Alabama Crimson Tide: Derrick Henry

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch when Alabama takes to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday for A-Day, the finale of spring practice.

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

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

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

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

5. The up-and-comers:

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

Ramsay has heard that phrase, he said, about 150 times since January. He’s heard it from fans around town in Yulee, Fla. He’s heard it from fellow high school coaches at clinics. He’s heard it from college coaches who have stopped through scouting talent.

If Ramsay turned on the radio, flipped on the TV or simply walked the streets here in Tuscaloosa, he’d hear about his former running back even more. In fact, he might be overwhelmed by the number of people saying how good Derrick Henry looked for Alabama in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma: 161 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. When Henry broke his 43-yard touchdown run the fourth quarter, Ramsay said he received something like 18 text messages in under 30 seconds.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Henry's breakout performance in the Sugar Bowl changed everything for the Alabama running back, but Henry is just focused on getting better.
It’s easy to see why people got excited. The run had the look of a seminal moment for the former five-star athlete who set the national career rushing yards record at Yulee High. The 6-foot-3, 243-pound talent finally showed on a national stage why he was so highly sought after. After carrying the ball minimally throughout the regular season, he blew people away in the bowl game.

All told, Henry ran for 382 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman. And now? Despite being the backup to T.J. Yeldon, he's listed on the sports betting website Bovada as 28-to-1 to win the Heisman Trophy, ahead of Dak Prescott, Duke Johnson and Myles Jack.

Too big? Please

It’s almost laughable to think about it now, but for a long time people questioned whether Henry was cut out to be a running back. He was too big, they thought, too bulky to fit through running lanes. He was too tall to have the proper pad level.

And then there was the Sugar Bowl.

Somewhere in Yulee, Ramsay smiled. What he’d seen in high school and what he saw in bits and pieces throughout the season was showing up on a much larger, unavoidable scale: Henry was meant to play running back.

“I told some people, ‘Man, that looked just like high school. Those DBs didn’t want to tackle him any more than the DBs who played here,’” Ramsay said. “The first touchdown he scored, I was joking, ‘That kid from Oklahoma, he’s running with Derrick so he won’t get yelled at when he goes back to the bench.’ He wasn’t going to try and get him on the ground.”

No one wants to tackle Henry, not even his teammates.

Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland, no slouch at 6-2 and 259 pounds, described his meetings with Henry during practice as both “mean” and “peaceful” because they can’t take one another to the ground.

“He's a big guy,” he said of Henry. “A lot of people are scared to tackle him.”

Said Henry: “During the Oklahoma game, I could tell that they didn't want to tackle me. I just kept the mindset of being physical and keep running hard so everything will open up.”

Growing pains

Henry says one of his goals is to be a starter, but for now he’s “focused on getting better and becoming a complete player.”

Dobbs Not getting that much playing time really taught me a lot. It humbled me. Everything isn't just going to come to you. You have to work for it.

-- Alabama RB Derrick Henry
A year ago that might not have been the case.

Like most blue-chip recruits, Henry first had to deal with reality. Though his talent was undeniable, there were things he hadn’t yet mastered. At Yulee High, he didn’t have to block, pass protect or catch passes out of the backfield. Ramsay only needed him to run the ball. But at Alabama, he wouldn’t see the field until he could do it all.

“Not getting that much playing time really taught me a lot,” Henry said. There wasn’t a game during the regular season where he carried the ball more than six times. “It humbled me. Everything isn't just going to come to you. You have to work for it. You have to take time. This is college football so it's more technique. You have to put more effort into by watching film and really paying attention to the little things”

Saban said the light came on for Henry in the lead up to the Sugar Bowl. Like a lot of freshman, the chance for extra practice time paid off.

Now he’s taking that momentum and running with it.

"Derrick Henry has had a fabulous spring," Saban said on Wednesday. "He picked up right where he left off at bowl practice last year. He works really hard. He runs really hard. He plays with a lot of toughness. He gets it."

Everything has changed, nothing has changed

In a way, Henry is built to be the center of attention. At Yulee High, he was the biggest thing going. As early as the ninth grade, Ramsay said, “They could play football for 500 years in our county and there’s going to be no one better than him.”

