Alabama Crimson Tide: Jonathan Cook
We’re talking, of course, about the secondaries.
Maybe it was that they were young and inexperienced. Maybe it was a case of so many quarterbacks being the opposite. But whatever it was, the league’s defensive backs should have a chip on their shoulder after the beating they took in 2013.
With that said, let’s dig into which programs are poised to rebound and sport the best secondaries in the league.
Secondary position rankings
2. Florida: The Gators have plenty of issues. Defensive back is not one of them, however. Despite losing Cody Riggs to transfer and Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson to the NFL, Florida has plenty of talent remaining in the secondary. Only a sophomore, Vernon Hargreaves III is arguably the best corner in the SEC. If either Jalen Tabor or Duke Dawson emerges opposite him, you’re talking about a good one-two punch. And with three experienced safeties to lean on -- Jabari Gorman, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole -- coach Will Muschamp should like what he sees from the secondary as a whole.
3. LSU: Getting Jalen Mills to safety would have been huge. But with his status up in the air, LSU must move on. It's still DBU -- Defensive Back University -- and thankfully for coach Les Miles, he’s got plenty more to work with. Ronald Martin has experience at safety, along with Corey Thompson, who missed the spring with an injury. At corner, LSU is in good shape with Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson in position to start, not to mention Jalen Collins, a former Freshman All-SEC choice in 2012. And since this is LSU and someone always emerges from nowhere, be sure to keep an eye on Jamal Adams. The former No. 2-rated safety in the ESPN 300 didn't enroll early but should have every chance to play as a true freshman. If Mills is able to return and some the young talent on LSU's roster develops as expected, the Tigers could have an argument for the top secondary in the league.
4. Alabama: Talent and experience. Alabama has one but not the other, and you can probably guess which. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue are all gone. That fourth spot in the secondary? It was never settled to begin with. Getting Landon Collins back at safety, however, is huge, as the former five-star prospect has All-SEC potential. But who starts opposite him is up in the air with Nick Perry coming off an injury, Jarrick Williams entrenched at nickel corner/star and Laurence "Hootie" Jones early in his development. At corner, Alabama’s hopes are pinned to two freshmen -- Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey -- along with a slew of unproven prospects such as Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Bradley Sylve.
5. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen loves his defense heading into this season, and considering what he has at defensive back it’s easy to see why. The Bulldogs are in the enviable position of having five legitimate SEC-caliber players at both safety and cornerback. Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are two rock-solid corners, and Will Redmond is a good third off the bench. Kendrick Market and Deontay Evans might start at safety today, but Jay Hughes is back from injury and Justin Cox could very well be the most talented of the bunch after transitioning from corner this spring.
6. Auburn: The Tigers secondary was atrocious for most of last season, surrendering 260.2 passing yards per game through Jan. 1 (No. 104 nationally). Really, it wasn’t until the BCS title game that we saw some fight out of them. So was that first half against Florida State a mirage or a glimpse of the future? Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has to hope it’s the latter. With Jonathon Mincy at corner, Jermaine Whitehead at safety and Robenson Therezie playing the star, he’s got some experienced parts to build around. Meanwhile, juco transfer Derrick Moncrief has the look of an impact player at safety. If Joshua Holsey is back to 100 percent, Johnson will have a better deck of cards to play with than last season.
7. Georgia: The good news is that the two main culprits from last season’s heartbreaking loss to Auburn -- Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons -- are gone. The bad news is that those same players were expected to start this season. Throw in the loss of Shaq Wiggins and you’re looking at Georgia, under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, essentially starting over in the secondary. It’s not all bad, though. There might not be much depth at cornerback, but veteran Damian Swann is a good place to start. And the same can be said of safety, where Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger have some experience.
