Alabama Crimson Tide: Laurence Jones
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.
On the way back to Tuscaloosa after Alabama’s humbling 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the junior safety replayed the nauseating moments from a game in which the Crimson Tide, which entered the contest with the SEC’s top-ranked defense, surrendered 429 yards of offense, nearly 6 yards per play, 348 passing yards and four passing touchdowns.
Collins called the performance by the defense “disgraceful” to Alabama football.
“We weren’t the defense that we always used to be,” Collins told ESPN.com in early April. “That’s what we’re working on this spring.”
Associating Alabama’s defense with anything less than elite feels awkward, but that’s all you can say about Bama’s bowl performance. Players were tired and run down against Oklahoma’s hurry-up offense. This spring, Tide defenders saw red, as coaches constantly reminded them of that bowl performance. That led to tougher conditioning routines and more intense player interaction on and off the field, Collins said.
Looking back at the bowl game has been tough for players, but they know that it’s a performance they never want to see again.
“It wasn’t the way we play,” linebacker Trey DePriest said. “We don’t get that many points put up on us. That’s way more than what our goal is -- 13 points or less. It didn’t seem like us. We were ready, we just didn’t go out and leave it on the field like it was our last game. It’s definitely been a driving force.”
But things won’t be easier in 2014, not with a younger defensive look and the loss of leaders -- and producers -- like C.J. Mosley and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Collins and DePriest, picked to replace those two, now head a defense that will be playing angry in 2014 after losing five starters from last season's team.
Can guys like Nick Perry, Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson, A'Shawn Robinson and Jarrick Williams expand their roles? Can some of the youngsters like Tony Brown and Laurence "Hootie" Jones step up? And don't forget about the much-anticipated arrival of defensive end Da'Shawn Hand.
There's no shortage of talent, and this defense might even have a little more athleticism sprinkled around, but we all know talent can only go so far, even with the best teams.
For now, attitudes seem to be flowing in the right direction, DePriest said, but there’s no getting around the fact that this entire defense has to grow up in the coming months to replace some valuable leaders.
“It’s some big shoes to fill, definitely,” Collins said. “A lot of us looked up to those guys. Without that leadership, we have to just step in and take over because we need that on the field constantly, and [we need it] off the field because without that, this program could go in a different direction that it doesn’t need to.”
There’s a certain pride that this defense holds that it lost in that bowl game.
Or was it something that slowly trickled out before the Tide even got to Bourbon Street?
Alabama had holes in its defense all last fall, but found ways of patching them as the season went on. Alabama surrendered a school-record 628 yards in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M, allowed Zach Mettenberger to throw for 241 yards in the win over LSU and watched Auburn rush for 296 yards in that heartbreaking loss on the Plains.
Hundreds of other teams would kill for Alabama’s 2013 defense, but it didn’t live up to the standards this program holds so dear.
For Collins, the secondary is key. While Alabama ranked near the top nationally against the pass, there were times when the secondary surrendered too many big plays. Injuries contributed to some of the secondary’s issues, but the last line of defense never truly looked settled last season.
Collins said the secondary put too much pressure on itself to live up to the enormous preseason hype after back-to-back BCS titles and wasn’t always prepared for games.
“Our downfall was our secondary last year,” Collins said. “We got picked apart because of that.”
“If you watch our film of practice, you can see how hard we work every day. You can tell how hard we’re working to establish our secondary to be dominant again.”
Spring practice can only take a team so far, and Alabama defenders know that. They have that chip, they have that anger, but it’s about carrying that feeling over to the season and performing.
The good thing for the defense is that it has a constant reminder in the bowl game that still fuels this unit.
“That just fires it up, because we know what type of defense we are,” Collins said. “We already know what we are capable of. Just to hear that we got picked apart by an offense that shouldn’t have been on the field with us, that’s a disgrace to Alabama defense. We need to pick it up from that standpoint.”
“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.
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.
Because they’re unpredictable, we’ll avoid first-year players such as Cam Robinson. If you want an idea of who could make an instant impact in 2014, we wrote about that shortly after signing day.
Thursday we turn our attention to a player who spent last year learning a new position on defense.
