Alabama Crimson Tide: SEC

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. predicts nine players from the SEC will go in the first round in his latest mock draft Insider.

That would be down from the 12 first-round picks the SEC produced a year ago, which tied the record for first-rounders set by the ACC in 2006.

Kiper's No. 1 pick overall is South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney going to the Houston Texans. Six of the first 10 picks in the draft will be SEC players, according to Kiper. He has Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson going No. 2, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel going No. 4, Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans going No. 7, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews going No. 9 and Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix going No. 10.

If all three Texas A&M players end up going in the top 10, it would be the first time that's happened in the SEC since the 2005 draft when Auburn produced three top-10 picks -- running backs Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams and cornerback Carlos Rogers.

Kiper has a total of 17 SEC players going in his first two rounds. He doesn't have Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron going in the top two rounds, but does have LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger going No. 42 overall to the Tennessee Titans.
With all due respect to my esteemed colleague Alex Scarborough, Derrick Henry will eventually end up being the guy at running back for Alabama.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
AP Photo/Butch DillAs a freshman, Alabama tailback Derrick Henry had just 36 rushing attempts. Expect many more in 2014.
And by “eventually,” I mean this fall.

T.J. Yeldon has had a tremendous two-year career with Alabama. He has the stats to back it up, as Alex so thoroughly laid out in his column earlier today, and he was a high-prized recruit coming out of high school. I think he's an excellent player. I even picked him to lead the Crimson Tide in total offense in 2012.

But there's something special about Henry, who broke Ken Hall's 51-year-old national high school rushing record with 12,124 yards, after rushing for 4,261 yards as a senior at Yulee High in Florida in 2012. He somehow finds time to fit size, power, speed and elusiveness in his 6-foot-3, 238-pound frame.

Alex is right when he talks about Yeldon's body of work compared to Henry's. As a freshman last season, Henry only ran for 382 yards (10.6 yards per carry, though) and three touchdowns. He wasn't much of a factor in the running game for most of the season. But remember, he was the team's third-leading rusher during last spring's scrimmages before fracturing his leg in mid-April. He didn't make it back until fall camp, so just imagine if he had more time to work with guys over the summer and more time to adjust his body to the college game.

I'm not saying he would have started last season, but we would have seen more production from him.

And we will this fall. Henry is just too good to keep off of the field, and we saw that during the Tide's loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. He might not have pushed Alabama to a victory inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, but he was easily the best offensive player on the field for Alabama that night. He showed off his sick moves and had 161 total yards of offense and two touchdowns on just nine touches.

He showed off his agility and speed on a smooth, 43-yard touchdown run in third quarter in which he powered his way through both his own and Oklahoma's line and sprinted to the end zone with relative ease. A quarter later, he was at it again with a nifty, 61-yard catch-and-run for another touchdown that put Alabama right back in the game late.

Feel free to watch those videos again because they were pure poetry in motion.

We've barely even scratched the surface with Henry, who is built to grind. I don't want to say he has Godzilla-like strength, but it might not be a stretch. He won't have an issue driving through the trenches before showing off his leg strength and shiftiness to grab even more yards. He's an every-down back who will push his way to more and more carries this fall.

And while I really like what Yeldon can do, he has an almost chronic fumbling issue that actually led to more of Henry in the Sugar Bowl. Do you think Nick Saban is going to allow his bell cow running back be a liability with the football again? Not with a guy like Henry breathing down Yeldon's neck.

This competition is only going to heat up during fall camp, and it's going to make both of them even better. Yeldon is the running back of the present, but Henry is the future, and the future could come sooner than later in Tuscaloosa.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Four touchdowns versus 14.

Three hundred and eighty-two yards versus 1,235.

Thirty-five carries versus 207.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsAlabama tailback T.J. Yeldon wants to improve his acceleration this offseason.
Two 100-yard games versus six.

If it weren’t Derrick Henry, we wouldn’t be making the comparison. His freshman season was promising with 382 rushing yards and four total touchdowns. But if he weren’t Derrick Henry and this wasn’t Alabama, how important would he really be?

It’s not Henry’s fault. He didn’t fuel the hype of his arrival in Tuscaloosa. He never once compared himself to T.J. Yeldon. The fans and the media did that for him.

