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As an assistant coach and head coach at Long Beach (Calif.) Poly, Raul Lara has seen more than his share of talented football players. Willie McGinest, DeSean Jackson, Marcedes Lewis, Winston Justice, Jurrell Casey, Manuel Wright, Darnell Bing, Samie Parker, Kareem Kelly and Derrick Jones have all passed through the halls as Jackrabbits during Lara's tenure.

It's probably fitting that in Lara's final season as head coach of the Jackrabbits, he was able to go out with a player who has the potential to turn into the best that Poly has ever produced.

John Smith's game is as diverse and electric as his name isn't. Though, that was taken care of rather quickly, as Smith became JuJu at an early age -- a nickname bestowed upon him by his aunt after John John refused to take.

Now, Smith has accomplished enough at the high school level that JuJu has made its way into the lexicon of virtually every football fan in Southern California. And now college football fans are hoping that JuJu finds his way onto their school's roster this fall. The 6-foot-1, 206-pound athlete is the nation's No. 38 prospect overall and its No. 3 prospect in the athlete category, holding offers from Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oregon, UCLA, USC and just about every school in between.

"JuJu is a special guy," Lara said. "I've coached a lot of guys who are in the NFL now, but he's unique. He's a true athlete. He could play receiver or defensive back. He could play linebacker; he did play running back for me. He played some tight end for me. And everywhere he plays, he excels."

Lara credits Smith's combination of size, speed and football instincts for his ability to succeed at a number of positions. But that success might also stem from a less obvious place.

[+] EnlargeJuJu Smith
Blair Angulo for ESPNElite athleticism and a background in rugby made the transition to safety a seamless one for ESPN 300 prospect John "JuJu" Smith.
Growing up, Smith took part in Pop Warner football, but he also played rugby thanks to his Polynesian background. In fact, rugby -- as well as a strict adherence to church every Sunday -- kept Smith off the camp circuit and 7-on-7 fields in each offseason until he finally made an appearance this past spring following a junior season that established Smith as one of the top prospects in the country.

It wasn't until the fifth game of the season that Smith began taking reps in the defensive backfield. He was stuck behind three future Pac-12 receivers as a sophomore and was contributing only on offense on team that started his junior year 1-3. That's when Lara stepped in to make significant changes on both sides of the ball, not the least of which was letting Smith give safety a shot.

"He fell in love with it," Lara said of Smith playing defense. "It was kind of like rugby, where he could freelance and roam around a lot. He wasn't locked down like at wide receiver, where if he's asked to run a curl, he has to run a curl. At defensive back, as long as he lined up right, he had a lot of freedom. When we made the change and he played it more and more, he fell in love with it. It just naturally suited him because of all the training with rugby."

Smith grew to the point where, though he was recruited for both sides of the ball by virtually every school that offered him, he felt more comfortable at safety and believed that was what suited him best for the long term. Smith was one of the offensive stars in an early season win over Corona (Calif.) Centennial, a significant upset. Smith shone at tailback and even as a Wildcat quarterback, but it was his safety play that stood out to opposing coach Matt Logan.

"He was just so effective defensively against us," said Logan, who became another coach to marvel at Smith's versatility. "I knew he was a great athlete and knew what a great player he was on defense, but I was a little surprised how effective he was on offense and their utilization of him on offense.

"I think he has great potential to maybe reach the NFL because he can play multiple spots. That's what makes him so attractive."

But it's also what Smith does outside the lines that makes him such a prized recruit.

One of seven children -- he has five younger siblings -- Smith took it upon himself to grow up at an early age, chipping in with chores and babysitting duties as well as anything else that would support the family. Smith's teammate, Iman Marshall -- a similarly prized recruit in the 2015 class -- said the added responsibilities at home or pressure of dealing with the recruiting process never sent Smith off course.

"He can be a goofy guy off the field, always cracking jokes and smiling," Marshall said. "His aura is very positive and he knows how to bring a great attitude. I love him as a person... He really separated his football life from his personal life. He understood the balance and kept that away from the team. We really, as a team, didn't get to see him worry about his personal problems."

Marshall said he hopes to emulate much of what Smith shared with the Poly team this season.

"Playing alongside him, I saw how he took on that leadership -- not through words but through actions," Marshall said. "His high motor, playing with a sense of urgency each and every play. That's what I learned from him. He loves the game. I see it every time I line up with him -- I see how passionate he is."

