Alabama Crimson Tide: A'Shawn Robinson

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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.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At first, Nick Saban scoffed at the idea of his defensive line having good depth. After a lecture on the merits of perception, he said he wasn’t at all happy with the group. Alabama might appear loaded, but the veteran head coach wasn’t interested in how his defensive line appeared.

“I’m not satisfied with the way any of them are playing, if you want to know the truth about it,” he told reporters on March 31.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Ivory, Jonathan Allen
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith a new coach, Brandon Ivory (left), Jonathan Allen and the rest of Alabama's defensive line are focused on improving their pass-rushing abilities.
And then people actually listened.

“I’ve been getting asked that everywhere I go, like we’ve got a bad defensive line,” he said a week and a half later. “We don’t have a bad defensive line. They’re doing fine.”

So which is it? The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

“They're improving,” Saban said following Saturday’s scrimmage. “But we're still not striking up front, playing as physical, converting pass rush, getting the kind of execution that we need, doing the little things right, especially when we're doing stunts and pressures.

“So I like the way they're working and they made improvement, but I think there's certainly a lot more that we can look for.”

While Saban’s feelings toward the defensive line have wavered throughout the spring, the players themselves appear largely pleased with their progress. They have a new coach (Bo Davis), new teammates (D.J. Pettway, Jarran Reed) and a new mandate (rush the passer).

Losing former defensive line coach Chris Rumph to Texas hurt initially, said sophomore defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson. “It was a shock to hear,” he said. But then he got to experience the energy and enthusiasm Davis brings.

“He’s a pretty fired-up guy on the field,” Tomlinson said, describing Davis as being more hands on as well. “He makes us be aggressive out there.”

Veteran nose guard Brandon Ivory agreed: “Davis is pushing us to the limit. ... He brings a lot of energy. He’s always fired up, hyped. I say that’s a good thing to have.”

The hope for Davis is that a renewed sense of energy translates into production. Last season Alabama ranked a paltry 81st nationally in sacks (22) and tied for 94th in tackles for loss per game (5.3). This season Davis is asking his players to read less and react more. In other words, he wants them to play fast.

“Last year we didn’t get enough sacks across the defensive line, we didn’t feel like,” Tomlinson said. “So this year our main focus is getting to the quarterback. So we’re trying to be more aggressive off the ball and more explosive.”

Ivory isn’t the pass-rushing prototype at 300-plus pounds, but he’s seen the linemen around him change into a group that’s better equipped to chase down the quarterback.

“We’ve got guys that are pretty good at rushing the passer like D.J. Pettway, Jonathan Allen, more smaller guys and quicker who can get after the quarterback more,” Ivory explained.

Maybe more so than in years past, Alabama has the “quick-twitch” defensive linemen Saban covets. Pettway and Allen certainly fit that mold. So do Tomlinson, Dee Liner and incoming freshman Da'Shawn Hand, a five-star prospect from Virginia. Even 320-pounder A'Shawn Robinson will be an asset in the pass-rushing department. He finished first on the team in sacks (5.5) as a true freshman last season.

But don’t run down the roster with Saban. Don’t tell him what the defensive line looks like on paper.

Maybe listen to the players themselves, however.

“We’ve been having our ups and downs,” Tomlinson said, “but throughout the spring I think we’re going to come together as a defensive line and be a great defensive line all the way across the front.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It started out innocently enough as Alabama coach Nick Saban ribbed the media on Monday about returning from spring break. He acted surprised when one reporter said she didn't take the time off, noting sarcastically how, "You really appreciate them when you work hard."

The jab was obvious as he gave a sly look around the room as if to say that hard work was a foreign concept to the press. One writer quipped, "Why are you looking down here?"

A smirk from Saban: "I don't know. I'm wondering."

The playful mood lasted a hiccup longer and then it was back to business as Saban said how his players were starting to worry too much about the depth chart, followed by a news flash: “We really don’t have a depth chart.”

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsFighting expectations and speculation during spring practice is nothing new to Nick Saban.
Later on came the question that really set him off.

Saban can talk about X’s and O's all day. The problem is there’s hardly anything concrete about spring practice. There’s no game film, no stat book, no players of the week. Without a depth chart, there’s only who’s getting better and who’s getting worse. And without results, that’s a matter of opinion.

But Saban isn’t fond of conjecture. He’s even less fond of appearances, apparently.

“What does appear mean?” Saban said, responding to a question about the perceived depth of his defensive line. “It just means you’ve dreamed about it and it’s there?”

A quick clarification before he fired back: “What it looks like on paper? We’ve never seen these guys play or seen them take on an SEC lineman. But it appears.”

He continued, putting a point on the matter: “That’s how we form public opinion because something appears to be that way and everyone believes it.”

Such was a sneak peek into the mind of Saban. There’s no room in there for what could be. There’s a standard he’s trying to uphold and anything that takes him away from that -- say, speculation -- isn’t tolerated.

It’s an odd conundrum to have a program that loathes appearances while at the same time being such an object of speculation. It’s like a celebrity shunning the paparazzi. You want to avoid them but they’re always there.

Alabama is nonetheless wrought with pressure from the outside. Inside the bubble of the football offices it’s all business, but everywhere around there’s immense expectations and boundless conjecture about wins, losses, championships and future stars.

Saban might claim to not have a depth chart, but every day is a constant battle for fans to determine who the starters will be on a team that loses two starting offensive linemen, two veteran receivers, two high-profile linebackers and three key contributors in the secondary. Oh, and there’s also the small matter of AJ McCarron leaving a vacancy at starting quarterback -- just don’t ask Saban about that race because he’ll tell you to hold your horses and be patient.

