Alabama Crimson Tide: Denzel Nkemdiche

SEC's lunch links

March, 19, 2014
Mar 19
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Is basketball taking over the SEC? Auburn hired Bruce Pearl. Tennessee is about to open NCAA tournament play. Not so fast. The majority of the conference is still being consumed by spring football, and for further evidence of that, check out today’s lunch links.

SEC's lunch links

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
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Three SEC teams begin spring practice on Tuesday, and there's a host of news and nuggets, including a bit of the off-the-field variety, in today's lunch links:

SEC's lunch links

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
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Half of the SEC teams have started officially-sanctioned football-related activities with Missouri and Vanderbilt opening spring practice on Tuesday. There's a lot going on.

SEC's lunch links

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
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The "10-second rule" has been the hot topic in college football this offseason, and the debate raged on Tuesday with Nick Saban speaking out on the issue. As we all await Thursday’s vote, see what else is going on in the SEC with today’s lunch links.
Setting up the spring in the SEC West:

ALABAMA

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
  • What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
  • Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.
ARKANSAS

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
  • A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
  • Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.
AUBURN

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
  • Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
  • Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.
LSU

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
MISSISSIPPI STATE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
  • Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
  • Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.
OLE MISS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
  • Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
  • Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
  • A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.
TEXAS A&M

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)

What to watch:
  • Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
  • Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
  • New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.

SEC lunchtime links

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
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Let's take a quick spin through the headlines from across the SEC:

SEC's lunch links

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
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Here's a quick look at what is happening around the SEC:

" Alabama said Monday after running back Dee Hart's arrest on drug possession charges that he has not been a part of the program since the bowl game.

" Ole Miss suspended linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant following their weekend arrests in Oxford.

" Several SEC players made NFL.com analyst Nolan Nawrocki's list of the most controversial players in the draft, including Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who Nawrocki said “carries a sense of entitlement and prima-donna arrogance.”

" Athlon Sports lists the top-10 SEC linebackers of the BCS era.

" Did Georgia recruit too well at running back when it signed Sony Michel and Nick Chubb this year? Highly sought-after 2015 prospect Taj Griffin discusses that and other subjects with the Atlanta Journal Constitution's Michael Carvell.

" USC has removed a signing-day video where an off-camera voice can be heard describing a Tennessee signee as “soft and terrible.”

" Mercedes-Benz won't allow a Birmingham-area car dealership to carry Nick Saban's name, but the Alabama coach is aligned with a proposed dealership that is caught up in litigation ahead of its opening.

" Baton Rouge police arrested three suspects in connection with a weekend home invasion at former LSU athletic director Skip Bertman's residence.

" The Columbia Daily Tribune's David Morrison takes a look at the Tigers' running back depth chart entering spring practice.

" South Carolina's Bruce Ellington followed his mother's advice and opted to enter the NFL draft early.

Planning for success: Alabama

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's time to turn the page, if you haven't done so already. No. 1 Alabama had its cupcake game against Colorado State last weekend, but now comes the main course with No. 21 Ole Miss coming to Tuscaloosa on Saturday.

The Crimson Tide will win if …

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron and Alabama knows they have to play better against Ole Miss on Saturday than they did against Colorado State last week.
After the way Alabama played against Colorado State, this team needed a talking to. The defense had too many missed assignments and the offensive line did a poor job of communicating. All around, it wasn't a pretty effort. And veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley recognized that, stepping up to talk to his teammates after the game in an effort to make sure the Tide's championship aspirations don't fall by the wayside. The little things that Alabama did so poorly against Colorado State, Mosley told his team, will get them beat, and beat badly by a team like Ole Miss.

Should Alabama play its game -- sound, fundamental football -- it should win. But there are serious questions about the play of the offensive line and the secondary. If either of those two areas do doesn't get turned around, Ole Miss could expose Alabama, whether it’s by forcing turnovers on defense or throwing the ball deep for big gains.

The Rebels will win if …

Meanwhile, Ole Miss comes into this game riding high, undefeated with something to prove. Year 2 of the Hugh Freeze experiment has been better than advertised with big wins over Vanderbilt and Texas. The Rebels have had immediate dividends on its spectacular 2013 signing class. True freshmen Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Tony Conner are all contributing.

