Alabama Crimson Tide: Christion Jones

Ranking the SEC kick returners

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
10:00
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Projecting a top 10 among kick returners from the SEC is difficult at this point, as many of those jobs will be up for grabs once preseason practice opens in August.

For instance, who will replace All-American Odell Beckham at LSU? It’s too early to know for sure, but you can bet he will probably be good enough to include on this list once the season gets rolling.

We do, however, know the identities of some of the SEC’s top return men -- starting with the ridiculously talented Christion Jones, Andre Debose and Marcus Murphy. We’ll take an educated guess at some of the other spots in today’s SEC kick return rankings.

[+] EnlargeChristion Jones
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsElectric return man Christion Jones can be a game-changer for the Crimson Tide.
1. Christion Jones, Alabama: How good is Jones? The SEC’s career leader in kickoff return touchdowns (Debose) is on this list and we’re ranking Jones ahead of him. It’s just plain scary to kick the ball in Jones’ direction as his ranking second in the SEC in both kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14.0 ypr), plus his three return touchdowns last season, would indicate.

2. Andre Debose, Florida: Debose would have been a candidate for the top spot, but we’re not sure what kind of player he will be when he returns from a torn ACL suffered during preseason camp last season. If his speed and mobility come back, we’re talking about one of the most electric kick returners in SEC history.

3. Marcus Murphy, Missouri: A 2012 All-SEC pick who is capable of garnering All-America attention, particularly because of his skills as a punt returner, Murphy is one of the key returnees for a Tigers club that lost a lot of firepower. He scored 10 touchdowns on offense last season, but didn’t notch a TD on special teams a season after he found the end zone four times on returns. Murphy will compete for the starting tailback job, but thus far his biggest impact at Mizzou has come while serving as an excellent return man.

4. Devrin Young, Tennessee: A breakout candidate for the Vols before a broken hand cost him nearly half of the 2013 season, Young could be a huge difference maker for Tennessee this fall. He’s already fifth in Tennessee history with 1,575 career total kick and punt return yards. If he stays healthy, Young will move up that list in the fall.

5. Trey Williams, Texas A&M: His primary objective is probably to claim the starting running back job, but Williams is also scary as a return specialist. The shifty and lightning-quick junior ranked fifth in the SEC with an average of 25.2 ypr on kickoffs last season, a season after earning SEC All-Freshman team honors as a return man.

6. Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: It looks like both the kick and punt return jobs belong to Cooper after he handled those duties much of the time in 2013. He was a solid kickoff return man (22.4 ypr) and averaged 4.4 yards on nine punt returns. Cooper looks like a Bruce Ellington clone, possessing the ability to impact the game in a variety of ways -- particularly as a return specialist.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMICorey Grant could have a big season for the Tigers.
7. Corey Grant, Auburn: Grant hasn’t won this job yet, but he seems like a good choice to take over for Tre Mason. He averaged 10.0 yards per carry out of the backfield and 32.0 ypr in just five kickoff returns -- one of which went 90 yards for a touchdown against Tennessee. He has breakaway speed that Auburn’s coaches have to like in this role.

8. Jaylen Walton, Ole Miss: Another guy competing for a 2014 starting running back job, the diminutive Walton was impressive as a return man last season. In addition to his 523 rushing yards as a backfield mate for Jeff Scott and I’Tavius Mathers, he contributed 25 kickoff returns for 515 yards, good for a team-best average of 20.6 ypr.

9. De’Vante Harris, Texas A&M: A solid if unspectacular performer, Harris ranked sixth in the SEC with an average of 6.7 yards per punt return a season ago. He broke the Aggies’ season-long punt return in a win over SMU, snapping off a 30-yard runback.

10. Brandon Holloway, Mississippi State: Let’s make a speculative pick here. Holloway has nowhere near as much experience as Jameon Lewis as a return man, but he made some noise in limited action last season. As a full-time returner, he could become a star – although his hopes of becoming the Bulldogs’ running back might interfere. Holloway averaged 37.7 ypr on three kickoff returns, thanks in large part to a 95-yard runback against Alcorn State, and also had a 23-yard punt return in the Egg Bowl and a 13-yard return in the bowl win over Rice.
Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).

Ranking the SEC wide receivers

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
1:00
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Earlier today we ranked all 14 teams based on their receivers and tight ends. Now it’s time to focus on the specifics and rank the best of the best in the SEC.

Top 10 wide receivers

[+] EnlargeCooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAfter a slow start, Amari Cooper reminded everyone just how talented he is by the end of the season
1. Amari Cooper, Jr., Alabama: For much of last season, he wasn’t himself. His feet weren’t 100 percent and it showed. But the Cooper who flashed All-SEC ability as a freshman returned to form in his final two games as a sophomore, racking up 15 receptions for 309 yards and a touchdown. He’s a guy who demands -- and routinely beats -- double coverage. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, he could become an even greater focal point of the passing game.

2. Laquon Treadwell, So., Ole Miss: Everyone had the feeling he’d be special in his first year at Ole Miss, but it came as a surprise just how ready he was to compete in the SEC. Playing slot, he was one of the best receivers in the league, finishing second only to Jordan Matthews in receptions (72). As a result, coaches voted him SEC Freshman of the Year. At 6-foot-2 and 224 pounds, he has the frame to challenge smaller defensive backs. But it’s his hands and ability to create space that make him special. With Donte Moncrief now gone, he’ll transition to the outside and continue to be a favorite of quarterback Bo Wallace.

