see Amarlo Herrera and Ogletree in the game at inside linebacker. I don’t want to see anybody taking them out of there. I feel those are two guys who will go out and give everything they’ve got, even if they mess up. I feel they will get to the ball. That’s what we need – get to the ball.”
That statement might’ve ruffled some feathers inside the locker room, especially since Williams implied that two seniors, Gilliard and Robinson, should see less time on the field in order to get Herrera out there. But that got to the point – was it more important to “get to the ball” as Williams put it, or did the larger responsibilities of the position matter enough to keep the allocation of playing time as it was? Gilliard was no slouch, and Robinson thrived against the option teams late in the season, but here we are talking about the need to improve the defense against the run.
Herrera saw plenty of playing time of course. He started nine games, and he was fifth on the team with 70 tackles (second behind only Ogletree among inside linebackers). That doesn’t mean that the issue was settled: though he forced a fumble on special teams in the SEC Championship, the defensive coaches didn’t use him much even as Alabama’s running game got going. He finished with only two tackles in the game.
I think Herrera is emerging as one of the most important keys to the success of the 2013 defense. With Gilliard, Robinson, and Ogletree gone, Herrera enters his junior year as the most experienced ILB. He can make the tackles, and now his leadership and analytical abilities will be tested. If Grantham is looking to this position to help improve the defense’s success against the run, Herrera’s role is central.