Alabama Crimson Tide: Jeoffrey Pagan

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban has had no trouble recruiting at Alabama. The number of four- and five-star prospects he and his staff have signed since 2007 is nothing short of staggering. Many of them are already enjoying careers in the NFL.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The results: The final tally is still coming in, but the 2011 class appears to be headed in the right direction. Junior college transfers Jesse Williams and Quinton Dial are already playing professional football, and there’s a solid chance both Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix will be selected in the first round of the NFL draft in May. Pagan and Sunseri will follow in the later rounds. If DePriest, Jones and Kelly develop into NFL prospects as fourth-year players in 2014, that would make nine total NFL players from the class, not counting what Xzavier Dickson or D.J. Pettway could do to impress scouts.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban likes to refer to the NFL draft as a “business decision.” Of course he’d love it if his most talented players finished out their eligibility at Alabama, but the promise of long-term financial security is enough to sway even his most selfish ambitions.

He stood on a podium last year and applauded as juniors Dee Milliner and D.J. Fluker declared for the draft. Both were taken in the first round and both received four-year contracts that topped $10 million. Their paychecks were the focus of promotional materials Alabama sent to recruits, one asking “Are You Next?” and the other declaring that “The Process Pays Off.”

[+] EnlargeSaban
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsCoach Nick Saban and Alabama are losing five underclassmen to the 2014 NFL draft.
But there’s a line in the sand for Saban, one he doesn’t advertise on fliers but will admit to publicly: If you’re not a first-round pick, you shouldn’t go pro early.

That’s an awfully hard line to draw in a day and age where patience is neither sexy nor palpable. Recruits want to hear how they’ll start from Day 1. They want to be told how they’ll ascend the depth chart, win a Heisman Trophy and move on to make millions of dollars in the NFL after three short years in school. They don’t want to be told that the process of developing as an athlete -- yes, even Saban’s “Process” that looks more and more like an NFL farm system -- could take longer than that. They don’t want to be told that their four- and five-star rankings won't translate to the pros.

Saban’s hard-line stance toward staying in school has held up well in the past. “We’ve had 13 guys go out early for the draft. Eleven were first round draft picks, one was a second, and one was a third,” he boasted earlier this month. But that statement isn't holding up so well now. A few moments later at the same news conference, he handed off the microphone to four underclassmen who would declare themselves eligible for the draft, only two of whom -- safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio -- were regarded as a first-round prospects. The other two, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan, will be lucky to be taken in the second round.

A fifth underclassmen, safety Vinnie Sunseri, declared for the draft as well. There was no news conference for him, though. Alabama didn't even send out a statement informing the media of his decision. His name just happened to be among the record 98 underclassmen to officially turn pro last week. He'll likely be a late-round pick, but rather than stay and improve his stock, he fled Tuscaloosa. Sources close to the situation cited a rift between him and the coaching staff dating to his sophomore season, but Sunseri hasn't addressed the situation publicly. Rather, he's viewed as just another underclassman hoping to strike it rich, ignoring some recently troubling statistics.

Of the 73 underclassmen to turn pro last year, 21 went undrafted. Of the 52 players who were drafted, 25 were taken in the first two rounds. That's "not a very secure future for you in terms of what your career might bring, the number of years you might play, as well as how much money you might make,” Saban told reporters at the Senior Bowl earlier this week.

More and more, college football is beginning to take on the mentality of college basketball, Saban said. Rather than one-and-done, he cited a three-and-out mindset shared by players and their parents.

"I don’t think the NFL really wants this. I don’t really think the colleges want this," he said. "I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the players. And I don’t know what the solution to the problem really is."

Maybe Saban should look at his own program to find out what answers there might be. Alabama's success sending underclassmen to the draft certainly hasn't helped dissuade others from trying the same path. The type of advertising Saban has targeted at prospects doesn't exactly scream to come get a four-year degree, either. Amari Cooper, who was a Freshman All-American in 2012, had to be corrected by an Alabama staffer when he told reporters this past preseason that he had "two more years here." And it's absurd to think he's the only one eyeing a shortcut to the NFL.

The "epidemic" of underclassmen turning pro, as it has been called, might not have started at Alabama, but it has finally reached its shores.

Saban's attitude of "first round or try again" is showing signs of crumbling. His line in the sand, much to his dismay, is being crossed all too often. He either must dig deeper and retrench, or watch it disappear entirely.

