Alabama Crimson Tide: Brian Vogler
The good news for Alabama is that this isn’t the first time coach Nick Saban and his staff have been through this. Just last season offensive line coach Mario Cristobal had the unenviable job of replacing three All-SEC caliber linemen: Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. And do you remember what happened? The 2013 line actually one-upped the previous season's line in some respects. The line allowed six fewer sacks and also saw its rushes for zero or negative yards -- a good indicator of the push a line generates -- fall from 91 to 79, vaulting the Tide to fourth nationally in that category.
But, of course, there’s room to improve. Just ask Kelly.
“Communication is the most important thing,” he explained. “All 11 guys have to be on the same page. ... It starts with the offensive line. One of the things we’re trying to emphasize is get up to the ball, get down, get set. Last year, look at it, we were running the clock down to five, four seconds every time. The faster that we can get to the line, get set, let the quarterback look at what he’s got to look at, the more time we can have and we’re not rushing to make calls last-minute.”
Does that mean Alabama is turning to a more up-tempo offense under new coordinator Lane Kiffin? It depends whom you ask.
Brian Vogler, a senior tight end, said that he thought the offense would stay similar to years past, relying on the “mauler” style it was founded on. Kelly, however, asked the question: “Anytime we can run more plays it’s good for an offense, right?” He said he anticipates “a lot” of change this season, including new plays and new formations.
“Obviously, we want to practice faster every day,” Kelly continued. “As as the spread offense, stuff like that, it’s still the same. We’ve just been wanting to get more reps in practice. Obviously, reps make us better.”
More repetitions will be key for the newcomers on the offensive line, not to mention the communication among all five potential starters.
Through the first four practices, the first-team line features Kelly, Shepherd and Kouandjio at their usual positions, with Alphonse Taylor added at right guard and Leon Brown at left tackle. The two combined for 17 appearances and one start last season, the lone start coming from Brown when Shepherd was lost for the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.
Though he can play inside, Brown might be better suited at tackle given his length (6-foot-6, 313 pounds).
Taylor, however, has all the earmarks of a punishing guard. At 6-5, 335 pounds and a low center of gravity, he looks vaguely like Warmack when he shuffles upfield in running situations.
“If you look at how big he is, he’s actually really athletic, can bend really well and he’s got a lot of power,” Kelly said. “Another young guy, doesn’t have a whole lot of experience, obviously, playing games. But I think this spring’s going to be really big for him.”
But the most intriguing prospect of all has to be Cameron Robinson, a five-star prospect and the No. 1 offensive lineman in the 2014 class. He has everything you look for in an offensive tackle: size, strength, athleticism. The 6-6, 325-pound freshman from Louisiana has shown some growing pains since enrolling in January, but he has also shown flashes of the talent that made him such a coveted recruit.
With a spring to learn, an offseason to prepare and an open position at left tackle to compete for come fall, don’t sleep on Robinson.
“He’s got a lot of ability,” Kelly said of Robinson. “He’s a big guy, can bend really well, long arms. Obviously he came into an offense where we kind of transitioning into a new style or new plays, stuff like that. So he never really learned the old one. Anytime you’re coming from high school to college it’s going to take a while to kind of get acclimated to it. Older guys have been helping him along the way, kind of showing him the ropes, because it can be eye-opening at times, coming from high school to college.”
Saban called Robinson “a young guy that’s learning and getting better every day.” But along the same line, Saban said of the entire line that he wasn’t “satisfied with where they are, but pleased with the progress they’re making.”
In other words, the line is very much an ongoing process.
“The depth chart means nothing right now,” Shepherd said. “The depth chart won't mean anything until we play West Virginia.”
The visor! My goodness, the visor!
First he was hired. Then he sang karaoke. And now, mercifully, he’s doing the simple job of coaching football.
The Kiffin melodrama has finally taken the important turn from speculation into substance. The talk is still ongoing -- depending on who you ask, he’s either going to bring Alabama’s offense into the 21st century or send it back to the stone age -- but now at least he’s moving around on the practice field, leading an offense that lacks a starting quarterback but is loaded with talent. He’s still wearing his visor, it just has a different shade of red.
So far, players seem to be buying in to Kiffin’s coaching style. Standout receiver Amari Cooper said Kiffin has made the offense more simple and “player-friendly.” The way he calls plays, Cooper explained, makes it easier to know what you’re supposed to do.
But what’s he like underneath that visor? Has he sang to you in any of your meetings yet?
