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April 1, 2010TUSCALOOSA _ From afar, one almost gets the feeling that each University of Alabama spring football practice is almost like a game of musical chairs for the linebackers. Wherever everyone is when the music stops, or strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran ceases yelling, that's where they play that day.
Granted, it's not anywhere near that random, but the movement has been comparable. One day there's four players in distinct spots and the next everything's completely different.
"Coaches are working with us and tell us to just stay positive," third-year linebacker Jerrell Harris said. "We're going to try different things right now, which is working everywhere."
"Will, Mike, Sam," Harris listed off for himself, leaving out the star position in obvious passing situations where's also been taking snaps. He's done everything but play Jack, and no one seems to be ruling that out yet even though numerous other teammates are getting long looks there.
"We're young, but at the same time we have a lot of experience," Harris said. "(A lot of) speed."
Although the unit will almost certainly center around Dont'a Hightower, who appears to destined to play Mike ... or Will ... or somewhere, Harris' versatility might be the key.
A Parade All-American at Gadsden City High School, Rivals.com rated him the fourth best outside linebacker prospect in the nation, and No. 34 overall. He was one of 16 true freshmen to play for the Crimson Tide in 2008, when he participated in 10 games and made three tackles, but was primarily used on special teams.
Fast-forward to a year ago, when Harris started becoming a viable option at both inside and outside linebacker, only to end up playing neither when he was suspended six games for accepting an impermissible benefit and then not being upfront with investigators.
It was a tough lesson to learn.
"Jerrell was really doing a great job last year before he got suspended, really paying attention to detail and making a lot of progress," Saban said. "We even had some plans in some of our defensive packages that he would be a starter in, and then when he got suspended for six games he kind of got lost in the shuffle. That's a lot of games, a lot of plays, a lot of experience and he did come back and contribute on special teams."
Going by the postseason depth chart, Harris essentially entered this spring as the incumbent at strongside linebacker after backing up Cory Reamer - who frequently went to the bench against the pass. However, it wasn't long before coaches again started experimenting and considering other options with him and others.
"He's kind of picked up where he left off last year," Saban continued. "He's had a really good attitude through the offseason program as well as in spring practice, and has really has done a good job. The last two practices he's actually played at inside backer and he's done a good job at that.
"I don't know how we're going to end up. Chris Jordan has played at outside linebacker. Dont'a goes from Will to Mike. We just move guys around. We'll see where it lands, but he's done a really, really good job all spring, makes plays and he's instinctive."
However, things could get even more complex before eventually settling down, with the possibility that each linebacker could have a different role on subsequent downs. For example, at the end of the 2008 season Hightower moved down from weakside to the line as the Jack linebacker to provide a better rush in passing situations.
Now extend that mentality to the entire linebacker corps. For Harris it could possibly mean Sam in base, weakside linebacker in nickel formation and then money in dime (which would possibly have the added bonus of Mark Barron staying at safety).
So yes, there are possibilities beyond possibilities and Harris has to be ready for them all. After arriving at 212 pounds and building up to roughly 225 last season, he's up to 238. That will help with the interior spots, yet apparently hasn't compromised his ability to drop back in coverage.
Regardless, Harris appears to be back on track toward contributing more. He's even wearing his No. 5 again, after briefly switching to No. 10 last fall to play special teams the same time as Roy Upchurch.
"I've realized that I haven't played a full season since I've been here," said Harris, who has 16 games experience but without a start. "So I'm just very hungry for a fresh start and just go full speed ahead and compete."