Take for instance the question about the defensive line. Saban might not see his group in a good light today, but when you look at the depth Alabama has up front on defense, it’s scary. A’Shawn Robinson was one of the most impressive rookies in the SEC last season. He’s joined by Jonathan Allen, another true freshman who was promising off the bench. Brandon Ivory is back at nose guard, Darren Lake returns as his backup and there are a number of options to bring in the rotation around them. Dalvin Tomlinson, when healthy, has the potential to be a game changer. And we haven’t even mentioned the return of former Freshman All-SEC choice D.J. Pettway and the eventual arrival of five-star Da’Shawn Hand.

List those names all you want, just don’t expect Saban to sing their praise. It’s simply not his way to buy into the hype.

“I’m not satisfied with the way any of them are playing, if you want to know the truth about it," Saban said of his D-line. "They’ve got to be more aggressive, physical, play with better leverage, hold the point better, rush the passer better. I didn’t think that last year was one of our best years up front, and even though we have a couple new players competing and Dalvin Tomlinson back, I think all of them have a ways to go. A’Shawn Robinson has a lot of ability, but I think we need to get him in shape and he’s got to play with better focus and intensity down in and down out to be more consistent.

"So defensively we have a ways to go to improve to get back to the level and our standard of what we like to play here.”

Though sometimes it feels like Saban is constantly fighting with reporters, he’s not. The speculation extends far beyond the walls of the media room and the pages of newspapers. It’s all the talk that drives Saban nuts because it has a way of reaching his players, inflating their egos long before they’ve earned their stripes. Remember Saban’s comment about the depth chart? That came unsolicited, a direct shot at his team one floor below in the locker room.

What Saban is fighting is the standard. While others are taking time off, he’s busy worrying about the next move, not the next question about how things appear.

How it looks on paper? He’d rather see how it looks with his eyes, and then he’ll get back to you.

SEC's next wave of star players

March, 18, 2014
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For the most part, we have an idea who the top returning players are in the SEC for next season.

There are 11 players back who earned first- or second-team All-SEC honors last season from the coaches, including six first-team selections: Auburn center Reese Dismukes, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon, Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt. The second-team selections returning are Mississippi State tight end Malcolm Johnson, LSU offensive tackle La'el Collins, South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers and Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins.

Picking the next wave of All-SEC players can be tricky, and it's certainly not a given that all these players returning will be repeat selections.

So what we've done is go through and pick the 10 players most likely to emerge as All-SEC players next season, and the caveat is that they can't have previously earned postseason all-conference honors from either the coaches or Associated Press (first or second team). That rules out a few other players not listed above such as Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., Kentucky defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Alabama safety Landon Collins.

Here's our next wave of SEC stars, listed alphabetically:

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner / Icon SMIChris Jones showed his big-play potential as a freshman at Mississippi State.
Caleb Azubike, OLB, Vanderbilt, Jr.: Look out for the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Azubike coming off the edge in Derek Mason's new 3-4 defense. Azubike tied for the team lead last season with 9.5 tackles for loss.

A.J. Cann, OG, South Carolina, Sr.: The anchor of what should be the best offensive line in the SEC, Cann enters the 2014 season as perhaps the top guard in the league.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama, So.: Just go back and turn on the tape from the Sugar Bowl. Henry is going to be a beast and is in great shape after what's been a terrific offseason for him thus far.

Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State, So.: The league is full of good, young defensive linemen, and the 6-5, 300-pound Jones is right there near the top. He's a force at both tackle and end.

Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn, So.: The Tigers will miss Dee Ford and his pressure off the edge, but the 6-2, 261-pound Lawson is the next star in the making on the Plains.

Curt Maggitt, OLB, Tennessee, Jr.: You might have forgotten about Maggitt after he missed last season because of injuries, but he's healthy again and will be used in several different roles for the Vols.

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia, Jr.: Injuries are the only thing that have kept Mitchell from being one of the top playmakers in this league. If he can stay healthy, he'll put up huge numbers in 2014.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss, So.: The top high school player in the country a year ago, Nkemdiche will move inside and has the size, power and athleticism to be dominant.

Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: He started his career at guard, moved to right tackle last season and is now in line to be the Aggies' third straight star left tackle as he takes over for Jake Matthews.

A'Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama, So.: The team leader with 5.5 sacks last season as a freshman, Robinson has a chance to be the best defensive lineman the Tide have produced under Nick Saban.

A few others to watch:
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 five-star offensive tackle Cameron Robinson. If you want an idea of who could make an instant impact in 2014, we wrote about that shortly after signing day.

On Monday we wrote about sophomore running back Derrick Henry, and today we're focusing on another second-year player -- this time on defense.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Ivory, Jonathan Allen
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJonathan Allen (right) has a chance to make a big impact for the Crimson Tide in 2014.
DE Jonathan Allen
Sophomore
6-foot-3, 264 pounds

Credentials: There are places on the football field where a freshman can make an immediate impact and not necessarily raise an eyebrow. But most of those positions that allow for inexperience come on offense where a player can force the action rather than react to it. And in Nick Saban's defense, getting on the field early is a chore. Some cornerbacks have done it, and even a few linebackers. But playing from Day 1 as a true freshman defensive lineman is rare. Last season Alabama had two such rookies, one who already looks like a contributor for years to come in A'Shawn Robinson, and another who took a little more time to mature and fits a more pure pass-rusher's mold. Allen, the former four-star prospect from Virginia, played all but one game last season, racking up three tackles for loss and a half a sack. While those numbers won't blow you away (Robinson had eight tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks), Allen did show promise by getting on the field and playing well enough to stay there throughout the season as a freshman.

