Alabama Crimson Tide: Dillon Lee

Another week, another off-field incident. That is the way it has been this offseason in the SEC, and this past week was no different.

Texas A&M suspended cornerback Victor Davis after he was arrested and charged with shoplifting, and defensive end Gavin Stansbury, who was arrested in April, left the team for personal reasons.

At Georgia, Mark Richt dismissed yet another player a day after defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor was arrested for aggravated assault.

These incidents are just the latest in what has been a troubling offseason for the SEC. With media days behind us and fall camps about to begin, we want to know which team's offseason issues will present the greatest on-field questions for this season.

SportsNation

Which SEC team's offseason issues will present the greatest on-field questions this coming season?

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    12%
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    13%
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    42%
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    8%
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    25%

Discuss (Total votes: 14,063)

In Tuscaloosa, the media's pick to win the SEC has had its fair share of off-field incidents. Dillon Lee and Jarran Reed were both arrested for driving under the influence, Altee Tenpenny was caught with marijuana, and Kenyan Drake was arrested for disobeying a police officer. None of the players involved has been dismissed, but this is becoming both a problem and a distraction for Alabama.

Across the state, Auburn is still trying to figure out what to do with quarterback Nick Marshall. The potential Heisman Trophy contender was given a citation for possession of marijuana this month, but will he miss any time as punishment? To make matters worse, teammate Jonathon Mincy was arrested for the same thing, possession of marijuana, just two weeks prior.

The school that has been in the news the most this offseason is Georgia. Four players were arrested in March for theft by deception. Two of those four, Taylor and Tray Matthews, were later dismissed for separate incidents. A third, Uriah LeMay, opted to transfer. Back in February, safety Josh Harvey-Clemons also was dismissed from the program following multiple violations of team rules.

At Missouri, it was three strikes and you're out for star wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. The sophomore was arrested for the second time on drug-related charges in January, and after being involved in an altercation with his girlfriend in April, he was dismissed from the team. Green-Beckham has since joined Oklahoma.

Lastly, there is Texas A&M, which has not seen any decline in off-field distractions since quarterback Johnny Manziel left. Quarterback Kenny Hill was arrested in March for public intoxication. Two months later, head coach Kevin Sumlin dismissed a pair of key defenders -- Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden -- after they were arrested and charged with aggravated robbery. Then the news broke this week with Stansbury’s departure and the suspension of Davis.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Nick Saban could have stepped to the microphone last week at SEC media days and delivered a stern message to his team at Alabama. After an offseason colored by two DUI arrests, one player getting caught with marijuana and another getting arrested for disobeying a police officer, it seemed like a prime opportunity to fire a shot across the bow. Or, at the very least, to make a statement about the direction the program is headed.

But Saban wasn’t interested in doing that. As he has done with each off-field incident since last season ended, he insisted that issues will be handled internally. He argued, essentially, that to do otherwise would be akin to kicking your own child out of the family for disappointing you.

“We have to try to support them, teach them, get them to do the right things because we love them, we care about them,” he said.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/AL.com/Vasha HuntNick Saban on discipline: "I want you to know that there's not one player, not one player, since I've been a head coach that I kicked off the team that ever went anywhere and amounted to anything ..."
Saban spoke about a “disparity in the behavioral culture of our young people” and how they must “control their impulsive behaviors.” He closed his mini-sermon by saying that the process -- his process -- “really does work.”

“I want you to know that there's not one player, not one player, since I've been a head coach that I kicked off the team that ever went anywhere and amounted to anything and accomplished anything, playing or academically, all right?” he said.

All right.

Saban did levy a little bit of discipline. Harkening back to “guys learning how to control their impulsive behavior,” he said, “those players are suspended, but they’re not kicked off the team.” But which players? It could be Jarran Reed, Kenyan Drake, Altee Tenpenny or Dillon Lee. It could be all four that are “suspended from activity” until “they prove ... they’re ready to come back.”

In Saban’s eyes, discipline isn’t punishment.

“That’s what you all think: What are you going to do to the guy? How many games is he getting suspended? Are you going to kick him off the team? This guy kicked this guy off the team because he did this, and that was a good thing,” he said. “Well, but what about the kid? What happens to him? Well, I’m telling you what happens to him: I’ve never seen one go anyplace else and do anything.”

