TUSCALOOSA — Where there’s a Will, there’s a way – even for true freshmen.
Alabama freshman inside linebacker Christian Harris appears to be separating himself at the weakside/Will ‘backer spot, earning first-team reps beside junior starting Mike linebacker Dylan Moses during the Crimson Tide’s final preseason scrimmage Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Despite being a summer enrollee, the 6-foot-2 and 244-pound four-star product from Baton Rouge, La., has seemingly impressed enough in his first three months with the team to earn a significant opportunity at a position of great need within Alabama’s defense following the potential season-ending knee injury to redshirt senior linebacker Josh McMillon a week ago.
“He did a good job. I'd like to watch the film (but) he's a football player, it's important to him,” head coach Nick Saban said of Harris following Saturday’s scrimmage. “He runs and hits people. Is he where he needs to be in terms of what to do, how to do it, why it's important to do it that way? (Probably not.)
"But when we've had guys like this in the past, whether it was CJ Mosely playing as a freshman, Donta’ Hightower playing as a freshman, Rolando McClain playing as a freshman, we just put them in there and play them, and they get some on-the-job training.
“There's still competition at that position. But he’s a guy that’s made plays throughout fall camp so far that we’re hopeful he’ll continue to improve and develop (enough) to play as a starter.”
McMillion suffered a knee injury in last week’s scrimmage, throwing the Will linebacker spot into great uncertainty with so much youth and inexperience behind him at the position.
Redshirt sophomore Markail Benton had been working beside Moses during the open viewing periods this past week but appears to have been shuffled to the back in favor of some of the freshmen, including Harris and early enrollee Shane Lee, another four-star signee this offseason.
“We have work to do. Those guys have ability, (but) they make too many mental errors,” Saban said of the younger inside linebackers during spring practice in April.
“I mean if you make mental errors at linebacker, you either have a guy that’s unprotected, you have somebody that’s not covered. We had way too many of those today. And we just have to keep on working and keep on working with them and see where it takes us.
Prior to his arrival in late May, Harris told the Montgomery Advertiser how excited he was to get an opportunity to not only play as a true freshman, but also possibly start at the Will spot.
“I know at the Will position, since Dylan’s moved to Mike, that Will position is pretty open,” Harris said. “So I’m just trying to go in and learn as much as I can from the older guys and still compete every single day.
“… It just makes me think that there’s a chance I could have that spot — it just makes me want to go in even harder honestly.”
By all accounts, that approach appears to be paying off for Harris.
RB Ford suffers ankle injury Saturday: Alabama’s running back depth took another hit Saturday when redshirt freshman Jerome Ford suffered a sprained ankle early in the team’s second preseason scrimmage.
Ford, who was receiving some first-team reps Saturday as coaches softened the workload of expected starting backs Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr., is expected to miss a week of practice, according to Saban, meaning he’ll likely be out the remainder of preseason camp.
“We don’t think it’s all that bad, the Doc thinks it’ll be a week,” Saban said of Ford’s injury. “We did an MRI on it and think it’s OK.”
Ford is the second Crimson Tide running back to suffer an injury in the last two weeks after five-star true freshman Trey Sanders suffered a broken left foot during a practice last week. Sanders was seen in a boot and riding a small scooter prior to Saturday’s scrimmage.
Beyond Ford, Alabama’s scholarship running back depth is limited to true freshman Keilan Robinson and redshirt sophomore Chadarius Townsend, who moved back from receiver last week after Sanders’ injury.
Of course, there was some positive news on the injury front as true freshman nose guard D.J. Dale, who has been working with the first-team defense since spring, returned to practice Saturday for the first time since suffering a sprained knee during a practice a little less than two weeks ago.
Saban said on Thursday Dale was close to returning but would only do so “on a limited basis” moving forward. Redshirt sophomore Phidarian Mathis has been working with the first-team defense at nose guard in Dale’s absence.
Injuries have forced Alabama to take extra precautions during the preseason, especially with regard to many of its more experienced players and projected starters.
That included holding out four of its projected starting defensive front seven Saturday, including Dale and junior defensive end LaBryan Ray, who just returned to practice last week after suffering an ankle injury during the summer.
“So the first-team becomes half the second-team, the second-team becomes half the third-team,” Saban said, “… so it’s great for experience of the (younger) players and their development, to get into situations where they have to be responsible and accountable to do their job, but it’s also not totally realistic to (be able) to see how that unit is really developing.”
The coaches also held out junior tight end Miller Forristall and junior outside linebacker Terrell Lewis, two players that are coming off injuries and rehabilitation earlier this offseason.
“It’s still a work-in-progress,” Saban said.
Saban: Jones ‘way ahead’ of young QBs: After being a point of uncertainty the past several offseasons, Alabama’s quarterback situation appears to be fairly settled two weeks before the season.
While junior Tua Tagovailoa is the unquestioned returning starter following his record-shattering Heisman Trophy runner-up season last year, redshirt sophomore Mac Jones seems to have solidified his hold on the Tide’s backup quarterback spot during preseason practice.
“Mac is way ahead of the other guys,” Saban said, referring to Alabama’s four-star freshmen quarterbacks Taulia Tagovailoa and Paul Tyson. “(Jones has) been here in the program for a couple of years. He knows the offense. He's really smart. He makes good decisions for the most part.”
Jones impressed during last week’s scrimmage and continues to show a better grasp of the Tide offense than his younger challengers.
“He's been very productive in both scrimmages we've had — he really has,” Saban said of Jones. “So he got some opportunities with the first team today. We gave him some opportunities last week with the first team. … I think offensively we're good.”