Alabama Crimson Tide: Alabama

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- “Man, your boy looked good in the Sugar Bowl,” they tell Bobby Ramsay.

Ramsay has heard that phrase, he said, about 150 times since January. He’s heard it from fans around town in Yulee, Fla. He’s heard it from fellow high school coaches at clinics. He’s heard it from college coaches who have stopped through scouting talent.

If Ramsay turned on the radio, flipped on the TV or simply walked the streets here in Tuscaloosa, he’d hear about his former running back even more. In fact, he might be overwhelmed by the number of people saying how good Derrick Henry looked for Alabama in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma: 161 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. When Henry broke his 43-yard touchdown run the fourth quarter, Ramsay said he received something like 18 text messages in under 30 seconds.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Henry's breakout performance in the Sugar Bowl changed everything for the Alabama running back, but Henry is just focused on getting better.
It’s easy to see why people got excited. The run had the look of a seminal moment for the former five-star athlete who set the national career rushing yards record at Yulee High. The 6-foot-3, 243-pound talent finally showed on a national stage why he was so highly sought after. After carrying the ball minimally throughout the regular season, he blew people away in the bowl game.

All told, Henry ran for 382 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman. And now? Despite being the backup to T.J. Yeldon, he's listed on the sports betting website Bovada as 28-to-1 to win the Heisman Trophy, ahead of Dak Prescott, Duke Johnson and Myles Jack.

Too big? Please

It’s almost laughable to think about it now, but for a long time people questioned whether Henry was cut out to be a running back. He was too big, they thought, too bulky to fit through running lanes. He was too tall to have the proper pad level.

And then there was the Sugar Bowl.

Somewhere in Yulee, Ramsay smiled. What he’d seen in high school and what he saw in bits and pieces throughout the season was showing up on a much larger, unavoidable scale: Henry was meant to play running back.

“I told some people, ‘Man, that looked just like high school. Those DBs didn’t want to tackle him any more than the DBs who played here,’” Ramsay said. “The first touchdown he scored, I was joking, ‘That kid from Oklahoma, he’s running with Derrick so he won’t get yelled at when he goes back to the bench.’ He wasn’t going to try and get him on the ground.”

No one wants to tackle Henry, not even his teammates.

Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland, no slouch at 6-2 and 259 pounds, described his meetings with Henry during practice as both “mean” and “peaceful” because they can’t take one another to the ground.

“He's a big guy,” he said of Henry. “A lot of people are scared to tackle him.”

Said Henry: “During the Oklahoma game, I could tell that they didn't want to tackle me. I just kept the mindset of being physical and keep running hard so everything will open up.”

Growing pains

Henry says one of his goals is to be a starter, but for now he’s “focused on getting better and becoming a complete player.”

Dobbs Not getting that much playing time really taught me a lot. It humbled me. Everything isn't just going to come to you. You have to work for it.

-- Alabama RB Derrick Henry
A year ago that might not have been the case.

Like most blue-chip recruits, Henry first had to deal with reality. Though his talent was undeniable, there were things he hadn’t yet mastered. At Yulee High, he didn’t have to block, pass protect or catch passes out of the backfield. Ramsay only needed him to run the ball. But at Alabama, he wouldn’t see the field until he could do it all.

“Not getting that much playing time really taught me a lot,” Henry said. There wasn’t a game during the regular season where he carried the ball more than six times. “It humbled me. Everything isn't just going to come to you. You have to work for it. You have to take time. This is college football so it's more technique. You have to put more effort into by watching film and really paying attention to the little things”

Saban said the light came on for Henry in the lead up to the Sugar Bowl. Like a lot of freshman, the chance for extra practice time paid off.

Now he’s taking that momentum and running with it.

"Derrick Henry has had a fabulous spring," Saban said on Wednesday. "He picked up right where he left off at bowl practice last year. He works really hard. He runs really hard. He plays with a lot of toughness. He gets it."

Everything has changed, nothing has changed

In a way, Henry is built to be the center of attention. At Yulee High, he was the biggest thing going. As early as the ninth grade, Ramsay said, “They could play football for 500 years in our county and there’s going to be no one better than him.”

“I think it’s helping him now,” Ramsay said. “They protected him from that as a freshman. Now he’s going to have a little more on his plate. … It’s crazy because he hasn’t played a ton but I’ve got people from Alabama, and these are people who have been around the program for years, who have said they haven’t ever seen a guy with this much popularity.

“In a town where every other street is named after Paul Bryant, for someone to say that is big.”

Has Henry changed? Not according to Ramsay: “Nothing. Same guy. Nothing different.”

“Offseason has been good,” Henry said in the most understated way possible. “Coming back from the Sugar Bowl and getting back to lifting weights and doing 4th Quarter [Program], it's been going well. Just trying to get better.”

That simple, singular focus will suit him well. As spring practice wraps up and the march toward the regular season intensifies, so will the scrutiny.

What will aid him most will be his work ethic, the same determination that helped him get through the lows of last season and reach the high of the Sugar Bowl.

“Right now he’s in a very comfortable place,” Ramsay said. “Initially all freshmen go through the process of being in a new place and having a new way of doing things. One thing with Derrick is he’s never let it affect his effort level. ... Every time I talked to [running backs coach Burton Burns] about it, he’d say, ‘Oh man, We want all the guys to be like Derrick. He’s pulling G.A.’s aside to work on things extra after practice, he’s getting extra film work.’”

A moment later, Ramsay put an exclamation point on the subject.

“He’s not expecting to have rose pedals thrown at his feet,” he said of Henry.

Ramsay’s boy looked awfully good in one game, but both he and Henry understand that last season was only the first step. What comes next is a whole different set of challenges.
Somewhere, Broadway Joe is smiling.

Former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron isn’t shedding the limelight, he’s running toward it as he and Katherine Webb will be the focus of a reality show documenting their impending nuptials, according to The Auburn Plainsman.