How he fits: Considering that Ed Stinson graduated and Jeoffrey Pagan declared for the NFL draft a year ahead of time, there's an opportunity for Allen to insert himself into the starting lineup in 2014. Clearly Allen did a good job of grasping the defense to stay on the field so much as a rookie -- one that didn't enroll early, no less. But he'll have to do more than hold his own as a sophomore. Allen was brought to Alabama to provide more of what Saban calls "quick-twitch" defenders. In other words, someone who has the speed and athleticism to chase the quarterback and play in space in a league that's increasingly gone more toward mobile quarterbacks and hurry-up, no-huddle offenses. Early on in Allen's ESPN recruiting scouting report it states that he "displays very nice first-step quickness and can be a quick penetrator." To beat out the competition and develop into an All-SEC defensive linemen, Allen will have to use those tools and get in the quarterback's face more in 2014.

Best case/worst case: It's easy to see Allen and Robinson forming a good nucleus on the defensive line for years to come. Both possess the skills to flourish in the new pass-happy SEC. Allen has the size, speed and athleticism to become the kind of edge rusher the Tide has been missing of late. But nothing is guaranteed. Not in Tuscaloosa where Saban and his staff are stockpiling defensive linemen who fit the very same billing as Allen. Dalvin Tomlinson, for instance, is the kind of athlete who won state wrestling titles and played soccer in high school. After back-to-back leg surgeries, he'll return this spring, hopefully at 100 percent. D.J. Pettway, Korren Kirven and Dakota Ball are a few other veterans Saban could turn to. And if experience isn't a factor, there's Dee Liner, a former four-star prospect coming off a redshirt season, and Da'Shawn Hand, who was one of 15 five-star prospects in this year's ESPN 300. Allen has something of a head start and all of them by playing so much in 2013, but he'll have plenty of competition on his hands this spring if he does want to develop into a full-time starter.

Room to improve: Defensive line

February, 20, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is Part IV in a weeklong series looking at Alabama’s top five position groups with room to improve.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With a new position coach, maybe it’s time for new expectations. Alabama’s defensive line always has been solid, but when was the last time it was impressive? When was the last time it created the type of pressure that routinely moved quarterbacks off their spot and into bad situations?

Bo Davis’ return to Tuscaloosa as defensive line coach represents an opportunity for Alabama. With starters Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson off to the NFL, there’s room for both a shakeup in personnel and philosophy.

Granted, Nick Saban is never going to be the type of head coach who chases sacks, or any stat for that matter, but there’s no doubt Alabama could stand to get better at rushing the passer up front.

With more hurry-up offenses and mobile quarterbacks taking over in the SEC and college football, simply getting in the face of the passer won't do it anymore -- the ball is out too quickly or the quarterback will too often scramble out of pressure.

[+] EnlargeA'Shawn Robinson
AP Photo/Butch DillA'Shawn Robinson made an immediate impact as a freshman.
Davis, though, has more than a passing familiarity with uptempo offenses and speedy quarterbacks. After three seasons in the pass-happy Big 12, he understands the demands of pressuring the quarterback in today’s game.

Battling for No. 1: Based on last season, the writing might already be on the wall for who replaces Pagan and Stinson in the starting lineup. Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake should continue to hold down at nose guard, and the way true freshman A’Shawn Robinson played, leading the team with 5.5 sacks, he’s a lock to start. At 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds with surprising athleticism, he’s the kind of “quick-twitch” down lineman Saban has been looking for. The same can be said of fellow rookie Jonathan Allen, who played in all but one game last season. His 16 tackles and half a sack won’t knock your socks off, but considering he played so much as a true freshman without the benefit of spring practice, it’s nonetheless impressive.

Strength in numbers: The return of D.J. Pettway from junior college could push the presumptive starters, however. You’ll recall that Pettway was a Freshman All-SEC selection in 2012 and only left the team after being arrested in an on-campus altercation. Should he remain out of trouble and regain the confidence of coaches on the field, he could make an immediate impact. He’ll be joined by a handful of solid reserves: Dalvin Tomlinson, Dee Liner, Korren Kirven and Dakota Ball. Tomlinson is an intriguing prospect; coaches and players have raved about his potential, but knee injuries in successive years have forced him out of the lineup.

New on the scene: Alabama won’t be hurting for depth as it welcomes in four defensive linemen, not counting Pettway. Junior college transfer Jarran Reed is one to watch. At 6-4 and 315 pounds, he could compete for time at nose guard. Four-star prospects O.J. Smith, Johnny Dwight and Joshua Frazier are big bodies who could fill roles as interior linemen. And don’t forget the most high-profile recruit of them all: Da'Shawn Hand. The five-star defensive end from Virginia is a physical marvel at 6-4 and 262 pounds with a sub-5.0 40-yard dash. He could easily trim down and play outside linebacker, but coaches will get a better look when he enrolls this summer.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- As impressive as Alabama’s 2014 recruiting class was, the fact remains that most of the Tide’s 27 signees will not make significant contributions Year 1 in the program. It never fails. Landon Collins, a former No. 1 safety in his class, spent his entire rookie season playing special teams and learning the system. Adrian Hubbard, a former top-five defensive end in his class, had to physically mature and add weight before he could play on Saturdays.

This past year’s signing class had 20 four- or five-star prospects, and only a handful of them saw the field in any meaningful capacity as true freshmen.

It’s not an easy transition from high school senior to college freshman. Doing so while studying a playbook and earning the trust of a coaching staff is an even more difficult mountain to climb.

Still, as true as it is that most will fail in their goal to play right away, there are always a few who do meet that lofty ambition. Reuben Foster, Robert Foster and Dee Liner never made much of an impact as true freshmen in 2013, but their counterparts A’Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and O.J. Howard did. Derrick Henry took some time to develop, but eventually he emerged as one of the most talented young running backs in the SEC.


