Alabama Crimson Tide: Cam Robinson

We continue our "Most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold a special meaning for one of the teams involved.

Today, we take a look at Alabama.

Most important game: Nov. 8 at LSU

Key players: As always, it's going to come down to who wins the line of scrimmage. And after looking over both teams' personnel, it's a bit of a toss-up.

On the one hand, Alabama is loaded on the defensive line with depth at nose guard and capable pass rushers like A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and D.J. Pettway at the ready. But the offensive line is something of a question mark with two new starters, one of whom could be true freshman Cam Robinson at left tackle.

LSU is looking at the opposite situation with four starters back on its offensive line, including La'el Collins, who passed on the NFL draft this offseason. But the defensive line isn't on its usual solid footing without a pair of tackles you know can anchor the defense. The good news is that the pass rush shouldn't suffer with Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco in place, and Tashawn Bower poised to come into his own.

Where Alabama does have the edge is at the offensive skill positions. While LSU has plenty of pieces in place with Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, they all have either limited or no experience. Alabama, meanwhile, has a bevy of talent and experience with Amari Cooper at receiver, O.J. Howard at tight end and T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry at running back.

The major question mark for both teams is at quarterback. Jacob Coker could be the next great Alabama quarterback, but until we see results we don't really know. LSU has not one but two quarterbacks to choose from in sophomores Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings, but who holds the upper hand is still to be determined.

Why it matters: Oh, you know, there's just a little history with this series as five of the last seven seasons have seen either Alabama or LSU win the West. Despite significant changes to both teams' rosters, this season looks to be no different as both programs harbor hopes of reaching Atlanta.

The road to Week 11 of the season is much kinder to Alabama, as the Tigers must first go through Wisconsin, Mississippi State, Auburn, Florida and Ole Miss, while the Crimson Tide face only two teams that finished last season above .500 (Ole Miss, Texas A&M).

Because of that, you can look at this as a "prove it" game for Alabama. Sure, traveling to Ole Miss presents its challenges, but the last time Alabama lost there was in 2003. And Texas A&M, while talented, likely won't be the same team without Johnny Manziel leading them into Tuscaloosa. Meanwhile, LSU won't be a "young" football team by November, and it will also have Tiger Stadium on its side.

If Alabama can survive LSU, it should be favored in its remaining three games, all of which are at home: Mississippi State, Western Carolina and Auburn.

Now you can jump up and down and say Auburn is the most important game for Alabama, and you'd have a solid argument. There's the fact that it's the best rivalry in college football, that both teams will likely be ranked when they meet Nov. 29 and the most basic issue of revenge to attend to. But it comes down to this for me: If Alabama loses to LSU, how far will the Tide drop in the playoff hunt and will a win over Auburn be enough to put them back in the conversation? Of that I'm not so sure.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Some stocks rise during spring practice and some inevitably fall, and that wave of momentum heading into the offseason can be a valuable determinant when it comes to seeking more playing time during the season.

With that in mind, here’s a look at five players emerging on offense for Alabama. Stay tuned Wednesday as we’ll turn our attention to the defense.

QB Jacob Coker: Yeah, we’ve never seen him wear an Alabama jersey, but is there any doubt after A-Day that he’s the frontrunner to start at quarterback? He’s now officially on campus, according to his father, and doing well. We’ve heard stories about his arm strength and his athleticism, but in a few months we’ll get to witness it first-hand when camp opens.

[+] EnlargeTony Brown
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsRobert Foster, who dueled Tony Brown for this pass on A-Day, showed big-play potential this spring.
WR Robert Foster: Many might not remember that Foster was a late arrival as a true freshman, getting cleared by the NCAA and showing up at almost the last possible minute for practice in the fall. Still, he was listed as the second-string ‘Z’ receiver behind Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell. In case you were sleeping under a rock, those two have graduated and moved on. And while Foster might not start, he should make a contribution as those around the program have been impressed by his big-play ability.

RB Derrick Henry: At this point, is anyone is sleeping on Henry? After his breakout performance against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, he’s been all the rage. He’s even gotten in the Heisman Trophy discussion and caused speculation that he might replace T.J. Yeldon in the starting lineup. This writer disagrees, but another doesn’t. However, everything out of Alabama has been positive. Nick Saban has been effusive in his praise of Henry, calling his spring “fabulous” and his work ethic commendable.