SEC's lunch links

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
12:00
PM ET
Two handy reminders: College football underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to declare for the NFL draft, which will be May 8 at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

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.

Alabama ready for more of the zone-read

December, 31, 2013
12/31/13
10:30
AM ET
NEW ORLEANS -- When No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) looks at its matchup with 11th-ranked Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12) in Thursday's Allstate Sugar Bowl, the Crimson Tide can't help but see similarities to their last opponent.

You know, the opponent that derailed Alabama's national championship hopes with a miracle of a kick return and a run game that churned out nearly 300 yards on the Tide's vaunted defense.

Oklahoma, which is averaging 235.8 yards per game this season, isn't quite Auburn, but it does possess that pesky zone-read that gutted the Tide on the Plains. For all the inconsistency that Oklahoma has had this season on offense, Alabama isn't overlooking the Sooners' running game, which could pose quite the threat if it gets going early.

"It's very important [to stop the running run early] because once they get started, they keep on rolling," cornerback Deion Belue said. "They're a tough team as it is because their offensive line is big and strong. The thing is stop the run. If all else fails, we have to do that. If not, they can keep on rolling and then they have the option to run and pass any time they want to."

The thing with Oklahoma is that the offense can get a little complicated at times with quarterbacks Blake Bell and Trevor Knight sharing time. A starter hasn't even been announced for Thursday, but the good news is that both can run the zone-read, which has been pretty successful for the Sooners this season.

Oklahoma averages 7.2 yards per zone-read play when Knight is in and 4.5 yards per play with Bell, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Knight has gained 257 yards and is averaging 10.3 yards per play when he keeps the ball on zone-read rushes, which is the best among AQ players with at least 25 zone-read runs, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

So while the Sooners aren't sure who will be under center first, Alabama knows to expect plenty of running plays, regardless.

"We're just going to look at it as them trying to take our manhood, kinda, and try and down us a little bit [with their run game]," defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan said.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Oklahoma has run 138 zone-read plays this season and averaged 18.7 zone-read plays (130 yards per game) in each of its last three games (all wins) after averaging 9.1 plays per game (47.2 yards per game) in its first nine games.

"We're going to be all right against it," linebacker Trey DePriest said. "We've repped it. That's the same offense the last we guys we played [ran]."

In Alabama's 34-28 loss to Auburn, the Tigers gained 270 rushing yards on 38 zone-read plays (7.1 yards per carry), including seven runs of 10 yards or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Alabama entered that game allowing 3.6 yards per rush on such plays, which second best in the SEC.

Senior running back Brennan Clay (913 yards) has been the bell cow back for Oklahoma, and while he's been very impressed with Alabama, he thinks Auburn's 296-yard outing against the Tide created a blueprint for how to hurt a rush defense that was allowing just 91 yards a game before facing Auburn.

"They're not the gods that everyone [claims] them to be," Clay said. "I feel like everyone was putting them on such a high pedestal, but anyone can get beat on any given day. It's whatever transpires in between those lines on the football field is what matters.

"If we come out being aggressive, being able to establish the run, make big plays, we'll be fine."

Establishing the run is easier said than done. Before Auburn, Alabama had allowed 100-plus rushing yards just four times and surrendered just five rushing touchdowns. With about a month to prepare, Alabama won't be startled by what it sees inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Thursday.

This isn't a defense prone to continuing its mistakes.

"They're just very technical. They don't make a whole lot of mistakes, they're really physical, they know how to make plays and stop offenses, especially high-powered offenses," Knight said. "That's been a staple of their program the last couple years."

What's also been a staple of this defense is winning up front. Getting the push up in the trenches will be important for both teams, and Oklahoma All-American center Gabe Ikard said winning there will dictate the game. Fail against their big uglies, and Ikard said Oklahoma is toast.

"They're extremely powerful and big up front -- biggest defense we've seen, most physical defense we've seen, best defensive we've seen all year," he said. "It's going to be a great challenge to control the line of scrimmage against those guys. They're D-linemen are bigger than anybody we've seen this year, and that includes Notre Dame.

"If we can't run the ball, it'll be a long day for us."

SEC lunchtime links

November, 8, 2013
11/08/13
12:00
PM ET
Half a day. We're almost there. Here are some links from around SEC country to help you finish off the work week.