Don’t worry, football fans. It won’t be all dresses and bouquets. The show will also follow McCarron’s path to the NFL.

According to the report, Alan Webb, Katherine’s father, said he didn’t know that the show was happening until recently. However, he promised that it would be “a wholesome one for sure.”

The wedding is set for July 11, so set your DVRs.

“From what I understood, it came from someone else,” Laurie Webb, Katherine’s sister, told The Auburn Plainsman. “I don’t think they were trying to get into a reality show, I think they just had the opportunity and decided to take it.”

McCarron, for his part, took to Twitter to explain his role in the future show, which is to say he doesn't appear to want one.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Perry isn’t doing anything to temper expectations for the Alabama secondary. The senior safety missed all but the first two games last season, and what he saw from the sidelines clearly didn’t suit him. Back from injury, he’s looking for a marked improvement.

“I think we’re going to be a better secondary this year,” Perry told reporters late last week. “The world should be ready to see more of the old UA-style secondary.”

Last fall's results fell short of the typical Alabama standard. Though the numbers were far from horrific in the national rankings -- seventh in rushing yards per game, 11th in passing yards per game, fourth in touchdowns allowed -- the secondary was nonetheless vulnerable. Perry and fellow safety Vinnie Sunseri suffered season-ending injuries, starting cornerback Deion Belue wasn’t always 100 percent, and the cornerback spot opposite him was never truly settled as John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson, Maurice Smith and Bradley Sylve all unsuccessfully tried to lock down the position.

[+] EnlargeNick Perry
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsDespite their youth and inexperience, Nick Perry believes Alabama's secondary is ready for a return to glory.
Alabama’s defense surrendered its highest Raw QBR score (38.1) since 2007 -- by comparison, that number averaged out to 22.5 from 2009-12. The Tide defense was ranked 60th nationally in the percentage of pass completions gaining 10 yards or more (46.2).

Still, Perry is confident this season will be different, even though that flies in the face of some noticeable obstacles. For one, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix left early for the NFL. Along with Belue and Sunseri, three-fourths of last season’s secondary is gone. For another, Jackson tore his ACL on Saturday and will be out for several months, removing a promising talent from the equation. Barring an Adrian Peterson-like comeback, it’s hard to envision the sophomore playing this season.

Those moves ultimately leave more questions than answers for Alabama's personnel. But it’s not the personnel that has Perry hopeful. It’s the coaching.

“Having Kirby [Smart] and [Nick] Saban in the same room coaching the same position is a dream come true for any defensive back,” he said.

Perry called the two “geniuses at their position.” He said that Smart is already “putting his new spin on things.”

“It’s tremendous,” said fellow safety Landon Collins. “[Smart] just coaches us at a different level, trying to get us to understand it from his point of view because he played the position, and he knows what’s going on. It’s his defense. So basically it’s a tremendous thing for us safeties because he sits down and goes step-by-step on what we need to do and what will make us a better player.”

Saban has long worked with cornerbacks during practice, but this spring, Smart, Alabama’s defensive coordinator, moved from coaching linebackers to safeties in order to clear the way for Kevin Steele’s return.

“I’ve always liked it when Kirby coaches the secondary,” Saban explained. “I think it's really hard for one guy to coach the secondary right now. I’m really sort of his [graduate assistant]. He's kind of working with the safeties and the whole group and then when we break down, I kind of try to work with the corners a little bit.

“I thought last year, we didn't play with enough consistency back there. We had a lot of different rotating parts, different starters, different corners starting. We've got to come up with some guys that can develop some consistency in performance.”

As with most springs, the most talked-about players are the true freshmen. Five-star cornerback Tony Brown and four-star safety Laurence 'Hootie' Jones have been on campus since January, participating in the offseason conditioning program and spring practice. To Perry’s eye, they haven’t disappointed.

“Those guys have a bright future,” he said. “They’re picking up the defense pretty good, faster than I’ve seen any freshman pick it up. They came in early, and they’re ready to work.”

Perry was kind enough to break down each players’ strengths.

“Tony is a great competitor. He’s fast. He’s everything you want in a corner,” he said. “Hootie is your prototypical safety, you know. He’s big. He has long arms. He has speed.

“Expect those guys to make a couple of plays this year.”

In order to return to the Alabama secondary of old, they’ll need to.

Perry is one of the few familiar faces still around. It’s up to this season’s crop of players to re-establish the standard.
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Amari Cooper wasn’t himself for much of last season.

An injury to his foot robbed him of games against Colorado State and Georgia State, and even then, it needed longer to heal. He wasn’t near 100 percent until halfway through the season. And by that point, the dubious question of whether we were witnessing a sophomore slump was unavoidable. The same receiver who burst onto the scene in 2012, earning SEC All-Freshman and freshman All-American honors, was a shell of himself. He couldn’t get off the line quickly and, to make matters worse, he was dropping the passes that were thrown his way.

The former four-star prospect from South Florida who caught 59 passes for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman saw his numbers slip to 45 receptions, 736 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore. The number of times he was targeted didn’t drop off significantly -- from 77 to 74 -- but his receptions for first downs fell by 31 percent and his number of catches for 20 yards or more was cut nearly in half, down from 19 to 10.

[+] EnlargeCooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAfter a foot injury limited his productivity in 2013, Amari Cooper expects to bounce back this fall.
Cooper may not know those numbers off the top of his head, but he should remember the frustration he felt last season. “Not being able to play to your fullest potential when you know you can go out there and dominate,” as he described it, ate at him. Only over the final few games did we see the Amari Cooper we were used to seeing. During that stretch, he caught 15 passes for 299 yards, including a 99-yard breakaway touchdown against Auburn. His speed was back on full display and so were his feet. Without pain, he could be elusive once again. He could finally cut and dance away from defenders like he did as a freshman.

