Alabama Crimson Tide: Barrett Jones

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Nick Saban was introduced as the head football coach at Alabama on Jan. 4, 2007, he mentioned recruiting some 10 times. Building the program from the ground up, Saban told reporters at the news conference that, “First of all, you got to have good players. You got to recruit well.”

And ever since, Alabama has been the pre-eminent recruiting powerhouse in college football. Saban’s first signing class wasn’t spectacular -- he had only weeks to work with -- but from 2008 on, he’s never had a group of signees that didn’t rank among the top three in the country, according to ESPN.

On Feb. 5, Saban and his staff wrapped up their third consecutive No. 1-ranked recruiting class, signing one-third of all five-star prospects and 19 ESPN 300 recruits. Depending on how it plays out, the 27-man class could go down as the best in Alabama history.

But that’s a matter for another day. This week, we’re counting down the three most impactful recruiting classes of Saban’s tenure at Alabama, not including the Tide’s most recent class.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Chris Graythen/Getty Images2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram was part of a 2008 class that helped make Alabama a top destination for high school recruits.
No. 2 on our list wasn’t the highest ranked class in Alabama history. It wasn’t even the No. 1- or 2-ranked class in the country that year. But to Saban, the 2008 signing class remains the most special.

“They had great team success here, won a national championship and came here when this was not the sexy place to be,” Saban said. “We were 7-6. So I guess that class is the one that’s closest to my heart because those guys bought in when they just believed that we were going to be able to be successful and they could make a great contribution to helping us be successful.”

The stars: Alabama wasn’t “sexy” in 2008. But it was about to be. By signing players such as Courtney Upshaw, Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, Barrett Jones, Marcell Dareus and Mark Barron, Saban brought the sizzle back to Tuscaloosa. Julio Jones was, by far, the star of the class as ESPN’s No. 2 overall player. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound athletic dynamo became an All-American receiver and first-round NFL draft pick with the Tide.

The contributors: Robert Lester was supposed to be the throw-in to land the commitment of Julio Jones. But the forgotten high school teammate developed into a three-year starter at safety for Alabama and even had significant playing time with the Carolina Panthers as a rookie in the NFL this past season. In addition to Lester, Michael Williams was a longtime starter at tight end and Damion Square was an unheralded anchor on the defensive line that won the national championship in 2011 and 2012.

The letdowns: Tyler Love, all 6-foot-7 and 280 pounds of him, had all the earmarks of a future NFL offensive tackle. But the top-50 prospect never panned out at Alabama, leaving the program in 2010 without ever breaking into the starting lineup. Love wasn’t the only miss, though, as uber-athlete Burton Scott transferred to South Alabama after appearing in just 15 games and heralded quarterback Star Jackson left for Georgia State after playing in five games as a redshirt freshman in 2009.

The results: More than 10 players from Alabama’s 2008 signing class went on to careers in the NFL. Four such signees were taken in the first round. But the lasting impact of the class, as noted by Saban earlier in this post, was the precedent they set. By choosing Alabama before the championships and before the nationwide fame, the class laid the foundation for years to come. Without the likes of Julio Jones and Ingram, Alabama might not have the reputation it has today. Saban needed to start with a bang in the 2008 class, and he did just that.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama coach Nick Saban had plenty to be proud about with the signing class he assembled last Wednesday. It was talented, deep and met every need the Crimson Tide had heading into the 2014 season. It was, according to ESPN and every other major recruiting outlet, the No. 1 class in the country by a wide margin.

[+] EnlargeDa'Shawn Hand
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIDE Da'Shawn Hand could make an immediate impact for Alabama in 2014.
But for Alabama, top recruiting classes are nothing new. It was the third consecutive year the Tide finished No. 1 in ESPN’s class rankings. In fact, no class assembled by Saban with the benefit of a full calendar year to recruit (since 2008) has finished lower than No. 3 overall.

There was something special about this class, apart from the record five five-star athletes and 19 ESPN 300 signees. This class of offensive linemen might be the most decorated in the program’s history. It is, at the very least, the best Saban has ever put together since arriving in Tuscaloosa.

According to Saban, solidifying the trenches was the goal.

“I think that was a point of emphasis early on when we started this, is that we needed to get quality people up front on both sides of the ball,” he told reporters at his annual signing day news conference. “We got six offensive linemen, and I think six defensive linemen. Even though three of those guys are junior college guys, we felt that it was important that we get some guys that had a little more maturity about them, a little more veteran experience.”

The defensive linemen could turn out to be just as special. Da’Shawn Hand, a dynamic athlete out of Virginia, was the second-best defensive end in the country, according to ESPN. Jarran Reed, a former Florida commitment, could make an instant impact after transferring from junior college, as could former freshman All-SEC choice D.J. Pettway. Johnny Dwight and Joshua Frazier could develop into solid contributors as well.

But make no mistake, the most impressive group of the class was the O-line, led by No. 1-rated offensive tackle Cameron Robinson of Monroe, La. The 6-foot-6, 325-pound athlete brings back visions of Cyrus Kouandjio, who was the No. 1 offensive tackle recruit when he came to Alabama only a few years ago. With a similar build and similar attributes to Robinson, Kouandjio started eight games as a true freshman before a knee injury caused him to miss the rest of the season.

Robinson isn’t the only impressive tackle, though. Dominick Jackson, the No. 1 junior college offensive tackle in the country, is ready to make a good first impression. At 6-foot-7 and 310 pounds, no one is going to miss the towering product from College of San Mateo in California.