“I think it’s helping him now,” Ramsay said. “They protected him from that as a freshman. Now he’s going to have a little more on his plate. … It’s crazy because he hasn’t played a ton but I’ve got people from Alabama, and these are people who have been around the program for years, who have said they haven’t ever seen a guy with this much popularity.

“In a town where every other street is named after Paul Bryant, for someone to say that is big.”

Has Henry changed? Not according to Ramsay: “Nothing. Same guy. Nothing different.”

“Offseason has been good,” Henry said in the most understated way possible. “Coming back from the Sugar Bowl and getting back to lifting weights and doing 4th Quarter [Program], it's been going well. Just trying to get better.”

That simple, singular focus will suit him well. As spring practice wraps up and the march toward the regular season intensifies, so will the scrutiny.

What will aid him most will be his work ethic, the same determination that helped him get through the lows of last season and reach the high of the Sugar Bowl.

“Right now he’s in a very comfortable place,” Ramsay said. “Initially all freshmen go through the process of being in a new place and having a new way of doing things. One thing with Derrick is he’s never let it affect his effort level. ... Every time I talked to [running backs coach Burton Burns] about it, he’d say, ‘Oh man, We want all the guys to be like Derrick. He’s pulling G.A.’s aside to work on things extra after practice, he’s getting extra film work.’”

A moment later, Ramsay put an exclamation point on the subject.

“He’s not expecting to have rose pedals thrown at his feet,” he said of Henry.

Ramsay’s boy looked awfully good in one game, but both he and Henry understand that last season was only the first step. What comes next is a whole different set of challenges.

SEC's next wave of star players

March, 18, 2014
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For the most part, we have an idea who the top returning players are in the SEC for next season.

There are 11 players back who earned first- or second-team All-SEC honors last season from the coaches, including six first-team selections: Auburn center Reese Dismukes, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon, Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt. The second-team selections returning are Mississippi State tight end Malcolm Johnson, LSU offensive tackle La'el Collins, South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers and Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins.

Picking the next wave of All-SEC players can be tricky, and it's certainly not a given that all these players returning will be repeat selections.

So what we've done is go through and pick the 10 players most likely to emerge as All-SEC players next season, and the caveat is that they can't have previously earned postseason all-conference honors from either the coaches or Associated Press (first or second team). That rules out a few other players not listed above such as Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., Kentucky defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Alabama safety Landon Collins.

Here's our next wave of SEC stars, listed alphabetically:

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner / Icon SMIChris Jones showed his big-play potential as a freshman at Mississippi State.
Caleb Azubike, OLB, Vanderbilt, Jr.: Look out for the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Azubike coming off the edge in Derek Mason's new 3-4 defense. Azubike tied for the team lead last season with 9.5 tackles for loss.

A.J. Cann, OG, South Carolina, Sr.: The anchor of what should be the best offensive line in the SEC, Cann enters the 2014 season as perhaps the top guard in the league.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama, So.: Just go back and turn on the tape from the Sugar Bowl. Henry is going to be a beast and is in great shape after what's been a terrific offseason for him thus far.

Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State, So.: The league is full of good, young defensive linemen, and the 6-5, 300-pound Jones is right there near the top. He's a force at both tackle and end.

Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn, So.: The Tigers will miss Dee Ford and his pressure off the edge, but the 6-2, 261-pound Lawson is the next star in the making on the Plains.

Curt Maggitt, OLB, Tennessee, Jr.: You might have forgotten about Maggitt after he missed last season because of injuries, but he's healthy again and will be used in several different roles for the Vols.

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia, Jr.: Injuries are the only thing that have kept Mitchell from being one of the top playmakers in this league. If he can stay healthy, he'll put up huge numbers in 2014.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss, So.: The top high school player in the country a year ago, Nkemdiche will move inside and has the size, power and athleticism to be dominant.

Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: He started his career at guard, moved to right tackle last season and is now in line to be the Aggies' third straight star left tackle as he takes over for Jake Matthews.

A'Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama, So.: The team leader with 5.5 sacks last season as a freshman, Robinson has a chance to be the best defensive lineman the Tide have produced under Nick Saban.

A few others to watch:

Opening spring camp: Alabama

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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.
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.

