NEW ORLEANS -- LSU and Alabama have not only been the two best teams in college football this season but the two deepest, and Crimson Tide linebacker Tana Patrick is part of the proof.
Patrick was Rivals.com's No. 67 prospect nationally in the 2009 signing class out of North Jackson High School, but he has yet to make his imprint on the Tide. The 6-foot-3, 236-pound redshirt sophomore is not listed on Alabama's two-deep chart for Monday night's BCS championship game against the Tigers.
"It was hard at first, but I think this will all help me become a better player and a better person," Patrick said. "I've been getting better each year, and I'm learning from some of the best guys who are in front of me. The waiting part has definitely been the toughest thing, because I wasn't used to it at all."
Patrick has worked at inside and outside linebacker during his three seasons and is currently working inside, which is where he played at North Jackson. He has appeared in 10 games this season, totaling seven tackles -- four of those coming in the opening 48-7 rout of Kent State.
As a redshirt freshman, Patrick got in six games and made four tackles.
"Tana has done a good job," Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. "He's a great kid and a quiet kid, and he works his tail off. He actually plays the run really well. We were talking the other night that if you had to pick one guy besides Dont'a Hightower to play in this game, it would be Tana. He really fits the downhill runs.
"He struggled early on learning some of the terminology, but he's in his third year now and really gets it and understands it. I expect him to have a good year next year and play in what we call regular situations, which are against offenses like LSU with two backs and one tight end."
The year before Patrick signed, Alabama landed three of the nation's top 15 linebacker prospects -- Hightower, Jerrell Harris and Courtney Upshaw. Nico Johnson was rated higher than Patrick in the 2009 class, as was C.J. Mosley in 2010.
Alabama snagged yet another touted linebacker last February when Trey DePriest signed.
"People don't understand how much competition there is, and it's not just at linebacker," Johnson said. "Whoever can grasp the playbook the fastest is who is going to be given the opportunity, and you can lose your job on any day. It's just like the NFL."
Said Hightower: "There is a lot of pressure, because sometimes the freshmen can come in and learn faster than you do."
Harris was the highest rated of Alabama's '09 linebacker signees, but he did not get to play as quickly as Hightower and Upshaw. He had six combined tackles his first two seasons, but the 6-3, 242-pounder from Gadsden has eight starts and 49 tackles in the two seasons since.
"The transition of coming in and handling that every day is a challenge, and you immediately want to look at it as a negative," Harris said. "It can be a positive that you're getting to sit and watch other guys and learn from them. At the end it's all worth it, because you have a chance to contribute on a team that has a chance to win the national championship."
Smart said Patrick is working at the linebacker spot occupied by Johnson but added that Johnson may move to Hightower's spot should Hightower elect to forgo his senior season. Hightower plays the more vocal position, and Smart feels Patrick would rather listen to someone else giving the signals.
Patrick picked Alabama over Auburn and Tennessee, two programs that had depth issues at linebacker this season.
"I really try not to think about that, because I'm here playing for one of the best teams," Patrick said. "I'm waiting on my time and playing for the best coaches. There is no regret in coming here at all."
Ready but patient
Smart said Saturday that he is ready to become a head coach but is not going to take just any job.
"I think it's got to be the right place and the right opportunity, and that has not really presented itself," he said. "It's not something I think about a lot. I'm completely happy at the University of Alabama being the defensive coordinator.
"It's the greatest non head-coaching job in the country, and it's a great place to be."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...