And for the program that lands Smith, who has taken official visits to Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oregon and will visit USC officially on Jan. 17, it will be easy to see where that passion comes from -- provided there are enough tickets to go around at home games.

"His family cheering section runs about 50 people at least -- probably much bigger than that," Lara said of a group that regularly brought #TeamJuJu signs and made themselves heard from opening kick to final snap. "You know they're there because they are loud and cheering a lot. He's got a big family."
National signing day is approaching quickly. With three official visit weekends remaining before Feb. 5, here is a look at a number of prospects who could flip to and/or from SEC schools in the coming weeks.

Florida commit Ermon Lane (Homestead, Fla./Homestead): Lane, No. 28 in the ESPN 300, is scheduled to officially visit national champion Florida State with the Gators fighting hard to keep the uber-talented wide receiver. The flip from Florida to the Seminoles by Dalvin Cook (Miami/Central High), the nation’s No. 20 prospect, makes the chore even tougher for the Gators


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If a program runs a high-concept scheme on defense, cornerback can be the most difficult position to make the leap from high school to college, aside from quarterback of course. Rarely do prospects face a player across from him who is bigger, faster or quicker in high school and they just don’t get challenged very often, which is why it can be very difficult to project the success of cornerbacks in college. Also, many players are not devoted to playing corner fulltime and must become acclimated through reps and experience to maximize their ceiling for production. Here are our top five cornerbacks and a comparable productive player for each at the collegiate level.


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Derrick Henry, Kevin GreeneAP PhotosAlabama RB Derrick Henry and USC QB Max Browne could be breakout stars in 2014.
Catch your breath from the national title game yet? Good, let’s project what’s next. Or put another way, who is next.

As with my 2013 breakout player list, I’ll outline my full look at 2014 breakout stars later in the year, but it’s never too early to get a head start on scouting college football’s next wave of stars.

With that said, here are the top 10 breakout players to keep tabs on through the spring and summer months.


1. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama Crimson Tide

Even with T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake returning, the Sugar Bowl proved that Alabama has to find a place for Henry.

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SEC all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
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Catch your breath yet?

What a bowl season, starting really with Texas A&M's heart-stopping comeback to beat Duke 52-48 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and carrying all the way through the VIZIO BCS National Championship with Florida State's last-minute drive to beat Auburn 34-31.

The SEC finished 7-3 in the postseason, and we're honoring some of the best individual performances with our all-bowl team:

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel's final game at Texas A&M was a memorable one as he threw four TDs and rallied the Aggies from a 21-point deficit.
QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: Yes, Connor Shaw was sensational, too, but Manziel brought the Aggies back from a 21-point halftime deficit. He threw four touchdown passes and ran for another in a memorable farewell for Johnny Football.

RB: Tre Mason, Auburn: Until Florida State's late touchdown drive, it looked as if Mason's 37-yard touchdown run would be what everyone was talking about from the BCS title game. He finished with 195 rushing yards against one of the top defenses in the country.

RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU: LSU fans got a nice surprise this week when reports surfaced that Hill planned to return for his junior season. A few days earlier, he gave them a memorable performance in the Outback Bowl with 216 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

WR: Jameon Lewis, Mississippi State: The Rice secondary had no answers for the speedy Lewis, who finished with nine catches for a school-record 220 yards. He had a 28-yard catch to set up the Bulldogs' first touchdown, a 35-yard catch to set up their second touchdown and a 65-yard catch to set up their fourth touchdown, all in first half.

WR: Bruce Ellington, South Carolina: Ellington is leaving early for the NFL and made some NFL-like catches in his farewell. His one-handed, bobbling catch on the fourth-and-7 play was huge. He finished with six catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns and also threw a touchdown pass.

TE: Arthur Lynch, Georgia: Lynch would love to have that last pass back, but he still hauled in six catches for 69 yards, including receptions to help set up a couple of field goals.

All-purpose: Derrick Henry, Alabama: Get ready to see a lot of Henry next season for the Tide. The freshman running back rushed for 100 yards on eight carries, including a 43-yard touchdown run, and also had a 61-yard touchdown catch.

OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M: As left tackles go, Matthews set the standard this season. He was pretty close to flawless in the bowl game, as the Aggies rolled up 541 total yards in their stirring comeback against Duke.

OL: Greg Robinson, Auburn: The BCS title game turned out to be Robinson's final game for Auburn. The junior left tackle is turning pro and heads to the next level on the heels of the kind of performance that became the norm for him this season.

OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State: The Bulldogs racked up 533 yards of total offense in their 44-7 rout of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, and Jackson was his usual dominant self at left guard.

OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt: The veteran of that Vanderbilt offensive line asserted himself in the fourth quarter when Houston climbed back into it, and the Commodores made a living running behind him.

C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn: There aren't many centers in America better than Dismukes, and he can hold his head high over the way he played against a talented Florida State interior on defense.

DEFENSE

[+] EnlargeDee Ford
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesAuburn's Dee Ford showed why he is one of the nation's best when he recorded two sacks against FSU in the national title game.
DL: Dee Ford, Auburn: Ford had already established himself as one of the top pass-rushers in the SEC this season and then went out and showed it on the biggest stage with two sacks in BCS title game.

DL: D.T. Shackelford, Ole Miss: The Rebels' resilient senior defensive end went out in style with seven total tackles, including a sack, and also had two quarterback hurries.

DL: Kony Ealy, Missouri: Michael Sam received most of the publicity this season for the Tigers, but Ealy was equally productive. He closed out his career with two sacks in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, giving him 9.5 on the season.

DL: Preston Smith, Mississippi State: Smith spearheaded a suffocating defensive effort by the Bulldogs with six total tackles and a quarterback hurry. Rice, after scoring a touchdown on its second possession, was held to 66 total yards the rest of the way.

LB: Serderius Bryant, Ole Miss: Bryant tied for the team lead with eight tackles, including two for loss, and also forced a fumble that led to a safety. The Rebels limited Georgia Tech's option offense to 17 points and 151 rushing yards.

LB: Andrew Wilson, Missouri: The Tigers' senior middle linebacker was everywhere against the Cowboys with 15 total tackles to earn Cotton Bowl Defensive MVP honors.

LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina: Only a freshman, Moore had two interceptions in the Capital One Bowl, the last one coming in the end zone in the fourth quarter with Wisconsin driving.

CB: E.J. Gaines, Missouri: Gaines was one of the most complete cornerbacks in the SEC this season. He capped his career with seven tackles against the Cowboys and an interception at midfield that helped set up a touchdown.

CB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt: Despite playing with a brace on his elbow, Hal led Vanderbilt with nine total tackles, including an interception to seal the game, and also broke up three passes.

S: Craig Loston, LSU: Loston finished with six total tackles, including three for loss. He also had a key interception in the fourth quarter with Iowa threatening on fourth-and-1 at the LSU 16.

S: Toney Hurd, Jr., Texas A&M: Even though Texas A&M was torched on defense, Hurd's 55-yard interception return for a touchdown with 3:33 to play was the decisive blow for the Aggies.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Marshall Morgan, Georgia: Morgan kept the Bulldogs in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl by making all four of his field-goal attempts.

P: Steven Clark, Auburn: Clark kept Florida State pinned deep most of the night with perfectly placed punts that looked like pitching wedges. He dropped five of his six punts inside the 20, including one at the 6, one at the 4 and one at the 2.

RS: Marcus Murphy, Missouri: One of the top return specialists in the conference, Murphy combined for 136 yards on kickoff and punt returns against Oklahoma State. He had a long of 38 yards on a first-quarter punt return.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Maybe Doug Nussmeier needed to go. Maybe it was the right decision to move on to Michigan -- for both he and Alabama. After all, there were signs that his tenure had grown stale. A poor showing in the Sugar Bowl aroused negative attention to the point that his underuse of certain players and his on again, off again relationship with the running game was unavoidable.

[+] EnlargeAlec Morris
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesThe loss of offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to Michigan could stunt the growth of young Alabama QBs such as redshirt freshman Alec Morris.
But while Alabama does indeed have an opportunity to start fresh with a new offensive coordinator, that doesn't come without a price. Because for whatever Nussmeier did poorly, he will be missed by at least one group of individuals: the quarterbacks.

AJ McCarron is heading to the NFL. Alabama's cadre of young quarterbacks will miss him plenty. But they'll miss Nussmeier even more. For freshmen such as Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, Luke Del Rio and Parker McLeod, he was all they knew. He was the one who met with them every day in the film room and helped them on their mechanics. They listened on headsets as Nussmeier called plays in to the sideline and they got used to his voice on the other side of the phone. He was their guy.