While Saban did drop some occasionally strong remarks -- “There’s an end of the rope for everybody.” “Sometimes you have to get the wrong people off the bus.” -- he never really dropped the hammer, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are some coaches whose track records as disciplinarians is lacking, but Saban isn’t one of those men.

“Are there consequences?” he said. “Yeah, we don’t have to depend on the guy. They might get suspended for some games, because that’s the one thing that will change their behavior because they all want to play. I get that part, and we do that. But I don’t usually announce that. I don’t usually say we’re going to do that. I tell you before the game, ‘These three guys aren’t going to play.'"

It was interesting, however, to note the tonal change at media days between what Saban said and what Mark Richt said a few hours earlier.

Richt has long been a lightning rod on the subject of discipline. Type “Mark Richt lost control” into Google and you will get roughly 29,000 results. But this offseason Richt developed an image of being tough on crime. Rather than offering starters Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons a route back to school, he dismissed them from Georgia. Rather than worrying about the program’s strong drug policy creating a competitive disadvantage, he said, “It doesn’t bother me.”

“We don't want our guys to do drugs, OK? I don't want my son to do drugs,” he said. “We've got policies that are stronger maybe than some when it comes to the punitive part of it. That's kind of what everybody talks about. Georgia ends up suspending their guys a little bit sooner in the policy, which I've got no problems with.”

“It's a lot more than just the punitive part,” he said later. “There's a punitive part, there's an educational part, then we love 'em. You made a mistake. You have these consequences. Now let's turn in the right direction and become a better man for it.”

Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson said it’s simple: “Do the right thing is all they ask.”

“You’re either going to do it Coach Richt’s way or you’re going to go home,” he added.

Strong words, wouldn’t you say?

Saban and Richt want the same thing when it comes to keeping players on the right track and on the right side of the law. But for at least one day and one offseason, the coach we expected to play the role of disciplinarian was not the one who showed up to take the stage.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Some stocks rise during spring practice and some inevitably fall, and that wave of momentum heading into the offseason can be a valuable determinant when it comes to seeing more playing time during the season.

With that in mind, here’s a look at five players emerging on defense for Alabama.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Allen
AP Photo/Dave MartinSophomore defensive end Jonathan Allen could be a big part of the Tide's defense in 2014.
DE Jonathan Allen: You can’t ask for much more as a true freshman than to play in every game. So while Allen might not have grabbed the same headlines as fellow rookie A'Shawn Robinson last season, he did do enough to see the field early and was able to gain some valuable experience. With Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson now off to the NFL, expect Allen to be in the mix to start at defensive end. And judging by his A-Day performance -- one blocked kick, two sacks, four tackles for loss -- it might be safe to call him a frontrunner to run with the ones as a sophomore.

CB Tony Brown: Even with a shoulder harness on and a black no-contact jersey pulled over his head, Brown found a way to make plays at A-Day, hauling in an impressive interception in his first public appearance in front of the Alabama faithful. The former five-star prospect chose to enroll early at Alabama for that very purpose -- a head start. With Alabama lean on experience at cornerback and Eddie Jackson dealing with a torn knee ligament, Brown has every opportunity to compete for a starting job when practice begins again after the summer.

LB Reuben Foster: Someone on campus needs to show Foster the proper way to tackle. He’s always been a reckless head-first linebacker, but after a series of neck stingers, you’d think the staff would have gotten him to change his ways. Well, at A-Day he dove head-first again into a pile and dealt himself a concussion that sent him to the locker room. Even so, with C.J. Mosley gone and a spot at inside linebacker up for grabs, expect Foster to push for more playing time. Injuries are a concern, but his athleticism is too much to keep off the field.

LB Dillon Lee: An arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence clouded an otherwise bright spring for the junior. After getting himself sent home from the BCS National Championship Game as a freshman, it looked like he had turned the corner. Nick Saban even said he was in line to compete for a starting job at outside linebacker. And even though Lee's off-field behavior is a red flag, fans had to be pleased with his response to the situation, coming out at A-Day and leading the Crimson Team with nine total tackles. If he can keep his nose clean this offseason, he should be able to contribute come fall.

