DALLAS -- Reggie Ragland distinctly remembers the locker room after the game. Everyone had his head down and was stunned. He can’t shake the memory of the silence, the tears. Most of all, he said, he recalls turning to his left and seeing senior quarterback Blake Sims crying.
The images of what followed last season’s loss to Ohio State in a playoff semifinal often come back to haunt Alabama’s starting middle linebacker.
“I see it all the time,” Ragland said. “I could be lying in bed, and it just pops in my head like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that really happened to us.’”
A reporter points out that he had what looked to be a concussion and missed time in the second half, but Ragland waves that off. He said instead that he had his “brain rung.”
Besides, it’s clear that whatever happened did nothing to diminish the memories of that night from trailing him throughout the past year.
“I still see guys in there crying,” he said, not quite finished with his initial thought.
It continues to bother Ragland how it all happened. The turnovers were one thing, but he understands now as a senior that it was more than that. He says that the leadership wasn’t where it needed to be, people weren’t getting called out enough for slacking off, and too many players were more worried about the draft board than the scoreboard.
He stopped short of throwing any one person under the bus, but he didn’t hold back and said “some guys are pretenders.”
You see, there was only so much Ragland could have done then. C.J. Mosley was gone, it was his first time starting, and even though he became a Butkus Award semifinalist, he says that he was “just learning how to be a leader.”
“I was just sitting back and learning from guys what to do and what not to do,” he explained.
While it’s unclear whether the former was more important than the latter in that equation, what is certain is that Ragland has held on to those lessons and applied them to this season.
The laid-back Reggie Ragland still exists. Teammates say he loves to clown around and would come get you if your car broke down at 4 o’clock in the morning, no questions asked. But there’s another person inside him now, something else that makes him tick and has led Alabama to a second straight playoff appearance and a shot at redemption for what happened against Ohio State.
Earlier this season, Denzel Devall called Ragland the “commander in chief" of the defense. On the Monday before Alabama will face Michigan State in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, Devall explained why and added another title to his fellow linebacker’s résumé.
“When he’s on the field, he flips a switch and he’s the general,” Devall said.
And who exactly is The General?
“When he’s on the field, he feels like Spartacus," Devall said. "Can’t nobody stop him.
"It’s just that switch. ... When he’s out there, it’s just a different Reggie.”
Said cornerback Eddie Jackson: “That’s a perfect description. He takes control of the defense, for real.”
More than his team-leading 90 tackles and his status as a unanimous All-American, Ragland is credited with leading a defense that ranks in the top five nationally in almost every important statistical category.
While the D-line and its three potential first-round picks get the majority of headlines, it’s Ragland who is tasked with relaying the calls from the sideline, making adjustments before the snap and getting on teammates when necessary.
After Alabama’s loss to Ole Miss, it was Ragland and a handful of others who called a players-only meeting that many credit with turning around the season. In it, players said they spoke about correcting many of the same issues that plagued the team when it lost to Ohio State last January.
“It was good because we had to bring the best out in us since the Ole Miss loss,” Ragland said. “Ever since then, we’ve been fighting hard and guys have been mentally in tune.
“Guys have gotten tougher this year.”
Which is good, because when he looks at Michigan State, he sees a battle of wills in which “whoever breaks first is going to lose.”
“We didn’t finish last year, so we have to come out harder,” he said. “I know the Big Ten and the SEC don’t like each other. We know they’re going to fight to the end, and we’re going to fight to the end."
What the end looks like, whether it's a repeat of last year's disappointment or a celebration and a chance to play one more day, remains to be seen.
Ragland isn't a bystander anymore. Driven by the loss to Ohio State, he's become a leader.
Now that he's The General, what happens next is in his hands.