This story originally appeared at BleacherReport.com
This year, with the return of nine starters (and a handful of other co-first team players), the Crimson Tide could have one of its best defenses in years.
Alabama's defense boasts one of the top front sevens in the nation, and that defensive line is critical to its success, but at the heart of that defense will be Alabama's linebackers.
When you talk about Alabama's linebackers, you have to start with Rolando McClain.
McClain, now a junior, has been a starter for Alabama since he arrived in 2007 from Decatur High School in Decatur, Ala. Called "Baby Ro" by his teammates as a freshman, Rolando is no longer the young lion on Alabama's defense; he is now one of its most experienced players.
McClain led the team in tackles and tackles for losses in 2008, but more than that, he led Alabama's defense. It was McClain that was Saban's coach on the field and made the defensive calls during the game. He has great instincts and is always around the ball, which is why he leads in tackles.
Last year, Alabama's linebacker corps was considered its weakest link, and McClain was considered the only true veteran at that position—coming off a successful sophomore year.
The unit as a whole is still young, but that doesn't mean they are still inexperienced.
Among the nine linebackers who have playing time for the Tide, there is almost 15 years of game experience with the three expected starters, having a total of five seasons of game experience among them.
Going into 2009, Alabama's linebackers could prove to be the SEC's top group and could be one of the best units in the nation.
Playing beside McClain will be Dont'a Hightower.
Hightower, from Lewisburg, Tenn., is now a sophomore and also started his freshman year in 2008. He could become one of Alabama's best ever, and Saban intends to use him to keep Alabama's opponents guessing. He may play up or down and could be moved around to confuse and disrupt.
In addition to Hightower, linebacker Cory Reamer from Hoover, Ala. has come into his own in his senior year. Reamer is a hard hitter and has a nose for the football, and offensive players say that he may be the hardest hitter of the three.
Jerrell Harris was another very highly-touted linebacker and was listed as one of the top recruits in the country coming out of Gadsden City High school in 2008. He has not disappointed thus far and will be a major factor in the Tide's defense this season and for years to come.
He has been a playmaker on special teams and has caught the eye of the defensive coaches, as well as Coach Saban.
His speed will make him a valuable part of Saban's plans. He may be used in certain down and distance situations, rushing the passer, or even as a defensive back.
It wouldn't surprise me to see him as a starter sooner rather than later.
Alabama fans could see as many as four linebackers on the field at a time, and you may see as many as six to eight in the game on a rotating basis.
With the departure of senior Prince Hall, the door opened for some of the younger players to make their move. Hall was constantly in Saban's doghouse and transferred to Central Washington back in May. Hall was never reinstated to the team after his last suspension.
Players like Eryk Anders, Brandon Fanny, Charlie Higginbotham, Chavis Williams, and Chris Jordan will all be vying for playing time and will be called on as the season progresses.
Any of these players is ready to step in and play if needed. A good example would be when Anders was sent in as a pass rusher in third and long situations last year.
Nick Saban likes to put as many great athletes on the field as possible, and with this much talent, he will be hard-pressed to keep any of these players on the sidelines for very long.
With speed, size, and talent, this group can match up with the very best. With Reamer being the only senior, the future for Alabama's defense looks solid down the road.
Look for Alabama's linebackers to be the lead story whenever Alabama's defense is discussed in the media, and also for Alabama's defense to lead the way.
Saban loves his players to be big, fast, and strong, and that is even truer when it comes to his linebackers. Alabama has always been known for great defense, and that tradition continues under Nick Saban.
With the arrival in the fall of Nico Johnson and Tana Patrick from Saban's 2009 recruiting class, the depth continues to build—as does the anticipation for Alabama's future.
Linebackers from Alabama's past, like Lee Roy Jordan, Barry Krauss, Cornelius Bennett, and Derrick Thomas, all played major parts in many of the Crimson Tide's championships throughout the years.
That tradition continues, and Alabama's linebackers will play a major role in Alabama's championships.
Personally, I cannot remember when Alabama has had so many young, talented players at the linebacker position in Tuscaloosa at one time, and that goes back for quite a while.
Keep your eye on Alabama's linebackers on opening day in Atlanta, Ga. when Alabama plays Virginia Tech on Sept. 5, because that is where Alabama's success will be determined.
Alabama will have to ride on the back of its talented defense until the Tide's offense can get untracked, and that defense will ride on the back of its talented linebackers.
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