TUSCALOOSA — The ruthless clanging of cowbells reverberating throughout his skull were only part of the reason Dylan Moses’ head was spinning last November.
Thrust into the Mississippi State game in place of an ineffective teammate, Alabama’s then-true freshman linebacker from Baton Rogue, Louisiana, admittedly struggled with even simple assignments in his first significant playing time of last season.
It was a strange and rather uncomfortable feeling for a player many tabbed for Southeastern Conference superstardom in the eighth grade.
“I’m not going to lie, I made some mental errors in that game,” Moses said Monday. “Those cowbells really got to me, and it was probably the loudest atmosphere I’ve ever been in up to that point. That was probably the most scariest point for me.”
Still, it was that proverbial trial-by-fire on Nov. 11 in Starkville, Mississippi, that Moses credits with helping prepare him for this season’s litmus test that comes with being a starting middle linebacker at Alabama.
“It helped me a lot. Being thrown in back then, I didn’t know what to expect,” Moses said. “But just being thrown in back there, it helped me (understand) what to expect now for future games and being able to play in big-time games, be a big-time player, and just coming in and doing what I have to do and handle my responsibilities and do what Coach (Nick) Saban asks me to do.”
A week after his first game, Moses racked up a career-best 11 tackles — including 10 solo — in his first career start in a pre-Iron Bowl warmup against Mercer before a 10-tackle performance at rival Auburn.
Of course, that’d be Moses’ final game of the 2017 season after a foot injury in practice sent him to the shelf for the Crimson Tide’s championship run through the College Football Playoff.
But it’s that on-field experience — as small a sample size as it was — that ultimately proved invaluable to Moses, who has the potential to emerge as Alabama’s next great linebacker when he opens the season opposite junior starter Lyndell “Mack” Wilson.
“Last year I didn’t know what was going on. Last year, I had to really get my feet wet for the first time (and) I was still kind of nervous, I didn’t have the experience,” Moses said. “Now I know what I’m doing, know what to expect, (and I’m) just ready for the season to get here.”
To hear head coach Nick Saban tell it, Moses may be one of only a handful of linebackers that can say that entering the final week of preseason camp.
For much of the past two weeks, Saban has repeatedly bemoaned the status of Alabama’s quality depth beyond the first-team unit, especially on defense.
The separation in experience and talent between the first- and second-team units is noticeably glaring, and is an obvious point of contention for the six-time national championship coach.
Add to that offseason defections and potential season-ending injuries at linebacker, including the recent “surgical” knee injury to sophomore outside linebacker Chris Allen, and the Crimson Tide’s defensive depth is quickly becoming a sore spot for the easily-irritable Saban.
“I’ve been concerned about this all along. … You just think whatever happens, we just s--t another player (and) everything is going to be perfect,” Saban said Saturday. “All of our fans think that, you (in the media) think that — that’s what you write about. That’s the message that you send out there. Yeah, I worry about it all the time. I may be the only one, but I do worry about it. So I’m very worried about it.”
Allen’s injury, coupled with the offseason ACL surgery of junior outside linebacker Terrell Lewis, have Alabama’s snake-bit linebacker corps already looking rather thin on the outside, and the season opener is still more than 10 days away.
“We basically have (seniors) Anfernee (Jennings) and Christian Miller, who have been starters around here,” Saban said Saturday. “Past that, we have (redshirt sophomore) Ben Davis and two freshmen. That’s basically what we have.
“If we had more inside linebackers, (redshirt junior) Josh McMillon could play the position, but I’m not sure we could afford to move him. So we’re very thin at those two positions right now.”
Those “two freshmen” include 6-foot-5 and 245-pound five-star phenom Eyabi Anoma and 251-pound ex-grayshirt Jarez Parks, both of whom already resemble SEC linebackers, but Saban’s concern is nonetheless valid.
“Every team has problems. Look, (it’s) how you manage problems, the discipline that you have to go about trying to help players improve and get better so they can have a role on the team, that’s the most important thing we can do as coaches,” Saban continued. “I trust and believe in the players that we have, and we just have to get them better. They don’t have a lot of experience. They’re young players. We just have to get them to understand what it takes to get them to go out there and play with consistency.”
Which is where repetition and extra time in the playbook will ultimately be key to developing that consistency, as is the type of trial-by-fire experience only on-field reps can provide.
Just ask Moses.
“There was a time last year whenever I was coming up (and) it felt like I wasn’t ever going to learn the plays, there was so much to learn in a short period of time, I was just overwhelming myself, stressing myself out,” Moses said. “And just seeing those younger guys today going through it, it’s funny to me, but at the same time I’m there for them. I’m a sophomore now but it’s like I know the defense like the back of my hand.”