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- So much about LSU-Alabama is built around the physical style of play, and rightfully so. UA coach Nick Saban called the game a "heavyweight fight" where you have to show up in every round. His veteran defensive end, Jeoffrey Pagan, said it was a "dog fight" he looks forward to every season.

[+] EnlargeJarvis Landry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsWith a powerful run game, plus Jarvis Landry (pictured) and Odell Beckham Jr. stretching the secondary, LSU's offense presents a bigger challenge to Alabama's depleted secondary.
But it won't be all smash-mouth football when the two teams meet in Tuscaloosa on Saturday night. Don’t be surprised if LSU coach Les Miles puts the ball in the air against the top-ranked Crimson Tide.

And given the Alabama's depth concerns in the secondary, why not? Eight different players have started there and two key pieces at safety -- Vinnie Sunseri and Nick Perry -- are out for the season with injuries. Deion Belue has been consistent, but who plays opposite him at corner hasn't been. John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve have all tried their hands there and none have risen to the top of the pile. It's unclear who among them will start against LSU.

"We like the matchup," Miles said of getting the ball to his two star receivers, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., who rank in the top 10 of the SEC in receiving yards and have combined for 16 touchdown catches. "We think that we kind of give them some challenges on the perimeter. We got a quarterback, first of all, that can make the throw and several receivers that can get open in space.

"Again, who we're playing, they are a very good team, but we think there is a matchup there that benefits us."

LSU certainly has the pieces to hurt Alabama through the air.

Zach Mettenberger had his own personal coming out party against the Tide last season, throwing for a then-career high 298 yards in defeat. He carried that over to this year and has made the most dramatic improvement in opponent-adjusted QBR (+38.6) of any quarterback who qualified. His 85.7 opponent-adjusted QBR is seventh-best in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

It helps that he's got two good ones to throw the football to.

"The combination of these two guys are as good a receivers as we've played against all year long," Saban said. "Not the same style as the Texas A&M guys, but very quick, very athletic. They have the speed to get on top. Very smart in terms of route runners. They do a good job of putting them in various positions that makes them difficult to cover and get the kind of matchups on that you'd like."

Beckham is as dangerous a weapon as there is in the SEC with his ability to create separation. He has premier top-end speed and the burst to make a guy miss and take it to the house. He's currently second in the country in all-purpose yards.

Landry, on the other hand, can go up and get it. He's listed as 6-foot-1, but plays much larger. He's sixth in the country in receptions (57), seventh in yards per catch (21.02) and fifth in creating first downs on a reception (40).

"They know how to run their routes, just like our receivers," UA safety Landon Collins said. "It’s hard to stick our receivers. They know how to run their routes and stick on a dime. Watching it on film, it’s going to be a pretty tough game sticking them, our safeties playing their wide receivers."

It won't help that LSU is so balanced. Alabama won't be able to help the secondary out by dropping many defenders back in coverage. There's simply no ignoring LSU's running game, headlined by Jeremy Hill, who ranks 13th nationally in rushing yards (922) and is tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns (12).

Given all that, the Tide secondary knows the task that lies ahead.

"They have very good wide receivers, very good quarterback," Collins said. "And their run game is tremendous. We just have to stay settled and stay watching our keys."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There's an elusive nature to Vinnie Sunseri's game, a nagging need to define what makes him so special. In a sports that lusts after measurables, he doesn't fit the mold. He makes play after play at safety for Alabama, but we're not sure why or how.

[+] EnlargeVinnie Sunseri
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsVinnie Sunseri has shown a big-play ability this season as both of his interceptions have been returned for scores.
Trey DePriest wishes he could tell you what makes his friend and teammate such a playmaker, but the junior linebacker doesn't know. The two came up on special teams together as freshman and he's still trying to figure him out. Both of Sunseri's interceptions this season have been returned for touchdowns, including one which came against Texas A&M when he juked Johnny Manziel out of his shoes. He had no business making the defending Heisman Trophy winner look that bad. No one expected it.

"That's just what he does," DePriest said. "That's him."

At 6-feet tall, there's nothing inspiring about Sunseri's size. Sure he's sturdy, quick and has a nose for the football, but in terms of what scouts crave -- the numbers combines generate like 40-yard dash, vertical jump and the three cone drill -- he leaves something to be desired. But as Mike Smith, Sunseri’s former coach at Northridge High (Ala.), said via text: "He's a relentless competitor!"

