TUSCALOOSA — For the third straight year, the St. Frances (Maryland) Academy pipeline will funnel premium talent to Alabama.
After signing during the early period last month, five-star All-America pass rusher Chris Braswell arrived in Tuscaloosa this week, following in the footsteps of defensive standouts from his school such as four-star middle linebacker Shane Lee a year ago and five-star outside linebacker Eyabi Anoma in 2018.
“It was important to follow up my brothers, but ultimately it was my decision,” Braswell said last week following his participation in the Under Armour All-American Game at Camping World Stadium in Orlando.
“But I wanted to keep up with the tradition and help out the (Alabama) defense.”
Of course, that conduit of defensive prowess has resulted in a bit of a mixed bag, with Lee struggling somewhat as a freshman after getting thrown into the fire this past season and Anoma jettisoning for greener pastures in Houston following a disappointing freshman season in 2018.
Not that their experiences should be any indication of what fans can expect from Braswell, who is already enrolled and taking classes in Tuscaloosa.
“I think they’re getting an outstanding kid, who’s hard-working, very team oriented, someone that will do his best to fit in the locker room and contribute on the field any way he can,” St. Frances Academy head coach Henry Russell said. “A very talented young man, extremely coachable, and I think he’s a great fit for the type of kids that have success at Alabama.”
A three-year starter at St. Frances, Braswell made an instant impact as a sophomore even while playing alongside future Crimson Tide signees Anoma and Lee.
“I think a lot of times you were waiting for Eyabi to make the big play coming off the edge and Chris gets there before him and makes the play,” Russell said. “And you’re like, ‘Wow, this kid has a chance to be really good.’ Eyabi trained really hard and worked really hard at practice, and Chris kind of followed his lead and tried to emulate those things. He did the same thing as a junior following Shane’s lead, Chris really followed Shane’s footsteps and set the bar for what the expectations where both on and off the field.”
But while there are certainly similarities between Braswell and his fellow St. Frances brethren, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound pass rusher brings his own level of competitive excellence that should translate well with the traditional defensive standard that the Crimson Tide struggled to reach this past season.
“Obviously, the goal is to get Alabama back to the No. 1 defense in the country, and Chris has been on some really good defenses and I think he expects to continue that in college,” Russell said. “I think that’s why he wanted to go early, he wanted to get a jump on it and learn from the players, learn from the coaches and if he contributes early, great. But the first thing is just being a part of the team and learning what it takes to succeed in that locker room.”
Melding within the locker room will be important, especially after both of Alabama’s past two five-star pass rushing signees — Anoma and New Jersey’s Antonio Alfano — left the program without making a meaningful impact.
Anoma transferred to Houston in August after a falling out with the coaching staff, while former five-star signee Alfano washed out one week into his freshman season without ever seeing the field after effectively quitting on the team, according to head coach Nick Saban.
But don’t expect the humble Braswell to follow either of those two out the door.
“I think his personality is 100 percent different from Eyabi, he’s quiet, goes about his business, very serious, wants to do the right things,” Russell said. “He doesn’t say much, he just wants to succeed.”
It’s because of that sort of workman-like mentality that Braswell appears far more suited for handling the Alabama “Process.”
It also helps that he got to watch how Lee weathered the highs and lows of a rookie season in which he was thrust into a starting role after a preseason ACL injury to veteran linebacker Dylan Moses, who has already announced his return for the 2020 season after missing all of 2019.
“He’s a great, great player. He’s going to develop,” Braswell said. “He was a freshman, and I think he played great for a freshman. And he’s just going to continue to develop. He’s going to keep his head down and keep working too. That’s what we’re going to do.”
And given some of the Tide’s losses at outside linebacker, after its top two sack leaders in senior Anfernee Jennings and redshirt junior Terrell Lewis departed for the NFL, Braswell could find himself thrust into duty early in his career much in the same way Lee was.
“I can add as much as I can,” Braswell said. “I’m just going to go down there, keep my head down and keep working. That’s all that matters. … It’s all about me learning the plays and getting ready.”
Braswell could find an early opportunity as Alabama’s Jack linebacker that Jennings manned for much of the past three seasons, with only little-used fifth-year senior Ben Davis and sophomore King Mwikuta seemingly ahead of him after serving as Jennings’ backups last year.
Braswell comes to Tuscaloosa as part of a 2020 signing class that went heavy on linebackers, including five-star athlete Drew Sanders and four-star additions Will Anderson, Jackson Bratton, Demouy Kennedy, and Quandarrius Robinson.
“We’ve put together a great group of guys so we can get after the quarterback and get this defense back where it needs to be,” Braswell said.
Because, ultimately, that’s how Braswell and the incoming 2020 class will be judged -- by whether it can help return the Crimson Tide defense to its former glory.
But how much does he hope to play as a true freshman?
“As much as possible,” Braswell smiled. “I just have to keep working and if I keep my head down things will fall where they need to fall.”