Alabama Crimson Tide: Kirby Smart

SEC's lunch links

July, 2, 2014
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The World Cup run by the USMNT is over, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the performance by goalkeeper Tim Howard on Tuesday. His 16 saves were a World Cup record, and there’s now talk that he could be the greatest goalie in history. Personally, I think he would’ve made a great safety, but clearly he made the right choice with soccer.



No, thank you Tim Howard. Now on to Wednesday’s lunch links.

SEC lunchtime links

July, 1, 2014
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The USMNT is back in action on Tuesday against Belgium. Winner moves on to the quarterfinals. Loser goes home. Are you ready? Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is ready.

Watch the game here: United States vs Belgium, 4 p.m. ET

In the meantime, get your American football fix in with Tuesday’s SEC lunch links.

Top SEC recruiters 

June, 9, 2014
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It’s next to impossible to limit the list of top recruiters in the SEC to just five, but that was the assignment here. It’s no surprise to see an Alabama assistant at the top of the list with the recent run the Crimson Tide have been on, but those who follow it closely enough also know there’s some tremendous recruiters across the state at Auburn.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Perry isn’t doing anything to temper expectations for the Alabama secondary. The senior safety missed all but the first two games last season, and what he saw from the sidelines clearly didn’t suit him. Back from injury, he’s looking for a marked improvement.

“I think we’re going to be a better secondary this year,” Perry told reporters late last week. “The world should be ready to see more of the old UA-style secondary.”

Last fall's results fell short of the typical Alabama standard. Though the numbers were far from horrific in the national rankings -- seventh in rushing yards per game, 11th in passing yards per game, fourth in touchdowns allowed -- the secondary was nonetheless vulnerable. Perry and fellow safety Vinnie Sunseri suffered season-ending injuries, starting cornerback Deion Belue wasn’t always 100 percent, and the cornerback spot opposite him was never truly settled as John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson, Maurice Smith and Bradley Sylve all unsuccessfully tried to lock down the position.

[+] EnlargeNick Perry
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsDespite their youth and inexperience, Nick Perry believes Alabama's secondary is ready for a return to glory.
Alabama’s defense surrendered its highest Raw QBR score (38.1) since 2007 -- by comparison, that number averaged out to 22.5 from 2009-12. The Tide defense was ranked 60th nationally in the percentage of pass completions gaining 10 yards or more (46.2).

Still, Perry is confident this season will be different, even though that flies in the face of some noticeable obstacles. For one, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix left early for the NFL. Along with Belue and Sunseri, three-fourths of last season’s secondary is gone. For another, Jackson tore his ACL on Saturday and will be out for several months, removing a promising talent from the equation. Barring an Adrian Peterson-like comeback, it’s hard to envision the sophomore playing this season.

Those moves ultimately leave more questions than answers for Alabama's personnel. But it’s not the personnel that has Perry hopeful. It’s the coaching.

“Having Kirby [Smart] and [Nick] Saban in the same room coaching the same position is a dream come true for any defensive back,” he said.

Perry called the two “geniuses at their position.” He said that Smart is already “putting his new spin on things.”

“It’s tremendous,” said fellow safety Landon Collins. “[Smart] just coaches us at a different level, trying to get us to understand it from his point of view because he played the position, and he knows what’s going on. It’s his defense. So basically it’s a tremendous thing for us safeties because he sits down and goes step-by-step on what we need to do and what will make us a better player.”

Saban has long worked with cornerbacks during practice, but this spring, Smart, Alabama’s defensive coordinator, moved from coaching linebackers to safeties in order to clear the way for Kevin Steele’s return.

“I’ve always liked it when Kirby coaches the secondary,” Saban explained. “I think it's really hard for one guy to coach the secondary right now. I’m really sort of his [graduate assistant]. He's kind of working with the safeties and the whole group and then when we break down, I kind of try to work with the corners a little bit.

“I thought last year, we didn't play with enough consistency back there. We had a lot of different rotating parts, different starters, different corners starting. We've got to come up with some guys that can develop some consistency in performance.”