"He's a throwback guy in a modern era," Smith said. He knows how athletic Sunseri is having played him at linebacker, punt returner and running back, but defines him in simpler terms. "He's the way it used to be played. He breaks the mold of what we are led to believe is needed to win in college football."

Sunseri, the son of longtime college football assistant coach Sal, is a coach's dream. He hurls his body around like a bowling ball crashing against the lanes. And more than making plays at pivotal moments, he's a teacher and a leader. In a secondary that's had more than its fair share of turnover, he's been a driving force for youngsters like Landon Collins and Geno Smith who have had to fill in at free safety with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix serving a suspension.

One week it's Sunseri shouting out the play to John Fulton at cornerback, the next it's Eddie Jackson and then the next it's Bradley Sylve. The carousel in the back end of Alabama's defense has been spinning from early on this season with Sunseri calmly holding the wheel.

"Vinnie's a very smart guy," UA coach Nick Saban said. "He's been showing leadership in terms of making calls and trying to help the other guys in the secondary, which I think they appreciate.

"He all of a sudden is one of the most experienced guys back there right now."

Saban explained how the communication Sunseri provided against a no-huddle team like Kentucky was vital to the Tide holding the Wildcats one touchdown, less than 200 total yards of offense and under 50 percent completions through the air. Sunseri narrowly missed his third interception of the year when he jumped in front of a pass from Maxwell Smith, knocking it to the turf.

It was easy to see the joy in his face in the waning moments of the Kentucky game. He bear-hugged wide receiver Kevin Norwood on the sideline and congratulated his fellow defensive backs for a job well done. They'll need to improve with Arkansas coming to town this week and LSU in less than a month's time.

"It's been fun to see all these guys develop: Bradley, Eddie, Landon Collins, and see the players they're becoming and teach them all the things they need to know has just been something really fun," Sunseri said. "They're doing a great job."

"He’s taken the leadership role very hands-on because he’s got to make more calls now because we’ve got two new safeties doing the position,” Collins said. “There’s more calls now, doing a lot more and talkative so he’s helping a lot more than I think and I appreciate that."

Though his role as a starter and leader of the secondary might be larger, teammates insist nothing has changed. He doesn't have the flash of some big-name players in the SEC, but he's just as important as any of them to his team.

"He's still the same old Vinnie, which has always been a leader," defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan said. "Since he's been here he's always been a leader."

It’s everyone else that’s just now catching on. Both ESPN and CBS Sports named Sunseri a Midseason All-American this week, though as many as three of Alabama's defensive backs could be more physically gifted. But it's that old-school idea that production trumps all that makes Sunseri so special. After a while, the interceptions and big plays are too much to ignore. The why and how he's doing it starts to become irrelevant.

"He's got great ball instinct," Pagan said matter-of-factly. "The guy knows football. I'll give him this: he's a football player."
When asked about the performance of his defense following Alabama's 35-10 win over Virginia Tech in Atlanta Saturday night, Nick Saban had a hint of surprise in his answer.

He was so used to seeing historically good (or close to it) defenses lining up on his side, but with questions surrounding this one entering the 2013 season, he wasn't quite sure what to expect in Week 1.

[+] EnlargeAlabama defenders
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's defense didn't allow Logan Thomas and the Virginia Tech offense to get comfortable on Saturday night.
What he got was a dominating performance from a group that faced new schemes with a few new parts of its own.

"I thought we did a really good job defensively," Saban said. "They didn't do anything on offense that we practiced against, all right? We didn't know how they would use their personnel.

"Our players on defense did a fantastic job of adjusting in the game."

All the talk about Alabama's ugly offensive line play has overshadowed a superb defensive outing.

The Hokies, who registered just 212 total yards and averaged 3.6 yards per play, threw some unexpected option at the Crimson Tide defense, but it didn't really faze Saban's players. Outside of a nice 77-yard touchdown run by Trey Edmunds in which guys got out of position and Saban said the secondary "didn't squeeze the ball properly," it was hard for the Hokies to do much of anything against Alabama's defense.

Virginia Tech was 3-of-17 on third down, had just seven first downs and finished with nine three-and-outs on 12 total drives. Future NFL draft pick Logan Thomas was rendered ineffective, too.