6-foot, 186 pounds
Credentials: The former four-star defensive back had a stellar freshman campaign at cornerback in 2012, playing in 13 games, including a start against his home-state Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC championship. But that momentum ultimately proved short-lived as Smith was arrested during the offseason for driving under the influence, suspended for the season opener against Virginia Tech and then moved to safety where he struggled to break into the rotation, especially early on. He played in all 12 remaining games but didn't start a single contest. However even in garbage time he tied for third on the team in pass breakups (four).
How he fits: Had only Ha Ha Clinton-Dix left early for the NFL, then there might not have been much of an opportunity for Smith to move up the depth chart. Landon Collins might have made do at free safety and Vinnie Sunseri might have remained the starter at strong safety. But Sunseri's surprise decision to enter the draft allows Collins to remain at his natural position of strong safety and clear an opening at free safety that remains up for grabs. Veteran Nick Perry could play there, but he's coming off a season-ending injury and might not be 100 percent. And Jarrick Williams might be an option, but he seems solidly entrenched at the star cornerback position. That leaves Smith as the most experienced option at free, but there's also some other contenders to consider: former professional baseball player Jai Miller and the No. 3 safety in the ESPN 300, Laurence "Hootie" Jones, who arrived on campus in January.
Best case/worst case: Versatility will be Smith's biggest asset when it comes to his competition at free safety. Having been in the system two full years, he knows how it works. And having defensive coordinator Kirby Smart back coaching safeties will certainly help his cause, too. But knowing how to play back in space as a safety as well as how to play tight in man coverage as a corner should be a big chip in his favor. Still, less than a year removed from his DUI arrest you have to wonder whether he's fully emerged from the dog house enough to be considered for a starting position.
- For all the series installments, click here
With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at which programs compiled the nation's best overall position classes in 2014. For the full top position classes series, click here.
The Florida Gators had a major need at quarterback in the Class of 2014, and Will Muschamp and staff more than filled it, signing two of the nation’s top signal-callers. Third-ranked dual-threat prospect Will Grier (Davidson, N.C./Davidson Day School) is already on campus and preparing for spring practice, while No. 7 dual-threat prospect Treon Harris (Miami/Booker T. Washington) was a huge signing-day flip from Florida State. Both prospects are great athletes who are accustomed to operating up-tempo offenses. This should also help newly hired offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who will install a similar scheme in Gainesville.
With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at the top position classes. For the full series, click here.
Nationally (and SEC)
The top class of defensive backs goes to Alabama, by a landslide. While the Crimson Tide have provided many recruiting firsts in recent years under coach Nick Saban, the 2014 class is the first to have two five-star cornerbacks in the same cycle in the years ESPN has been assigning star rankings. No. 8 overall Tony Brown (Beaumont, Texas/Ozen) and No. 15 Marlon Humphrey (Hoover, Ala./Hoover) have the size and speed that Saban and his staff made a must in 2014. Add in No. 3 safety and No. 27 overall Laurence Jones (Monroe, La./Neville) and Alabama signed three of the very best at defensive back. Factor in that No. 7 athlete Ronnie Clark (Calera, Ala./Calera) seems destined to begin his career at safety and the Crimson Tide dominate in the secondary despite having missed out on coveted safety target C.J. Hampton (Meridian, Miss./Meridian).
The Crimson Tide had the nation’s best defensive back class; here’s which schools had the best in each of the remaining power conferences:
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Potential is a dangerous thing, so keep in mind that these comparisons are looking at the best case scenario for each player. As always, everything depends on what happens when they get to campus and how they develop when they get there.
Projects as: He’s a heavier hitter and is maybe more physically developed, but Brown will remind many of former Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick with his length and ball skills. Brown has the kind of size and strength coach Nick Saban covets because it means Brown can be versatile and play near the line of scrimmage when necessary.
ATH Ronnie Clark
Projects as: He’s very much a tweener safety/linebacker prospect, making comparisons difficult. Reaching a bit into the SEC vault, fans can look at former Georgia “rover” Thomas Davis, who was part DB, part linebacker for the Bulldogs.
DL Johnny Dwight
Projects as: Dwight is a bit of an under-the-radar prospect as he was ranked as the 33rd-best defensive tackle in the country. But at 6-foot-2, 282 pounds, he offers a big body who can play end in Saban’s 3-4 scheme. Because of his versatility and lack of acclaim, he reminds some of former Alabama lineman Damion Square.