DE D.J. Pettway: It was almost as if he never left. Pettway got himself thrown off the team following a season in which he was named to the Freshman All-SEC squad. But after paying his penance at a junior college program, he returned this spring and has re-inserted himself in the mix at defensive end. He even had his own “welcome back” moment at A-Day, intercepting a Blake Sims pass and returning it 29 yards for a touchdown.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- A-Day might not have featured the finest quarterback play. It might not have been the introductory moment offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was hoping for, either.

One thing did, however, go over incredibly well for Alabama on Saturday. The defensive line answered this spring’s most hard-to-pin-down question with a resounding yes.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Pettway
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsD.J. Pettway was a big part of Alabama's resurgent pass rush this spring.
Yes, Alabama has excellent depth up front on defense. And, yes, the line seems ready to get after the quarterback more than it has in seasons past. All you had to do was watch Kiffin’s passing game fold under pressure time and time again to see that.

The ultimate point of pride for defensive line coach Bo Davis and his players had to be the first touchdown of the game: Defensive end D.J. Pettway snags a screen pass from Blake Sims, finds the open field and races 29 yards to pay dirt. After holding the offenses scoreless for 45 minutes, it was the defense that found a way to score.

But as much fun as it was to watch a big man rumble into the end zone, what really had the faithful at Bryant-Denny Stadium giddy was Alabama’s resurgent pass rush. We’d heard all spring how Davis had infused enthusiasm and energy into the defensive line. How he was full of energy. How he was asking his players to read less, react more and get after the quarterback. And unlike the unfulfilled promise of Alabama’s quarterbacks, its defensive linemen delivered, to the tune of seven sacks and 19 tackles for loss.

(For comparison sake, Alabama totaled two sacks and five tackles for loss at last year’s spring game.)

Even coach Nick Saban, who fought speculation about the quality of the defensive line early on this spring, had to concede that he had a talented group of players to work with. In fact, he had to widen his praise to most of the defensive front seven.

“We have a lot of experienced players,” Saban said after the White beat Crimson, 17-13, in a game where the score is meaningless, though White was led by the first-team defense. “[D.J.] Pettway and [Jarran] Reed add a lot of depth and athleticism to that group. A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen were both freshman last year, and I always say that you make the most improvement between your freshman and sophomore year. Those guys got to play a lot last year; they’ve both had great springs.

“We had three inside linebackers that I thought played really well. Trey DePriest had a really good spring. Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster [did] as well. We also had three guys that played really well at outside linebacker. Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson, and Dillon Lee, those guys all had really good springs. Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson both contributed and improved.”

Pettway and Williams played so well on A-Day that they were named co-winners of the Dwight Stephenson Lineman of the Game award. Allen, who had six tackles and two sacks, also blocked a field goal.

“From the front seven stand point, I feel a lot further along,” Saban said.

Trey DePriest, Alabama’s leader on defense at middle linebacker, said the defensive line showed at A-Day what it was capable of.

“My defensive line is great,” he said. “They put their hands on guys, they strike them, they push them back and let me and Reggie hit the holes and run.”

Ragland, for his part, agreed -- though it came with a caveat. How good is the defensive line? “You’ll see coming up," he said.

“We still have a lot more to prove. We didn’t get to do half the stunts we wanted to.”

SEC lunchtime links

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
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Spring games galore this weekend! Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt will be in action on Saturday. But news isn't just on the field; there's plenty off the field, too:
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Maybe Dillon Lee wasn’t ready for the moment so soon. As a still green-under-the-collar rookie, he played in Alabama’s season-opener against Michigan two years ago. The former four-star recruit wasted no time making his presence felt, making his first career tackle and then intercepting a pass in the final two minutes of a blowout win that eventually propelled the Crimson Tide to another national championship.

At the time it looked as if Lee was destined to make an impact as a freshman, mixing in some sneaky athleticism into a group of linebackers that already featured veterans C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson. But time was playing tricks on us. Lee didn't make another tackle all season. He played in the first four games and showed up on the participation chart only four more times over the final 10 games.