3. Sammie Coates, Jr., Auburn: His game has always been about speed. Running the deep post, he could simply sprint by defenders. But as a junior, Coates is trying to develop a more well-rounded game, focusing on his footwork and strength. It’s scary to think that at 6-2 and 200 pounds, he’s just now learning how to control his body. If he can become more of an option in the short to intermediate passing game then we could see Coates’ game go to another level.

4. Jameon Lewis, Sr., Mississippi State: Consistency is the key for Lewis. Though he finished last season with significant numbers (1,040 total yards, 8 touchdowns), he also came up missing in a few big games (South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama, for example). At 5-9 and 195 pounds, he’s someone coach Dan Mullen will look to get the ball in space, whether that’s on screens or even running the Wildcat. With his burst and elusiveness, he’s a threat to find the end zone every time he touches the football.

5. Malcolm Mitchell, Jr., Georgia: Every conversation involving Mitchell requires the caveat "if healthy." After putting up 40-plus receptions as a freshman and a sophomore, he was lost for all of last season with a torn ACL. Now, as Hutson Mason put it, "He's about as close to 100 percent as he'll be." If healthy, he's a matchup nightmare with the ability to score from anywhere on the field.

6. Christion Jones, Sr., Alabama: Like Lewis, Jones is another elusive sub-6 foot receiver coaches look to get the ball whenever possible. Because when he touches the football, he has the ability to make someone miss and score. With Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell no longer on campus, expect more looks for Jones.

[+] EnlargeMarquez North
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIMarquez North has the size, speed and hands to make a big impact for the Vols.
7. Marquez North, So., Tennessee: Do we have to remind you of his one-handed catch against South Carolina? Do we have to point out that he’s 6-4, 221 pounds and can run after the catch? If you saw him rack up 38 catches and 496 yards as a true freshman last year, you probably can’t forget it. It’s scary to think what he could do with consistent play at quarterback.

8. D’haquille Williams, Jr., Auburn: There may not be a more hyped receiver in the SEC this year than Williams. And it’s with good reason. He wasn’t just the No. 1 receiver in ESPN’s Junior College 50, he was the No. 1 player overall. At 6-2 and 216 pounds, his athleticism is spectacular. While it remains to be seen how he grasps the offense and how he jells with quarterback Nick Marshall, all the ingredients are there for Williams to be one of the best receivers in the league.

9. Ricky Seals-Jones, RS Fr., Texas A&M: We could have put any one of three Aggies receivers on this list. Malcome Kennedy has a history of solid production, and Speedy Noil has the potential to be a star in this league. But in balancing potential and experience, Seals-Jones won out. After redshirting last season, he should have a good grasp of the offense. And at 6-5 and 225

10. Travin Dural, So., LSU: You'll have to forgive everyone for overlooking Dural last season. Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham were that good. But their departures have created a vacuum at receiver, and Dural appears ready to step into that vortex. Lanky and explosive, he could become a favorite target of whoever starts under center for LSU.
We continue our breakdown of each position group in the SEC on Wednesday by looking at a group that might be low on name recognition but quite high -- and deep -- on talent.

Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jordan Matthews are all off to the NFL. Now a new group of playmakers is ready to emerge.

Who will be this season’s star pass-catchers? Let’s find out.

Wide receiver/tight end position rankings

1. Alabama: Like so many on this list, all of it depends on who is throwing the football. If Jacob Coker shows he can spin it, then Alabama will have the best group of pass-catchers in the SEC -- maybe the country. It isn’t just Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard, whom you will read about later this afternoon. Howard, who was underutilized in the passing game last year, is poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign. But there’s also veteran DeAndrew White, all-purpose star Christion Jones and depth that includes a litany of former blue-chip prospects.

2. Texas A&M: Too bad Johnny Manziel didn’t stay another year because he might have really enjoyed the guys he was throwing to. Malcome Kennedy, he of 60 receptions and seven touchdowns last season, isn’t even the most exciting receiver on the field. That honor belongs to one of two freshmen. Ricky Seals-Jones, who redshirted last season, would have reminded Manziel so much of Evans, an impossibly tall target who can go up and get the ball. And then there’s Speedy Noil, the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, who looks like a dangerous weapon at slot receiver. With tight end Cameron Clear working the middle of the field, the Aggies should be able to stretch the field effectively.

3. Georgia: How can you not like Chris Conley? Not only did he write and direct a "Star Wars" fan film, he’s also a pretty good receiver with 45 catches for 651 yards last season. Starting opposite him, if his health holds up, should be Malcolm Mitchell. The redshirt junior has loads of potential, as he was second on the team in receiving in 2011 and 2012. Throw in Jay Rome, one of the more underrated tight ends in the SEC, and that’s a good group for quarterback Hutson Mason to work with.

4. Auburn: Nick Marshall is progressing as a passer at the right time. His receiver corps, which looked thin at times last season, is set to make a big jump. Sammie Coates, Auburn’s leading man, has the potential to become much more than a speed demon who can run a nasty post. Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis are all guys who have shown flashes of talent. Then there’s D'haquille Williams, the former No. 1 junior college receiver. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound target has all the tools to become one of the best receivers in the SEC.