Thanks to his potential and one breakout game -- not two or three or four to create, you know, a trend -- he went from a project at running back into a contender not only to beat out Yeldon for the starting job, but someone to watch in the Heisman Trophy race. Or so that’s how the story goes. Bovada, a sports gambling website, bought in, giving Henry 28-to-1 odds to hoist the bronze award.

Talk about a runaway hype train. Check your sense of reality at the gate.

Well, consider this your derailment. Or, on a slightly more positive note, consider this an appreciation of all that T.J. Yeldon is as a running back.

Those numbers listed earlier -- 1,235 yards, 14 touchdowns, 207 carries -- they were all Yeldon’s in 2013. In what has become a symptom of the greater Alabama fan, overlooking established starters for the next big thing, Yeldon’s accomplishments were lost in the shuffle. Never mind that he was named first-team All-SEC by the league’s coaches. Never mind that he followed up the best season of a freshman running back in school history by improving his production in every important category. Never mind that he’s only now a junior and could very well make the leap to the NFL after this coming season.

Henry will be around for a while longer. His turn will come. Yeldon’s time is now.

Yeldon’s sophomore campaign was viewed as underwhelming by some ridiculous accounts, even though his 102.9 yards per game trailed only Tre Mason and Jeremy Hill in the SEC. Yeldon was said to be not enough of an explosive tailback, even though his 34 rushes for 10 or more yards ranked 30th nationally, ahead of the likes of Todd Gurley, Devonta Freeman and Duke Johnson.

You think Yeldon didn’t hear all the chatter? He certainly played like he did on Saturday, doing his part to remind fans how only three other running backs in the country will enter the 2014 season with more career rushing yards than his 2,343.

For the second A-Day in his career, Yeldon won the Dixie Howell Award for the game’s most valuable player. In a scrimmage in which he touched the ball just 12 times, he totaled 104 all-purpose yards. He had one touchdown and the longest run of the day -- 36 yards. Meanwhile, Henry accounted for 22 yards rushing on eight carries and -2 yards on one reception. The 73,000-plus fans who came to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday to see Henry cash in on the hype instead saw Yeldon show once again why he’s the starting tailback at Alabama.

“You’ve seen T.J. get the MVP, so you can’t overlook him,” linebacker Reggie Ragland said after the game. “He’s going to do what he needs to do on the field and make plays.”

Yeldon, meanwhile, was his usual understated self. Shy when it comes to speaking with the media, it was his first turn in front of the cameras all spring. And in typical Yeldon fashion, he’d rather let his play do the talking.

When asked whether it was a big deal to win the A-Day MVP, he said, “Not really,” adding that he believed a defensive player would take home the award. When asked about the competition among the running backs, he said it fueled him.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama's Derrick Henry had a breakout game in the Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma with 161 yards and two touchdowns on just nine touches.
“It’s really competitive,” he said. “We’ve got Altee [Tenpenny], Tyren [Jones]. We can all play. We’re all helping each other get better, I think.”

Entering the spring, Yeldon said his mindset was “like trying to take over a game” and despite the incessant talk of his backups, he did just that.

Now, as spring gives way to the offseason, Yeldon’s focus is on getting himself better. He said he wants to get stronger and faster, spending more time in the weight room. One specific area he said he’d like to improve is his acceleration.

A bigger, quicker Yeldon might be the last thing SEC defenses are hoping for. And with Henry coming up the rear, Alabama could have a formidable one-two punch.

But make no mistake who’s first in that scenario.

Henry is surely coming into his own. After simply taking the handoff and running in high school, he’s learning how to do the little things, like pass protection and pass catching.

Just remember that Yeldon already knows how to do all those things and more. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, he could become even more dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield.

Henry will be special in time, but Yeldon is special right now. He might not have the following or the hype of Henry, but he has the thing that matters most of all: production. And until the numbers change, it’s Yeldon first and Henry second.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- A-Day might not have featured the finest quarterback play. It might not have been the introductory moment offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was hoping for, either.

One thing did, however, go over incredibly well for Alabama on Saturday. The defensive line answered this spring’s most hard-to-pin-down question with a resounding yes.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Pettway
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsD.J. Pettway was a big part of Alabama's resurgent pass rush this spring.
Yes, Alabama has excellent depth up front on defense. And, yes, the line seems ready to get after the quarterback more than it has in seasons past. All you had to do was watch Kiffin’s passing game fold under pressure time and time again to see that.