As with most springs, the most talked-about players are the true freshmen. Five-star cornerback Tony Brown and four-star safety Laurence 'Hootie' Jones have been on campus since January, participating in the offseason conditioning program and spring practice. To Perry’s eye, they haven’t disappointed.

“Those guys have a bright future,” he said. “They’re picking up the defense pretty good, faster than I’ve seen any freshman pick it up. They came in early, and they’re ready to work.”

Perry was kind enough to break down each players’ strengths.

“Tony is a great competitor. He’s fast. He’s everything you want in a corner,” he said. “Hootie is your prototypical safety, you know. He’s big. He has long arms. He has speed.

“Expect those guys to make a couple of plays this year.”

In order to return to the Alabama secondary of old, they’ll need to.

Perry is one of the few familiar faces still around. It’s up to this season’s crop of players to re-establish the standard.

SEC's lunch links

March, 11, 2014
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Half of the SEC teams have started officially-sanctioned football-related activities with Missouri and Vanderbilt opening spring practice on Tuesday. There's a lot going on.
Editor’s note: This is Part II in a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Alabama this spring.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Early enrollees get all the love. Because they graduate high school a semester ahead of schedule and arrive on campus in time for spring practice, their development is accelerated. In the case of Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard, we saw what a few months could do. Both became significant contributors as true freshmen, with the latter coming on in a big way in the bowl game.

[+] EnlargeReuben Foster
AP Photo/Rusty CostanzaLinebacker Reuben Foster could become a force in his sophomore season.
Along the way we neglected the rest of the 2013 signing class. A few of its members -- Jonathan Allen and A’Shawn Robinson, for example -- made an impact as true freshmen, but the rest of the late arrivals were largely forgotten, buried on the depth chart or tucked away even deeper on the scout team.

They’re not gone, though. As Alabama marches toward the start of spring practice, watch out for many of the redshirt freshmen and true sophomores who enrolled late in 2013 to take a major step forward on both sides of the football. With fall camp and an entire season of development under their belt, now is the time where we should see their biggest growth spurt in the program.

Here are three such players who could make an impact in 2014:

LB Reuben Foster: Boy, was his recruitment a whirlwind of emotion. It wasn’t really until he arrived in Tuscaloosa that he could finally take a deep breath and relax. Now the former blue-chip linebacker isn’t being questioned about his Auburn tattoo or his flip-flop commitment. That’s all a thing of the past. After playing mostly on special teams as a freshman, appearing in nine games and registering 12 total tackles, he has the chance to break through into the starting rotation. With C.J. Mosley off to the NFL and his inside linebacker spot up for grabs, look for the athletic Foster to compete with the likes of Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland for more playing time in 2014.

WR Robert Foster: The departures of Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell have created movement in the receiver ranks. And while no one is moving Amari Cooper off the top spot, the rest of the rotation is continually in flux. DeAndrew White and Christion Jones should help form the top three, but Alabama routinely needs fourth and fifth options off the bench, which Foster could provide. The former No. 2-ranked wide receiver has the build coaches covet. At 6-foot-3 with good hands and good speed, he’s a potential matchup nightmare for defenses. As new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin attempts to find more playmakers, he could discover one in Foster.

CB Maurice Smith: It’s far too early to count out another former rookie cornerback in Eddie Jackson. Though his playing time went way up then way down and back again in 2013, he still possesses the size and athleticism defensive coaches like Nick Saban and Kirby Smart love. But don’t forget Smith, who started only one game as a true freshman last season and played in all but one contest, unlike Jackson who missed a total of six games. Smith was the highest-rated cornerback Alabama signed last year -- the No. 12 corner in the ESPN 300 -- who didn’t make the trek from his native Texas to Tuscaloosa until the summer. With a full season of preparation and an entire offseason of conditioning, he could make a move at cornerback where both starting positions are up for grabs and no true incumbent is present.