[+] EnlargeCameron Robinson
Miller Safrit/ESPNCameron Robinson, the nation's No. 1 offensive tackle, leads an impressive group of offensive line recruits for Alabama.
Josh Casher and J.C. Hassenauer offer a similar two-deep at the center position. Casher, from nearby Mobile, Ala., and Hassenauer, of Minnesota, were ranked the No. 1 and No. 2 centers in the ESPN 300, respectively.

Throw in Montel McBride, the No. 28-ranked offensive guard in the country, and Ross Pierschbacher, the No. 3 offensive guard in 2014, and you’ve got an offensive line class with both quality and depth.

In fact, both areas are unmatched in Saban’s tenure with Alabama. The six prospects averaged a scout’s grade of 84.17. Compare that to the previous high of 81.67 in 2011 when Kouandjio and three other offensive linemen signed with Alabama. Four O-line classes (2007-10, 12) had an average scout’s grade of 80 or lower.

At this point it’s important to remember that rankings aren’t everything. As coaches were quick to point out throughout the last week, whatever stars a recruit “earned” in high school vanish upon enrollment. It’s no longer about who you are as much as what you can do.

Case in point: Alabama’s offensive line, circa 2012. That line, featuring All-Americans Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack, was hailed as the best in the country and arguably the best in the history of the program, clearing ground for an offense that took to Tide to the BCS National Championship.

But if you judged that line based on each player’s recruiting rankings, it would have been considered middle-of-the-road at best. Jones was a C+ tackle prospect out of Tennessee (scout’s grade: 78) and Warmack was thought of in much the same way (scout’s grade: 79). Right guard Anthony Steen was a three-star prospect who wound up starting three years at Alabama. Big D.J. Fluker (6-7, 325 pounds) was the most highly regarded recruit of the bunch, the No. 1 tackle prospect in the 2009 class and the No. 12 player overall, according to ESPN.

Saban, for his part, wouldn’t be sad to see recruiting rankings fall off a steep cliff. We can talk about how great Alabama’s O-line class is today, but he’d like to see it judged three years from now when players have developed and have an opportunity to move on to the NFL.

“The challenge for all these young men [who] got recruited [on Wednesday], wherever they're going, is to be able to stay focused on what they need to do to improve as players and do the things that they need to do to become very effective college football players,” Saban said. “Maybe the biggest challenge of all, maybe even more so going from college to the NFL, I think is having the maturity to be able to stay focused on the things they need to do to develop as players and keep a positive attitude toward the goal they have, understand what it takes to accomplish the goals they have and then have the discipline they have to execute it every day.”

SEC all-BCS-era team

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
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It’s time to celebrate the best of the best in the SEC during the BCS era.

So what we’ve done is taken on the monumental task of selecting an All-SEC team from the BCS era, which officially ended last Monday with Florida State’s 34-31 victory over Auburn in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

To be eligible, a player had to have played at least one season in the SEC at any time between 1998 and 2013. More weight was given to those players who had longer careers and displayed consistency over the course of their careers.

Before the second-guessing commences, there were some spectacular players -- even a few players who won national awards such as the Heisman Trophy -- that were left off this team.

Nonetheless, it’s one star-studded team.

Here’s a look:

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsTim Tebow accounted for more touchdowns than any player in SEC history.
QB -- Tim Tebow, Florida: A tough call at quarterback, but Tebow had a hand in two national championships, won the Heisman Trophy in 2007 and accounted for more touchdowns (145) than anybody in league history.

RB -- Mark Ingram, Alabama: In 2009, Ingram became the first Alabama player to win the Heisman Trophy with a 1,658-yard rushing season. He rushed for 42 career touchdowns, breaking Shaun Alexander's school record.

RB -- Darren McFadden, Arkansas: A two-time winner of the Doak Walker Award, McFadden averaged 120.8 rushing yards per game for his career, second only to Herschel Walker and Emmitt Smith in the SEC.

WR -- A.J. Green, Georgia: He combined speed, size and incredible body control to haul in 23 touchdown catches in 31 career games. Green caught more than 50 passes in each season from 2008 to 2010.

WR -- Josh Reed, LSU: The Biletnikoff Award winner as the top receiver in the country in 2001, Reed hauled in 17 touchdown catches in his last two seasons. He set the SEC single-season record in 2001 with 1,740 receiving yards.

TE -- Jason Witten, Tennessee: It’s hard to beat Witten in any era as both a receiving and blocking tight end. He had seven career touchdown catches, including five during his All-SEC junior season in 2002.

AP -- Percy Harvin, Florida: Harvin was Mr. Everything for the Gators on their 2008 national championship team and a two-time All-American. He finished his career with 32 touchdowns (19 rushing and 13 receiving).

OL -- Shawn Andrews, Arkansas: Andrews is the last player to win the Jacobs Award as the SEC’s top blocker in back-to-back seasons (2002 and 2003). The Hogs’ massive offensive tackle was a consensus All-American in both of those seasons.

OL -- Barrett Jones, Alabama: Jones was a part of three national championship teams at Alabama and started at every position on the line but left guard during his career. He won the Rimington Trophy in 2012 as the country’s top center and won the Outland Trophy a year earlier as the Tide’s left tackle.

OL -- Marcus McNeill, Auburn: A two-time All-America selection at offensive tackle, McNeil paved the way for the Tigers' explosive rushing attack and was a huge part of their unbeaten 2004 SEC championship team.

OL -- Chris Samuels, Alabama: The Crimson Tide have been stocked with menacing offensive linemen during their storied history, and Samuels is right there near the top. The big offensive tackle won the Jacobs Award and Outland Trophy in 1999 and helped lead Alabama to an SEC title.

C -- Maurkice Pouncey, Florida: Also a standout guard earlier in his career, Pouncey gravitated to center and won the Rimington Award in 2009 as the nation’s top center. He was a devastating blocker and made 40 starts in 41 career games.

