Alabama inside linebacker Mack Wilson heads to the end zone with an 18-yard interception return during January's 24-6 win over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl national semifinal. / Crimson Tide photos

Mack Wilson ended last season as one of the hottest players in college football.

The Alabama inside linebacker and five-star member of the 2016 signing class helped the Crimson Tide terrorize Clemson in the Sugar Bowl national semifinal with six tackles and a game-sealing, 18-yard interception return for a touchdown in the 24-6 win. The 6-foot-2, 239-pounder followed that with 12 tackles in the 26-23 overtime triumph over Georgia in the championship game.

Now a junior, Wilson can look back on his first two seasons and realize nothing came easily.

"It took me about a year and a half to learn our playbook," Wilson told reporters this week.

Alabama practiced Tuesday for two hours in full pads in its 10th of 25 preseason workouts.

Wilson enters this season not only as a starter alongside 2017 five-star signee Dylan Moses but as the play-caller of the defense. Shaun Dion Hamilton occupied that role for most of last season before fracturing his kneecap in the win over LSU.

"We need Mack to really be the guy on defense for us this year when it comes to the leadership and how he affects other people," Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said last month at SEC Media Days.

Last season's late surge, which followed a two-game absence due to a foot injury against LSU, resulted in Wilson totaling 40 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss on Alabama's fifth national championship team in nine years. He also had a team-high four interceptions.

This season will be accompanied by an added responsibility on a defense that returns just four starters from a year ago.

"Playing the Mike (middle) linebacker at this university, Coach Saban looks to you to be the signal-caller," Wilson said. "It's something I take pride in, but there are 10 other guys on this defense who can be leaders, too."

Wilson, who became a top-15 national prospect after compiling 115 tackles, five sacks and four forced fumbles as a senior at Carver High in Montgomery, played his first two seasons with Jeremy Pruitt as his coordinator. Now it's Tosh Lupoi, who was promoted during the offseason and will continue to oversee the outside linebackers.

Taking over the inside linebackers is Pete Golding, who is in his first season in Tuscaloosa after spending the past two years as Texas-San Antonio's defensive coordinator.

"Coach Golding definitely reminds me of Coach Pruitt with his coaching style," Wilson said. "They both bring great energy to the defense and to the linebacker positions."

Golding is among Alabama's three new defensive coaches looking to rebuild a unit that had eight players drafted in April, including three in the first round — cornerback/safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, tackle Da'Ron Payne and linebacker Rashaan Evans.

Wilson obviously will have a large role in the reconstruction process ahead.

"It's going to be tough at times, but it's going to be fun," Wilson said. "I expect to be a great leader and to continue to do great things for this organization."

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524.