Alabama Crimson Tide: Chris Black
Because they’re unpredictable, we’ll avoid first-year players like Cam Robinson. If you want an idea of who could make an instant impact in 2014, we wrote about that shortly after signing day.
On Monday, we wrote about running back Derrick Henry jumping onto the national stage in the Sugar Bowl. On Tuesday, we covered Jonathan Allen's room for growth at defensive end. And today we're looking at a player with a few years in the program and plenty of untapped potential.
5-foot-11, 182 pounds
Credentials: The 2012 season was over for him before it ever began. Alabama fans will remember that it was Black -- not Amari Cooper -- who entered fall camp with all the buzz. He was ranked higher by ESPN and other recruiting services out of high school, and the way he looked in practice at Alabama did nothing to quell the excitement over his potential early impact at receiver. But a shoulder injury he sustained in mid-August robbed the speedy Florida native of his first year on campus, forcing him to take a redshirt. And when he came back in 2013, Cooper was coming off a freshman All-American season and the rest of the receiving corps was stuffed with veterans like Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell and DeAndrew White. Black appeared in eight games and caught eight passes for 79 yards and two touchdowns -- all from backup quarterback Blake Sims in what amounted to garbage time.
How he fits: He may not have a stunning résumé, but to see Black run routes in practice makes you forget all that. The shifty receiver is silky smooth and hits a high gear with seemingly little effort. Now that Norwood and Bell are gone and the depth chart has loosened some, it's Black's time to show whether he'll sink or swim at Alabama. He clearly has the tools, but he'll have to beat out plenty of other talented pass-catchers before he can see the field. Cooper won't be moved, White has a bevy of experience and junior Christion Jones has been a fixture as slot receiver the past two seasons. It's realistic that Black could become the fourth receiver and catch 30 or so balls, but he'll have to fend off a slew of other youngsters: the physically imposing Raheem Falkins, the No. 2-ranked receiver prospect in 2013 Robert Foster and the No. 8-ranked receiver prospect in 2014 Cameron Sims.
Best case/worst case: A repeat of 2013 would be a major setback for Black, especially considering all the youth suddenly behind him at receiver. If he has another year of single-digit receptions, there's a chance he could be passed by. But the good news for Black is that he has what amounts to the freshest of starts college football can offer. He'll not only have a new quarterback throwing him the football (AJ McCarron seemed to prefer veterans he knew better), but he'll also have the benefit of a brand new offensive coordinator who comes to Tuscaloosa with an eye on adding more explosive elements to the offense. Lane Kiffin's arrival could mean a shuffling of personnel at every position, and the receiver corps is especially ripe for an overhaul. If Black can use the spring to establish a rapport with the new quarterbacks and provide Kiffin a good first impression, he could ready himself to compete for a starting job come fall.
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- They never caught much flack, which is understandable. Considering the numbers AJ McCarron put up at quarterback this past season (3,063 yards, 28 touchdowns passing), why pick on Alabama’s wide receivers? Their overall production wasn’t bad at all.
But considering all the talent Alabama has amassed at the position, shouldn’t they have been better? Shouldn't they have been more explosive? Alabama had 45 passing plays that went for 20 yards or more, which was squarely in the middle of the pack of the SEC, trailing the likes of Ole Miss, South Carolina, Missouri, LSU, Georgia and Texas A&M.
Granted, it’s hard to supplant entrenched veterans like DeAndrew White, Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell, but the way Nick Saban and his coaching staff have recruited the top talent at receiver in recent years, you’d think someone would have emerged who could stretch the field more vertically. In fact, not a single freshman -- redshirt or otherwise -- made a significant impact at the position in 2013.
Now we all know how talented and how explosive Amari Cooper has been in his first two seasons on campus. He’s been nothing if not an immediate success. But he can’t be the only youngster to stand out at the position. Not in 2014 when a new quarterback is under center and Norwood and Bell are off to professional careers. More will have to come from those further down the depth chart.
Strength in numbers: Chris Black is no longer a young pup. Fans will remember that he was actually ranked higher than Cooper by most recruiting services coming out of high school. He was injured and redshirted his first year on campus, and last season he caught just eight passes. A speedy target with good hands, he’ll be among the leading contenders off the bench. He’ll be joined by a few others, though, as Robert Foster, the former No. 2-ranked receiver in his class, and Raheem Falkins, an impressive target at 6-foot-4, enter their second year in the program.