DEFENSE

DL -- Glenn Dorsey, LSU: The most decorated SEC defensive tackle of the BCS era, Dorsey won the Outland Trophy and both the Lombardi and Nagurski awards in 2007. He was the centerpiece of that LSU national championship defense in 2007.

DL -- John Henderson, Tennessee: A two-time All-American, Henderson is one of just five defensive players in the BCS era to win the Outland Trophy (2000) as college football’s most outstanding interior lineman.

[+] Enlarge Jadaveon Clowney
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJadaveon Clowney had 24 sacks in three seasons at South Carolina.
DL -- Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina: Even though his numbers dipped this season, Clowney remains one of the most disruptive defensive ends to play in the SEC during the BCS era. He finished with 47 tackles for loss, including 24 sacks, in 36 career games.

DL -- David Pollack, Georgia: Pollack joined Herschel Walker as Georgia’s only three-time, first-team All-Americans. He racked up a school-record 36 sacks from his defensive end position and was a two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year in helping the Bulldogs win the 2002 SEC title, their first in 20 years.

LB -- C.J. Mosley, Alabama: Mosley is the only player in the Nick Saban era at Alabama to have back-to-back 100-tackle seasons and was a part of two national championship teams. He was terrific in coverage and an even better tackler.

LB -- Patrick Willis, Ole Miss: Before he found stardom in the NFL, Willis terrorized the SEC and won the Butkus Award in 2006 as college football’s top linebacker. He was a tackling machine for the Rebels and the quintessential middle linebacker.

LB -- Al Wilson, Tennessee: The heart and soul of Tennessee's 1998 national championship team, Wilson was a playmaking machine at middle linebacker for the Vols. He was a two-time All-SEC selection and consensus All-American his senior season.

CB -- Champ Bailey, Georgia: One of the most versatile players in SEC history, Bailey participated in more than 1,000 plays during the 1998 season and won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s best defensive player.

CB -- Patrick Peterson, LSU: No matter where Peterson lined up, he was the most explosive player on the field. As a cornerback, few were better. He won the Thorpe and Bednarik awards in 2010 and scored touchdowns three different ways during his career: punt return (two), interception return and return of a blocked field goal.

S -- Mark Barron, Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s 2011 national championship defense was dripping with talent, but Barron might have been the best of the bunch. He was a three-time All-SEC selection and two-time All-American.

S -- Eric Berry, Tennessee: Berry was as good in coverage as he was blowing up ball carriers. He won the Jim Thorpe Award in 2009 as the top defensive back in the country and was a finalist the previous year. He finished with 14 career interceptions.

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK -- Billy Bennett, Georgia: Bennett is the SEC record holder with 87 made field goals from 2000 to 2003. Bennett was equally accurate, connecting on 79 percent of his kicks.

P -- Dustin Colquitt, Tennessee: A finalist for the Ray Guy Award in both 2002 and 2003, Colquitt averaged 43.1 yards a punt during his career. As a junior in 2003, he had 19 punts of 50 yards or longer and 21 punts downed inside the 20-yard line.

RS -- Derek Abney, Kentucky: His eight career returns for touchdowns (six punts and two kickoffs) are an SEC record, and six of those came during one season (2002). Abney set seven NCAA records, 11 SEC records and 14 school records.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama's offensive line represents the ultimate failure to manage expectations, to live in the world as it is as opposed to the world as it might become.

This season's line wasn't the same as its predecessor, but it was expected to have the same type of production. Just look at Ryan Kelly. He was no Barrett Jones, yet he was hyped as a possible improvement over a player with more accolades than any in Alabama history. How crazy was that?

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsRyan Kelly and Alabama's offensive line have gotten better with each game.
Looking back, it's easy to spot the lunacy. That's no knock on Kelly, who could very well end up being a more talented center than Jones by the time his career is over. But come on. You don't replace Jones' Outland and Rimington trophies overnight. You can't quantify what his experience and leadership meant over four years as a starter at guard, tackle and center for the Crimson Tide.

At the same time, you don't sneak Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker out the back door and expect no one to notice. Those were two first-round NFL draft picks. You could have run a rusty wheelchair behind them and picked up first downs. Granted, Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd were talented replacements, but they hadn't started a game in their careers. We didn't even know if Kouandjio could stay healthy for an entire season, for goodness sake.

In other words, we should have seen Alabama's early-season struggles on the offensive line coming. We should have expected the performances vs. Virginia Tech and Colorado State when the line didn't get push, AJ McCarron was pressured, and the running game never materialized. We shouldn't have thought the success of 2012 would transition into 2013 without so much as a blip in the radar. It doesn't work that way.

All they really needed was time and more realistic expectations.

So it's no wonder we've seen such a dramatic improvement from Alabama's offensive line over the past few weeks. The line hasn't allowed a single sack since the third quarter of the Ole Miss game on Sept. 28 -- that's a streak of 17 quarters for those keeping score at home -- and the running game is suddenly potent again. The offense has begun to click on all cylinders, jumping up to No. 35 nationally with 462.8 yards per game.

Coach Nick Saban touted their improved chemistry and trust with one another, saying how important experience has been to their development.

"They have played well," he said. "They've run blocked well these last few weeks. The last four weeks we thought played well on the offensive line. I think that's important to us, especially with AJ. If he doesn't get pressured in the pocket and we get people open, he's pretty accurate throwing the ball and makes good choices and decisions.

"I think it's a key to us being successful that they continue to improve and play well up front. We'll play against some good defensive linemen and some good defensive teams down the road."

By "down the road" Saban meant this Saturday's game against LSU. Though the 13th-ranked Tigers' defense has been up-and-down this season, they still possess some of the country's best talent on the defensive line. Tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson are monsters at 309 and 294 pounds, respectively.