So who will be the ones from the 2014 signing class to step up and make an impact as rookies? Not counting the four transfers, let’s take a look at five possible candidates:

CB Tony Brown: The five-star prospect and two-sport star didn’t start his college career the way you’d like with an early arrest for failure to obey. But the hope for Nick Saban and his staff is that Brown has learned his lesson and will be better off for it. If he has, he could develop into a starter at cornerback. Deion Belue is gone and the carousel of starters opposite him isn’t the most inspiring bunch. Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith could still develop as sophomores, but they’re not a sure thing. Enter Brown, who has the size (6-0, 196 pounds) and athleticism (4.35 second 40-yard dash) to play right away. Match that with a muscular frame and some of the best feet in the country, and no one should be counting him out of the race this spring.

[+] EnlargeDa'Shawn Hand
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIDa'Shawn Hand could specialize in rushing the passer as a freshman.
DE/LB Da’Shawn Hand: Saban has said it over and over again the past few months: He needs more athletic pass-rushers -- “quick-twitch,” he calls them -- to combat the rising tide of mobile quarterbacks and hurry-up no-huddle offenses in college football. Hand, who is something of a tweener prospect as a defensive end/linebacker, perfectly fits that bill. He’s got the size (6-4, 262 pounds) to put his hand in the dirt and take on offensive linemen, but he also has the speed and quickness (4.95 second 40-yard dash) to get off the edge and track down the quarterback. Alabama could easily ask him to come on the field for third downs and do nothing but rush the passer as a freshman. And with his raw skill and natural instincts, he might be able to make it work.

CB Marlon Humphrey: The fact that Humphrey isn’t an early enrollee, was beaten to campus by Brown and still has a legitimate chance to work his way into the cornerback rotation speaks to the limited amount of depth Alabama has at the position. Humphrey is as athletic as they come, sporting the same two-sport credentials as Brown. But the five-star corner from nearby Hoover is also one of the most sound athletes in terms of technique in the country. That will help him when he makes it to campus and comes under the watchful eye of Saban, who is the defacto cornerbacks coach in addition to being the head coach. For Humphrey and Brown, the biggest obstacle will be picking up the playbook in a timely fashion.

OT Cameron Robinson: There are so many similarities between Robinson and former Alabama left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio: both were the No. 1 prospects at their position, both were five-star athletes, both came to Alabama from out of state. And last but not least: Both signed on with expectations to start from Day 1. It’s not easy to play as a true freshman on the offensive line, but Kouandjio showed you could do it, starting eight games in 2011 before injuring his knee. Robinson has those same traits to challenge for playing time as a true freshman. At 6-5 and 330 pounds with plenty of athleticism, he’s the complete package.

K J.K. Scott: Didn’t expect to see a specialist on this list, did you? Scott may not jump off the page as a prospect, but he nonetheless has an opportunity to come in and play right away. With senior Cody Mandell gone, the door is open for the Colorado native to take his place as the team’s punter.
We at the SEC Blog have spent the last two weeks ranking the top 25 players in the conference, beginning with Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines and wrapping up with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

There were a few Alabama players among the countdown -- four to be exact -- but that wasn’t enough. Here’s a look at the top 10 performers on the Crimson Tide this past season.

[+] Enlarge T.J. Yeldon
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY T.J. Yeldon was the top tailback on an Alabama roster full of talented backs.
1. C.J. Mosley, LB: He was arguably the most talented player on the team, the complete package. He was fast, strong and as sure a tackler as they come. In fact, he was the first player in the Nick Saban era at Alabama to register 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. And on top of that, he became a leader, transforming from a soft-spoken linebacker to the vocal center of the defense.

2. AJ McCarron, QB: What more can you say about McCarron’s career in crimson? Sure, he didn’t look so hot at the Sugar Bowl, but don’t let that cloud his accomplishments. He became the first Alabama quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards, and in the process he set more school records for career passing yards, career completion percentage and career wins. Even with a poor close to his senior season (see: Auburn, Oklahoma and even Mississippi State), McCarron finished 11th nationally in Adjusted QBR.

3. T.J. Yeldon, RB: Like McCarron, don’t judge Yeldon on one bad game. His fumble against Oklahoma sure stands out, but don’t forget his accomplishments throughout the course of the regular season. There’s not much more you could have asked him to do. His 1,279 yards and 14 touchdowns on 207 carries were both improvements over his stellar freshman campaign. Yes, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry appeared to be the more explosive tailbacks on the roster, but Yeldon was no slouch as his 34 rushes of 10 yards or longer ranked 30th nationally.

4. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S: The secondary was not a shining light of achievement for Alabama this past season. The cornerback situation was murky at best, and when Vinnie Sunseri was injured at safety, some air went out of the balloon. But Clinton-Dix, despite missing two games himself, had no such letdown. He was one of the most talented defensive backs in the country with the kind of football instincts to match his exceptional athleticism.

5. Kevin Norwood, WR: Norwood wasn’t there all the time, but he was there every time he was needed. The self-described “possession receiver” didn’t wow anyone with his athleticism or home-run ability, racking up just 38 receptions for 568 yards in 2013, but he made the most of every catch. If it was a critical moment in a critical game (see: Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi State or Auburn), Norwood came through.

6. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT: The junior left tackle endured his fair share of ups and downs this past season, but regardless of the low points (again, the Sugar Bowl) he was one of the most talented offensive linemen in the country. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound former five-star recruit was the anchor of the Alabama offensive line in 2013, protecting McCarron’s blind side to the tune of only 17 sacks, down from 23 the season before.