TE O.J. Howard: It’s only a matter of time before Howard’s skills as a pass-catcher translate to the field. As a freshman, he showed promise but was inconsistent. According to those close to him, he was frustrated at times as he caught six passes in his first three games and then eight the rest of the season. But with Lane Kiffin now installed as offensive coordinator, things should be different. Kiffin has had success with tight ends in the past and would do well to feature Howard more heavily in the offense, moving him around the field where he can exploit his size and athleticism against smaller defensive backs.

LT Cam Robinson: The true freshman certainly looks the part. At 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, he has the build scouts dream about. Early on this spring, it appeared as if his mind was elsewhere. In typically rookie fashion, he struggled to keep up as he learned everything for the first time. But he was a quick study and began rotating in with the first-team offensive line in no time. The former five-star prospect -- the No. 1-rated offensive lineman in the ESPN 300 -- wound up starting with the ones at A-Day, further solidifying his chances to start from Week 1.
Not every prediction we made about Alabama heading into the spring panned out, but we got awfully close. Let’s take a look back:

Prediction No. 1: Kiffin provides a jolt

This one appears to be a work in progress as A-Day was not the most impressive performance for the offense. Outside of a failed flea-flicker attempt, there wasn’t any play or formation called by new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin that really wowed you. But, as one player told reporters after the game, only about 10 percent of the playbook was available. With that said, the reviews on Kiffin have been overwhelmingly positive. Nick Saban said he expects Kiffin to get the ball into his playmakers’ hands more often this season, specifically to players such as Amari Cooper. That should be music to fans’ ears. And as far as the players themselves, they’ve noticed a difference in Kiffin’s demeanor and play-calling. They’ve said his offense is much more simple and “player-friendly.” So while we never saw major schematic changes or a change in the tempo of the offense publicly, rest assured that Kiffin is working his magic behind the scenes.

Prediction No. 2: Sophomores emerge

[+] EnlargeTony Brown
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsRobert Foster, who dueled Tony Brown for this pass on A-Day, showed big-play potential this spring.
OK, so this wasn’t exactly an earth-shattering prediction. But we did name names. Reuben Foster, Robert Foster and Maurice Smith were spotlighted as players who missed spring practice last season but would benefit from it as sophomores. And with at least two out of the three, there was some measure of success. Reuben Foster, despite a series of stinger injuries, continued to draw positive praise and should be in the mix for significant reps at middle linebacker this fall. Robert Foster, on the other hand, made some spectacular catches at practice this spring, vaulting himself up the depth chart where he could be one of the first receivers off the bench. Smith, however, remained mostly quiet. Right after Eddie Jackson went down with a torn ACL, Smith missed a scrimmage with a concussion. Tony Brown, a five-star early enrollee, took full advantage of the reps and played well at A-Day, making an impressive interception despite playing in a no-contact jersey.

Prediction No. 3: Frosh challenges at LT

It took some time, but maybe not as much as some might have expected. Cam Robinson skipped his high school graduation and bypassed his prom to enroll at Alabama in January and compete in spring practice. With Cyrus Kouandjio gone at left tackle, he saw an opportunity. And after a few weeks of getting a handle on the offense, Robinson took a step forward, earning reps with the first team at left tackle, where he started A-Day. Robinson still has some growing pains to work out, but given his size, talent and early improvement, he'll be in serious contention to start at left tackle from Day 1. Though Saban called the five-star signee a “work in progress,” he also cautioned that, “You get experience by making mistakes. ... He did some good things, and he’s done some really good things all spring long.”

Prediction No. 4: DePriest steps up game

By the sounds of it, Trey DePriest is doing everything coaches are asking of him this spring. With C.J. Mosley off to the NFL, he has responded by becoming a more vocal presence on the defense, leading a group that’s as young in spots as it is talented. As DePriest put it, “I’m just trying to help out where I can.” And that means calling the majority of plays on defense, getting his front seven in line and the secondary in tune. Saban praised DePriest’s knowledge of the defense as well as his maturity, saying he has the ability to “affect other players in a positive way.” Judging by the small window of A-Day, he has done just that as the defense didn’t allow a point in the first half.