But this team has yet to face anyone like Alabama. Going on the road in a tough environment in Tuscaloosa could either make or break Freeze's young squad. That said, Ole Miss does have some veterans to rely on in quarterback Bo Wallace, running back Jeff Scott and wideout Donte Moncrief. And that's just on the offensive side of the football. Much of the same nucleus that gave UA trouble at home a year ago returns to see if it can't learn its lesson and pull off the upset this time.

Ole Miss players to watch

QB Bo Wallace: Much of the talk about his offseason shoulder injury has been put to bed. Wallace, the orchestrator of Ole Miss' up-tempo attack, has looked good throwing the football, spreading it out to all of his receivers, especially his freshman tight end Evan Ingram, who is a nightmare matchup when he's split out.

S Tony Conner: Ole Miss has one glaring deficiency, and that's at cornerback where its starters come in at 5-foot-8 and 5-9, respectively. Alabama's wide receivers aren't giants, but they're bigger than that. Amari Cooper is much taller at 6-1 and true freshman Raheem Falkins would tower over them at 6-4. Instead, look for Ole Miss to pull down the 6-1 Conner from his safety position to get a better size matchup.

LB Denzel Nkemdiche: He says he'll play but his coach isn't committing to anything. Denzel Nkemdiche, older brother of Robert, injured his knee in the season opener and has been pushing to see the field against Alabama. Freeze, though, is taking it day by day. But you have believe Nkemdiche, who was the heart of Ole Miss' defense a year ago with a team-leading 82 tackles. He had a big game against the Tide a year ago, making 11 tackles, a sack and two stops behind the line of scrimmage.

Alabama players to watch

CB Deion Belue: It seems as if Alabama's best on-ball defender will be ready to go, but after sitting out last week's game with a nagging injury, you never know. Should he be sidelined, the secondary will be in big trouble. And even if he isn't, either John Fulton, Cyrus Jones or some other defensive back must step up to match Ole Miss' ability to spread the field, especially in the slot with Treadwell, who leads the Rebels in catches and receiving yards.

OLB Adrian Hubbard: Alabama's leading sack getter a season ago has been conspicuously quiet since skipping the NFL to return to school. Adrian Hubbard, the lanky pass rusher at Sam linebacker, has no sacks and just two tackles for loss this season. Against Ole Miss' spread, his ability to hold the edge and pressure the pocket will be huge.

O-line: Week 1 meant panic. Week 2 was relief. And Week 3 was a giant step back. It looked as if Alabama's offensive line has solved its problems against Texas A&M two weeks ago, moving the line of scrimmage almost at will, but against CSU this past weekend the sloppy play returned. Poor communication and bad technique are to blame, so say players, but however you define it 66 yards rushing, the number Alabama got against the lowly Rams, will not be enough against an SEC foe like Ole Miss.

Key Stats

3: Sometimes we go really in depth in the stats department, but we'll keep this number simple. Ole Miss shot itself in the foot last year with three turnovers, two from Wallace. The veteran quarterback led the league in interceptions last season (17) but he seems to have turned it around this year with zero picks through three games.

33.3: A year ago, Alabama had little trouble moving the football and converting on third downs. Not so this season as the Tide has slipped to 98th nationally and next to last in the SEC in third-down conversion percentage, moving the sticks one every three attempts, on average.

8: Alabama has owned the first half of games, outscoring teams 73-24. Those leads, though, have been harder to come by in the second half where that scoring differential slips to just eight points.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 2

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
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The second week of the college football season is upon us.

Some exceeded expectations in Week 1, others fell short. In the SEC, a few coaches made debuts at new programs, a few key players suffered injuries that will affect their teams and there is buzz, both good and bad, surrounding some of the league’s most visible stars.

Here are 10 things to keep an eye on in the SEC in Week 2:

[+] EnlargeClowney
Gerry Melendez/Getty ImagesAfter his lackluster showing in the season opener, all eyes will be on Jadeveon Clowney when South Carolina faces Georgia.
1. What will Clowney do? South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has endured much criticism after a pedestrian performance in the Gamecocks' season-opening win against North Carolina. After a three-tackle, no-sack performance, some observers questioned Clowney's conditioning and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Clowney was definitely affected by the heat. This week, the No. 6 Gamecocks meet No. 11 Georgia and you can bet people will watch Clowney even more closely as the stakes are raised as each team opens SEC play.