“Pretty cool guy. Pretty laid back guy,” Cooper said of his initial impression of Kiffin. “He pays attention to everything -- every little thing. I noticed that about him when we were practicing for the bowl game.”
Astute college football fans will remember the first taste of Kiffin in Tuscaloosa came back in December when Saban brought him in to help evaluate the offense during bowl practice. It caused a minor uproar, to which Saban said he “couldn’t believe there’s any reaction to it.” A month later Doug Nussmeier left for Michigan, and Kiffin took his office and his title.
Brian Vogler, who started every game at tight end last season for the Crimson Tide, had to get used to seeing Kiffin on the field directing the offense. The senior had seen him plenty on television, but having him there in person was altogether different.
“People know who he is. He's very high profile,” Vogler said. “Seeing him over there, I think it’s great, honestly.”
Vogler credited Kiffin with being more hands-on and player-friendly, just like Cooper did. How the offense will change remains to be seen, though. On the one hand, Vogler said he expected it to be “a little bit more dynamic,” but at the same time he thought things would stay fairly similar to years' past.
“It’s Saban’s, so it’s going to be the same offense,” he said.
Each new coordinator brings his own set of wrinkles, certainly, but Vogler’s observation isn’t far off from what former coaches and players told ESPN a year ago.
Will Kiffin incorporate a more up-tempo attack? Maybe, maybe not.
“We’re a team that’s made to be maulers,” Vogler said. “Guys are just going to be really physical with you, hit you from every aspect of the game and hit you in every direction. I just don't know if that's really our style of being speedy and trying to be elusive around everybody and dodge people like other schools do."
For now, Saban is mostly noncommittal about what changes Kiffin will bring to the offense. He would, however, like to see him get the ball to guys such as Cooper more often.
“Lane will do a really good job of getting the ball into the playmakers' hands,” he said.
Expectations might be under control within the Alabama bubble, but outside they’re not so reasoned. Kiffin isn’t just any new offensive coordinator. He’s still the guy who ruffled the feathers of many in the SEC and didn’t make a lot of friends during his time at USC. He’s stepped into a much different role now where he won’t make headlines with what he says, but he still has all eyes on him.
If you’re an Alabama fan, you’re watching for the spark of greatness that afforded him so many jobs in the past. If you’re not wearing crimson, you’re watching to see if he'll self-destruct as he has before.
But chances are that whoever you are, you’re watching. A lot of people are tuned in to see whether the marriage of Kiffin and Saban will work. It’s become must-see TV.
AUBURN, Ala. -- For a team of destiny, the play that would come to define Auburn's magical season started off in an ironic way as it looked as if luck might not be on its side after all. The clock read all zeroes in Jordan-Hare Stadium as Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon went out of bounds, sending a tie game into overtime. But officials double-checked, reviewed the play and put one second back on the clock -- just enough time for the top-ranked Crimson Tide to run one final play.
Disgruntled, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn thought to himself, "You know, we haven't had a whole lot of luck with reviews anyway," as Alabama took the field for its shot at a game-winning field goal. Malzahn toyed with telling his special-teams coach to go for the block, but he knew he wanted to call a timeout to ice the kicker and survey his options anyway. Better go a different route, he decided.
"If they missed the kick, what was the worst that could happen?" said Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead.
"Put CD back there," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford recalled hearing Malzahn say during the timeout, pulling safety Ryan Smith off the return in favor of Chris Davis, a speedy cornerback and part-time punt returner. Malzahn called Davis, a senior who has gone through his fair share of ups and downs, "a champion" in his book. On Saturday night with the wind blowing in his face and a title hanging in the balance, Davis was.
Cody Mandell fielded the snap and dropped the ball into place for Griffith, who swung his right leg through cleanly. The ball floated on line for what seemed like an eternity to the orange-and-blue-clad fans standing in their seats. Then it dipped short and to the right, where Davis waited with open arms.
"I knew when I caught the ball I would have room to run," Davis said.
Alabama simulated field goal returns like Davis' every Friday during the season. "We just imagine," said tight end Brian Vogler, who is responsible for sealing the outside edge of the line during kicks. But there's never anyone actually there to return the ball, he said.
"You practice it so many times and when it happens you're not expecting that kind of speed," Vogler explained.
Davis started to his right up the center of the field before turning back left toward the sideline. He knew if he got to the edge the bigger guys for Alabama wouldn't be able to catch him. Vogler, all 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds of him, took a bad angle, leaped at Davis, and missed.