The ultimate point of pride for defensive line coach Bo Davis and his players had to be the first touchdown of the game: Defensive end D.J. Pettway snags a screen pass from Blake Sims, finds the open field and races 29 yards to pay dirt. After holding the offenses scoreless for 45 minutes, it was the defense that found a way to score.

But as much fun as it was to watch a big man rumble into the end zone, what really had the faithful at Bryant-Denny Stadium giddy was Alabama’s resurgent pass rush. We’d heard all spring how Davis had infused enthusiasm and energy into the defensive line. How he was full of energy. How he was asking his players to read less, react more and get after the quarterback. And unlike the unfulfilled promise of Alabama’s quarterbacks, its defensive linemen delivered, to the tune of seven sacks and 19 tackles for loss.

(For comparison sake, Alabama totaled two sacks and five tackles for loss at last year’s spring game.)

Even coach Nick Saban, who fought speculation about the quality of the defensive line early on this spring, had to concede that he had a talented group of players to work with. In fact, he had to widen his praise to most of the defensive front seven.

“We have a lot of experienced players,” Saban said after the White beat Crimson, 17-13, in a game where the score is meaningless, though White was led by the first-team defense. “[D.J.] Pettway and [Jarran] Reed add a lot of depth and athleticism to that group. A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen were both freshman last year, and I always say that you make the most improvement between your freshman and sophomore year. Those guys got to play a lot last year; they’ve both had great springs.

“We had three inside linebackers that I thought played really well. Trey DePriest had a really good spring. Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster [did] as well. We also had three guys that played really well at outside linebacker. Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson, and Dillon Lee, those guys all had really good springs. Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson both contributed and improved.”

Pettway and Williams played so well on A-Day that they were named co-winners of the Dwight Stephenson Lineman of the Game award. Allen, who had six tackles and two sacks, also blocked a field goal.

“From the front seven stand point, I feel a lot further along,” Saban said.

Trey DePriest, Alabama’s leader on defense at middle linebacker, said the defensive line showed at A-Day what it was capable of.

“My defensive line is great,” he said. “They put their hands on guys, they strike them, they push them back and let me and Reggie hit the holes and run.”

Ragland, for his part, agreed -- though it came with a caveat. How good is the defensive line? “You’ll see coming up," he said.

“We still have a lot more to prove. We didn’t get to do half the stunts we wanted to.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch when Alabama takes to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday for A-Day, the finale of spring practice.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherQB Blake Sims has had a good spring and hopes to finish with a strong effort in Alabama's spring game on Saturday.
1. The quarterbacks: No, unfortunately the missing piece in the quarterback puzzle, transfer Jacob Coker, won’t be on the field Saturday. Instead, he’ll be in the stands watching his competition get a head start. And so far the clear leader has been veteran Blake Sims, who has put up some monster numbers in earlier scrimmages. He and Cooper Bateman have separated themselves, but Alec Morris and Parker McLeod will have an opportunity, however limited it may be, to make one final push before the offseason.

2. The Lane Train: We’ve heard that he’s more “player-friendly” and has “simplified” the offense since coming to Tuscaloosa. But the specifics of Lane Kiffin’s transformation of Alabama’s offense still remain to be seen. So while fans shouldn’t expect much more than a vanilla playbook, do pay attention to the formations and how the ball is distributed.

3. A young secondary: The focus of the spring has been primarily on Kiffin and the quarterbacks, and maybe that’s rightfully so. But no one should forget Alabama’s secondary, which faces a large rebuilding task. Starting safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri are gone. So is former starting cornerback Deion Belue and top reserve John Fulton. With the exception of Landon Collins at strong safety, every position in the secondary is up for grabs.

4. Rushing the passer: Defensive line coach Bo Davis has brought energy and a renewed focus on rushing the passer to Alabama this offseason. And with the depth he inherited at the position, he has the tools to get after the quarterback. Promising freshmen A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen are a year wiser, Dalvin Tomlinson is back from injury and D.J. Pettway returns after a year of exile. That’s a good nucleus of pass-rushers, but don’t forget Dee Liner and Tim Williams. Though the quarterbacks will essentially be playing two-hand touch, pay attention to how the down-linemen fire off the snap and get into the backfield.