New on the scene: Cameron Sims will only add to the deep supply of young talent at receiver when he arrives on campus. The four-star athlete and No. 8-ranked wideout in the ESPN 300 has the height (6-4) and speed (roughly a 4.52 second 40-yard dash) to make an immediate impact. He’ll have to add some weight to his 190-pound frame, but strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran is well versed in tackling that challenge. Joining Sims in the 2014 signing class is Ohio native Derek Kief. The No. 26-ranked receiver is another big target at 6-5 and 198 pounds.
- Part I: Cornerback
AJ's curtain call: Forget the lack of national recognition and forget his slim Heisman Trophy hopes. As I wrote a few weeks ago, to look at AJ McCarron in those terms is to fail to understand his value as a three-year starter at quarterback for Alabama. On Saturday, senior day in Tuscaloosa, McCarron will be recognized as the historically great player he's been. He already holds many school records (winning percentage, passing yards, etc.) but what matters most are the rings. He's already got two as a starter, a third as a backup, and is aiming for a fourth this season. When fans rise to applaud all McCarron has done on Saturday, forget what recognition he might be lacking elsewhere and remember all the great things he's already done in Tuscaloosa.
C.J.'s final hurrah: Talk about a lack of recognition. McCarron gets the lion's share of the applause for what Alabama's done because he's the quarterback. But whatever McCarron has done as a passer, C.J. Mosley has done as a linebacker. The man has been a contributor on defense since Day 1, playing alongside the likes of Rolando McClain, Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower. And he's done his part and more to live up to their legacy. Every year he leads the team in tackles and this season he's stepped up and met his biggest challenge yet: leading the defense from a philosophical standpoint. He's put aside his normally quiet demeanor and raised his voice to lead a defense that needed a strong veteran at the helm.
Ball control: Expect Alabama to move the ball with ease against lowly Chattanooga. The poor Mocs don't stand a chance. But pay attention to ball control. If there was one big negative takeaway from last weekend's win over Mississippi State, it was the turnovers. Alabama gave the ball away a season-high four times in Starkville. McCarron broke his streak of 139 passes without an interception with not one, but two picks. And T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake each fumbled the ball, bringing their season total to eight overall. If there's one thing Alabama can't have moving forward, it's that. McCarron has to be careful with the football and Yeldon and Drake need to rediscover how to keep the ball high and tight.
Second-stringers: There are no players to watch from Alabama's first team offense or defense. Those guys will have their way with Chattanooga and reach the sideline before halftime, in all likelihood. So rather than give you Christion Jones or Adrian Hubbard to key on, let's turn to the second- and third-stringers, also known as the players you'll be watching a year or two from now. On defense, look to linebacker Dillon Lee and cornerback Maurice Smith. They'll be competing for starting roles in spring camp. And on the other side of the ball, pay attention to running back Derrick Henry and wide receiver Chris Black. Both have been held back by the depth ahead of them, but expect more snaps for each in 2014.
Iron Bowl fever: It's almost here, I promise. While Auburn had the luxury of the week off with a bye, folks in Tuscaloosa have to watch the Crimson Tide beat up on Chattanooga before they turn their attention fully to the Iron Bowl. Next Saturday's game will be one for the history books as it will be the first time that either team has a chance to win and make it to the SEC championship game. We won't get into the matchups and the storylines here, but when you watch Alabama take on Chattanooga, look out for things like run defense and special teams play as they could be signs of things to come when the Iron Bowl finally gets here.
First there's the matter of Chattanooga. Oh, those poor Mocs daring to stand in the way of the top-ranked Crimson Tide.
And after the way Alabama traveled to Mississippi State last weekend, turning the ball over a season-high four times, playing a generally sloppy game and failing to dominate a sub-.500 team, there's plenty of motivation for the Tide to come out and stomp the Mocs, end the game early and turn its attention to Auburn and the Iron Bowl.
But what is UA coach Nick Saban looking for? After lamenting the way his team entered last weekend's game, he's hoping for better preparation and better focus.
