Alabama Crimson Tide: Lane Kiffin

SEC lunchtime links

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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Seven SEC coaches, including Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and LSU’s Les Miles, will go through ESPN’s “Car Wash” on Monday, appearing on "Sportscenter," "College Football Live," "First Take" and more. Stay tuned throughout the day.

In the meantime, be sure to read Monday’s lunch links to get your SEC fix.
Not everyone takes a head start.

In January, Alabama welcomed eight early enrollees to campus for the spring semester.

[+] EnlargeBo Scarbrough
Miller Safrit/ESPNCould five-star athlete Bo Scarbrough contribute immediately for the Crimson Tide?
But those eight freshmen represent less than one-third of the Crimson Tide’s 2014 signing class. Nineteen signees chose to attend prom and graduate from high school in the traditional fashion. And even though they are indeed a step behind their peers today, the distance isn’t insurmountable.

Sure, it’s easier to play as a true freshman when you enroll early. A semester of school and 15 spring practices make a world of difference. But as players such as Jonathan Allen showed last season, sometimes the summer offseason program and fall camp are enough to show you can play early.

With that said, here’s a look at three summer enrollees, plus a transfer, who could give Alabama’s offense a boost as freshmen:

ATH Bo Scarbrough: He’s the wild card. Scarbrough, like Derrick Henry before him, has the ability to play almost anywhere on the field. He could fit in at linebacker or defensive end if he wanted to. In fact, he played some end and rushed the passer in high school. At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, he might not look like a running back, but that’s where he’ll get his shot. Don’t let his height fool you, he has good pad level and great burst. He can even catch the ball some, too. While it’s true that Alabama is absolutely loaded at running back, don’t count Scarbrough out. With his unique skill set, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will be tempted to use him at any number of positions.

K/P J.K. Scott: Man, oh man, is there a need for a kicker on Alabama's special teams units, both at placekicker and punter. If you saw A-Day, you know. Not many SEC programs win with a backup quarterback punting, and it doesn’t look like Adam Griffith is the rock-solid field goal kicker coaches so covet. Enter Scott, who could contribute in either fashion. The Colorado native is ranked as the No. 5 kicker in the country, and if you look closer at his scouting report Insider you’ll read that “The ball explodes off his foot and he is a prototypical punter/kicker.”

OL Dominick Jackson: At the very least, Jackson is an insurance policy on Cameron Robinson. Robinson worked his way into the starting rotation at left tackle this spring, but he’s still a rookie fresh out of high school, even if he comes with five stars and looks nothing like a newbie. Jackson, on the other hand, has some seasoning from junior college. At 6-6 and 310 pounds, he fits the mold of an offense tackle but could play guard as well. So maybe he’s an insurance policy on the line as a whole. The bottom line, however, is that if Nick Saban and the coaching staff didn’t think he could play right away they wouldn’t have signed him in the first place. With so few spots in each class, you can’t afford to waste one on a two-year player who needs development.

QB Jacob Coker: You didn’t think we forgot, did you? Just like Jackson, Coker wouldn’t be in Tuscaloosa if Saban and the staff didn’t think he could play. And after what we saw from the other quarterbacks at A-Day, what makes you think Coker isn’t the presumptive favorite to start under center? He has prototypical size at 6-5 and 230 pounds, he has above-average quickness, the maturity to handle the competition and comes from a system at Florida State that’s very similar to what Alabama likes to run.
In 2013, the freshmen of the SEC were truly fabulous.

Hunter Henry and Alex Collins were impact players at Arkansas. Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche were spectacular for Ole Miss. And who can forget the play of Vernon Hargreaves, Chris Jones and A'Shawn Robinson?

But standout rookies aren’t easy to come by. More often it takes some time to make a transition from high school to college, and in Year 2 we generally see the biggest jump in production from players.

With that in mind, we’re taking a team-by-team look at the players who didn’t quite break through as freshmen, but could see their stock skyrocket with as sophomores.

First up: Alabama.