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.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDerrick Henry showed what he could do in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries.
So instead, let’s start by taking a look at an athlete who made a splash late last season as a true freshman, creating big expectations for his sophomore campaign.

RB Derrick Henry
Sophomore
6-foot-3, 238 pounds

Credentials: Was he a running back or a linebacker? At 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds -- all muscle, we should add -- it was hard to tell. We hadn’t seen him run the football yet, so for a while he looked like a project. Did he have the necessary speed and elusiveness to get through the holes up front and hit the second level of the defense? And then came the Sugar Bowl. Yes, it took Henry some time to work his way up the food chain at running back, but when he did, he was special. He got around the Oklahoma defense just fine in New Orleans, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries in addition to taking a short pass 43 yards for another score. All told, the former five-star athlete ran for 382 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries as a freshman.

How he fits: And herein lies the rub. Henry, with what he showed against the Sooners, might be more explosive than Alabama’s incumbent starting running back T.J. Yeldon. Given Yeldon’s fumbling woes, many fans are clamoring for Henry to replace him as the lead back. But Alabama has been through this before. Both the Mark Ingram-Trent Richardson and Richardson-Eddie Lacy tandems were balancing acts, and this coming season should be no different. Except that there’s a third back, Kenyan Drake, also begging for carries. Talk about explosion and speed, and you’re talking about Drake, who can take the ball to paydirt any time it touches his hands. One thing is certain: Running backs coach Burton Burns will have a tough time sorting out the depth chart when the season rolls around.

Best case/worst case: We’ve made the mistake of assuming the depth chart order at running back before and have been burned. There’s a case to be made that Henry should start, which would be an intriguing outcome to say the least. But there’s another case, one based on seniority and experience, that could land him third or fourth on the depth chart. You know about Yeldon and Drake, but there’s also the veteran Jalston Fowler and the blue-chip newcomer Bo Scarbrough to consider. Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny are on campus too, remember? The good news for the bevy of Alabama tailbacks is that new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin shouldn’t be constrained by position titles. The former USC head coach is seen as something of an innovator on offense and could move players like Henry, Fowler and Scarbrough around to places like H-back and slot receiver to get them touches.

Dee Hart faces possession charge

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
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Former Alabama running back Dee Hart was arrested Sunday for possession of marijuana and giving false information, according to reports.

Hart, who was a top recruit for Alabama in 2011, was supposed to head into the fall for his junior season on the field, but the school announced that he is no longer part of the football team. He hasn't been with the team since Alabama's 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Here's the statement from Alabama on Hart's status:
"Dee Hart has not been a part of the football team since the bowl game and has not participated in any of the offseason program. Hopefully he will learn from this mistake and continue to work toward completing his degree, which he is on track to do by the summer."

[+] EnlargeDee Hart
AP Photo/ Butch DillDee Hart never really got his career off the ground at Alabama.
It's unknown if Hart could return to the team beforehand, but this recent arrest certainly won't help him. Hart might have been a top recruit for the Crimson Tide a few years ago, but he was never able to really make much movement on the Tide's depth chart. Hart suffered season-ending ACL injuries in 2011 and 2012 and tried out at cornerback last year before moving back to running back.

Hart rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in 2013 and had 166 yards and a touchdown on 43 career carries with Alabama.

With the return of back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher T.J. Yeldon and backups Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry, it might have been tough for Hart to rise through the ranks at running back. Not to mention, rising sophomore Altee Tenpenny, a former ESPN 300 recruit, saw action last season and Tyren Jones, also an ESPN 300 prospect in 2012, redshirted last year. The arrival of highly touted five-star athlete Bo Scarbrough won't help either, with Scarbrough expected to start his Alabama career at running back.

Heading into the spring, it appears the top spot at running back is going to come down to Yeldon or Henry, who had a breakout performance in the Sugar Bowl. Hart might have a tremendous amount of athleticism and his work ethic was once thoroughly praised by coach Nick Saban, but the chances of him jumping those two was minimal. The chances of him pushing the others out of the way at this point in his career was going to be a mountain to climb as well.