The hope for Alabama’s coaches and quarterbacks is that Cooper’s strong finish will serve as a springboard into a junior campaign that will help return him to the conversation of the SEC’s elite receivers.

“Amari's really played outstanding football here for us for two years,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban. “About halfway through his freshman year, he really became an outstanding player. He got very confident in what he was doing. Last year, I thought he had a very good year, especially the second half of the year. So far this spring, he's been phenomenal in the offseason program as well as in the first three practices that we've had.”

Cooper, by all accounts, is back to his old self. He said he's added five to six pounds during the offseason conditioning program and worked on his speed. At Alabama’s pro day earlier this month, he ran the 40-yard dash for scouts and came in at a jaw-dropping 4.31 seconds on one of three times he received. The other two stopwatches weren’t that far off at 4.35 and 4.38 seconds, he said.

“It’s all about technique in the 40,” he explained. “I’m trying to get faster, and I guess you guys will see whenever I decide to come out [for the NFL].”

If he has another 50-plus reception and double-digit touchdown season this fall, he could turn pro sooner than later. The crop of receivers in this year’s draft is deep, but next year’s doesn’t figure to be quite as challenging.

But for now, the focus is on putting together a strong junior season, starting with a strong spring. With a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback, there’s a lot to adjust to. What Cooper has seen from Lane Kiffin’s time at USC has him excited, though.

“We look at it for concepts we need to learn for our offense here, and we know what those guys did for him at USC at the wide receiver position,” he said, noting how Kiffin has a simpler and more player-friendly way of coaching the offense.

Said Saban: “Obviously [Cooper is] a guy [who] we want to get the ball to as many times as we can. Lane will do a really good job of getting the ball in the playmakers' hands. I think between the backs we have and the receivers we have and Coop's history of being a very consistent performer, I would think that he'll have an outstanding year.”

That said, someone will have to distribute and deliver the football. Alabama has five quarterbacks competing for the starting job now, and that crowded backfield will grow by one when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives in May.

Cooper admitted that not having AJ McCarron to throw him the football is different, but he’s not showing the slightest sign of concern.

“It’s like when I came in. AJ was a new quarterback to me,” he said. “It’s the same thing with these guys. We’ve been working on timing since before spring practice started.

“We tried to get together almost every day to work on our timing.”

If Cooper can stay healthy and return to his 2012 form, he’ll be a benefit to whomever starts under center for Alabama.

He’s already shown he can dominate with what he’s done in the past. Whether you choose to call his sophomore season a full-on slump or a minor setback, there’s plenty of room for him to get better as a junior. With those feet, those hands and that speed, he could easily rise to the top of the SEC’s best receivers, if not the entire country.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban said his team “lost respect for winning” last season.

Trey DePriest said players “lost sight of the small things.”

Amari Cooper, agreed, adding that his teammates “didn’t connect with each other” like they needed to.

There are plenty of reasons why Alabama went from unquestioned No. 1 in the polls to a two-loss disappointment last season. Everyone remembers the last-second loss at Auburn and the backbreaking defeat against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, but do they remember the fumbles, missed opportunities and general malaise that came before it? Do they recall how poor the offense was against Virginia Tech, how terrible the defense was against Texas A&M? What about the goal-line fumble that kept LSU from going up 4 points at halftime or how a sub-.500 Mississippi State team played Alabama close for the better part of four quarters?

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsBama LB Trey DePriest says complacency won't be an issue for the Crimson Tide this season.
Whatever plagued Alabama can be best summed up in one catch-all word: complacency.

We hadn’t heard that one around Tuscaloosa in a while before the new year. For weeks and weeks heading into the Sugar Bowl the narrative was how complacency wasn’t an issue. Alabama wasn’t taking Oklahoma lightly, Saban and his players explained. It wasn't the national championship, but they were eager to show they were championship-caliber still, they insisted. Then came the two-touchdown loss in which Alabama gave up 45 points and 429 yards of offense.

And, then, talk of complacency.

It became the narrative of the offseason. It wasn’t that Alabama wasn’t good enough last season -- looking at the stacked roster, it’s hard to argue it wasn’t -- it’s that the players were somehow not focused enough. They didn’t want to win as much as they should have. They weren’t ready to fight for it like they had in years past.

Back-to-back national championships led Saban to say that, “I think sometimes players can get a little complacent and lose their respect for winning, and what it takes to be their best. … Sometimes you need a few setbacks to straighten you out.”

Sound familiar? It should. It’s a similar story to what we heard following the 2010 season when Alabama lost three games after being ranked preseason No. 1. With a chip planted firmly on its shoulder and complacency solidly in its past, the Crimson Tide went out and won a national championship in 2011.

DePriest was a true freshman playing primarily on special teams that season. Now he’s the most veteran player on defense, a senior taking over C.J. Mosley's role as the vocal leader at inside linebacker. He’s someone that everyone should “look up to,” according to Saban.

Complacency, DePriest said, won’t be an excuse this spring. Not from what he’s seen.

Usually when Alabama players gathers for the Fourth Quarter Program, strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran’s grueling series of workouts, there are more than a few who aren’t altogether excited for the challenge. Going from the couch to the weight room isn’t an easy transition, especially when it comes only weeks after the season ends.

But this year was different.

“Stepping into that Fourth Quarter Program, it’s usually like, ‘Aww, man, it’s the Fourth Quarter and we’ve got to run,’” DePriest said prior to practice on Monday. “But guys were actually excited to go out there and run and see if they can push themselves to the limit.

“That’s another thing I’ve seen, that guys are pushing themselves to the limit and not just letting their mind control their body. They were pushing and actually telling themselves that they can do it.”

If players weren’t complacent in the face of a screaming Scott Cochran, that’s a good sign. But it’s only the first sign. Monday marked practice No. 2 of 15 this spring, and then after A-Day there’s three more months of downtime to deal with. If players don’t motivate themselves then, look for it to show up late in the summer when preseason camp begins. And then the competition really begins and players either step up and separate themselves or fall behind.