Class recap: Nick Saban followed one top-ranked signing class with another in 2013, further extending his lead as the nation’s top recruiter. All told, Alabama signed 18 ESPN 300 prospects. A’Shawn Robinson, O.J. Howard and a handful of others developed into impact players.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Henry's breakout game in the Sugar Bowl showed he's certainly ready for prime time. But T.J. Yeldon is still ahead of him on the depth chart.
Second-year star: RB Derrick Henry (6-foot-3, 238 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Henry was one of only 11 five-star prospects in the 2013 class. He was the No. 1 athlete in the country and the No. 9 recruit overall, according to ESPN.

2013 in review: Maybe Henry needed a break. He did, after all, just set the national record for career yards rushing at Yulee High in Florida. At Alabama, he became just another freshman fighting for reps, trailing veterans T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake on the depth chart. After carrying the ball only 28 times during the regular season, Henry emerged during practice before the Sugar Bowl and earned the second-string spot in the rotation behind Yeldon against Oklahoma, where he ran for 100 yards and a touchdown on just eight carries. He also caught one pass -- his first and only as a freshman -- and took it 61 yards for another score.

2014 potential: The hype surrounding Henry’s sophomore season comes with good reason. While it might be a stretch to call him a Heisman Trophy contender, or even a threat to Yeldon to take over as the team’s top running back, there is the potential for a big breakout season as a sophomore. It takes an army to tackle him. And he’s got the wheels to back it up. But maybe most importantly, he’ll have a new offensive coordinator in Lane Kiffin who is looking to make the most of his talent, whether that means lining up as a traditional tailback or elsewhere.

Also watch out for: The rungs of the Alabama receiver corps loosened immensely with Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell exiting for the NFL, so look for Robert Foster to take advantage. The No. 2-ranked wideout in the 2013 class has all the skills to become a top-flight target. Along those same lines, keep an eye on Howard. The pass-catching tight end was vastly underutilized as a freshman and should flourish under Kiffin’s play-calling. On defense, defensive end Jonathan Allen and linebacker Reuben Foster both seem ready to step into a starting roles.

SEC's lunch links

May, 30, 2014
May 30
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It’s the time you’ve all been waiting for: Lane Kiffin speaks! The good folks at Al.com were on hand for a speaking engagement for the former USC-head-coach-turned-Alabama-offensive-coordinator.
In the past, Lane Kiffin has proven to be someone who knows how to cast aside boring, sleep-inducing coach speak for some fresh -- sometimes controversial -- dialogue when talking football. Sometimes it's gotten him in trouble, but it's always been nice to see someone not afraid to actually speak his mind.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertT.J. Yeldon, who rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 TDs in 2013, is part of a deep and talented group of Alabama running backs.
On Thursday night, Alabama's new offensive coordinator spoke loud and clearly in Mobile, Ala., about the loaded running backs stable he's working with in Tuscaloosa. While speaking at the DEX Imaging 20th annual L'Arche Football Preview, Kiffin discussed the Crimson Tide's offense and talked about how he's injected some of his own philosophies into Alabama's offensive scheme.

The one thing that won't be changing is how the running backs dictate the Tide's offense.

"As you guys know extremely well, I think the offense is led by the tailbacks," Kiffin said. "... There probably aren't three more talented tailbacks in the NFL on a roster than we're fortunate to be able to work with at Alabama."

That's pretty high praise for Alabama's trio that consists of juniors T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, and sophomore Derrick Henry. That's a cool 2,311 yards and 25 touchdowns from last season. Of course, Yeldon led the way with 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he won't have to worry about being the main workhorse this fall with Drake back and the recent emergence of Henry, who really has what it takes to grab the majority of the carries this fall.

"Finishing his true freshman year at 245 pounds, running 4.4, that was really easy to come in and see that it'd be good to give him the ball," Kiffin said of Henry, who totaled 161 total yards of offense and two touchdowns during his breakout performance against Oklahoma in Alabama's bowl game.

While Yeldon and Henry have captured most of the headlines this spring, Drake is still around, and he still has the kind of skill that could frustrate defenses next season. He rushed for 694 yards and eight touchdowns last fall, while averaging 7.5 yards per carry along the way. He's the most elusive of one in the trio and adds a totally different element to Alabama's attack.

What he has to do is make sure he doesn't get in his own way when it comes to earning carries this fall. His focus has to improve going forward.

Earlier this week at the SEC spring meetings, Saban was asked if he found his best running back coming out of the spring. To him, he felt like he found three.