While Thomas dealt with sloppy drops from his receivers, Alabama's defense helped him look very pedestrian under the Georgia Dome lights. He completed just 5-of-26 passes for 59 yards and one interception that was returned for a touchdown by safety Vinnie Sunseri. He completed consecutive pass attempts just twice and, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Thomas left the game with a QBR of 1.9, the lowest in the FBS.

Alabama's extremely fast and very aggressive defense flew around the ball and delivered a handful of bone-ratting hits for dramatic effect. With key players to replace and unknowns to account for, Alabama's defense dominated for the most of Saturday night's 25-point win. Take away Edmunds' 77-yard touchdown run, and it's hard to imagine the Hokies seeing the end zone.

What really had to make Saban happy was the pressure Alabama was able to generate up front. This was an area he wanted to see improve from last season, and even though Alabama had just one sack, it was very obvious that Thomas was uncomfortable all night. Defensive lineman Ed Stinson even led the team with eight tackles.

Fellow lineman Jeoffrey Pagan said he felt the defense wanted to put the game on its back from the start. With the offense sputtering most of the time, the defense got that exact opportunity and didn't disappoint.

"Somebody's got to [step up]," Pagan said. "If it's not the offense, then it's the defense, and if it's not defense, it has to be special teams. They came up with two touchdowns, and the defense came up with one. That's a game-changer."

This group was by no means perfect, but it was a solid start to a very long season. The stats were impressive, but it was the on-field execution that was so striking. Even with inexperience taking the field at various positions, the defense was still able to adjust and adapt. The foreign schemes Virginia Tech thew at this crew didn't startle it, which had Saban gushing as only he knows how to gush over his defense.

"I think our players on defense understand the system, they kind of believe in it," he said. "They have enough experience out there that they can adapt to things that we haven't played or practiced against."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Whether or not they'd like to admit it, the bye week comes at the perfect time for Alabama's players and coaching staff. After an underwhelming season opening win over Virginia Tech in which the offensive line was shaky, the running game rusty and the passing game paltry, an extra week to prepare for No. 7 Texas A&M could do the Crimson Tide wonders.

Jeoffrey Pagan said as much after Saturday's game in Atlanta, noting that playing Virginia Tech "definitely showed us where we're at." He didn't say it with a smile, either. It was clear that wherever Alabama was, it was not good enough. The senior defensive end was one of a number of players thankful for the timing of the bye week. The front seven played well against the Hokies, but it will have to be even better against the Aggies.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsThe Tide will need to do a better job of protecting AJ McCarron against Texas A&M than they did in the opener against Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech and its quarterback, Logan Thomas, were a challenge. But Texas A&M and its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel could be the test of the season for the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide.
Christion Jones Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsChristion Jones' big-play ability was on display Saturday, as the junior wide receiver scored touchdowns on a kick return, punt return and reception in Bama's 35-10 win over Virginia Tech.
ATLANTA -- Alabama wide receiver Christion Jones is the kind of player that drives his coaches nuts. He's got all the tools to ruin a defense and dominate in the return game, yet there are times where he tries to do too much. One play he'll show the type of vision and lane recognition that brings to mind the game's most savvy tailbacks; he'll shuffle his feet, wait for a sliver of daylight and break through as if salvation lay beyond its dazzling glow. Then on the very next play he'll listen to the devil on his shoulder and force what isn't there, running to darkness toward his own end zone in a vain attempt to make his own way.

It's the problem with dynamic athletes like Jones: they refuse to believe a touchdown isn't possible. It's what makes them great, but it's also what makes them dangerous. They sometimes believe too much.

But faith is what made Jones the star of the Crimson Tide's 35-10 victory over Virginia Tech in Saturday night's season opener. The 5-foot-11 junior looked at Virginia Tech's historically stifling special teams and called its bluff, returning a punt and a kickoff for a pair of spectacular touchdowns, robbing the enthusiastic yet overmatched Hokies of momentum with each score. For good measure, he added a 38-yard touchdown reception for the game's final score as No. 1 Alabama began its title defense.

What Jones accomplished was nothing short of historic. Alabama hadn't had a player score twice on returns in the same game since 1944. Bill Battle, the school's athletic director and former player under legendary coach Paul 'Bear' Bryant, marveled at the performance, guessing that he was 3 years old the last time it happened.

"I'd say he's special," he said on the sidelines.