Alabama will be fine without Hart, but here's hoping Hart lands on his feet soon.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Because he’s a signed prospect, Nick Saban will have to address the addition of Jacob Coker during spring practice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philosophically, a return to a more physical style on the line could be in order. With more inexperience up front than usual and a new quarterback under center, Kiffin might lean toward a run-heavy offense, especially early in the season. Establishing that proper mindset on the line early might be more important than finding who the starting five will be during spring practice.
Earlier this month, ESPN colleague Adam Rittenberg took a look at some of the stars around the country who you can't forget about in 2014. Georgia running back Todd Gurley and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III made the cut as the 10 stars to watch out for.

As far as sleepers, Alabama running back Derrick Henry, who had a coming out party in the Crimson Tide's Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, and Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche made the cut.

You can't argue with any of those guys. Nkemdiche can play any position on the defensive line and might make his hay inside in 2014. Hargreaves has shown signs of having true elite corner status -- and he'll be a true sophomore. And we all know that Gurley is capable of being the nation's best back when he's healthy.

So who are some other guys to keep an eye on in the SEC in 2014? Here are 15 other SEC players to keep an eye on next season (in alphabetical order):

Note: These aren't obvious big-name guys, like South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham or Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall.

    • Caleb Azubike, DE, Vanderbilt: The junior defensive end quietly had four sacks and led the Commodores with 10 tackles for loss. He has all the athletic ability to be a star in this league. If he plays with the motor he's capable of, he could wreak havoc in 2014.
    • Darian Claiborne, LB, Texas A&M: As a freshman, Claiborne was a pleasant surprise on a bad Texas A&M defense. He finished the year with 69 tackles, hitting the double-digit mark in games five times. With Steven Jenkins gone, Claiborne could be relied up even more at linebacker, as he turns more into the quarterback of the defense.
    • [+] EnlargeAlex Collins
      Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsArkansas RB Alex Collins rushed for 1,026 yards and four TDs in his freshman season.
      Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: He finished his freshman year with 1,026 rushing yards and four touchdowns. After rushing for 100-plus yards in four of his first five games, Collins failed to reach the century mark again. He's the pounder Bret Bielema wants, but he can also make moves and be a home run threat.
    • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: The junior-to-be had a solid 2013 season. He filled in at both free and strong safety because of injuries and will see even more time on the field with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri leaving early for the NFL draft. He was second on the team with 70 tackles, defended eight passes and had two interceptions.
    • Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: The 2013 season was supposed to be about Jordan Jenkins taking over for Jarvis Jones on the outside. But it was Floyd, a freshman, who stole the show at times at linebacker, leading the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 10 tackles for loss.
    • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: While he only caught 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns in his first season, Howard could have a bright future ahead. He's too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. Getting him on the field more this fall will go a long for Alabama's new quarterback.
    • Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State: He lived up to his billing as a top high school defensive end in Year 1. He finished the year with three sacks and seven tackles for loss, but was also credited with 10 quarterback hurries. He has all the qualities of an elite pass-rusher and could be even more of a problem for offenses in 2014.
    • Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn: Another freshman standout in 2013, Lawson finished the year with 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He only had 20 tackles on the year, but with Dee Ford leaving, Lawson has a chance to see the field even more in 2014, but needs to get in the weight room and needs to be more consistent.
    • Hutson Mason, QB, Georgia: He has had to sit and bide his time for a few years, but this is his team in 2014. He filled in for Aaron Murray (ACL) during the last two games of the season, passing for 619 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions as the starter. He'll have plenty of offensive weapons to use next fall as well.
    • Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri: He filled in while starter James Franklin dealt with a shoulder injury, passing for 910 yards and 10 touchdowns as a starter. Mauk also went 3-1 during that span and helped the Tigers win the SEC East in their second season in the league. Now, he's the full-time starter in Columbia.
    • [+] EnlargeMarquez North
      Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIWR Marquez North showed all the skills to be a big-time playmaker for the Vols.
      Marquez North, WR, Tennessee: North made some noise as a freshman, leading the Vols with 496 yards on 38 catches. He only caught one touchdown, but showed flashes of being a consistent go-to threat for the Vols moving forward, and he certainly showed off his athleticism with this sweet catch against South Carolina. Getting more comfortable with the offense this spring will pay dividends.
    • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: He spent most of the year switching in and out with Tyler Russell, but now takes over the offensive reins. After throwing for 283 yards with three touchdowns and rushing for another 78 yards and two more scores in the Bulldogs' bowl win over Rice, Prescott made a lot of heads turn. He's perfect for Dan Mullen's offense and should be even better with his top five receiving targets returning.
    • Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Yet again, another freshman corner stepped up nicely for the Tigers. Robinson only started two games during the season, including the Outback Bowl, but displayed a lot of upside when he saw the field. He's fast, athletic and rangy, and could be even more of a nuisance for quarterbacks in 2014.
    • Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida: Taylor saw his carries increase during the second half of the season. The son of former Florida great Fred Taylor, Kelvin Taylor rushed for 525 yards and four touchdowns. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's shifty and can grind out extra yards.
    • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: With Donte Moncrief gone, Treadwell becomes the guy at receiver for the Rebels. He led Ole Miss with 72 catches and should improve on his 608 yards. The thing about Treadwell is he's so gifted athletically. He's the kind of person who can step on any field or court, or put a tennis racket in his hand, and he'll make something special happen.
Editor's note: This is Part V in a week-long series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Some problems are complicated. Some problems are large. This particular issue of Alabama's might seem like neither, but it is. Just because it's an obvious concern with a seemingly obvious solution doesn't mean it's not the most troubling scenario a coach can face.