"I'd rather look at it like we have three really good running backs; I think all a little bit different in style," Saban said. "They've all been pretty productive at some point in a game and I don't think it's necessary to compare them at all. They all work hard, do a good job, want to do what's best for the team, and I think they can all contribute in a very positive way to our team."
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- It’s a shame, really. What did Nick Saban ever do to anyone?

He’s never been convicted of a crime. Any crab legs he’s bagged at the grocery store were bought and paid for.

He’s a devout Catholic who, only a few months ago, wished reporters a happy Easter. Even if he secretly hoped they wouldn’t return from the holiday, it was a nice thing to say.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban's gruff demeanor, and his overwhelming success, has made him one of the most disliked figures in sports. Not that he cares very much.
He’s a man of good works, too, with charitable organizations such as Nick’s Kids. Just last week he donated $50,000 to the V Foundation for cancer research.

Sure, he’s cursed a few times and been known to go on a rant, but what coach hasn’t? There was that one time Heath Evans accused him of stepping over a player who was convulsing on the practice field. But Evans went to Auburn, and everything is tainted by the Iron Bowl, right?

It’s not like TMZ ever caught Saban whipping some poor dog in the street. He’s never caused a government shutdown that we know of. He doesn’t pal around with Donald Sterling in L.A., and he didn’t have a secret hand in the situation in Crimea. He does have a certain Stalin-esque vibe, but that’s a comparison for another era.

Can we give the man a break, though? Can we give the Nicky Satan name-calling a rest?

The answer to that, obviously, is no.

This week Sports Illustrated.com named Saban one of the 35 most disliked people in all of sports. The website cited his “failures in the NFL” and "oversigning players" as cause for his unceremonious selection.

First, he won 15 games in two seasons at Miami. Saban’s predecessor was fired after going 4-12. The coach that followed him in 2007 went 1-15 and was immediately canned. Saban, meanwhile, left on his own terms. Second, he’s not the only coach in college football pushing the recruiting boundaries. Go look at how many players Butch Jones signed at Tennessee this year or how many Kevin Sumlin signed the year before that at Texas A&M. Hint: It’s a lot.

But the spine of SI’s argument is that, “Saban wins football games -- and doesn't seem to care what anyone else thinks.”

That has a ring of truth to it. But in a results-based business, is that enough to be so disliked? His players love him and fans of Alabama adore him. Who else is he supposed to please? He’s not a Walmart greeter, remember.

And besides, it doesn’t seem fair to characterize him as completely uncaring. When he was called the devil by a former aide a year ago, he said it was “terribly disappointing.” He might be demanding, he said, “but it’s not personal.”

When asked Wednesday if the SI report bothered him, Saban said, “I didn’t even know about it, so I guess it doesn’t really bother me.”

But judging by his follow up, it might have.

"I try to do things the right way," he said. "I have a lot of compassion for people. We do a lot to help other people. We try to provide leadership to help young people have a better chance to be more successful in life. We do a lot for young kids.

“So, all's we can do is what we can control. What we can control is to try to do things the right way, help other people, have compassion, be a good leader, set a good example, care for other people, which we do, and I feel good about who we are and what we do and how we try to help others.

"If somebody else doesn't feel that way, I guess they're entitled to their opinion."

How that opinion is formed is what’s lost in all of this.

Perception is reality, and because Saban does nothing to soften his image, it remains that of a ruthless coach who wins at all costs. He’s not seen as likable because he doesn’t smile for the cameras or play along with the PR game. He barks at reporters, scowls on the sidelines and does nothing to let up on his competition, whether it's during games or in recruiting. He’s not likable because he’s the best.

And at 62 years old, why try to change that perception now? He might not agree with how he’s viewed publicly, but it’s gotten him this far.

Besides, at least he’s not the most disliked person in his own program. SI listed Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin No. 8 on its list, a full 14 spots ahead of Saban. That’s something, even if Saban was the one that brought him back into the fold after being fired at USC.

How’s that for being nice?

Saban might not like playing the part of the villain, but he sure keeps things interesting.