LSU currently ranks fifth in the league in scoring defense (24.8 ppg), sixth in passing efficiency defense (131.9) and have accounted for the fifth-most sacks (20) in the league.

Had Saturday's game come earlier in the season for Alabama, there might be a full-blown crisis among Tide fans over the state of the offensive line. We'd be hearing questions about whether they could handle the pass rush and if that would mean the offense as a whole wouldn't score enough points to win.

But instead, we're hearing next to nothing. Luckily for Alabama, the offensive line has found its stride in the nick of time. It's almost as if the early struggles never happened. The names of Jones, Warmack and Fluker aren't forgotten in Tuscaloosa, but they're not as agonized over as they were in the first few weeks of the season.

"The past three or four games we were clicking on all levels of the run game and pass game," said right guard Anthony Steen, "and right now we’re just trying not to lose the beat and stay on top of things.”

Steen, a veteran presence with more than 30 starts under his belt, didn't know about the line's streak without allowing a sack until a reporter told him. He wasn't focused on that, he said, and neither were his teammates. Rather than getting to up or too down, he's tried to keep everyone even-keeled.

What's been said and what's happened this season won't matter when LSU comes to town this weekend, and Steen knows that. He said the Tigers' defensive line "will be the most physical line we'll see all season" and that's the only challenge he's worried about.

"We know it’s going to be a tough game," he said. "We know it’s probably going to come down to two or three plays. If they have two good plays and an 80-yard pass and an 80-yard run, then we might lose. But if we have two or three good plays then we might win.

"It’s going to be that type of game. We know that, and we know it’s going to come down to the end."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Jim McElwain was searching for the right word to describe it.

"It" being the way the offense is run at the University of Alabama. It was clear in talking with those around the program that the overarching direction of the offense is determined by head coach Nick Saban, whose meticulous, controlling nature has been well documented.

[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier
UA Athletic PhotographyOC Doug Nussmeier has continued to build on Alabama's success on offense. The Crimson Tide's offensive style under Nussmeier has changed very little, if at all, from previous seasons.
But calling the offense Saban's alone was too wide of a stretch for McElwain, who served as his offensive coordinator from 2008-11 and winning two national championships before leaving to become the head coach at Colorado State.

"Back when I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to coach there, we sat down and he kind of gave me kind of a philosophy, if that makes sense, a thought process, or a vision, I guess, maybe," he said on the eve of his team's trip to face the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide on Saturday in Tuscaloosa.

"The big thing was to figure out what you had and then put it together based upon what team you have," McElwain said.

Unlike many teams in college football that are strictly ground-and-pound or run-and-gun depending upon who is calling the plays, Alabama's offense has been more adaptive, more fluid based upon the strengths of its roster. There's never been an "Air Raid" type of offense under Saban, and there's never been much of a "three yards and a cloud of dust" attack, either, no matter what the national perception has been in the past.

It's been productive, averaging 30 or more points per game in each of the past five seasons. What Saban insists upon is balance and limiting turnovers, according to McElwain.

Though the coaches running the offense have changed multiple times (seven coaching changes to be exact, including three different coordinators), the offense itself has never shifted dramatically. As Saban said upon hiring current offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, "this is Alabama's offense" and that means a power running game, controlling the clock and passing enough to keep the defense honest.

"Are we wholesale changing our offense and going to a whole new system, a whole new terminology?" Saban asked shortly after Nussmeier was hired. "Everybody in the building's got to learn a whole new system because one guy's changed? We're not doing that."

Nussmeier was only half-kidding when he said he wouldn't do anything new at all from the year before, just "change the order we ran them." But the truth is that from Major Applewhite to Jim McElwain to Doug Nussmeier, the style of the offense has changed very little, if at all. Saban's been the one holdover, a known commodity as a defensive mastermind but an unknown in his ability to form an offensive identity. He just happens to look at it from a different perspective.

"What he does is he has a great knack of looking at film, which is what he does, looking at film of the opponent's defense, and really helping you kind of understand what they're trying to take away based on what they're doing," McElwain said. "Inevitably the pieces he brings in, saying you may want to look at something in this design or something like that, they work."

Under Saban, Alabama has never thrown the ball more than its passed. Sixty-three percent of plays were runs in 2008, and that number barely changed over the years to where last season the Tide ran 63.5 percent of the time. The only time UA ever broke the 250 passing yards per game mark was in 2010 when the Tide started off the season as title favorites only to lose three games and wind up in the Capital One Bowl.

There's the idea that Alabama's offense has opened up dramatically and become more explosive in recent seasons, but the numbers show that to be untrue. Instead, it's been same old, same old, as the offense actually had fewer plays of at least 20 yards per game last season than it did the year before (5.43 to 5.46). Points per game went up, but only slightly (38.7 from 34.8 the year before).

"They made the transition very smooth," former UA center Barrett Jones recalled, saying later that it was hard to see McElwain leave going into his senior season. "They did a really good job of letting Coach Nuss bring in some new ideas, but not changing too much because, honestly, it wasn't really broken. We kept a lot of our same verbiage, our same calls, same principals, and just added a few new things, a few wrinkles. … You hardly had to learn any new stuff."

Said McElwain: "I can see the plays and probably what they were called within the system. I think the system is sound fundamentally. I think you pick your places to take your shots. The thing I see is maybe more explosive playmakers on the outside from a collective group than there were before.

"Yet you always have that dynamic that if you're going to load the box, you're going to have guys out there that will make it hurt. And then if you cover those guys, you've got those runners in the backfield with a dominant offensive line, which really helps. I mean, pick your poison."