[+] EnlargeDillon Lee
AP Photo/Butch DillDillon Lee appears ready to be a starter on Alabama's defense.
To make matters worse, his immaturity showed when he and fellow freshman Ryan Anderson were sent home before the BCS National Championship game for missing curfew. Both players would have to work their way out of the doghouse.

Lee, by all accounts, did just that this past season, playing in all 13 games while earning the respect of his teammates and coaches. He was named special teams player of the week by the coaching staff following a victory over Ole Miss. Shortly after, Mosley praised him for being a “diverse player” who can play inside linebacker as well as on the edge. He called Lee “physical” and able to “hold the point of attack.”

Defensive end Ed Stinson called the 6-foot-4, 242-pound Lee “crazy.”

“In a good way,” he explained. “He works hard. He doesn’t ever hold back. He goes hard every time he gets in.”

Fellow linebacker Denzel Devall, who came in with Lee and started all 13 games at outside linebacker as a sophomore last season, echoed his former teammate's sentiments, noting Lee’s talent as well as his attitude.

“Dillon is very versatile,” Devall said. “Great guy. Very physical. Just an athlete. He's smart, and I believe he'll come in and do a great job for us.”

Though it’s still early in the spring, it looks as if Lee will play much more as a junior. While there’s no depth chart -- don’t even ask coach Nick Saban about one -- there is a big vacancy at linebacker where starting jobs at inside and outside linebacker are up for grabs. Lee figures to be best suited to play strong-side linebacker (Sam), where he was No. 2 on last season's depth chart behind Adrian Hubbard, who has since moved on to the NFL.

Lee, who has shown he can handle both positions on the field as well as his responsibilities away from it, could very well end up coming fill circle and start Alabama’s season-opener against West Virginia on Aug. 30 in Atlanta.

“I think Dillon Lee will be a really good player for us,” Saban said. “I think he has a good understanding of what we want him to do. He runs well. He's got good size and plays good block protection, especially at the line of scrimmage.

“We feel like he can be a very good player and competing for a starting job right now. We're confident that if he wins that job, he'll be able to do an outstanding job for us.”

SEC lunchtime links

March, 26, 2014
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Spring storylines abound this week around the SEC. Let's take a quick spin around the league to see what's happening.

SEC's lunch links

March, 21, 2014
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How’s your bracket looking after the first day? If you’re like me, you’re probably hoping for a better Day 2. If it’s so bad that you’re giving up on basketball and ready for football, then take a look at the latest news and notes around the SEC in today’s lunch links.

Opening spring camp: Alabama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If you’ve watched Alabama football these past few years, then you know what Trey DePriest looks like in uniform. The No. 33 emblazoned on his chest, he’s a thickly built linebacker with a low center of gravity. He’s a complete player; good in tight quarters against the run and solid in space against the pass. He doesn’t shy away from contact, but he hasn’t always been at the center of it either since signing with Alabama in 2011. Instead, that honor belongs to All-American C.J. Mosley, who racked up 100 or more tackles in each of the past two seasons.

But with Mosley off to a career in the NFL, expect to see a new Trey DePriest on the field this spring. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound senior doesn’t figure to change much physically; he doesn’t need to. Between the ears, however, he should make significant strides. A vacuum in leadership has moved him to the forefront of Nick Saban’s defense, demanding that he be both productive and vocal in 2014. Looking good in uniform and showing flashes of promise won’t cut it anymore. DePriest must transform himself these next few weeks and months if Alabama’s defense is to live up to the lofty standards of seasons past.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsTrey DePriest says he's ready to assume the leadership role on the field and in the locker room left open by the departure of C.J. Mosley.
The good news for Alabama fans is that DePriest does have all the tools to succeed. His size and speed are ideal. He isn’t quite as fast as Mosley, but then again few in the college game have ever been.

Still, he has been consistently productive in somewhat of a lesser role. He stood out early as a playmaker on special teams with 25 tackles in 13 games as a freshman. In each of the past two seasons he’s ranked in the top three on the team in tackles: 59 as a sophomore and 65 as a junior. Mosley, by means of comparison, went from 37 tackles as a sophomore to 107 tackles as a junior. Both could have entered the NFL draft as underclassmen, but both decided to stay for their senior seasons. For Mosley, it paid off to the tune of another 100-tackle season and an even more inflated draft stock. The hope for DePriest is he does the same.

