Sometimes the most important victories happen in the offseason.
When Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland decided to put off the jump to the NFL and stay at school for his senior season, he cited his desire to get his degree. His statement released by The University of Alabama also mentioned how special the dynamic is at the University, quoting Ragland as saying “you only form a brotherhood like this once.”
Not everyone thought another year of school was the way to go. Some guys like Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon decided to leave school early, but Ragland said he holds no ill will towards his former teammates for making a different choice. Nor does he seem caught up second guessing his own decision.
“I’m happy for those guys,” Ragland said. “They did what they had to do the three years they were here so it’s up to me to do what I have to do in this next year, six months really, just to show guys that I can really play so I can get at their level.”
Ragland might have a personal mission to get his degree this year, but as a leader of the Crimson Tide defense, he will face another mission given to him by the fans–to fix things.
From 2009-2012 Alabama’s defense allowed nine teams to score 21 points or more. Of those nine, only one of those teams (South Carolina in 2010), reached the thirty point threshold. In the last two seasons, Alabama has allowed eight teams to score at least 21 points, and five of those teams scored thirty or more points.
For most schools, holding more than two-thirds of opponents under 21 points would be considered an achievement. At Alabama, it caused an uproar.
The fans are not the only ones to notice that things have changed at Alabama. On Monday, coach Nick Saban spoke about Alabama’s need to rediscover a lost identity.
“The dynamics of Alabama football has changed a little bit over the last couple of years,” he said. “I have been anxious to get back to what we used to do.”
The first signs of trouble in Tuscaloosa emerged in a victory when Alabama beat Texas A&M on the road 49-42. Since then, Alabama’s defense has often been criticized as vulnerable to giving up big plays, especially when facing hurry up offenses like the one Auburn employs.
Some players on Alabama’s defense have lost weight this offseason, perhaps to combat that perception. Ragland said Alabama’s struggle with fast paced offenses had more to do with mental issues than physical ones.
“I feel like in the past years we had them but it’s all about work ethic,” Ragland said. “When you face a team like that you got to want to, and I think this year we got guys that want to.”
If there is major criticism of Ragland’s game, it might be that there is only one Reggie Ragland.
“We use Reggie in a lot of multiple roles,” Saban said. “Primarily he’s the mike linebacker in regular, he’s the money linebacker in nickel, he can play Mack in dime or we use him as a bunk which makes him as a fourth rusher in dime.”
Fellow linebacker Dillon Lee said Ragland’s decision to return to the Crimson Tide was huge for the team.
“He was a dominant player last year,” Lee said. “People look to him for leadership all the time.”
If the burden of leadership affects Ragland, he hides it well. On Monday, Ragland responded to a question about the quarterback battle with a joke.
“I’ll play quarterback if they need me to,” Ragland said.
No stranger to jokes, Ragland teased fans on Twitter in the days leading up to his decision regarding the NFL back in January.
“Yall will know about me when the time comes,” Ragland tweeted.
The question heading into this season is whether or not Alabama can return to form and field a stifling defense similar to the ones that have helped the program win three national championships in four years. The hype around the team this year would suggest it can. A’Shawn Robinson and Ragland headline a front seven that some believe could be one of Saban’s best, but as deep and talented as the front seven is, Ragland still stands out.
“There’s times when people look to him to make a play,” Lee said. “Everybody really counts on him when we are looking for a play.”
Ahead of this week’s game against No. 20 Wisconsin, Ragland emphasized the need for players to approach this game with the right attitude.
“We’re going to see what type of guys we got,” Ragland said. “That’s what that first game is about, and this is a tough, physical team so we are going to see what type of guys we have including myself.”
Saban said he is confident Ragland can handle all of the different hats he wears. If Saban is right, then Alabama’s defense might look a little more familiar this year, and if fans are lucky, they just might get the championship they’ve expected over the last two years.
“Reggie’s smart – he handles it well,” Saban said. “He’s got good work habits, so if there’s a guy that’s capable of accomplishing it, it’s certainly a guy like him.”
Source:: The Crimson White Sports