5. The up-and-comers:

  • Derrick Henry: We all know by now what the former five-star athlete did in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma. But can he follow it up?
  • Tony Brown: With Eddie Jackson out and other injuries at the position, the top-five corner and early enrollee has gotten plenty of repetitions. With a strong close to the spring, he could put himself in position to vie for a starting job in the fall.
  • Cam Robinson: The former No. 1 offensive tackle in the ESPN 300 has come on as of late, challenging for the role of left tackle vacated by Cyrus Kouandjio. There’s no question Robinson fits the build from a physical and talent standpoint. The real question is how he acclimates to college and learns the playbook.
  • Reuben Foster: With C.J. Mosley gone, there’s a vacancy at middle linebacker. Foster, a former four-star recruit, has impressed with his athleticism and ability to deliver the big hits. But can he bring the complete package to the table?

SEC's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
1:00
PM ET
Let them eat a late lunch!
video
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It didn’t take long for the sickening feeling to seep out of Landon Collins’ stomach and circulate through his body.

On the way back to Tuscaloosa after Alabama’s humbling 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the junior safety replayed the nauseating moments from a game in which the Crimson Tide, which entered the contest with the SEC’s top-ranked defense, surrendered 429 yards of offense, nearly 6 yards per play, 348 passing yards and four passing touchdowns.

Collins called the performance by the defense “disgraceful” to Alabama football.

“We weren’t the defense that we always used to be,” Collins told ESPN.com in early April. “That’s what we’re working on this spring.”

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAfter a less-than-stellar performance in its bowl loss to Oklahoma, Landon Collins expects Alabama's defense to play with a chip on its shoulder in 2014.
If Alabama is going to make it back to the national championship, Collins said the defense has to improve. During Alabama’s two-year BCS title run (2011-12), the Tide finished first nationally in total and scoring defense in both seasons. Last season, Alabama finished in the top five in both categories, but that final game serves as a harsh reminder of the defense's flaws.

Associating Alabama’s defense with anything less than elite feels awkward, but that’s all you can say about Bama’s bowl performance. Players were tired and run down against Oklahoma’s hurry-up offense. This spring, Tide defenders saw red, as coaches constantly reminded them of that bowl performance. That led to tougher conditioning routines and more intense player interaction on and off the field, Collins said.

Looking back at the bowl game has been tough for players, but they know that it’s a performance they never want to see again.

“It wasn’t the way we play,” linebacker Trey DePriest said. “We don’t get that many points put up on us. That’s way more than what our goal is -- 13 points or less. It didn’t seem like us. We were ready, we just didn’t go out and leave it on the field like it was our last game. It’s definitely been a driving force.”

But things won’t be easier in 2014, not with a younger defensive look and the loss of leaders -- and producers -- like C.J. Mosley and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Collins and DePriest, picked to replace those two, now head a defense that will be playing angry in 2014 after losing five starters from last season's team.

Can guys like Nick Perry, Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson, A'Shawn Robinson and Jarrick Williams expand their roles? Can some of the youngsters like Tony Brown and Laurence "Hootie" Jones step up? And don't forget about the much-anticipated arrival of defensive end Da'Shawn Hand.

There's no shortage of talent, and this defense might even have a little more athleticism sprinkled around, but we all know talent can only go so far, even with the best teams.

For now, attitudes seem to be flowing in the right direction, DePriest said, but there’s no getting around the fact that this entire defense has to grow up in the coming months to replace some valuable leaders.

“It’s some big shoes to fill, definitely,” Collins said. “A lot of us looked up to those guys. Without that leadership, we have to just step in and take over because we need that on the field constantly, and [we need it] off the field because without that, this program could go in a different direction that it doesn’t need to.”

There’s a certain pride that this defense holds that it lost in that bowl game.

Or was it something that slowly trickled out before the Tide even got to Bourbon Street?

Alabama had holes in its defense all last fall, but found ways of patching them as the season went on. Alabama surrendered a school-record 628 yards in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M, allowed Zach Mettenberger to throw for 241 yards in the win over LSU and watched Auburn rush for 296 yards in that heartbreaking loss on the Plains.

Hundreds of other teams would kill for Alabama’s 2013 defense, but it didn’t live up to the standards this program holds so dear.

For Collins, the secondary is key. While Alabama ranked near the top nationally against the pass, there were times when the secondary surrendered too many big plays. Injuries contributed to some of the secondary’s issues, but the last line of defense never truly looked settled last season.

Collins said the secondary put too much pressure on itself to live up to the enormous preseason hype after back-to-back BCS titles and wasn’t always prepared for games.

“Our downfall was our secondary last year,” Collins said. “We got picked apart because of that.”