Prediction No. 5: Ranking Alabama’s QBs

Maybe we were too hard on Blake Sims, ranking him fourth out of five. By Saban’s estimation, he had a great spring, exhibiting control of the offense, improvement as a pocket passer and good production through two scrimmages, reportedly throwing for 515 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. But a sour A-Day performance kept him from being our post-A-Day leader in the clubhouse. Whatever momentum he’d gained before Saturday was lost when he threw one touchdown and two interceptions with a 43 percent completion percentage (13 for 30). Cooper Bateman, whom we previously ranked No. 1, looked the part at A-Day, showing the most poise and control of the quarterbacks. Alec Morris, meanwhile, was somewhat of a disappointment with just seven passing attempts and one interception. Parker McLeod and David Cornwell turned out to be the fourth and fifth quarterbacks in the race, attempting only two passes, completing none and throwing one interception. The one quarterback who did look good at A-Day was incoming transfer Jacob Coker, who looked on from the sideline as a spectator.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch when Alabama takes to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday for A-Day, the finale of spring practice.

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

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

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

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

5. The up-and-comers:

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

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s not going to be easy, but Cam Robinson is going to do it. The five-star prospect from Louisiana is still wet behind the ears, but that won’t stop him from claiming the left tackle position at Alabama. He'll be replacing another former highly-regarded recruit who played in his first eight games as a freshman before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Cyrus Kouandjio would recover and start 27 consecutive games as a sophomore and junior and is on pace to be taken in the first round of May’s NFL draft.

Whether Robinson develops into that successful an offensive tackle remains to be seen. Rather, today is reserved for the slightly less ambitious question of whether a true freshman can enroll early, beat out some stiff competition and start from Day 1 at a position that is widely considered the most pivotal on the offensive line. Robinson, who cuts an imposing figure at 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, is the best equipped of Alabama’s eight early enrollees to answer with a resounding, “Yes.” And that’s saying something, if you take Nick Saban at his word.

“I’ve been really impressed with the eight freshmen that we have here,” the 62-year-old head coach of the Tide said last week. “I think that it's a huge advantage for them to be here. But they've all sort of done a nice job in the offseason program, are all guys that look like might be guys that can compete to help the team in some kind of way which I think is a real positive for us.”

Robinson gave up his final semester of high school -- prom, graduation, etc. -- to come to Alabama early and compete. It wasn’t a tough decision, he said, because it would give him the leg up he was after.

“I had to think about the long run, how it would benefit me when I get to college,” he told reporters on signing day in early February. “So it wasn't a tough decision at all.”

Coaches have told him he’ll play left tackle, he said, which is obvious when you look at his tape. He might be big, but he’s more than athletic enough to play on the outside. As his ESPN scouting report notes, he has “good initial quicks off the ball, ankle flexibility and the strength to deliver a jarring initial pop.” There are plenty of colorful adjectives one could use to describe the way he hits the second level of the defense.

“Of course I wouldn't mind starting,” Robinson said, “but that's something you have to ask coach about.”

For now, Saban isn’t saying. He wouldn’t put the pressure on a player like that. And Mario Cristobal, who is in charge of the offensive line, isn’t allowed to speak to the media.

That said, Robinson seems like he has humbled himself to the challenge of competing at Alabama. When asked what he needs to work on, his answer was very much to the point.

“Everything,” he said. “I need to work on everything. SEC man, with these defensive linemen, it's crazy. These guys are freak athletes. I'm working on everything I can to just get better overall.”

He’ll have challengers, but none with the upside he possesses. Leon Brown should figure into the competition, along with Brandon Greene and Brandon Hill. Dominick Jackson, who was the No. 1 offensive tackle in junior college last year according to ESPN, wasn’t signed by Alabama to sit and watch. He’ll push Robinson as much as anyone.

But there are already rumblings coming out of Alabama that Robinson will play as a true freshman, and spring practice hasn’t even begun. If his work ethic matches his physical tools, then the job very well could be his.

If that sounds familiar, it should. Kouandjio was talked about much in the same vein prior to his arrival in 2011. Had he enrolled early, he might have done more than play in eight games as a true freshman -- he might have started.

It’s going to be a tall task for Robinson to win the job and start from Day 1. That challenge will begin on Saturday when Alabama opens spring practice in Tuscaloosa. How Robinson fares over those 15 practices will either propel him to a starting role or set him on a course for later development. But given the landscape of things, bet on the more ambitious goal.

Poll: SEC's top impact true freshmen

February, 12, 2014
Feb 12
1:00
PM ET
Edward and I have both projected who we think will be the SEC's top impact true freshmen next season. Now it's your turn.