"I was running down the field expecting a blindside [hit] out of nowhere," Vogler said, "and when I finally got the opportunity, I was kind of in shock I hadn't gotten laid out."
Adrian Hubbard, Alabama's 252-pound linebacker, didn't stand a chance either as he whiffed on the tackle.
Smith, in a stroke of irony, was a key part of the return as he laid out Alabama offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio.
"I made a good block," Smith said excitedly. "Y'all go check it out."
Mandell, the punter and holder, got one hand on Davis' jersey, but wound up only touching history rather than stopping it. Davis never broke stride as he passed Mandell and found daylight, running freely into the end zone for the game-winning score before being hugged to the turf by his own teammates as the stadium erupted in applause.
"When I looked back, I said I couldn't believe this," Davis said. "When I was running, I said, 'God is good.'"
It was like it happened in slow motion, McCarron said. His helmet on and his emotions hidden from view, he sprinted off toward the locker room as fans rushed the field.
"It's almost like a video game," McCarron said. "That's something you do on 'Madden.'"
"I was just shocked," said Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. "I didn't think that big of a play would have been caused by that."
Said Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae: "I lost it. I ran and found myself on the other sideline and got to see some of my guys and hugged them. It was just an amazing experience, one that will last me for a lifetime."
The floodgates opened and the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium became a crazed sea of blue and orange fans celebrating what will go down as the most memorable Iron Bowl in history. An Auburn staffer would have to save Malzahn from being hit by Aubie, the Tigers' crowd-surfing mascot, during a postgame interview.
Meanwhile, Davis was being suffocated at the bottom of a dog pile.
"It was hard to breathe," he said. "I knew it was coming. What else do you expect when you're doing something like that? I'm proud of my teammates. It might seem like I'm the hero in this moment, but they also are too -- offense and defense and special teams. We fought together and we got the W."
"If you weren't there," Ford said, "I can't really explain it to you."
It took at least an hour for players and fans to finally leave the field. The cleanup of their celebration would continue into Monday. Toomer's Corner remained painted white with rolls upon rolls of toilet paper prior to Malzahn's news conference that day at 11:30 a.m. In fact, most of the campus remained covered in the tissue.
When Davis went to his geology class that morning, he received a standing ovation. It was like a scene from a movie: the team that couldn't win a single conference game and fired its entire staff from the season before, suddenly beats the top-ranked team in the country and its star player goes to class to a round of applause.
Davis and his teammates better get used to it. This is their legacy now. No one who saw what happened that Saturday night in Jordan-Hare will ever forget.
The groans could be heard all the way from Alabama's campus in Tuscaloosa. Howard, however talented he might be, was showing the telltale signs of youth in an environment that dictated nothing less than perfection.
"It’s a crazy environment down there," Alabama's veteran tight end said. "I told him, ‘Hey, man, in my first start against Michigan, I got a false start, too, so don’t worry about it.' "
Howard responded. He went back out and caught three passes for 68 yards, helping top-ranked Alabama remain undefeated in an offensive shootout against Texas A&M.
"He grew up a bunch in the Texas A&M game -- and he had to," Tide quarterback AJ McCarron said. "Third down and 12 or 15 or whatever it was and we completed the pass to him late in the game, kind of sealed the deal. He’s done an excellent job for us. Just got to keep progressing, can’t take any steps back.
"He does an excellent job of doing what we ask him to do. Hopefully, we can keep getting him more touches."
McCarron seemed happy to have a tight end who could create mismatches with his height, speed and athleticism. And he should be. He has never had anyone quite like Howard to whom to throw the ball.
Nick Saban has never utilized a tight end with Howard's skill set since taking over at Alabama in 2007. While the rest of the country has moved toward pass-catching tight ends who could be split out wide, Saban kept his tight ends on the line of scrimmage, hand on the ground, pounding away at defensive linemen and linebackers. Big plays have been few and far between. Their job was to block for Heisman hopeful tailbacks and field a handful of passes in the red zone each year.
The numbers bear out that fact. No tight end has ever caught more than 35 balls or broken the 400-yard receiving mark at Alabama under Saban. Meanwhile, college football has seen 83 instances of a tight ends finishing the season with more than 35 receptions and 400 yards. All-American Tyler Eifert had 113 catches and 1,485 yards over his final two seasons at Notre Dame.
Alabama's lackluster numbers were the biggest reason why Howard entered his rookie season viewed as something of a savior at the position. Not since Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome in the 1970s had UA featured a tight end who could move like Howard, whose long legs bound effortlessly like a deer when he runs upfield. He's big yet graceful, jumping and pivoting like a power forward in shoulder pads.