  • Part I: Lane Kiffin provides a jolt

Offseason spotlight: Alabama

February, 28, 2014
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He didn't begin last season as a starter, and injuries ultimately made him flip between positions in the Alabama secondary. But this player will be a fixture for the Crimson Tide in 2014 from Day 1 and will be a key reason whether the defense as a whole will be successful again:

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
AP Photo/Skip MartinLandon Collins will need to be a leader this season for Alabama.
Spotlight: Safety Landon Collins, 6-foot, 215 pounds, junior

2013 summary: It took Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's suspension for Collins to start his first career game at Alabama, and it wasn't even at his natural position. Still, he helped hold up the back end of the defense at free safety until Clinton-Dix's return two games later. And when Vinnie Sunseri was lost for the season against Arkansas, Collins moved comfortably back into his natural spot at strong safety, where he was able to play closer to the line of scrimmage and play with more assertiveness. Despite the moving back and forth, he was a standout on defense with the second-most tackles on the team (70). He also had the most pass breakups (6) and tied for the most interceptions (2).

The skinny: The back end of Alabama's defense had its fair share of troubles in 2013, highlighted by the slew of points and big plays it allowed against Auburn and Oklahoma to end the season. But even before those two deflating losses, Mississippi State's offense had success through the air, as did LSU and Texas A&M. And while the safety position wasn't the most to blame for the Tide's woes on defense -- cornerback was, as Deion Belue battled injuries and the starting spot opposite him was a revolving door -- it will be a focal point in the coming season as both Sunseri and Clinton-Dix have moved on to the NFL. Combined with what could be another shaky set of inexperienced corners in 2014, and the onus falls to a player like Collins to hold up the secondary as a whole. He's never had to be a leader, but this season he'll have to be. Being a talented playmaker won't be enough to make Alabama's defense better. A former five-star recruit, Collins must become an anchor in the mode of Mark Barron, calling out all the plays and making all the necessary checks to get his teammates in the right position to succeed. Luckily for Collins, he'll be attached at the hip with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who will make the transition from coaching inside linebackers to coaching the secondary. And if Smart's tutelage isn't enough, he'll have the head coach, Nick Saban, constantly looking over the secondary as the de facto cornerbacks coach.

Past spotlights:

Early Offer: 2015 begins now 

February, 7, 2014
Feb 7
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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: The ink was barely dry on the letters of intent for 2014 class when one of the best for the 2015 class came off the board; and what schools and recruiters have jumped out of the gate with success with players that won’t sign for another 360-plus days.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

This is part of a series on the nation's top uncommitted recruits leading up to signing day. Click here for the full series.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Rashaan Evans (Auburn, Ala./Auburn) is known for his infectious personality. He’s typically the life of the party and has a smile that can light up a room. But on Sunday, when the ESPN 300 linebacker sat down at his home for what he said would be his final interview before announcing his college decision Wednesday on signing day, it was clear the recruiting process had taken its toll.

It was evident in his mannerisms. It was evident in the way he answered questions. It was evident in the tension that filled the Evans household. It wasn’t intentional, but the signs of stress were there.

[+] EnlargeRashaan Evans
Courtesy of IntersportRashaan Evans is down to in-state powers Alabama and Auburn, and he will announce on Wednesday.
“Sometimes it feels like it’s getting worse every day,” Evans said.

Five minutes into the interview, his mother tried to cut it short. She wasn’t trying to be rude; she had simply had enough. She said she wanted to spend time together as a family. It was something they hadn’t been able to do for what seemed like an eternity, and Sunday just happened to be her birthday.

“It’s been pretty hectic,” Evans said. “I really haven’t had just a good week to myself, with me and my family, where we don’t have people calling us or coming to see us or having to go on visits or anything.”

Saturday night was a prime example, as not even his grandfather’s birthday party proved to be off-limits.

Evans and his family attended the party for his grandfather 24 hours earlier at a nearby hotel. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to get away from the world of recruiting for at least one night. But Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart found themselves on the guest list, and a handful of coaches from each school showed up as well. All were hoping to make one final good impression on the four-star prospect, one of a dwindling number of uncommitted prospects remaining in the ESPN 300.