"I think we're really trying to focus on attention to detail, doing the little things right," Saban said on Wednesday. "[I] don't think we really finished the last game the way we wanted to in terms of the discipline to attention to detail and fundamentals, whether it's how you carry the ball, how you block, how you run routes, how you read the coverage, how you cover your man. … I think those are all things we need to focus on improving on.
"We certainly have a lot of respect for anybody we play. The team that we play, they're a good team. They've won eight games. We just have to have a better sense of urgency about how we prepare so that we can improve as a team."
There's no key matchup to focus in on, no position battle to agonize over. Alabama should beat Chattanooga handily and the starters should be out by halftime. Instead, look to the second- and third-string players who might not have much of an impact this season, but could develop into key contributors next season and in the years to come.
Here are a few to watch out for:
LB Dillon Lee: The true sophomore has quietly become one of the top linebackers off the bench this season, flashing good quickness and instincts. He ranks third among non-starters with 15 total tackles. He also has two quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery.
RB Derrick Henry: He's not had the breakout freshman season many hoped for, but Henry's 10.3 yards per carry average is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you consider he's 6-foot-3 and 283 pounds. He's run the ball 21 times -- third most on the team -- for 216 yards and a touchdown.
CB Maurice Smith: Who knows what the cornerback situation will look like a year from now? Deion Belue will be gone and both starting spots will be up for grabs, and while Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve have the inside track, don't forget Smith. There's a reason the true freshman has seen the field this season, racking up 10 tackles in 10 appearances.
WR Chris Black: After redshirting his first year on campus, Black has had trouble climbing the latter at receiver. But when you consider that Kevin Norwood, DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell -- three of the top five receivers -- will be gone next season, Black's opportunity doesn't seem far away. He should see the field in the second half, likely when Blake Sims comes on at quarterback.
These games might be snoozers, but Alabama coach Nick Saban considers them valuable learning experiences and opportunities to clean up the little things that could cost the Tide in conference games.
While Georgia State clearly couldn't touch Alabama's talent pool, this was arguably Alabama's most complete game of the season, offensively and defensively. The Tide scored on their first seven possessions of the game. The defense gave up 1.9 yards per play in the first half and 3.9 for the game. Alabama started with five straight touchdown drives to take an early 35-0 lead before heading into the half up 38-0.
Georgia State's only points came on a school-record 53-yard field goal.
Quarterback AJ McCarron was lights out, going 15-of-16 passing for 166 yards and four touchdowns. He was out of the game before halftime even rolled around. Running back T.J. Yeldon looked like his old springy self, rushing for 51 yards on six carries before his early trip to the sideline. Wide receiver DeAndrew White made a circus catch for a touchdown late in the first quarter, and Alabama had 308 yards and 19 first downs to Georgia State's 41 yards and three first downs in the first half.
The second half was all about the youngsters, as Saban sat most of his starters to give reserves some valuable time before heading deeper into SEC play.
"The experience creates the best learning opportunity for every guy that got an opportunity to play," Saban said. "Some of those things got a little sloppy at times, but the benefit far outweighs the consequence in terms of the experience that guys were able to gain."
You knew the day was for the backups when Blake Sims replaced McCarron with 4:26 remaining in the second quarter. Saban said the idea was to let Sims, who entered the game with just two pass attempts on the year, run the offense. Saban didn't want any designed QB runs; he wanted Sims to take charge and throw.
It worked, as Sims completed 14 of 18 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown. Forget who the opponent was, that was a confidence-building performance that could go a long way the next time Sims gets into a game.
Seventy Alabama players played, including sophomore wide receiver Chris Black, who led the Tide with six catches for 54 yards and a touchdown. It was the most time he had seen in a game during his career, after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury.
"I'm looking forward to improving, getting better and doing work," Black said.
Saturday was also a chance for Landon Collins and Geno Smith to get time at free safety, where the suspended Ha Ha Clinton-Dix played. It was the first time Collins had played in a game at free safety, and he said he was nervous for one play -- the first one.
It was a chance for offensive lineman Grant Hill to get in and prove that burning his redshirt for the season was worth it. And it was a chance for freshman Altee Tenpenny to carry the ball four times on Homecoming inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
These might look insignificant, but more learning experiences and more game action will go a long way for Alabama's youngsters.