5. Ole Miss: Offensive coordinators love it when they can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Laquon Treadwell, who as a true freshman trailed only Jordan Matthews for the most receptions in the SEC last season, is the type of home-run threat to keep safeties on their heels. Evan Engram, who made a positive impression as a rookie himself before succumbing to injury, gives Ole Miss a one-two punch by demanding coverage in the middle of the field because he’s simply too athletic a tight end to be covered by most linebackers in the league.

6. South Carolina: They’re on the small side. Let’s get that part out of the way. There’s not a 6-3 or 6-5 receiver Dylan Thompson will be able to lob the ball to this season. But nonetheless, he’s got some options. Damiere Byrd is one of the fastest receivers in the SEC, and Pharoh Cooper is another guy who is dangerous with the ball in space. That’s not to mention Shaq Roland, who has All-SEC type talent. Though his 6-1 frame might not excite you, he’s one of those guys who can create separation and get the ball in traffic. If there’s one spot you’d like to see the Gamecocks progress, it’s at tight end. And with Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson, there’s potential to improve.

7. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen needs to find some playmakers on offense. Outside of running back, his ability to develop talent at receiver and tight end has been somewhat of a disappointment. This year could change that. Jameon Lewis has the upside of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, someone who can take it the distance any time he touches the football. De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-5 target with a hoops background, is just the type of over-the-top threat to play off the small, speedy Lewis. With a good group of running backs and a quarterback who can extend plays, expect more from the passing game in 2014.

8. Tennessee: Butch Jones has a lot to be excited about when it comes to his receivers this season. But until the status of Pig Howard is determined, that excitement is on hold. The talented receiver was forced to miss all of the spring with “personal issues.” If he can return and join Marquez North, it would make for a formidable one-two punch. Add top signee Josh Malone into the mix and whoever starts under center should be happy with what he’s working with. That said, without a single starter returning on the offensive line, time for the quarterback to throw downfield could be a big obstacle.

9. LSU: Yes, the team’s top two receivers are gone. Jarvis Landry and Beckham were both the real deal last season, accounting for 66 percent of all receptions. And, yes, LSU is replacing its quarterback, too. But we’re betting on potential here. Travin Dural and John Diarse have the tools to be starters in this league. And then there are the freshmen. LSU signed two the top three receivers in the 2014 class -- No. 1 Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- in addition to Jacory Washington, the No. 5 tight end in the country.

10. Florida: It’s time to prove it, Florida. We’ve heard for a few years now how the receivers were getting better. But last season was the same old story with no real playmakers on the outside. Maybe new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will change that. Demarcus Robinson seems in line for a big sophomore bump, along with Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. With seniors Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose back, there’s a good amount of depth to lean on. But until we see consistent results from the Gators’ receivers, we’ll have to wait and see if this really is the year.

11. Missouri: Gary Pinkel had to let Dorial Green-Beckham go. But what a waste of talent it was. He would have easily been the most talented receiver in the SEC. Now his future, and that of Missouri’s offense, is up in the air as the Tigers fail to return any of their top three pass-catchers from last season. Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt are back, which helps, but more receivers will need to emerge to help Maty Mauk in the passing game.

12. Kentucky: Javess Blue quietly was one of the most productive receivers in the SEC last season, despite having little consistency at quarterback. Blue, now a senior, finished 14th in the league with 43 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll anchor a group that has some potential. Ryan Timmons, a former four-star prospect in the 2013 class, could break through after playing in all 12 games as a freshman. And as far as true freshmen go, look for Kentucky to lean on its 2014 class that includes Thaddeus Snodgrass, T.V. Williams, Dorian Baker and Blake Bone.

13. Arkansas: Someone needs to take the load off of Hunter Henry this season. Henry, who caught 28 passes and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, stands to make up the majority of the Razorbacks passing game now that Javontee Herndon, the team’s leading receiver in 2013, is gone. So is Kiero Small, the fourth-leading receiver. The good news: Demetrius Wilson, who missed all of last season, returns. Wilson, a big target at 6-foot-3, could be a difference-maker.

14. Vanderbilt: You don’t replace Jordan Matthews. You don’t replace the man with the most career receptions in SEC history. Vanderbilt will try, but it’s going to be difficult. And it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle considering that Jonathan Krause, the team’s second-leading receiver, also is gone. With those two no longer on campus, look for C.J. Duncan and Jordan Cunningham to step up.
Running? Receiving? Fielding kicks? Those are all fine qualities to have. But what about the guys that do it all?

More and more offenses are moving away from the typical pro-style schemes and formations of generations past. A tight end isn’t just a tight end anymore. A running back isn’t just a running back. A wide receiver isn't … well, you get the point. Alabama’s O.J. Howard can put his hand on the ground at tight end or H-back, or he can split out at wide receiver. South Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper is listed as a wide receiver, but he’s just as valuable a running back or return specialist for the Gamecocks. Jameon Lewis can line up at receiver, running back or quarterback for Mississippi State.

[+] EnlargeJameson Lewis
AP Photo/Rogelio SolisVersatile and dangerous weapons like Mississippi State's Jameon Lewis make plays no matter where they line up or how they get the ball.
Up and down the SEC, there are athletes who do it all on offense -- and sometimes special teams, too.

Often on the SEC Blog we rank the top players by each position for the coming year. But it’s time we give Mr. Versatile his due. With that said, here’s a look at the league’s top all-purpose offensive athletes in 2014.

Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

Bruce Ellington will be missed, but don’t weep for the Gamecocks. It’s Pharoh Cooper to the rescue. Coach Steve Spurrier called Cooper a “natural talent.” His numbers as a true freshman were promising -- 655 all-purpose yards -- and enough to land him on the Freshman All-SEC team. But he could do even more as a sophomore. He’ll continue to factor into the return game, play wide receiver and even take some direct snaps at quarterback.

Christion Jones, Alabama

Alabama may not run the most inventive offense in the SEC, but it finds a way to get Jones the football. The lightning-quick senior has started at wide receiver and in the return game each of the past two seasons. He carried the ball 13 times for an average of 17 yards in 2013 and finished 14th in the SEC with in all-purpose yards per game (102.7). Additionally, he returned two punts and one kickoff for a touchdown last season.

Jameon Lewis, Mississippi State

Had Damian Williams been unable to play against Ole Miss, Dan Mullen would have turned to Lewis as his starting quarterback. Seriously. With Tyler Russell sidelined and Dak Prescott injured, the 5-foot-9 junior would have been forced under center. Thankfully that never happened, but it’s just a taste of Lewis’ versatility. The speedy Mississippi native is someone Mullen looks to get the ball in space, whether that’s at receiver, running back or quarterback. He not only led the team with 923 yards receiving, he finished fifth in rushing with 117 yards. All told, he had five receiving touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns. He even threw three passes, completing all three attempts for touchdowns.

Ricardo Louis, Auburn

Last season’s Georgia game might have been a glimpse of the future for Louis. The former No. 5 athlete in the ESPN 300 broke out in a big way against the Bulldogs, rushing for 66 yards on five carries while catching four passes for 131 yards and a touchdown. Even before his memorable game-winning Hail Mary, he was a difference in the game. His ability to play both receiver and running back makes for a tough matchup for any defense. And with Tre Mason and Chris Davis gone from the return game, Louis could become a factor there as well.

[+] EnlargeSpeedy Noil
Miller Safrit/ESPN.comTexas A&M signee Speedy Noil, who was ranked as the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, could make an immediate impact.
Speedy Noil, Texas A&M

Too soon? Not after all we’ve heard coming out of College Station, Texas, about the talented true freshman. Noil may not be that No. 2 this fall, but he could conjure up memories of Johnny Football with his ability to make plays in space. The former five-star prospect and No. 1-rated athlete in the ESPN 300 drew rave reviews from coaches and teammates this spring. He’s already said to be the presumptive starter opposite Ricky Seals-Jones. Good luck covering those two as Seals-Jones is a monster at 6-5 and Noil is an elusive burner at 5-11. In addition to spending time at receiver, look for coach Kevin Sumlin to get Noil the ball in space wherever possible, whether that’s in the return game, at running back or even taking direct snaps at quarterback.

Five more to watch:
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama isn't in a rush to find its starting quarterback for the 2014 season.

That might sound a little crazy when you consider the high expectations the Crimson Tide will undoubtedly face yet again this fall, but it really isn't the biggest concern for a team that was an improbable play away from repeating as SEC West champs and possibly playing in its third straight BCS title game last season.

[+] EnlargeMorris/Bateman
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlec Morris (left) and Cooper Bateman (right), along with Blake Sims, have separated themselves a bit in Alabama's QB derby.
While the team can wait it out on finding a starter -- especially with former Florida State quarterback Jacob Coker enrolling after spring -- Saturday's scrimmage could go a long way to finding a little separation with the five guys currently vying for the position.

“Obviously, the first scrimmage kind of shows you who wants to really work for the spot and who doesn’t," Crimson Tide center Ryan Kelly said about the quarterback competition.

With Coker not on campus, Alabama has turned to Blake Sims, Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris, David Cornwell and Parker McLeod to share reps under center this spring. Sims, a redshirt senior, is the only one with any experience, but he changes the offense some with his mobility. While all five bring something different to the table, the plan for Alabama will be to run more of a pro-style offense. Sims might be the odd one of the bunch when it comes to that, but new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's arrival shouldn't change the basic structure of an offense Sims is very familiar with.

Alabama has only had a handful of scrimmages, but players have been at it since pre-spring 7-on-7s began. For wide receiver Christion Jones, each QB has taken advantage of every rep afforded to him since last season ended. For now, Jones said Sims, Bateman and Morris have stood out from the bunch.

“Everyone has their time where they struggle a little bit, but those three guys are the ones who overcome," Jones said. "Even when they mess up it’s not really a letdown or they get frustrated. Those three take the coaching better. The other guys still have to learn to take the coaching and take the criticism and make yourself better out of it.”

We'll be able to see a little more of that Saturday. The guys who have prepared the most and bought in more will stand out. They won't have to be perfect, but they'll have to show that they've learned something in the last few weeks.

In a perfect world for the Tide, a starter would be in place and this team could worry more about developing, but trying to find a new signal-caller means that players around them are having to do more. Linemen are having to adjust to five different patterns and cadences from each quarterback, while receivers are dealing with five different releases, five different throwing styles and five different versions of in-huddle terminology.

Jones said it isn't exactly ideal, but it is making receivers better, as they are having to concentrate even more on what they are doing in practices to accommodate for each passer.