"That'll be a really good competition this spring -- really, really excited about our young players on the roster at that position," Nussmeier told reporters of next season's quarterback battle prior to the Sugar Bowl. "With any young quarterback there's a steep learning curve, and for those guys it's about getting snaps every day and continuing to progress, and I like the development that we've seen in those young players. They need to continue to grow. We need to have a really, really good offseason. But I'm very excited about what that competition is going to hold come spring."

Nussmeier was, and still is, known as a teacher of quarterbacks. He played the position himself, toppling school records at Idaho, but he also helped tutor the likes of Jake Locker, Keith Price and Drew Stanton as an assistant coach. He even worked with Marc Bulger when he was with the St. Louis Rams. And when he got a hold of McCarron at Alabama, the relationship was, by all accounts, a special one. The two spoke very fondly of one another and Nussmeier should deserve a tremendous amount of credit for helping McCarron shed the "game manager" title in favor of "Heisman Trophy contender."

Alabama's current crop of quarterbacks no longer have the benefit of Nussmeier's tutelage. David Cornwell, the No. 2-ranked pocket passer in the ESPN 300, won't have the man who convinced him to come to Tuscaloosa any longer. Cornwell will instead begin his journey with the same clean slate as everyone else wearing crimson and white.

How Alabama's quarterback competition plays out this spring and fall is anyone's guess. Blake Sims could wind up winning the job and the idea of throwing the football could become somewhat less important given his propensity to flee the pocket. But if it's one of the youngsters under center, it will take a strong offensive coordinator to help them grow.

Maybe Nussmeier wasn't the right guy to call plays and lead the offense as a whole. Maybe he wasn't the right guy for Alabama to move forward. But very few ever questioned his ability to mold young quarterbacks. And that, without a doubt, will be missed in the coming months.
1. I am willing to give Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich a pass on Bobby Petrino. Jurich hired Petrino at Louisville 11 years ago, the first head coaching position Petrino had at any level. Jurich knows the man and Jurich knows what he is getting into. I don’t think it’s a gamble at all. But here’s the unusual part of the story: how many bosses give a guy his first chance at the big time and, no disrespect to Western Kentucky, his second chance at the big time?

2. Michigan hired away Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, and here’s betting both Nussmeier and Tide head coach Nick Saban were ready to move on. There was talk in Newport Beach over the weekend that former USC coach Lane Kiffin may end up running the Crimson Tide offense. It may be an ideal job for Kiffin -- Saban doesn’t allow his assistants to speak to the media. Whoever it is better know how to convert a fourth down in the red zone. Alabama’s last two losses in the SEC (Texas A&M in ’12, Auburn in ’13) hinged on the failure to do so.

3. Niners offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Penn State must be interested in each other. The university interviewed him Monday even as San Francisco began its preparation for the NFC semifinal Sunday at Carolina. Roman has no connection to Penn State, other than being a Jersey guy, which means he may be able to recruit the neighborhood. Bill O’Brien didn’t have a connection, either, and that worked out well.


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Doug Nussmeier brought unprecedented success to the Alabama offense in his two years as coordinator in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide averaged more than 38 points per contest and succeeded in opened up the passing game to include more big plays down field. AJ McCarron evolved from a "game manager" into a Heisman Trophy contender and added another BCS National Championship ring to his already impressive collection.

But the more immediate memory of Nussmeier is not so rosy. The numbers, however impressive they might be, only serve as a faint silver outline of what turned out to be a disappointing ending, as Alabama's offense failed on the national stage against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. It turned out to be the final game of Nussmeier's tenure, as he's agreed to move north and take the same job at Michigan.

In the Sugar Bowl, the flaws of Nussmeier's scheme were put under a heavy spotlight: the protection broke down, McCarron faltered and three turnovers ultimately doomed the Tide. Alabama's most potent weapons -- guys such as O.J. Howard and Derrick Henry -- were underutilized, and a back-and-forth commitment to the running game turned the offense from dangerously dynamic to utterly predictable.

[+] EnlargeNussmeier
AP Photo/Butch DillDoug Nussmeier's offenses produced numbers, but they started to make Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban feel uneasy over time.
However explosive Alabama was on paper, it was never a team built to score quickly. Without a running game, there was no threat of play-action. Without the threat of play-action, nothing worked. When Alabama fell behind to Oklahoma by two scores, the game was all but over. McCarron became human and the offense hit a wall. And in today's version of college football, where high-octane passing offenses dominate the landscape, that style of play is no longer acceptable.