“The fact that they came all to one place, it was pretty interesting,” Evans said. “But I don’t think it was a bad deal. The party was really about my granddad, and they just tagged along. That’s all it was. That’s the type of atmosphere it was. It wasn’t a competition.”

It was a competition, though. The coaches might have acted civil during the party -- the two sides even talked to each other when they first arrived -- but it’s all part of the ongoing competition to land Evans’ signature on signing day.

It started more than a year ago when Alabama and Auburn first offered Evans a scholarship. The Tigers came first in May 2012; the Tide followed suit five months later. It escalated when Evans started to shine at events such as the regional Nike Football Training Camp and The Opening, and it continued with strong performances at the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game and last month’s Under Armour All-America Game.

Now, just before he makes his final decision, the competition has reached a fever pitch, and all Evans wants to do is escape it. It’s time for him to be selfish.

Local fans who say "War Eagle" when he goes out in public don’t matter anymore. Alabama fans tweeting him “Roll Tide” don’t matter either. Even though his friend and former teammate Reuben Foster has helped with the recruiting process, it no longer matters what he says. Even his mom and dad, who both went to Auburn, are telling Evans to make the best decision for him, not for other people.

“I just try to get him to understand that his main concern should be himself,” said his father, Alan Evans. “He should not be worrying about the pressures of going to school because I went there. He should be worried about his own career and where he wants to go with it.”

It’s not an easy decision for 18-year-old kid, but it’s one Evans has to make.

At one point, between talking about his grandfather’s party and one of the visits he took, a smile appeared on Evans’ face. He was reminiscing about the process, and as stressful as it got at times and as much of a toll as it took on his family, he knows it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Sometimes whenever I’m stressed about it, I always click over to another mode and just try to enjoy it,” Evans said. “I know these are precious times in my life. ... I try to look at it as a way to make memories.”

In the hours leading up to signing day, Evans plans to sit down with his family and look at what each school has to offer. He’s done with interviews. He’s done talking to coaches. He’s done with every part of the process that isn’t about making an actual decision.

He has one more memory to make on Wednesday, and he wants to make sure it’s one he won’t regret.
Editor's note: This is Part IV in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The body of evidence is compelling. Alabama, after years of defensive dominance, has a problem with the hurry-up, no-huddle offense.

Da'Shawn Hand
Scott Fink for ESPNThe addition of athletic defensive linemen like Da'Shawn Hand could be the difference for the Tide's defense against spread teams.
Nick Saban can't avoid it any longer. After an offseason spent agonizing over offenses like Texas A&M's, he and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart came up empty. Alabama gave up the most yards in school history to Texas A&M this past season and followed that up with a poor performance against Auburn in the Iron Bowl and a disastrous showing against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

It's time to change. Or at least make significant tweaks.

Alabama's defense won't be the same next season. Three-quarters of the secondary will be gone and more than half of the front seven will be out the door as well. Greg Brown won't be coaching the secondary and Chris Rumph won't be coaching the defensive line any longer. That kind of large-scale turnover can be viewed as a negative or a positive. The silver lining for Saban is that he has a chance to start fresh.

"If you continue to do what you have been doing, you will continue to get the same results," Saban told the audience at the annual American Football Coaches Association conference in Indianapolis this week.

Continuing to get outflanked by the spread, outmatched by mobile quarterbacks and outwitted by uptempo offenses can't be the answer. Saban's defense has a strong track record, but adjustments must be made for success in the long term. There's simply too much football knowledge among Alabama's coaches to not adapt and overcome.

"All you're trying to do is get lined up [on defense]," Saban said of facing uptempo offenses in late September. "You can't play specialty third-down stuff. You can't hardly scheme anything. The most important thing is to get the call so the guys can get lined up, and it's got to be a simple call. The offense kind of knows what you're doing."