"O.J. Howard is a different kind of player, young player, very athletic, pretty good pass receiver," Saban said. "[He] has to get a little bigger and stronger, maybe work on his blocking a little bit, but he is tough and he will try and get after you. His athleticism is a real asset to the passing game. He gives us another threat out there. We’re really pleased with his development."
The tight end position as a whole has grown leaps and bounds this season. Howard's 13 catches for 148 yards has something to do with that. He is, after all, tied for fourth nationally in yards per reception among tight ends. But Vogler and utility back Jalston Fowler have picked up the pace as well.
All told, Alabama's tight ends are on pace to finish the season -- should it go 13 games -- with 57 catches and 642 yards. That number would surpass the previous high in production when Brad Smelley and Co. ended the 2011 season with 52 receptions and 558 yards. And that's if things stay on course. As Howard keeps developing and growing more comfortable in the offense, he stands to do even more in the passing game.
Howard still shows some signs of youth, and the growth of the tight end position as a whole is still in its embryonic stages. After a rough start to the year, things are coming along. After dealing with early season frustrations, there's reason to believe Howard and his fellow tight ends are ready to take the next step.
He’s not one to brag or really go that much in depth about his recruiting, but the fact he has Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State already scheduled shows just how high the interest is in those schools.
While there are two more officials to set up, the Crimson Tide, Fighting Irish and Buckeyes are ready to roll out the red carpet for the ESPN 300 senior -- he’s ranked 68th overall and is the No. 1 tight end at the H-position.
Here is a look at all three schools and why each makes sense for the 6-foot-3, 243-pound Luatua:
You'll recall AJ McCarron being ticked off by all of the talk of his line performing poorly Week 1 against Virginia Tech. It was a sore spot for the senior quarterback, and understandably so. These were the guys charged with protecting him that were being thrown under the bus. So McCarron stepped up, told everyone that would listen that the offensive line wasn't as bad as it was being made out to be and that it would play better against Texas A&M when the time came.
"They did a great job of communicating," McCarron told reporters on Monday. "That's what we needed. Kept me clean most of the game, I was proud of those big guys. Did a really good job. I felt like communication was going to be the biggest thing for us in this last game, especially with that crowd they have there, so I felt like everybody did a great job of communicating and helped our offense a ton."
Saban, for his part, applauded the line's improvement at the point of attack. Their ability to control the tempo opened up the offense as a whole. The Tide, two weeks after going three-and-out seven times and failing to score on a drive that began inside its own territory, had seven drives of 60 or more yards and went three-and-out just three times. Alabama racked up 49 points and 568 total yards -- 334 yards passing, 234 yards on the ground.
"Obviously [we] played a lot better offensively, communicated better, controlled the line of scrimmage, didn't have a lot of negative plays," Saban said. "Had a lot of balance running the ball as well as being able to throw it effectively and not have a lot of pressure in the pocket and really control the time of possession in the game, which is really, really important. Especially when you're playing against an offense like they have."
Kouandjio said the communication that failed them in the season opener was 10 times better, and he noted that their ability to run the ball helped wear down Texas A&M's defense. Mostly, though, he was pleased to hear how much the tone had changed after the game.
"Yeah, it felt really good," he said of quieting the critics. "People misunderstood the first game. We came out there and did what we were supposed to do."
Alabama's line didn't miss a beat, even when starting right guard Anthony Steen had to leave the field with an injury. Kellen Williams came in and the offense went right down the field yet again.
"K-dub deserves a lot of credit," McCarron said. "I mean for a guy to sit there the whole game and have to stay into the game mentally and then be called on for the last drive to help lead us down the field, unbelievable job. It really says a lot about him as a player, as a teammate, but as a person too. Excellent job by him, and he really did make some good blocks on that drive to help him put points on the board."
Said Saban: "We think Kellen is kind of a jack-of-all trades for us. He can play left tackle, left guard, right guard, can probably play right tackle. He was the most experienced guy to put in the game at that time. Did a really good job and we didn't really miss a beat with him in there. He's a fifth-year senior and he's played a lot, has a lot of experience. We really look at him as a starter on our team."
Brian Vogler, Alabama's starting tight end, said Williams gives "a lot of peoples' morale in the huddle" with his energy.
But Vogler had to credit himself and his fellow tight ends for some of the Alabama's success both in the running and the passing game. Brandon Greene essentially served as a third offensive tackle and true freshman O.J. Howard made plenty of plays in the passing game.