"Coach isn't there to help them each and every step, like he is in practice, so it gives them more confidence," White said. "In the future, we're not going to be able to hold their hands the whole way. For us to get out of the game and them come in the game and we're not missing a beat, that's real good."
To get you ready for the game, here are some things to look for when the two schools take to the turf inside the Georgia Dome:
Alabama will win if …
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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's latest feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today's offerings: Success recruiting receivers might be the most overlooked reason for Alabama’s recent run; what one Big Ten recruiter said about Michigan’s 2015 class; and how Maryland landing Jesse Aniebonam was huge for in-state recruiting efforts.
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Most players on Alabama's roster are like Anthony Steen. The veteran right guard isn't scared of his coach, necessarily, but he has a healthy fear of what happens when Nick Saban gets upset. When Saban calls you into his office and pushes a button to close the door behind you, you know something's wrong. It's a scene straight out of a B-rated thriller: Once the door locks, there's no telling if you're coming back out.
AJ McCarron, though, isn't like most players. He doesn't wait to get called upstairs. He marches there himself.
Five years ago, when McCarron was distinguished mostly by his flop of hair and spread of tattoos, he showed up to his first scrimmage at Alabama expecting a spot on the depth chart that wasn't there. Upset, he went straight to the coach's office. What happened next is burned into Saban's mind forever.
"AJ was on our team for 11 days, and he thought he should be second team and we played him on third team," Saban recalled. "He came fussing and kicking and cussing up to my office after the scrimmage because he was disappointed he didn't play with the second team."
Saban's message to his young quarterback: "We're only evaluating you on one thing today and that was leadership, and you failed dramatically."
The rest, as they say, is history.
In the past four years, coach and quarterback have become remarkably similar. Their mannerisms are often the same -- kicking dirt, slapping hands, shouting at players -- as are their attitudes. Imperfection in any form isn't tolerated, and mental mistakes are disdained.
"AJ and Coach Saban get along better than anyone else on the team," Steen said. "They have their certain jokes that I don't even get sometimes, talking straight about football, too. I just pretend and laugh with them.
"The other day we were in a meeting and he said something to Coach picking at him and he went right back at him. I know I wouldn't get into an argument with Coach."
Their bond didn't start out that way. McCarron was a lot like his fellow teammates when he first got to campus, a "results-oriented guy" who focused on scoring touchdowns and making big plays rather than the process of the day-to-day and what it meant to be a leader. Now he's matured into a guy who wants to play winning football at all costs.
When McCarron was asked at SEC media days what he thought of the seeming lack of attention he receives despite winning so many games, he responded in typical Saban form. He wanted to meet who "they" were, the ones who were saying all of these things about him.
"It's funny to me," he said. "Sometimes I feel like any other quarterback in the country wins two national championships and he's the best thing since sliced bread. And I'm still labeled a game manager.
"It's fine with me. They can call me a bench rider. As long as we keep winning, I don't care."
Saban wasn't there to hear his quarterback's response, but it's safe to say he would have enjoyed it. Maybe more than anything, it's a sign of how far McCarron has come.
McCarron is now the unquestioned leader of the two-time defending champion Crimson Tide and a safe bet to land somewhere in the early rounds of next year's NFL draft. He finished last season ranked first in the country in passing efficiency, and this year he has even more talent at receiver with DeAndrew White, Chris Black and Kenny Bell all back from injury. Amari Cooper has progressed into an All-American talent, and Kevin Norwood is as steady a target as they come in the SEC.
The offense, Bell said, has a chance to be the best in college football.
"We do, especially since we have the people we have on offense," he said. "We have a great quarterback, a great running back, great receivers, a great offensive line. We can be one of the stellar offenses in the country."
A year stronger and a year wiser, McCarron is one of the front-runners to win the Heisman Trophy. Teammates say they've noticed that his strength and accuracy are improved, and no one is asking about his commitment to the game.
"AJ gets better every day, every year," junior wideout Christion Jones said. "He's going to get better no matter if it's the passing game or better fakes."
McCarron, for his part, isn't willing to self-analyze or speculate -- yet another example of the mirror image of Saban he's become. There's still some of the hot-tempered freshman in him somewhere, but much of it has changed to reflect the coach he's followed into three national championships in four seasons.