"He knows the defense just like I do," Mosley told reporters prior the Allstate Sugar Bowl. "If he comes back like I did, he'll evolve into that every-down linebacker role so people will be able to see his true talents. They'll see he can control the defense and be the only linebacker on the field and make all the calls."

When it comes to the matter of leadership, Mosley sees that capability in DePriest, too.

"If he stays, it will be him," Mosley said when asked who the leaders will be when he leaves. "He doesn't get a lot of credit, but he's a pretty good linebacker."

Said DePriest: “I’m definitely going to be ready to take on that job. Like I said earlier, I’m going to have to. Him and the other guys leaving like that, it’s going to be something that I have to do.”

The linebacker corps will be young next season. Sam linebacker Adrian Hubbard is off to the NFL and Jack linebacker Xzavier Dickson was suspended for the Sugar Bowl, though Saban said he’ll be back for spring practice. None of the three contenders to replace Mosley at inside linebacker -- Reuben Foster, Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland -- has ever started a game and together they combined for all of 45 tackles last season.

DePriest, more than ever, will be leaned on by the coaching staff. He has had the luxury of working with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart one-on-one in the past as his position coach, but now that responsibility falls to Kevin Steele, who was a defensive coordinator at Clemson (2009-12) before returning to Tuscaloosa last year as director of player personnel.

Maybe a new challenge and a new coach will be just what the doctor ordered for DePriest as he takes on the biggest test of his career at Alabama. As spring practice kicks off on campus this week, look for the senior to look the same but play like a new man.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It happens every year now, so don't act surprised. If you're an Alabama fan, deal with it. If you're not, don't weep for the Crimson Tide, either. Coach Nick Saban has lost multiple underclassmen to the NFL before, so Thursday's news that safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan will all leave school early is no insurmountable thing. This is just the reason why Saban and his staff recruit so hard.

[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillSafety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is one of four Alabama players who are leaving school early to enter the 2014 NFL draft.
Their leadership and experience will be missed -- along with seniors AJ McCarron, C.J. Mosley and Anthony Steen -- but their talent can be replaced. When you're the only school in the country to finish in the top three of ESPN's class rankings every year since 2008, you have that luxury of plug-and-play. Blue-chip prospects overflow from Alabama's football offices, rattling out its pockets every once in a while like loose change.

"Our twos and threes could do what I did out there," Clinton-Dix said of the team moving forward. "I'm not worried about any of those guys stepping up."

Alabama will be fine without Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix. Many of their replacements are already on board: Landon Collins at safety, Leon Brown at tackle, Dillon Lee at strongside linebacker, Jonathan Allen at defensive end. Those who will challenge them for playing time are either just now arriving or just now finishing their first seasons in Tuscaloosa: defensive backs ArDarius Stewart and Laurence 'Hootie' Jones, tackles Grant Hill and Cam Robinson, linebackers Tim Williams and Da'Shawn Hand, and defensive ends Dee Liner and D.J. Pettway -- all excellent prospects.

It's easy to look at the loss of stars and say, "Oh no!" but that's not how it works at Alabama. It wasn't that long ago that safety Mark Barron left school and Clinton-Dix entered the fold. D.J. Fluker went to the NFL a year early and Austin Shepherd had little trouble at right tackle in his absence. Eddie Lacy torched Notre Dame in last year's BCS title game, announced he was turning pro and Alabama never missed a beat. Not only is T.J. Yeldon back for his junior season, a fella by the name of Derrick Henry appears ready to be his new sidekick.

This is the program that Saban has built. This is what his "Process" has borne. And it's embraced around campus. Just look at this, this and this from Alabama's director of player personnel Tyler Siskey. As Saban told reporters, "We've had 13 guys go out early for the NFL draft, 11 of those guys have been first-round draft picks."

Often when other schools lose key players to the NFL, there's a mad scramble to find their replacements. At Alabama, coaches turn to a stocked cupboard. Take the safety position, for instance: Cinton-Dix goes out with off-field drama and Collins enters the fold at free safety, followed by Vinnie Sunseri blowing out his knee and Collins then shifting over to strong safety. Collins, a former five-star prospect in his own right, immediately found success. A year after playing primarily on special teams, he finished second on the team in tackles, tied for first in interceptions and tops in passes defended.

