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LB Reggie Ragland thrives in new role for No. 10 Alabama

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) Reggie Ragland flashed his quickness on the field. The Alabama linebacker darted across the defensive line, calling out the play to each lineman before finally settling back into place an instant before Arkansas snapped the ball.

The next move for the 10th-ranked Crimson Tide’s busiest defender was stuffing tailback Rawleigh Williams at the line of scrimmage in last week’s game.

He returned for his senior season to become the 10th-ranked Crimson Tide’s latest star middle linebacker/defensive play-caller, embracing a demanding job where players like C.J. Mosley, Rolando McClain and Dont’a Hightower have thrived before becoming first-round NFL draft picks under coach Nick Saban.

”Any time you get added responsibility here you have to get better,” Ragland said. ”Each week you have to get better. You better keep asking the necessary questions to keep getting better of coach Saban and coach (Kirby) Smart. I asked coach Smart a thousand questions on even the smallest things that might be the easiest thing in our defense. I still ask him questions like that, just to help myself improve on it.”

Ragland seems to be making the most of his decision to return for his senior season instead of joining the annual NFL draft exodus for the Tide, which visits No. 9 Texas A&M on Saturday.

He’s leading Alabama with 50 tackles, 18 more than any other player, and has forced two fumbles. Ragland was named Southeastern Conference defensive player of the week after an Arkansas game where he seemed to be all over the field.

He chased down quarterback Brandon Allen and stripped the ball away to force a punt. Ragland had a sack and a couple of quarterback hurries on back-to-back third down stops.

He left the game at one point with a left shoulder stinger and smothered tight end Jeremy Sprinkle on his first play back.

”I don’t know what changed,” Ragland said. ”I just know I was trying to get back out there. I hate being on the sideline hurt for anything. The trainer, Jeff (Allen), and all them will tell you I was trying to get back out there fast but they were telling me, `Nah, just wait, we’re going to get you back out there.’ Knowing me, I’m impatient, so I was just trying to get out there as fast as I could.

”When I did I guess I did a 360 from when I was out there and I played good, I guess.”

Saban said Ragland’s 26 production points were a season high for a Tide defender and that his top linebacker had ”a phenomenal game.”

Ragland was a first-team All-Southeastern Conference pick last season after making 95 tackles. He was also a semifinalist for the Butkus Award given to the nation’s top linebacker.

Mosley, now with the Baltimore Ravens, won in 2013. McClain, who plays for the Dallas Cowboys, was the 2009 winner. In between, Hightower was a finalist, too.

Whether he emerges as that big a star or not, Ragland plays a similar role.

”Ragland is all over the place,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. ”Gets them lined up. Heck of a linebacker that is really kind of the leader.”

In the process, Ragland might wind up helping his draft status. He says he was looking beyond that goal when he returned for his senior season, though.

”I came back to school just to get my degree and better myself in the future,” Ragland said. ”I know football’s going to end one of these days so I just tried to help myself with longevity. Going to school, that’s one thing. Coming back, the way I’m playing now, I guess it’s helping me out a little more, but I’m not really worried about that.

”I’m worried about my team and getting better each week and trying to help my team get better each week.”

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