Seems like every Alabama national title run in recent years has had one —an Alpha dog linebacker. There was Rolando McClain in 2009, Dont'a Hightower in '11, and C.J. Mosley in '12.
And it looks like Alabama's got another Alpha dog-type linebacker this season in Reggie Ragland. Whether or not it will translate into another run to the top of the college football heap remains to be seen. For now, it's a least a reason for optimism heading into the 2015 season.
Not too many people would have pegged Ragland as a future Alpha dog linebacker back during his freshman campaign in 2012. He played mostly on special teams that year and recorded eight tackles — for the entire season. He became a little more of a contributor in 2013, logging 17 tackles as a reserve linebacker and special teams stalwart.
Then came last season.
The Madison, Ala., native started his first career game at the Will linebacker spot in the season opener against West Virginia. And never looked back. He finished the season with 95 tackles, second on the team behind only All-America safety Landon Collins’ 102 stops. Ragland's 10.5 tackles for a loss ranked third on the team.
Ragland continued to impress in the spring, receiving the Woodrow Lowe Linebacker Award, and he was one of the top vote getters in preseason All-SEC balloting in July, earning first-team accolades in overwhelming fashion. With the 2015 season just around the corner now, just how good could Ragland be for the Tide as a now-seasoned starter and bona fide standout at inside linebacker?
How about pretty good, as in 100-plus-tackles good. Hey, Mosley and McClain each accomplished that feat. Mosley, in fact, did it in back-to-back seasons. There's no reason to think Ragland won't follow suit, considering what he did last year.
"Reggie's a guy that's gotten more and more confident each year," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said of the 6-foot-2, 252-pounder earlier this fall camp. "He came in very talented, but he came in not as knowledgeable and not as instinctive at inside backer. He's gotten better every season. He practices hard. He plays hard. It's important to Reggie."
Ragland's been helped too this fall by having Smart back coaching inside linebackers after the 39-year-old, who earned the Broyles Award in '09 as the nation's top assistant coach, tutored defensive backs last season.
"It's already making an impact on the team, especially with me, Reuben (Foster) and Shaun (Hamilton)," Ragland said of Smart's return. "He's showing us the tiniest things that we gotta look out for... If we're messing up and not doing right, the whole defense is everywhere, so he's always on us to make sure we're doing the right thing."
The fact that Ragland is starting to take a bigger picture approach to doing things the right way and understanding how the entire defense is affected isn't happening by accident.
"He wants to lead the group as a unit," Smart said of Ragland.
Trey DePriest was the linebacker last season who kind of quarterbacked Alabama's defense. DePriest has moved on now. And Ragland, according to fellow linebacker Denzel Devall, has “embraced” his new role as Alabama's defensive QB.
"Every day out there in practice you always hear Reggie before every play," Devall said this week. "He'll give you the calls. He'll let you know, 'Let's go! Let's get these gaps! Let's play the run! Let's play the pass!' He's a very good vocal leader out there."
It's a role Ragland takes very seriously. "I'm getting more comfortable, and I'm doing the best I can so Coach can have the best trust in me, so when the pressure comes at the end of the game, I can step up and make the right call," he said.
But leading isn't just about making the right calls. It's also about making sure your teammates on defense have the right mindset. On each and every play. Especially after a deflating play.
"When a bad play happens you gotta make sure everybody is staying down in the right position and make sure that we don't go berserk," Ragland said. "You gotta make sure everybody is level-headed, and we just keep doing what we gotta do on the field. It's just like in life — when you get hit in the mouth, you gotta get right back up."
Few people expect this Bama defense to get hit in the mouth much this season. It figures to be one of the better units in the SEC, particularly along the defensive front. And what about the Tide’s linebacker corps?
"I think this is probably one of the best groups I've been around — personality and skill-wise," Ragland said of his position mates.
Of course, it always helps when there's an Alpha Dog leading the way.
— Written by Erik Stinnett, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Stinnett is an experienced college football beat writer who has been covering Alabama since 2009.