For the first time in a while, the tight end position felt relevant for the Crimson Tide.
"Any way we can contribute is great," Vogler said. "Sometimes you get disappointed when they call Big Play, but they call it to the other tight end. But I know O.J.’s abilities. There were a couple of times where if they called my number anc it was a deep ball, I just wanted to be like, ‘Put O.J. in now,’ because I know like I’m kind of tired right now and I want to see what he can do out there. Having him gain more confidence really helps. A game like this can really help with his confidence and hopefully he can improve in some areas."
Vogler said Greene, who began his career on the offensive line, has made "unbelievable progress" at tight end. He might be known as a blocker in short-yardage and goal-line situations now, but Vogler thinks it's only a matter of time before he expands his role on offense.
"He’s working on his route technique every single day," Vogler said. "As an offensive lineman, he knows how to block. He’s making improvement every day. We’re trying to throw him in there on more routes in practice so he’ll feel a little more comfortable out there. For a guy his size [6-5, 307], he moves well. I can’t wait for the opportunity for him running a route out there and you guys being shocked at how he can move."
By now, the hope is that AJ McCarron's dubious title would have gone by the wayside, put to rest by a junior campaign that saw him throw for nearly 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. A second championship ring as a starter should have been the final nail in that most unnecessary of debates: Is McCarron one of the best quarterbacks in the country, or is he a system quarterback on one of the best teams in the country?
But the genesis of the "game manager" title begins and ends here in Tuscaloosa. And it was never meant to be a bad thing. If McCarron wasn't a good manager of the game, he never would have seen the field in the first place. If UA head coach Nick Saban couldn't implicitly trust McCarron with the playbook, then he never would have won the starting job in 2011 and we might be talking about Phillip Sims as the Tide's quarterback. There was, after all, very little distinction between the two passers after Greg McElroy -- another supposed "game manager" to lead Alabama to a national championship -- left school and was taken by the New York Jets in the final round of the NFL draft.
Today, McCarron is trusted completely by the coaching staff, Saban included. That much was evident against Texas A&M on Saturday when McCarron was allowed to opt out of basically any play that was called in from the sidelines, run or pass. McCarron called it a "check-with-me" game in which he was asked to read the defense at the line of scrimmage and go one of two routes.
"[Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier] would send me the formation and a certain play and if I felt like they were playing one defense, I checked into a pass," McCarron said on Monday. "I did that numerous times. Sometimes they didn't give me a check to a pass, so I felt like we could run it and I check to either side running the ball. Everything in the last game was based off of what I felt like would help us."
In other words, McCarron managed the game under center. He was, as no one wants to hear around these parts, a "game manager." He just so happens to have developed into one of the best at it in all of college football, culminated by a nearly flawless performance against Texas A&M on Saturday that put him squarely back into the Heisman Trophy conversation.
McCarron threw for a career high 334 yards and four touchdowns in the win over the sixth-ranked Aggies, passing Brodie Croyle for second all-time in passing yards (6,400) and John Parker Wilson for second all-time in completions (490). It was the first time in his career that McCarron threw touchdown passes to four different receivers, the final throw coming on a series in which he audibled to play action and found a wide open Jalston Fowler in the flat for the game-clinching touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
It was arguably the best performance in McCarron's already illustrious career. All four of his touchdown passes came against a rush of five or more defenders, as he out-dueled a prolific Texas A&M offense. Alabama's +28.8 offensive expected points added -- the number of net points contributed by the offense, taking into account their performance on every since play they were on the field -- was one of the highest of any team versus a BCS automatic qualifier this season, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
But on Monday, McCarron awoke to more talk of him being a "game manager." Why? Well, it certainly didn't help boost his reputation when his coach's first comments about him after the game were encouraging only in the sense that they weren't critical. "AJ did a great job of implementing the plan," a professorial Saban said, grasping for his reading glasses later in the post-game news conference to read the final stat sheet. Columns in publications around the country instead clung to the heroics of Johnny Manziel and the resurgence of Alabama's offensive line, while very few pitched the idea of McCarron making a name for himself on the national stage.
"You don't don't want to be viewed as a game manager, AJ ..." a radio host said to McCarron on his way to class Monday, a question implicit in his trailing voice.
"I really don't care what people view me as" McCarron responded before being cut off.
The host interjected: "You're OK with that label? It sounds like a negative with what you do with that offense."
