TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Dont'a Hightower went to the sidelines, the other half of No. 3 Alabama's formidable inside linebacking duo took it hard.
Rolando McClain wasn't thinking what losing one of the Crimson Tide's top defenders on Saturday would mean to the team either. A day later, Alabama's fears were realized when Hightower was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his left knee that would require surgery and end his season.
"He's not just my teammate, he's like a little brother to me," McClain said on Monday. "We've been like that since he got here. When he went out, it was like a part of me went out."
Indeed, the two were frequently mentioned as a package deal. The All-American McClain and his wing man, regarded as one of the nation's best linebacking tandems and a key part of the No. 2 rated defense.
The Tide (4-0), which visits Kentucky on Saturday, does have options for replacing the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Hightower, a sophomore who was an immediate starter a year ago.
Sophomore Jerrell Harris was battling for one of the starting linebacker spots in fall camp, but has missed the first four games on an NCAA suspension. The Tide found out on the eve of Saturday's 35-7 win over Arkansas that Harris would be allowed to return in three weeks against South Carolina.
"He did an outstanding job in fall camp," coach Nick Saban said. "We thought he was a guy that was a potential starter that could play winning football for us. But he has not gotten the [repetitions] in practice for the last four weeks because of us not knowing when he would return. It would be a plan for us to wean him back gradually so he's ready when the time comes."
Filling the popular Hightower's spot on the field wasn't Saban's only concern. He also stressed the importance of coping with the blow of losing a teammate for a team that went 12-0 during the last regular season while avoiding serious injuries.
"The players that are here now, even though our thoughts and prayers are with him, we can't respond to the loss," Saban said. "We've got to respond to the new situation and challenges that we have and the opportunity that it creates for somebody else to go in and take advantage of reacting to what has happened. We need to redefine who we are individually and collectively so that we can get that done."
Saban has loaded up on linebackers in his past two recruiting classes and several haven't seen much action. Freshman Nico Johnson was a high school All-American and five-star recruit who had four tackles against North Texas and has played in two games.
Sophomore Chris Jordan has played in every game and had six stops against North Texas. Freshman Tana Patrick has not played yet and is in line for a redshirt year.
Against Arkansas, Saban shifted Cory Reamer over to Hightower's spot, moved Eryk Anders to the other outside linebacker spot and replaced Anders with backup Courtney Upshaw.
Saban said that lineup was just the easiest in a crunch and it could get shuffled again Saturday against Kentucky.
Defensive end Lorenzo Washington said Harris has the potential to be a star, too.
"He's an incredible athlete," Washington said. "He's still growing as a player. He has incredible speed. He's been in the weight room this offseason, gained a lot more weight. He's going to be an incredible player here."
The versatile Hightower was a force on the run but Saban also called him the team's best pass rusher. He lined up at defensive end at times.
"I don't know that you can replace a guy that does all the things that he did," Saban said.
Hightower was injured when Arkansas guard Mitch Petris went low on a legal cut block, and his helmet banged into the linebacker's knee.
McClain didn't take issue with the block, but doesn't like the fact that it is allowed.
"It's legal. You can't say that it was a dirty play on the guy," McClain said. "But for me just being a linebacker, I would rather the guy just come and try to block me man to man. I hate that guys cut, but it is a part of the game. It's something that we practice. "
Hightower had 16 tackles, four of them for a loss, and was credited with a sack and two quarterback hurries.
"He's a force in the middle and when he gets on the edge, he wreaks havoc," McClain said. "It's hard for people to stop him, period.
"I don't think we're going to miss a step because coach Saban is going to put the guy at his spot that best fits that position. I have confidence in the defense. One guy doesn't make a defense, and I don't think this is going to break us. I think everybody around him, around me, is just going to have to step it up."