2. What's next for Manziel? Johnny Manziel's return to the field for Texas A&M yielded terrific on-field results (6-of-8 passing, 94 yards, three touchdown passes) as well as a firestorm of media criticism as a result of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he committed and a few celebrations. Whether he likes it or not, all eyes are on him and as Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said, "people want to make a story out of anything that happens on this team right now." Will there be more non-football conversation circulating Manziel after the Aggies play Sam Houston State on Saturday?

3. Jones returns for UF: Sophomore running back Matt Jones returns to the Florida lineup this weekend as the Gators travel to Miami. The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones missed three weeks of practice while recovering from a viral infection and offensive coordinator Brent Pease said Jones will see plenty of touches in his return, perhaps as many as 25 carries.

4. Familiar foe for Malzahn: Auburn and new coach Gus Malzahn are hosting a team that he's quite familiar with -- Arkansas State. Malzahn spent last year as the Red Wolves' head coach, leading them to a 9-3 record and a conference championship before departing for Auburn prior to the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Arkansas State's new coach is former Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who led the Red Wolves to a 62-11 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff in his debut. Meanwhile, Malzahn's new team escaped with a 31-24 win over Washington State behind new starting quarterback Nick Marshall.

5. Prescott likely to start for Mississippi State: Starting quarterback Tyler Russell sustained a concussion in the Bulldogs' loss Saturday to Oklahoma State and is doubtful to play this weekend against Alcorn State. That means coach Dan Mullen will likely turn to backup Dak Prescott, a 6-2, 230-pound sophomore, to fill in. The dual-threat quarterback brings an ability to run the football to the Bulldogs' offense, recording 131 yards on 32 carries in spot duty last season. Mullen said he's confident in Prescott.

6. Adjustments to be made for Georgia: A season-opening 38-35 loss to talented ACC foe Clemson yielded an injured receiver (Malcolm Mitchell is out for the season after an ACL injury suffered while celebrating a Todd Gurley touchdown) and displayed a struggling offensive line. Quarterback Aaron Murray rarely had time to throw against Clemson and the Bulldogs are facing a talented South Carolina defensive front. But the Clemson loss can be easily forgotten if the Bulldogs open SEC play with a win over a top-10 team and fellow SEC East squad.

7. Can Stoops and Kentucky bounce back? There was a lot of buzz surrounding the debut of new Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops but it was killed by a season-opening loss to Western Kentucky. The Wildcats host Miami (Ohio) and are double-digit favorites. It's imperative to erase the taste of last week's loss with a win this week for UK.

8. Intriguing matchup in Knoxville: Tennessee cruised to a win over FCS foe Austin Peay in the opening week but now get a little bit of a tougher test in Bobby Petrino's Western Kentucky squad, which is fresh off its upset of Kentucky. The Volunteers are favored and rightfully so, and they're a higher caliber opponent than Kentucky. It would be a tough task for the Hilltoppers to pull off in Neyland Stadium, but it's worth at least keeping an eye on as Petrino tries to start 2-0 against SEC foes while Tennessee's Butch Jones looks to keep positive momentum going.

9. Ole Miss looking for others to emerge: The Rebels lost guard Aaron Morris to a season-ending knee injury and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche for 4-6 weeks because of a meniscus tear. Though they have an FCS foe in Southeast Missouri State, the Rebels will need others to step up in their absences.

10. Mettenberger looking to build on Week 1: In his first game under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger did enough to guide the Tigers to a 37-27 win over TCU. This week against UAB, he told reporters he has to be a little more accurate than his 16-for-32 showing, which was otherwise solid, yielding 251 yards and a touchdown pass.
Now that our annual preseason countdown of the SEC's best 25 players is complete, I think we can all agree that there were no glaring omissions and that no deserving players were left off the list.

Yeah, right, and Texas A&M will be selling autographed Johnny Manziel jerseys at games this fall.

