Local Tide stars suffer season-ending injuries in LSU win
By Tim Gayle
TUSCALOOSA - When both players at the same position on a depth chart suffer potential season-ending injuries, it can be devastating.
When one is the leader of the defense, it can hurt even more.
“Shaun Dion has just been a valuable player to our team,” personal friend and fellow inside linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “And the fact that he went down is just a blow to us. Really, all we can do right now is continue to coach up the younger guys to fill in for him. He’s one of my dear friends and the fact that it ended up like it did is a blow to our whole team.”
Alabama head coach Nick Saban confirmed on Saturday after the top-ranked Tide’s win over LSU that both players were “probably out” for the remainder of the season and will update the situation at Monday’s press conference. Like Tide players on Saturday, Saban likely will infer that the next player on the depth chart will simply move up to take over the role, although it’s getting increasingly difficult to find players with experience for the position.
“We’re always prepared for when a man goes down, we’ve got another that can step up, probably just as good as the first one,” tailback Bo Scarbrough said. “We have much confidence in our backups.”
For Hamilton, it was a heartbreaking end to a promising senior season after missing the final two games of the 2016 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. As soon as he hit the ground, Hamilton took off his helmet and slammed it on the turf, a sure sign to his teammates that he was aware of the damage to his right knee.
“I kind of knew,” Evans admitted. “The fact that he stayed down a lot longer than usual, I kind of knew it was his knee because he had grabbed it. After that, I knew as a team we had to rally together and play for him.”
Hamilton was the Tide’s most experienced linebacker with 51 career games and 26 starts. Only Minkah Fitzpatrick (34) and Da’Ron Payne (27) have more starts and no defensive player has played in more games.
The former G.W. Carver High standout is considered the leader of the defense and the only thing that could match the loss of Hamilton is the loss of his backup. Former Robert E. Lee and Carver star Mack Wilson is the only player other than Hamilton to line up at linebacker in every game for Alabama this season.
Wilson, the hardest hitting player in the linebacker corps, is invaluable at the middle linebacker position because his ability to take over for Hamilton or slide into Evans’ weakside position so he can either rest or move outside in pass rush situations, cannot be replaced.
“It definitely hurts,” quarterback Jalen Hurts observed. “But, like always, somebody has to step up and it’ll be there time now, their time to shine and their time to display their abilities. We’ve got a lot of big guys here, so hopefully they can step up and not have a dropoff.”
The loss of outside linebackers Terrell Lewis and Christian Miller to season-ending injuries in the opener creates the biggest loss to one position since 2004 when tailbacks Ray Hudson, Tim Castille and Kenneth Darby all were sidelined by season-ending injuries, leaving Aaron Johns to play the position in the Music City Bowl against Minnesota.
The last time Alabama faced such a rash of injuries late in the season came in 1999 when quarterback Andrew Zow and tailback Shaun Alexander both suffered ankle injuries against Tennessee that sidelined them for stretches over the next month, followed by the loss of four players to season-ending injuries against LSU: defensive end Canary Knight, middle linebacker Marvin Constant and defensive tackle Kenny Smith. Safety Tony Dixon also missed some time with an injury in the game, which weakened a secondary already missing Kecalf Bailey, lost for virtually the entire second half of the season with a foot injury suffered in practice.
The final blow to the 1999 team came with the loss of left tackle Chris Samuels, the Outland Trophy winner, in practice leading up to the Orange Bowl matchup with Michigan.
The injury bug for Alabama’s linebackers is a similarly dire situation. Former walk-on Jamey Mosley has stepped into Miller’s role at strongside linebacker and Keith Holcombe has played weakside in Evan’s absence and reprised his role inside on Saturday after the departure of Hamilton and Wilson. But other than jack linebacker Anfernee Jennings, no other Tide linebacker has more than nine games of experience.
True freshman Dylan Moses, strongside backups Mekhi Brown and Josh McMillon, true freshman Chris Allen and true freshman VanDarius Cowan (who gave up his redshirt status to play the last two weeks) are the “next men up” for Alabama is anything should happen to starters Mosley, Evans, Holcombe and Jennings.
“It’s very difficult for any defense to constantly see guys go down,” Evans said. “All you can really do is to make sure you’ve got the guys who are behind them ready. We constantly try to get those guys prepared in practice each and every week in any type of situation so that we’re ready.”
One more point about the importance of losing Hamilton and Wilson - Hamilton was the second leading tackler on the team (37) and was third in tackles for loss (5.5 for 22 yards). Wilson had 21 tackles and was tied for the team lead in interceptions with three, but perhaps just as importantly, he was the backup to punter JK Scott. In his absence, true freshman Joseph Bulovas warmed up for that position on Saturday.