"If that's the way other people view me, it's fine," McCarron said. "I know the way my teammates view me, and I think my teammates feel like I'm an important player on the field for us at all times."
Cyrus Kouandjio, the man charged with protecting McCarron's blind side at left tackle, knows his quarterback's worth. He saw the type of leader McCarron is, watching him work the huddle and get in and out of plays on Saturday.
"We had to have that type of focus in that type of environment," Kouandjio said. "We practiced for two weeks. Everything just clicked. He’s been here for so long and he’s done so much for this program, you know, he has that trust factor. He knows what he’s doing."
Said tight end Brian Vogler: "The style of offense we run, you put a lot of confidence in the quarterback to make the right decisions, make the right calls, audible if he needs to. I really think that last job, he really took over the offense. He honestly said in the huddle, ‘Put the ball in my hands.’ So I think his confidence and his leadership really help out this offense. When we were down 14-0, he said, ‘Look guys, we’re only hurting ourselves. When we’re all on the same page and we’re all working together, we do really good things. We’re getting a lot of push on the ball, we’re getting the ball downfield … in the passing game.’ Just his leadership and the confidence the coaches have in him really helps out our offense."
Everything McCarron does, for better or worse, is viewed in the context of Alabama's offense, unlike, say, Manziel, who is viewed as the proprietor of Texas A&M's offense, the narrative wrapped around his ability to improvise and make plays out of thin air. In other words, Manziel makes things happen while McCarron has things happen for him.
For McCarron, though, the "game manager" title may linger until he leaves for the NFL, but coaches and players around the game understand his worth.
On Saturday, the Aggies dared McCarron to put the ball in the air, and he did. "We said going in AJ was going to have to beat us," Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. And what did McCarron do? "He caught fire," Snyder said after the game, lamenting how his secondary was torched for big play after big play.
Maybe if McCarron catches fire a few more times, he'll be able to finally break free of his dubious reputation as a game manager. But for now, the title still holds some traction.
His coaches are fine with it, his teammates are fine with it and maybe everyone else should be, too. The numbers, the wins, the championship rings; at the end of the day, those will speak for themselves. Saturday's win may not have extinguished talk of his being a game manager, but it certainly helped cement his legacy as one of the best quarterbacks in the school's history.
Alabama hasn't had a playmaker at wide receiver like him since Julio Jones. He's not as physically intimidating or as wildly popular, but his impact is approaching that of Jones. Cooper set nearly every rookie receiving record at Alabama last season, passing his dreadlocked predecessor and others in the process. And he did all that without starting a game until Week 6.
At the end of his signature play in the Georgia Dome, Cooper didn't even break his stride to celebrate. He put one hand up and barely recognized the crowd on his jog back to the sidelines. Meanwhile, quarterback AJ McCarron pumped his fist and waved his arms like a wild man all the way to the back of the end zone.
Nothing seems too big for Cooper; no moment, no situation. Whether it's a defense trying to beat him up in man coverage -- "They're saying their guys is better than you" -- or the pressure of living up to the past -- "I don't feel like I did a whole lot last year" -- there doesn’t seem to be an ounce of stress on his shoulders.
His only expectation: "To have a better year than last year."
"Now I'll be starting the first game this year," he continued. "I didn't start the first game last year. We'll see if I have a better year than last year."
Make no mistake, though, Cooper is confident in his abilities. During his first time speaking with the media in Tuscaloosa this spring, he slipped up and said he only had two years left in school, meaning he intends to enter the NFL draft as an underclassman. The sports information director on hand quickly corrected him and Cooper added "at least" a second too late.
"He can be as great as he wants to be," former UA cornerback Dee Milliner said last October, before the rest of the world had caught on to Alabama's rookie phenom. "He can be one of the greatest receivers we’ve had at Alabama. He does a lot of things you really don’t see freshmen do with his speed, his hands, and his quickness that he got. He can be one of the great receivers in years to come."
Doug Nussmeier didn't hesitate to call Cooper one of the game’s best earlier this month. It wasn't just his 59 receptions, 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns that impressed the second-year offensive coordinator. Instead it was Cooper's savvy.
"Amari, and what he did, from where he started to his progression through the season, we felt that towards the end of the season, he was playing as good as anybody in the country at that position," Nussmeier said. "He continues to develop … he's still learning. He's really starting to focus on the little things that are going to take his game to the next level."