After losing two games and falling into bad habits last season, Alabama can’t afford to lose a step. Defending SEC champ Auburn isn’t going anywhere, LSU is loaded with talented players, and Texas A&M promises to continue its upward trajectory without Johnny Manziel. And that’s just half of the SEC West.

Whether or not this spring’s attitude holds, one thing is certain: Complacency is not an option in 2014. Everyone is saying that right things so far, but only time will tell if words translate into action.

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Whether he’s beginning the process of defending a national championship or rebounding from a disappointing season, Nick Saban remains the same.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban and the Crimson Tide
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDespite some new faces at Alabama, Nick Saban is a creature of habit whose goals remain the same.
After five decades coaching college football, he’s become a creature of habit. Every time he opens practice at the University of Alabama, it looks the same. There’s an order to it. Each position group is where it's supposed to be. Every player's actions are accounted for. It’s like clockwork. There are no wasted movements. Every moment goes according to his plan.

And, as it turns out, Saban’s process boils all the way down to what he puts on in the morning. Whether it’s been by design or not, the notoriously meticulous head coach has worn the same exact outfit for the first day of spring practice ever since 2008. This year was no different.

A new group of players and coaches walked onto the Thomas-Drew Practice Field for the first time on Saturday afternoon. AJ McCarron was gone from under center, C.J. Mosley was no longer captaining the defense and a number of other familiar faces were noticeably absent. But Saban remained. He put on the same red sweater, khaki pants and nondescript sneakers he’s worn for the first day of spring practice the past seven years. He donned the same straw hat he’s used every year since then, too, with the exception of a rainy day in 2009 that forced his team indoors.

Anyone looking for Alabama to change after ending last season with two losses will be disappointed. Saban may have a new roster, a new coaching staff and a new set of challenges, but his demeanor is exactly the same. His goals haven’t fluctuated: create incremental improvement and focus on what he calls “consistency in performance," which is his process, in a nutshell.

“The first practice is always a sort of work in progress for everybody. [It's] new players learning where to go, old players trying to get back into the swing of things," Saban said.

He used the phrase “work in progress” three times during a hurried seven-minute news conference. He was in a rush, one of his staffers said, because there were a number of recruits he needed to visit with. He went through the motions, answered three questions and was off. With the exception of one position change (ArDarius Stewart at safety) and a few roster moves (Harrison Jones, Chad Lindsay and Jai Miller are gone), it was business as usual.

Saban said he was pleased with the way his team responded to the offseason conditioning program and was eager to see how spring practice would play out. Re-establishing the fundamentals will be the focus for the first few days, he explained, and then they’ll get into the playbook. He made no mention of last season, the last-second loss at Auburn or the poor showing against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It has weighed heavily into the national conversation, but it’s clear Saban has moved on.

“Players have to develop the discipline to sustain so we finish practice, finish games, finish quarters, finish halves like we really want to,” he said.

Trey DePriest, however, is using last season as inspiration. He was on the field when the Sooners embarrassed his defense in New Orleans, racking up 45 points and 429 yards. He was on the sidelines a month earlier when Chris Davis went 109 yards to steal an Iron Bowl win and an undefeated season away from the Tide. The last time Auburn dealt Alabama such a blow, a motivational poster was made as a reminder. “Never Again,” it read, along with a grinning picture of Cam Newton. The next year Alabama destroyed Auburn, went 12-1 and won a national championship.

“Guys are just a lot more hungry,” DePriest said. “We didn’t finish the season like we wanted to. Guys knew that and they just took a different approach to it, and [we] are trying to get back to the standard to how we do stuff.”

Amari Cooper wasn’t around when Alabama was dealt a similar setback in 2010, losing three games after being ranked preseason No. 1. But the standout junior receiver has noticed a different motivation from his teammates this spring. The leaders are stepping up more, he said. What Saban is asking them to do -- “stay focused and finish” -- isn’t different from years past, but Cooper has seen a better focus from everyone.

[+] EnlargeJacob Coker
Jeff Gammons/Getty ImagesExpect the Crimson Tide's QB competition to heat up in May when Jacob Coker arrives.
What remains to be seen is how that sustains itself and translates into results. Cooper doesn’t have McCarron throwing him the football anymore. Doug Nussmeier is no longer his offensive coordinator. He now has five unknown candidates at quarterback, a sixth on the way and a coordinator with a somewhat checkered past. So far, Cooper said, he’s enjoyed the change, noting how Lane Kiffin has simplified the offense and made it more “player-friendly.”

As far as the quarterback battle, he thinks that will be fine, too.

“It’s not weird,” he said. “It’s just a quarterback competition. I think schools have that every year.”

But Alabama isn’t any school. Not when you win three of the past five national championships. Not when your head coach is Nick Saban and losing two games is a disappointment.

The quarterback competition may be simmering on the back burner now, but it’s going to heat up when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives in May. As far as Saban is concerned, he’d like to keep that on the periphery. He’s going to be asked 1,000 times about it, and 1,000 times he’s going to give the same answer: “We’re going to wait and see.”

If you’re looking for Saban to give into the pressure of naming a starter before he’s ready, you’ll be disappointed. As with everything else he’s done as a head coach, he’s doing this on his own terms. His process is set, his plan is laid out, and after five decades of coaching, there’s no changing it. When a man wears the same thing for seven years in a row, you have to expect some consistency from him.