Corralling new-age offenses is a big task, one that no coach in college football has really mastered. But for Alabama's dynasty to be revived in 2014, tackling those kinds of scheme must happen. Teams like Texas A&M and Auburn aren't going away. Nick Marshall will be back under center for the Tigers next season, Ole Miss will continue to push the tempo under coach Hugh Freeze and even Mississippi State will look to beat the Tide with a spread offense and an athletic quarterback in Dak Prescott. West Virginia has run the spread for years, Tennessee's Butch Jones runs a version of it and even Florida coach Will Muschamp says the Gators are going that way too.

While the spread, uptempo offenses were a unique challenge a few years ago, next season they'll be more of the norm with at least seven of Alabama's 12 scheduled opponents featuring some form of the increasingly popular scheme.

Getting more athletic up front on defense seems to be a significant part of the answer for Alabama. With true freshmen like A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen emerging as dangerous pass-rushers, that's a good place to start. The return of D.J. Pettway should help, as should the eventual arrival of five-star commitment Da'Shawn Hand.

Matching athleticism with athleticism will go a long way, but the staff will have to do more to confront its most glaring weakness. Trey DePriest will have to take on a more influential leadership role with C.J. Molsey gone, and the back end of the defense will need to improve as well.

One offseason wasn't enough to solve the hurry-up no-huddle conundrum. The hope for Alabama fans is that with one more offseason to prepare, a few more staff changes and some better personnel, the problem won't be so pronounced.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The shakeup on Nick Saban's staff at Alabama will continue as Greg Brown is expected to step down as defensive backs coach to clear the way for Kevin Steele to transition from his role as director of player personnel to an on-field position coaching linebackers, sources told ESPN.

Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will shift from coaching linebackers to the secondary to make way for Steele's move. Steele, according to ESPN, was offered the Louisville defensive coordinator job but turned it down to remain with Saban in Tuscaloosa.

The latest staff shakeup comes on the heels of Saban hiring Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator and Bo Davis as defensive line coach. Doug Nussmeier left after two seasons to lead Michigan's offense and Chris Rumph left after three seasons to coach Texas' defensive line.

Brown spent one season with the Tide after two years as Colorado's defensive coordinator. Like Saban, he had a wealth of NFL experience with 15 years coaching in the league.

Steele joined Alabama's support staff in 2013, directing the Tide's recruiting efforts. But Steele made his career as an on-the-field coach, spending time as a defensive coordinator at Clemson and Alabama and three seasons as head coach at Baylor from 1999-2002.

By moving to coach the secondary, where Smart has worked before, Smart will have a chance to work more hands on with a unit that had its struggles in 2013.

Prior to the Sugar Bowl, Smart lamented Alabama's inconsistency at cornerback.

"We are not used to that," he said. "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."

Smart will have plenty of young talent to develop, though, as Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith both showed promise in 2013, playing significant snaps as freshman. Alabama also welcomed in five-star cornerback Tony Brown as an early enrollee this month.

ESPN's Chris Low contributed to this report.
Editor's note: This is Part III in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With so many big-picture items on Alabama's to-do list this offseason, it's no wonder we're seeing a shakeup on the coaching staff. Lane Kiffin is the most buzz-worthy new hire with a big job to accomplish, but he's not alone. Bo Davis, who is set to become the Crimson Tide's new defensive line coach, has another important issue to tackle: generate a more consistent pass rush.

But he won't be alone. Head coach Nick Saban, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and linebackers coach Lance Thompson all must work together to find a way to get to the quarterback more often.

[+] EnlargeA'Shawn Robinson
AP Photo/Butch DillFreshman A'Shawn Robinson led the Tide in sacks with 5.5.
Whatever you do, though, don't mention sacks as a statistic in making an argument to this coaching staff. Saban notoriously loathes the idea that sacks are a measure of a good defense. But even he would concede that the pressure Alabama brought on quarterbacks in 2013 wasn't enough. Alabama's total number of hurries, knockdowns and sacks have risen steadily over the past three season (48 in 2011, 53 in 2012 and 79 in 2013, according to ESPN Stats and Information), but with more and more mobile quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel and Nick Marshall, simply getting in the face of the passer won't do it -- they'll too often scramble and find a way to pick up yards with their feet or their arm.

