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August 29, 2012TUSCALOOSA | Simply referring to someone as "an Alabama linebacker" isn't a specific description. Some of the linebackers in the Crimson Tide package are almost as big as defensive linemen and play similar roles, particularly in pass-rush situations. Some are almost indistinguishable from safeties, and perform similar roles. Others are hybrid combinations of different defensive abilities.
One thing is certain in 2012: the cast of characters will be different without Courtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower and Jerrell Harris.
There is experience coming back, especially at the inside linebacker position where C.J. Mosley, Trey DePriest, Tana Patrick and Nico Johnson all saw playing time last season. According to Johnson, a senior - the only senior in the linebacking corps - the group also has determination.
"In the last three years, I don't think we have worked so hard or been so committed to what we are doing," Johnson said. "We've got an opportunity here. We've got to take advantage of it."
Mosley has come back strong after a fearsome-looking hip injury knocked him out of the third quarter of the BCS Championship Game in New Orleans. He was able to return for spring training and is contending for a starting spot.
DePriest, a sophomore from Ohio, has also earned praise from UA coach Nick Saban.
"He's very instinctive," Saban said. "He's a good space player. He's making less and less mistakes as he gets more experience."
Freshman Reggie Ragland also has been in competition on the inside.
The outside linebacker position is also crowded with young players, according to Saban.
"We'll play the two best," Saban said. "We have some guys with experience at the Sam (position), some at the Jack and some with experience at both."
The current frontrunners appear to be Adrian Hubbard, a pass-rushing specialist who can play on either side, and Xzavier Dixon. But there is a long list of other candidates, including Jonathan Atchison and freshmen Denzel Devall, Dillon Lee and Ryan Anderson.
"We've got to keep developing those guys back there," defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said in his preseason news conference. "They have to change the game on third down, in different ways. We've got to have (the ability) to change, to say we are not just going to go heavy and hit you in the mouth, but that we can run around you too."