The truth is that it's impossible to pick just 25 players in the SEC. After all, there were a record-63 players from the SEC taken in the 2013 NFL draft. So, yes, there are plenty of great players in this league who didn't make our list. There were in 2012, and there will be again next season.

There's always a little projection with the preseason list, and when you're doing one of these, it's hard not to give priority to quarterbacks and offensive and defensive linemen. That's why eight of the top 12 spots were occupied by players from those three positions.

Five of the top 11 players were from two-time defending national champion Alabama, which led the way with six players total on the list. Georgia was second with four players, while Florida and Texas A&M each had three. The most popular positions were offensive line -- three tackles (Jake Matthews, Cyrus Kouandjio and Antonio Richardson) and one guard (Gabe Jackson) -- as well as wide receiver (Amari Cooper, Jordan Matthews, Donte Moncrief and Mike Evans).

And as a testament to the younger talent in the league, seven sophomores were selected, and three of those were in the top 10.

There were so many tough decisions on who to leave out, but below are five players who just missed the cut. They're listed alphabetically.

Dante Fowler, Jr., DE/OLB, Florida, So.: The Gators' defensive front should be scary good this season, and Fowler is a big reason why. He's in much better shape than he was a year ago and will be a force getting to the quarterback from his hybrid "Buck" position.

Adrian Hubbard, OLB, Alabama, Jr.: The Crimson Tide want to generate a more consistent pass-rush this season, and Hubbard has all the skills to go from a good player to a great player. He's potentially a 10-sack player if he stays healthy.


A.J. Johnson, LB, Tennessee, Jr.: Johnson led the SEC with 138 total tackles last season and also pulled some double duty as a short-yardage specialist at running back. The challenge for him this season is to make more plays to help get Tennessee off the field on third down.

Denzel Nkemdiche, LB, Ole Miss, So.: There are a pair of Nkemdiches on the Ole Miss campus now, and while everybody in Oxford can't wait to see what kind of impact Robert has in his freshman season, Denzel has already proven that he's a big-time playmaker with 13 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles last season.

Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas, Sr.: One of the premier centers in America, Swanson should be an excellent fit for Bret Bielema's power running game. He's athletic enough to get out and pull, but he also more than holds his own in pass protection.

Ranking the SEC linebackers

July, 9, 2013
7/09/13
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Now that you've seen where all the SEC linebacker units rank, let's check to see who the top 10 linebackers entering the 2013 season are.

This had to be one of the toughest lists to come up with, but here goes nothing:

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesDespite splitting reps, linebacker C.J. Mosley still managed to top Alabama in tackles last season.
1. C.J. Mosley, Sr., Alabama: Last year, he was considered one of the best linebackers in the country and might have been a first-round draft pick in this year's NFL draft if he had opted to leave school early. The Butkus Award finalist had to share time last year, but still led the Crimson Tide with 107 tackles and was second with four sacks. He should be even better with more time on the field this fall.

2. Jordan Jenkins, So., Georgia: Even though he was a backup last year, Jenkins was second on the team with five sacks and 23 quarterback hurries. Now he's taking over Jarvis Jones' position and has all the skill to be an elite pass-rusher in this league. He learned from one of the best in Jones, but might be even better suited for the position than his predecessor, which has to scare opposing offenses.

3. A.J. Johnson, Jr., Tennessee: Johnson was one of the hardest working linebackers in the league last year, leading the SEC with 138 total tackles. Sixty-three of those tackles were solo stops. The change to the traditional 4-3 scheme should help him, but Johnson also looked to become even more focused this spring. Johnson's next step is becoming a real field leader for this team.

4. Adrian Hubbard, Jr., Alabama: Nick Saban wants his front seven to get to the quarterback more, and Hubbard is expected to be even better at that this fall. He led the Tide with seven sacks last year and 11 tackles for loss. Hubbard and his coaches want more. Hubbard has great speed off the edge and can make plays all over the field. A big year could push himself into position to be a top draft prospect at his position.

5. Lamin Barrow, Sr., LSU: Kevin Minter might have been the star of LSU's defense last year, but Barrow was extremely productive with his 104 tackles, including 52 solo stops. He also had 7.5 tackles for loss, broke up five passes and recovered two fumbles. Barrow is the quarterback of LSU's defense and shouldn't have any problem dealing with more responsibility now that Minter is gone.