8. Tennessee: The Volunteers have one of the deeper secondaries in the SEC, returning all four starters, but it’s a group that received its fair share of criticism last season after giving up 283 yards per game. There’s still talent back there, though, with safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Cameron Sutton. In particular, Randolph led the team in interceptions (4) and finished second in tackles (75), and though he missed the majority of spring due to injury, he’s expected back for fall camp. At cornerback, freshman Emmanuel Moseley arrived in January and could make a push for playing time after a strong spring.
9. South Carolina: You have to fear the unknown if you’re a Gamecocks fan. Brison Williams is a solid safety, but both of your starting corners from last season -- Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree -- are gone, and the senior you expected to be starting by now, Kadetrix Marcus, is trailing sophomore Chaz Elder on the depth chart. Rico McWilliams, the corner with the most returning experience, isn’t even a sure thing to start. A redshirt freshman, Ali Groves, is in line to start at the second cornerback spot, but keep an eye on two talented true freshmen who could play early: Wesley Green and Chris Lammons.
11. Missouri: Much of the attention has been paid to reloading on the defensive line after the departures of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, but Missouri should be fine there. The real concern, however, is the secondary, as three of last year’s starters (E.J. Gaines, Randy Ponder and Matt White) are gone. Getting Braylon Webb back at safety is huge, but he’ll need help. Ian Simon and Duron Singleton should vie for the second safety spot, and John Gibson and Aarion Penton are two of the more experienced options at corner. The wild card in all of this, though, is an incoming class that featured seven defensive backs.
12. Kentucky: With two of the better pass rushers in the league, one would think that Kentucky could force the opposing quarterback into throwing some interceptions. That didn’t happen last season. The Wildcats were dead last in the SEC with just three interceptions. Mark Stoops and his staff are hoping to turn that around this season, and they have plenty of capable bodies to work with on the back end. All four starters are back, five if you include nickel back Blake McClain -- who was third on the team in tackles as a freshman -- and junior college transfer A.J. Stamps might be the most talented defensive back on the roster.
13. Arkansas: Depth is going to be a concern for new secondary coach Clay Jennings, who is stressing turnovers this spring after the Razorbacks came in dead last in that category in the SEC in 2013. But in terms of front-line starters, he’s got some experience to work with, as every projected starter at safety and corner is a junior or senior. The most reliable of the bunch is safety Alan Turner, who led the team in tackles last season and should continue to play a pivotal role on defense. Another one to watch is cornerback Tevin Mitchell. It wasn’t that long ago that the 6-foot senior was an SEC All-Freshman selection. For Arkansas to take the next step, he’ll need to fulfill the early promise of his career.
14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were spoiled last season with four seniors starting in the secondary. You don’t replace the talent and experience of an Andre Hal and a Kenny Ladler overnight. And you certainly will have a hard time doing so when the entire coaching staff has changed. But such is new head coach Derek Mason’s task. The good news for him is that the cupboard wasn’t left entirely bare as the entire second string of the secondary -- Paris Head, Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Torren McGaster -- returns after having played in a combined 50 games last season.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The struggle was obvious. Without a premier cornerback to rely upon, Alabama’s defense wasn’t the same. Without the likes of Dee Milliner, Dre Kirkpatrick or Javier Arenas, coach Nick Saban’s defense didn’t have quite the same bite.
Deion Belue was an adequate starter. The former junior college transfer even looked the part as an anchor cornerback for most of the season. But before long he was exposed as someone not entirely capable of locking down half the field. And with a revolving door on the other side with John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson, Maurice Smith and Bradley Sylve all taking unsuccessful shots at starting, the secondary faltered.
Texas A&M gashed the defense early. Auburn and Oklahoma gashed it late.
"We are not used to that," said defensive coordinator Kirby Smart of not having consistent play at cornerback. "We've kind of always had one key guy with all the first-round, second-round corners we've had, we've always had a staple guy there, then kind of an understudy that was the other one who was an up-and-coming corner. Hasn't been that way this year. It's been frustrating.”
Will that frustration subside? Will someone step up in the spring or fall and become that premier cornerback Alabama so desperately needs? Can quality depth emerge at the position?