“If you watch our film of practice, you can see how hard we work every day. You can tell how hard we’re working to establish our secondary to be dominant again.”

Spring practice can only take a team so far, and Alabama defenders know that. They have that chip, they have that anger, but it’s about carrying that feeling over to the season and performing.

The good thing for the defense is that it has a constant reminder in the bowl game that still fuels this unit.

“That just fires it up, because we know what type of defense we are,” Collins said. “We already know what we are capable of. Just to hear that we got picked apart by an offense that shouldn’t have been on the field with us, that’s a disgrace to Alabama defense. We need to pick it up from that standpoint.”

SEC lunchtime links

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
12:00
PM ET
The tax man cometh ...
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Down 7-3 early in the second quarter against LSU, Alabama’s offense needed a spark. The No. 1 team in the nation was in need of a big play, and it was seldom-used but talented freshman O.J. Howard who delivered.

The 6-foot-6 tight end split out wide before the snap. He ran a deep slant, caught the pass over the middle and outran the entire defense en route to a 52-yard touchdown.

“I saw a seam, so I was like I’m running full speed no matter what,” Howard said, recalling the play from last fall. “Those guys didn’t think I was going to be that fast because I was a tight end, so they were jogging. When they tried to speed up, it was too late.”

[+] EnlargeOJ Howard
RVR Photos/USA TODAY SportsO.J. Howard showed flashes of his immense talent last season. He plans on making even more of an impact this season.
It was the play that highlighted Howard’s freshman year, and if only for a moment, it showed the potential that everybody raved about when the former ESPN 300 star signed with the Crimson Tide in February 2013. That potential was held in check for the most part, though, as he finished the year with just 14 catches for 269 yards and two touchdowns.

Fans blamed the former offensive coordinator for not getting Howard more involved. They pointed fingers at quarterback AJ McCarron who tended to favor the veteran wide receivers on the team. But in the end, it falls back on the freshman.

“Maybe there was some things he didn’t do right,” said O.J.’s father, Kareem Howard. “Maybe he didn’t get open in time. Maybe he was a step off. Maybe he took a step that away and he should’ve went right. That all comes with time and experience, though.”

As Howard enters his second spring with Alabama, there’s a new sense of confidence. He’s no longer scared to make a mistake. He knows what he’s supposed to do, and he knows the expectations that the staff has for him. The stats from the first two scrimmages haven’t been a good reflection, but he believes he’s playing faster this spring.

“Last spring, I came in early,” Howard said. “I was a new guy. I wasn’t playing fast because I didn’t really know what to do yet. Now I know what to do, and when you know what to do, you’re going to play really fast. It makes the game a lot easier.”

Howard recorded three catches for 38 yards in Saturday’s scrimmage, but the key to an expanded role on the team won’t be tracked by how many how catches or yards he has this spring. It’s more about how he improves as a blocker in Alabama’s run-first offense.

“O.J. is a very talented guy,” head coach Nick Saban said. “I think he needs to continue to improve in some areas because he’s a great pass receiver, but we continue to work on trying to improve him as a blocker and get him to pay attention to detail and the importance of that part of the game as well.”

It’s a part of his game that Howard has worked tirelessly at since arriving in Tuscaloosa. In high school, he was typically the one with the ball in his hands, so blocking was foreign to him. It was something he had to learn on the fly once he got to Alabama.

“I knew when I got here I was going to learn to block,” Howard said. “We were a run-first team, so blocking is a big thing here. I knew I was going to block.

“We work on it every day with Coach [Bobby] Williams, so every day I’m getting better at blocking. Brian [Vogler], he’s a really good blocker, so I learn things from him also. He’s teaching me some things, and I’m taking it and running with it.”

With Howard, the potential is there. The whole country saw it last November against LSU. Now it’s about putting it together for a full season.

“He knows he belongs now,” Howard’s father said. “He knows he can compete at that level.”

SEC lunchtime links

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
12:00
PM ET
Plenty going on as spring practices continue in the SEC. We have pro days, coaching talk, players adapting to new positions and even reality TV news in today's lunch links:
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.

SEC's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
12:00
PM ET
Ten of the Top 25 tailgating schools reside in the SEC, including all of the top six. Does this surprise anyone?

SEC's lunch links

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
12:00
PM ET
The SEC has been pumping out internet memes lately. Over the weekend there was Gene Chizik staring down his daughter's prom date. Then during Monday night's basketball national championship game, rapper Drake's many sports allegiances (Kentucky among them) were on display. Oh, and the kid Cats lost to UConn and then acted like they'd never heard of the NBA draft.

