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September 28, 2009TUSCALOOSA | When he saw sophomore weakside linebacker Dont'a Hightower injured on the ground during Saturday's 35-7 victory against Arkansas, junior middle linebacker Rolando McClain felt it emotionally.
"When it happened on the field, I didn't want to believe it," McClain said. "I hate it for him. He's like a little bother to me. When he went off it was like a part of me went off the field."
Nevertheless, with Hightower out for the season and expected to have knee surgery during the next couple of days, the Crimson Tide started to move on Monday and consider options.
"We need to redefine who we are, individually and collectively," Coach Nick Saban said.
There appears to be three options:
1. Jerrell Harris
Alabama was notified by the NCAA on Friday that the sophomore linebacker will be re-instated after six games due (after receiving impermissible benefits), and eligible to play against South Carolina on Oct. 17.
However, it's not like the Tide can sit and wait for him with road games looming at Kentucky and Ole Miss.
"He's a guy who's certainly going to be one of those competing to take his place," Saban said. "But we have to get guys ready to play every week. We can't be worried about a game three weeks from now.
"He did an outstanding job in fall camp, thought he was a guy who was a potential starter who could play winning football for us, but he has not gotten the reps at practice the last four weeks because of us not knowing when he would return. But it would be our plan to wean him back in gradually."
2. Nico Johnson
Saban hinted that a younger player could be inserted into the lineup at weakside linebacker and then compete with Harris for the starting job. If so, Johnson appears to be the likely choice, although another player could potentially be moved and given a crash course on the position.
Johnson was ranked 32nd on the Rivals100, and fourth best linebacker prospect in the nation. He was credited with 110 tackles in 10 games for Andalusia.
3. Cory Reamer and Co.
Following Hightower's injury, Alabama moved senior Cory Reamer from strongside to weakside linebacker, with sophomore Courtney Upshaw coming in at Jack linebacker and senior Eryk Anders switching from Jack to Sam, which was the contingency plan devised during fall camp.
Alabama may use the shift again at times, and Upshaw figures to be Hightower's replacement as a pass-rusher on third downs.
"They did a good job," Saban said. "I don't know if we'll continue that way down the road, but it'll be a part of what we do."
Alabama will likely petition the NCAA for a medical redshirt, but the usual cutoff point is three games ("Half the games of the first-half of the season").
Hightower sustained the injury late in the first quarter on a short carry by Arkansas running back Michael Smith when he took a low cut block from pulling senior guard Mitch Petrus.
"For me being a linebacker, I would rather a guy try and block me man to man," McClain said. "I hate when guys cut, but it's part of the game."
"Those are real dangerous plays," said senior end Lorenzo Washington, who added that Alabama has seen a lot of cut blocks this season.
Nevertheless, the Tide will head to Lexington this weekend having allowed just 202.5 yards per game and 47.25 rushing yards, which both rank second nationally.
"I don't think we're going to miss a step because Coach Saban is going to put the guy in the spot who best fits that position," McClain said. "I have confidence in the defense and coach says one guy doesn't make a defense. I don't think this will break us, we'll get better.
"We just have to keep pushing."