Alabama Crimson Tide: Reggie Ragland
Three hundred and eighty-two yards versus 1,235.
Thirty-five carries versus 207.
If it weren’t Derrick Henry, we wouldn’t be making the comparison. His freshman season was promising with 382 rushing yards and four total touchdowns. But if he weren’t Derrick Henry and this wasn’t Alabama, how important would he really be?
It’s not Henry’s fault. He didn’t fuel the hype of his arrival in Tuscaloosa. He never once compared himself to T.J. Yeldon. The fans and the media did that for him.
Thanks to his potential and one breakout game -- not two or three or four to create, you know, a trend -- he went from a project at running back into a contender not only to beat out Yeldon for the starting job, but someone to watch in the Heisman Trophy race. Or so that’s how the story goes. Bovada, a sports gambling website, bought in, giving Henry 28-to-1 odds to hoist the bronze award.
Talk about a runaway hype train. Check your sense of reality at the gate.
Well, consider this your derailment. Or, on a slightly more positive note, consider this an appreciation of all that T.J. Yeldon is as a running back.
Those numbers listed earlier -- 1,235 yards, 14 touchdowns, 207 carries -- they were all Yeldon’s in 2013. In what has become a symptom of the greater Alabama fan, overlooking established starters for the next big thing, Yeldon’s accomplishments were lost in the shuffle. Never mind that he was named first-team All-SEC by the league’s coaches. Never mind that he followed up the best season of a freshman running back in school history by improving his production in every important category. Never mind that he’s only now a junior and could very well make the leap to the NFL after this coming season.
Henry will be around for a while longer. His turn will come. Yeldon’s time is now.
Yeldon’s sophomore campaign was viewed as underwhelming by some ridiculous accounts, even though his 102.9 yards per game trailed only Tre Mason and Jeremy Hill in the SEC. Yeldon was said to be not enough of an explosive tailback, even though his 34 rushes for 10 or more yards ranked 30th nationally, ahead of the likes of Todd Gurley, Devonta Freeman and Duke Johnson.
You think Yeldon didn’t hear all the chatter? He certainly played like he did on Saturday, doing his part to remind fans how only three other running backs in the country will enter the 2014 season with more career rushing yards than his 2,343.
For the second A-Day in his career, Yeldon won the Dixie Howell Award for the game’s most valuable player. In a scrimmage in which he touched the ball just 12 times, he totaled 104 all-purpose yards. He had one touchdown and the longest run of the day -- 36 yards. Meanwhile, Henry accounted for 22 yards rushing on eight carries and -2 yards on one reception. The 73,000-plus fans who came to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday to see Henry cash in on the hype instead saw Yeldon show once again why he’s the starting tailback at Alabama.
“You’ve seen T.J. get the MVP, so you can’t overlook him,” linebacker Reggie Ragland said after the game. “He’s going to do what he needs to do on the field and make plays.”
Yeldon, meanwhile, was his usual understated self. Shy when it comes to speaking with the media, it was his first turn in front of the cameras all spring. And in typical Yeldon fashion, he’d rather let his play do the talking.
When asked whether it was a big deal to win the A-Day MVP, he said, “Not really,” adding that he believed a defensive player would take home the award. When asked about the competition among the running backs, he said it fueled him.
Entering the spring, Yeldon said his mindset was “like trying to take over a game” and despite the incessant talk of his backups, he did just that.
Now, as spring gives way to the offseason, Yeldon’s focus is on getting himself better. He said he wants to get stronger and faster, spending more time in the weight room. One specific area he said he’d like to improve is his acceleration.
A bigger, quicker Yeldon might be the last thing SEC defenses are hoping for. And with Henry coming up the rear, Alabama could have a formidable one-two punch.
But make no mistake who’s first in that scenario.
Henry is surely coming into his own. After simply taking the handoff and running in high school, he’s learning how to do the little things, like pass protection and pass catching.
Just remember that Yeldon already knows how to do all those things and more. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, he could become even more dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield.
Henry will be special in time, but Yeldon is special right now. He might not have the following or the hype of Henry, but he has the thing that matters most of all: production. And until the numbers change, it’s Yeldon first and Henry second.
- Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland explains how this year's defense is different than in years past.
- Tre Mason walked away with top honors at Auburn's AUSPY Awards.
- South Carolina assistant coach Everette Sands has a good problem on his hands. He has the enviable task of distributing carries to four talented tailbacks, including Mike Davis.