Alabama coach Nick Saban will have to think of that when he hires his next offensive coordinator, the fourth in his time with the Tide. In fact, he's probably already thought plenty about it.

Over the past year, Saban has dropped a number of not-so-subtle hints that change was coming. No-huddle, up-tempo offenses were something he wanted to explore and even implement, he said.

"It's something we're going to look at. I think we'll have to," Saban told ESPN.com in September. "I think we need to play faster and will have to do more of that going forward."

But who will be the man to make those changes? One name being bandied about is Lane Kiffin. Yes, the same Lane Kiffin who unceremoniously bailed on the SEC when he left Tennessee in 2010 and then was unceremoniously dumped by USC in 2013. He's something of a villainized character in college football, and that's an area where Saban can sympathize. Saban's been called a "devil" himself, so a devil-may-care attitude might be fitting.

The connections between Saban and Kiffin are obvious: both coaches share the same agent (Jimmy Sexton) and both coaches have shared the same meeting room in the past few months. Saban invited Kiffin to Tuscaloosa to help evaluate the offense in mid-December, and Saban had only glowing things to say about Kiffin at the time.

"Lane is a really good offensive coach, and I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for him," Saban said. "Just to come in and brainstorm a little bit to get some professional ideas with our guys is a really positive thing."

Whether that mutual respect will lead to a contract is anyone's guess. There are plenty of high-profile offensive coordinators out there who might be interested in moving to a program so stockpiled with talent that blue-chip prospects overflow from the roster.

If the hurry-up is what Saban's after, a guy such as Clemson's Chad Morris would be a home run. If Saban wants to stick to the run, Stanford's Mike Bloomberg would be a big name to go after. If Saban wants to stick to what he knows, current wide receivers coach Billy Napier and former wide receivers coach Mike Groh could be possibilities.

Whoever Saban chooses will have immediately high expectations. It's championship-or-bust at Alabama, and putting up big numbers isn't always enough to make everyone happy. Just ask Doug Nussmeier.

Doug Nussmeier to be Michigan OC

January, 8, 2014
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[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeAs offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Doug Nussmeier helped Alabama to the national title during the first of his two seasons with the Tide.

Michigan will hire Doug Nussmeier as offensive coordinator to replace the fired Al Borges, a source told ESPN's Joe Schad.

Nussmeier has spent the past two seasons as Alabama's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Nick Saban. The Wolverines will make Nussmeier, 43, one of the five highest-paid coordinators in the nation, a source told CBSSports.com.

Michigan fired Borges earlier Wednesday after three seasons with the team.

"Decisions like these are never easy," coach Brady Hoke said in a news release. "I have a great amount of respect for Al as a football coach and, more importantly, as a person."

Nussmeier helped Alabama and quarterback AJ McCarron to the national title in his first season, which saw the Crimson Tide set records for offensive touchdowns, passing touchdowns, points and total offense. This season, the Tide finished 11-2 (7-1 SEC) with a loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. They were 49th overall in the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing yards per game, 25th in rushing yards and 18th in points.


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Future is bright for SEC in 2014

January, 8, 2014
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Carrying the baton of seven straight BCS national championships is a heavy burden, as the Auburn Tigers can surely attest. They were just seconds away from making it eight in a row.

For all its flaws, the BCS was very good to the SEC. But the new year brings a new postseason format -- the four-team playoff. It, too, should be very good to the SEC, which is still the dominant conference in college football by a good margin.

Let's take a look at what's to come in 2014:

1. Top storylines

Ted Miller explains the new playoff format as part of his forecast for the season. Will the SEC be on top once again?
The preseason question in 2013 was whether college football would head into the four-team playoff with the SEC riding a streak of eight consecutive national titles. The preseason question in 2014 will be whether the four-team playoff quickly returns the dominant conference to the top of the college football.

Heck, even before that question is answered, folks will be curious to see how many SEC teams end up in the playoff. One seems a certainly. Two almost likely. And three is now possible as there is no representational limit per conference, as there was with BCS bowl games. The way things are going in the SEC, we could see a replay of the Iron Bowl as a semifinal or even the national title game.
2. Players to watch

The SEC will have a huge void to fill with the departures of mainstays like Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Jadeveon Clowney, Zach Mettenberger and Connor Shaw.

