The honor used to belong to Miami, but not anymore.
Once the hotbed of producing top-tier NFL-linebackers, the Hurricanes have seen the well dry up in recent years, while Alabama has clearly wrested away the title.
Seven of the past nine drafts have seen an Alabama linebacker come off the board in the top 100 picks, including five in the first round. Demeco Ryans, Rolando McClain, Dont'a Hightower, C.J. Mosley, Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster and Rashaan Evans highlight the list of players who have gone from the Crimson Tide to the ranks of the NFL, with most living up to the hype.
Foster and Mosley are probably top 5-8 NFL linebackers, and Ryans was one of the league's best when he played. Hightower has had an excellent career in New England, while Ragland seems to have found himself in Kansas City. Only McClain really disappointed, and even that was more due to off-field concerns than anything else.
Could Mack Wilson be next in line for 'Bama? The six-foot, 230-pound junior had played sparingly throughout his early Alabama career, mostly contributing on special teams and as a coverage or blitz linebacker on long-and-late downs.
But injuries to Shaun Dion Hamilton and Dylan Moses put Wilson in the starting lineup during the College Football Playoff for his first two career starts. What followed were flashes of play that told me Wilson has first round potential if he can keep developing this season.
A lot of people think these two things go hand-in-hand all of the time for a linebacker. They don't. One does not necessarily beget the other. But for the best coverage linebackers in the NFL, athleticism and coverage ability are almost always linked. Wilson checks both of those boxes emphatically in his college tape.
Not only does Wilson have the range and ball skills that you want in a linebacker, he's also instinctive enough to feel routes developing around him while keeping his eyes deadlocked on the quarterback. It's a rare combination of top-tier traits that allowed him to nab four interceptions this season, with another he should have had in the clip above.
I could pull several clips from various games throughout the season where Wilson discouraged middle of the field throwing windows with his movement skills and recognition of route concepts. It is uncommon to find a college linebacker with coverage skills this developed. Those traits will immediately make him very attractive to NFL teams.
Improving Mental Processing
This is the area of Wilson's game that is still the most concerning, but the improvements he made even from the Clemson game to the Georgia game were highly impressive.
Here's a good example. 3rd-and-4 vs Georgia, Wilson reads low hat from the offensive linemen and triggers forward, attacking the A-gap window before the double team can reach him. Linebackers who can play forward, processing and attacking keys before blockers can lock them down, are the ones that go on to do big things at the next level.
That part of Wilson's game isn't yet consistent, much like LSU's Devin White. Unlike White, Wilson didn't have a full starting season to adjust to processing and playing that quickly. Here he is a few drives earlier against Georgia, before he learned from his mistake.
So as you can see, finding consistency is still a work in progress, and Clemson and Georgia were both evidence of each extreme for Wilson. But the flashes of high-level processing are there for Wilson, which makes me believe that the more time he spends in live action, the faster he's going to play.
This play against Georgia is exceptional. Georgia runs the option and the end bites down, which means Miller has to replace him as the force defender. But he's also held a split second by the possibility of inside zone, and with the tight end coming to wrap him when the quarterback pulls the ball, there isn't much margin for error here.
Wilson's ability to process information quickly, from the end stepping down to the wing bypassing the end to wrap the linebacker, allows him to make this tackle-for-loss despite an excellent scheme by Georgia. His path to the ball is perfect, and he arrives under control to make a sure stop in the backfield.
That's a big-time play, folks, and in a big-time game too.
Wilson wasn't done either. He gets some help on this play, but his ability to play under control and work through trash on this toss play is really impressive. You can see it all here, mental processing, angles, stop-start ability, range and the finish with an assist from his teammates.
Wilson's coming ascension reminds me a lot of Rashaan Evans last year. Evans' first two career starts came in Alabama's two college football playoff games in 2016, after the linebacker was used heavily as a sub-package defender early in his career. Evans wasn't perfect in those games, but improved from the first playoff game to the national championship, a contest in which he led the team in tackles.
Evans subsequent growth as leader of the defense the next season was recognized by the Tennessee Titans nabbing him at no. 22 overall. Based on his late season performance, Wilson could be headed in the same direction. He might be more athletic than Evans and is certainly better in coverage, which could make him even more appealing to NFL teams in such a pass-heavy league.
Where Wilson needs to continue to grow is in his consistency as a mental processor and in his angles/finishing as a tackler, where he seemed to make strides against Georgia. The 2018 season is about perfecting the aspects of playing linebacker that only experience can bring, while perhaps adding a little bulk to his frame as well.
As the Tide try to make it three years in a row with a first round linebacker, Wilson's most recent on-field performance seems to indicate he's got a great shot at keeping the tradition alive. All the unteachable traits are in place, now it is about mastering the intricacies of the position as a full-time starter.