Alabama spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Alabama Crimson Tide:

1. No leader at QB: Blake Sims was said to have made strides as a passer, but he took a serious step back at A-Day, throwing two interceptions. Cooper Bateman, the clear No. 2, wasn’t much better, though he did limit his turnovers. And Alec Morris, the third QB in a three-man race, shined mostly as a punter. For those looking to see separation in the quarterback race, there was none to be had.

2. Depth at RB: T.J. Yeldon and his 2,434 career rushing yards might not be moved from his starting role, but Derrick Henry will try after having what was described as a “fabulous” spring. But behind him, there’s Kenyan Drake to consider. Behind the home run hitter Drake is Altee Tenpenny -- plus Tyren Jones and Jalston Fowler. In other words, Alabama might not have a quarterback, but it has plenty of running backs to turn to in case of emergency.

3. Kiffin effect: The running backs are happy to be featured in new ways. The tight ends are pleased with becoming a bigger part of the offense. The receivers are thrilled with the simpler schemes. Even Nick Saban appears excited, saying how new offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin, will do a good job of getting the ball in playmakers’ hands.

Three questions for the fall:

[+] EnlargeJacob Coker
AP Photo/Phil SearsFlorida State transfer Jacob Coker could be the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback in 2014.
1. But what will Kiffin actually do?: A lot was said about Kiffin this spring, but there was very little in the way of evidence. Practices were kept behind closed doors and the spring game featured what one player described as only 10 percent of the playbook. New plays? We saw none. New formations? None of them either. We’ll have to wait until the regular season to see what Kiffin’s actual imprint on the offense will be.

2. Coker’s arrival: He was the white elephant in the room in the sense that he was never in the room. Jacob Coker, the transfer quarterback from Florida State, wasn’t able to compete in spring practice as he finished his degree. But he’ll be on hand for fall camp and will jump right into the competition for the starting job.

3. Secondary concerns: Landon Collins might be the only sure thing about the Alabama secondary. The safety just so happens to be the only returning starter, too. Nick Perry, Geno Smith and Jarrick Williams will battle it out at free safety and the two cornerback spots are still up for grabs after Eddie Jackson tore his ACL during the spring. Early enrollee freshman Tony Brown shined at A-Day and fellow five-star signee Marlon Humphrey is on the way.

One way-too-early prediction:

It seems like a sturdy ledge, so let’s walk it: Coker will be named the starting quarterback before the start of the regular season. Simply put, Sims is not the type of quarterback to work long-term in a pro-style offense. And whatever added dimension he brought as a runner, Coker also possesses. Alabama wouldn’t have accepted a transfer like Coker if they didn’t believe he could start. And after what we saw from the other quarterbacks at A-Day, there’s no reason to believe he can’t win the job.
Not every prediction we made about Alabama heading into the spring panned out, but we got awfully close. Let’s take a look back:

Prediction No. 1: Kiffin provides a jolt

This one appears to be a work in progress as A-Day was not the most impressive performance for the offense. Outside of a failed flea-flicker attempt, there wasn’t any play or formation called by new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin that really wowed you. But, as one player told reporters after the game, only about 10 percent of the playbook was available. With that said, the reviews on Kiffin have been overwhelmingly positive. Nick Saban said he expects Kiffin to get the ball into his playmakers’ hands more often this season, specifically to players such as Amari Cooper. That should be music to fans’ ears. And as far as the players themselves, they’ve noticed a difference in Kiffin’s demeanor and play-calling. They’ve said his offense is much more simple and “player-friendly.” So while we never saw major schematic changes or a change in the tempo of the offense publicly, rest assured that Kiffin is working his magic behind the scenes.

Prediction No. 2: Sophomores emerge

[+] EnlargeTony Brown
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsRobert Foster, who dueled Tony Brown for this pass on A-Day, showed big-play potential this spring.
OK, so this wasn’t exactly an earth-shattering prediction. But we did name names. Reuben Foster, Robert Foster and Maurice Smith were spotlighted as players who missed spring practice last season but would benefit from it as sophomores. And with at least two out of the three, there was some measure of success. Reuben Foster, despite a series of stinger injuries, continued to draw positive praise and should be in the mix for significant reps at middle linebacker this fall. Robert Foster, on the other hand, made some spectacular catches at practice this spring, vaulting himself up the depth chart where he could be one of the first receivers off the bench. Smith, however, remained mostly quiet. Right after Eddie Jackson went down with a torn ACL, Smith missed a scrimmage with a concussion. Tony Brown, a five-star early enrollee, took full advantage of the reps and played well at A-Day, making an impressive interception despite playing in a no-contact jersey.

