If you like smashmouth football, you’ll love this linebacker’s game. But the Alabama star shows some flashes on third downs too
Most of us have been jealous of Reggie Ragland at some point in our lives. Or, more accurately, jealous of Ragland’s ilk. He’s an alpha without trying to be. He has the blend of politeness and firmness of one not easily intimidated. You can tell his BS detector is acute. And he’s an athlete. A big-time athlete. He started receiving letters of recruitment in sixth grade—for basketball.
Of course, his best sport turned out to be football, and in 2012 Ragland, a native of Madison, Alabama (a Huntsville suburb) enrolled at the University of Alabama. He sat as a freshman behind C.J. Mosley. As a sophomore, he started and was a Butkus Award Finalist. Last year as a senior he led the national champion Tide in tackles and was unanimously voted first-team All-America.
Ragland now projects as a first-round pick in the NFL draft. I got a taste for why when we spent time in Alabama’s film room last month.
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We’re watching Alabama’s early October blowout win at Georgia. It was one of Ragland’s most productive outings. It also had a lot of passing situations, where NFL teams are undoubtedly studying Ragland closer. With three-receiver sets becoming the NFL’s new offensive norm, more and more defenses are playing only two linebackers. Those linebackers must operate in space. Three receivers means more spread formations, which can mean more area to traverse as a box run-defender, and definitely more coverage situations. Whether Ragland’s cover skills will transfer to the pro game is up for debate. Nick Saban gave Ragland important coverage responsibilities in certain packages, but he also took him off the field in other packages. Most likely, talent evaluators around the league will be split on his prospects here. Ragland might be a preeminent old-school run thumper, but if he can’t thrive in nickel packages, he won’t be worth a first-round selection.
One of the first plays we come to is a third-and-10. Alabama was in a passing down sub-package. Ragland, as part of an amoeba front, aligned near the line of scrimmage.
“Before the snap, I just want to make the quarterback and offensive line think that I might be coming,” he says. “At the last second, I drop back in the zone and just drop over the ‘3’ receiver. This [receiver] is probably the first threat that will come back [inside].”
What Ragland means by “3” receiver: the receiver aligned the third furthest from the outside. In other words, the furthest outside receiver is the “1” receiver. The next receiver in—the slot man—is “2.” And “3” is the receiver inside that slot man. This is how all defenses keep track of eligible receivers: 1-2-3.
Ragland sums it up: “You always start from the outside and count in. Coach Saban always says, ‘If you can count to three you can play in this defense.’”
That doesn’t mean Alabama’s scheme is simple. Compared to the NFL, college defensive schemes are quite basic. But Alabama’s sub-packages are almost professionally diverse when it comes to front seven pre-snap looks and pass rushing disguises.
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On the next series, we see classic smashmouth football. Georgia was aligned in one of its many I-formations on the afternoon. Alabama was in its base 3-4 front. “Here, I’m just looking at the guard and then at the fullback to see which way he goes,” Ragland explains. “So, let’s say, if the guard blocks down, I’ve got to come up and be the grown man about it and take him off [the defensive lineman]. In base, we feel like the guards will takes us anywhere we need to go.”
This touches on a football basic that people who don’t play the game easily overlook: Run-defending linebackers don’t read the ball or the running back first, they read offensive linemen. (That’s why the O-line’s sell job, more than the quarterback’s fake handoff, is what makes or breaks a play-action pass.)
As we go through more plays, it’s apparent that Georgia could not move the ball. Exacerbating matters, it was a wet day in Athens. “It’s always great take it to fans,” Ragland says. “Especially playing at Georgia—[then-defensive coordinator Kirby] Smart’s alma mater. It’s always good to get the win for Coach Smart, and now he’s the head coach over there.”
Pounding the Bulldogs between the hedges probably helped open the job that Smart took.
“It helps out a lot,” Ragland says.
Eventually, Georgia tried running the ball out of a three-receiver package, hoping to defeat Alabama’s lighter nickel front. It was to no avail.
“We see [defensive tackle] Jarran Reed tap his butt here, to let us know something’s about to happen,” Ragland points out. Reed does the butt-tap when he senses a run play. Usually, he gets the tell from an offensive lineman.
“[Linebacker] Reuben [Foster] stepped up in that hole and took on that block like he was supposed to. I came over the top, but Reuben really made the play. He stonewalled the guy and got off his block.”
Alabama’s defensive line was great—not just Reed (also a projected first-rounder), but across the board, including freshman Daron Payne at the other D-tackle spot. “Right now, he has a six-pack,” Ragland says of Payne. I ask Ragland if he’s ever seen that in a defensive lineman. “No, but I’ve seen an offensive lineman: Chance Warmack.” Ragland sees my incredulous look. “Six pack,” he says. “Like seriously, check that out. When he was here, he had a six-pack.”
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Later, we see another third down pass. This time, it was third-and-2. Alabama was in a matchup zone coverage with two safeties deep.
“I knew I could be aggressive on it because I got that safety over the top. I got help in some way. I’m not going to let [the receiver] come back inside and I know I’ve got help on the outside.”
The coverage was strong across the board. Quarterback Greyson Lambert pulled the ball down and scrambled. Ragland hunted him down. “Any time you get a chance to hit the quarterback when he takes off running, you better make him feel it.”
I ask Ragland what’s the hardest he’s ever hit a quarterback.
“That, right there, that play, that might be one of the hardest I’ve had. I also got a good hit on Chad Kelly of Ole Miss this year, but they got a pass deflection and still caught the ball and scored on us.”
Is there an NFL quarterback you’re most looking forward to hitting?
“To get a hit on guys like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, those are the premiere guys, so any time you get a shot on them, it’s always great. It’s hard because they get the ball out [so quickly].”