Let's swim back into the friendlier waters of SEC football, shall we?

SEC's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
12:00
PM ET
There were 80 fires put out and 21 arrests in Lexington on Saturday night after Kentucky defeated Wisconsin to reach Monday night's college basketball national championship game. Whatever happened to "Act like you've been there before?"
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Score scrimmage No. 1 in favor of Blake Sims.

Yes, he’s something of a work in progress at quarterback. And, yes, it’s fair to say that his skill set doesn’t quite fit what Alabama and coach Nick Saban typically do on offense. But when it came down to proving it on the football field Saturday, Sims did exactly that, completing a team-high 16 of 23 passes for 227 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims has accounted for just 244 passing yards in his Alabama career.
Considering only two touchdowns were thrown during the two-hour scrimmage, that’s saying something. His 70 percent completion percentage, no matter how you slice it, is promising, considering his career average is less than 59 percent.

So maybe, just maybe, we’re seeing Sims mature as a quarterback. He’s still a 6-foot former running back and wide receiver with a sometimes awkward throwing motion, but until he’s officially out of the race to replace AJ McCarron, there’s no counting him out. He’s easily the most experienced option and the most dangerous with the football in his hands.

“There are two plays with Blake: the one they call on offense and then when that one doesn't go right, it's the one he makes with his feet,” senior safety Nick Perry said. “We've seen that in college football and even in the NFL with players like Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel. He's a dangerous player.”

RG3 and Johnny Football, Sims is not. Put simply, he’s a senior hoping that opportunity and maturity converge at the perfect moment.

Alabama coaches know what Sims can do running the football. All told, he’s carried the ball 67 times for 355 yards and two touchdowns in his career. The real question, though, is whether he can stay in the pocket, set his feet and read a defense. He has a history of being erratic throwing the football, but has that improved with time and the added motivation of competition? Saturday’s scrimmage seemed to indicate a move in a positive direction.

Saban didn’t say much about the play of each quarterback, but he did note that Sims has had a “really good spring” and has “taken some command.”

But the job isn’t guaranteed to anyone. Along with Sims, Alec Morris and Cooper Bateman are in the mix.

“Those three guys have sort of emerged as the three guys that look like they’re most ready to play,” Saban said. “Nobody’s disappointed in anybody else. We actually feel like our freshman (David Cornwell), who is coming off of an injury, has a lot of potential. He’s just not 100 percent healthy yet.

“So we’re pleased with the progress those guys have made.”

Sims is clearly doing everything he can to separate himself. Instead of going to the beach and relaxing during spring break last week, he went to Florida and trained with quarterback coach Ken Mastrole.

The two worked on technical aspects like footwork, being on time with the football and reading coverages, Sims said, but it went beyond that. As much as he wants to improve as a passer, he’s hoping to become more of a leader as well.

“[Mastrole] was a quarterback, so he gave me the knowledge of how to pick up your teammates and go at them so you’re not a nagging quarterback,” Sims said. “You’re supposed to be a motivation and keep them positive and keep a great mindset with them.”

In other words, Sims isn’t letting the heat of competition get to him. When asked about soon-to-be Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, Sims said he loved his personality and looked forward to welcoming him "with open arms."

“We're not thinking about the battle against each other,” Sims said. “We're just trying to think of how we can make Bama the best way they can be, and how can we have good communication with the players if we're with the ones or we're with the twos or with the threes. We're just trying to play harder and make each group better.”

Of course, Sims isn’t getting ahead of himself, but admitted, “It’s very fun to see where your ability can take you in life.”

“It would be nice,” said Sims of potentially being named the starter. “It would be nice for me and I think I would like it. Watching AJ do the great thing that he did at the University of Alabama -- if I am the one that’s chosen to be the quarterback at Alabama, I’d like to keep it going.”

He might be the more unorthodox option, but if Sims keeps playing like he did Saturday and continues improving as a passer, he'll have a shot to do just that. The competition won't be decided until the fall, but Sims is off to the right start.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Spring Game Wrap-Up: April 19
Spring games across the country finish up but still leave many unanswered questions for Alabama, Auburn, Texas and USC.Tags: Spring Games, Garry Paskwietz, Alex Scarborough, Max Olson, Greg Ostendorf
VIDEO PLAYLIST video