Strength in numbers: Really, it’s a wide-open race. Meaning none of the soon-to-be-mentioned defensive backs are out of contention. We haven’t seen what redshirt freshmen Jonathan Cook and Anthony Averett have to offer. Both were heavily-recruited prospects in the 2013 class that could develop into contributors after spending a year practicing and learning the playbook. Throw in rising junior Bradley Sylve, who actually started three games last season, and you’ve got quite the field of competitors heading into the spring. Sylve has immense speed, but is a shade on the smaller side at 5-11 and 180 pounds. Finally, don’t discount Saban trying a few players at new positions, as he did last spring when he put Cyrus Jones, Christion Jones and Dee Hart all at cornerback.
New on the scene: Many Alabama fans are already pinning their hopes on two true freshmen. And rightfully so, considering the lack of quality depth at the position. Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey do indeed have the opportunity to start from Day 1. Both five-star prospects, they have the build and skill to thrive in Saban’s system. Brown, however, has the clear edge considering he’s already enrolled in school and Humphrey will not do so until after spring practice is already over. The one hangup for Brown, though, is what consequences, if any, will come from his January arrest. Saban, himself, did not make the strongest of comments regarding the arrest, saying, “Some people are in the wrong place at the wrong time,” indicating that rather than a stiff punishment, the staff will look to “use this as a learning experience.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There are a lot of things that make Alabama's defense work. Contrary to Nick Saban's public assertions, it's a difficult scheme to learn -- many players have said so -- because it's filled with so many moving parts. There's the disguised coverage on the back end, the pressure that comes off the edge, and the idea that fitting the gaps is priority No. 1.
But one of the linchpins in Saban's system is that of a shutdown cornerback. Saban himself would shudder at the term "shutdown corner," but that's what it takes for his defenses to go from good to great. Every top Alabama defense since his arrival has featured one, from Javier Arenas to Dre Kirkpatrick to Dee Milliner. This past season it looked like Deion Belue might have developed into that type of guy, but he didn't and we all saw how that affected the defense against the pass.
"We are not used to that," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said of not having consistent play at cornerback. "We've kind of always had one key guy with all the first -round, second-round corners we've had, we've always had a staple guy there, then kind of an understudy that was the other one who was an up-and-coming corner. Hasn't been that way this year. It's been frustrating. Some of that has been because of injury.
With so much of Alabama's defense turning over this spring -- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Belue are all gone from the secondary -- it's vital that Smart and Saban establish who the one-two punch at cornerback will be. In fact, outside of finding a starter under center, finding an anchor at cornerback is arguably the second biggest challenge facing the Tide this offseason. Otherwise we'll continue to see more poor performances against the pass like we saw against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
The good news for Alabama is that there's plenty of young talent at cornerback and a decent mix of veterans to rely upon in soon-to-be juniors Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve. Though Jones struggled at times last season, let's not forget that it was his first full season on defense since joining the Tide. And Sylve didn't play half bad when called upon either. Had he not developed a high ankle sprain, he might have been a more regular starter.
But the more intriguing bets are on either Maurice Smith or Jackson, the two true freshmen who saw the most significant time at cornerback in 2013. Smith played in all 12 games to Jackson's seven appearances, but Jackson was the first to start at corner, doing so Week 4 against Colorado State and then again the following week against Ole Miss. He fell off the map after that, succumbing to an injury and what Saban said was something of a rookie regression, but he'd come back and start again in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.
Beyond Jackson and Smith, there are a few other options. Both Anthony Averett and Jonathan Cook will benefit from redshirting their first year on campus, and early enrollee Tony Brown, a five-star prospect out of Texas, will look to compete for a job right away.
Be on the lookout for position changes, too, as last spring Saban moved Cyrus Jones, Dee Hart and Christion Jones from wide receiver to defensive back. With Lane Kiffin taking over as offensive coordinator, could someone like ArDarius Stewart be asked to try his hand on defense?