6. Antonio Morrison, So., Florida: Morrison served as a backup for the Gators last year, but started three games and registered 34 tackles and a sack. The coaches are expecting even more from the rangy and hard-hitting stud, as he moves to middle linebacker. He'll now be relied upon to be the quarterback and captain of this defense, meaning he still has a lot of growing to do, which showed after his offseason arrest.

7. Benardrick McKinney, So., Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney had a very impressive year with the Bulldogs last year. He was eighth in the SEC with 102 tackles. He also registered 45 solo tackles and had 10 or more tackles in four games last year. He's the anchor of Mississippi State's linebacking corps and should catch the attention of a lot more people this fall.

8. Denzel Nkemdiche, So., Ole Miss: He was one of the biggest surprises around last year and earned second-team All-SEC honors after leading Ole Miss in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (four). He also tied for the team lead in interceptions (three). Nkemdiche isn't the biggest player, but he can play all the linebacker positions and has the athleticism and speed to cover a ton of ground on the defensive side of the ball.

9. Ronald Powell, Jr., Florida: He missed all of last season after suffering two ACL injuries, but the word out of Gainesville is that he'll be fully ready to go when fall starts. His dedication to rehab and his humbled approach have his coaches and teammates excited about his 2013 season. He was playing his best ball before he was hurt last spring and if that Powell shows up this fall, he should be one of the top pass-rushers in the SEC.

10. Kwon Alexander, So., LSU: A broken ankle cut Alexander's freshman year short, but the coaches are very, very excited about his potential. He doesn't have a lot of stats to live off of, but he might be the most physically gifted linebacker in LSU's stable. He covers a lot of ground and should be a big-time playmaker for the Tigers.
In order to make a stand in the SEC, you have to have a strong front seven. It starts with a stout defensive line, but don't forget about those cats behind that front line.

Linebackers need love, too:

1. Alabama: For starters, "Linebacker U" will enter the 2013 season with three linebackers -- C.J. Mosley, Adrian Hubbard and Trey DePriest -- who started 10 or more games last season. Then there's Xzavier Dickson, who started seven games at the rush-end "Jack" position. All four played in every game last year, making play after play. Mosley was considered one of the nation's best linebackers and could have opted for the NFL early. He'll get even more time with Nico Johnson gone. Hubbard is the team's top pass-rusher, DePriest has transformed into a top linebacker prospect in next year's NFL draft and Dickson is versatile enough to play linebacker and on the line. There is also a ton of young talent to watch, starting with sophomore Denzel Devall, who could really break out.

[+] EnlargeLamin Barrow
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLamin Barrow should replace some of the production the Tigers lost when Kevin Minter moved on to the NFL.
2. LSU: Kevin Minter might be gone, but the Tigers still have some quality players roaming around the position. Lamin Barrow will anchor the group and is coming off a season in which he registered 104 tackles, including 52 solo stops. He's getting a ton of NFL love and will get help from very talented sophomore Kwon Alexander, who only played seven games, but would have seen plenty more action if hadn't suffered a broken ankle midseason. Alexander could be primed for a huge season and might be the team's best linebacker. Senior Tahj Jones only played in one game last year because of academic issues, but he'll have every chance to start outside. Sophomores Deion Jones, Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist all saw good time last year and will be in the rotation along with incoming freshman Kendell Beckwith, who could immediately push for a starting spot.

3. Ole Miss: The Rebels work in that 4-2-5 defense, but have a lot of talent at linebacker, starting with big-hitting senior captain Mike Marry, who has 22 career starts and finished last season with 78 tackles with 10.5 for loss. The pleasant surprise from this group last year was Denzel Nkemdiche, who was a second-team All-SEC member as a freshman after leading Ole Miss in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (four). The thing that makes Nkemdiche so valuable is that he knows all of the linebacker positions and covers a ton of ground with his speed. Long-time Rebel D.T. Shackelford is back after two knee surgeries, but had a very good spring and should provide quality depth and excellent leadership. Then you have talented reserve Serderius Bryant, who could start at a lot of schools. Don't forget about the hybrid "Husky" position that will feature top recruit Antonio Conner.