Prediction No. 3: Frosh challenges at LT

It took some time, but maybe not as much as some might have expected. Cam Robinson skipped his high school graduation and bypassed his prom to enroll at Alabama in January and compete in spring practice. With Cyrus Kouandjio gone at left tackle, he saw an opportunity. And after a few weeks of getting a handle on the offense, Robinson took a step forward, earning reps with the first team at left tackle, where he started A-Day. Robinson still has some growing pains to work out, but given his size, talent and early improvement, he'll be in serious contention to start at left tackle from Day 1. Though Saban called the five-star signee a “work in progress,” he also cautioned that, “You get experience by making mistakes. ... He did some good things, and he’s done some really good things all spring long.”

Prediction No. 4: DePriest steps up game

By the sounds of it, Trey DePriest is doing everything coaches are asking of him this spring. With C.J. Mosley off to the NFL, he has responded by becoming a more vocal presence on the defense, leading a group that’s as young in spots as it is talented. As DePriest put it, “I’m just trying to help out where I can.” And that means calling the majority of plays on defense, getting his front seven in line and the secondary in tune. Saban praised DePriest’s knowledge of the defense as well as his maturity, saying he has the ability to “affect other players in a positive way.” Judging by the small window of A-Day, he has done just that as the defense didn’t allow a point in the first half.

Prediction No. 5: Ranking Alabama’s QBs

Maybe we were too hard on Blake Sims, ranking him fourth out of five. By Saban’s estimation, he had a great spring, exhibiting control of the offense, improvement as a pocket passer and good production through two scrimmages, reportedly throwing for 515 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. But a sour A-Day performance kept him from being our post-A-Day leader in the clubhouse. Whatever momentum he’d gained before Saturday was lost when he threw one touchdown and two interceptions with a 43 percent completion percentage (13 for 30). Cooper Bateman, whom we previously ranked No. 1, looked the part at A-Day, showing the most poise and control of the quarterbacks. Alec Morris, meanwhile, was somewhat of a disappointment with just seven passing attempts and one interception. Parker McLeod and David Cornwell turned out to be the fourth and fifth quarterbacks in the race, attempting only two passes, completing none and throwing one interception. The one quarterback who did look good at A-Day was incoming transfer Jacob Coker, who looked on from the sideline as a spectator.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch when Alabama takes to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday for A-Day, the finale of spring practice.

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

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

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

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

5. The up-and-comers:

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

SEC's lunch links

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
12:00
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The SEC has been pumping out internet memes lately. Over the weekend there was Gene Chizik staring down his daughter's prom date. Then during Monday night's basketball national championship game, rapper Drake's many sports allegiances (Kentucky among them) were on display. Oh, and the kid Cats lost to UConn and then acted like they'd never heard of the NBA draft.

Let's swim back into the friendlier waters of SEC football, shall we?
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama isn't in a rush to find its starting quarterback for the 2014 season.

That might sound a little crazy when you consider the high expectations the Crimson Tide will undoubtedly face yet again this fall, but it really isn't the biggest concern for a team that was an improbable play away from repeating as SEC West champs and possibly playing in its third straight BCS title game last season.

[+] EnlargeMorris/Bateman
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlec Morris (left) and Cooper Bateman (right), along with Blake Sims, have separated themselves a bit in Alabama's QB derby.
While the team can wait it out on finding a starter -- especially with former Florida State quarterback Jacob Coker enrolling after spring -- Saturday's scrimmage could go a long way to finding a little separation with the five guys currently vying for the position.

“Obviously, the first scrimmage kind of shows you who wants to really work for the spot and who doesn’t," Crimson Tide center Ryan Kelly said about the quarterback competition.

With Coker not on campus, Alabama has turned to Blake Sims, Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris, David Cornwell and Parker McLeod to share reps under center this spring. Sims, a redshirt senior, is the only one with any experience, but he changes the offense some with his mobility. While all five bring something different to the table, the plan for Alabama will be to run more of a pro-style offense. Sims might be the odd one of the bunch when it comes to that, but new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's arrival shouldn't change the basic structure of an offense Sims is very familiar with.