7. Christion Jones, WR/PR/KR: When Jones went back to field a punt, you didn’t know what was going to happen; you just knew it would be interesting. Though he did make some questionable decisions with the ball at times, he also hit a few shots, most notably against Virginia Tech, when he returned both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. All told, he returned three kicks for touchdowns and was named SEC Player of the Year on special teams, in addition to finishing third on the team with 27 receptions for 368 yards and four touchdowns.

8. Landon Collins, S: He came on late when Clinton-Dix missed time, filling in at free safety. Then Sunseri went down and he started at strong safety. In both spots, Collins flourished. The talented sophomore finished second on the team in tackless (70), first in passes defended (8) and tied for first in interceptions (2).

9. Anthony Steen, RG: No player was more consistent on the offensive line than Steen, who wound up starting in his final three seasons on campus. He was a candidate for the Outland Trophy. He blocked for a 100-yard rusher more than 25 times in his Alabama career.

10. A’Shawn Robinson, DL: Rarely do freshmen start on the defensive line, but Robinson is a rarity. He doesn’t even look like a freshman. If his 6-4, 320-pound frame doesn’t make you question his age, his jet black beard might lead you to believe he’s closer to 30 years old. But Robinson was more than big and scary; he was productive. He wound up leading the Tide with 5.5 sacks and finished second with eight tackles for loss.

The next five: wide receiver Amari Cooper, punter Cody Mandell, linebacker Adrian Hubbard, tight end O.J. Howard and cornerback Deion Belue.
Editor's note: This is Part IV in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The body of evidence is compelling. Alabama, after years of defensive dominance, has a problem with the hurry-up, no-huddle offense.

Da'Shawn Hand
Scott Fink for ESPNThe addition of athletic defensive linemen like Da'Shawn Hand could be the difference for the Tide's defense against spread teams.
Nick Saban can't avoid it any longer. After an offseason spent agonizing over offenses like Texas A&M's, he and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart came up empty. Alabama gave up the most yards in school history to Texas A&M this past season and followed that up with a poor performance against Auburn in the Iron Bowl and a disastrous showing against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

It's time to change. Or at least make significant tweaks.

Alabama's defense won't be the same next season. Three-quarters of the secondary will be gone and more than half of the front seven will be out the door as well. Greg Brown won't be coaching the secondary and Chris Rumph won't be coaching the defensive line any longer. That kind of large-scale turnover can be viewed as a negative or a positive. The silver lining for Saban is that he has a chance to start fresh.

"If you continue to do what you have been doing, you will continue to get the same results," Saban told the audience at the annual American Football Coaches Association conference in Indianapolis this week.

Continuing to get outflanked by the spread, outmatched by mobile quarterbacks and outwitted by uptempo offenses can't be the answer. Saban's defense has a strong track record, but adjustments must be made for success in the long term. There's simply too much football knowledge among Alabama's coaches to not adapt and overcome.

"All you're trying to do is get lined up [on defense]," Saban said of facing uptempo offenses in late September. "You can't play specialty third-down stuff. You can't hardly scheme anything. The most important thing is to get the call so the guys can get lined up, and it's got to be a simple call. The offense kind of knows what you're doing."

Corralling new-age offenses is a big task, one that no coach in college football has really mastered. But for Alabama's dynasty to be revived in 2014, tackling those kinds of scheme must happen. Teams like Texas A&M and Auburn aren't going away. Nick Marshall will be back under center for the Tigers next season, Ole Miss will continue to push the tempo under coach Hugh Freeze and even Mississippi State will look to beat the Tide with a spread offense and an athletic quarterback in Dak Prescott. West Virginia has run the spread for years, Tennessee's Butch Jones runs a version of it and even Florida coach Will Muschamp says the Gators are going that way too.

While the spread, uptempo offenses were a unique challenge a few years ago, next season they'll be more of the norm with at least seven of Alabama's 12 scheduled opponents featuring some form of the increasingly popular scheme.

Getting more athletic up front on defense seems to be a significant part of the answer for Alabama. With true freshmen like A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen emerging as dangerous pass-rushers, that's a good place to start. The return of D.J. Pettway should help, as should the eventual arrival of five-star commitment Da'Shawn Hand.

Matching athleticism with athleticism will go a long way, but the staff will have to do more to confront its most glaring weakness. Trey DePriest will have to take on a more influential leadership role with C.J. Molsey gone, and the back end of the defense will need to improve as well.

One offseason wasn't enough to solve the hurry-up no-huddle conundrum. The hope for Alabama fans is that with one more offseason to prepare, a few more staff changes and some better personnel, the problem won't be so pronounced.
Editor's note: This is Part III in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With so many big-picture items on Alabama's to-do list this offseason, it's no wonder we're seeing a shakeup on the coaching staff. Lane Kiffin is the most buzz-worthy new hire with a big job to accomplish, but he's not alone. Bo Davis, who is set to become the Crimson Tide's new defensive line coach, has another important issue to tackle: generate a more consistent pass rush.

But he won't be alone. Head coach Nick Saban, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and linebackers coach Lance Thompson all must work together to find a way to get to the quarterback more often.

[+] EnlargeA'Shawn Robinson
AP Photo/Butch DillFreshman A'Shawn Robinson led the Tide in sacks with 5.5.
Whatever you do, though, don't mention sacks as a statistic in making an argument to this coaching staff. Saban notoriously loathes the idea that sacks are a measure of a good defense. But even he would concede that the pressure Alabama brought on quarterbacks in 2013 wasn't enough. Alabama's total number of hurries, knockdowns and sacks have risen steadily over the past three season (48 in 2011, 53 in 2012 and 79 in 2013, according to ESPN Stats and Information), but with more and more mobile quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel and Nick Marshall, simply getting in the face of the passer won't do it -- they'll too often scramble and find a way to pick up yards with their feet or their arm.