“This spring, it’s more of focus level because we don’t know who the starting quarterback is," he said. "Either one of those five guys could be it. We have to be on our Ps and Qs and we have to be at that right spot at that right time. We don’t know what these guys are thinking right now. It makes you always be ball-ready because you never know what can happen.”

Saturday will be a good stepping stone for each quarterback, but it won't necessarily decide anything. To Kelly, it doesn't matter who is under center, he's going to be expected to excel. That's how elite programs roll, and Kelly wants each quarterback he's working with to understand that.

“It doesn’t matter who’s in that position, you’re going to be held to the standard that you’re going to do your job the best you can," Kelly said. "Otherwise, if all five guys aren’t on the same page then something bad is going to happen.”

Opening spring camp: Alabama

March, 14, 2014
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Schedule: The Crimson Tide will open spring practice on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. All practices are closed and only the A-Day scrimmage at 2 p.m. ET on April 19 will be open to the public.

What’s new: The coaching staff has gone under some serious reconstruction. In fact, it looks a lot like Nick Saban’s staffs of old with Kevin Steele as the linebackers coach and Bo Davis as the defensive line coach. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart moved back to coaching the secondary to allow for Steele’s return. And let’s not forget the one new face on the staff, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. You might have heard of him.

On the move: When Saban last spoke to the media a week ago, he said there was “no news on who’s playing what position and who the quarterback is.” But there will be movement. Look for some tweaking in the defensive backfield this spring. Much like last year,when Saban asked offensive players Dee Hart, Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones to try their hand at cornerback, he might ask someone like ArDarius Stewart to see if a return to defense is in order. Considering the lack of depth at cornerback and the departure of safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri, the coaching staff might need to plug some holes in the secondary with some surprise players.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Pettway
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsD.J. Pettway is back and will attempt to earn a shot at playing time at Alabama.
On the mend: One of those defensive backs coming back is Nick Perry. The safety started four games in 2012 and appeared in two more games in 2013 before suffering a season-ending injury. Though he might not be the most talented option at the position, he’s clearly the most experienced, with 30 games under his belt. And that counts for something with Saban, who needs to trust whoever starts opposite Landon Collins.

New faces: Aside from the handful of early enrollees fresh out of high school, there are four junior college transfers to watch, including the return of former Alabama defensive end D.J. Pettway. There’s also tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith, who was at Georgia once upon a time and could add to the passing game behind O.J. Howard; defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who could help plug the middle at 315 pounds; and offensive tackle Dominick Jackson, who was ranked as the No. 1 player at his position and could challenge to replace Cyrus Kouandjio.

Question marks: We’ve detailed the problems in the secondary and hinted at the battle at left tackle, leaving a major unanswered question as to who replaces C.J. Mosley on defense. The former All-American linebacker was the heart and soul of the unit. We know Trey DePriest wants to take on the role, but is he ready? And who will play alongside him at inside linebacker? Reuben Foster was an immensely talented linebacker coming out of high school -- with a dramatic recruitment, no less -- but he played mostly on special teams as a freshman. He’ll have a lot of competition for playing time, with Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland hoping to emerge.

Key battle: Unfortunately, this one won’t be solved until the fall. But that makes the battle no less important. Alabama needs to find a starting quarterback to replace AJ McCarron, and until that’s resolved, it’s priority No. 1. Jacob Coker, the Florida State transfer, won’t arrive on campus until May. So that leaves a bevy of unproven options under center. Blake Sims will get his shot after backing up McCarron last year, but it remains to be seen how the run-first athlete will do as a pocket passer. Beyond Sims, there’s rising sophomore Alec Morris and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod. If one stands out this spring, he’ll surely have the upper hand come fall and could challenge the presumed frontrunner, Coker.

Breaking out: It was a process started at the Sugar Bowl that many Alabama fans hope will continue right on into his sophomore season. Derrick Henry didn’t do much during the regular season, carrying the ball a total of 28 times. But all you’ll remember is the bowl game and his eight carries and one reception against Oklahoma, accounting for 161 yards and two touchdowns. He’s big (try 6-3 and 238 pounds) and he’s deceptively fast. With dreadlocks that stick out from under his helmet, picture a stretched out Trent Richardson. After losing a large chunk of practice last spring to a broken leg, he’ll have the benefit of a full offseason to climb the depth chart and nip at the heels of incumbent starter T.J. Yeldon.

Don’t forget about: Don’t sleep on Yeldon. He’s pretty darn good, with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons to start his career. But don’t forget Alabama’s depth at wide receiver. Whoever starts at quarterback will have plenty of receivers to throw to. Amari Cooper, who is among the best in the SEC when healthy, is just the tip of the iceberg. DeAndrew White and Christion Jones are two veteran pieces, and tight end O.J. Howard has the potential to be one of the disruptive offensive weapons in the league if he reaches his potential. Given the way Alabama has recruited of late, look for one or two blue-chip prospects to emerge. Chris Black has been waiting patiently, and Robert Foster seems poised to step up with a year of experience under his belt.