- Kentucky was already thin at a number of positions, and injuries at receiver have exacerbated the problem heading into the Wildcats' spring game.
- It's that time of year: transfer season. After watching Maty Mauk establish himself as the clear starter, backup quarterback Trent Hosick decided it was time for him to move on.
- Vernon Hargreaves III was as impressive a true freshman as any in the country last season. As a sophomore, the Florida cornerback wants to step up even more and lead.
- Georgia's Ray Drew "will be a factor" on defense next season. Read about that and more in some notes as the Bulldogs head into the offseason.
One thing did, however, go over incredibly well for Alabama on Saturday. The defensive line answered this spring’s most hard-to-pin-down question with a resounding yes.
The ultimate point of pride for defensive line coach Bo Davis and his players had to be the first touchdown of the game: Defensive end D.J. Pettway snags a screen pass from Blake Sims, finds the open field and races 29 yards to pay dirt. After holding the offenses scoreless for 45 minutes, it was the defense that found a way to score.
But as much fun as it was to watch a big man rumble into the end zone, what really had the faithful at Bryant-Denny Stadium giddy was Alabama’s resurgent pass rush. We’d heard all spring how Davis had infused enthusiasm and energy into the defensive line. How he was full of energy. How he was asking his players to read less, react more and get after the quarterback. And unlike the unfulfilled promise of Alabama’s quarterbacks, its defensive linemen delivered, to the tune of seven sacks and 19 tackles for loss.
(For comparison sake, Alabama totaled two sacks and five tackles for loss at last year’s spring game.)
Even coach Nick Saban, who fought speculation about the quality of the defensive line early on this spring, had to concede that he had a talented group of players to work with. In fact, he had to widen his praise to most of the defensive front seven.
“We have a lot of experienced players,” Saban said after the White beat Crimson, 17-13, in a game where the score is meaningless, though White was led by the first-team defense. “[D.J.] Pettway and [Jarran] Reed add a lot of depth and athleticism to that group. A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen were both freshman last year, and I always say that you make the most improvement between your freshman and sophomore year. Those guys got to play a lot last year; they’ve both had great springs.
“We had three inside linebackers that I thought played really well. Trey DePriest had a really good spring. Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster [did] as well. We also had three guys that played really well at outside linebacker. Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson, and Dillon Lee, those guys all had really good springs. Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson both contributed and improved.”
Pettway and Williams played so well on A-Day that they were named co-winners of the Dwight Stephenson Lineman of the Game award. Allen, who had six tackles and two sacks, also blocked a field goal.
“From the front seven stand point, I feel a lot further along,” Saban said.
Trey DePriest, Alabama’s leader on defense at middle linebacker, said the defensive line showed at A-Day what it was capable of.
“My defensive line is great,” he said. “They put their hands on guys, they strike them, they push them back and let me and Reggie hit the holes and run.”
Ragland, for his part, agreed -- though it came with a caveat. How good is the defensive line? “You’ll see coming up," he said.
“We still have a lot more to prove. We didn’t get to do half the stunts we wanted to.”
What’s new: The coaching staff has gone under some serious reconstruction. In fact, it looks a lot like Nick Saban’s staffs of old with Kevin Steele as the linebackers coach and Bo Davis as the defensive line coach. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart moved back to coaching the secondary to allow for Steele’s return. And let’s not forget the one new face on the staff, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. You might have heard of him.
On the move: When Saban last spoke to the media a week ago, he said there was “no news on who’s playing what position and who the quarterback is.” But there will be movement. Look for some tweaking in the defensive backfield this spring. Much like last year,when Saban asked offensive players Dee Hart, Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones to try their hand at cornerback, he might ask someone like ArDarius Stewart to see if a return to defense is in order. Considering the lack of depth at cornerback and the departure of safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri, the coaching staff might need to plug some holes in the secondary with some surprise players.
New faces: Aside from the handful of early enrollees fresh out of high school, there are four junior college transfers to watch, including the return of former Alabama defensive end D.J. Pettway. There’s also tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith, who was at Georgia once upon a time and could add to the passing game behind O.J. Howard; defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who could help plug the middle at 315 pounds; and offensive tackle Dominick Jackson, who was ranked as the No. 1 player at his position and could challenge to replace Cyrus Kouandjio.