It's the same offense McElwain would like to run at Colorado State, though he admittedly doesn't quite have the parts to do it. He had to laugh at the talent Saban's assembled through back-to-back top-ranked recruiting classes, saying, "If you've got any [running backs] you want to send our way, I'll take them."

McElwain would love to use Saban's blueprint at CSU, but at the same time, he knows that won't be easy, saying, "The one thing I know is that I can't be him -- no one can."

The continuity Saban's been able to establish at Alabama has been second to none, never missing a beat when coaches leave or star players are drafted into the NFL. The production on offense has remained as steady as the tide. McElwain credited that to his unwavering vision, which extends to both sides of the football.

There's a plan in Saban's mind, and it's never changed in seven years at Alabama.

"To me, he's the whole package," McElwain said. "He's hired great coaches who understand what he wants and then go out and execute it."

Revisiting Texas A&M-Alabama, part I

September, 10, 2013
9/10/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M shocked the college football world when it went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and upset the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide last November. It was a game for the ages, with the Aggies jumping out to a 20-0 lead, Alabama charging back to make it close and a nailbiter finish that included a turnover near the goal line.

With the Crimson Tide coming to Kyle Field for a rematch with the Aggies, anticipation has built throughout the offseason. The Tide are again No. 1, defending their BCS championship from a year ago and the Aggies still have their linchpin, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who made his most compelling case for the trophy that afternoon at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

As the heavily hyped clash approaches, let's look back at some of the keys to last year's game and how they might affect the rematch.

1. Credit to the Texas A&M defense

When dissecting Texas A&M's upset of Alabama last season, many cite the Aggies' offensive explosion en route to a 20-0 first-quarter lead as one of the most difficult things for Alabama to deal with. And while the Aggies used creative playcalling and personnel packages, their fast pace and precision execution to score three touchdowns on their first three drives, the Aggies' defensive effort had as much -- or more -- to do with their ability to take that kind of commanding lead.

A.J. McCarron
John David Mercer/US PresswireAJ McCarron threw his first interceptions of the season in Alabama's loss to Texas A&M last season.
The first play from scrimmage helped the Aggies set the tone as Alabama handed off to running back Eddie Lacy on an off-tackle play to the left side. Tight end Michael Williams motioned to that side of the formation to help open a hole for Lacy, but Texas A&M linebacker Sean Porter eluded Williams and sliced into the gap between Williams and left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and made a strong tackle to stop Lacy for no gain. Alabama went three-and-out on that drive and punted.

The Crimson Tide's next offensive drive started on a much better note for Alabama, with Lacy gaining 23 yards on his first two carries. But everything halted as the Aggies created a turnover when quarterback AJ McCarron tried to find Kenny Bell in the middle of the field. As a McCarron pass hit Bell in the chest, safety Howard Matthews delivered a hard, clean hit to Bell, who dropped the pass. Porter was there to intercept the pass, and that set up the A&M offense with great field position after a 16-yard return to the Alabama 41.

One of the key players throughout the day for the Aggies' defense was defensive tackle Spencer Nealy. A former defensive end who moved to defensive tackle at the start of the 2012 season despite lacking what would be considered "SEC size" for a tackle, Nealy played an integral role in the Aggies' run defense. Evidence of that was on display at the start of the Crimson Tide's third drive of the game.

On the first play of the drive, Alabama handed off to T.J. Yeldon on the left side and the 6-foot-5, 277-pound Nealy, who lined up at nose tackle on that play and for much of the day, used his quickness to beat center Barrett Jones and tackled Yeldon for a loss of 4 yards. The Crimson Tide went three-and-out on that drive as well as the Aggies forced McCarron's hand with a safety blitz and Matthews got into the backfield untouched, forcing an incomplete pass. The defensive effort by the Aggies forced McCarron to start the game 1-of-5 passing for 5 yards.

And even though the Tide were able to gather their bearings and make a strong comeback with some big plays on offense, the Aggies still found ways to make plays on defense. Matthews plugged a gap on third-and-2 when Yeldon tried to cut back for first-down yardage, holding the Crimson Tide to a third-quarter field goal. Safety Steven Terrell stripped Yeldon in the fourth quarter on the play after a 50-yard pass from McCarron to Amari Cooper. And of course, cornerback Deshazor Everett picked off McCarron on the Tide's final offensive play with 1:36 remaining.

The drawback for Texas A&M in the rematch is that many of the above names are gone. Nealy, Porter, Terrell and other key players -- such as defensive end Damontre Moore and linebacker Jonathan Stewart -- have graduated. They've been replaced by younger, more inexperienced players who have taken their lumps in the first two games. The Aggies also haven't had their full complement of defensive players because several served suspensions in the first two games. Saturday will be the first opportunity for all of their key guys to play together this season.

Lacy is gone for the Tide, as are several offensive linemen. The Tide struggled in that area in their season-opening win against Virginia Tech. So there will be adjustments on both sides with the differences in personnel.

2. Finding the "Y"

Manziel went to receiver Ryan Swope, the "Y" receiver who lines up in the slot on the right side of the offensive formation, early and often against the Crimson Tide. Early in the game the passes were of the short, quick variety, hitch routes that gained incremental yardage, almost like running plays.

Ryan Swope
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireRyan Swope, a senior last season, made 11 catches against Alabama.
As the game wore on, Manziel went downfield to Swope, who made some of the biggest catches of the season. One was in the middle of the field for 28 yards as he was nailed by safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the third quarter. In the fourth, Manziel found Swope down the right sideline for 42 yards.

Swope graduated as well, but look for the guy who made the catch on the play after Swope's 42-yard reception -- Malcome Kennedy -- to be a factor. Kennedy caught a 24-yard touchdown pass on the next play and having experience in a game like that can only help him this Saturday. The question is, can Kennedy bring the kind of consistency that Swope did in catching 11 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown against Alabama?