Alabama has only had a handful of scrimmages, but players have been at it since pre-spring 7-on-7s began. For wide receiver Christion Jones, each QB has taken advantage of every rep afforded to him since last season ended. For now, Jones said Sims, Bateman and Morris have stood out from the bunch.

“Everyone has their time where they struggle a little bit, but those three guys are the ones who overcome," Jones said. "Even when they mess up it’s not really a letdown or they get frustrated. Those three take the coaching better. The other guys still have to learn to take the coaching and take the criticism and make yourself better out of it.”

We'll be able to see a little more of that Saturday. The guys who have prepared the most and bought in more will stand out. They won't have to be perfect, but they'll have to show that they've learned something in the last few weeks.

In a perfect world for the Tide, a starter would be in place and this team could worry more about developing, but trying to find a new signal-caller means that players around them are having to do more. Linemen are having to adjust to five different patterns and cadences from each quarterback, while receivers are dealing with five different releases, five different throwing styles and five different versions of in-huddle terminology.

Jones said it isn't exactly ideal, but it is making receivers better, as they are having to concentrate even more on what they are doing in practices to accommodate for each passer.

“This spring, it’s more of focus level because we don’t know who the starting quarterback is," he said. "Either one of those five guys could be it. We have to be on our Ps and Qs and we have to be at that right spot at that right time. We don’t know what these guys are thinking right now. It makes you always be ball-ready because you never know what can happen.”

Saturday will be a good stepping stone for each quarterback, but it won't necessarily decide anything. To Kelly, it doesn't matter who is under center, he's going to be expected to excel. That's how elite programs roll, and Kelly wants each quarterback he's working with to understand that.

“It doesn’t matter who’s in that position, you’re going to be held to the standard that you’re going to do your job the best you can," Kelly said. "Otherwise, if all five guys aren’t on the same page then something bad is going to happen.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Like a lot of position battles going on during spring practice in Tuscaloosa, Ala., -- hello, quarterbacks -- the starting five up front for the Crimson Tide likely won’t be decided anytime soon.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesCenter Ryan Kelly is one of three returning starters for Alabama. The Tide is auditioning several youngsters at left tackle and right guard.
Sure, Ryan Kelly returns at center, Austin Shepherd is back at right tackle and Arie Kouandjio remains at left guard, but that’s only slightly more than half the equation. The second half of the Kouandjio Bros., left tackle Cyrus, is off to a carer in the NFL, as is veteran right guard Anthony Steen, who racked up more than 35 starts in his career. Replacing those two stalwarts won’t be an easy, much less quick, task.

The good news for Alabama is that this isn’t the first time coach Nick Saban and his staff have been through this. Just last season offensive line coach Mario Cristobal had the unenviable job of replacing three All-SEC caliber linemen: Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. And do you remember what happened? The 2013 line actually one-upped the previous season's line in some respects. The line allowed six fewer sacks and also saw its rushes for zero or negative yards -- a good indicator of the push a line generates -- fall from 91 to 79, vaulting the Tide to fourth nationally in that category.

But, of course, there’s room to improve. Just ask Kelly.

“Communication is the most important thing,” he explained. “All 11 guys have to be on the same page. ... It starts with the offensive line. One of the things we’re trying to emphasize is get up to the ball, get down, get set. Last year, look at it, we were running the clock down to five, four seconds every time. The faster that we can get to the line, get set, let the quarterback look at what he’s got to look at, the more time we can have and we’re not rushing to make calls last-minute.”

Does that mean Alabama is turning to a more up-tempo offense under new coordinator Lane Kiffin? It depends whom you ask.

Brian Vogler, a senior tight end, said that he thought the offense would stay similar to years past, relying on the “mauler” style it was founded on. Kelly, however, asked the question: “Anytime we can run more plays it’s good for an offense, right?” He said he anticipates “a lot” of change this season, including new plays and new formations.

“Obviously, we want to practice faster every day,” Kelly continued. “As as the spread offense, stuff like that, it’s still the same. We’ve just been wanting to get more reps in practice. Obviously, reps make us better.”