Turnovers wrecked the Crimson Tide in 2013. Without the interceptions and fumbles, Alabama very well could have reached the BCS National Championship Game for an unprecedented third year in a row. Auburn wouldn't have won the Iron Bowl, and the debacle at the Sugar Bowl might never have happened.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban and the Tide were frustrated -- and their title hopes were dashed -- by the turnover bug that hit Alabama this season.
Moving forward, there's no way around the fact that if Nick Saban's dynasty is to get back on the rails in 2014, he can't afford any more costly turnovers. Saying "be patient" and "it will get better" are no longer viable options. T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake have a full-blown fumbling problem. AJ McCarron caught the interception bug late and even though he may be gone to the pros now, whoever replaces him under center can't give possessions away like he did down the stretch.

"Even though we outgained them in the game, we probably gained enough yards," Saban said after the Tide's loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. "But we had four turnovers that led to 28 points, and one turnover in the red zone and one missed field goal in the first half, and those things probably were, you know, a big difference in the game."

Said McCarron: "Put it all on me. I had two turnovers, [Oklahoma] ended up scoring 14 points, and we lost by 14."

A year after throwing just three interruptions, McCarron tossed four picks in his final four games. Yeldon and Drake combined for four fumbles in 2012, but together they wound up with nine this season.

The difference between good and great, between title contender and championship winner, is razor thin. A handful of turnovers is enough to tip the scales in either direction. Alabama averaged 13 turnovers in 2009, 2011 and 2012. In 2013, Alabama gave the ball away 17 times, the most since 2008.

Saban needs a quarterback who will take care of the football, whether that's Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman or Parker McLeod. Sims has been McCarron's backup the past two seasons, but he's shown a propensity for interceptions during scrimmages. How he'll hold up in passing situations during games is anyone's guess.

And if Yeldon and Drake can't stop from coughing up the rock, then it's up to someone else to take over at running back. That's a point running backs coach Burton Burns will surely drive home this offseason. Derrick Henry seemed more than willing to take their spot against Oklahoma. The enormous former five-star athlete was Alabama's lone bright spot in the Sugar Bowl, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown while also taking a short pass 61 yards for a score. He didn't fumble the ball once as a true freshman.

Stopping the turnovers might be a painfully obvious thing to say, but it's worth repeating. And repeating. And repeating.

Any coach will tell you: Giving the ball away is the single biggest difference between winning and losing.

Even if Alabama fixes Parts I-IV on its to-do list, without solving Part V, it will all be for naught.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Doug Nussmeier brought unprecedented success to the Alabama offense in his two years as coordinator in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide averaged more than 38 points per contest and succeeded in opened up the passing game to include more big plays down field. AJ McCarron evolved from a "game manager" into a Heisman Trophy contender and added another BCS National Championship ring to his already impressive collection.