LB Rashaan Evans
Projects as: In keeping with the Georgia theme, Evans should conjure images of former Bulldogs linebacker Alec Ogletree. Both are slimmer, more athletic linebackers who could slide back and play safety in some systems. As Saban attempts to combat hurry-up no-huddle offenses, having linebackers with Evans’ speed will pay dividends.
DL Joshua Frazier
Projects as: At 6-4 and 336 pounds, Frazier is the type of defensive lineman who eats up space. He’ll likely be a nose tackle in Alabama’s system and primarily fit against the run in the mold of current Tide lineman Brandon Ivory.
LB Shaun Dion Hamilton
Projects as: Hamilton said he’s an inside linebacker who molds his game after former Alabama great C.J. Mosley. But Mosley was probably more athletic than Hamilton, so a more likely comparison might be another former Tide linebacker, DeMeco Ryans. Both are a bit undersized with Hamilton coming in at 5-11.
DL Da'Shawn Hand
Projects as: The comparison to Dont'a Hightower has been thrown around a bit, but given Hand’s size and pass-rush ability, he could easily slide into the Jack linebacker position and play a role similar to the one that made Courtney Upshaw an All-American. Another potential comparison, if he does play with his hand on the ground, is New York Giant Justin Tuck.
LB Keith Holcombe
Projects as: To borrow Holcombe’s father’s comparison, Keith does look a little bit like former Alabama linebacker Cory Reamer. Reamer was a bit of an unheralded recruit coming out of high school like Keith, but both have high motors and deceptive athleticism.
Projects as: Like Brown, Humphrey defies comparison because he’s so big for a corner. Because of his other worldly athleticism (just look at his track numbers) he compares favorably to former Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy. They both match up well with taller receivers and can help in run support.
DB Laurence Jones
Projects as: The Landon Collins comparison is going to be thrown around because both hail from Louisiana, but the better comparison might be with former LSU safety Chad Jones, who was also better when the play was in front of him than when he had to drop back in one-on-one coverage. Laurence, who goes by “Hootie,” already has the size (6-2, 208 pounds) to play in the SEC.
LB Christian Miller
Projects as: If he bulks up in a big way, Miller could play Jack. But as it stands, he’s more reminiscent of Adrian Hubbard at the Sam linebacker position. Tall with long arms and a lanky frame, Miller has the skill to rush off the edge but not enough thickness (212 pounds) to put his hand in the dirt on the line.
DL D.J. Pettway
Projects as: The comparisons to Square are going to be there because of his skill against the run and the pass. But Pettway has better production, dating back to his being named to the Freshman All-SEC team in 2012. To borrow and page from former Alabama right tackle D.J. Fluker, Pettway looks more like Marcel Dareus than Square.
DL Jarran Reed
Projects as: At 6-4 and 305 pounds, Reed is similar to former Alabama defensive end/tackle Jeoffrey Pagan. The junior college transfer is mature for a first-year player having gone first to a prep school and then to East Mississippi Community College.
DL O.J. Smith
Projects as: He was a natural fit as a nose guard with Alabama from Day 1. That’s why the Louisiana native committed to the Tide before ever getting an offer from LSU. Smith, all 6-2 and 315 pounds of him, isn’t going to wow you with his quickness but he could eat up space much like current Alabama nose guard Brandon Ivory.
His father, Sal, has been an assistant coach in the NFL and in college for nearly three decades. His brother, Tino, was a quarterback at Pittsburgh before joining the Canadian Football League in 2013. And his coach, Nick Saban, has guided countless players to the pros and understands the draft process as well as anyone could.
So what was the hurry?
Sunseri has always been one to fly to the ball with reckless abandon. It's what made him a star on special teams as a freshman and a key contributor in the defensive secondary as a sophomore and junior. Before going down with a torn ACL against Arkansas this season, he had two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns. ESPN thought enough to vote him a Midseason All-American.
Maybe that instinct to attack and make something happen is at play here. We all know the draft is a gamble -- go early and you risk it, go late and you risk it just the same -- so Sunseri opting to roll the dice might not be out of character. If he thinks he should strike while the iron is hottest, then best of luck. He's a limited player athletically and sometimes struggles in coverage, but he's as hard a worker as they come and has a nose for the football.