Not he or anyone else could recall if an Alabama player had ever scored on a punt return, a kick return and a reception. There were already calls for a Heisman Trophy campaign thanks to Jones' 256 total yards and three scores.

Jones, though, wouldn't bite that bronze hook. It was just Week 1, he told reporters after the game, and he wouldn't be fooled into that kind of narcissism, no matter how superhuman his performance seemed. It was clear by his 1,000-watt smile that he enjoyed the night, but he wouldn't go overboard. Coaches' orders dictated otherwise, even if it was the best game of his college career.

"It's every kid's dream to come in and do things like that, but you know I'm going to celebrate it right now and we've got a 24-hour rule," he said. "We're going to put this game aside come tomorrow morning and focus on Week 2."

The clock hadn't hit midnight, though, and teammates couldn't help but marvel at what their speedy wideout was able to do on offense and special teams. Veteran right guard Anthony Steen came up to Jones after the second touchdown and said if he kept that up, "He'd be playing pro one day."

Defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan was thankful he didn't have to try tackling Jones during practice, telling reporters that "From what I've seen, it seems pretty hard."

"He's an athletic player, one of the most athletic players on the team," sophomore defensive back Landon Collins added. "He showed that out there today."

It wasn't always so for Jones. Last season he surrendered punt return duties at multiple points, fumbling the ball and encouraging the wrath of his coach for his propensity to take the ball in reverse, rather than settling for positive yards. He focused on being more patient during the offseason and trusting his blocks. The hard work paid off Saturday.

"People take for granted that just because a guy has a lot of skill, that it doesn't take experience to be a good returner," UA coach Nick Saban said. "I think it does. I think just the judgment of when to take the shot, catch the ball, run with it, when to make a fair catch.

"Last year was Christion's first time doing this stuff. He had some opportunities last year, but he learned a lot from it."

Jones flashed brilliance in the season-opening game, but he showed his Achilles heel as well. On his third punt return he looked like the Chirstion Jones of old, reversing field twice before being taken to the ground by the Hokies for a 6-yard loss. The offense went three-and-out and Jones called for a fair catch his next time out.

It would prove to be a teaching moment, one the coaching staff will surely focus on when they review the film in the days to come. Scoring three times was spectacular, but an ill-advised return will stand out as something to build on.

For as good as Jones looked, he wasn't perfect. Neither were the Tide. Both were volatile; brilliant at times and bewildering at others. The offensive line was underwhelming and the passing game never took off. Alabama's Heisman Trophy frontrunners -- quarterback AJ McCarron and running back T.J. Yeldon -- didn't play up to their high standards. Instead, Jones took the mantle of the game's best.

With Texas A&M looming on the horizon, Alabama must improve. Jones will continue to provide the spark on special teams, but it's difficult to imagine many more nights like the one he turned in Saturday in the Georgia Dome.

"I don't think there's anybody in our locker room that's satisfied with the way they played," Saban said. "They certainly appreciate the fact we were able to win against a very good team that we have a lot of respect for their program and players, the way they played tonight.

"But I think everybody realizes that we need to improve. I think when you play good opponents like this, it makes your players realize where they are, what they need to be committed to, to play to the standard that it's going to take to beat good teams in our league. I think we learned that tonight."
ATLANTA -- The scoreboard read the way everyone pretty much expected it to. It showed an SEC team trouncing another almost helpless victim from the ACC.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsAJ McCarron threw for just 110 yards in Alabama's win over Virginia Tech.
But Alabama's 35-10 win didn't feel like the blow out that the scoreboards inside the Georgia Dome indicated. For a team picked by the masses to win its third straight national championship -- and fourth in five years -- Alabama wasn't the well-oiled machine we're accustomed to seeing, but the Crimson Tide still won by 25 points.

The offensive line looked shaky and overmatched at times, and Alabama rushed for just 96 yards (averaging 2.5 yards in the process), but the game never seemed in doubt for the defending champs.

The offense had less than 120 total yards with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, but Alabama's victory appeared sealed before the teams took off for halftime.

Amari Cooper dropped a couple of passes and AJ McCarron's timing was far from great. Yet, Alabama will still be ranked No. 1 in the polls on Monday.

Alabama could still be the nation's best team, but even the Tide showed that it has issues that have to be corrected before this team can make history by being the first team to win three straight national championships since Minnesota from 1934-36.