Sure, Saban would love to see Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix back for another year. Just don't expect him to openly weep about it. He's probably more than thrilled that Trey DePriest and DeAndrew White should be sticking around for their senior seasons.

You know, two out of six isn't bad. Three championships in five years seems to be going over quite well in Tuscaloosa.

Alabama will survive and new stars will emerge next season. Sometimes you hate to see athletes like Clinton-Dix leave early, but their departure only clears the way for who's next.
Trey DePriest cut the list of possible departures by one when he announced that he would return for his senior season. But the list was, according to Alabama coach Nick Saban, already in the double digits as Alabama's notoriously tight-lipped head coach said before the Sugar Bowl that as many as 10 players were interested in their NFL futures and would look into receiving a draft projection from the league's advisory board.

In what's become an annual rite of the new year, Alabama is staring down a future without many of its underclassman stars. The deadline to declare for the NFL draft is Jan. 15, and decisions from players could come soon now that Saban is no longer in Pasadena, Calif., for the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

How the Tide's own title aspirations look depend heavily on what happens with the draft-eligible underclassmen. As Saban said, "It will affect our team next year." There are some players who seem likely to bolt and others who could use another year of seasoning. Here's a breakdown of who they are, how they're trending and what their return or departure means for Alabama moving forward.

S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillAlabama could use Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's talents and experience next season.
Trending: On to the NFL
What his return would mean: If he returns, the narrative of Alabama's secondary being a liability could change drastically. With Landon Collins and Vinnie Sunseri, the Tide would have three very solid safeties, allowing Saban to move parts around and make the most of the nickel corner position. Clinton-Dix would be the anchor to the whole scheme at free safety.
What his departure would mean: Given how high his draft stock is right now, it's hard to imagine he comes back for his senior season as ESPN's Scouts Inc. has him as the No. 18 prospect overall, a solid first-round pick. So look for Sunseri to return at strong safety and Collins to slide back over to free safety, where he started a few games this season. Nick Perry, who missed the final 10 games of the season with an injury, will return to provide depth.

LB Trey DePriest
Trending: Staying put
What his return would mean: It's a big boost for Alabama, given the departure of senior inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. DePriest will immediately become the leader of the defense in 2014, making the calls and adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Even though his junior season wasn't what some expected in terms of production, DePriest is still an NFL talent with the size and speed to provide support in the running game and drop back in pass coverage.
What his departure would mean: Had he left, Alabama would have been in dire straits. Replacing Mosley would have been hard enough, but removing the two most experienced and talented defenders on the team would have been a huge loss for Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Underclassmen such as Dillon Lee and Ryan Anderson have shown promise, but both could use another season removed from the spotlight DePriest will inhabit.

LB Adrian Hubbard
Trending: On to the NFL
What his return would mean: We've seen plenty of flashes of talent from Hubbard. In each of the past two seasons he's turned it on late and helped provide a pass rush that had been lacking. Maybe one more year under Saban will be what it takes to establish that consistency from Week 1.
What his departure would mean: Along those same lines, Hubbard has peaked at the right time in each of the last two seasons. And don't think the NFL hasn't noticed. He had to make an announcement last year that he would come back as a junior, but will he do the same again and return for his redshirt senior season? After graduating, there's a chance he moves on, clearing the way for someone like Lee or Tim Williams.

LT Cyrus Kouandjio
Trending: Staying put
[+] EnlargeCyrus Kouandjio
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsCyrus Kouandjio had a tough Sugar Bowl, and that might affect his draft status.
What his return would mean: Dealing with one loss out of five is much easier than tending to two. Such would be the case for Alabama if Kouandjio returns. Offensive line coach Mario Cristobal would be able to focus on replacing senior guard Anthony Steen and re-establishing the chemistry the line found in the second half of the season but lost late in a poor performance against Oklahoma.
What his departure would mean: You can't play that poorly on a national stage and not get noticed. Kouandjio looked like a sure thing to bolt for the NFL draft before the Sugar Bowl. But after getting beaten badly by the Sooners -- Eric Striker beat with him a speed rush that led to three sacks -- it looks like Kouandjio might need another year of seasoning. With brother Arie returning for his senior season, that might be enough to keep Cyrus in crimson. If he does go, look for blue-chip prospect Cam Robinson to try his best to start right away.