Enter Davis, who has more than a passing familiarity with uptempo offenses and speedy quarterbacks. After three seasons in the pass-happy Big 12 at Texas, he is well acquainted with the demands of pressuring the quarterback. His Longhorns registered 100 sacks to the Tide's 87 over that time.

Losing a talented pass-rusher like Adrian Hubbard to the NFL draft hurts, but Alabama isn't without options. And unlike in years past, the heat may come from the down linemen more than the linebackers. With young up-and-comers A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen emerging at defensive end, Alabama is well equipped to get after the quarterback.

Robinson was one of the most impressive freshmen in all of the SEC this past season. Teammates joked that he looked 30 years old when he first enrolled, but opponents weren't laughing. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound true freshman wound up leading Alabama with 5.5 sacks, finished second with eight tackles for loss and tied for third with four quarterback hurries.

"I wondered where his whistle was because he looks like a coach," Smart said of Robinson prior to the Sugar Bowl. "He's about a 28-looking-year-old dude. When we recruited him, we always thought he was going to be a special player, big size, speed guy, what you wanted athletically, didn't know how developed he would be technically on the field. He was a real raw talented guy. He's come a long way and he still has a long way to go. But he's a talented young man. He's worked his tail off this year to contribute, especially mentally picking up the defense early on.

Allen, meanwhile, made the most of fewer snaps. The former four-star recruit from Virginia had half a sack and three tackles for loss as a true freshman. Though his numbers weren't eye-popping, he showed excellent athleticism while on the field, especially late in the season.

"We don't have as much depth on the defensive line that we always had," Smart said. "Without him and Jonathan Allen we would have had a hard time this year getting through at the D-line position."

With Dakota Ball and Dalvin Tomlinson back from injury and Dee Liner no longer sporting a redshirt, Alabama should have the numbers next season to rotate in fresh legs on the defensive line. Throw in the return of former SEC All-Freshman D.J. Pettway and incoming true freshman Da'Shawn Hand, and all the parts are there.

Whether that translates into a better pass rush, and, yes, more sacks, is anyone's guess. With Davis back and the needs of defenses changing, the hope for Alabama fans is that the answer is in the affirmative.
Trey DePriest cut the list of possible departures by one when he announced that he would return for his senior season. But the list was, according to Alabama coach Nick Saban, already in the double digits as Alabama's notoriously tight-lipped head coach said before the Sugar Bowl that as many as 10 players were interested in their NFL futures and would look into receiving a draft projection from the league's advisory board.

In what's become an annual rite of the new year, Alabama is staring down a future without many of its underclassman stars. The deadline to declare for the NFL draft is Jan. 15, and decisions from players could come soon now that Saban is no longer in Pasadena, Calif., for the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

How the Tide's own title aspirations look depend heavily on what happens with the draft-eligible underclassmen. As Saban said, "It will affect our team next year." There are some players who seem likely to bolt and others who could use another year of seasoning. Here's a breakdown of who they are, how they're trending and what their return or departure means for Alabama moving forward.

S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillAlabama could use Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's talents and experience next season.
Trending: On to the NFL
What his return would mean: If he returns, the narrative of Alabama's secondary being a liability could change drastically. With Landon Collins and Vinnie Sunseri, the Tide would have three very solid safeties, allowing Saban to move parts around and make the most of the nickel corner position. Clinton-Dix would be the anchor to the whole scheme at free safety.
What his departure would mean: Given how high his draft stock is right now, it's hard to imagine he comes back for his senior season as ESPN's Scouts Inc. has him as the No. 18 prospect overall, a solid first-round pick. So look for Sunseri to return at strong safety and Collins to slide back over to free safety, where he started a few games this season. Nick Perry, who missed the final 10 games of the season with an injury, will return to provide depth.

LB Trey DePriest
Trending: Staying put
What his return would mean: It's a big boost for Alabama, given the departure of senior inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. DePriest will immediately become the leader of the defense in 2014, making the calls and adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Even though his junior season wasn't what some expected in terms of production, DePriest is still an NFL talent with the size and speed to provide support in the running game and drop back in pass coverage.
What his departure would mean: Had he left, Alabama would have been in dire straits. Replacing Mosley would have been hard enough, but removing the two most experienced and talented defenders on the team would have been a huge loss for Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Underclassmen such as Dillon Lee and Ryan Anderson have shown promise, but both could use another season removed from the spotlight DePriest will inhabit.

LB Adrian Hubbard
Trending: On to the NFL
What his return would mean: We've seen plenty of flashes of talent from Hubbard. In each of the past two seasons he's turned it on late and helped provide a pass rush that had been lacking. Maybe one more year under Saban will be what it takes to establish that consistency from Week 1.
What his departure would mean: Along those same lines, Hubbard has peaked at the right time in each of the last two seasons. And don't think the NFL hasn't noticed. He had to make an announcement last year that he would come back as a junior, but will he do the same again and return for his redshirt senior season? After graduating, there's a chance he moves on, clearing the way for someone like Lee or Tim Williams.

LT Cyrus Kouandjio
Trending: Staying put
[+] EnlargeCyrus Kouandjio
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsCyrus Kouandjio had a tough Sugar Bowl, and that might affect his draft status.
What his return would mean: Dealing with one loss out of five is much easier than tending to two. Such would be the case for Alabama if Kouandjio returns. Offensive line coach Mario Cristobal would be able to focus on replacing senior guard Anthony Steen and re-establishing the chemistry the line found in the second half of the season but lost late in a poor performance against Oklahoma.
What his departure would mean: You can't play that poorly on a national stage and not get noticed. Kouandjio looked like a sure thing to bolt for the NFL draft before the Sugar Bowl. But after getting beaten badly by the Sooners -- Eric Striker beat with him a speed rush that led to three sacks -- it looks like Kouandjio might need another year of seasoning. With brother Arie returning for his senior season, that might be enough to keep Cyrus in crimson. If he does go, look for blue-chip prospect Cam Robinson to try his best to start right away.