We'll see what changes are made come spring practice. Smart and Saban have plenty of pieces to move around, but finding the right fit won't be easy. The hope has to be that somewhere among the bunch will emerge a shutdown corner they can rely upon and build around.
- Read Part I: Find a quarterback
On the practice field, Alabama's freshmen hardly look green. The country's No. 1-ranked class hasn't disappointed the eye test. Throughout fall camp, you could see their potential.
More importantly, though, you could begin to see where they might fit into the defending champion Crimson Tide's plans.
This year, not the next or the year after that, some Alabama's 25 scholarship freshmen will be called on to contribute, whether it's on special teams or in a more meaningful way on offense or defense.
Last season, 10 true freshmen played for Alabama. Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon headlined the group, but players such as Denzel Devall, Darren Lake and Geno Smith made a difference as well. Kenyan Drake carried the ball 42 times at tailback and Cyrus Jones totaled 364 all-purpose yards between playing wide receiver and returning punts.
Starting Saturday, we'll begin to see how many members of Alabama's 2013 signing class make a similar impact. After watching them develop over the past few months, here's our best guess.
ILB Reuben Foster: Saban has lauded the blue-chipper's progress throughout camp, noting a "tremendous amount of progress." He's been rewarded with increased reps to help cut down on the learning curve, and it looks as if he's made the most of it. Though he'll likely start out on special teams, don't be surprised if he makes his way into the rotation at inside linebacker early on.
TE/H O.J. Howard: He's shown signs of promise in the passing game, but the staff wants to see more. The 6-6, 237-pound Howard has all the gifts athletically to terrify defenses with his wide receiver speed and a power forward size. Even if he's a ways off in terms of his comfort level with the playbook, as Saban has indicated, it's hard to see the staff keeping him off the field.
OG Grant Hill: His name has consistently come up among those who have made an impression on his teammates. And he hasn't disappointed on the field, either. The former No. 1 offensive guard in the country has played some tackle, backing up Cyrus Kouandjio on the left side. Though he won't start, you have to expect injuries will happen in the SEC. Should Kouandjio or another lineman go down, the staff could be tempted to put Hill in.
LS Cole Mazza: With long-time snapper Carson Tinker gone, the specialist role is all Mazza's. On field goal attempts and punts, he'll be the one delivering the football.
Freshmen tailbacks: Not one or two, but all four of Alabama's coveted freshmen tailbacks are expected to play as rookies. Derrick Henry is likely the group's ringleader and is the most ready to contribute, but Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones have impressed as well. When Alvin Kamara returns from injury, he could be an added dimension to the offense, a scat-back type who can catch the ball out of the backfield or split out at wide receiver.
WR Robert Foster: He could be the best player to not see the field for Alabama this season. The former top-five wide receiver prospect came to camp at the last moment but never looked like he missed a beat, showing off tremendous athleticism and good hands. Because of the Tide's depth at the position, he shouldn't be needed this season. But if injuries occur, he could be called on.
OL Brandon Hill: No player made better progress physically from the spring to the fall than Hill, who is listed at 6-6 and 385 pounds and shed somewhere around 50 pounds during the course of the offseason. Though he's still not the ideal weight for a tackle, you can see now why the staff was so high on him. He's big, obviously, but he's got good quickness and strength, too. Like so many of this year's starters, he could come off the bench late in games as part of the second-team offensive line.
S Jai Miller: He's no rookie at nearly 30 years old, not to mention he's 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds. Miller, who spent a decade playing professional baseball, has experienced something of a learning curve since walking on at Alabama and only recently have we started to see where he might establish a role for himself. He's shadowed Landon Collins at money (dime) defensive back of late and could be a real spark for the Tide on special teams.