SEC lunchtime links

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
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It's Friday! That means some much deserved time off, the continuation of the SEC hoops tournament in Atlanta and the opening of a few more spring football practices around the SEC. Alabama gets going on Saturday, and Arkansas kicks off on Sunday. To get you ready, here's some reading material that should get you through Friday and on into the weekend.
  • Nick Saban for president! No, not that president. The Alabama head coach received a few write-in votes for SGA president, outpacing some of his own players in the process.
  • Miracle man Chris Davis is no longer in Auburn's secondary. But the Tigers do have some talent returning at cornerback. Here's a good breakdown of the position to get you ready for spring practice on The Plains.
  • As stated earlier, Arkansas opens spring camp this weekend. For those you who like to plan ahead, here's a full rundown of the Razorbacks schedule.
  • Our very own Mel Kiper Jr. sees former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney going No. 3 overall to the Jaguars in the upcoming NFL draft. But he could also see the talented defensive end ending up in other locations.
  • He's battling inconsistency, but Vols wideout Von Pearson is being described by his coach as "ultra-talented." His offensive coordinator would one-up that assessment, calling the 6-foot-3 target "very, very, very talented."
  • Maty Mauk is clearly the leader to become Missouri's starting quarterback, but he's no incumbent. Trent Hosick is aiming to compete for the job, himself. But the quarterback room, as he describes it, is "loaded."
  • It's early, but the defense is running a little ahead of the offense at LSU. Les Miles said, as only Les Miles could, that "there's a lot of speed and get-to-the-ball" on defense.
  • Vanderbilt needs more playmakers on offense with Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause gone. That's why Derek Mason moved talented freshman C.J. Duncan from quarterback/running back to receiver, where he has no game experience.
Editor’s note: This is Part IV in a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Alabama this spring.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If you’ve watched Alabama football these past few years, then you know what Trey DePriest looks like in uniform. The No. 33 emblazoned on his chest, he’s a thickly built linebacker with a low center of gravity. He’s a complete player; good in tight quarters against the run and solid in space against the pass. He doesn’t shy away from contact, but he hasn’t always been at the center of it either since signing with Alabama in 2011. Instead, that honor belongs to All-American C.J. Mosley, who racked up 100 or more tackles in each of the past two seasons.

But with Mosley off to a career in the NFL, expect to see a new Trey DePriest on the field this spring. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound senior doesn’t figure to change much physically; he doesn’t need to. Between the ears, however, he should make significant strides. A vacuum in leadership has moved him to the forefront of Nick Saban’s defense, demanding that he be both productive and vocal in 2014. Looking good in uniform and showing flashes of promise won’t cut it anymore. DePriest must transform himself these next few weeks and months if Alabama’s defense is to live up to the lofty standards of seasons past.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsTrey DePriest says he's ready to assume the leadership role on the field and in the locker room left open by the departure of C.J. Mosley.
The good news for Alabama fans is that DePriest does have all the tools to succeed. His size and speed are ideal. He isn’t quite as fast as Mosley, but then again few in the college game have ever been.

Still, he has been consistently productive in somewhat of a lesser role. He stood out early as a playmaker on special teams with 25 tackles in 13 games as a freshman. In each of the past two seasons he’s ranked in the top three on the team in tackles: 59 as a sophomore and 65 as a junior. Mosley, by means of comparison, went from 37 tackles as a sophomore to 107 tackles as a junior. Both could have entered the NFL draft as underclassmen, but both decided to stay for their senior seasons. For Mosley, it paid off to the tune of another 100-tackle season and an even more inflated draft stock. The hope for DePriest is he does the same.

"He knows the defense just like I do," Mosley told reporters prior the Allstate Sugar Bowl. "If he comes back like I did, he'll evolve into that every-down linebacker role so people will be able to see his true talents. They'll see he can control the defense and be the only linebacker on the field and make all the calls."

When it comes to the matter of leadership, Mosley sees that capability in DePriest, too.

"If he stays, it will be him," Mosley said when asked who the leaders will be when he leaves. "He doesn't get a lot of credit, but he's a pretty good linebacker."

Said DePriest: “I’m definitely going to be ready to take on that job. Like I said earlier, I’m going to have to. Him and the other guys leaving like that, it’s going to be something that I have to do.”

The linebacker corps will be young next season. Sam linebacker Adrian Hubbard is off to the NFL and Jack linebacker Xzavier Dickson was suspended for the Sugar Bowl, though Saban said he’ll be back for spring practice. None of the three contenders to replace Mosley at inside linebacker -- Reuben Foster, Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland -- has ever started a game and together they combined for all of 45 tackles last season.

DePriest, more than ever, will be leaned on by the coaching staff. He has had the luxury of working with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart one-on-one in the past as his position coach, but now that responsibility falls to Kevin Steele, who was a defensive coordinator at Clemson (2009-12) before returning to Tuscaloosa last year as director of player personnel.

Maybe a new challenge and a new coach will be just what the doctor ordered for DePriest as he takes on the biggest test of his career at Alabama. As spring practice kicks off on campus this week, look for the senior to look the same but play like a new man.
Editor’s note: This is Part III in a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Alabama this spring.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s not going to be easy, but Cam Robinson is going to do it. The five-star prospect from Louisiana is still wet behind the ears, but that won’t stop him from claiming the left tackle position at Alabama. He'll be replacing another former highly-regarded recruit who played in his first eight games as a freshman before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Cyrus Kouandjio would recover and start 27 consecutive games as a sophomore and junior and is on pace to be taken in the first round of May’s NFL draft.

Whether Robinson develops into that successful an offensive tackle remains to be seen. Rather, today is reserved for the slightly less ambitious question of whether a true freshman can enroll early, beat out some stiff competition and start from Day 1 at a position that is widely considered the most pivotal on the offensive line. Robinson, who cuts an imposing figure at 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, is the best equipped of Alabama’s eight early enrollees to answer with a resounding, “Yes.” And that’s saying something, if you take Nick Saban at his word.

“I’ve been really impressed with the eight freshmen that we have here,” the 62-year-old head coach of the Tide said last week. “I think that it's a huge advantage for them to be here. But they've all sort of done a nice job in the offseason program, are all guys that look like might be guys that can compete to help the team in some kind of way which I think is a real positive for us.”

Robinson gave up his final semester of high school -- prom, graduation, etc. -- to come to Alabama early and compete. It wasn’t a tough decision, he said, because it would give him the leg up he was after.