"I'd be lying to say no, the Heisman, I've never thought of it," he said. "My mom still has a picture of me ... dressed up in a Bama football costume and [doing] the Heisman pose. It's always been a dream of mine, but at the same time I'm not going to let my personal goals come in the way of our team goals. If I achieve that, that's great. I'm happy.
"But at the same time, I'm a team-first guy. I've always been that way. You'll never hear anybody say I'm selfish in any type of way. That's when your program and team starts to fall off, when you're not team-oriented and you're more into personal goals. That's the ingredients for failure there."
DePriest, a junior with NFL potential at 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, missed Tuesday's practice in Tuscaloosa. He's part of a linebacking corps that returns all four of its starters from a season ago, including All-American inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and top pass-rusher Adrian Hubbard on the outside.
Saban also announced that star wide receiver Amari Cooper would miss the next few practices with a strained foot. The Pre-Season All-SEC selection led the team with 59 catches, 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, setting nearly every Alabama rookie receiving record in the process.
Cooper wore a black no-contact jersey during practice on Tuesday.
"He’s going to be out for a few days," Saban explained, "and then he will be day-to-day. I don’t think he’s going to be hurt for a long time."
Luckily for Saban, Alabama is loaded at wide receiver. Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones, DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell all have starting experience and freshmen such as Chris Black, Robert Foster and Raheem Falkins are pushing for playing time as well.
"The receiver group has progressed very, very well from where we were at this point last year," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said at UA's media day on August 4. "We have a couple of new players, a lot of returning guys, a lot of guys who've played a lot of games. Obviously we had some injury issues last year that helped us develop some younger players."
Alabama was able to welcome back tight end Malcolm Faciane on Tuesday after he finished a 30-day suspension for violation of team rules. The 6-foot-5, 267-pound redshirt sophomore was in line for more reps this season after the departure of Michael Williams, but will have an uphill battle now that backups such as Harrison Jones and O.J. Howard have begun making their case for playing time.
"I don’t like suspending players," Saban said. "If we’re going to punish any players or suspend any players, it’s going to be in their best interest to change their behavior so they have a better opportunity to be successful. If it’s not going to do that, I don’t see any reason to do it.
"It’s almost like raising your kids. If you’re going to spank them and it doesn’t change their behavior, why spank them? If you take their computer or their cell phone away from them and it changes their behavior, I’d say that’s the thing to do. We would only do it in the best interest of the player."
T.J. Yeldon burst onto the scene in the season opener against Michigan, becoming the first player in school history to rush for 100 yards in his debut. Amari Cooper had his first career reception in the same game, but waited until Week 6 to get his first start at wide receiver. And what did he do? The former four-star prospect set nearly every rookie receiving record at Alabama, passing former Freshman of the Year Julio Jones on his way to 59 catches for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Deion Belue, Denzel Devall and Geno Smith all found their way onto the field as freshman, too. Belue, a junior college transfer, started opposite Dee Milliner at cornerback, and Devall and Smith played in reserve roles at linebacker and cornerback, respectively, on Kirby Smart's defense.
"First of all, opportunity is important, to have an opportunity to do that," Smart, Alabama's 37-year-old defensive coordinator, said during Alabama's media day a week ago. "[It takes a] very conscientious kid to understand, 'Hey, I got to know this defense inside and out, I got to know all the checks, I got to know all the motions and checks, I got to know all the adjustments.' You've got to be very conscientious to do that, but you've got to have some ability.
"It's very easy for us to find those guys out there. When we recruit good players, they usually stick out as freshmen. We find ways to get them on the field and always have in some kind of role."
Junior linebacker Trey DePriest told reporters that he's been impressed with the way true sophomore Reggie Ragland has improved in his second year.
"Reggie is doing really well," he said. "He's picking up the defense a lot more. He's able to run around and make plays because he knows a little more about the defense."
Ragland is one of several players from Alabama's No. 1-ranked 2012 signing class looking to step up. The former No. 2 inside linebacker prospect spent last season learning behind Nico Johnson. And now that Johnson is in camp with the Kansas City Chiefs, Ragland and fellow linebackers Dillon Lee and Ryan Anderson are poised to move up the depth chart.
