Making the call: A look at Henry To'o To'o's transition to Mike linebacker at Alabama
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Making the call: A look at Henry To'o To'o's transition to Mike linebacker

On average, it takes an individual 480 hours to learn a new language. More difficult dialects can take up to 720 hours to master. Being able to confidently communicate the calls and checks necessary to direct traffic in a Nick Saban defense requires even more time.

That’s what makes Henry To’o To’o’s transition from an offseason transfer into Alabama’s defensive quarterback at Mike linebacker so special.

For most, the ascension to Alabama’s signal-caller role is one earned over multiple seasons. Dylan Moses held the duty last year after waiting behind Mack Wilson earlier in his career. Wilson took over for Shaun Dion Hamilton who took his turn after learning alongside Reuben Foster.

“It was definitely a process, man,” Hamilton told BamaInsider. “I’d probably say my freshman and sophomore year I was still learning, so by the time of my junior year I was ready.”

Inheritance of the role has generally been passed down according to experience. An injury crisis in 2019 forced Alabama to thrust then-freshman Shane Lee into the duty. The Tide suffered two regular-season defeats that year, giving up 45 or more points in losses to LSU and Auburn.

Unlike the majority of his predecessors, To’o To’o assumed the signal-caller role in a matter of months. A two-year starter at Tennessee, the junior took advantage of this year’s change in transfer rules, jumping sides in one of the SEC’s biggest rivalries over the summer.

To’o To’o joined the Crimson Tide after thriving in a Tennessee scheme designed by former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. While that undoubtedly aided his development in Tuscaloosa, tackling Saban’s complex setup on short notice is no small order.

“It’s still hard because everything Saban asks us to be able to do is top-notch,” Hamilton said. “I always tell people that if I could learn Alabama’s defense, I can learn any pro team’s defense. There’s nothing like Alabama’s defense.”

Alabama’s Mike linebacker assumes the role of translator 60-80 times per game. On any given play, his job is to flash-diagnose the offense’s formation before barking out orders to orchestrate his own unit. In a matter of seconds he sets the defensive line, organizes his secondary behind him and picks up on his own keys and responsibilities — all before the ball is snapped.

“It's almost chaos, every single play,” said Hamilton. “We could be in Cover 3 defense, then the next thing you know the offense comes out in an unbalanced formation where we have to switch to man-to-man. At that point, you hurry up to the line, and the team could then motion which resets everything, taking us back to Cover 3.

“You’re trying to tell the defensive line something and making sure the Star or safeties are rolling down. All that is going on while you’re trying to read whether the guard is staying light or staying heavy and what the running back’s alignment is. There’s so much you have to look for. Especially in college football now, it’s a freaking circus.”

The symphony of micro-adjustments is made possible by an acute understanding of the defense. According to Hamilton, the most difficult part of picking up Saban’s system is recalling the failsafes Alabama implements for any possible situation.

“We have a tip or a call for how we’re going to play based on every formation,” Hamilton said. “If it’s an empty formation, if it’s a trips formation, if it’s two-by-two, if it’s four [receivers], we’ve got something planned for everything. One thing that you hear a lot at the beginning of school is that it’s all on you because, from a preparation standpoint of view, there’s never anything that we've never seen before.”

While comprehension of the defense is key, Alabama’s Mike linebackers are also relied on to relay Saban’s message off the field. Since the head coach took over in Tuscaloosa, five of his signal-callers have gone on to become team captains. Hamilton, who was voted as a team captain during the 2017 season, says the position comes with its own persona.

“You’re a different kind of cat because everybody knows the type of player who plays in the middle of the defense at Alabama,” he explained. “It’s a whole other standard that you play to. You’re kind of like the middle man who gets Saban’s point across. You got to be a different type of dude when it comes to how you walk on the field and off the field.”

When asked this week, Alabama safety Jordan Battle couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment he started noticing those traits from To’o To’o, but he knows it came well before the Tide broke for fall camp in August.

“Henry was upstairs almost every day making sure he knew the playbook in and out,” Battle said. “Him and Christian [Harris] were up here. They were up here every day with Coach [Pete] Golding. Christian was making sure Henry knew the ins and outs of the defense.”

Even before Alabama began preparations for the season, To’o To’o exuded a veteran presence. Shortly into his time in Tuscaloosa, he participated in the team’s Habitat for Humanity project, working alongside teammates to help construct a house for the Nick's Kids Foundation. Those off-field efforts continued into the fall as he earned a spot on the Tide’s leadership council before the start of camp.

“When you come in as a new transfer, it’s kind of a different thing,” To’o To’o explained last month. “You’re not a freshman, but you’re kind of an upperclassman. ... [I] tried to get to know the guys, tried to build relationships with the guys because that’s the biggest thing. You come in here with a group, a team that’s been together and you’re the new guy, so I didn’t really come in with the mindset to be the defensive caller, to be the signal-caller.

“I wanted to be that guy that they could trust, that they could call at night, in the morning, whenever they needed me. So that was kind of my approach, to be able to just build relationships with the guys so that it could translate on the field.”

So far, To’o To’o has done just that.

Through seven games, the starting linebacker leads the team with 54 tackles. He tallied a season-high 13 stops including a sack during last week’s win over Mississippi State, earning defensive player of the week honors from Alabama’s coaching staff.

“Henry has done a really good job,” Saban said Wednesday. “He’s a good communicator, he’s smart. I think he helps everybody else play better upfront in terms of his ability to communicate, have a good understanding of the defense, what the offense is trying to do, what we’re trying to do on defense to stop it, and I think that’s been very helpful to all of our players.”

Added Christian Harris, who starts alongside To’o To’o at Will linebacker: “That’s a guy you can trust that knows his assignment. And when he makes a call, you know, we'll make sure all 11 guys are on that same call, so he does a really great job with that.”

Along with the praise from his coaches and teammates, To’o To’o also earned the stamp of approval from Hamilton, who said he’s been impressed by his smooth transition to Alabama this season.

“It’s definitely been cool watching him play,” Hamilton. “The kid flies around, and he’s been doing a good job of getting everyone where they are supposed to be. The coolest thing to see is the kind of respect and trust he’s earned from his teammates. I think that speaks a lot about who the guy is as a player and as a teammate.”

Now fully entrenched in his new role, To’o To’o will square off against familiar faces this weekend as No. 4 Alabama hosts Tennessee on Saturday. The Volunteers feature one of the fastest offenses in the nation, averaging 79 plays per game. That will likely lead to a busy night for the Tide’s signal-caller as he looks to keep the defense organized on the fly.

Fortunately for Alabama, To’o To’o has been up to the call so far.