SportsNation

Which true freshmen in the 2014 signing class will make the biggest impact next season in the SEC?

  •  
    34%
  •  
    31%
  •  
    13%
  •  
    7%
  •  
    15%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,616)

We've come up with five candidates for you to pick from, some of them different than the ones we selected in our top five, and invite you to go to our SportsNation poll and vote. We'll unveil the results later this week.

According to ESPN's rankings, the country's No. 1 running back (Leonard Fournette/LSU), No. 1 quarterback-pocket passer (Kyle Allen/Texas A&M), No. 1 offensive tackle (Cameron Robinson/Alabama), No. 1 receiver (Malachi Dupre/LSU), No. 1 offensive guard (Garrett Brumfield/LSU), No. 1 defensive end (Myles Garrett/Texas A&M), No. 1 outside linebacker (Christian Miller/Alabama) and No. 1 athlete (Speedy Noil/Texas A&M) all signed with SEC schools.

In addition, seven of the top 10 signing classes belonged to SEC schools, and 27 of the top 50 players overall in this class are headed to the SEC.

But who's going to be the true freshmen who makes the biggest splash next season? Let's see who you, the fans, come up with.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Because he’s a signed prospect, Nick Saban will have to address the addition of Jacob Coker during spring practice.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims will be one of five QBs who will be competing in Alabama's spring practice.
He’ll have to, at some point, answer questions about the quarterback transferring from Florida State, the strong-armed former backup to a Heisman Trophy winner whom Alabama fans hope will develop into something of an award-winning quarterback himself in Tuscaloosa.

But there will be so much more to spring practice than Coker, mostly because he won’t even be there. If you think Alabama’s offense is simply waiting on his arrival, you’re wrong. While Coker finishes his degree in Tallahassee, new Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will have more than enough work to do.

So while spring practice may still be several weeks away, here’s a look at three things Kiffin must accomplish during camp. You’ll notice Coker’s name is nowhere to be found.

The Forgotten
Oh, the other guys? Yeah, Alabama has quite a few quarterbacks already on the roster. Blake Sims, AJ McCarron’s backup, is still around. So is Alec Morris, who traveled with the team as a redshirt freshman last season. Luke Del Rio’s transfer makes last year's trio of true freshmen one less, but Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod are both back. And David Cornwell, No. 4 in the ESPN 300, enrolled early and will compete during spring practice as well.

Kiffin, who is also the quarterbacks coach, has five guys who want to win the starting job now. They're not going to wait around until someone else -- we won’t say his name again, remember? -- arrives in the summer.

Getting Sims more comfortable taking snaps under center and throwing from the pocket will be a big challenge for Kiffin, as will developing confidence in the younger quarterbacks. Having them all in tune with the new playbook will be a big goal of the spring, giving them the leg up they'll need to enter fall camp ready to compete from Day 1.

Developing young weapons
Former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has been blamed by some for limiting the explosiveness of Alabama’s offense in 2013. Further analysis disputes that fact, though, as Alabama had the fifth-highest percentage of plays of 10 or more yards in the country last season. The more appropriate critique might have been who was making big plays rather than how many as Nussmeier struggled to incorporate new offensive weapons like O.J. Howard and Derrick Henry.

Howard, despite being the most athletic tight end on the roster and one of the best playmakers on offense, caught just 14 passes. In nine games he caught one or no passes. Meanwhile, Brian Vogler, the starter, had all of eight receptions in 2013 and caught no passes in the final three games.

How Henry, the clear winner of the Allstate Sugar Bowl with 161 total yards and two touchdowns, took so long to develop is anyone’s guess. He didn’t carry the ball a single time in Alabama’s four closest regular-season games: Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn. His big body might have helped when Alabama faced a number of short-yardage situations in the Iron Bowl.

Kiffin, though, won’t have the excuse of youth with Howard or Henry this fall. Getting them more involved in the offense and developing underused weapons like Chris Black and Raheem Falkins will be paramount to Alabama's success in 2014.

Reestablishing the offensive line
Here’s a bit of not-so breaking news: Alabama's 2012 offensive line that so many called the best in the history of college football is gone. All of it. With Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen off to the NFL, every piece of that five-man puzzle has left campus.

