By Joe Spears | @joe_spears7
Sports Capital Journalism Program
ATLANTA – As Terrell Lewis walked off the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium favoring his right arm, it appeared clear to the followers of Alabama’s Crimson Tide that they had just lost their promising sophomore linebacker for a significant amount of time.
Lewis came into the 2017 season regarded as one of the Tide’s top pass rushers and was figured to be one of the top players on another celebrated Alabama defense. In the highly-anticipated, season-opening battle of No. 1 vs. No. 3 against Florida State, he racked up five unassisted tackles and helped on two others before a torn ulnar collateral ligament meant the apparent end of his season.
But not for Lewis.
“Once I found out that I was going to be out for the season I said they can’t determine that for me,” he remembered. “I kept working in rehab and it was tough. It definitely a trial.
“At times I would be like, damn, this is really hard, but I knew what would come from it. I knew I wanted to be out here in this situation with my teammates and be right back in Atlanta where I got hurt.”
Four months and six days later, in the same stadium, Lewis will be listed as a second-team SAM linebacker and ready to go for the College Football Playoff National Championship against Georgia. He’s not alone.
In an Alabama season that has been filled with doubt and uncertainty due to injuries at linebacker, the Crimson Tide may have reached their healthiest point of the season at the position.
Lewis’ remarkable recovery and return has come to represent the development of the Alabama linebacking corps. In the season opener against Florida State, Lewis and junior Christian Miller went down with injuries that were considered season-ending.
Miller missed ten games with an injured bicep. Sophomore Anfernee Jennings suffered an ankle injury and senior Rashaan Evans left with a groin injury; each player missed two games.
But each time, the Tide was able to draw upon its superior depth of talent when a younger player was there to fill in the gap. After suffering a foot injury that was thought to be season ending, sophomore Mack Wilson returned just in time to fill in for an injured Shaun Dion Hamilton, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against LSU on Nov. 4.
Wilson would go on to record six tackles in the Allstate Sugar Bowl victory over Clemson and had the game-clinching 18-yard interception return for a touchdown with 5:27 to play.
“I feel like I stepped up with Shaun Dion going down,” Wilson said. “He plays a big role in our defense. He’s the Mike backer, the senior caller and the guy that lines up everyone, makes all of the calls. I feel like I stepped up in his absence and played a great role in there.”
Before the semifinal victory over Clemson, the six Tide linebackers had missed a combined total of 32 games. This opened up opportunities for younger players such as freshman Dylan Moses. The highly-touted outside linebacker made the most of his chance. Over the final four games of the season, Moses totaled 25 tackles and had 1.5 sacks against LSU before breaking a foot during a practice in December.
This time, though, there would experience waiting to fill the void.
“One thing that I’m really pleased with is the way that a number of players have gotten an opportunity because of some of the absences that we’ve had due to injury,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “They’ve stepped up and done a really nice job and hopefully there will be some other opportunities for guys to do the same thing in this game.”
For Georgia, it doesn’t matter who lines up at linebacker on Monday for Alabama. The Bulldogs understand it will be a challenge for their offense.
“They’re fast, big and strong,” Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “That’s about it. Schematically, they didn’t change anything. You’re still going at their scheme and then you look at their people. Their people are back so we didn’t really have to change our game plan a lot.”
Alabama will compete for a national championship without Moses, Hamilton and Jennings, who suffered an injury to his left knee against Clemson. Still, after all the disruption caused by the injuries, Alabama ranks first in scoring defense (11.1 points), rushing defense (91.8 yards), and total defense (252.4 yards).
“Someone asked me about superstars,” Evans said. “I feel like the whole defense is a superstar. Those guys can play anywhere in the country and be a superstar. We’ve just got so much great talent on this defense as well as great guys. All of these guys are wired the right way and they play physical football. They play tough and are able to fight through any type of adversity that they face.”