Up and down the roster there's respect for Cooper, who added 7 pounds and cut his 40-yard dash time from 4.4 seconds to 4.3 this offseason. Fellow wideout Kenny Bell marveled at Cooper's growth, saying he could be even more explosive this year. Junior tight end Brian Vogler said he "really loves the game," praising his hard work and dedication.
John Fulton has had to go up against Cooper countless times during practice. The senior cornerback said that some of the stuff Cooper does, Fulton has "no idea where he learned it from, but he's absolutely amazing."
"He has this thing he does off the line," Fulton said. "I'm kind of catching onto it now, but he's going to develop something else to mess with my head. He'll take two steps outside, shake inside, shake outside and then shake back inside for a slant and its under .5 seconds. It's so fast, you can't time it. It's crazy."
Defenders around the SEC understand. Coaches do too. Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer took a second to connect Cooper with the game film during a conference call on Monday, but when he did he compared him to a two-time, first-team All-American receiver in his conference.
"I know who he is," Beamer said. "In our league he reminds you of Sammie Watkins there at Clemson. A guy that's just athletic, can go. They've got a good group of wide receivers, but certainly Cooper is a guy who is hard … It's hard to cover that guy."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The way Brian Vogler looks at it, Alabama is the home team and Virginia Tech will be its guests when the teams meet in the Georgia Dome on Saturday night. Though there's been no official designation for who's the home team in the neutral site game, Alabama's junior tight end feels his team has earned the right to call the stadium in the heart of Atlanta home.
"What it means to play in there," he said, "for us, it's the SEC championship. You sort of take pride as an SEC team having an ACC team you want to defend what is essentially your home. Just the pride of playing in the Georgia Dome, for us, as you could say reigning SEC champions, so I guess you could say it's our home."
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Well, technically speaking. Nick Saban isn't ready to stop teaching.
"Now, even though the players are moving out of the dorm, camp doesn’t really end, to me, until camp ends," the Tide's demanding head coach told reporters on Thursday. "And camp really doesn’t end to me until school starts. And school doesn’t really start to where they’ve got school stuff until next week. So we’ll continue with our meetings and all the things that we do and kind of go from there."
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Michael Williams was as dependable as they come, starting 41 games in his four years on campus. He was big, hard-nosed and reliable, a force blocking downhill in the running game and a sure-handed target in the red zone. Brad Smelley and Preston Dial before him were the same way, blue-collar players who put their hand on the ground and went to work everyday.
Brian Vogler doesn't want that identity to change. Rather, he'd like to see it evolve.
"Each year you have a different mold of a guy," he explained. "When you watch film on each guy, you try to take something they do and bring it into your game. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to pull everything I see out of their talents and try to mix it in my game."
At 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds, his size is the first thing you notice. And despite what he'd describe as lackluster athleticism, he can move. A former high school basketball player, he knows how to create space and use his long arms to shield defenders. That's only translated to three career receptions thus far, but that should change as he becomes a focal point of the offense.
Nick Saban called Vogler "one of the top conditioned guys coming back from summer," and praised his ability to sustain. Much of fall camp has been about promoting mental toughness for Alabama's seventh-year head coach, and he was able to point to Vogler on Tuesday as an example of just that.
"You create your own standard of superiority whatever you're trying to do," Saban said. "But the challenge is, Can you sustain that? Can you continue to do it with consistency and consistency in performance? That's one thing that he has, the mental toughness and maturity to do so it allows you to continue to improve."
Trust has never been in short supply at the tight end position for Saban. Unfortunately the ability to create big plays has.
If there's been one noticeable gap in Alabama's offense in recent years, it's been that no tight end has had more than 35 catches in a season since 2007. This past year was an all-time low as Williams and Co. combined for a paltry 33 catches and 249 yards. Meanwhile a new wave of tight ends like Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert snagged 50 receptions and 685 yards.
Vogler isn't likely to develop into that type of player overnight. But combined with backups Harrison Jones, O.J. Howard and Jalston Fowler, the position could become more potent in 2013.
Fowler's transition to a utility running back/fullback/H-back role was cut short by season-ending knee surgery last season, but now he's back where he left off, according to Vogler, who called the bowling ball of a back a "hard-hitting guy who's not afraid of anybody."
"That's the exact same guy you're going to see at the H-back position," he said.
Fowler's ability to play multiple spots on the field could be of use to offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Fowler said he had begged coaches to let him catch the football, and last year they finally listened. After having things end tragically, he said he's coming out with something to prove.
"I've got a big chip on my shoulder," he said. "I'm trying to show the world what I'm worth."