DE Jeoffrey Pagan
Trending: Staying put
What his return would mean: Because of his size (6-foot-4, 290 pounds) and quickness in the trenches, Pagan certainly looks like a solid NFL prospect. But is he good enough to turn pro early? It doesn't seem like it. With just two sacks and three tackles for loss this season, the production just isn't there. Should he return, he'll be someone the staff can build around, much as it did in 2012 when Damion Square was able to play both end and tackle in the 3-4.
What his departure would mean: It wouldn't be devastating to see Pagan go, but it would be a big loss in leadership. Youngsters such as A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen are blossoming on the defensive line, but Pagan is a proven commodity, especially against the run. Alabama might improve in the pass-rush department as more athletic ends emerge, but that's a short-sighted way of thinking.

Maybe the loss at Auburn was a warning shot. Or was it the narrow victory at Texas A&M? Possibly the lackluster performances against Colorado State and Mississippi State?

Whenever the signs came that Alabama wasn't all it was cracked up to be, very few, if anyone, saw it coming. But looking back, maybe it all makes sense.

Alabama wasn't the best team in the country Wednesday night. It wasn't even the best team in the Superdome.

The narrative that Alabama would come out in the Sugar Bowl and prove again that it was worthy of being thought of as No. 1 ultimately proved misguided and downright untrue. The team's every flaw was exposed. Every one of Alabama's weaknesses was exploited.

This time there was no kicker to blame. This time it couldn't be chalked up to Lady Luck.

The only championship-caliber team in New Orleans was the one that entered the game a 14-point underdog. And if the way you end a season says anything about how you'll start the next, then Oklahoma should begin next season ranked ahead of Alabama by a mile.

The Sooners' future is undeniably promising. But the Tide's future is now best described as a series of question marks.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron lost in his last two starts for Alabama and didn't look like himself in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
AJ McCarron looked nothing like himself Thursday night, throwing multiple interceptions in a game for just the third time in his career. It was a terrible way for him to leave things at Alabama -- one week a Heisman Trophy finalist, the next a scapegoat. But what's worse is that no one knows who will take over for him in the spring. Will it be the mobile quarterback Blake Sims? The soon-to-be redshirt sophomore Alec Morris? What about the three freshmen: Cooper Bateman, Luke Del Rio and Parker McLeod?

What Alabama wouldn't give to have someone with a future as bright as Oklahoma's Trevor Knight. The last quarterback to improve that much in New Orleans was McCarron in early 2012.

But the problems ahead are much deeper than who's under center. It goes even deeper than who will protect him. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio looks like he needs another year to develop, and even if he returns, Alabama will have to replace veteran right guard Anthony Steen. Leon Brown played OK in his stead, but the chemistry of the entire line was way off. Simply put, you can't give up seven sacks and expect to win many games.

Alabama's defense has to go back to the drawing board, too. All of it.

It's not just the secondary that was atrocious. The big plays speak for themselves, but two true freshmen were on the field at cornerback at one point against Oklahoma. Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson will get better with time. Maybe Cyrus Jones or Bradley Sylve will emerge. Vinnie Sunseri will return at safety to provide some needed leadership and Landon Collins will mature alongside him.

The front seven needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and find a way to help the back end of the defense. There were times where Alabama put pressure on Knight, but rarely did it finish the play. Saban might not think sacks are important, but having just one is pretty glaring. Freshmen defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen have shown promise. It's time to let them loose. If Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall aren't bringing the heat at outside linebacker, someone needs to.

Like McCarron, C.J. Mosley did everything he could to end his career on a high note. But Alabama's back-to-back All-American linebacker couldn't do it all on his own, even though there were times this season where it looked like he could. Trey DePriest, his heir apparent, will now have to shoulder that heavy burden. As Saban attempts to solve the riddle of no-huddle and spread offenses, DePriest will be his centerpiece.

In fact, the entire coaching staff has questions to answer. Yes, even Saban.

Saban and Kirby Smart have seen their defense get exposed one too many times by more developed offenses such as Oklahoma and Auburn. When the pace has picked up, Alabama has been left behind. When quarterbacks have been able to escape the pocket, Alabama has been left holding the bag. Giving up 822 yards in the final two games should be a wake-up call for the entire staff to rethink the way it answers offenses on both fronts.

And don't think that offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier isn't in the same boat. He can no longer afford to leave weapons such as Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard hanging on the shelf. He can't abandon the run and expect his quarterback to save him. Balance always has been preached at Alabama, but it's not always been practiced, and that has to change. The Tide needs an offense that can make up a double-digit deficit in a hurry because the one it's trotted out the last few years has never been capable of that.

But even with all that, don't expect Saban to abandon his process. Wholesale changes aren't likely. Multiple times after the game, Saban said how his is a proven formula. He's focusing instead on how the loss was more of a signal to recommit to it. And maybe he's right.

From afar, the Sugar Bowl has the look of an outlier in a mountain of evidence supporting Saban's way of doing things. But this season showed some of the cracks in its foundation, cracks that could grow into more devastating gaps with time and pressure.

Oklahoma wasn't the only one to expose Alabama. Auburn was the first team to beat the Tide, and Texas A&M, Mississippi State and even Colorado State delivered blows of their own, even in defeat. With each flaw they revealed, a blueprint emerged: Pressure the quarterback, try for turnovers, push the tempo.

At the end of it all, the truth was obvious: Alabama not only wasn't the best team in the country this season, it has a lot of work to do moving forward to regain that title.