And should he be healthy for the game, 6-foot-5 freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones could be a factor at that position as well. Seals-Jones missed the Sam Houston State game last Saturday with a knee injury.

3. McCarron can scramble, too

While Manziel is known for his scrambling, McCarron showed he has good mobility as well.

McCarron isn't nearly as fleet of foot, but he did show the ability to escape pressure and make quality throws. On two instances in the Crimson Tide's first scoring drive, he evaded the Aggies' pass rush and found Cooper for a first-down completion.

In the second half, McCarron scrambled and tried to find Cooper. He avoided an interception from Everett (who was ruled out of bounds on the catch), but nevertheless, scrambling is a tool McCarron can use if the Aggies dial up extra pressure Saturday.

4. Defending Manziel on the ground

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Dave MartinJohnny Manziel had great success running in the first half against Alabama, but the running lanes closed a bit in the second half.
In the first half last year, Manziel was electric with his feet. Then-offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury was comfortable in calling designed quarterback draws. They were successful as Manziel piled up 82 yards on nine first-half carries.

But the Tide did a much better job containing Manziel in the final two quarters. In the second half, he finished with 10 rushing yards on nine attempts.

This season, Manziel is making an effort to improve as a pocket passer without taking away his playmaking ability. The Aggies have a new offensive coordinator and playcaller (Clarence McKinney) and a new quarterbacks coach (Jake Spavital). It will be interesting to see how much running Manziel does Saturday and how Alabama handles it.

5. Big plays in the Alabama passing game

Cooper, now a sophomore for the Tide, had a huge game in last year's matchup, catching six passes for 136 yards.

He had a catch of 50 yards and a 54-yard touchdown reception, both in the fourth quarter. The first came on an out-and-up, when he beat Everett one on one. The next one came when the Aggies sent Everett on a cornerback blitz and Cooper beat Matthews deep for a touchdown.
Since an outstanding performance at the Memphis NFTC, center J.C. Hassenauer (Woodbury, Minn./East Ridge) has been considered one of the most under-recruited prospects in the country. Only Minnesota and Vanderbilt offered.

Then Hassenauer camped at Alabama, and word got out that the Tide loved what they saw and offered. Now, the under-the-radar lineman is an Alabama commitment. The three-star center and his father both confirmed the commitment to ESPN.com. It was rumored he committed this weekend.

“I have committed,” Hassenauer wrote in a text message.


ESPN 150 guard Viane Talamaivao (Corona, Calif./Centennial) became Alabama's first pledge along the offensive line for 2014. Here's how our Scouts think he'll perform in Tuscaloosa:

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Cyrus KouandjioKevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsCyrus Kouandjio might have a secure spot on the O-line, but not many others do.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At a certain point, there's too much work to be done on the football field. So much so that the idea of competition goes out the window. With three vacant starting positions on the Alabama offensive line this spring, the idea of actually battling for playing time is unthinkable, at least to left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio.

The depth chart, he noted, is still open.

"Everybody is just working," Kouandjio said following Wednesday's practice. He and guard Anthony Steen are the only two returning starters on the line. "At this time, we're not even thinking about competition."

They might be the only ones, though.

If Alabama is going to have anywhere near the success it had last season, the offensive line must come together, and in a hurry. Kouandjio might have the luxury of feeling good about his position on the depth chart, but he's the exception to the rule, as Alabama must replace three NFL-caliber offensive linemen in Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. That's not to mention the other seven former starters now plying their trade elsewhere.

At least Kouandjio would admit that practice felt different without his former teammates around.

"It feels weird," he said. "I've been with those guys for a long time."

But he's been with his brother, Arie, longer. And with Warmack gone, Arie has a chance to start alongside his twin at left guard. He'll have to fend off Kellen Williams for the spot, but so far he's the favorite to win the starting nod.

Chemistry, the glue of any good offensive line, is already set on the left side. After playing together in high school, the Koundajios don't have to say a word to communicate to one another.

"It's my brother" Cyrus said, "of course we already have camaraderie. We already understand each other.

"I love playing with my brother. He's always pushing me, and I'm always pushing him."

The camaraderie of the line as a whole won't come from either Kouandjio, though. Ryan Kelly, the man charged with replacing Jones at center, is looking to make his stamp as the leader of the unit now. And as Cyrus put it, he brings a lot to the table, rivaling Jones in at least one respect.

"He's the most professional person I know," Cyrus said of Kelly. "He's really serious, and that's the perfect center right there. Most centers have to be really tough, and I trust him 100 percent. I trust him as much as I trusted Barrett Jones last year.

"I think things are looking good for him."

Cyrus also singled out rising sophomore Brandon Greene for his improvement this offseason. He, Williams, Isaac Luatua, Alphonse Taylor and newcomers Leon Brown and Brandon Hill have added depth to the offensive line.

"He's doing so much better from last year," Cyrus said of Greene. "He got so much better over the break. His hands are where they're supposed to be, his footwork is good, he is where he's supposed to be right now."

Head coach Nick Saban, for his part, downplayed the transition taking place on the offensive line. He said new position coach Mario Cristobal is doing a "really good job" at coaching and connecting with the players.

"He’s done a good job teaching them," he said. "He’s got good energy and enthusiasm. He brings some new ideas. That’s always welcome when you have new coaches join the staff. So everything about this so far from a transition standpoint has been positive."

And like everything with the offensive line, Saban's remarks came with a caveat.

"But that's a work in progress, too," he said.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- All 325 pounds were packed snuggly into a muscle shirt and tights. It crouched down, waited for the whistle and took off in a sprint: 4.90 seconds to travel 40 yards.