While it's unlikely any of the three sophomores will break into the starting lineup, each will have their opportunity to contribute this season. Ragland, at a hefty 259 pounds, is a big body who could come off the bench and stop the run at inside linebacker. Lee, who brings more athleticism to the table, could play either inside or out. And Anderson, a former four-star defensive end prospect, is a tweener who could help boost the Tide's pass rush.
Up front, defensive linemen Dakota Ball and Dalvin Tomlinson could do the same. Both redshirted last season -- Ball rode the bench because of a lack of opportunity while Tomlinson was sidelined while he recovered from a torn ACL. But now that Alabama is looking for more "quick-twitch" linemen to rush the passer, both are ideal candidates to fill that void. Tomlinson, in particular, has drawn high praise from coaches and teammates. Saban indicated last season that the former state wrestling champ would have played as a rookie, if not for his injury.
Getting to the quarterback will be key this season as Saban and Smart bring along an overhauled secondary that could feature two sophomores. Smith, who started his first game against Western Kentucky in Week 10, and Landon Collins, who played primarily on special teams a year ago, could get expanded roles. Smith is positioned to be the nickel corner while Collins, the former No. 1 safety prospect in the country, will battle it out with veterans Vinnie Sunseri and Nick Perry for reps opposite Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at safety.
"Landon is doing excellent," Clinton-Dix said toward the beginning of fall camp, telling reporters that the competition at safety has been cutthroat. "He's a great safety. He's fast, dominant and he's doing a great job right now."
On offense, Kenyan Drake, Chris Black and Alec Morris all have the chance to do more this year. Drake is the frontrunner to back up Yeldon at tailback, Black is competing for reps in a crowded receiving corps and Morris is neck and neck with Blake Sims to become the second-string quarterback.
Though Morris might never see the field in a meaningful way this season, he's nonetheless a vital part of Alabama's title hopes. If AJ McCarron were to go down, it's unclear who would start: Would it be the read-option choice (Sims) or the prototypical drop-back passer (Morris)?
"Very different style of players, obviously," Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. "As you watch the film from when Blake played for us last season, we become a little different in how we approach the game. His ability to run the football and create plays with his feet is different than a good majority of the quarterbacks on our roster. Alec is more of your prototypical drop-back guy. He’s a big, physical guy with a very strong arm. Both those guys need to continue to develop read progression, understanding of the game. But they’re doing a really good job, work extremely hard."
While Nick Saban's defense has gotten the bulk of credit in the past -- and rightly so, considering it has finished in the top five nationally in points allowed every year since 2008 -- it shouldn't go unnoticed what he's quietly constructed on the other side of the ball thanks to back-to-back No. 1 recruiting classes and a change in philosophy. He's claimed all along that he was willing to throw more and that he wanted more big plays, but for the longest time his offense has been characterized as conservative, leaning on the defense and running game while asking its quarterbacks to simply manage the proceedings.
But when Saban hired Doug Nussmeier as offensive coordinator following the 2011 season, everything changed.
With a fresh slate, a veteran quarterback and the deepest group of receivers in recent memory, Alabama's offense has a chance to do even more in 2013. It could, much to the chagrin of opposing coaches, become one of the most explosive attacks in the country.
"Very, very excited for Year 2," Nussmeier said on Sunday. "We've got a long way to go, but I'm really impressed by the job that [strength coach Scott Cochran] and his guys have done in the weight room preparing these guys coming into camp. The focus, the improvements that we've made over the summer are there. Really looking forward to progressing each day as we look forward to playing a very, very good Virginia Tech game in the opener."
Nussmeier kept to the cliches in what will be his only time speaking with the media this season, stressing the need to maintain balance and stick to the program's core philosophies. But it's difficult to imagine him not giving into his roots as a record-setting college quarterback given what he'll have to work with this season. McCarron is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender under center and an already talented receiving corps welcomes back former starters DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell after missing time last season with injuries. Former top-25 prospect Chris Black has shed his redshirt and is eager to prove himself, as are true freshmen Raheem Falkins and Robert Foster.
"The receiver group has progressed very, very well from where we were at this point last year," Nussmeier explained. "We have a couple of new players, a lot of returning guys, a lot of guys who've played a lot of games."