“I had to think about the long run, how it would benefit me when I get to college,” he told reporters on signing day in early February. “So it wasn't a tough decision at all.”

Coaches have told him he’ll play left tackle, he said, which is obvious when you look at his tape. He might be big, but he’s more than athletic enough to play on the outside. As his ESPN scouting report notes, he has “good initial quicks off the ball, ankle flexibility and the strength to deliver a jarring initial pop.” There are plenty of colorful adjectives one could use to describe the way he hits the second level of the defense.

“Of course I wouldn't mind starting,” Robinson said, “but that's something you have to ask coach about.”

For now, Saban isn’t saying. He wouldn’t put the pressure on a player like that. And Mario Cristobal, who is in charge of the offensive line, isn’t allowed to speak to the media.

That said, Robinson seems like he has humbled himself to the challenge of competing at Alabama. When asked what he needs to work on, his answer was very much to the point.

“Everything,” he said. “I need to work on everything. SEC man, with these defensive linemen, it's crazy. These guys are freak athletes. I'm working on everything I can to just get better overall.”

He’ll have challengers, but none with the upside he possesses. Leon Brown should figure into the competition, along with Brandon Greene and Brandon Hill. Dominick Jackson, who was the No. 1 offensive tackle in junior college last year according to ESPN, wasn’t signed by Alabama to sit and watch. He’ll push Robinson as much as anyone.

But there are already rumblings coming out of Alabama that Robinson will play as a true freshman, and spring practice hasn’t even begun. If his work ethic matches his physical tools, then the job very well could be his.

If that sounds familiar, it should. Kouandjio was talked about much in the same vein prior to his arrival in 2011. Had he enrolled early, he might have done more than play in eight games as a true freshman -- he might have started.

It’s going to be a tall task for Robinson to win the job and start from Day 1. That challenge will begin on Saturday when Alabama opens spring practice in Tuscaloosa. How Robinson fares over those 15 practices will either propel him to a starting role or set him on a course for later development. But given the landscape of things, bet on the more ambitious goal.
Editor’s note: This is Part II in a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Alabama this spring.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Early enrollees get all the love. Because they graduate high school a semester ahead of schedule and arrive on campus in time for spring practice, their development is accelerated. In the case of Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard, we saw what a few months could do. Both became significant contributors as true freshmen, with the latter coming on in a big way in the bowl game.

[+] EnlargeReuben Foster
AP Photo/Rusty CostanzaLinebacker Reuben Foster could become a force in his sophomore season.
Along the way we neglected the rest of the 2013 signing class. A few of its members -- Jonathan Allen and A’Shawn Robinson, for example -- made an impact as true freshmen, but the rest of the late arrivals were largely forgotten, buried on the depth chart or tucked away even deeper on the scout team.

They’re not gone, though. As Alabama marches toward the start of spring practice, watch out for many of the redshirt freshmen and true sophomores who enrolled late in 2013 to take a major step forward on both sides of the football. With fall camp and an entire season of development under their belt, now is the time where we should see their biggest growth spurt in the program.

Here are three such players who could make an impact in 2014:

LB Reuben Foster: Boy, was his recruitment a whirlwind of emotion. It wasn’t really until he arrived in Tuscaloosa that he could finally take a deep breath and relax. Now the former blue-chip linebacker isn’t being questioned about his Auburn tattoo or his flip-flop commitment. That’s all a thing of the past. After playing mostly on special teams as a freshman, appearing in nine games and registering 12 total tackles, he has the chance to break through into the starting rotation. With C.J. Mosley off to the NFL and his inside linebacker spot up for grabs, look for the athletic Foster to compete with the likes of Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland for more playing time in 2014.

WR Robert Foster: The departures of Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell have created movement in the receiver ranks. And while no one is moving Amari Cooper off the top spot, the rest of the rotation is continually in flux. DeAndrew White and Christion Jones should help form the top three, but Alabama routinely needs fourth and fifth options off the bench, which Foster could provide. The former No. 2-ranked wide receiver has the build coaches covet. At 6-foot-3 with good hands and good speed, he’s a potential matchup nightmare for defenses. As new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin attempts to find more playmakers, he could discover one in Foster.

CB Maurice Smith: It’s far too early to count out another former rookie cornerback in Eddie Jackson. Though his playing time went way up then way down and back again in 2013, he still possesses the size and athleticism defensive coaches like Nick Saban and Kirby Smart love. But don’t forget Smith, who started only one game as a true freshman last season and played in all but one contest, unlike Jackson who missed a total of six games. Smith was the highest-rated cornerback Alabama signed last year -- the No. 12 corner in the ESPN 300 -- who didn’t make the trek from his native Texas to Tuscaloosa until the summer. With a full season of preparation and an entire offseason of conditioning, he could make a move at cornerback where both starting positions are up for grabs and no true incumbent is present.

  • Part I: Lane Kiffin provides a jolt
Today we turn our attention to a player who played plenty as a true freshman in 2013, but didn't break out in the way many thought was possible.

TE O.J. Howard
Sophomore
6-foot-6, 237 pounds

[+] EnlargeO.J. Howard
AP Photo/Butch DillO.J. Howard caught 14 passes as a freshman, two for touchdowns.
Credentials: Decorated left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio said it best when he told reporters late last year that Howard was "something special." Kouandjio added, "He’s showing flashes of things that guys who have been here five years can’t do." Howard, who was the No. 2 tight end in the ESPN 300 in 2013, was billed as a player who could do it all. He's big, as a tight end is supposed to be, but he could run and jump like a wide receiver. In his second career game and on the national stage against Texas A&M, he caught three passes for 68 yards. While he technically only started in five games, he made an impact in most all of them, catching 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns on the season. His average yards per catch (19.2) ranked 25th in the country among receivers who made 10 receptions.