Enter Davis, who has more than a passing familiarity with uptempo offenses and speedy quarterbacks. After three seasons in the pass-happy Big 12 at Texas, he is well acquainted with the demands of pressuring the quarterback. His Longhorns registered 100 sacks to the Tide's 87 over that time.

Losing a talented pass-rusher like Adrian Hubbard to the NFL draft hurts, but Alabama isn't without options. And unlike in years past, the heat may come from the down linemen more than the linebackers. With young up-and-comers A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen emerging at defensive end, Alabama is well equipped to get after the quarterback.

Robinson was one of the most impressive freshmen in all of the SEC this past season. Teammates joked that he looked 30 years old when he first enrolled, but opponents weren't laughing. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound true freshman wound up leading Alabama with 5.5 sacks, finished second with eight tackles for loss and tied for third with four quarterback hurries.

"I wondered where his whistle was because he looks like a coach," Smart said of Robinson prior to the Sugar Bowl. "He's about a 28-looking-year-old dude. When we recruited him, we always thought he was going to be a special player, big size, speed guy, what you wanted athletically, didn't know how developed he would be technically on the field. He was a real raw talented guy. He's come a long way and he still has a long way to go. But he's a talented young man. He's worked his tail off this year to contribute, especially mentally picking up the defense early on.

Allen, meanwhile, made the most of fewer snaps. The former four-star recruit from Virginia had half a sack and three tackles for loss as a true freshman. Though his numbers weren't eye-popping, he showed excellent athleticism while on the field, especially late in the season.

"We don't have as much depth on the defensive line that we always had," Smart said. "Without him and Jonathan Allen we would have had a hard time this year getting through at the D-line position."

With Dakota Ball and Dalvin Tomlinson back from injury and Dee Liner no longer sporting a redshirt, Alabama should have the numbers next season to rotate in fresh legs on the defensive line. Throw in the return of former SEC All-Freshman D.J. Pettway and incoming true freshman Da'Shawn Hand, and all the parts are there.

Whether that translates into a better pass rush, and, yes, more sacks, is anyone's guess. With Davis back and the needs of defenses changing, the hope for Alabama fans is that the answer is in the affirmative.
Editor's note: This is Part II in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.

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.

[+] EnlargeCyrus Jones
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCyrus Jones is one of a handful of players the Tide hope can develop into a shutdown corner.
"Deion we feel like has been our best corner, but he's been in and out because of injury. Opposite him, it's been musical chairs. Eddie Jackson played pretty well. But he also got injured so it pulled him out for a while. We've had other guys play well one game, not play well the next. We've not gotten the consistency we want out of that position. And we don't have the depth that we've had in the past, so it's been a struggle."

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.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's time to face facts, Alabama.

It's been a few days since the debacle on The Plains and nothing is going to take the sting away from watching Chris Davis outrun the field goal team for the game-winning touchdown as time expired. The shock is still wearing off. Auburn is moving on to the SEC Championship Game and you're probably still questioning whether Nick Saban should have tried that long field goal from Adam Griffith, or better yet, whether he should have kicked it on fourth-and-one a few drives earlier. Maybe you're still reeling over Amari Cooper's dropped touchdown or the false start that negated what would have been a made field goal from Cade Foster.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/Butch DillNick Marshall had a big day for Auburn against the Alabama defense.
Agonize over the what-ifs all you want. That's what these times are for. It will be a while until we know what bowl game Alabama will go to, and even then we'll come back to Saturday's Iron Bowl as the turning point in the season. But recognize that the most disturbing thing about Alabama's 34-28 loss to Auburn wasn't the coaching decisions, missed field goals or dropped passes. Those can be remedied. Those lessons can be learned.

Instead, what's most troubling was how Saban and Kirby Smart's defense once again failed to stop a spread, uptempo offense. Tre Mason ran inside and outside the tackles at will and Nick Marshall was able to evade the pass rush too easily. After that and what we saw earlier this season from Texas A&M, isn't it time to come to grips with the fact that Alabama needs to do something to slow down these types of attacks?