More repetitions will be key for the newcomers on the offensive line, not to mention the communication among all five potential starters.

Through the first four practices, the first-team line features Kelly, Shepherd and Kouandjio at their usual positions, with Alphonse Taylor added at right guard and Leon Brown at left tackle. The two combined for 17 appearances and one start last season, the lone start coming from Brown when Shepherd was lost for the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.

Though he can play inside, Brown might be better suited at tackle given his length (6-foot-6, 313 pounds).

Taylor, however, has all the earmarks of a punishing guard. At 6-5, 335 pounds and a low center of gravity, he looks vaguely like Warmack when he shuffles upfield in running situations.

“If you look at how big he is, he’s actually really athletic, can bend really well and he’s got a lot of power,” Kelly said. “Another young guy, doesn’t have a whole lot of experience, obviously, playing games. But I think this spring’s going to be really big for him.”

But the most intriguing prospect of all has to be Cameron Robinson, a five-star prospect and the No. 1 offensive lineman in the 2014 class. He has everything you look for in an offensive tackle: size, strength, athleticism. The 6-6, 325-pound freshman from Louisiana has shown some growing pains since enrolling in January, but he has also shown flashes of the talent that made him such a coveted recruit.

With a spring to learn, an offseason to prepare and an open position at left tackle to compete for come fall, don’t sleep on Robinson.

“He’s got a lot of ability,” Kelly said of Robinson. “He’s a big guy, can bend really well, long arms. Obviously he came into an offense where we kind of transitioning into a new style or new plays, stuff like that. So he never really learned the old one. Anytime you’re coming from high school to college it’s going to take a while to kind of get acclimated to it. Older guys have been helping him along the way, kind of showing him the ropes, because it can be eye-opening at times, coming from high school to college.”

Saban called Robinson “a young guy that’s learning and getting better every day.” But along the same line, Saban said of the entire line that he wasn’t “satisfied with where they are, but pleased with the progress they’re making.”

In other words, the line is very much an ongoing process.

“The depth chart means nothing right now,” Shepherd said. “The depth chart won't mean anything until we play West Virginia.”

SEC's lunch links

March, 25, 2014
Mar 25
12:00
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Spring practice is in full swing at several SEC schools. Let's take a look at some of the headlines from around the league:

• Might Alabama pick up its offensive pace under Lane Kiffin? Not likely.

• Mississippi State's Chris Jones feeds off raw energy, but he's working to improve his technique this spring.

• Despite the prospect of more pass blocking in Auburn's 2014 offense, the offensive linemen's mindset remains unchanged.

• Running backs Mack Brown and Kelvin Taylor reeled off big runs during Florida's practice on Monday.

• What might 2014 look like for Arkansas running back Alex Collins? Sporting Life Arkansas takes a look.

• Praise continues to pour in for Ole Miss offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil after a standout freshman season.

• Darius English had one directive from South Carolina's coaching staff this offseason: add weight to his 6-foot-7 frame.

• Former Vanderbilt receiver Chris Boyd found it difficult to blend in after his dismissal from the program last year.

• Athlon ranks the top 40 players from the SEC during the BCS era.

• Defensive lineman Elijah Daniel sat out as Auburn ran through its fourth practice of the spring on Tuesday.

SEC's lunch links

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
12:00
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The talk around the SEC today is how three teams from the conference -- Florida, Kentucky and Tennesse -- reached the round of 16 in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. And this was supposed to be a down year for the league.

But we're here to discuss football. Let's take a look at what's happening around the league:

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee says Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall is talented enough to play the position in the NFL.

LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith is relishing his new role after playing defensive end as a freshman.

Now healthy, quarterback Brandon Allen is preparing for a position battle at Arkansas.

Georgia receiver Malcolm Mitchell -- attempting to return from a torn ACL from last season -- suffered another injury last week, although the Bulldogs' medical staff says he'll be back in time for August practices.

South Carolina offensive lineman Na'Ty Rodgers could face suspension after his alcohol-related arrest from early Sunday.

The defense had the edge in Vanderbilt's spring scrimmage on Saturday.

Alabama's players like what new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is teaching thus far.

Jeff Driskel looked sharp working with the first-team offense in Florida's practice on Saturday, according to the Gainesville Sun's Robbie Andreu.

