Column: Linebacker Mack Wilson is Alabama’s most important player in 2018

Interior linebacker is the one place where Alabama can't afford a major injury

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — He’s made only two career starts, yet heading into the 2018 season is the player Alabama can least afford to lose to a major injury.

How’s that for daunting?

Then again, it may be the perfect word to describe Mack Wilson.

When we last saw the former 5-star prospect out of Montgomery in a game, he was all over the place during the national championship. Against Georgia, Wilson was credited with 12 tackles, a season high for the Crimson Tide.

It wasn’t like he was padding his stats in overtime, either, having just a shared tackle on first down as the Bulldogs went three-and-out and had to settle for a field goal (that didn’t hold up).

The previous title game Alabama’s Reuben Foster had 12 tackles as well, capping off a season that saw him named both a unanimous All-American and recipient of the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker. In his second year as a starter, he went from being credited with 73 tackles to 115.

Wilson has that kind of potential, as did players like Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower and C.J. Mosley before them. Alabama may have become the premier program in college football at few positions, but it’s especially true at linebacker.

However, this year’s version of the Crimson Tide doesn’t have the depth as its predecessors, especially 2017 when every starter and numerous reserves suffered major injuries.

At the two interior spots, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans are both in the NFL. Senior Keith Holcombe decided to focus solely on baseball and sophomore VanDarius Cowan was kicked off the team during the offseason.

So there’s Wilson and sophomore Dylan Moses as the clear first-team players, junior Joshua McMillon and redshirt freshman Markail Benton the primary backups, and sophomore Ben Davis is still trying to find his niche at the collegiate level.

McMillon has eight career tackles while Benton spent last year learning the defense. Davis may have been rated a 5-star recruit, but having played in just one game has yet to make at impact. Look for at least one outside linebacker to slide over to help out during fall camp, perhaps two.

Consequently, it’s a huge cause for concern. It’s even more so considering that Wilson will be the primary signal caller for the whole defense. On every play he’ll be the one relaying everything from the sideline and then calling out adjustments and audibles.

“We need Mack to really be the guy on defense, this year for us in terms of leadership and how he impacts other players if you’re going to be the signal caller,” Nick Saban said. “Very athletic. Very good player. We don’t have any questions about his ability to do what he needs to do at his position to be successful.

“How he affects other people is going to be critical as well.”

Wilson handled the role well during the College Football Playoff, but he also had a sort of safety net both with Hamilton helping out on the sideline and All-American Minkah Fitzpatrick in the secondary.

Neither is still on the roster. The same goes for every other starting defensive back in 2017. Junior safety Deionte Thompson has the most career starts of everyone in the secondary, and it’s the same number as Wilson and Moses: two.

Those three will be playing in the heart of the Alabama defense, behind a new nose tackle as well. The Crimson Tide will be challenged up the middle, although few opponents may be able to do so effectively.

Like Wilson, Moses has an extremely promising future. Looking a lot like the player he’s replacing, Evans, he tallied 11 tackles against Mercer, followed by 10 against Auburn, only to suffer a fractured foot during a practice for the Sugar Bowl.

It was similar to what Wilson went through, only he had the benefit of knowing he could make it back in time to contribute. Two days following the procedure he posted a workout video on social media.

Amazingly, Wilson missed just two games, Mississippi State and Mercer, and it took until the playoff to really get up to speed. Even with that absence, and having not started a game during the regular season, he managed to lead the Crimson Tide in interceptions with four.

One preserved the shutout against Tennessee and another he returned for a touchdown against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl playoff semifinal. The other two were against Florida State and Arkansas.

He’s the first linebacker to lead the team in that statistical category during the Nick Saban era.

So, yes, his potential is enormous.

Even without Terrell Lewis, who many thought was set for a monster season only to suffer a torn ACL in early July, the same could be said for Alabama’s starting four linebackers. With Anfernee Jennings, back after suffering a torn ACL against Clemson, and Christian Miller manning the outside spots the top of the depth chart is set.

The leader has to be Wilson, though.

He’s the one the coaches will have to rely on the most and the most irreplaceable. Granted, there’s no one on the team physically like defensive lineman Raekwon Davis, but at most spots there’s some proven depth including at quarterback. The one exception is in the secondary were no one’s really established themselves yet.

“Mack is a great player, great dude,” Jennings said. “I was there when Mack came in so I’ve seen him grow into a leader. He took on a leadership role and he accepted that. He worked hard to be the best player and the best leader and role model that he can be.

“I think the sky’s the limit for our whole group.”

If Wilson comes through the Crimson Tide will have a good chance to get back to the playoff for a fifth straight year.

If not, the streak likely ends here.

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