DE Jeoffrey Pagan
Trending: Staying put
What his return would mean: Because of his size (6-foot-4, 290 pounds) and quickness in the trenches, Pagan certainly looks like a solid NFL prospect. But is he good enough to turn pro early? It doesn't seem like it. With just two sacks and three tackles for loss this season, the production just isn't there. Should he return, he'll be someone the staff can build around, much as it did in 2012 when Damion Square was able to play both end and tackle in the 3-4.
What his departure would mean: It wouldn't be devastating to see Pagan go, but it would be a big loss in leadership. Youngsters such as A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen are blossoming on the defensive line, but Pagan is a proven commodity, especially against the run. Alabama might improve in the pass-rush department as more athletic ends emerge, but that's a short-sighted way of thinking.

Five things: Alabama-Chattanooga

November, 23, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch as the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide host the Chattanooga Mocs on Saturday afternoon in Bryant-Denny Stadium:

AJ's curtain call: Forget the lack of national recognition and forget his slim Heisman Trophy hopes. As I wrote a few weeks ago, to look at AJ McCarron in those terms is to fail to understand his value as a three-year starter at quarterback for Alabama. On Saturday, senior day in Tuscaloosa, McCarron will be recognized as the historically great player he's been. He already holds many school records (winning percentage, passing yards, etc.) but what matters most are the rings. He's already got two as a starter, a third as a backup, and is aiming for a fourth this season. When fans rise to applaud all McCarron has done on Saturday, forget what recognition he might be lacking elsewhere and remember all the great things he's already done in Tuscaloosa.

C.J.'s final hurrah: Talk about a lack of recognition. McCarron gets the lion's share of the applause for what Alabama's done because he's the quarterback. But whatever McCarron has done as a passer, C.J. Mosley has done as a linebacker. The man has been a contributor on defense since Day 1, playing alongside the likes of Rolando McClain, Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower. And he's done his part and more to live up to their legacy. Every year he leads the team in tackles and this season he's stepped up and met his biggest challenge yet: leading the defense from a philosophical standpoint. He's put aside his normally quiet demeanor and raised his voice to lead a defense that needed a strong veteran at the helm.

Ball control: Expect Alabama to move the ball with ease against lowly Chattanooga. The poor Mocs don't stand a chance. But pay attention to ball control. If there was one big negative takeaway from last weekend's win over Mississippi State, it was the turnovers. Alabama gave the ball away a season-high four times in Starkville. McCarron broke his streak of 139 passes without an interception with not one, but two picks. And T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake each fumbled the ball, bringing their season total to eight overall. If there's one thing Alabama can't have moving forward, it's that. McCarron has to be careful with the football and Yeldon and Drake need to rediscover how to keep the ball high and tight.

Second-stringers: There are no players to watch from Alabama's first team offense or defense. Those guys will have their way with Chattanooga and reach the sideline before halftime, in all likelihood. So rather than give you Christion Jones or Adrian Hubbard to key on, let's turn to the second- and third-stringers, also known as the players you'll be watching a year or two from now. On defense, look to linebacker Dillon Lee and cornerback Maurice Smith. They'll be competing for starting roles in spring camp. And on the other side of the ball, pay attention to running back Derrick Henry and wide receiver Chris Black. Both have been held back by the depth ahead of them, but expect more snaps for each in 2014.

Iron Bowl fever: It's almost here, I promise. While Auburn had the luxury of the week off with a bye, folks in Tuscaloosa have to watch the Crimson Tide beat up on Chattanooga before they turn their attention fully to the Iron Bowl. Next Saturday's game will be one for the history books as it will be the first time that either team has a chance to win and make it to the SEC championship game. We won't get into the matchups and the storylines here, but when you watch Alabama take on Chattanooga, look out for things like run defense and special teams play as they could be signs of things to come when the Iron Bowl finally gets here.

