As New Year’s revelers stumbled around Bourbon Street three blocks away, Alabama linebacker Terrell Lewis began the first day of 2018 by waking at 4 a.m. in his room at the New Orleans Marriott.
Lewis’ roommate, fellow linebacker Mack Wilson, was up watching YouTube clips of Alabama’s past two games against Clemson on his tablet. Although Wilson eventually went back to sleep, Lewis stayed awake for several hours, reviewing the opponent Alabama would face that night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“I ended up staying up until the sun came up,” Lewis said. “Me and Mack, we took it personally.”
Redemption against Clemson was personal for every player on Alabama’s roster, but for linebackers like Lewis and Wilson, it reached another level. They’re part of a position group that couldn’t stay healthy all season, losing key contributors seemingly every week. But Alabama’s linebackers entered the College Football Playoff at the Allstate Sugar Bowl against Clemson as close to whole as they had been all season.
The fast and fresh core of Alabama’s defense propelled the unit in a resurgent performance. The Tide won 24-6, holding Clemson to only 188 total yards, 342 yards below its average from the previous two national title games. Alabama linebackers combined for 24 tackles, including four for loss, an interception returned for a touchdown and three passes defended. They factored into both takeaways: Wilson sealed the win with an 18-yard pick-six in the third quarter, and moments earlier, Anfernee Jennings hit Clemson’s Kelly Bryant as he threw, allowing nose tackle Da’Ron Payne to intercept the ball.
“It was awesome,” Christian Miller said. “From outside in, everybody played tremendous. Our goal was to come out play fast, physical, relentless, and get back to how we started the season off. That’s what we did. Everybody executed.”
Alabama’s linebacker revival came at the perfect time as the Tide prepare to face Georgia’s punishing run game Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. The Tide must contend with running backs Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift, a much-improved Georgia offensive line and a quarterback in Jake Fromm who doesn’t throw many interceptions (5) or take many sacks (16).
The linebackers come in confident after their Clemson masterpiece. They also come in undermanned. As Lewis, Wilson, Rashaan Evans and others celebrated in one corner of the locker room last Monday, Jennings hobbled out on crutches. Barely 48 hours later, Jennings tweeted that he had undergone successful knee surgery but would miss the championship game. The sophomore emerged late in the regular season and had a career-high three tackles for loss, including his first career sack, in the Sugar Bowl.
Jennings’ loss is tough but not jarring for Alabama’s linebackers, who have dealt with bad news all season. Miller and Lewis suffered injuries in the season opener against Florida State and didn’t return until the Iron Bowl at Auburn. Wilson played most of the season with a broken bone in his foot, which he aggravated Nov. 4 against LSU, causing him to miss the rest of the regular season. The LSU game also claimed Shaun Dion Hamilton, a multiyear starter who suffered a season-ending knee injury. Freshman Dylan Moses, who showed promise late in the season after all the injuries thrust him into a key role, injured his foot in mid-December and missed the Sugar Bowl. Moses participated in part of practice this week but probably will miss the title game.
Only one Tide linebacker, reserve Keith Holcombe, has played in all 13 games. Evans described preseason camp, when the linebacker room was filled with healthy players, as “the good ol’ days.”
“We’ve been through so many injuries with so many guys,” said Evans, who missed two games after injuring his groin in the season opener against Florida State. “I feel like each person on our squad, as far as linebackers, has had at least one type of injury, which is very rare.”
As Jennings described the group mindset before his own injury: “You don’t ever have time during the season to stop and get mad about it or get sad. You’ve got to keep going, keep playing and hope for the best.”
Alabama’s linebackers take no play for granted, which could serve them well in the winner-take-all title game Monday. Their aggressiveness against Georgia is an area to watch, as Evans admitted that Alabama had to back off after losing Miller and Lewis, both effective edge rushers. Along with the departures of Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams, who combined for 18 tackles for loss, 22 quarterback hurries and six forced fumbles, Alabama’s pressure numbers fell off sharply this season.
But the semifinal surge — Alabama had sacks by five different players and nine total tackles for loss — bodes well before Georgia.
“The fact that we have them back now, I feel like it gives us our versatility back,” Evans said. “It gives us our edge back, and now I feel like we can be back to an aggressive-type defense.”
Monday night, Alabama’s linebackers return to the stadium where they started their season, back when attrition and lineup changes weren’t issues. They’ve been through a lot in the past four months, but they’re more determined than ever to finish strong.
“If we look at all the things that have happened to us, and understand that any play could be the last one, that’s the motivation,” Evans said. “It motivates us to play a lot harder and execute a lot better, too.”