Soft-spoken Mosley the key to Alabama's vaunted defense
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Alabama's 2012 Most Valuable Player, as voted by his teammates, has not yet been an every-down player for the Crimson Tide. On the official depth chart heading into Monday's BCS National Championship Game against Notre Dame, C.J. Mosley is not listed on the first line. Alabama's starting Will linebacker is listed as Nico Johnson or Mosley.
But Mosley asserted himself as the Tide's top defensive playmaker this year right from the get-go. On Sept. 1, the junior intercepted a pass from Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson and returned it 16 yards for a touchdown, putting 'Bama's season-opening rout of the Wolverines even further out of reach. Twelve games later, Mosley bookended his MVP campaign by making the most important play of Alabama's season. He jumped up and tipped Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray's last-second pass intended for a receiver in the end zone; it fell into the hands of another player inbounds, causing the clock to run out, preserving a 32-28 victory and setting up a BCS title clash against the Irish.
"When we needed a big play on defense, most likely he was going to make the play," said fellow linebacker Trey DePriest. "It's crazy. He started the season tough, he's still doing it and probably, most likely, he'll do the same thing this game."
That Mosley took home MVP honors at Alabama's Dec. 2 team banquet was certainly a testament to his stellar production, which included a team-high 99 tackles (the next closest player, DePriest, had 56), four sacks, seven tackles for loss and three forced turnovers. But it was also a fitting tribute to the Tide's resilient 2012 defense. After losing four defenders to the first or second rounds of last April's NFL draft (linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw and defensive backs Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick), Alabama led the nation in total defense yet again (allowing 246 yards per game). And it did so with a much less heralded cast, embodied by the fact that its most important player shares his position.
Coach Nick Saban has long employed a 3-4 base defense with an emphasis on stuffing the run. He does so in part by recruiting and relying on super-sized middle linebackers like Hightower (6-foot-4, 260 pounds his final season) and 2009 All-America Rolando McClain (6-4, 258). Mosley is a more modestly proportioned 6-2, 232. So when Alabama is in its "regular" defense, Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart utilize Johnson (6-3, 245) and DePriest (6-2, 245) as the two inside linebackers. Both are considered better run defenders than Mosley.
Fortunately for Mosley, however, Alabama only uses its base defense about 20 percent of the time. Between the preponderance of spread offenses with three- or four-receiver sets and the fact that opponents often find themselves in second- and third-and-long passing situations, the Tide often line up in nickel or dime packages, in which Mosley either pairs with DePriest or is positioned as the lone inside 'backer.
"If an offense is a more of a run-type team or regular team, I won't be on the field as much," said Mosley, citing LSU as an example. "But if it's more of a passing team, I'll be on the filed more."
So what about a full-fledged spread team like, you know, Notre Dame? "Pretty much I'm out there the whole time," he said.
Mosley was officially credited with eight starts during the regular season, meaning there were five games in which he was not on the field for the first snap. But that hasn't become a point of contention -- in fact, it's become a point of pride.
"We feel like we have three guys that are all starting [inside] linebackers and we feel like they all deserve role on the team," said Saban. "C.J. has never once complained about his role on the team because he respects the other guys. He's not selfish at all as a player."
Mosley's abilities as a pass defender were evident from his first practice as a freshman in 2010. During a drill with his fellow freshmen, Mosley -- a former all-state basketball player at in-state Theodore High School -- came at the running back on a blitz and jumped up midstream to bat the ball down (just as he would two years later against Georgia). His breakout moment that year happened in an early-season game against seventh-ranked Florida, when he came off the bench and notched a 35-yard pick-six, the first of three so far in his career.
As a sophomore, Mosley moved into much the same role he inhabits now, sharing the Will linebacker spot with Johnson, then a junior. This year, however, he took on an additional role. With Hightower's departure, Mosley assumed his former role (and that of McClain before him) as the Tide's signal-caller on defense, particularly third downs. In doing so, he became one of the de facto defensive leaders.
"We had some great players last year on defense, ... those guys are pretty hard to replace, especially with experience they had," said Saban. "What C.J. has done is sort of helped this team develop and overcome some of those situations that were created by those guys leaving."
Surrounded by several less experienced players, part of Mosley's job has involved picking up the slack for others. For example, on his season-saving play against Georgia, Smart expected freshman defensive back Geno Smith to blitz. He dropped back into coverage instead, and Mosley picked up running back Todd Gurley in his place. Meanwhile, cornerback Dee Milliner had lost coverage on Murray's intended target, Malcolm Mitchell, meaning the play might have resulted in a touchdown had Mosley not redirected the ball with his fingertips.
"I was just doing my job," Mosley said. "I knew the clock was running out, I grabbed their running back, then just jumped as high as I can and get my hand on ball. I didn't know what happened after I tipped it, I didn't know if it was in the air, whether [receiver Chris Conley] got tackled or anything. So after the game, it was just big relief."
The mild-mannered Mosley was stunned when his MVP award was announced at the team banquet. "I was in the middle of eating some cake when I heard it, so I had to eat it up real quick to get out there," he said last month. "They asked me to say something, but I was shocked and didn't want to go up there and start mumbling." Asked about the honor on Saturday, Mosley offered: "I don't really see myself as an MVP. I'm pretty much a laid-back person and don't really talk too much."
Still, despite being soft-spoken, Mosley has won his teammates' respect with his relentless style of play.
"He's not a very big linebacker, but he plays like he's Ray Lewis or something," said defensive lineman Damion Square. "He plays so big out on the field. He's great at everything he does. He can pass rush. He can play the run. He can play the pass. There's nothing that coach has ever asked of this guy that he cannot do."
Of all his roles, the one Mosley relishes the most is rushing the passer. Early in the Tide's rain-soaked 42-10 win at Missouri on Oct. 13, Mosley delivered a crushing third-down sack of Tigers quarterback Corbin Berkstresser that knocked Mizzou back nine yards to its own 30-yard line. Alabama blocked the Tigers' subsequent punt and went up 21-0 three plays later. Mosley saw plenty of action that day since Missouri is a spread passing team, and he notched 12 tackles and a fumble recovery.
Mosley's most productive day came in the one game Alabama fans would sooner forget: He notched a season-high 14 tackles in the Tide's Nov. 10 loss to Texas A&M. On the infamous play where Heisman winner Johnny Manziel bobbled the ball, recovered and threw a touchdown to receiver Ryan Swope, Mosley can be seen throwing his hands up in frustration afterward. However, the game also included his personal favorite play of the season.
"Sacking Manziel on the one-yard line," he said. "I really look forward to playing that game next year."
Indeed, Mosley announced last month that he'll return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft. By then, the returning All-America will be a bona fide star on a defense that should return at least seven starters. His co-starter, Johnson, will have moved on.
So what about that or next to Mosley's name on the depth chart?
"Hopefully that will change next year," he said.