- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- For some members of Alabama's 2012 signing class, success came swiftly.
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."
But as head coach Nick Saban has explained in the past, the ascent is not always swift. His defense takes about a year to get a handle on, he says, and until the light comes on, it's hard to play with the speed necessary to make an impact.
"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."
1037dAlex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf