Dylan Moses was waiting for his moment to take over. Alabama’s junior linebacker, frustrated by the defensive lapses late last season, would tell anyone who listened this offseason about how eager he was to take ownership of the unit.
His goal, he said, was a return to the defense of old. Everyone would be on the same page. Communication would be crisp. They’d play together — with an edge.
“Pure dominance” is how he said it would look.
Moses was all set to be the leader many in and around the program believed was missing last season. He would be the adult in the room who would whip the defense into shape. As safety Xavier McKinney said, “He’s one of the guys that you don’t really want to make mad and get on their bad side because if you do you’re going to have a lot of problems.”
Tuesday’s practice brought that driving force to a screeching halt, however, as Moses suffered a major knee injury that will require surgery. Coach Nick Saban said Moses would be out an indefinite period of time, and it’s likely to cost him the entire season.
It’s a brutal turn of events for Moses, a Butkus Award finalist last season who was projected by many to be a first-round NFL draft pick in 2020.
It’s a brutal development for Alabama, as well, having lost its signal-caller and perhaps the heart and soul of a defense that was looking to reassert itself following an embarrassing 44-16 loss to Clemson in the CFP National Championship last season.
Now, to whom will the Crimson Tide turn? The depth at inside linebacker is nil. You need a microscope to find any significant experience.
Because, remember, it’s not just Moses who is gone. That would have been enough to send off alarm bells around Tuscaloosa. But coupled with the news of senior Will linebacker Joshua McMillon‘s knee surgery earlier this month, Alabama is facing an honest-to-goodness reckoning on defense.
Let that sink in: Two true freshmen will be operating in the middle of Alabama’s defense. What could possibly go wrong?
What’s behind them on the depth chart isn’t exactly a wealth of experience, either. Redshirt sophomore Markail Benton had 14 total tackles last season. Sophomore Ale Kaho played mostly on special teams and had 11 total tackles. Yet another sophomore, Jaylen Moody, was a fixture of kickoff coverage and had five total tackles.
Could all these linebackers develop into valuable contributors? Of course they could. Saban doesn’t recruit scrubs. But that’s asking a lot. Alabama has always had an experienced returning inside linebacker to call the defense — from Dont’a Hightower to Rolando McClain to C.J. Mosley to Nico Johnson to Reggie Ragland to Reuben Foster to Shaun Dion Hamilton to Mack Wilson — and now that assembly line that helped forge so many conference and national championships is broken.
“Certainly this is a character check for our team,” Saban said of Moses’ injury on Tuesday.
The only good news is that the early part of the schedule does allow room for growing pains, with unranked Duke to kick things off in Atlanta on Saturday, followed by four more unranked teams in New Mexico State, South Carolina, Southern Miss and Ole Miss. An Oct. 12 trip to No. 12 Texas A&M will be tricky, but get past that and there’s Tennessee and Arkansas at home.
Now more than ever, Alabama needs Raekwon Davis to turn into the dominant defensive lineman many believe he can be. It needs Trevon Diggs to stay healthy at cornerback, Patrick Surtain to make a big step forward in Year 2 and McKinney to build upon the big plays he made last year.
But as Saban can attest, there’s only so much they can do. It wasn’t that long ago that he told ESPN, “We can’t afford to lose a lot of guys on defense, especially at linebacker.”
With Moses and McMillon sidelined, there are no good options, only the hope to cobble together something decent enough to get by. Because you can replace talent, but there’s no accounting for experience. And, with Moses in particular, there’s no replacing the drive he was going to bring to the position and the defense as a whole.
When Alabama takes the field in Atlanta on Saturday, it will be missing what could have been its most crucial piece.