And just like that, nose guard Jesse Williams stole the show at Alabama's pro day. For a 6-foot-3 interior lineman who was previously hobbled by a knee injury, he ran surprisingly well. Only a handful of linemen broke the 5.0-second mark at the NFL combine, and most of them were defensive ends.

"I felt like I did pretty good," said Williams, his head shaved to no doubt cut his 40 time by a fraction of a second, also known as the difference in millions of dollars in the NFL. "I was just trying to get everything going. It's tough. After running those 40s I was gassed."

Williams said it felt good to run without the knee bothering him. He was smiling even before he was told what his time was in the 40-yard dash.

"That's pretty good, I mean anything under 5 seconds," he said. "I weighed in at 325. It felt like I was moving pretty fast. The hardest part was trying to stop before running into you guys."

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Much like the Crimson Tide's showing at the NFL combine last month, Wednesday's pro day on the University of Alabama campus will have a distinctly limited feel as many of its participants are still battling injuries sustained during the season.

The biggest setback to the event -- which will air live on ESPN3 at 10:30 a.m. CT -- came on Sunday night when ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Eddie Lacy will not participate in the workout because of a lingering hamstring injury. The running back, widely considered to be most valuable at his position in the draft, will instead wait for the soreness to subside and perform for scouts at a later date, according to the report.

Like many of his teammates, Lacy will have to watch the drills from afar. Center Barrett Jones said he will attend but will only participate in the bench press portion of the event. Cornerback Dee Milliner, who is the No. 2 player on Mel Kiper Jr.'s Big Board and a likely top-five selection, won't work out either. He was scheduled to have surgery on a torn labrum today.

Nonetheless, the program must go on, even with some of its headliners sidelined. For those expected to participate, the chance to make a final positive impression on NFL personnel is at stake. A bad combine? A poor interview? So-so tape? All that could be put aside with a solid showing tomorrow. With the help of ESPN college football and NFL draft analyst Kevin Weidl, here are TideNation's top three players with the most to gain from Alabama's pro day:

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Nick SabanStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama are going for a third consecutive crystal football this season.

They’re all chasing Alabama, and not just in the SEC.

Oregon, USC and Ohio State are. Ditto for Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Florida State.

The Crimson Tide have pocketed three of the past four national championships, including the past two, and are dead-set on winning a few more.

Remember offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio's proclamation after the 42-14 blistering of Notre Dame two months ago in the Discover BCS National Championship Game?

“We’re going for it next year again ... and again and again and again,” Kouandjio said.

It’s the way they roll at Alabama, particularly since Nick Saban’s arrival in 2007.

But while everybody else is chasing the Crimson Tide, they’re involved in a chase of their own.

Some might say they’re chasing history. More precisely, they’re chasing a standard, one that is handed down year by year and cuts to the very core of what Saban’s “process” is all about.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron is 25-2 since taking over as the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback.
“That’s why one of our famous sayings at Alabama is, 'We don’t play football. We live it,'" said quarterback AJ McCarron, who has a chance to win a fourth national championship ring.

“That says a lot about our program and the way Coach Saban handles the guys on our team. You’ve got to be able to handle success, and best way to do that is that every time you step out onto the field, you’re pushing for greatness.”

That pursuit started all over again about 48 hours after Alabama’s players and coaches returned home from South Florida back in January. It resumes in earnest on March 16 when Alabama opens spring practice.

The Crimson Tide will almost certainly start the 2013 season ranked No. 1. No school has won three consecutive outright national championships since Minnesota all the way back in 1934-36, according to the NCAA's official website.

And while the Alabama players have been well-trained to live (and play) in the moment, they’re well aware of what awaits them next season.

The expectations, not to mention the pressure to collect another crystal football, will be enormous.

But they seem to like it that way.

“It’s like Coach Saban always says, ‘We created this beast, so you don’t complain about it,’” said McCarron, who’s 25-2 as a starter. “We set the standard this high. I think it brings the best out of you as a player and as a person on and off the field. You have to carry yourself with that much more pride.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re on the field or off of it. Everybody’s gunning to beat us, and everybody’s watching us. All eyes are on us at all times. It’s one of the best things about playing here. Everybody expects greatness.”

Linebacker C.J. Mosley, like McCarron, decided to come back for his senior season after considering a jump to the NFL. In a lot of ways, he’s to Alabama’s defense what McCarron is to the offense.

“We go into every game expecting to get that team’s best,” Mosley said. “We look at it like the regular season is 13 national championship games for every opponent we play, so we know that we’re going to have to play our best every week.”

For the most part, the Crimson Tide have found a way to do that during their historic run.

Still, they’ve needed a little help along the way and have managed to make clutch plays at key times.

They rebounded from a November home loss to Texas A&M last season to reach the BCS National Championship Game after previously unbeaten Oregon and Kansas State both lost the next week. A week earlier, they pulled out a win over LSU on the road thanks to a last-minute touchdown drive.

Had Ohio State not been on NCAA probation last season and ineligible for postseason play, Alabama probably would have been left out of the BCS National Championship Game.

In 2011, the Crimson Tide got a rematch with LSU in the BCS National Championship Game despite not even winning the Western Division title and losing at home to LSU during the regular season.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images "We go into every game expecting to get that team's best," C.J. Mosley said. "... the regular season is 13 national championship games."
So the ball has bounced Alabama’s way each of the past two seasons. But once on the big stage, the Crimson Tide have proved emphatically that they were the best team in college football.

Getting there may again be the tricky part in 2013. There’s the showdown with Texas A&M in College Station the third week of the season, and there are some key holes to fill on both defense and offense.