How he fits: For all Howard did as a freshman, there's an argument to be made that he was wildly underutilized by former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Granted, he was still learning the offense and figuring out how to block SEC-sized defenders, but Howard was nonetheless a headache for even the best defenses given his size and speed. The typical linebacker is too slow to keep up with him, and the typical defensive back is too small to fight for space. Enter new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who has a history of putting his best weapons on the field at any position. He could easily maneuver Howard from tight end to receiver to H-back, similar to what we've seen in the NFL with players such as the Saints' Jimmy Graham.

Best case/worst case: This is a big year for Howard, and not just because of the opportunities Kiffin might give him. Howard will also have the benefit of breaking in a new quarterback. AJ McCarron was about as good as they come under center, but you know how the saying generally goes: A tight end is an inexperienced quarterback's best friend. Howard has a chance to be that safety blanket and catch a lot of passes from whoever Alabama's next quarterback might be. That said, if Howard doesn't continue progressing as a blocker, he could be seen as a liability and struggle to stay on the field as an every-down player. Don't forget that Brian Vogler is the most established, savvy tight end on the roster. As a rising senior, he'll be hard to keep off the field.

For all the series installments, click here.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With the start of spring practice only a few weeks away, we’re spending this week discussing five players to keep an eye on when Alabama opens camp on March 15.

Because they’re unpredictable, we’ll avoid first-year players such as Cam Robinson. If you want an idea of who could make an instant impact in 2014, we wrote about that shortly after signing day.

Thursday we turn our attention to a player who spent last year learning a new position on defense.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceGeno Smith got in the dog house in 2013 after an offseason arrest, but he could figure in the mix at safety in 2014.
S Geno Smith
Junior
6-foot, 186 pounds

Credentials: The former four-star defensive back had a stellar freshman campaign at cornerback in 2012, playing in 13 games, including a start against his home-state Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC championship. But that momentum ultimately proved short-lived as Smith was arrested during the offseason for driving under the influence, suspended for the season opener against Virginia Tech and then moved to safety where he struggled to break into the rotation, especially early on. He played in all 12 remaining games but didn't start a single contest. However even in garbage time he tied for third on the team in pass breakups (four).

How he fits: Had only Ha Ha Clinton-Dix left early for the NFL, then there might not have been much of an opportunity for Smith to move up the depth chart. Landon Collins might have made do at free safety and Vinnie Sunseri might have remained the starter at strong safety. But Sunseri's surprise decision to enter the draft allows Collins to remain at his natural position of strong safety and clear an opening at free safety that remains up for grabs. Veteran Nick Perry could play there, but he's coming off a season-ending injury and might not be 100 percent. And Jarrick Williams might be an option, but he seems solidly entrenched at the star cornerback position. That leaves Smith as the most experienced option at free, but there's also some other contenders to consider: former professional baseball player Jai Miller and the No. 3 safety in the ESPN 300, Laurence "Hootie" Jones, who arrived on campus in January.

Best case/worst case: Versatility will be Smith's biggest asset when it comes to his competition at free safety. Having been in the system two full years, he knows how it works. And having defensive coordinator Kirby Smart back coaching safeties will certainly help his cause, too. But knowing how to play back in space as a safety as well as how to play tight in man coverage as a corner should be a big chip in his favor. Still, less than a year removed from his DUI arrest you have to wonder whether he's fully emerged from the dog house enough to be considered for a starting position.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban has hosted enough quarterback competitions to know how this oncoming saga will play out. From now until the moment he names a starter under center, the entire state of Alabama will be in a panic over who will become AJ McCarron's successor. The rest of the country will be watching, too.

Is Cooper Bateman really ready to take a step forward after redshirting last season? What about Parker McLeod and Alec Morris? Would Saban dare gamble on the run-oriented Blake Sims? Is it possible that true freshman David Cornwell could get a look? My goodness, what about Jacob Coker?! Isn’t the job really his anyways?!

As Saban sat down with a group of reporters on Wednesday to discuss the start of spring practice and a number of other issues facing his Crimson Tide, he seemed resigned to the oncoming quarterback drama. Asked what he was looking for in the next starter, he listed a number of qualities: the ability to process information quickly, to make good decisions, to throw the ball accurately, to manage the game and make the correct calls.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesIf you think Nick Saban is just going to open up daily about the QB competition, think again.
“Whoever can do that on the most consistent basis and have the kind of leadership to affect the people on offense around them is the guy that will probably have the best possibility to win the job,” Saban explained.

And then came the disclaimer.

“But let me be very clear about this,” he said. “We're not going to be in any hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”

That’s right, folks. Saban and his staff plan on taking their time with this decision. So hold your questions, please. Whatever opinions you have on who should start and why, keep them to yourselves until this is over.

“We're not going to be in any hurry to decide who the quarterback is,” Saban said. “We're going to give everybody a lot of opportunity to compete. You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback, and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 ‘We're going to wait and see.’”

Saban’s been through this before. If you count John Parker Wilson, he’s been a part of naming three starting quarterbacks at Alabama. He did the same at LSU and Michigan State plenty of times before that. And each and every time he’s been content to employ the wait-and-see approach.

When the temperature rises and the competition heats up in the coming months, Tide fans will do well to remember that Saban didn't rush naming McCarron the starter in 2011, and that worked out to the tune of two national championships and a slew of new school passing records.

“When AJ became quarterback him and Phillip Sims actually alternated quarters in the first two games, I think, to see who played the best,” Saban said, drilling the point home now. “And it really was hard on all you guys.

“I think it's important to get it right. ... And we have one candidate in this horse race who's not even going to be here until May, till he graduates where he is now. He's certainly a guy that's going to compete for the position too.”

Ah, Jacob Coker.

Whatever we think we're able to learn this spring will come with the caveat that the primary competition hasn’t even arrived yet. Coker, who will make his transfer from Florida State complete in May if he passes all his remaining classes, is the presumed frontrunner to win the job. He’s not bowing to the pressure that comes with that, but it won’t change the perception around camp this fall that he's the man to beat.