The wild card in it all is Howard, an early enrollee who came to campus in January and immediately began making waves. If there's anyone on the roster capable of taking the tight end position into the 21st century, it's him. A former four-star recruit, he was a "monster on tape," according to scouts. He has the size at 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds to dominate cornerbacks and the track-level speed to blow by linebackers.
Vogler called Howard a "whole new dimension to this offense" in the spring and praised his athleticism and ability to run after the catch. If he made the right kind of progress, Vogler said he thought he'd be a viable part of the offense.
On Tuesday, Vogler revisited the subject, praising the way the former blue-chip prospect has come into camp eager to do all the little things right.
"He's working really hard," Vogler said. "He asks me questions if he has any problems or wants to know how to do things. He's one of those guys that comes into work everyday with a really good work ethic and tries to learn."
No. 84 Brian Vogler
Redshirt junior tight end
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No. 82 Harrison Jones
Redshirt junior tight end/H-back
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Rookies with the best chance of making an impact
2. RB Derrick Henry: He'll play running back. Let's get that out of the way right now. At 6-foot-3 and some 240 pounds, Henry doesn't look like your prototypical ball-carrier, but that's what he'll be as a freshman. And watch out. Teammates marveled at his strength, saying he looked like a taller version of Trent Richardson on the practice fields. A broken leg caused him to miss A-Day, but he's expected to be back to 100 percent before the start of fall camp.
3. WR Raheem Falkins: As the No. 41-ranked receiver in a signing class that featured No. 2-ranked Robert Foster, it's understandable why Falkins wasn't on many people's radar coming into spring camp. But the tall, rangy wideout from Louisiana enrolled early and showed he's more than just a project. He was quick, smooth and graceful with the football, belying his size. But it's his size that gives him an edge. At 6-foot-4, he'll be the tallest receiver on the roster and thus a good option in the red zone.
4. OT Leon Brown: Don't count Brown out of the race at right tackle just yet. Veteran Austin Shepherd has the lead, but Brown isn't so far behind that he can't catch up. The former No. 2-ranked juco offensive tackle enrolled early this spring and transitioned well to the college game under new position coach Mario Cristobal. He could hit his stride this fall after a full offseason in the weight and film rooms.
5. LB Jonathan Allen: It's no secret that Alabama needs help rushing the passer, and Allen is a talent in that respect. The former No. 3-ranked defensive end in the country got after the quarterback well in high school, and the native Virginian will be asked to do the same in Tuscaloosa, albeit from a hybrid linebacker position. He already has the size at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, it's just a matter of taking to a new position.
6. DL Dee Liner: Nabbing Liner away from the Auburn Tigers late in the recruiting season was a home run for the Alabama staff. The No. 4-ranked defensive tackle in the ESPN 150 has the quickness Alabama is looking for in its defensive linemen, as well as the versatility to play multiple spots on the field.
7. RB Alvin Kamara: Like Falkins, Kamara will have an edge on his competition in that he'll have a niche role. Unlike all the other Alabama tailbacks that are generally one-cut power runners, Kamara is a guy with the shiftiness to get outside the tackles, make multiple cuts and run away from the defense. He's got good hands, too, meaning he could be a weapon on third down and in passing situations if he shows he can block effectively.
8. CB Maurice Smith: Alabama needs depth at cornerback, and Smith is the highest-rated defensive back in the Tide's 2013 signing class. More importantly he's a physical corner which Bama coach Nick Saban will like, and he's a guy who is used to competition having come up through the Texas high school football ranks. But be warned, his transition to college will take time. It's no easy task for a freshman to learn Saban's way of playing corner. It took Geno Smith until nearly the end of his first season to figure it out.
9. LB Reuben Foster: The tattoos and backstory now fully behind him, it will be interesting to see what Foster does with a fresh start. Say what you will about his personality, but his talent is undeniable. As the No. 1-rated inside linebacker in the ESPN 150, he has the strength, size and speed to be a force at the next level.
10. LS Cole Mazza: In all honesty, Mazza could be at the top of this list if it were "Who is the most likely to play as a freshman?" Instead it was a question of impact, and measuring the potential for impact is debatable given the position he'll play. We could see the long-snapper playing from Day 1 seeing as he's the only player Saban has ever awarded a scholarship at his position. He's the heir to Carson Tinker, who played in 38 career games.
AJ McCarron is a happy man these days, and not just because he gets to drive the pace car at Talladega. The senior quarterback is smiling, in part, because of the number of weapons he'll have to work with this coming season.
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