Spring preview: Linebackers

Adrian Hubbard (42) is one of many Tide linebackers who might step up in 2012. Alex Scarborough/ESPN.com

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Like nearly every unit on the defense, the linebackers are going to look very different than in years past. Defensive stalwarts Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone, off to lives as probable first-round draft picks.

With their departure, Alabama is left with a crater in talent and leadership. All three of the top tacklers on the best defense in college football last year will play on Sundays this fall.

While their loss, coupled with that of a solid backup in Jerrell Harris, will hurt, it certainly doesn’t leave the cupboard bare. Coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have stockpiled talent at linebacker, which has enabled a seamless transition from the likes of Rolando McClain and Eryk Anders to Upshaw and Hightower -- one championship unit to the next.

In 2012, we’ll see how the heart of the Alabama defense attempts to turn the page once more.

The incumbents

All of Bama Nation breathed a sigh of relief on March 10 when C.J. Mosley returned to the field for the start of spring practice after his horrific injury in the BCS National Championship Game. With Mosley and Nico Johnson back rolling with the Tide, UA has the starts of another stellar linebacker unit. Coupled with Trey Depriest’s breakout freshman campaign last year, Lance Thompson appears to have plenty to work with.

With Mosley, Johnson and Depriest as likely frontrunners for the first three linebacker spots, it leaves one hole to fill and a number of capable backups from last year’s squad itching to earn starting duties. Adrian Hubbard played in nine games last season and registered a tackle in each contest. The former No. 54 overall player in the ESPNU 150 has the talent to take his game to another level.

Xavier Dickson and Tana Patrick are another pair of linebackers looking to step up with the departure of Upshaw and Hightower. Another one to watch will be safety Vinnie Sunseri. The Tuscaloosa product shined on special teams and as a backup safety in his freshman year and, for now, appears set to play in the secondary. Just don’t be surprised if he adds 10 or 15 pounds and grows out of the position. While his best position may be strong safety, he has shown the hitting ability that will enable him to play at a smaller-sized linebacker spot if need be -- if not this year then maybe the next.

The challengers

Alabama’s 2012 recruiting class was highlighted by the linebackers, and it may have been one of the most talented groups in Crimson Tide history at the position. The group includes four players ranked in the ESPNU 150, Ryan Anderson, Tyler Hayes, Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland, as well as Louisiana prospect Denzel Devall.

Out of that group, Anderson and Lee may have the best chance to play early because they both enrolled early and have already started practicing with the team. Anderson, who proved to be one of the top defensive players in the state last year, expects to fill in at the Jack linebacker position and could see early playing time with the loss of Upshaw. Physically, he’s ready to play right away, and people are already making the comparison to Upshaw. Lee, a native of Buford, Ga., played outside linebacker in high school, but he’s taken reps at both inside and outside since spring practice began.

The player to keep an eye on when the rest of the recruits arrive on campus is Ragland. Ragland is versatile enough to play any spot in the rotation, and when healthy, he may be the most talented of all the newcomers. He has the size and strength, especially in the lower body, but the most impressive thing may be his speed and his pursuit of the football. Even if Ragland doesn’t break the rotation at linebacker, expect him to make an impact on special teams as a freshman.

Greg Ostendorf contributed to this report.