Alabama's Burnthall battles for playing time
With old friend, coaches, system gone, Decatur High grad adjusts to change
By Josh Cooper
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TUSCALOOSA — Laughing and joking with teammates, former Alabama linebacker Juwan Simpson and safety Sam Burnthall were a duo last season.
Despite different high school allegiances — Simpson graduated from Austin, while Burnthall is a Decatur High grad — the pair formed a bond. On the Crimson Tide football team, they represented North Alabama.
"It was always good because when Juwan was here, I had someone to back me up," said Burnthall, now a sophomore fighting for playing time as Alabama prepares to face Western Carolina on Saturday.
"Me and him always talked about Decatur, and we would talk to all the other kids in arguments. Then when he left, I didn't have anybody."
Not only did the two share a hometown, but they also sat next to each other in the Tide locker room. Burnthall was given jersey No. 43, while Simpson had No. 42, which placed their lockers side by side.
"We had a relationship because we had to talk every day whether we liked it or not," said Simpson, who is now trying to catch on with an NFL team after getting released by Green Bay.
After the season, however, Burnthall faced plenty of change — Simpson completed his eligibility, and their head coach, Mike Shula, was fired Nov. 26.
As importantly, new head coach Nick Saban, who was hired in January, didn't keep Burnthall's position coach under Shula, defensive backs coach Chris Ball.
Burnthall and Ball developed a good relationship when Ball recruited him. At the time, Burnthall was considered the kind of athlete who could excel in the Crimson Tide's man-to-man coverage defense employed by then-defensive coordinator Joe Kines.
Burnthall had come to Alabama after compiling 63 tackles, 13 pass breakups and three interceptions as a Decatur High senior in 2004. In 2006, his first season on the field at Alabama, he showed flashes of his talent.
Burnthall made two tackles each against Duke, Florida International, Arkansas and Oklahoma State.
When the coaching staff changed, the philosophy behind the defense changed. According to Burnthall, the Crimson Tide now focuses on a zone defense.
Burnthall said that during the spring he struggled to grasp the new system. He was learning to play a different way while also trying to remain effective. But as he got more comfortable with the new defensive schemes, his play picked up.
“Over the summer, I was catching on with the defense more and more,” Burnthall said. “Now I have it down pretty well.”
As the season opener approaches, Burnthall is hoping to play in Alabama’s dime package, which features six defensive backs.
“I want to play, but I’m not sure where I am going to fit in because they’re still looking at a whole lot of different people in different packages and stuff,” Burnthall said. “I’m not sure right now.”
More importantly, though, Burnthall may have found a new running mate to defend North Alabama against his teammates.
And he is another linebacker from Decatur — Rolando McClain, who played at Decatur High with Burnthall, has taken Simpson’s place.
The only problem is that McClain, who wears No. 25, does not sit next to Burnthall. Even so, that hardly matters.
“Now I have Rolando on the team and have someone else to back me up,” Burnthall said, smiling.
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