All eyes on: There’s going to be a quarterback competition, position battles and several new players will emerge. But keep an eye on Alabama’s attitude. Saban’s dynasty in Tuscaloosa was shaken but not entirely derailed last season. Losing the final two games, to Auburn and Oklahoma, in such unspectacular fashion hurts. The question is how Alabama will respond. It worked out well after the 2010 season, but this isn’t the same team. There are quite a few leaders in need of replacing, and there might be something to McCarron’s criticism that a five-star sense of entitlement crept into the program. Righting the ship won’t be easy for Saban and his staff, but he will have the luxury of putting a gigantic chip on his players’ shoulders this offseason. How they respond is up to them.
Editor’s note: This is Part I of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Alabama this spring.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was a long and winding quote that really ended nowhere and didn’t reveal much at all. Alabama coach Nick Saban was asked what impact Lane Kiffin might have on the offense in 2014, and he didn’t bite. So far removed from the start of the season, he chose to play it close to the vest, answering the question in a way that gave away nothing.

“Every coach wants to create as much improvement as possible as he can with the players he coaches and the unit he's responsible for. I think Lane certainly has the knowledge and experience to do that," Saban said of his new offensive coordinator, the former USC and Tennessee head coach. "I think players sort of respect him and, from what I've seen so far, [they] have a good relationship. You're talking about offseason program and off-the-field kind of stuff, but I think from an accountability standpoint, coaches and players, that because of his knowledge and experience that would be something that he can contribute to our team in a positive way with.”

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesExpect Lane Kiffin to find new and unique ways to utilize players such as sophomore RB Derrick Henry.
If you were looking for more in the way of specifics, you were left disappointed. But it wasn't altogether unexpected. Kiffin should enact significant changes on the offense in 2014 -- just don’t expect to know what they’ll be ahead of time. Neither he nor Saban are ones to tip their hand early.

Overall, Kiffin is expected to bring more punch to Alabama’s attack. First, he’ll have to settle on a starting quarterback, of course, but beyond that he’ll bring a new flavor to Tuscaloosa, Ala., starting with a more up-tempo feel. Saban hinted at such a change last season when he told ESPN in September that, “It’s something we’re going to look at. I think we’ll have to.

“I think we need to play faster and will have to do more of that going forward,” he said at the time. “The only reason we haven't done more of it to this point is that our guys seem to play better when we don't [go fast] just because it's been our style and we've had reasonably good success moving the ball and running the ball.”

But that will change this spring. AJ McCarron is gone from under center. Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell are no longer out wide at receiver. The conservative tendencies of Doug Nussmeier and Jim McElwain before him have been replaced by the more forward-thinking Kiffin.

Along with a quicker tempo, expect more playmakers to emerge under Kiffin’s rule.

Alabama has too much talent at running back to continue rotating backs on the field one at a time. With versatile weapons such as Derrick Henry and Bo Scarbrough available, Kiffin could easily split them out at receiver or shift them on the line at H-back. Just the threat of a quick pass out to a player with breakaway speed like theirs should be enough to make opponents commit a defender, freeing up a teammate in the process.

Speaking of stretching the defense thin, look for O.J. Howard to do much more in the passing game as a sophomore. The former No. 2-rated tight end in the ESPN 300 showed flashes of promise as a true freshman in 2013 but went missing at times. Whether that was the fault of his own inexperience or poor coaching is up for interpretation.

Whatever the answer, though, it won’t be an excuse in 2014. There’s no greater threat to the defense than an athletic tight end who can split the middle of the defense. Howard, at 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds with receiver-like speed, fits that mold perfectly. Kiffin had great success with Fred Davis at USC and Luke Stocker at Tennessee and could find a similar payout with Howard at Alabama.

Finally, don’t forget the wealth of talent Kiffin inherits at receiver. Despite Norwood and Bell departing, there’s plenty left in the cupboard in Tuscaloosa. Amari Cooper, when healthy, is among the best receivers in the SEC. Given Kiffin’s work with Marqise Lee, Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett at USC, Cooper should be licking his chops to work with his new offensive coordinator.

Throw in DeAndrew White, Christion Jones and a slew of other young, talented receivers behind them and Kiffin has more than enough weapons to work with.

The 38-year-old's reputation as a play caller and developer of talent precedes him, according to David Cornwell, who committed to Alabama prior to Kiffin's arrival and enrolled early in January just days before the hire was announced.

"Coach Kiffin, man, he’s the guy," the No. 4-rated pocket passer in the 2014 ESPN 300 explained. "I really look forward to getting to know him. I think you all know what he can do. You look at him offensively, I think he’s going to do great things for Alabama.”

But what in particular?

“His explosiveness," Cornwell said, with a smirk. "I know he’ll bring a different kind of feel to Alabama. From what I hear, it could be a whole different offense."

While some of Alabama’s offensive inefficiencies in the recent past have been greatly exaggerated, there’s still more than enough room for Kiffin to improve upon. By upping the tempo and developing more playmakers, he stands to breathe some much-needed life into the Tide in 2014. Whether it's a David Cornwell, a Jacob Coker or an Alec Morris under center at quarterback, he'll have the keys to a potentially speedy ride.

Granted, we won’t know specifically what the offense is capable of until we see it in action. But from the outside looking in, the possibilities are great.

Hopefully we'll get a sneak peek when spring practice starts later this week, but don't count on it.

Tide players to watch: Chris Black

March, 5, 2014
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With the start of spring practice only a few weeks away, we’re spending this week discussing five players to keep an eye on when Alabama opens camp on March 15.

Because they’re unpredictable, we’ll avoid first-year players like 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.

