TUSCALOOSA — Alabama’s worst-case scenario has quickly turned into a living nightmare after Crimson Tide junior middle linebacker Dylan Moses suffered a significant ACL injury Tuesday that could force him to miss the entire 2019 season.
“Dylan was injured yesterday at practice. He had a knee injury and it requires surgery so he’ll be out an indefinite period of time,” head coach Nick Saban said Wednesday on the Southeastern Conference coaches teleconference. “Certainly, this is a character check for our team and we’re going to do everything we can to support Dylan and the people that have the opportunity now to fill in for Dylan.”
Moses, who was set to take over as Alabama’s defensive “play-caller” this season having replaced Mack Wilson at the Mike linebacker, was a Butkus Award finalist last year after leading the Tide with 86 total tackles while starting all 15 games at the Will/weakside spot.
It was because of that experience many expected Moses to assume his place as the next great middle linebacker under Saban, following in the footsteps of eventual first-round NFL draft picks like Rashaan Evans, Reuben Foster, C.J. Mosley, Dont’a Hightower, and Rolando McClain.
Instead, Moses will spend the next several months rehabbing, with a big decision awaiting him at the end of the season whether to return for another year, or take his chances and test the NFL waters with hopes of reaffirming his stock with a strong pre-draft performance at the Combine.
But for Alabama, the challenge is replacing not one but two of its more experienced players at a position that was already thin coming into August.
Moses is the second veteran linebacker to go down in the last three weeks after fifth-year senior Joshua McMillon suffered a similar season-ending knee injury in the team’s first preseason scrimmage Aug. 10. Only Moses’ loss is infinitely costlier given how vital he was to the Tide defensive plan this season.
“When Josh went down, that was hard, because that was somebody I could rely on, because he was an older guy and I knew he knew what he was supposed to do, and I knew what I was supposed to do,” Moses said Monday, “so when he went down, it was like, ‘Dang, everything really is on me now.’ That was the mindset I went to. But then afterwards, I was like, ‘You know, I got this. I can do it.’ This is what I’ve been wanting and God’s pretty much given me everything I could ask for.”
And just as quickly it was taken away.
“Next man up” mentality aside, replacing a player of Moses’ caliber and esteem at the most critical position on Alabama’s defense will not be easy, especially for the freshmen being tasked with that heavy burden.
Along with announcing Moses’ injury, Saban confirmed true freshman Shane Lee would slide into Moses’ Mike linebacker role as the team’s defensive “play-caller,” pairing with fellow former four-star signee Christian Harris to create a situation where the heart of Alabama’s defensive front seven will be filled by three of its newest additions and freshest faces, including true freshman nose guard D.J. Dale.
And while Saban tried to downplay the significance of that scenario, this season will undoubtedly be a trial by fire for all three, especially the two first-year inside linebackers.
“Fortunately, Shane Lee and Christian Harris — whether they were starters or backups, either one — they’re both bright guys,” Saban said. “They’ve been very engaged in what they have to do to be able to go play. (But) I don’t think there’s any substitute for experience. So now they’re going to get an opportunity to get some of that where they have an opportunity to apply the knowledge that they have. We just have to do a really good job as coaches to try to get them in the best situations that we know they understand what to do and they can go out there and execute it.”
That’s the rub. Without Moses to take command of the defense, Alabama is missing its steady and reliable field general that was responsible for not only dispersing the proper defensive play call, but also making sure the other 10 defensive players are in the correct position to react accordingly to the offensive play.
This offseason, Moses embraced having a more significant role within the framework of the team, and willingly shouldered much of the responsibility for helping return to its dominating defensive ways after slipping somewhat during last season’s postseason run.
“I tell myself and I tell everyone else, whatever happens with this defense this year, it’s on me,” Moses said in July as the Tide’s lone defensive player representative at SEC Media Days.
But while Moses’ on-field talent was unquestionable, with many projecting him as the top inside linebacker in next year’s draft, it will be the loss of his leadership, intelligence and overall command of the defense that Alabama will miss the most.
Moses was effectively an extension of the coaches on the field, providing Saban and first-year defensive coordinator Pete Golding a knowledgeable leader who could diagnose what the offense is doing and make the proper adjustments. And as a veteran, Moses was able to demand excellence and challenge his teammates when they weren’t necessarily making the right decisions on the field.
“I’m a perfectionist, I want things done the right way — the same as Coach Saban — and I’m hard on myself just as I am on other guys as well,” Moses said in July. “I just want things to be done the way they’re supposed to be. I really want to be a great leader for my team, for the defense and I want our defense to be dominant, I want our team to be dominant in all aspects.”
Instead, the Tide appear willing to ride out the occasional and expected mistakes that come with playing freshmen, and hope both Christian Harris and Shane Lee will continue to grow and improve enough in the first couple of weeks that they’re ready for the grind of SEC play come October.
“When we’ve had guys like this in the past — whether it was C.J. Mosley playing as a freshman, Hightower playing as a freshman, Rolando McClain playing as a freshman — we just put them in there and play them, and they got to get some on-the-job training,” Saban said of Harris on Aug. 17, though it’s a sentiment that can also stand for Lee. “There’s still competition at that position, but he’s a guy that has made plays throughout fall camp so far that we’re hopeful will be able to continue to improve and develop and play like a starter.”