But the more immediate memory of Nussmeier is not so rosy. The numbers, however impressive they might be, only serve as a faint silver outline of what turned out to be a disappointing ending, as Alabama's offense failed on the national stage against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. It turned out to be the final game of Nussmeier's tenure, as he's agreed to move north and take the same job at Michigan.

In the Sugar Bowl, the flaws of Nussmeier's scheme were put under a heavy spotlight: the protection broke down, McCarron faltered and three turnovers ultimately doomed the Tide. Alabama's most potent weapons -- guys such as O.J. Howard and Derrick Henry -- were underutilized, and a back-and-forth commitment to the running game turned the offense from dangerously dynamic to utterly predictable.

[+] EnlargeNussmeier
AP Photo/Butch DillDoug Nussmeier's offenses produced numbers, but they started to make Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban feel uneasy over time.
However explosive Alabama was on paper, it was never a team built to score quickly. Without a running game, there was no threat of play-action. Without the threat of play-action, nothing worked. When Alabama fell behind to Oklahoma by two scores, the game was all but over. McCarron became human and the offense hit a wall. And in today's version of college football, where high-octane passing offenses dominate the landscape, that style of play is no longer acceptable.

Alabama coach Nick Saban will have to think of that when he hires his next offensive coordinator, the fourth in his time with the Tide. In fact, he's probably already thought plenty about it.

Over the past year, Saban has dropped a number of not-so-subtle hints that change was coming. No-huddle, up-tempo offenses were something he wanted to explore and even implement, he said.

"It's something we're going to look at. I think we'll have to," Saban told ESPN.com in September. "I think we need to play faster and will have to do more of that going forward."

But who will be the man to make those changes? One name being bandied about is Lane Kiffin. Yes, the same Lane Kiffin who unceremoniously bailed on the SEC when he left Tennessee in 2010 and then was unceremoniously dumped by USC in 2013. He's something of a villainized character in college football, and that's an area where Saban can sympathize. Saban's been called a "devil" himself, so a devil-may-care attitude might be fitting.

The connections between Saban and Kiffin are obvious: both coaches share the same agent (Jimmy Sexton) and both coaches have shared the same meeting room in the past few months. Saban invited Kiffin to Tuscaloosa to help evaluate the offense in mid-December, and Saban had only glowing things to say about Kiffin at the time.

"Lane is a really good offensive coach, and I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for him," Saban said. "Just to come in and brainstorm a little bit to get some professional ideas with our guys is a really positive thing."

Whether that mutual respect will lead to a contract is anyone's guess. There are plenty of high-profile offensive coordinators out there who might be interested in moving to a program so stockpiled with talent that blue-chip prospects overflow from the roster.

If the hurry-up is what Saban's after, a guy such as Clemson's Chad Morris would be a home run. If Saban wants to stick to the run, Stanford's Mike Bloomberg would be a big name to go after. If Saban wants to stick to what he knows, current wide receivers coach Billy Napier and former wide receivers coach Mike Groh could be possibilities.

Whoever Saban chooses will have immediately high expectations. It's championship-or-bust at Alabama, and putting up big numbers isn't always enough to make everyone happy. Just ask Doug Nussmeier.
AJ McCarron let Derrick Henry know that he would be the safety valve. Less than seven minutes remained in the fourth quarter of this year's Allstate Sugar Bowl, with No. 3 Alabama trailing No. 11 Oklahoma 38-24, and McCarron was prepared to put a critical second-and-8 on the shoulders of a freshman who had just 28 touches on the season before the game.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAlabama RB Derrick Henry had a breakout performance in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Could it be a sign of things to come in 2014?
Smart move.

With Henry, one of the top overall prospects in the 2013 recruiting class, shifting out to the right flat just after the ball was snapped, McCarron looked down field before quickly checking down to Henry. Henry made a nifty move on an Oklahoma linebacker toward the middle of the field before sliding by another defender and sprinting to pay dirt. After stepping through another failed tackle attempt, Henry was gone for a 61-yard touchdown that brought the Crimson Tide within one score of the Sooners.

"I just saw the hole," Henry said with a laugh. "I went out there and read what I was supposed to read, [did] my assignment and hit the hole. ... He threw it to me and I just had to make a play."