[+] EnlargeChris Black
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Black finds plenty of competition for playing time.
WR Chris Black
Redshirt sophomore
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.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban has had no trouble recruiting at Alabama. The number of four- and five-star prospects he and his staff have signed since 2007 is nothing short of staggering. Many of them are already enjoying careers in the NFL.

But which class was best? Which group of blue-chippers was the most impressive?

That’s a difficult question, but one we nonetheless set out to answer this week with a countdown of the top three classes at Alabama during Saban’s tenure, not counting the Tide’s most recent recruiting class.

No. 3 on our list in order of impact is the Class of 2011, which finished No. 2 in that season's ESPN class rankings.

[+] EnlargeCyrus Kouandjio
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsCyrus Kouandjio was an anchor on the Alabama offensive line for three seasons.
The stars: Cyrus Kouandjio didn’t say yes to Alabama first. On signing day, he told a national television audience he would sign with Auburn. But a change of heart and a desire to keep it in the family made Kouandjio go with the Tide, giving Saban his first five-star signee at Alabama. Kouandjio had the look of an All-SEC tackle from Day 1 at 6-foot-7 and 325 pounds, and he delivered on that promise, developing into one of the best at his position in the country. Along with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (the No. 2-ranked safety) and linebacker Trey DePriest (the No. 2-ranked outside linebacker), the class had plenty of headliners.

The contributors: It’s hard to imagine calling Vinnie Sunseri a “contributor” considering how he developed. But it’s important to remember that Sunseri, the son of then-assistant Sal Sunseri, wasn’t a highly thought-of prospect. He was a linebacker/safety tweener that ESPN ranked the No. 18 outside linebacker in the country. But the 5-foot-11, 202-pound athlete showed he had a nose for the football, developing into one of the best playmakers in the SEC, starring on special teams as a true freshman before developing into a heavy hitter at safety. Jeoffrey Pagan turned into an NFL-caliber defensive lineman, Ryan Kelly has the look of a solid center, and Christion Jones has turned into a home run threat as a receiver and kick returner.

The letdowns: There were plenty of misses in this class, though. Duron Carter, son of NFL legend Cris Carter, never played a down with the team after transferring to Alabama. Bradley Sylve, the No. 5 wideout in the class, hasn’t made a splash at cornerback, and Brent Calloway is no longer with the program after an arrest a year ago. LaMichael Fanning, who had the build scouts drool over at defensive end, never panned out, transferring to Jacksonville State after this past season. And most recently Dee Hart, a top 10 running back out of high school, left the team after the Sugar Bowl and was arrested by Tuscaloosa police on Feb. 16.

The results: The final tally is still coming in, but the 2011 class appears to be headed in the right direction. Junior college transfers Jesse Williams and Quinton Dial are already playing professional football, and there’s a solid chance both Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix will be selected in the first round of the NFL draft in May. Pagan and Sunseri will follow in the later rounds. If DePriest, Jones and Kelly develop into NFL prospects as fourth-year players in 2014, that would make nine total NFL players from the class, not counting what Xzavier Dickson or D.J. Pettway could do to impress scouts.

Room to improve: WR

February, 18, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is Part II in a weeklong series looking at Alabama’s top five position groups with room to improve.

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.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper is one of the best wideouts in the country and anchors the wide receiving corps.
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAmari Cooper is one of the best wideouts in the country and anchors the Bama wide receiving corps.
Battling for No. 1: No one is supplanting Cooper in the starting lineup. A healthy Cooper is among the best wideouts in the country. We saw as much late in the season when he began to look like himself against Auburn and Oklahoma. And chances are that White and Christion Jones, both seniors, will start alongside him once again. But with new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin at the helm and some of the logjam at receiver erased with Norwood and Bell gone, there’s a chance we see some competition for the top few reserves off the bench.

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.
We at the SEC Blog have spent the last two weeks ranking the top 25 players in the conference, beginning with Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines and wrapping up with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next five: wide receiver Amari Cooper, punter Cody Mandell, linebacker Adrian Hubbard, tight end O.J. Howard and cornerback Deion Belue.

Season report card: Alabama

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It’s time to start passing out the report cards for the 2013 season, and Alabama is up first.

OFFENSE: B-

[+] EnlargeAlabama Crimson Tide
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesC.J. Mosley and Alabama's defense had some uncharacteristically bad performances in 2013.
For all the grumbling in and around Tuscaloosa this season regarding the offense, Alabama was one of three teams in the SEC to average more than 200 rushing yards and 200 passing yards per game. The other two were LSU and Missouri. Alabama also scored more than 30 points in 10 of its 13 games, with T.J. Yeldon leading the league in rushing yards in SEC games and AJ McCarron ranking third in the SEC in passing efficiency. So it was far from a disaster. However, there was too much inconsistency offensively to suit Nick Saban, particularly up front, and it all unraveled in the Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma with the five turnovers.