The headliner of the group, Amari Cooper, set nearly every rookie receiving record Alabama had in 2012, passing Julio Jones on his way to double-digit touchdowns and 1,000 yards. And like the former SEC Freshman of the Year and first-round draft pick, Cooper should only improve with age. As Nussmeier pointed out, Cooper took time to develop into a go-to target last season, starting his first career game in Week 6.
"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, and I can talk about the little intricacies, 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."
Christion Jones agreed with his coordinator, calling Cooper an impact player since the first time he set foot on the field in Tuscaloosa.
Jones was one of two receivers to start 10 games last season, frustrating defenses with his ability to run after the catch, averaging 13.6 yards every time he touched the ball. Despite that, he said he and Cooper are fighting for reps.
"At Alabama, everything we do is competitive," he said. "You have to bring your 'A' game to practice, not just the game."
Bell is one such player pushing for a return to the starting lineup. His 25.4 yards per catch in 2012 was the best in the country among receivers with at least 15 receptions. Now that his broken leg is healed, he's the type of home run threat McCarron can turn to when a big play is needed.
But it's not just Bell who will keep defensive coordinator's up at night. The speedy senior agreed: the offense's potential is sky high.
"Especially since we have the people we have," he said. "We have a great quarterback, a great running back, great receiver, a great offensive line. I think we can be one of the most stellar offenses in the country."
Alabama players report today and begin practicing under the direction of coach Nick Saban and the staff tomorrow. To get you ready for all the action, here's a piece-by-piece look at some areas and players to watch.
Making their move
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AP Photo/David J. PhillipAJ McCarron hopes to win a third consecutive national title this season.
The 2013 college football season has the potential to showcase one of the greatest quarterback classes ever. Eight of the top 10 teams in last year’s final Associated Press poll return their starting quarterbacks, and every conference except the Big 12 returns either their first- or second-team quarterbacks from last season.
In preparation for the 2013 season, ESPN Stats & Info will take a deeper look at the top QBs entering the fall. Wednesday, we look at the Alabama Crimson Tide’s senior QB AJ McCarron.
A Look Back at 2012
McCarron was one of 15 quarterbacks who threw for at least 30 touchdown passes last season, and perhaps most impressively, he did so while throwing only three interceptions on 314 attempts. His touchdown-to-interception ratio (10-1) and his 175.3 pass efficiency both led the FBS.
Behind three NFL draftees on the offensive line, the Crimson Tide had the sixth-highest yards per rush in FBS. Consequently, McCarron thrived on play-action passes in 2012.
McCarron’s effectiveness using play-action opened up the deep ball. After a play-action fake, he was 18-for-25 with nine touchdown passes and no interceptions on passes of 20 yards or more. When targeting Amari Cooper on those passes, he completed close to 70 percent of his attempts with five touchdowns.
What’s Ahead for 2013?
McCarron will look to build off of back-to-back national championships with a robust returning receiving corps.
The group is led by the aforementioned rising sophomore Cooper, with whom McCarron built a strong rapport toward the end of the season. Of Cooper’s 59 receptions, 27 came in the last five games of the year. Six of his 11 touchdown receptions also came during this span, including two in the national championship game against Notre Dame.
Cooper will be joined by senior Kevin Norwood, the second-leading receiver last season, and redshirt freshman Chris Black, who was the 22nd overall prospect in the 2012 recruiting class according to the ESPN 150 and the second-rated wide receiver.
Alabama did lose three offensive linemen to the NFL draft (Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker and Barrett Jones), as well as its leading rusher, Eddie Lacy. Alabama will look to replace Lacy with T.J. Yeldon, who rushed for over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman last season.
The Crimson Tide will also look to capitalize on a favorable schedule. They have just four true road games and a neutral site game in the season opener against Virginia Tech. What are thought to be the Tide's two toughest matchups, at Texas A&M and home against LSU, each come after a bye week.
With the returning caliber of talent, Alabama should again be a contender for the BCS title. If the Crimson Tide accomplish the improbable “three-peat,” McCarron can become the first quarterback to start and win three straight national championships in at least the last 50 years.
No. 5 Chris Black
Redshirt freshman wide receiver
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Recruit Comparison: Kouandjio to Big Cam
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35