DLs Jonathan Allen, Dee Liner and A'Shawn Robinson: Senior defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan called the Tide's group of rookies the smartest he'd ever seen. Saban followed up that comment by saying all three have the ability to contribute this coming season. In need of pass-rushers, Allen and Liner could come off the bench to provide that spark. And Robinson, a mammoth of a freshman at 320 pounds, could give depth at nose guard, where Brandon Ivory is coming off an injury.
CBs Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson: The battle for a rookie to play cornerback at Alabama is so steep, most don't make it. Geno Smith's late ascent to the starting lineup last season was rare. Though Smith and Jackson fit the bill physically as 6-footers with good size, the learning curve will be difficult with Saban handling the position himself. With the Tide thin at corner, they could make an impact late in the season if they play their cards right.
A ways off
CBs Jonathan Cook and Anthony Averett: There's time left to jockey for position, but it looks like Smith and Jackson have passed fellow rookies Cook and Averett on the fast track to playing time.
LBs Tim Williams and Walker Jones: It's hard to see either Williams or Jones playing much as rookies. Jones has too much ahead of him and Williams, who has made strides during camp and looks like a young Adrian Hubbard, isn't there physically yet.
WR ArDarius Stewart: He came in as an athlete who could have played on either offense or defense. Ultimately the staff put him at wide receiver, where he's looked good, but he'll need time to adjust to playing there full time.
QBs Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod and Luke Del Rio: Ideally, all three will redshirt the season and retain full eligibility heading into next season, when the Tide will figure out who AJ McCarron's successor will be. With Blake Sims and Alec Morris dueling it out for No. 2 now, expect the rookies to ride the bench and learn the ropes in 2013.
"We can't have complacency," he said. "Can't be satisfied with where we are. … Can't have selfishness on the team because that will fracture the team chemistry. We can't lose our accountability and attention to detail. Those three things right there are very important in us being the kind of team we're capable of being. Everybody's got to make that choice and decide are they willing to do the things they need to do to do it."
"He's never been in trouble here before, never been in my office for anything," Saban said, "but I think this is something that everybody should learn from that when you make a bad choice, sometimes the consequences of that choice can really have a negative effect. Some of these guys don't have enough foresight to understand cause and effect, but Geno has been a really good person in the program and just made a choice, bad decision. Made several of them, so now he's got consequences for it."
Smith, a former four-star prospect who came on late last year as a freshman, was expected to log significant minutes this season as the team's nickel back. Against teams like Virginia Tech who like to spread the field with multiple receivers, he would have played a big part of the Tide's defense, matching up against the slot receiver.
Now, Alabama must go back to the drawing board to determine who can fill his vacancy during the suspension. With Deion Belue and John Fulton projected to start as boundary corners, it falls to sophomores Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve to step up among the cornerbacks. Jones shifted to defense from wide receiver this year and has looked promising at the position, which he played in high school.
But the intriguing, and more likely option, is for Saban to utilize his depth at safety and bring down someone like Nick Perry, Vinnie Sunseri, Jarrick Williams or Landon Collins to play nickel, or "star" as Saban describes it. To get an idea of all the different combinations that are possible, take a look at what Saban said of the star and money positions in early April.
"Geno's been playing star, Vinnie can play star -- he played it all last year," Saban said. "Geno did it for the last three or four games of the season. Vinnie's been playing money, Landon Collins has been playing money, Jarrick Williams has been playing money, which is what he was before he got hurt. We've been trying to develop somebody other than Vinnie. Nick Perry can play star. We don't really have another corner that can play star. Also, Jarrick Williams is playing star. We have more multiples of guys right now than we had a year ago."
The options, clearly, are there. The problem, though, is that while Alabama is deep at safety, it's thin in terms of true cornerbacks. Signing Anthony Averett, Jonathan Cook, Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith in February helped, but a freshman learning curve is inevitable. Given Saban's complicated defense, it's hard for rookies to see the field early. Hence, Geno Smith not coming on until late last year.
