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Good call. Unlike their counterparts in a 4--3, the inside linebackers in a 3--4 aren't protected by down linemen; opposing centers and guards are able to "climb" to the second level and engage the 'backers. "That's the thing about the 3--4," says Hightower. "If you don't have a dominant noseguard and two good inside linebackers, teams will run on you all day. If you make a mistake, there's a huge hole, and everybody knows whose fault it is."
It makes sense, then, that Hightower (6' 4", 260) and fellow inside 'backer Courtney Upshaw (6' 2", 263) are more broad-beamed than any hybrid. The fact is, you don't hear as much about hybrid players at Alabama in particular, or the SEC in general. While most SEC teams have elements of the spread in their offense, this is also a part of the country where the power-running game remains paramount.
"I would say no," replied Gators offensive coordinator Steve Addazio, when asked if he has noticed an evolution in body types at linebacker in recent years. "You've got some big dudes who can run and some smaller dudes who can run. A great player might come in a smaller body one year," a bigger body the next. "In the end we're all out there looking for the same guys."
Tide coach Nick Saban, for his part, is looking at the understudies of star defensive end Marcell Dareus, who faces a possible suspension for attending a South Beach saturnalia allegedly hosted and paid for by a sports agent earlier this summer. It was Dareus, you may recall, who knocked McCoy out of the BCS title game and put a shiv in Texas's ribs late in the first half with a 28-yard interception return for a touchdown. While his absence would be keenly felt, "we are not concerned," says Saban, who often encourages his players to transform "stumbling blocks" into "stepping-stones" and who will now have an opportunity to practice what he preaches.
The Tide rolls with Saban's 3--4. Nebraska has the Peso. TCU and Boise run a kind of Perma-Nickel. What does Ohio State have? For starters, it has the superpowers of Brian Rolle, the 5' 11", 218-pound middle linebacker who at the moment of impact with blockers and ballcarriers transforms himself into former Buckeyes and NFL hulk Pepper Johnson, if we are to believe linebackers coach Luke Fickell. "Some guys are small, and some guys are big," Fickell says in reference to Rolle, "but what it comes down to is whether you have that ability to play big."
"I'm good against the pass, but I feel like God built me this size just for the run," says Rolle, whose supreme self-assurance evokes that of Willie Mays Hayes in the movie Major League. ("I hit like Mays, and I run like Hayes!")
Only slightly bulkier is Ross Homan, a 6-foot, 227-pound weakside 'backer who had 108 tackles last season. Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock has zero problem with the relative lack of size of Rolle and Homan. "We've gone away, a little bit," he allows, from the downhill, run-stuffing Chris Spielman prototype. "How much iso do you see anymore? And with all the one-back stuff these days, you don't see that many lead plays either.
"We need guys that can run."
The Buckeyes also have the Star and the Leo, which are handles for a pair of—here's that word again—hybrid positions. The Star is a safety-linebacker mix. The Leo is a heartier blend; part linebacker, part defensive lineman. "He's in our [lineman] meetings," says tackle Dexter Larimore, "but half the plays he's dropping into coverage."
Fickell isn't worried about the speed or talent level of this defense. He's worried about the corrosive effects of the praise it has been hearing since the Buckeyes shut down Oregon's vaunted offense in last January's Rose Bowl win. "Not to harp on it," he says, "but we were good in '07, then not quite as good in '08, with all the same guys coming back."