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Alabama's Keon Keeley Developing New Role in Kane Wommack's Defensive Scheme

The former 5-star prospect joins a different position group under the new staff's guidance.

The Alabama Crimson Tide football program hit the practice field on Wednesday with a sense of newness in the air. It was the second practice under new head coach Kalen DeBoer's direction, music was playing over the loud speakers, the media was allowed at practice and some of the Crimson Tide's defensive players have made intriguing changes.

While some of the changes are merely aesthetic, as both primary inside linebackers have changed jersey numbers, one is much more impactful to the function of the Alabama defense. 

Redshirt freshman Keon Keeley was with the defensive line group during Wednesday's media viewing portion of Alabama's spring practice. Keeley, a former 5-star recruit came to the Capstone as an edge rusher and spent last season with former coach Coleman Hutzler. 

Hutzler has moved on to serve as Mississippi State's defensive coordinator and the Crimson Tide has changed its entire defensive scheme from a 3-4 base to a 4-2-5. Defensive coordinator Kane Wommack highlighted how Keeley's new role will maximize his value for talent evaluators at the NFL level. 

"I think when you look at Keon, you see his frame and how he's developed even in the last year here. He's got a frame that is going to grow more into that "Bandit" role for us. That "Bandit" position can play 9-technique, a 5-technique, can reduce down and play a four-I at times. I think as you see what Keon is developing into and what he may develop into, that's probably a better fit for him," said Wommack. 

Keeley, currently listed at  6-foot-5, 242-pounds, is one of the lightest defenders in the defensive line group, but has a frame to put on the necessary weight to be successful long term at the position. 

"He's done well. He's bought into the program, the principles and values. He's worked his butt off. He's gained a little weight and gotten bigger, rushed well so we'll keep continuing to develop him and give him the opportunity to be the best player he can be," said defensive line coach Freddie Roach. 

Roach went on to emphasize Keeley's biggest need at this stage in his development is repetitions and experience playing the new position. 

"Not a whole bunch. We just need to get him on the field more. That would be the best thing. Again, he's bought in. He works hard everyday. He wants to know what he's got to do to get better and we're going to continue to do that and develop that kid. I mean he's a great athlete, great kid, a great student-athlete. He's got everything you need." 

Keeley had 58 tackles for a loss in 25 games in his final two years at Berkley Prep in Tampa, Fla. He has natural ability to take on blockers and he plays the run well, a trait that's vital for the "Bandit" in Wommack's new system. 

During Wednesday's viewing period Roach could be seen taking extra time with Keeley at the end of a drill discussing technique and fundamentals. Roach slowed down and demonstrated proper hand placement when striking off the line of scrimmage and Keeley then responded with two consecutive correct reps. 

"I think you have to do that. I think a lot of people think you go play d-line, you put your hand down and run after the quarterback and that's not necessarily the case. That kid has to learn how to play the position," said Roach after practice. "Just like anything else, explaining to him what to do so he don't get frustrated, he can go out and perform and do it how you're asking him to do it and let him know why he's doing it. I think when you do that, that's coaching that's what you're supposed to do. A lot of people jus think you get a big guy and you go chase the quarterback. Not necessarily the case. He got it fixed and did a great job as you've seen. We'll continue to do that until he's comfortable doing what he's asked to do on a consistent basis."

The change may not be natural to Keeley, but he's not alone as everyone learns the new "Swarm D". Roughly a dozen defenders were in Roach's defensive line group during the Wednesday session ranging in experience from fifth-year player Tim Smith to early enrollee Jeremiah Beaman. It was just the second day of spring and the second official day of the change for Keeley but his teammates have faith that he'll get up to speed. 

"A lot of learning to do. It's not easy for anybody to switch a position and try to go to another one, especially with guys that probably outweigh you by 100, 60 to 80 pounds. He's been holding his ground pretty good. It's a little different for him. He feels funny, but all we can do is help him," said Smith. "If he struggles on one play, 'hey, that's not how you do it, make sure you slow it down and think.' For the most part he's going to be alright, we're going to take care of him over in the d-line room."