One was given the responsibility of being quarterback of the defense. The other was seen as another version of Rashaan Evans.
That’s a lot to handle for a pair of interior linebackers who had both only made two career starts for the University of Alabama prior to this season. But then again, there’s nothing average about junior Mack Wilson or sophomore Dylan Moses, who play at the heart of the Crimson Tide defense.
“Me and Mack, the one thing I tell everyone is that we’re like a 1-2 punch,” Moses said. “We feel like we play off each other’s skills. I feel like he’s a great partner to have on the side because if I do slip up he’ll pick up the slack, and when he tends to slip up I’ll pick up his slack.
“It’s like our chemistry is there already. We don’t have to develop it, it’s there.”
Yet they never played together before this season, at least not in a game.
When the rash of injuries struck the Crimson Tide linebacker corps last year the two were called up during the national championship run, ready or not.
Wilson was already being groomed to eventually step into Sean Dion Hamilton’s role as the primary play-caller only to have a foot injury turn into a full-blown fracture against LSU. Amazingly, he missed just two games after having surgery and still managed to lead Alabama in interceptions as a reserve.
With Wilson out and Hamilton suffering a season-ending injury, Moses was thrust into a starting role first despite being a true freshman. There was a lot of learning under fire, especially considering that like Evans he first played outside linebacker before sliding over.
During his first career start Moses led the defense with 11 tackles against Mercer and 10 against Auburn, only to suffer a similar injury as his future partner.
By then, Wilson was back in the fold. He made his first career start against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl semifinal of the College Football Playoff, and tallied 12 tackles against Georgia in the National Championship Game. It was a season high for any Crimson Tide player.
But that was all last year. With Alabama also having two new safeties behind them, and sophomore Quinnen Williams stepping in at nose tackle, it was all fresh blood over the middle for the Crimson Tide.
If that wasn’t daunting enough, Alabama opened against Louisville and a coach known for being more than offensively savvy, followed back-to-back teams with a lot of offensive firepower, Arkansas State and Ole Miss. All three could score in the blink of an eye.
Consequently, Alabama’s defense was tested in just about every way imaginable in the passing game during the month of September. It did more than survive, but excelled.
"I can say I did OK compared from playoffs and the Georgia game last year,” Wilson said about the opener in Orlando against the Cardinals.
"We knew Coach [Bobby] Petrino. We knew he was going to try to line up in a lot of different formations to try to get everybody thrown off because we have a lot of young guys on the defense and a lot of inexperienced guys. We knew he was going to come out and do some things we didn't [expect]. He motioned out of a formation to another formation so it was like, we kinda were prepared good enough for it and in that moment in the game we were like 'What are we going to do?' So we executed well."
In addition to the multiple looks, it saw a lot of wheel and crossing routes in the first game. There were many screen passes from the Red Wolves that Alabama actually picked one off and returned it for a touchdown. The Rebels opted for the deep ball, which worked only once.
Meanwhile, the running game is ranked 43rd in the nation before facing Arkansas (11 a.m., ESPN), which is low for a program that regularly finishes near the top in the statistical category.
But Alabama's close to posting numbers that are more in line with what's expected.
"I guess if you look at things statistically, you would say that you would be a little displeased," Nick Saban said. "Do I think we can play the run better? Absolutely. Do I think we could tackle better? Absolutely. Do I think our statistics this season are misleading? I think that's also true.
"We've given up a lot of yards in the fourth quarter when we play other teams, just like this last week. The team had 128 yards through three quarters. Put the other guys in the game, they gained 158 yards on 17 plays. So that looks all the same in stats. But if you really slice and dice it, well, what's the issue here? The issue is, yeah, we had a 23-yard run against the run which we didn't fit the run right and we have to get that fixed but other than that we didn't play the run poorly. But the other guys gave up a lot of yards rushing. So we have to get them better. So I think that there's definitely room for improvement. We can definitely do a better job. Is it as bad as I looked, I don't think so."
The defense has only gotten stronger as the two interior linebackers became more familiar with their roles and each other.
“Oh, he’s amazing now,” Williams said. “Dylan Moses is on the field because he worked for it.”
Wilson’s drive is also impressive, but partially stems from the loss of two people close to him. Friend Rod Scott, 17, passed away from injuries suffered in a car wreck March 4, 2016. Cousin Shaquille Johnson, 20, was shot and killed in Montgomery on Feb. 4, 2017.
A fan made a painting of the two looking over Wilson, which hangs on his wall.
“It means a lot to me,” Wilson said. “That’s why I got it hung up in my house. I got it tattooed on my back. Those guys played a tremendous role in my life, growing up with them and learning from them and working hard with them.
“That kind of motivates me every day to go and compete and play hard, because I know if they were here they would be doing the same thing.”
At thebottom of the tattoo, “My Brother’s Keeper,” is written in script.
Against Louisville, there were two strong non-statistical indications about how well the linebackers have adjusted to their new roles.
The first was on a mistake. When Cardinals wide receiver Seth Dawkins burst into the open field off a short gain for an apparent touchdown, Moses chased him down and made the tackle at the end of a 47-yard gain.
“At first, I forgot the corner that was over there, but I thought he was going to make the tackle, but I was still running towards the play to make sure, you know, it was secure,” Moses said. “But then when I realized the play wasn’t made, like, I tried my best to catch him.
“Personally, I didn’t think I was going to catch him, but I tried my hardest and got there at the last second.”
The other came after the game, when Wilson said it was on him that the defense had some communication issues and mental mistakes.
He said the kind of thing that a team leader would say.
“I’m that guy,” he said. “I’m the Mike linebacker, the signal caller. That’s my job basically. Coach Saban tells me all the time that if someone messes up he’s coming at me regardless. I’m the signal caller, and I need to make sure everyone is on the same page.”