From Alabama's perspective, though, the move is troubling.
The most immediate question -- "Are you running from Tuscaloosa or toward the NFL?" -- isn't readily answered. With so much up in the air this offseason, from coaching staff changes to other underclassmen turning pro, could it have influenced his decision?
Sunseri was the heartbeat of the secondary, its most vocal leader and its best playmaker. He would have been one of the centerpieces of the defense next season. He and Landon Collins playing side by side at safety would have been a good starting point for defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to build around. Mixing in veterans Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry would have been plenty to work with, helping relieve some of the pressure off of Alabama's young set of cornerbacks.
Now Alabama is left with more questions than answers. Losing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at free safety was hard enough. Sunseri vacating his spot at strong safety only makes matters worse. Collins showed he's an immensely talented player this season, finishing second in tackles and first in passes defended, but he's still raw. We saw that in a few key missteps against Auburn to end the regular season and then again against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Granted, Collins will improve, but Alabama will need another player or two to step up and fill Sunseri's shoes.
The silver lining for Saban is he's not without talented players to call upon. Former four-star corner Geno Smith made the transition to safety this past season and former professional baseball player Jai Miller should be better prepared after a season of re-acclimating to the game. Welcoming in two early enrollee defensive backs -- five-star cornerback Tony Brown and No. 2-rated safety Laurence "Hootie" Jones -- will help in terms of depth, too.
But make no mistake, Alabama is in transition. As curious a move as it was for Sunseri to turn pro early, it leads to just as puzzling questions for the Tide moving forward. There are the right coaches in place to make it work -- men like Saban, Smart and others -- but it doesn't make the events any less surprising.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It happens every year now, so don't act surprised. If you're an Alabama fan, deal with it. If you're not, don't weep for the Crimson Tide, either. Coach Nick Saban has lost multiple underclassmen to the NFL before, so Thursday's news that safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan will all leave school early is no insurmountable thing. This is just the reason why Saban and his staff recruit so hard.
"Our twos and threes could do what I did out there," Clinton-Dix said of the team moving forward. "I'm not worried about any of those guys stepping up."
Alabama will be fine without Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix. Many of their replacements are already on board: Landon Collins at safety, Leon Brown at tackle, Dillon Lee at strongside linebacker, Jonathan Allen at defensive end. Those who will challenge them for playing time are either just now arriving or just now finishing their first seasons in Tuscaloosa: defensive backs ArDarius Stewart and Laurence 'Hootie' Jones, tackles Grant Hill and Cam Robinson, linebackers Tim Williams and Da'Shawn Hand, and defensive ends Dee Liner and D.J. Pettway -- all excellent prospects.
It's easy to look at the loss of stars and say, "Oh no!" but that's not how it works at Alabama. It wasn't that long ago that safety Mark Barron left school and Clinton-Dix entered the fold. D.J. Fluker went to the NFL a year early and Austin Shepherd had little trouble at right tackle in his absence. Eddie Lacy torched Notre Dame in last year's BCS title game, announced he was turning pro and Alabama never missed a beat. Not only is T.J. Yeldon back for his junior season, a fella by the name of Derrick Henry appears ready to be his new sidekick.
This is the program that Saban has built. This is what his "Process" has borne. And it's embraced around campus. Just look at this, this and this from Alabama's director of player personnel Tyler Siskey. As Saban told reporters, "We've had 13 guys go out early for the NFL draft, 11 of those guys have been first-round draft picks."
Often when other schools lose key players to the NFL, there's a mad scramble to find their replacements. At Alabama, coaches turn to a stocked cupboard. Take the safety position, for instance: Cinton-Dix goes out with off-field drama and Collins enters the fold at free safety, followed by Vinnie Sunseri blowing out his knee and Collins then shifting over to strong safety. Collins, a former five-star prospect in his own right, immediately found success. A year after playing primarily on special teams, he finished second on the team in tackles, tied for first in interceptions and tops in passes defended.
Sure, Saban would love to see Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix back for another year. Just don't expect him to openly weep about it. He's probably more than thrilled that Trey DePriest and DeAndrew White should be sticking around for their senior seasons.
