Alabama’s Deontae Lawson embraces — and epitomizes — the changes in Tuscaloosa

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Where there’s change within Alabama’s football program, there’s linebacker Deontae Lawson. The junior is playing for a new head coach in Kalen DeBoer. He’s in the process of learning a new defensive scheme with new terminology and he’s doing so while wearing the new in-helmet communication system.

There are other changes, as well. Lawson is the first Crimson Tide player to wear the No. 0, something that’s been permitted by the NCAA since 2020.

Why? It’s all about embracing the new.

“This is a new era. It’s a new beginning for myself,” Lawson said. “That’s how I look at it. I was honored to wear No. 32 when I wore it but it’s a new wave now.”

It’s ironic in some ways because Lawson is one of the few remnants from last season’s team. He could have entered the 2024 NFL Draft but decided to stay at Alabama before Nick Saban announced his retirement. He then re-committed to stay with the program under DeBoer and was one of the biggest cogs in keeping the remaining roster together. Lawson’s goal remains the same, and it’s the reason why he initially decided to return.

“The first conversation (with DeBoer) was just trying to keep the guys together, you know?” Lawson said. “We just have to adapt. It was definitely challenging coming in but now I think we’re getting adjusted and everything is moving good.

“Personal reason I wanted to come back was to win the natty. But just rallying the guys around. We came short (last season). We were almost there, just got to work harder this year.”

Lawson will be asked to set the tone for the upcoming season. An ankle injury hampered him throughout 2023, resulting in a few missed games, but he earned 11 starts in his first full season as a starting inside linebacker. Now healthy, Lawson is more confident and that has allowed him to take on a leadership role on and off the field. There have been only two practices so far this spring, but Lawson’s impact is being felt, and he’s forming a strong bond with new defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Kane Wommack.

“Deontae is a great young man,” Wommack said. “He carries himself with a great presence. He handles things from a professional level. You can tell he’s operating with another level in (his) mind but I thought when he got on the field I saw a different version of Deontae Lawson — one that I’m excited to go on the field with.”

One of Lawson’s goals is to become a consistent vocal leader. His play on the field and his work ethic elevated him to a leadership position last year when he was Alabama’s signal caller on defense. He used his voice plenty in that capacity but wasn’t as vocal as others on the team.

This year’s Alabama team is young, with over two-thirds of the roster comprised of freshmen and sophomores. Strong defensive leaders such as Terrion Arnold, Chris Braswell, Justin Eboigbe, Kool-Aid McKinstry and Dallas Turner have departed for the NFL Draft. One strong personality who remained, and encouraged Lawson to step into that vocal role, is safety Malachi Moore.

“He’s becoming a more vocal leader,” Moore said. “Like he was always a leader last year but I was telling him, you just need to voice your opinion a little bit more and let people know how you feel about certain things, and he’s doing a great job with that this year. He’s taking it in stride and taking on the responsibility of being that leader and that linebacker for our defense.”

The inside linebacker position is in good shape with Lawson and fellow junior Jihaad Campbell returning as the starters and with senior Justin Jefferson and sophomore Jeremiah Alexander as the two backups. Lawson admitted that it’s been a challenge adjusting to the new scheme but ultimately it’s what they signed up for. Lawson said that he’s meeting with coaches more than ever and taking teammates with him — another sign of his growing leadership.

Lawson’s focus in the spring will be improvement in play recognition and pass coverage to add to his strengths against the run in blitz coverage. Early returns are positive and that he’s poised to become one of the best linebackers in college football in 2024.

“Our linebacker room is always, in my mind, going to set the tone for how we do things day in and day out,” Wommack said. “I think Deontae is a guy that you can point towards right now that’s doing things at a really high level.”

(Photo: Cliff Welch/ Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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