"First of all, opportunity is important, to have an opportunity to do that," Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart explained. "[It takes a] very conscientious kid to understand, 'Hey, I got to know this defense inside and out, I got to know all the checks, I got to know all the motions and checks, I got to know all the adjustments.' You've got to be very conscientious to do that, but you've got to have some ability. It's very easy for us to find those guys out there. When we recruit good players, they usually stick out as freshmen. We find ways to get them on the field and always have in some kind of role."
Alabama's secondary wasn't its best for some parts of last season, giving up big plays against LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia, to name a few. There were times where starting cornerback Deion Belue was picked on and moments where safeties Vinnie Sunseri and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix looked out of place. Zach Mettenberger threw for a career-high 298 passing yards in Baton Rouge, Johnny Manziel had his Heisman Trophy moment in Tuscaloosa and Aaron Murray moved the ball everywhere but the final 5 yards he needed to win in Atlanta.
Alabama's pass rush wasn't its best for all of last season either, failing to register multiple sacks in five games. The pressure, as coach Nick Saban would put it, was not coming consistently enough. The defense didn't finish in the top 25 nationally for sacks or tackles for loss in 2012, trailing eight other SEC teams in negative plays. And without help from the front seven, the back end of the defense was exposed.
As Saban pointed out after Alabama's spring game, pass defense boils down to two things: "I'm talking about pass rush; I'm talking about discipline in coverage."
Now that fall camp is nearly here, the defense will have its opportunity to improve in both areas. Clinton-Dix and Belue are a year wiser, and the defensive line has some fresh blood to it with Jeoffrey Pagan and Brandon Ivory moving into starting roles.
Veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley said at SEC Media Days last week that he felt like the secondary is "bonding together" and that it is in line to have a good year. The loss of shutdown corner Dee Milliner hurts, but Mosley feels like the defense has a star in the making in Clinton-Dix, who has played in 27 games and made 10 starts since signing with Alabama in 2010.
"He's smart, he's a leader in that secondary and he's starting to be more vocal," Mosley said. "I expect big things out of him this year."
Mosley went on to say that he was impressed with the way Cyrus Jones transitioned to defensive back in the spring. The former wide receiver ran some with the first-team defense at nickel and has a chance to compete with senior John Fulton to become one of the first cornerbacks off the bench.
"This summer, he basically knows the whole defense," Mosley explained.
Saban said that while he hasn't had the chance to see his secondary since spring camp, he's hopeful they're doing better.
"Fulton coming back is a little more experienced guy who wasn’t in spring practice," Saban said. "We had a lot of young guys who made a lot of mistakes, and that’s important to development and important to learning, and hopefully those guys will improve because of that."
True freshmen Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Eddie Jackson will all compete at defensive back this fall. Fellow 2013 signees Anthony Averett and ArDarius Stewart might see some time there as well, as both are currently listed on the roster as athletes. And judging by the staff's use of running back Dee Hart and wide receiver Christion Jones at corner this spring, anyone is an option to provide depth at cornerback this season.
While it's unsure whether any of the rookies will pick up the defense in time to contribute as freshmen, one thing is certain: a strong defensive line will go a long way in helping the secondary.
Mosley said that while the defense may lack a "dominant player," he's looking for Adrian Hubbard to come into his own in 2013 and pick up where he left off last season, when he had three sacks in his final three games.
"He's going to mean a lot," Mosley said, "especially being one of our key rushers and one of the leaders at outside linebacker. We need to make sure that we hold him accountable to his job and he's doing the right thing to better the young guys that are looking up to him.
"This past season he showed a glimpse into what he's capable of, but this season we're going to need a lot more, and we're going to need to make sure he brings his 'A' game every day."
One of those young guys learning from Hubbard is redshirt freshman defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson, who has drawn positive reviews from teammates and coaches alike since missing all of last season recovering from an injury. Saban touted the former state wrestling champ's athleticism and quickness and said he has a chance to be part of the rotation on the defensive line. Pagan called Tomlinson a "different man" this spring, someone who can be an impact player.