Question marks: We’ve detailed the problems in the secondary and hinted at the battle at left tackle, leaving a major unanswered question as to who replaces C.J. Mosley on defense. The former All-American linebacker was the heart and soul of the unit. We know Trey DePriest wants to take on the role, but is he ready? And who will play alongside him at inside linebacker? Reuben Foster was an immensely talented linebacker coming out of high school -- with a dramatic recruitment, no less -- but he played mostly on special teams as a freshman. He’ll have a lot of competition for playing time, with Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland hoping to emerge.
Key battle: Unfortunately, this one won’t be solved until the fall. But that makes the battle no less important. Alabama needs to find a starting quarterback to replace AJ McCarron, and until that’s resolved, it’s priority No. 1. Jacob Coker, the Florida State transfer, won’t arrive on campus until May. So that leaves a bevy of unproven options under center. Blake Sims will get his shot after backing up McCarron last year, but it remains to be seen how the run-first athlete will do as a pocket passer. Beyond Sims, there’s rising sophomore Alec Morris and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod. If one stands out this spring, he’ll surely have the upper hand come fall and could challenge the presumed frontrunner, Coker.
Breaking out: It was a process started at the Sugar Bowl that many Alabama fans hope will continue right on into his sophomore season. Derrick Henry didn’t do much during the regular season, carrying the ball a total of 28 times. But all you’ll remember is the bowl game and his eight carries and one reception against Oklahoma, accounting for 161 yards and two touchdowns. He’s big (try 6-3 and 238 pounds) and he’s deceptively fast. With dreadlocks that stick out from under his helmet, picture a stretched out Trent Richardson. After losing a large chunk of practice last spring to a broken leg, he’ll have the benefit of a full offseason to climb the depth chart and nip at the heels of incumbent starter T.J. Yeldon.
Don’t forget about: Don’t sleep on Yeldon. He’s pretty darn good, with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons to start his career. But don’t forget Alabama’s depth at wide receiver. Whoever starts at quarterback will have plenty of receivers to throw to. Amari Cooper, who is among the best in the SEC when healthy, is just the tip of the iceberg. DeAndrew White and Christion Jones are two veteran pieces, and tight end O.J. Howard has the potential to be one of the disruptive offensive weapons in the league if he reaches his potential. Given the way Alabama has recruited of late, look for one or two blue-chip prospects to emerge. Chris Black has been waiting patiently, and Robert Foster seems poised to step up with a year of experience under his belt.
All eyes on: There’s going to be a quarterback competition, position battles and several new players will emerge. But keep an eye on Alabama’s attitude. Saban’s dynasty in Tuscaloosa was shaken but not entirely derailed last season. Losing the final two games, to Auburn and Oklahoma, in such unspectacular fashion hurts. The question is how Alabama will respond. It worked out well after the 2010 season, but this isn’t the same team. There are quite a few leaders in need of replacing, and there might be something to McCarron’s criticism that a five-star sense of entitlement crept into the program. Righting the ship won’t be easy for Saban and his staff, but he will have the luxury of putting a gigantic chip on his players’ shoulders this offseason. How they respond is up to them.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If you’ve watched Alabama football these past few years, then you know what Trey DePriest looks like in uniform. The No. 33 emblazoned on his chest, he’s a thickly built linebacker with a low center of gravity. He’s a complete player; good in tight quarters against the run and solid in space against the pass. He doesn’t shy away from contact, but he hasn’t always been at the center of it either since signing with Alabama in 2011. Instead, that honor belongs to All-American C.J. Mosley, who racked up 100 or more tackles in each of the past two seasons.
But with Mosley off to a career in the NFL, expect to see a new Trey DePriest on the field this spring. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound senior doesn’t figure to change much physically; he doesn’t need to. Between the ears, however, he should make significant strides. A vacuum in leadership has moved him to the forefront of Nick Saban’s defense, demanding that he be both productive and vocal in 2014. Looking good in uniform and showing flashes of promise won’t cut it anymore. DePriest must transform himself these next few weeks and months if Alabama’s defense is to live up to the lofty standards of seasons past.
Still, he has been consistently productive in somewhat of a lesser role. He stood out early as a playmaker on special teams with 25 tackles in 13 games as a freshman. In each of the past two seasons he’s ranked in the top three on the team in tackles: 59 as a sophomore and 65 as a junior. Mosley, by means of comparison, went from 37 tackles as a sophomore to 107 tackles as a junior. Both could have entered the NFL draft as underclassmen, but both decided to stay for their senior seasons. For Mosley, it paid off to the tune of another 100-tackle season and an even more inflated draft stock. The hope for DePriest is he does the same.
