Alabama’s secret weapon isn’t much of a secret

Christopher Walsh

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — He missed the games, of course. That part’s always obvious with a sidelined football player, regardless of if his team has national championship aspirations or not.

That wasn’t all, though. Not being a part of all the other things that go with being part of Alabama really got to senior linebacker Terrell Lewis, like team meals. You wouldn’t think dining to be something that could make that big of a difference, but when you spend back-to-back years of having a different schedule from everyone else, it added up.

“It means everything just be out there with my teammates,” Lewis said. “Last year I felt like I was in a hole a little bit, just not being able to be out there and be a part of everything.”

Nowadays you would need a hole, with Lewis standing in it, for him to physically look like a lot of his teammates. For two years, he’s stood out to the coaching staff, with Alabama anxiously eager to unleash the physical freak on the rest of college football.

Saturday afternoon, Lewis is expected take a big step toward doing just that. When the Crimson Tide plays the first of two formal scrimmages at Bryant-Denny Stadium during fall camp, it’ll be his first full-contact hitting in more than a year.

It’ll also be with just three weeks until Alabama’s season opener against Duke in Atlanta on Aug. 31.

“I can’t wait,” he said. “Every game is circled on the calendar for me.

“I have a lot of time to make up.”

For those who haven’t seen Lewis lately, or followed his career, some thought he could be the best player on the Crimson Tide defense last year. Of course that was before nose tackle Quinnen Williams had an all-world season, but Alabama having five defensive players selected in the 2019 NFL Draft helps demonstrate his potential.

That is if he can healthy. Lewis has game-changing ability, but the redshirt junior has missed more Crimson Tide contests (25) than played (15) during his career.

The first setback occurred during the 2017 opener against Florida State, when Lewis suffered a torn ligament in his elbow. While it was the kind of injury that would have sidelined a lot of players for the entire season, he and fellow outside linebacker Christian Miller, who had a biceps tear in the same game, both worked their way back to return for the regular-season finale at Auburn.

Lewis wasn’t full strength, but looked close to it during the subsequent College Football Playoff against Clemson and Georgia. The start in the National Championship Game was the first of his career, and he made seven tackles including the overtime sack that forced the Bulldogs to attempt a long field goal.

However, he was back on the sideline for the entire 2018 season due to an offseason knee injury. With Chris Allen also out with a knee injury Alabama was shorthanded again at the position and in the pass-rushing package, with Miller joining them after pulling his left hamstring against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl semifinal of the College Football Playoff.

Even if healthy they might not have changed the outcome of the title game against Clemson. But the 44-16 loss only added to the frustration.

“I learned about anxiousness last year,” Lewis said about his emotions. “I don’t really to get too anxious now. I’m patient … more so. Take everything day-by-day. But I know once game day hits to be ready and everything’s going to hit me.

“For me, anxiousness, I wouldn’t say it went away. You just don’t want to get too anxious because you never know what the next day might hold.”

Lewis was reminded of that yet again in the spring, when his comeback was quickly derailed and another surgery required. This time, though, it was just to clean up the knee.

“He’s worked hard all summer,” Nick Saban said. “We keep these catapult (GPS) numbers on guys, in terms of what their explosive movements are and how much they can duplicate it, and he’s back to a level higher than he was before he got hurt two years ago. So, we’re really pleased with the work that he’s done and how he’s recovered.”

Regardless, Alabama is being cautious with Lewis during fall camp. With the goal being to make sure he reaches the finish line intact, he isn’t going through each and every drill, His position actually helps with that as as strong-side linebacker (Sam) is usually the one to leave the field when the fifth defensive back (Star) is inserted in the nickel package.

As for being what Saban calls a “rabbit,” a quick-twitch attacker in the pass-rushing packages, he can rotate there as well, depending on the situation. Sometimes it’s to try and attack a certain way or take advantage of a matchup, which affords even more flexibility — especially regarding players they may want to have on a snap count to minimize injury risk.

However, the loss of sophomore Eyabi Anoma, who was kicked out of school for something non-football related, hurts in that respect. Finding that player who can occasionally spell Lewis has become a priority. The candidates include include Jarez Parks, Ben Davis and newcomer Kevin Harris II.

Regardless, Lewis says 100 percent. He’s trying to cherish every moment with his teammates, but can’t wait to hit someone for real.

“Man, Terrell is ready to go,” senior linebacker Anfernee Jennings said. "Terrell’s ready to ball.

“I’m beyond excited.”