Adam Rittenberg takes a look at some players to watch in 2014, including Georgia's Todd Gurley, who might be the best running back in a league full of great ones, and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who made first-team All-SEC as a true freshman. A couple of fast-rising SEC stars made the list of sleepers, too -- Alabama RB Derrick Henry, who had a coming-out party at the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, and Ole Miss DL Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 overall prospect from the Class of 2013.

One thing is certain in the SEC -- every year talented players leave for the bright lights of the NFL, and every year talented players emerge to take their places.

3. Bold predictions

Mark Schlabach is back with more sooth-saying. Let's give the man credit for saying Auburn would be the most improved team in the nation in 2013.

Among his predictions for 2014: An SEC team will not win the national championship, Henry will be college football's next superstar, James Franklin will leave Vanderbilt to coach Penn State, and Florida will go to a bowl game after a 9-3 season that saves Will Muschamp's job.
AJ McCarron let Derrick Henry know that he would be the safety valve. Less than seven minutes remained in the fourth quarter of this year's Allstate Sugar Bowl, with No. 3 Alabama trailing No. 11 Oklahoma 38-24, and McCarron was prepared to put a critical second-and-8 on the shoulders of a freshman who had just 28 touches on the season before the game.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAlabama RB Derrick Henry had a breakout performance in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Could it be a sign of things to come in 2014?
Smart move.

With Henry, one of the top overall prospects in the 2013 recruiting class, shifting out to the right flat just after the ball was snapped, McCarron looked down field before quickly checking down to Henry. Henry made a nifty move on an Oklahoma linebacker toward the middle of the field before sliding by another defender and sprinting to pay dirt. After stepping through another failed tackle attempt, Henry was gone for a 61-yard touchdown that brought the Crimson Tide within one score of the Sooners.

"I just saw the hole," Henry said with a laugh. "I went out there and read what I was supposed to read, [did] my assignment and hit the hole. ... He threw it to me and I just had to make a play."

Henry's play was one that will be burned into Alabama fans' minds for a while, and the thought of his future with the Tide could help ease the pain of the eventual 45-31 loss to Oklahoma. But before Henry was off to the races with a play that appeared to bring Alabama back into such a back-and-forth game, he was making plays that had many wondering why he wasn't on the field more throughout the season.

The living, breathing, truck of a frosh started wowing folks with his speed, agility and strength early in the third quarter of the Sugar Bowl when he took a carry and barreled through the middle of both lines, shaking a tackle and then cutting to the right side of the field before winning a footrace with Oklahoma's defense for a 43-yard touchdown run that cut OU's lead to 31-24.

After that -- and a previous T.J. Yeldon fumble -- Henry was Alabama's primary back from then on in the game, carrying the ball eight times on the night for a game-high 100 yards and a touchdown. Henry looked like the record-breaking high school baller who garnered attention from just about every major university before signing with Alabama. He cut, steamrolled and shot himself out of a cannon with his runs.

It was possibly a glimpse into a very bright future for both Henry and Alabama.

"I was ready. The whole season I've been waiting," said Henry, who finished the 2013 season with 382 yards, three touchdowns and 36 carries in nine games of work. "Since I started, I was sixth string and I've just been improving the whole season and I just worked my way up. I thank God for it and thank these coaches for believing in me."

The question now is whether Henry or Yeldon will be the main back going forward. Yeldon has put in two solid years of work with the Tide, but his fumbling issues have always been a drain. Henry passed backup Kenyan Drake, who rushed for 694 yards and eight touchdowns on the season, during bowl prep and could have the upper hand on him again heading into spring.

Regardless, Henry showed why he was such a special high school prospect and why his coaches and teammates were raving about him before he fractured his leg during spring practice. Henry will get plenty of opportunities going forward, and could be one of the big breakout players to keep an eye on in 2014.

"I'm just ready to get to work, become a better student of the game, become a better running back by working on my cuts, bursting and being more physical so I can be a complete back," Henry said.
Want to ask ESPN RecruitingNation senior analyst Tom Luginbill a question about your team? Tweet it to @TomLuginbill using the hashtag #AskLoogs.

Quite honestly, unreal. He was having a great week. To see a kid work that hard, have that much pride and competiveness and not be able to play was a real shame. There were a few names that everyone was talking about, from Jabrill Peppers to Myles Garrett, etc., and Brown was one of them. To me, the best thing about Brown is that he is always trying to improve and prove his worth, even when he doesn’t need to. He is always seeking out the best guy to match up against because he wants to be tested. He has no red flags. He always has a smile on his face, and as far as cornerbacks go, there are very few prospects we have seen the last six or eight classes who physically compare to him. In fact, physically, Peppers and he are very similar. I can’t yet reveal where he will end up in the final set of rankings, but I can venture a bet he will be in the top 10 overall when all is said and done. I would expect him to play early not just because he is talented enough, but because he is mature enough.