Planning for success: Alabama

November, 21, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The Iron Bowl will have to wait on Alabama.

First there's the matter of Chattanooga. Oh, those poor Mocs daring to stand in the way of the top-ranked Crimson Tide.

[+] EnlargeHead coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban wasn't necessarily pleased with how Alabama played last week, which is not a good thing for Chattanooga this week.
Alabama is on a collision course to face Auburn on Nov. 30, but while the Tigers have the week off to prepare, the Tide will host Chattanooga for senior day at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

And after the way Alabama traveled to Mississippi State last weekend, turning the ball over a season-high four times, playing a generally sloppy game and failing to dominate a sub-.500 team, there's plenty of motivation for the Tide to come out and stomp the Mocs, end the game early and turn its attention to Auburn and the Iron Bowl.

But what is UA coach Nick Saban looking for? After lamenting the way his team entered last weekend's game, he's hoping for better preparation and better focus.

"I think we're really trying to focus on attention to detail, doing the little things right," Saban said on Wednesday. "[I] don't think we really finished the last game the way we wanted to in terms of the discipline to attention to detail and fundamentals, whether it's how you carry the ball, how you block, how you run routes, how you read the coverage, how you cover your man. … I think those are all things we need to focus on improving on.

"We certainly have a lot of respect for anybody we play. The team that we play, they're a good team. They've won eight games. We just have to have a better sense of urgency about how we prepare so that we can improve as a team."

There's no key matchup to focus in on, no position battle to agonize over. Alabama should beat Chattanooga handily and the starters should be out by halftime. Instead, look to the second- and third-string players who might not have much of an impact this season, but could develop into key contributors next season and in the years to come.

Here are a few to watch out for:

LB Dillon Lee: The true sophomore has quietly become one of the top linebackers off the bench this season, flashing good quickness and instincts. He ranks third among non-starters with 15 total tackles. He also has two quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery.

RB Derrick Henry: He's not had the breakout freshman season many hoped for, but Henry's 10.3 yards per carry average is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you consider he's 6-foot-3 and 283 pounds. He's run the ball 21 times -- third most on the team -- for 216 yards and a touchdown.

CB Maurice Smith: Who knows what the cornerback situation will look like a year from now? Deion Belue will be gone and both starting spots will be up for grabs, and while Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve have the inside track, don't forget Smith. There's a reason the true freshman has seen the field this season, racking up 10 tackles in 10 appearances.

WR Chris Black: After redshirting his first year on campus, Black has had trouble climbing the latter at receiver. But when you consider that Kevin Norwood, DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell -- three of the top five receivers -- will be gone next season, Black's opportunity doesn't seem far away. He should see the field in the second half, likely when Blake Sims comes on at quarterback.

Week 4 helmet stickers

September, 22, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- No. 1 Alabama had a rocky go of it but wound up getting the job done on Saturday night, beating Colorado State 31-6 in the Crimson Tide's home opener.

During the course of the action, a few players stood out as worthy of a coveted helmet sticker.

WR Christion Jones: He might have been the lone bright spot on an otherwise bleak offensive unit that failed to move the ball well against an undermanned Colorado State team. Jones led the team with nine receptions for 90 yards, hooking up with AJ McCarron on one drive for three straight catches for first downs. Combined with his ability to returns kicks and punts, Jones is quickly developing into Alabama's most dangerous playmaker.

LB C.J. Mosley: It has become a weekly occurrence, Mosley finishing the game as Alabama's leading tackler. This time it was against Colorado State as the All-American senior linebacker had a team-high nine tackles, including one tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries. In a game where Alabama's defense faltered plenty, allowing long drives to an undermanned Rams offense, Mosley simply played his game, making tackle after tackle while also providing some much needed leadership to a group that featured more than its fair share of underclassmen.

RB Kenyan Drake: His rushing numbers won't knock you over, but he made the most of his time against Colorado State, rushing the ball three times for three yards and a touchdown. But it wasn't his rushing performance that earned him a helmet sticker this week. Rather, it was for his work on special teams, blocking a punt that bounced perfectly into the waiting hands of teammate Dillon Lee, who took it to the end zone for Alabama's second touchdown of the game.

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