Mosley, for his part, said he was ready for fall camp to arrive so he can see what his defense is made of. So far some freshmen have caught his eye, but only time will tell how they stand up to the real pressure.
"Denzel Devall is doing good, Reuben Foster, Walker Jones, a lot of the defensive players, a lot of the freshmen that came in, especially at DB," he said when asked who has stood out during summer workouts. "They're doing a good job competing with each other.
"When camp comes, when coach starts getting on them, and that heat starts getting on them, we'll really see what players are made of."
Geno Smith came on like a bullet last season, and it appears his momentum won't slow down anytime soon. The former four-star prospect earned playing time late last season as a freshman, and he should be in line for a starting job this fall. He had a strong showing during spring practice, aided by the absence of senior John Fulton who was sidelined with a turf toe injury. Smith will start alongside Deion Belue, who was picked on for much of this past season -- his first at Alabama.
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The No. 1 class ranking was just a distinction. Simply hauling in top recruits won't get a team too far. UA coach Nick Saban knows this well. As he and his staff were building the class, they had goals in mind. The road map was simple.
"We didn’t change the recruiting strategy," Saban said. "We define the kind of players that we want, and they have critical factors at each position. I think we added fast-twitch, pass-rushing athletic guys to the defensive line category as being a higher priority because of spread offenses, more spread offenses, more athletic quarterbacks -- those types of things, the same things that NFL teams are talking about when they play against RG3 or [Colin] Kaepernick or Russell Wilson from Seattle, who are athletic and run the ball. We have to be able to adapt to that kind of athleticism and that means we have to be more athletic to do that."
In other words, Saban is gearing up for three more years of Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M. The Aggies were the only team to beat Alabama in 2012, and after watching the future Heisman Trophy winner carve up his defense, Saban is ready to react.
RB Derrick Henry: With Eddie Lacy leaving a year early for the NFL, T.J. Yeldon expects to carry the load at running back next year for Alabama. But who will spell him? Both Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart are coming off major knee injuries, and Kenyan Drake will be just a sophomore. After the season Yeldon put together, don’t count out another true freshman making an impact in the backfield next year.
The Tide expect to sign at least three, possibly four ESPN 150 running backs, but the most physical and ready to play is Henry -- who broke the high school career rushing record. The 6-foot-3, 243-pound could see some time at H-back as well, but expect him to start out as a running back.
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TUSCALOOSA -- Jonathan Cook committed to Nebraska over the summer, but when Alabama offered a scholarship after the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game, it didn't take long for the in-state standout to flip to the Crimson Tide. It was the offer he had wanted from the start. Cook is the second true cornerback to join the class with ESPN 300 athlete Anthony Averett expected to start out there as well. Cook will take his official visit to UA this weekend.
Q: What made you commit to Alabama?
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Every practice Nick Saban is there, tossing the football to every one of the cornerbacks as they run down the sideline. Once one turn is finished, he sprints to the other end of the field and does it all over again. The 61-year-old head coach of the Crimson Tide never fails to work with his position.
Jeremy Pruitt gets the safeties, Kirby Smart gets the inside linebackers, Lance Thompson gets the outside linebackers and Chris Rumph gets the defensive linemen. The cornerbacks are all Saban's at the start. So if there's a position that better get things right, it's them. You don't want to upset the man who recruited you to Tuscaloosa in the first place.
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After an impressive week at the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game, cornerback Jonathan Cook (Spanish Fort, Ala./Spanish Fort) was offered a scholarship by UA defensive coordinator Kirby Smart after the game. It was the offer he was waiting on, and it didn’t take him long to accept as he flipped from Nebraska to Alabama.
“It’s something I’ve been wanting to do the whole time,” Cook said. “It’s always been the school that I wanted to play for, and that’s what I’m going to do. I just thank God for it.”
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