4. Tennessee: The Vols bring back the league's top tackler in A.J. Johnson and excellent pass-rusher Curt Maggitt, who had his 2012 season shortened because of injury. He should be back to full health this fall, but could move to defensive end. Johnson has a chance to play his way into the first round of next year's NFL draft. Senior Dontavis Sapp doesn't have a ton of experience, but was a star this spring and has the ability to play any of the linebacker spots. Four senior backups return and have combined to play in nearly 140 games. The only problem is that they've also combined for just one start. Senior Brent Brewer also moved from safety to linebacker to give the Vols a lot of speed on the outside.

5. Florida: The Gators lost two valuable players in Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, but they still have a ton of young talent to work with, starting with Antonio Morrison. He ran into legal trouble this summer, but he has a chance to be an All-SEC player after moving from outside to middle linebacker. Dante Fowler Jr. and Ronald Powell will rotate at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker "Buck" position, but Powell could see more time at strongside linebacker. If he's healthy after his two ACL injuries, he could be an elite pass-rusher. Hard-hitting and dependable Michael Taylor left spring as the starting weakside linebacker, while freshman Daniel McMillian had an outstanding spring at the Will position. Fellow freshman Alex Anzalone was a top recruit in the 2013 class and should vie for plenty of time, while vets Darrin Kitchens and Neiron Ball will push for starting spots.

6. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a concern for the Commodores last year, but it ended up being a strength. Do-everything leader Chase Garnham is back, along with his 43 solo tackles, seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He's the heart of the defense. Hybrid linebacker/safety (Star) Karl Butler returns and should continue to put a lot of heat on opposing backfields. He registered 11.5 tackles for loss last season. Sophomore Darreon Herring has to replace the very reliable Archibald Barnes, but saw plenty of time last year as the Commodores' top reserve at linebacker. Sophomores Larry Franklin and Jake Sealand provide good depth after seeing significant time last year.

[+] EnlargeBenardrick McKinney
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreBenardrick McKinney was named to the Freshman All-SEC Team following last season.
7. Mississippi State: Starters Benardrick McKinney (102 tackles) and Deontae Skinner (62 tackles) return, giving Mississippi State a very sound foundation to work with. McKinney was quietly one of the league's top linebackers last year and could be even better this fall. Veteran Ferlando Bohanna, who has tremendous speed, will provide good depth, and the staff is excited about the versatility junior Matt Wells has. Losing Chris Hughes this summer hurts, but the Bulldogs will be able to cover a lot of ground with this group of rangy, athletic linebackers.

8. Georgia: Like every defensive position, the Bulldogs lost a lot at linebacker, but there is some promising young talent that should get better as the season goes on. Everything revolves around sophomore Jordan Jenkins, who could end up being an elite pass-rusher after learning under Jarvis Jones last season. Jenkins was second on the team in sacks last season with five and should be even more disruptive in Jones' old spot. Junior Amarlo Herrera started nine games and will be the captain of the unit inside. Junior Ramik Wilson had a very good spring and has found his spot inside, while sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons will play some linebacker when he isn't at safety and has a chance to be a star. Sophomore James DeLoach also had a very good spring outside. Freshmen Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin will also have ample opportunities for good playing time this fall.

9. Kentucky: Having Alvin "Bud" Dupree moving to defensive end hurts, but the Wildcats still have two solid options returning in Avery Williamson and youngster Khalid Henderson, who has playmaker written all over him. Williamson enters his senior season with 194 career tackles. Finding someone to take the other linebacker spot is the goal of fall camp. Miles Simpson started 11 games and had 70 tackles last year, but has to be more consistent. Junior Kory Brown and sophomore Josh Forrest will compete for that spot too and might be more athletic, but they lack experience. Malcolm McDuffen still hasn't reached his potential and Demarius Rancifer has decided to transfer.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost starters Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter and are now surrounded by youth. Veteran Steven Jenkins is back, but he missed spring practice due to offseason shoulder surgery. He had time to work with junior college transfer Tommy Sanders, which will help a lot this fall, as he vies for a starting spot outside. The Aggies will have to rely on youngsters at linebacker, but junior Donnie Baggs looks like he'll start at middle linebacker. But after that it's all about newcomers, including new linebackers coach Mark Hagen. Freshmen Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade both went through spring practice, which helps, but expect growing pains from this unit.

