Evolution of a leader

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Comfort and confidence on the football field are not qualities that can be earned in a week or a month. Sometimes the poise gained only through exposure to the highs and lows of the game can take years.

It's an abstract idea, experience -- because there's no timetable for it. Coaches don't know when the light will come on for some players. Something clicks and it's suddenly obvious: This guy gets it.

C.J. Mosley gets it.

After spending two years watching as the likes of Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower led the way, Mosley has taken the reins at Alabama. The linebacker from Theodore, Ala., has turned the corner in his career. He has gone from the undersized and quiet understudy to the leading man on a defense that ranks in the top five of every major statistical category.

As fellow linebacker Nico Johnson put it, Mosley's role has never changed. But his attitude has.

All it took was 24 games, 104 tackles and 3 interceptions. All it took was him gaining the confidence to raise his voice and lead.

"He's more vocal now. He's more confident," Johnson said. "By him being confident, he's able to fly around and just have fun and no worries, and accepting the fact that he's going to make mistakes, no matter what. It's just having fun with what he does. That's what he'll be doing from here on out, and he's taking advantage of every opportunity he gets."

If anyone knows the ins and outs of Mosley's game, it's Johnson. The two shared the Will linebacker position last season and are listed as co-No. 1s on the depth chart in 2012. Despite neither being able to lay claim to being the clear-cut starter, Mosley and Johnson are Nos. 1 and 2 on the team in total tackles.

So far, though, Mosley has been the one to stand out, mostly because of his ability in pass coverage. Alabama has faced a number of teams that use multiple receiver looks and force the defense into nickel and dime packages, a formation in which Mosley has thrived.

For five weeks he has been named a player of the week by the Alabama coaching staff. Already he has returned an interception for a touchdown this season -- the third of his career, tying a school record.

"His greatest asset is his athleticism and his instincts," coach Nick Saban said. "He can run. He's a good cover guy. He's got really good ball skills. He fits the runs a lot better. He's gotten bigger and stronger so he's better against the run.

"He's just great when we play nickel. He's very productive. He's the most productive player we have on defense right now in terms of production points, because he's such a playmaker."

Christion Jones is a playmaker in his own right, but from the other side of the equation. When a linebacker is lined up on Alabama's speedy slot receiver, it's usually a big play waiting to happen. But when Jones and Mosley go head to head, that's not always the case. With his slender build and ability to cover in space, Mosley isn't a typical stiff linebacker. Jones can't turn on the jets and run right by him.

"C.J. is very different when you talk about linebackers," Jones said. "He's got speed, great hip flexibility where he can stay with the wide receiver.

"Covering a slot receiver, C.J. is great at it. He knows that every receiver wants to give a linebacker a move, and he's good at defending the hip and playing protection over drag routes and things like that."

Mosley's ability to cover receivers has always been his strength. It's what earned him so much playing time earlier in his career. Playing the run, on other hand, has been an issue. That's something he has had to prove. As one of the smallest linebackers on the team, he has had to show he can play physical defense, too.

"I've been trying to show it since I got here, so I guess it's starting to wear off on [Saban] a little bit," Mosley said. "So, hopefully I'll stay on the field more."

So far, there haven't been many instances of Mosley needing to head to the sideline. He came into the weekend ranked No. 12 in the SEC for tackles with 39, or 7.8 per game. He recorded 37 tackles in all of the 2011-12 season.

Mosley attributes the spike in production to time spent working on his craft, gaining experience one week at a time.

"Just me maturing as I got older," he explained. "Third year into the defense, so I basically know everything in and out. Just taking each game at a time, watching more film, basically just growing up and taking on a bigger role."

Saban said he has seen an improvement from Mosley on the field and a determination off of it. Where Mosley was once reserved in previous seasons, he has become more of a leader.

"He doesn't say much, but if you just watch his intensity and watch the way he does things, I think his leadership is effective as well," Saban said.

Said safety Robert Lester: "He's a guy who is a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident. Last year he was kind of timid and not really after it, but he's a guy who has really taken charge of the defense. He knows what is going on. He wants to go out there and make plays, and that's what he has been doing."

Though he's still just a junior, words like "legacy" and "history" are being mentioned with Mosley. Considering the long line of star linebackers to come through Tuscaloosa, many wonder whether he is next in line.

To him, it's just a matter of moving in the right direction. When he was a freshman, he said he had to "mess up in a game to get a lot of things" on defense.

Now, he's the one with experience pointing out his teammates' mistakes.

He has gone through all the ups and downs, and now he gets it.

He's comfortable and confident, and it shows.