Gus Malzahn might indeed be the best offensive play-caller in the country. And, yes, Johnny Manziel is a freak of nature and arguably worthy of a second straight Heisman Trophy. Sometimes these things can't be helped. But the body of evidence is growing to suggest that Alabama has a real problem on its hands.

It's not like Saban and Smart didn't know what they were getting into. We heard all during the offseason how they were working to slow down Johnny Football and adjust to the tempo of no-huddle schemes. Alabama is nothing if not familiar with the work of Malzahn. There was more than enough tape from his time at Auburn and Arkansas State to know the zone-read was going to be a focal point of the game. Nothing they saw from either Auburn or Texas A&M was unfamiliar, except maybe the remarkable production their offenses gained on what's supposedly the best defense in college football.

"Their running game has had a lot of success against everybody all year long," Saban said after the loss at Auburn. "They have a very difficult offense to defend. Like I said, it takes a lot of discipline."

But discipline is what Saban's defenses have been known for all along. They don't go for the sack or the big play. Players are told to maintain their gaps and let the scheme work its magic. More often than not it does. Not against Auburn, though, which rushed for 296 yards, the most Alabama has given up since 2011. Auburn averaged 4.2 yards before contact on designed rushes, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Alabama entered Saturday averaging an SEC-best 1.5 yards before contact per rush.

[+] EnlargeKirby Smart
Ned Dishman/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Kirby Smart have watched the Tide struggle with uptempo offenses.
"There were times when we did not defend the plays properly," Saban explained. "… We did not close and do the things we were supposed to do and they hit us for a couple of big runs.

"You certainly have to stop the run a little better than we did today to have a chance to beat a team like this."

Mason's 164 yards rushing was the third most of any player against Alabama in the last decade. Marshall's 99 yards on the ground was the most allowed by a quarterback in the Saban era. The zone-read Mason and Marshall ran accounted for 270 yards on 38 attempts. That 7.1 yards per carry average was nearly double what Alabama entered the game allowing on zone-read plays (3.4).

Said veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley: "On some plays we messed up on our technique and [Marshall] made us pay, and some plays he made on his own."

In short, Alabama didn't have an answer for Auburn, just as it didn't against Texas A&M earlier this season.

Lost in the Alabama's sprint toward an undefeated season was how the defense gave up a school-record 628 yards of offense that day in September. Manziel threw for 464 yards, many of which came on plays where he scrambled to buy time for his receivers. He ran for 98 more yards of his own. Mike Evans abused Alabama's cornerbacks to the tune of 279 yards receiving, the most in Texas A&M's history and the most the Tide had allowed since 2001. When the Aggies got on a roll, they couldn't be stopped.

Making sense of what Texas A&M and Auburn did to Alabama's defense won't be easy, but it's a job that must be done. If not, repeat performances will come next year and the year after that.

If Alabama wants to retain the mantle of the best defense in college football, it has work to do. Saban and Smart have shown they're some of the top minds in the game, but now maybe more than ever they have to prove it.
The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today's offerings: Oregon State coach Mike Riley launched a new Twitter campaign on Tuesday to help the Beavers connect with recruits across the country; LSU’s Frank Wilson didn’t make the first edition of the ESPN recruiting power rankings, but he could be leading the poll by signing day; and a question and answer session on Wednesday helped identify what topics are most important with recruiting fans today.

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Oregon State coach Mike Riley has more than 18,900 followers and is great communicating with fans on Twitter. So it was no surprise to see him launch a campaign Tuesday called “Tweet Film Tuesday” where he asked recruits to send him links to their film, and he and his staffers will then select 10 recruits to evaluate each week. With only 140 characters to work with, Riley didn’t explain how he and his assistants would pick the 10 recruits to evaluate, but the idea is ingenious. Not only does it help Riley and the Beaver coaches communicate with prospects in a way they’re already familiar with, it also allows the OSU coaches to find prospects they might not have been familiar with who are truly interested in the program. Also with Riley’s track record of uncovering hidden talent, you can all but guarantee there will be a story a few years down the road where the Beavers found a sleeper through this approach.

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