11. Missouri: The Tigers are fortunate to have senior Andrew Wilson and his 23 career starts back, but there isn't a lot of experience beyond that. Wilson has also led the Tigers in tackles in back-to-back seasons (79 last year). Donovan Bonner, a senior, and Kentrell Brothers showed flashes this spring, but both have to be more consistent. The same goes for Darvin Ruise, who entered the spring as a starter and played primarily on special teams last year. Keep an eye on freshman Michael Scherer, who has the talent to be a stud. There is athleticism here, but tackling was a major issue with this unit last year.

12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks return veterans A.J. Turner and Otha Peters, but the best overall player at this position might be junior college transfer Martrell Spaight. That could be both good and bad, but the fact of the matter is that Turner and Peters have to improve and get over their injuries from the spring if they want starting jobs this fall. Senior Jarrett Lake had a good spring and could be the leader here. Freshman Brooks Ellis could make an immediate impact too. Experience is a bigger issue than talent with this unit. Also, the staff could spend the preseason moving everyone around.

13. Auburn: This unit really struggled last year with getting lined up right and making tackles. There should be improvement with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense, but players need to get better. Star hybrid Justin Garrett had a great spring and could be primed for a breakout year. He can play in the box and cover, so he'll really help this unit. The good news is that Johnson needs just two linebackers for his 4-2-5 scheme. But those players have to perform. Sophomore Kris Frost made strides this spring and Jake Holland is experienced, while Cassanova McKinzy and JaViere Mitchell should vie for the other linebacker spot.

14. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost their entire two-deep at linebacker and had to move tight end Kelvin Rainey to linebacker to help with depth. There are a lot of bodies, but the experience is really lacking. Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis made strides this spring at middle linebacker, while junior Sharrod Golightly left spring with the edge at the hybrid Spur position. Freshmen T.J. Holloman and Jordan Diggs will compete for time this spring, but, again, they have no experience. Sophomore Cedrick Cooper missed spring while recovering from knee surgery, but should start at weakside linebacker.

Tide schedule preview: Ole Miss 

June, 27, 2013
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Editor's note: The season is nearly upon us and TideNation is taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular season opponents. Every Tuesday and Thursday we'll go through each week of the Crimson Tide's schedule, starting with the season-opener against Virginia Tech and closing with the finale against Auburn.

The rundown
2012 overall record: 7-6
2012 SEC record: 3-5, fifth in the SEC West
Record all time against Alabama: 3-9-46
Last meeting: Sept. 29, 2012 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Starters returning
Offense: 8; Defense: 11; Kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
DE C.J. Johnson, WE Donte Moncrief, LB Denzel Nkemdiche, LB Mike Marry, CB Charles Sawyer, RB Jeff Scott, QB Bo Wallace

Key losses
OG A.J. Hawkins, ATH Randall Mackey, DT Gilbert Pena, K Bryson Rose

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Jeff Scott* (846 yards)
Passing: Bo Wallace* (2,994 yards)
Receiving: Donte Moncrief* (979 yards)
Tackles: Denzel Nkemdiche* (82)
Sacks: C.J. Johnson* (6.5)
Interceptions: Dehendret Collins*, Senquez Golson*, Denzel Nkemdiche* (tied at 3)

It’s Rankings Week at TideNation. Every day we’ll rank some facet of the Alabama football program heading in 2013. Today we’re ranking the top 10 defensive players the Tide will face this season. On Thursday we’ll switch gears and rank the top 10 freshmen with a chance of making the biggest impact in the fall for UA.

Ranking the defensive players

1. DT Anthony Johnson (LSU): Stop me if you're heard this one before: LSU has one of the best defensive line prospects in the country. Yeah, this year is no different as Johnson steps to the forefront, already the No. 22 prospect on Mel Kiper's early Big Board. The 6-foot-3, 310-pound linemen is nicknamed Freak for a reason. Even behind players like Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery and Bennie Logan, Johnson shined as a raw talent capable of terrorizing offenses up the middle.