Can Alabama be a top-5 team?

January, 8, 2014
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Only Alabama could end one season with back-to-back losses and begin the next as a favorite to play for the national championship. But such is the empire that coach Nick Saban has built in Tuscaloosa: through recruiting, through coaching, through sheer determination, through "The Process."

The two losses were heartbreaking. One took the Tide's breath away. The other took the Tide's heart. Rebounding from that devastating punch combination won't be easy.

But given how the season ended and who won't be back for the 2014 reboot, does Alabama deserve to be No. 2 in Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25? Let's take a look and see if it makes sense.

The case for

Yes, AJ McCarron is leaving for the NFL. So is C.J. Mosley. And several underclassmen could follow their lead as well.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama loses plenty of experience and talent from its 2013 team, but potential stars such as Derrick Henry are waiting for their chance.
But Alabama has a precocious commodity right now: Stability. Saban didn't bolt for Texas, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier didn't get the job at Washington and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart hasn't seen his name bandied about in coaching circles as much as in years past. While there's a lot of time left for such moves to be made, right now the entire staff looks to be back for next season.

Beyond the coordinators and assistants, Saban's "process" remains in place, and that should be the biggest boon for Tide fans heading into an offseason wrought with question marks. Saban's way of doing things -- recruiting the best talent in the country, coaching 'em up and sticking to certain fundamentals on both sides of the ball -- has worked awfully well the past five years. As I've caught many around Tuscaloosa saying of late, "Three out of five ain't bad."

The quarterback position will be critical this spring and fall camp, but there won't be a lack of talent surrounding whoever wins the job. Alabama is stacked at receiver, with a healthy Amari Cooper leading the charge. O.J. Howard looks like a difference maker at tight end. And then there's the matter of T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and the rest of the running backs.

Talent, on both sides of the ball, is reason enough for having Alabama ranked so highly.

The case against

Try ignoring the loss of McCarron all you want, but it's unavoidable. And, yes, the same could be said for Mosley.

Really, they're the same player in a lot of ways, one quarterbacking the offense and the other quarterbacking the defense. Both won multiple championships, both were unquestioned leaders and both were NFL talents.

But beyond the personnel on the field and beyond the coaching staff is a fundamental concern for Alabama. The question is one that was unthinkable in the recent past: Is Saban's "process" being passed by?

It's probably too early to say, but the evidence is growing. You can call Auburn's Iron Bowl victory a fluke, but how the Tigers got so close -- running all over the defense, forcing Saban into questionable calls -- was no accident. The same can be said of Oklahoma as the Sooners gashed the defense and pressured the quarterback. Even in defeat, Mississippi State and Texas A&M made Alabama look bad at times.

Going back to the drawing board won't be easy, but it's worth a try. With a new quarterback, even the offense has a chance to change for the better.

But with so much change and so many questions to be answered, does Alabama deserve to be looked at as the No. 2 team in the country next year?

Maybe not now, but maybe later. And that's what the offseason is for.

  • Click here to view the full Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25.
  • Click here Insider to see how all of the schools in the Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25 are faring in recruiting for the Class of 2014.

SEC's lunch links

January, 8, 2014
Jan 8
12:00
PM ET
It's Johnny Manziel's big day! Will he or won't he leave Texas A&M to go to the NFL? Start biting those fingernails now.

Most important targets: SEC 

January, 8, 2014
Jan 8
9:30
AM ET
The Southeastern Conference already has commitments from five of the top 10 players in the country and a real possibility of landing two more before signing day. With several key targets still remaining, here’s a look at the top remaining targets in the SEC.

Alabama
CB Marlon Humphrey (Hoover, Ala./Hoover)
6-foot, 180 pounds
ESPN 300 rank: 9

Humphrey is a big, athletic cornerback with great size. He would be a natural fit in Nick Saban's system. Florida State is also very much in the picture for the five-star defensive back, and with a national championship in hand, the Seminoles might have the upper hand at the moment. Alabama will have to fight to keep this dynamic defensive back from leaving the state. With his skill set, Humphrey would have a chance to play early on in his career.


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