Henry's play was one that will be burned into Alabama fans' minds for a while, and the thought of his future with the Tide could help ease the pain of the eventual 45-31 loss to Oklahoma. But before Henry was off to the races with a play that appeared to bring Alabama back into such a back-and-forth game, he was making plays that had many wondering why he wasn't on the field more throughout the season.

The living, breathing, truck of a frosh started wowing folks with his speed, agility and strength early in the third quarter of the Sugar Bowl when he took a carry and barreled through the middle of both lines, shaking a tackle and then cutting to the right side of the field before winning a footrace with Oklahoma's defense for a 43-yard touchdown run that cut OU's lead to 31-24.

After that -- and a previous T.J. Yeldon fumble -- Henry was Alabama's primary back from then on in the game, carrying the ball eight times on the night for a game-high 100 yards and a touchdown. Henry looked like the record-breaking high school baller who garnered attention from just about every major university before signing with Alabama. He cut, steamrolled and shot himself out of a cannon with his runs.

It was possibly a glimpse into a very bright future for both Henry and Alabama.

"I was ready. The whole season I've been waiting," said Henry, who finished the 2013 season with 382 yards, three touchdowns and 36 carries in nine games of work. "Since I started, I was sixth string and I've just been improving the whole season and I just worked my way up. I thank God for it and thank these coaches for believing in me."

The question now is whether Henry or Yeldon will be the main back going forward. Yeldon has put in two solid years of work with the Tide, but his fumbling issues have always been a drain. Henry passed backup Kenyan Drake, who rushed for 694 yards and eight touchdowns on the season, during bowl prep and could have the upper hand on him again heading into spring.

Regardless, Henry showed why he was such a special high school prospect and why his coaches and teammates were raving about him before he fractured his leg during spring practice. Henry will get plenty of opportunities going forward, and could be one of the big breakout players to keep an eye on in 2014.

"I'm just ready to get to work, become a better student of the game, become a better running back by working on my cuts, bursting and being more physical so I can be a complete back," Henry said.

Can Alabama be a top-5 team?

January, 8, 2014
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Only Alabama could end one season with back-to-back losses and begin the next as a favorite to play for the national championship. But such is the empire that coach Nick Saban has built in Tuscaloosa: through recruiting, through coaching, through sheer determination, through "The Process."

The two losses were heartbreaking. One took the Tide's breath away. The other took the Tide's heart. Rebounding from that devastating punch combination won't be easy.

But given how the season ended and who won't be back for the 2014 reboot, does Alabama deserve to be No. 2 in Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25? Let's take a look and see if it makes sense.

The case for

Yes, AJ McCarron is leaving for the NFL. So is C.J. Mosley. And several underclassmen could follow their lead as well.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama loses plenty of experience and talent from its 2013 team, but potential stars such as Derrick Henry are waiting for their chance.
But Alabama has a precocious commodity right now: Stability. Saban didn't bolt for Texas, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier didn't get the job at Washington and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart hasn't seen his name bandied about in coaching circles as much as in years past. While there's a lot of time left for such moves to be made, right now the entire staff looks to be back for next season.

Beyond the coordinators and assistants, Saban's "process" remains in place, and that should be the biggest boon for Tide fans heading into an offseason wrought with question marks. Saban's way of doing things -- recruiting the best talent in the country, coaching 'em up and sticking to certain fundamentals on both sides of the ball -- has worked awfully well the past five years. As I've caught many around Tuscaloosa saying of late, "Three out of five ain't bad."

The quarterback position will be critical this spring and fall camp, but there won't be a lack of talent surrounding whoever wins the job. Alabama is stacked at receiver, with a healthy Amari Cooper leading the charge. O.J. Howard looks like a difference maker at tight end. And then there's the matter of T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and the rest of the running backs.

Talent, on both sides of the ball, is reason enough for having Alabama ranked so highly.

The case against

Try ignoring the loss of McCarron all you want, but it's unavoidable. And, yes, the same could be said for Mosley.

Really, they're the same player in a lot of ways, one quarterbacking the offense and the other quarterbacking the defense. Both won multiple championships, both were unquestioned leaders and both were NFL talents.

But beyond the personnel on the field and beyond the coaching staff is a fundamental concern for Alabama. The question is one that was unthinkable in the recent past: Is Saban's "process" being passed by?

