TUSCALOOSA _ It's not very often that a football team is able to add someone into the mix halfway through a season, but 2009 has probably been anything what University of Alabama sophomore weakside linebacker Jerrell Harris expected.
After being declared ineligible for six games due to receiving an impermissible benefit, Harris finally practiced Monday in preparation to face an opponent, No. 22 South Carolina.
"Jerrell's a very good athlete, good player," Coach Nick Saban said. "We tried to get him a role in our defense back in camp. He's obviously been out of it for a little time now, but he's very athletic, he's instinctive, he's a play-maker. He hasn't played a lot at (weakside linebacker) even though we moved him to that position last spring and this fall, so we'll see where he's at."
During the individual drills reporters were allowed to observe practice, Harris was working ahead of true freshman Nico Johnson among the inside linebackers, normally where sophomore Dont'a Hightower would be. However, Hightower was watching from a sideline exercise bike after having season-ending knee surgery two weeks ago (he didn't pedal, just worked his arms).
Johnson played in the base defense last Saturday at Ole Miss and was credited with 2½ tackles, and had a forced fumble on a kick return. Consequently, he shared the coaching staff's special-teams player of the week honors with seniors Cory Reamer and Leigh Tiffin.
"Those two guys will compete to get reps this week," Saban said. "Later in the week we'll have to make a decision as for who is most ready to play in certain roles relative to how both guys can contribute. But he did a good job, especially for the first time out, just played in regular, really did a good job in special teams as well."
As for how much of an immediate impact Harris might make, that's the key question that can't be answered until Saturday's homecoming game at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Harris played in 10 games last season as an outside linebacker, with three tackles, and was a special-teams contributor, but hasn't seen live action in more than 10 months and never as an inside linebacker.
"He's a hard-working guy in practice, but there's a big difference between practice and games," junior middle linebacker Rolando McClain said.
However, Harris got a head start on the position during the offseason and firmly established himself on the depth chart behind Hightower. During the A-Day Game he made three tackles and broke up two passes.
Consequently, he wouldn't necessarily need to be replaced in obvious passing situations like Johnson was Saturday. Reamer has filled in the past two weeks and on Monday said he's prepared to keep playing both spots as necessary.
"He can bring a lot to this defense with the type of player he is and his versatility, his intelligence as a football player," senior cornerback Javier Arenas said about Harris. "Just knowing the calls, knowing how to anticipate plays and the time he's spent in the film room."
Without Hightower, Alabama moved Reamer to Will, senior Eryk Anders went from Jack to Sam, and sophomore Courtney Upshaw was inserted at Jack against Kentucky, where the defense gave up 133 rushing yards, more than twice as many as any other opponent.
With the bigger Johnson at Will, Reamer and Anders back at their usual spots in the base defense against Ole Miss, and Upshaw filling Hightower's duties as a pass-rusher, the Tide yielded only 72 rushing yards.
In both games, Alabama's defense made four turnovers (to go with a fumble recovery on special teams against Ole Miss).
"Be prepared, go out there and do the same thing I've been doing, changing positions and all that," Reamer said. "But we're fortunate to be getting a linebacker back. He's going to bring a lot to the table."