2. LB Denzel Nkemdiche (Ole Miss): He isn't a typical linebacker because of his relatively slight frame, and he's certainly not what you'd call a safety. But Nkemdiche is what every coach covets: a playmaker. In Ole Miss' complex defense, Nkemdiche thrives. He led the Rebels with 82 tackles and chipped in with team-leading 13 tackles for loss. He even finished tied for first with three interceptions.

3. DE James Gayle (Virginia Tech): We'll know right away whether Alabama's retooled offensive line is capable of living up to last year's standard, as Gayle and the Virginia Tech pass rush comes calling in the season opener. As a junior, Gayle tallied 43 tackles and five sacks on his way to a second-team All-ACC selection. He turned down the NFL and comes back to Blacksburg as one of nine returning starters on defense.

[+] EnlargeLamin Barrow
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLinebacker Lamin Barrow gives the LSU defense some of everything, including much-needed experience.
4. LB A.J. Johnson (Tennessee): It's tough to find a player in the SEC who produced more last season than Johnson, who racked up 138 tackles for the Volunteers. The 50th-ranked player on Kiper's early Big Board, Johnson is a guy who can keep Alabama's ground game from running away from what stands to be a lackluster Tennessee defense.

5. LB Lamin Barrow (LSU): Barrow was understandably lost in the haze of NFL prospects in Death Valley last season. But the 6-2, 229-pound linebacker did finish with a whopping 104 tackles, five pass breakups and five quarterback hurries. There will be a lot of new faces on defense for the Tigers in 2013, and Barrow should serve as the glue to hold the operation together.

6. DT Daniel McCullers (Tennessee): The Vols very own Mount Cody, McCullers is the kind of big-bodied nose guard you can build a defense around. The 6-8, 370-pound prospect ranks 43rd on Kiper's early Big Board, and could see his stock rise farther with a solid 2013 campaign.

7. S Craig Loston (LSU): Loston is a rising star on the Tigers defense who very nearly spirited all the way to the NFL after last season. Unlike many of LSU's underclassmen, Loston decided to return, and coach Les Miles should consider himself lucky for having a veteran to anchor what is an otherwise green secondary. Loston played in 12 games last season and finished with a respectable 55 tackles and three interceptions on his way to a second-team All-SEC selection.

8. DE Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae (Auburn): Say what you will about Ellis Johnson the head coach, but Ellis Johnson the defensive coordinator knows what he's doing. And with a few parts still remaining on Auburn's defense, Johnson has a chance to outdo expectations on the Plains. Ford, who led the Tigers in sacks last season, and Eguae have the tools Johnson can build around up front.

9. LB Avery Williamson (Kentucky): You might not know his name, but the 6-1, 243-pound linebacker finished second in the SEC in tackles (135) and led the conference in solo stops (70) in 2012. With new head coach Mike Stoops breathing new life into the program and its underwhelming defense, Williamson could see his profile rise this season.

10. DE Chris Smith (Arkansas): The Razorbacks were a mess last season, but it wasn't all bad news for Arkansas fans as Smith emerged as a quality pass-rusher, finishing fourth in the SEC with 9.5 sacks. He and fellow defensive end Trey Flowers combined for a solid 26 tackles for loss last season and helped Arkansas to a top 25 finish nationally in sacks.

Robert Nkemdiche torn between families 

October, 10, 2012
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No. 1 prospect Robert Nkemdiche surprised many by making his commitment to Clemson in June. On Wednesday, Nkemdiche acknowledged the family is split over his nonbinding verbal commitment and admitted it has not made his decision any easier.

“My recruitment is crazy still, and Ole Miss is making a push for me,” Nkemdiche said. “It does not matter to my dad, but my mom wants me to go to Ole Miss and we are still talking about it, so we have not come to an agreement on it yet. It is tugging my heart in two different directions.”

When Nkemdiche committed to the Tigers, he mentioned it being like a family at Clemson. He has former teammates at Clemson and current teammates committed there, but it appears that connection will now be tested by his own family ties. Last month, Robert’s father said he was indifferent to where his son signs. But his mother, Beverly, told ESPN the Magazine’s Zach Schonbrun that she was not happy to learn of her son’s commitment while returning to Georgia over the summer from Nigeria, where she is a state legislator.

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