It's probably too early to say, but the evidence is growing. You can call Auburn's Iron Bowl victory a fluke, but how the Tigers got so close -- running all over the defense, forcing Saban into questionable calls -- was no accident. The same can be said of Oklahoma as the Sooners gashed the defense and pressured the quarterback. Even in defeat, Mississippi State and Texas A&M made Alabama look bad at times.

Going back to the drawing board won't be easy, but it's worth a try. With a new quarterback, even the offense has a chance to change for the better.

But with so much change and so many questions to be answered, does Alabama deserve to be looked at as the No. 2 team in the country next year?

Maybe not now, but maybe later. And that's what the offseason is for.

  • Click here to view the full Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25.
  • Click here Insider to see how all of the schools in the Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25 are faring in recruiting for the Class of 2014.
NEW ORLEANS -- As Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron slowly trotted off a confetti-covered field inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome following the Crimson Tide's shocking 45-31 loss to Oklahoma, he took with him more than just a right arm that had guided Alabama to a 36-4 record with him under center.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAfter a breakout game in the Sugar Bowl, Derrick Henry could step into a much larger role with the Tide in 2014.
Gone with McCarron is also a ton of leadership and experience that will be extremely difficult to replace. And unfortunately for the Crimson Tide, he isn't the only one leaving.

Guys like seasoned linebacker C.J. Mosley and wide receiver Kevin Norwood are graduating, while junior left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and junior safety Ha Ha Clinton-dix could be headed to the NFL early with their first-round projections.

The sting from Thursday night's loss will stay for a while, but it's important for a new set of leaders to help heal that wound soon.

"There are a lot of guys out there that can be leaders," Norwood said, "if they can just get in their minds that this program is fit to win and you have to do everything that the coaches ask you to do to win."

One of the veterans on a team that fell well short of its goals in 2013, Norwood admitted that the leadership on this team suffered down the stretch. Making sure players, especially younger ones, were properly prepared and focused on a day-to-day basis wasn't always there, he said. A more lax approach helped trigger some of Alabama's deficiencies late in the season, as Norwood said players started believing that things would come more easily to them.

"It was a hard time getting them guys to focus at times,” he said. “Then again, it was up to the leadership team to get them focused and get them right, and that's one thing I guess we kind of slacked at going into the end of the season. I can't put everything on them. At the same time, seniors, we didn't do a good job, too.

"When you have freshmen coming in and they're All-Americans and stuff like that, they have to get off their high pedestals when they come in because you have to work for everything and it's going to be tough, man."

Alabama’s new band of leaders will have to kick out that complacency and reestablish the toughness to get back to a championship level. The good news is that immediately after Thursday night's loss, players seemed confident that new leaders will emerge, eager to motivate.

"The cream always rises to the top," said Kouandjio, who has yet to make a decision about the NFL draft. "A lot of these guys get recruited just because they're natural leaders and they're going to come out sooner or later. It's going to manifest itself."

And knowing Nick Saban's mentality, he's going to want it to manifest quickly. He's been down this road before and adjusted. He certainly has the bodies with guys like T.J. Yeldon, Landon Collins, Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, Vinnie Sunseri, Jeoffrey Pagan and possibly Derrick Henry, who had a coming out party against the Sooners. But there has to be a will and want from players.

As freshman tight end O.J. Howard pointed out after Thursday's game, the last time Alabama lost in the Sugar Bowl, it rebounded the next year to win Saban's first national championship in Tuscaloosa with a new quarterback and identity.

No one would be shocked if the Tide did it again.

"Guys are just going to step up and become leaders and we're going to take their place and see how everything goes next year," Howard said.

"It's not over yet. We still have a couple of years around here. We have a chance. We can still win a championship. We just had a down year, but next year, hopefully we can get one.

"You just have to make this momentum and build on it and every time you want to take a day off, just remember how we lost back-to-back games and it'll motivate everybody on the team, I think."

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Spring Game Wrap-Up: April 19
Spring games across the country finish up but still leave many unanswered questions for Alabama, Auburn, Texas and USC.Tags: Spring Games, Garry Paskwietz, Alex Scarborough, Max Olson, Greg Ostendorf
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