Three starters on the offensive line are gone, including All-Americans Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack. The Crimson Tide will also be looking for reinforcements in the defensive secondary. There’s very little depth at cornerback.

“We still have a lot of guys coming back who’ve been in those big games and have the right experience,” McCarron said. “But at the same time, we’re going to need some of these freshmen coming in and some of the sophomores and redshirt freshmen to step up and make some plays for us.

“We’re going to find out who’s ready to do that. You always need new guys to emerge, every year. We’ve got to have guys who can do it on a consistent basis and know that they’re going to be there week in and week out. Nothing’s going to be given to us, and nothing’s going to be easy. We know that.”

If Alabama can get past Texas A&M on Sept. 14, the schedule isn’t too daunting from there. In fact, the Crimson Tide have to leave the state to play only twice more after that -- at Kentucky on Oct. 12 and at Mississippi State on Nov. 16. What’s more, they avoid Georgia, Florida and South Carolina in the East next season.

Of course, good luck in getting anybody inside the Alabama locker room to admit that they’ve even thought about looking that far down the road.

But as the chase ensues in 2013 -- on both fronts -- the specter of a potential three-peat will loom large across the entire college football landscape.

“There’s a lot of work to do before anybody starts thinking about that,” Mosley said. “We’re still trying to get a feel for some of the younger guys. We working on putting the standard in their heads and making sure they know what Alabama football is all about.”

Judging by how crowded the trophy case at the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility is getting, they tend to learn quickly at the Capstone.

Editor's note: From now until the start of spring camp March 16, TideNation will count down the 12 most intriguing players to watch on the Alabama football roster. Today we look at center Ryan Kelly.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- For the Alabama Crimson Tide to have the season they hope for, the offensive line must come together -- and in a hurry. With a season-opening date against Virginia Tech in Atlanta, followed by a trip to College Station, Texas, to visit the Texas A&M Aggies, time is of the essence. There are just two offensive linemen returning from last season, and without a strong front five it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Alabama to repeat as national champion.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesVeteran teammates frequently compliment Ryan Kelly's reliability and knowledge of Bama's schemes.
Chemistry will be vital. Without it, talent means nothing. It's what made last season's line so good. The players weren't just skilled, they worked well together. Rediscovering that delicate composition of guard, tackle and center will begin in a few weeks when spring practice starts and new offensive line coach Mario Cristobal takes over the reins from the departed Jeff Stoutland.

Cristobal will rely on aid from Ryan Kelly. The rising redshirt sophomore is a shoo-in to replace Barrett Jones at center. Kelly, who signed with Alabama in 2011 as the No. 4 center in the country, was with the second team for the last two springs and spent several weeks running with the first unit during bowl practice, while Jones sat out with an injury. During that time, Kelly gained the respect of many of his teammates.

Jones has called Kelly a more talented center than he'd ever hope to become. Chance Warmack chimed in later, adding that Kelly was an "exceptional young player" who catches on well to the schemes.

"He's keen on carrying me and taking control in terms of making the right calls," Warmack said of Kelly on Dec. 27. "Knowing the scheme, what it takes to be a starter at center on the offensive line. He's doing a really good job."

Though he has yet to start a game in his career, Kelly understands the responsibility of the playing center. While he enjoys the recognition his teammates have already given him, he said he's trying not to get a big head about it and continues to work hard to improve. As the one calling protections, he's the captain of the line, though Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen are senior to him in status. Ultimately, the success of the entire line rests with him.

"When I make a call, that’s what everyone else makes his call off of," Kelly told reporters before the BCS National Championship. "So if I’m wrong, everyone else is wrong."

And if everyone else on the line is wrong, nothing will work. The ball starts off in the center's hands, not the quarterback and not the running back. While other flashier positions might gather more attention when spring camp opens March 16, at the end of the day there might not be a more important person to the health of the offense as a whole than Kelly.
With two days of testing down and two more to go, many of Alabama's 10 representatives at the NFL combine in Indianapolis have already been put through the ringer. The early results for some are in, but check back throughout the day for the latest.

[+] EnlargeEddie Lacy
AP Photo/Romeo GuzmanEddie Lacy won't partake in drills at the NFL combine, but will perform at Alabama's pro day.
RB Eddie Lacy
Combine results: N/A
The latest: For the next week or so until Alabama holds its pro day, NFL general managers and scouts will have to rely on game film when breaking down the top-rated running back in the draft. A small tear of the hamstring kept Lacy from participating in drills in Indianapolis, but he made the trip all the same to weigh in and take part in team interviews. ESPN's John Clayton believes there wasn't a first-round running back on the field Sunday, which could be good news for Lacy. A strong pro day -- tentatively set for March 13 -- could be the final push Lacy needs to separate himself from the rest of the class and solidify his first-round status.

OT D.J. Fluker
Combine results: 5.31 second 40-yard dash, 21 bench press reps
The latest: Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago says Fluker could be a target for the Bears with the 20th overall pick. That's how far the former Alabama right tackle has come since concerns about his weight and athleticism. Coming in at a trim 6-foot-4 and 339 pounds in Indianapolis helped nearly as much as his performance during on-field workouts. While it's still not clear whether he ends up at tackle or guard, teams are clearly interested.

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OLs from SEC can thrive at combine

February, 20, 2013
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Several of RecruitingNation's SEC sites will look this week at the players headed to the NFL combine, which begins Friday in Indianapolis, and other predraft camps. Today: Offensive linemen.

Alabama Crimson Tide


It's only fitting that the best offensive line in college football would produce some of the most intriguing prospects in the NFL draft. Alabama will likely have three offensive linemen taken in the first few rounds in April, further proof of the talent that resided in Tuscaloosa this past season.

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