By (Matthew Speakman)

TAMPA, FL.- Linebacker Reuben Foster has been Alabama’s leader all season. Every team needs a player to quarterback its defense, and Foster has stepped into that role for the Crimson Tide.

Defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson remembers when he knew Foster would be special.

“When we used to play kick off, he used to go down and knock people out,” Tomlinson said. “Right there, I knew when his time as a starting linebacker came, he would be that guy.”

On Monday, Foster will play his final game in a Crimson Tide uniform when No. 1 Alabama takes on No. 2 Clemson in the National Championship. His career has been one marked with accolades and success at the middle linebacker position.

Many of his teammates believe he is the most important player to an Alabama team that is ranked No. 1 in the country in total defense.

“Reuben has always been one of the main keys in our defense,” Tomlinson said. “He is going to be key for us in this game, simply because he makes all of the calls, he makes all of the checks to the offense. When they check, we check based on what Reuben gives us. He’s pretty much the communication center of our defense.”

Foster was a highly-recruited player in high school. Playing for Auburn High School, he earned the No. 7 ranking for the 2013 class, according to 247sports’ composite ranking. Even as one of the most talented recruits in the country, Foster knew he was going to have to adjust to playing at Alabama.

“It was difficult, just changing the eating habits, sleep, mental phase,” Foster said. “It was really hard over the years, but I had help over the coaching staff and all that, so it, as when the process got done, it got easy.”

When Foster arrived at Alabama, he was a headhunter. He hit with power and speed. During the early stages of his career, Foster wore a neck guard on his uniform due to his tackling style.

Now, he still still possess the same hard-hitting mentality, but he’s learned to be a smarter tackler. Linebacker Tim Williams believes Foster has shown the most growth in his ability to tackle.

“When Reuben was first starting he used to wear the neck brace and stuff like that, but with coaching from coach [Jeremy] Pruitt and Kirby [Smart], two great coaches in his career that taught him a lot of stuff,” Williams said. “What you’re seeing now, Reuben is just fulfilling his potential. He always could do it, it was just believing. Guy is probably the best inside linebacker I’ve played with.”

As a sophomore, Foster showed he was capable of being a great player. In Alabama’s 20-13 win over LSU on Nov. 9, 2014, Foster blazed through kickoff coverage and delivered a jaw-dropping hit on LSU’s Leonard Fournette. To this day, he still holds this as his favorite tackle.

Many of his teammates started to notice the level of talent that Foster possessed.

“When I first came in and enrolled early, we would be on the second string together and I would see him show flashes of being that great player,” said Linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton. “Everybody knew he was great in high school, but you know it was learning the playbook and this and that.”

Foster came into the 2016 season with a sleek frame. He lost weight, and improved his speed. Now, he flies to the ball to deliver powerful hits. His speed, among many other things, has allowed him to lead the team in total tackles with 103. He said that he knew the type of responsibility he was taking on this season.

“It takes a lot. You got to do things that you don’t normally want to do,” Foster said. “You got to do things that the teammates don’t want to do, but you gotta show them and prove it to them that I can fight, I can fight through this and I’m going to help you all get through this.”

Foster learned to be a leader alongside Reggie Ragland and other Alabama linebackers. Playing next to Ragland, he saw how a leader was supposed to make the calls for the defense and get everyone lined up.

Now, Foster has taught players what it means to truly lead a defense. Fellow linebacker Rashaan Evans believes that playing with Foster has made him a better player.

“Reuben has done nothing but encourage me to be the best player that I can be,” Evans said. “Not only that, but challenge me each and every practice. When I have him side-by-side, it’s almost like a tackling match, like who can make more tackles, who can make more plays. When you’re playing a guy of that caliber, all it does is it elevates your game.”

Playing middle linebacker at Alabama comes with expectations. Players like C.J. Mosley, Rolando McClain and Ragland have all earned national awards and were taken in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft.

After winning the Butkus Award (given to the nation’s top linebacker) and being named an All-American, Foster has earned his spot among Alabama’s greats at the position. On Monday, he will get one last opportunity to lead Alabama’s defense.

“He’s leaving his legacy the right way,” Hamilton said. “What better way to go out than with a national championship? He’s definitely up there with all of those all-time greats.”

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Source:: The Crimson White Sports