You know, two out of six isn't bad. Three championships in five years seems to be going over quite well in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama will survive and new stars will emerge next season. Sometimes you hate to see athletes like Clinton-Dix leave early, but their departure only clears the way for who's next.
College football recruiting is currently in a dead period, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a ton of recruiting news around the SEC. There were several commitments during the Under Armour and U.S. Army Bowl All-America games, including the top player in the country, Leonard Fournette, announcing his decision. There were also some decommitments and new, important offers were handed out. Here’s the latest news around the SEC.
SEC schools land big commitments: There was a flurry of commitments during and after the All-American games this weekend. SEC schools landed commitments from eight different players during the Under Armour All-America game and the U.S. Army Bowl. Here’s a closer look at who committed where. All eight players were ranked in the top 150 players of the ESPN 300.
RB Leonard Fournette (New Orleans/Saint Augustine) -- Committed to LSU over Alabama and Texas.
DT Gerald WIllis III (New Orleans/Edna Karr) -- Committed to Florida over LSU and Alabama.
S Laurence “Hootie” Jones (Monroe, La./Neville) -- Committed to Alabama over LSU and Ole Miss.
ATH Speedy Noil (New Orleans/Edna Karr) -- Committed to Texas A&M over LSU.
WR Frank Iheanacho (Houston/Westside) -- Committed to Texas A&M over Missouri, LSU, Oregon and Arkansas.
OL Brian Wallace (Saint Louis/Christian Brothers College HS) -- Committed to Arkansas over Alabama and Missouri.
S Jamal Adams (Lewisville, Texas/Hebron) -- Committed to LSU over Florida.
DB Tony Brown (Beaumont, Texas) -- Committed to Alabama over LSU.
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As expected, Day 2 at the Under Armour All-America practices were smoother, more concise and much more productive. The players are now starting to think less and play more. Natural ability is starting to come to the forefront, which allows for them to be more productive. There have been fewer dropped passes, fewer misses by the QBs and the offensive lines are starting to jell quicker than expected. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this group is there have not been any true letdowns. They have stepped up and been as advertised almost top to bottom for both squads. Let’s hit the highlights of the day:
WR Cameron Sims (Monroe, La./Ouachita Parish): Sims might not wow anyone with his 40-yard dash time, but it may not matter. Sims is so similar to Mike Evans at Texas A&M. He just makes plays. He has extremely long arms and is outstanding when in contested matchups. The ball will look like it is uncatchable and then next thing you know he jumps out of nowhere, extends and makes a play and the defender is left scratching his head. When it comes down to it, the QBs for Team Highlight can trust that if they need to throw it up, Sims will make a play. The most basic thing about the position is catching the football and Sims has no problem doing that.
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But despite the decommitment, the four-star defender said Alabama is still very high on his list.
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I just decommit from Alabama, i need more time.!— LockDown (@LJ7_Era) December 18, 2013
Jones declined an interview request, but when asked through text message if Alabama was still under consideration for him, he responded with: “Most definitely.”
The four-star athlete originally committed to Alabama on Dec. 2.
According to Maxpreps, Jones totaled 13 interceptions in his high school career.
The Crimson Tide, which has the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, still has 23 verbal commitments including 16 ranked in the ESPN 300. Before his pledge to Alabama, LSU was considered to be his other favorite school.
With LSU squarely in the mix for Jones, the Tigers could be set up to make a very big run. In addition to Jones, LSU is still heavily involved with Leonard Fournette (New Orleans/Saint Augustine), the No. 1 player in the country, Speedy Noil (New Orleans/Edna Karr), Tony Brown (Beaumont, Texas/Ozen), Jamal Adams (Lewisville, Texas/Hebron) and Gerald Willis III (New Orleans/Edna Karr), all of whom are in the top 50 of the ESPN 300.
There is no time frame on when Jones would like to make his final decision.
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How does Jones fit with Nick Saban's squad, and what does it mean to its recruiting class? Let's break it down.
What he brings: Range, instincts and physicality that will allow for him to play off and in coverage, as well as close to the line of scrimmage in a hybrid safety/OLB role. He possesses college-ready size and would be expected to contribute as a freshman, especially on early run-down situations and in the kicking game.
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Which Players Have The Most To Prove In 2015?
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