SEC All-Freshman team

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
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Every SEC team has representation on the SEC All-Freshman team, which was released on Thursday.

The team was selected by the league's coaches, and coaches could not vote for players on their own team. Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina led the way with four players each on the squad. Here it is in its entirety:

Offense:
TE:
Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Andrew Jelks, Vanderbilt
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
C: Jon Toth, Kentucky
WR: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
WR: Marquez North, Tennessee
QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: Alex Collins, Arkansas
RB: Kelvin Taylor, Florida
AP: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

Defense:
DL:
Chris Jones, Mississippi State
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina
DB: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
DB: Tony Conner, Ole Miss
DB: Tre'Davious White, LSU
DB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee

Special teams:
PK:
Elliott Fry, South Carolina
P: Johnny Townsend, Florida
RS: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

What we learned: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
11/24/13
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here's a look at three lessons learned in Alabama's 49-0 win over Chattanooga on Saturday afternoon.

Starting off slowly: There's something about the first quarter that Alabama's offense doesn't like. Even against inferior competition, the Tide struggle to score points early. We saw it against Mississippi State last week and we saw it again with Chattanooga on Saturday. All told, Alabama has scored 13 points in the first quarter of its last three games. Thankfully for AJ McCarron and the offense, their defense has come ready to play, shutting out opponents over the same period of time.

Future starter?: Cyrus Jones could have started. So could have Eddie Jackson. John Fulton would have been the sentimental pick to start at cornerback opposite Deion Belue on senior day. But in the end it was true freshman Maurice Smith trotting out to start at cornerback in the first series against Chattanooga. He played well, too, keeping the Mocs receivers in check and failing to draw a penalty. Whether he'll start moving forward this season is unknown, but Saturday's game may wind up being looked back on this offseason when fans and prognosticators analyze Alabama's cornerback situation in 2014.

Special teams: We've written at length about Alabama's offense and defense, so now seems like a good time to point out just how good the special teams have been. The forgotten unit has more than held its own this season. Cody Mandell has been one of the best punters in the nation, Cade Foster has been more than reliable kicking field goals and the coverage teams have kept the field position battle in Alabama's favor. But the big difference this year is the number of big plays out of the special teamers. Christion Jones returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown against Chattanooga, his third touchdown returning kicks this year, and A'Shawn Robinson later blocked a field goal attempt, setting up another score. All told, Alabama has seven non-offensive touchdowns this season, the most since 2008.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There hasn't been much of a letdown in production from Alabama's defense compared to seasons past. The top-ranked Crimson Tide is still among the top-10 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game, passing yards allowed per game, third down conversions, first downs allowed and total defense. It's given up the fewest touchdowns (12) and the fewest points per game (10.2) in all of college football.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban likes the way his Alabama defense has been rushing the passer this season.
One could nitpick and note its lack of a premiere cornerback or a true vocal leader, and he or she wouldn't be wrong. Deion Belue is good, but he's not a shutdown corner like Dee Milliner and Dre Kirkpatrick. And while C.J. Mosley is no doubt the leader of the defense at linebacker, he'd be the first to admit he's the kind to lead through actions and not words, unlike, say, Nico Johnson of a year ago or Dont'a Hightower before him.

But whatever the defense's minor flaws this season, there is one area that's gone under the radar where Alabama has actually improved from years past: rushing the passer. Through 11 games, the Tide has pressured the quarterback 26.1 percent of the time, compared to 22.5 percent in 2012 and 23.8 percent in 2011. UA leads the SEC in pressure percentage, which ESPN Stats and Info calculates as hurries plus knockdowns, divided by total dropbacks.

"I think we're making some improvement there," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of rushing the passer following last Saturday's 20-7 win at Mississippi State. "I think it's going to be critical we can do that in the future."

Alabama dialed up the pressure on Mississippi State, especially in the second half. A'Shawn Robinson, the Tide's standout freshman defensive lineman, had another sack against the Bulldogs, his fifth of the season. Denzel Devall (3), Adrian Hubbard (2) and Ed Stinson (1.5) trail Robinson for the team lead.

The weekend before against LSU, Alabama tackled quarterback Zach Mettenberger for no gain and then sacked him three straight times to end the game.

But if you follow Saban, you know he's not overly concerned with sacks. They have nothing to do with winning, he says, nothing at all. Rather, he wants to "affect the quarterback" where they're throwing the ball off balance and before they're ready, which can results in a much more beneficial stat: turnovers.

So in terms of a stat Saban would care more about -- hurries plus knockdowns, but excluding sacks -- hybrid linebacker/defensive end Xzavier Dickson holds the lead with 13, trailed by Hubbard (12), Robinson (12), Stinson (9) and Devall (6), according to ESPN Stats and Info.

However you define pressure, Alabama's defense is getting it at an impressive pace, and it will need to continue to do so in two weeks against No. 6 Auburn.

Not only do the Tigers lead the SEC in rushing, they have allowed the third fewest sacks in the league and the 10th fewest tackles for loss in the country.

Auburn doesn't throw the ball much, but the hope for Alabama is that it will be in quarterback Nick Marshall's face when he does. It won't be easy, but whether it's a sack or a pressure, the Tide needs to continue to get in the backfield and disrupt.

But however the Iron Bowl goes, expect Alabama's defense to continue its upward trend of affecting the quarterback in the coming seasons. Robinson is just a freshman, and we haven't yet seen the progression of his fellow rookies Jonathan Allen, Dee Liner and Tim Williams. If Dalvin Tomlinson can come back from injury, he's another guy who can rush the passer. And with last weekend's commitment of Da'Shawn Hand, the No. 2 defensive end prospect in the ESPN 300, even more help is on the way.

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