"I don't know how good we need to be, I just know we need to get better," said McCarron, whose 110 passing yard marked his lowest amount as a starter.

"We just have to get better all the way around."

The first place people will look is the rebuilt offensive line. With three NFL draft picks gone from last year's unit, Alabama started three new players in Ryan Kelly, Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd.

Communication issues, first-game jitters, blown assignments and an aggressive Virginia Tech front seven caused Alabama's line to look dazed for most of the night. McCarron was only sacked once, but he spent a lot of his time running around to avoid pressure. He only completed 10 of his 23 pass attempts and found himself late on a few easy throws.

To McCarron, he was the reason for an ugly passing game.

"To me, unbelievable job (by the offensive line) tonight," the senior QB said. "You can put the blame on me and say that I gotta get rid of the ball a lot faster. I thought they played excellent. I'm proud of those guys. Unbelievable jobs in the first game, especially against a tough Virginia Tech defense. I thought they played their butts off. I'm proud of them."

But when it came to blocking the run, McCarron wasn't to blame. The line just didn't get enough push, as Alabama failed to cross the century mark on the ground for the first time since gaining just 96 yards in its 9-6 overtime loss to LSU in 2011.

Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio said the communication issues from Saturday night weren't problems in practice, but guys didn't seem ready for the actually game speed and the Hokies' defense ran plays the line wasn't prepared to see.

With two weeks until Alabama’s next game, Kouandjio isn't worried about a repeat performance.

"It's great that it's the first game and it kind of tests us to see where we're at," Kouandjio said. "It's perfect because we have the bye week to iron out the kinks and get back at it."

Look, it's way too early to start jumping on the "Alabama is overrated" train, or thinking about a new BCS title favorite. Alabama was sloppy, but it was still the much more talented team. Alabama showed that even though it currently has some glaring issues along its offensive line, its problems are some that teams around the country would love to have.

When the offense shrank and was mauled by a very impressive Virginia Tech defense and was held to just 206 yards of offense -- the lowest by Alabama since it gained just 172 against Tulane in September of 2008 -- special teams stepped up with two touchdown returns by Christion Jones.

Then there was the defense that dazzled for most of the night and limited the Hokies to just 212 yards, including 59 passing yards from future NFL draft pick Logan Thomas.

Take away Trey Edmunds’ 77-yard touchdown run, and the Hokies might not have even sniffed the end zone.

It wasn't a pretty victory, but Alabama looked like the better team all night and is 1-0. It now gets two weeks to prepare for Johnny Manziel and his Texas A&M Aggies.

There's no question that this team has to get better soon, but with Nick Saban's obsession with detail and preparedness, it's hard to imagine another sloppy performance.

"We got a week off to prepare for Texas A&M and we're going to work on our fundamentals, get back right and we'll see them in Texas," defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan said.
During the summer, TideNation will analyze each of the scholarship players on the Alabama roster -- excluding the Tide's 2013 recruiting class -- in our Crimson Countdown series. Starting with No. 1 Dee Hart, we will go through the roster numerically, finishing with No. 99 Brandon Ivory.

No. 94 Dakota Ball
Redshirt freshman defensive lineman


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- After yet another offseason in which he was heavily pursued by other college football programs, Kirby Smart agreed to remain at Alabama for at least one more season. A raise to more than $1 million a year guaranteed that the in-demand defensive coordinator would remain wearing crimson.

If Smart keeps the Alabama defense on its record-breaking pace, every penny of his paycheck would be worth it, and the number of teams knocking down his door to make him a head coach would continue to grow. The 37-year-old coach will once again be tasked with rebuilding a defense that loses a large chunk of its starters to the NFL. Robert Lester and Dee Milliner are gone from a secondary that held quarterbacks to the seventh lowest passing efficiency rating in the country. Nico Johnson, Jesse Williams and Damion Square are all departed from a front seven that finished first in rushing defense.

And despite that, expectations are for the unit to not miss a beat.

But Smart is used to the challenge by now. In what's become a yearly rite of passage, the energetic coordinator has already begun tackling the questions that lie ahead.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

SPONSORED HEADLINES

#CFBRank: Amari Cooper
West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen explains why Alabama receiver Amari Copper will be such a challenge for them to stop this season.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

SEC SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 8/28
Saturday, 8/30
Sunday, 8/31