With Missouri's team on spring break, here is a spring practice reset from the Columbia Daily Tribune.
video
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Amari Cooper wasn’t himself for much of last season.

An injury to his foot robbed him of games against Colorado State and Georgia State, and even then, it needed longer to heal. He wasn’t near 100 percent until halfway through the season. And by that point, the dubious question of whether we were witnessing a sophomore slump was unavoidable. The same receiver who burst onto the scene in 2012, earning SEC All-Freshman and freshman All-American honors, was a shell of himself. He couldn’t get off the line quickly and, to make matters worse, he was dropping the passes that were thrown his way.

The former four-star prospect from South Florida who caught 59 passes for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman saw his numbers slip to 45 receptions, 736 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore. The number of times he was targeted didn’t drop off significantly -- from 77 to 74 -- but his receptions for first downs fell by 31 percent and his number of catches for 20 yards or more was cut nearly in half, down from 19 to 10.

[+] EnlargeCooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAfter a foot injury limited his productivity in 2013, Amari Cooper expects to bounce back this fall.
Cooper may not know those numbers off the top of his head, but he should remember the frustration he felt last season. “Not being able to play to your fullest potential when you know you can go out there and dominate,” as he described it, ate at him. Only over the final few games did we see the Amari Cooper we were used to seeing. During that stretch, he caught 15 passes for 299 yards, including a 99-yard breakaway touchdown against Auburn. His speed was back on full display and so were his feet. Without pain, he could be elusive once again. He could finally cut and dance away from defenders like he did as a freshman.

The hope for Alabama’s coaches and quarterbacks is that Cooper’s strong finish will serve as a springboard into a junior campaign that will help return him to the conversation of the SEC’s elite receivers.

“Amari's really played outstanding football here for us for two years,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban. “About halfway through his freshman year, he really became an outstanding player. He got very confident in what he was doing. Last year, I thought he had a very good year, especially the second half of the year. So far this spring, he's been phenomenal in the offseason program as well as in the first three practices that we've had.”

Cooper, by all accounts, is back to his old self. He said he's added five to six pounds during the offseason conditioning program and worked on his speed. At Alabama’s pro day earlier this month, he ran the 40-yard dash for scouts and came in at a jaw-dropping 4.31 seconds on one of three times he received. The other two stopwatches weren’t that far off at 4.35 and 4.38 seconds, he said.

“It’s all about technique in the 40,” he explained. “I’m trying to get faster, and I guess you guys will see whenever I decide to come out [for the NFL].”

If he has another 50-plus reception and double-digit touchdown season this fall, he could turn pro sooner than later. The crop of receivers in this year’s draft is deep, but next year’s doesn’t figure to be quite as challenging.

But for now, the focus is on putting together a strong junior season, starting with a strong spring. With a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback, there’s a lot to adjust to. What Cooper has seen from Lane Kiffin’s time at USC has him excited, though.

“We look at it for concepts we need to learn for our offense here, and we know what those guys did for him at USC at the wide receiver position,” he said, noting how Kiffin has a simpler and more player-friendly way of coaching the offense.

Said Saban: “Obviously [Cooper is] a guy [who] we want to get the ball to as many times as we can. Lane will do a really good job of getting the ball in the playmakers' hands. I think between the backs we have and the receivers we have and Coop's history of being a very consistent performer, I would think that he'll have an outstanding year.”

That said, someone will have to distribute and deliver the football. Alabama has five quarterbacks competing for the starting job now, and that crowded backfield will grow by one when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives in May.

Cooper admitted that not having AJ McCarron to throw him the football is different, but he’s not showing the slightest sign of concern.

“It’s like when I came in. AJ was a new quarterback to me,” he said. “It’s the same thing with these guys. We’ve been working on timing since before spring practice started.

“We tried to get together almost every day to work on our timing.”

If Cooper can stay healthy and return to his 2012 form, he’ll be a benefit to whomever starts under center for Alabama.

He’s already shown he can dominate with what he’s done in the past. Whether you choose to call his sophomore season a full-on slump or a minor setback, there’s plenty of room for him to get better as a junior. With those feet, those hands and that speed, he could easily rise to the top of the SEC’s best receivers, if not the entire country.

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