As we go along, Ragland mentions that film study was something he learned only after arriving at Alabama. “Had to,” he says. “The only time I really watched film [in high school] was when we had class for it in the morning, like football class.”
The Bulldogs finally reached the red zone early in the second quarter, their fourth drive. On one of the first running plays down there, left guard Isaiah Wynn grabbed Ragland’s jersey.
“He wouldn’t let me go.”
That’s holding you think?
“All day, every day.”
Ragland repaid Wynn with a little something extra as they fell to the ground.
“Oh yeah, he had to get it. The whole game I was basically getting held by the same person and I’m telling the refs. But I understand, they have to look at everything, not just me.”
A little later, Ragland and the rest of Bama’s defensive front sniffed out a screen pass. “You can see Reuben [Foster] before the play, he’s telling me it’s about to be a screen. He remembers it from watching film with Coach Smart. Because any time Georgia screens like that, they’ve got a guy motioning out. Reuben came up to me [after the play], ‘I told you Reggie! I told you!’”
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Something Ragland does in certain third-and-long situations is line up at defensive end and rush the passer. In the games I studied, he was up-and-down here. It’d be interesting to know how many teams think he could rush off the edge in the NFL.
Ragland had a handful of edge rushes against Georgia. The first two were unproductive.
“Right here, this wasn’t a good one,” he says. “He got me and made a good play. I tried to bull-rush him too early. I should have just kept using my speed. And then I slipped.”
The left tackle gladly accepted the easy pancake block.
“I’m going to get him though, I’m going to get him back,” Ragland says.
He did, but not on the next rush. “Yeah, see, I try to bull rush him too early again,” Ragland says as we watch things play out the same way as before, only minus the slip.
But on the final play of the half, Ragland figured it out.
“He sent me outside and I came under.” We watch Ragland get to the quarterback on a redirect inside move. He just missed the sack, but his pressure allowed linebacker Tim Williams to mop up the takedown. “I should have had that. I’ve got to make the play when I’m right there.”
What’s different on this pass rush is “I set up more outside. I had [the left tackle] thinking I was going to go outside. See, I kind of gave him a little head fake outside, and then, I was able to push him on by. But see, he held me right here, too, right on my collar. The ref can’t see it; he ain’t going to call it.”
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Before the near-sack, Ragland had an outstanding run stop by high-tailing to the outside and siphoning the ballcarrier back into heavy traffic. It’s a great illustration of how tackling numbers can be overrated. Ragland essentially made the stop without touching the runner, Bulldogs star Nick Chubb. If Ragland had allowed the ball to go outside, Chubb would have been one-on-one with the safety.
“He’s one of the best running backs in the country, so nine times out of ten, a DB is probably not going to tackle him,” Ragland says. “Chubb’s lower body is so strong.”
As soon as Ragland saw the right guard block down, he knew where the runner was going. Ragland often brings up a Saban mantra: See a little, see a lot. By seeing a little (the guard blocking down), Ragland saw a lot (where the ball would go). Then, “I just try to send it back into the big guys. I know the way to get the sure tackle, send it to the bigger guys, rather than the smaller guy. I know everybody on that defense is going to come running. They’re going to make you feel it.”
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A pick-six by safety Eddie Jackson on the first play of the second half essentially put the game out of reach. As we keep going through the film, Ragland says that in this game, “We had a chip on our shoulder because everybody had us projected to lose for the rest of the year against [quality] teams.” Coming in, Georgia was ranked eighth, five spots ahead of Bama.
It was a near-perfect outing by the Tide, until the closing minutes, when Georgia’s rushing attack got rolling.
“You’re not always going to be perfect but they had a good scheme for me on this play,” Ragland says as we see a pulling guard land a block on him out in front. “I’ve got to get over top of that. He did a great job of blocking me right there.”
On the next play, a gain of eight inside by Chubb, Ragland says “I should have been running more instead of shuffling.”
Then, we come to the play Ragland is most eager to talk about. It was the first thing he mentioned when we sat down, before the film even started. An 83-yard touchdown right up the gut by Chubb.
Ragland leans forward in his seat. “This right here, everyone thought I had the A-gap, I don’t have a gap. So, right here in this call, I have the outside, so that’s why I’m planted so far over. I have the top of the tight end. I’m supposed to play right there on the outside and we were supposed to stay in the middle. [Reuben Foster] kind of jumped out of his gap and split us. We were supposed to stay right there because we’ve got that safety coming down in that gap. I know how Reuben likes to be very aggressive and he loves running to make the play, but it happens.”
How did Ragland know so many were blaming him for this play?
“I like watching the replay late at night on ESPN. Just hearing the commentators say I jumped out of my gap. I just was thinking to myself, ‘If only they knew. If only they really knew what’s going on. They think they know but they really don’t know.’”
I pose a theory to Ragland: If I’m Coach Saban or Coach Smart, part of me might be kind of glad this happened at this point in the game after the defense had delivered a tail-whooping. Because I’ve got a bunch of dominant players who I have to keep emotionally in-check and humble in preparation for the next battle.
This is quickly shot down. “No, we were mad,” Ragland says. “We didn’t want Chubb to reach his mark, that Herschel Walker mark.”
In Alabama’s group film study this TD run was chalked up in the “bad” and in the “ugly” column. Bad because Chubb scored, ugly because the defense “didn’t do our assignment.”
Still, overall, it was a sensational performance by Ragland and the Tide.
Ragland and I talk for a few minutes after the film ends. I ask him about his NFL ambitions, why a GM should draft him, etc. He says all the right things. He also says that his favorite all-time player is Ray Lewis. And his current favorite is Luke Kuechly. Indeed, not bad professionals for a budding inside linebacker to emulate.
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