Saban would cringe at such assumptions. But his desire for less talk and more patience will do nothing to change what's sure to develop into a circus-type atmosphere as we inch closer to the start of the season. Between Coker's hype, the other quarterbacks competing and the arrival of Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator, all eyes will be squarely on who's under center in Alabama. Every day a starter isn't named will be a day someone somewhere will talk about who it should be rather than who it actually is.

Just don't look for the competition itself to play itself out publicly. Scrimmages at Alabama are closed to the general public and media. Reporters only see the first few minutes of practice each day, and it's never enough to glean any real information. Getting insight from coaches and players will be next to impossible. None of the quarterbacks are likely to be made available to reporters while the competition is ongoing, and teammates who do speak won't stray from the company line. If you're looking for Kiffin to talk, he'll have his one and only media obligation of the year in early August, and even then he's never been one to show his cards. Which leaves Saban, who won't deviate from his steadfast policy to divulge nothing and speculate on even less.

So trade predictions at the water cooler, shout at the talking heads on television and scream at talk radio all you want. Whatever you do, though, have a little patience. Because whatever soap opera you were hoping for just isn't going to happen. This is The Nick Saban Show and it has very little in the way of drama.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With the start of spring practice only a few weeks away, we’re spending this week discussing five players to keep an eye on when Alabama opens camp on March 15.

Because they’re unpredictable, we’ll avoid first-year players like Cam Robinson. If you want an idea of who could make an instant impact in 2014, we wrote about that shortly after signing day.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDerrick Henry showed what he could do in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries.
So instead, let’s start by taking a look at an athlete who made a splash late last season as a true freshman, creating big expectations for his sophomore campaign.

RB Derrick Henry
Sophomore
6-foot-3, 238 pounds

Credentials: Was he a running back or a linebacker? At 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds -- all muscle, we should add -- it was hard to tell. We hadn’t seen him run the football yet, so for a while he looked like a project. Did he have the necessary speed and elusiveness to get through the holes up front and hit the second level of the defense? And then came the Sugar Bowl. Yes, it took Henry some time to work his way up the food chain at running back, but when he did, he was special. He got around the Oklahoma defense just fine in New Orleans, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries in addition to taking a short pass 43 yards for another score. All told, the former five-star athlete ran for 382 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries as a freshman.

How he fits: And herein lies the rub. Henry, with what he showed against the Sooners, might be more explosive than Alabama’s incumbent starting running back T.J. Yeldon. Given Yeldon’s fumbling woes, many fans are clamoring for Henry to replace him as the lead back. But Alabama has been through this before. Both the Mark Ingram-Trent Richardson and Richardson-Eddie Lacy tandems were balancing acts, and this coming season should be no different. Except that there’s a third back, Kenyan Drake, also begging for carries. Talk about explosion and speed, and you’re talking about Drake, who can take the ball to paydirt any time it touches his hands. One thing is certain: Running backs coach Burton Burns will have a tough time sorting out the depth chart when the season rolls around.

Best case/worst case: We’ve made the mistake of assuming the depth chart order at running back before and have been burned. There’s a case to be made that Henry should start, which would be an intriguing outcome to say the least. But there’s another case, one based on seniority and experience, that could land him third or fourth on the depth chart. You know about Yeldon and Drake, but there’s also the veteran Jalston Fowler and the blue-chip newcomer Bo Scarbrough to consider. Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny are on campus too, remember? The good news for the bevy of Alabama tailbacks is that new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin shouldn’t be constrained by position titles. The former USC head coach is seen as something of an innovator on offense and could move players like Henry, Fowler and Scarbrough around to places like H-back and slot receiver to get them touches.

Offseason spotlight: Alabama

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
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He didn't begin last season as a starter, and injuries ultimately made him flip between positions in the Alabama secondary. But this player will be a fixture for the Crimson Tide in 2014 from Day 1 and will be a key reason whether the defense as a whole will be successful again:

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
AP Photo/Skip MartinLandon Collins will need to be a leader this season for Alabama.
Spotlight: Safety Landon Collins, 6-foot, 215 pounds, junior

2013 summary: It took Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's suspension for Collins to start his first career game at Alabama, and it wasn't even at his natural position. Still, he helped hold up the back end of the defense at free safety until Clinton-Dix's return two games later. And when Vinnie Sunseri was lost for the season against Arkansas, Collins moved comfortably back into his natural spot at strong safety, where he was able to play closer to the line of scrimmage and play with more assertiveness. Despite the moving back and forth, he was a standout on defense with the second-most tackles on the team (70). He also had the most pass breakups (6) and tied for the most interceptions (2).

The skinny: The back end of Alabama's defense had its fair share of troubles in 2013, highlighted by the slew of points and big plays it allowed against Auburn and Oklahoma to end the season. But even before those two deflating losses, Mississippi State's offense had success through the air, as did LSU and Texas A&M. And while the safety position wasn't the most to blame for the Tide's woes on defense -- cornerback was, as Deion Belue battled injuries and the starting spot opposite him was a revolving door -- it will be a focal point in the coming season as both Sunseri and Clinton-Dix have moved on to the NFL. Combined with what could be another shaky set of inexperienced corners in 2014, and the onus falls to a player like Collins to hold up the secondary as a whole. He's never had to be a leader, but this season he'll have to be. Being a talented playmaker won't be enough to make Alabama's defense better. A former five-star recruit, Collins must become an anchor in the mode of Mark Barron, calling out all the plays and making all the necessary checks to get his teammates in the right position to succeed. Luckily for Collins, he'll be attached at the hip with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who will make the transition from coaching inside linebackers to coaching the secondary. And if Smart's tutelage isn't enough, he'll have the head coach, Nick Saban, constantly looking over the secondary as the de facto cornerbacks coach.

Past spotlights:

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