DEFENSE: B+

Let's face it. Alabama's defensive standards are dizzying. The Crimson Tide finished fourth nationally in scoring defense (13.9 points per game) and fifth nationally in total defense (286.5 yards per game). For most programs, those are "A" numbers. But there were also more glitches than usual. The Crimson Tide struggled at cornerback with youth and inconsistency and were vulnerable against the pass most of the season. They were shredded by Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel for 42 points and 628 yards in an early-season win over the Aggies and gave up 348 passing yards and four touchdown passes to Oklahoma's Trevor Knight in the bowl loss. It was a good Alabama defense, but not a great one.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-

Even though Christion Jones would make decisions sometimes that were questionable at best, he was still one of the most dangerous return men in the league. He had two punt returns for touchdowns and one kickoff return for a touchdown. Of course, what everybody will remember about this season for Alabama was the kick-six that won it for Auburn. It was one of four missed or blocked field goals by the Crimson Tide in that 34-28 loss. On the bright side, punter Cody Mandell was excellent and finished second in the league with a 47.1-yard average.

OVERALL: B-

The grading scale is always a little tougher when you've won consecutive national championships. While 11 wins is never anything to sniff at, even at Alabama, the Crimson Tide failed to win their own division and ended the season with back-to-back losses for the first time since the end of the 2008 season. In most cases, it's a season that would still qualify as a solid "B." But with the schedule being one of the cushier ones in the league, that takes the Tide's grade down a notch.
Editor's note: This is Part II in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There are a lot of things that make Alabama's defense work. Contrary to Nick Saban's public assertions, it's a difficult scheme to learn -- many players have said so -- because it's filled with so many moving parts. There's the disguised coverage on the back end, the pressure that comes off the edge, and the idea that fitting the gaps is priority No. 1.

But one of the linchpins in Saban's system is that of a shutdown cornerback. Saban himself would shudder at the term "shutdown corner," but that's what it takes for his defenses to go from good to great. Every top Alabama defense since his arrival has featured one, from Javier Arenas to Dre Kirkpatrick to Dee Milliner. This past season it looked like Deion Belue might have developed into that type of guy, but he didn't and we all saw how that affected the defense against the pass.

"We are not used to that," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said of not having consistent play at cornerback. "We've kind of always had one key guy with all the first -round, second-round corners we've had, we've always had a staple guy there, then kind of an understudy that was the other one who was an up-and-coming corner. Hasn't been that way this year. It's been frustrating. Some of that has been because of injury.

[+] EnlargeCyrus Jones
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCyrus Jones is one of a handful of players the Tide hope can develop into a shutdown corner.
"Deion we feel like has been our best corner, but he's been in and out because of injury. Opposite him, it's been musical chairs. Eddie Jackson played pretty well. But he also got injured so it pulled him out for a while. We've had other guys play well one game, not play well the next. We've not gotten the consistency we want out of that position. And we don't have the depth that we've had in the past, so it's been a struggle."

With so much of Alabama's defense turning over this spring -- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Belue are all gone from the secondary -- it's vital that Smart and Saban establish who the one-two punch at cornerback will be. In fact, outside of finding a starter under center, finding an anchor at cornerback is arguably the second biggest challenge facing the Tide this offseason. Otherwise we'll continue to see more poor performances against the pass like we saw against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

The good news for Alabama is that there's plenty of young talent at cornerback and a decent mix of veterans to rely upon in soon-to-be juniors Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve. Though Jones struggled at times last season, let's not forget that it was his first full season on defense since joining the Tide. And Sylve didn't play half bad when called upon either. Had he not developed a high ankle sprain, he might have been a more regular starter.

But the more intriguing bets are on either Maurice Smith or Jackson, the two true freshmen who saw the most significant time at cornerback in 2013. Smith played in all 12 games to Jackson's seven appearances, but Jackson was the first to start at corner, doing so Week 4 against Colorado State and then again the following week against Ole Miss. He fell off the map after that, succumbing to an injury and what Saban said was something of a rookie regression, but he'd come back and start again in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.

Beyond Jackson and Smith, there are a few other options. Both Anthony Averett and Jonathan Cook will benefit from redshirting their first year on campus, and early enrollee Tony Brown, a five-star prospect out of Texas, will look to compete for a job right away.

Be on the lookout for position changes, too, as last spring Saban moved Cyrus Jones, Dee Hart and Christion Jones from wide receiver to defensive back. With Lane Kiffin taking over as offensive coordinator, could someone like ArDarius Stewart be asked to try his hand on defense?

We'll see what changes are made come spring practice. Smart and Saban have plenty of pieces to move around, but finding the right fit won't be easy. The hope has to be that somewhere among the bunch will emerge a shutdown corner they can rely upon and build around.

Our All-SEC second team choices

December, 17, 2013
12/17/13
2:00
PM ET
On Monday, we gave you guys our All-SEC first team. Today, we thought we'd unveil our second team for 2013. There are so many guys in this league who deserve recognition that we just wouldn't feel good about not having another team to give props to during the holiday season:

OFFENSE

QB: AJ McCarron, Alabama
RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU
RB: Mike Davis, South Carolina
WR: Jarvis Landry, LSU
WR: Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt
OL: Justin Britt, Missouri
OL: A.J. Cann, South Carolina
OL: La'el Collins, LSU
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
AP: Todd Gurley, Georgia

DEFENSE

DL: Kony Ealy, Missouri
DL: Chris Smith, Arkansas
DL: Ego Ferguson, LSU
DL: Markus Golden, Missouri
LB: A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
LB: Avery Williamson, Kentucky
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt
DB: Chris Davis, Auburn
DB: Taveze Calhoun, Mississippi State

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: Colby Delahoussaye, LSU
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
PR: Christion Jones, Alabama
KR: Christion Jones, Alabama

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SEC SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 9/18
Saturday, 9/20