Now Kiffin and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal must find new faces to build around. Three starters will return -- center Ryan Kelly, guard Arie Kouandjio and tackle Austin Shepherd -- and one or more of them will have to assume a greater leadership role with so many veterans gone. Leon Brown, who filled in admirably for Steen in the Sugar Bowl, looks ready to start, and the left tackle competition will be heated with a number of returning players and incoming freshman Cam Robinson eager to earn the spot.

Philosophically, a return to a more physical style on the line could be in order. With more inexperience up front than usual and a new quarterback under center, Kiffin might lean toward a run-heavy offense, especially early in the season. Establishing that proper mindset on the line early might be more important than finding who the starting five will be during spring practice.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It happens every year now, so don't act surprised. If you're an Alabama fan, deal with it. If you're not, don't weep for the Crimson Tide, either. Coach Nick Saban has lost multiple underclassmen to the NFL before, so Thursday's news that safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan will all leave school early is no insurmountable thing. This is just the reason why Saban and his staff recruit so hard.

[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillSafety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is one of four Alabama players who are leaving school early to enter the 2014 NFL draft.
Their leadership and experience will be missed -- along with seniors AJ McCarron, C.J. Mosley and Anthony Steen -- but their talent can be replaced. When you're the only school in the country to finish in the top three of ESPN's class rankings every year since 2008, you have that luxury of plug-and-play. Blue-chip prospects overflow from Alabama's football offices, rattling out its pockets every once in a while like loose change.

"Our twos and threes could do what I did out there," Clinton-Dix said of the team moving forward. "I'm not worried about any of those guys stepping up."

Alabama will be fine without Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix. Many of their replacements are already on board: Landon Collins at safety, Leon Brown at tackle, Dillon Lee at strongside linebacker, Jonathan Allen at defensive end. Those who will challenge them for playing time are either just now arriving or just now finishing their first seasons in Tuscaloosa: defensive backs ArDarius Stewart and Laurence 'Hootie' Jones, tackles Grant Hill and Cam Robinson, linebackers Tim Williams and Da'Shawn Hand, and defensive ends Dee Liner and D.J. Pettway -- all excellent prospects.

It's easy to look at the loss of stars and say, "Oh no!" but that's not how it works at Alabama. It wasn't that long ago that safety Mark Barron left school and Clinton-Dix entered the fold. D.J. Fluker went to the NFL a year early and Austin Shepherd had little trouble at right tackle in his absence. Eddie Lacy torched Notre Dame in last year's BCS title game, announced he was turning pro and Alabama never missed a beat. Not only is T.J. Yeldon back for his junior season, a fella by the name of Derrick Henry appears ready to be his new sidekick.

This is the program that Saban has built. This is what his "Process" has borne. And it's embraced around campus. Just look at this, this and this from Alabama's director of player personnel Tyler Siskey. As Saban told reporters, "We've had 13 guys go out early for the NFL draft, 11 of those guys have been first-round draft picks."

Often when other schools lose key players to the NFL, there's a mad scramble to find their replacements. At Alabama, coaches turn to a stocked cupboard. Take the safety position, for instance: Cinton-Dix goes out with off-field drama and Collins enters the fold at free safety, followed by Vinnie Sunseri blowing out his knee and Collins then shifting over to strong safety. Collins, a former five-star prospect in his own right, immediately found success. A year after playing primarily on special teams, he finished second on the team in tackles, tied for first in interceptions and tops in passes defended.

Sure, Saban would love to see Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix back for another year. Just don't expect him to openly weep about it. He's probably more than thrilled that Trey DePriest and DeAndrew White should be sticking around for their senior seasons.

You know, two out of six isn't bad. Three championships in five years seems to be going over quite well in Tuscaloosa.

Alabama will survive and new stars will emerge next season. Sometimes you hate to see athletes like Clinton-Dix leave early, but their departure only clears the way for who's next.
Trey DePriest cut the list of possible departures by one when he announced that he would return for his senior season. But the list was, according to Alabama coach Nick Saban, already in the double digits as Alabama's notoriously tight-lipped head coach said before the Sugar Bowl that as many as 10 players were interested in their NFL futures and would look into receiving a draft projection from the league's advisory board.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Week 6 Picks: Alabama-Ole Miss
Trevor Matich and Brad Edwards make their picks for Saturday's SEC showdown when Alabama gets its first major test of the season traveling to face Ole Miss.
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