"He knows the defense just like I do," Mosley told reporters prior the Allstate Sugar Bowl. "If he comes back like I did, he'll evolve into that every-down linebacker role so people will be able to see his true talents. They'll see he can control the defense and be the only linebacker on the field and make all the calls."
When it comes to the matter of leadership, Mosley sees that capability in DePriest, too.
"If he stays, it will be him," Mosley said when asked who the leaders will be when he leaves. "He doesn't get a lot of credit, but he's a pretty good linebacker."
Said DePriest: “I’m definitely going to be ready to take on that job. Like I said earlier, I’m going to have to. Him and the other guys leaving like that, it’s going to be something that I have to do.”
The linebacker corps will be young next season. Sam linebacker Adrian Hubbard is off to the NFL and Jack linebacker Xzavier Dickson was suspended for the Sugar Bowl, though Saban said he’ll be back for spring practice. None of the three contenders to replace Mosley at inside linebacker -- Reuben Foster, Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland -- has ever started a game and together they combined for all of 45 tackles last season.
DePriest, more than ever, will be leaned on by the coaching staff. He has had the luxury of working with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart one-on-one in the past as his position coach, but now that responsibility falls to Kevin Steele, who was a defensive coordinator at Clemson (2009-12) before returning to Tuscaloosa last year as director of player personnel.
Maybe a new challenge and a new coach will be just what the doctor ordered for DePriest as he takes on the biggest test of his career at Alabama. As spring practice kicks off on campus this week, look for the senior to look the same but play like a new man.
Spring start: March 15
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
- Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
- What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
- Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.
Spring start: March 16
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
- A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
- Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
- Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
- Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
- Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.
Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 5
What to watch:
- Jennings next at QB?: Anthony Jennings engineered a memorable, game-winning drive in the regular-season finale against Arkansas, leading the Tigers 99 yards downfield, capped by a 49-yard touchdown pass. His performance in the Outback Bowl was far from impressive, though, as he went 7-for-19 passing for 82 yards and an interception in the Tigers’ win over Iowa. Still, he is considered the favorite to replace Zach Mettenberger. Competing with Jennings is Penn State transfer Rob Bolden and freshmen Hayden Rettig and Brandon Harris.
- Starting over at WR: LSU loses two 1,000-yard receivers in Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, plus a senior (Kadron Boone). That’s a lot of production to replace. Travin Dural, who made the game-winning catch against Arkansas, is back, as is Quantavius Leslie and Armand Williams. The Tigers have a host of redshirt freshmen joining the mix (John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears) and bring in several freshmen (Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark) to compete for playing time. But replacing 72 percent of the 2013 receiving yardage will be challenging.
- Finding safeties: Craig Loston has moved on, and the Tigers don’t have a returning starter at safety. But they do have Jalen Mills, who slid from his cornerback spot to safety to start in the Outback Bowl. Corey Thompson, Ronald Martin and Rickey Jefferson all return, and ESPN 300 recruit Edward Paris Jr. is already on campus and will participate in spring practice.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
- Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
- Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 5
What to watch:
- Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
- Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
- A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.
Spring start: Feb. 28
Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)
What to watch:
- Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
- Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
- New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.
T.J. Yeldon burst onto the scene in the season opener against Michigan, becoming the first player in school history to rush for 100 yards in his debut. Amari Cooper had his first career reception in the same game, but waited until Week 6 to get his first start at wide receiver. And what did he do? The former four-star prospect set nearly every rookie receiving record at Alabama, passing former Freshman of the Year Julio Jones on his way to 59 catches for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Deion Belue, Denzel Devall and Geno Smith all found their way onto the field as freshman, too. Belue, a junior college transfer, started opposite Dee Milliner at cornerback, and Devall and Smith played in reserve roles at linebacker and cornerback, respectively, on Kirby Smart's defense.
"First of all, opportunity is important, to have an opportunity to do that," Smart, Alabama's 37-year-old defensive coordinator, said during Alabama's media day a week ago. "[It takes a] very conscientious kid to understand, 'Hey, I got to know this defense inside and out, I got to know all the checks, I got to know all the motions and checks, I got to know all the adjustments.' You've got to be very conscientious to do that, but you've got to have some ability.
"It's very easy for us to find those guys out there. When we recruit good players, they usually stick out as freshmen. We find ways to get them on the field and always have in some kind of role."
Junior linebacker Trey DePriest told reporters that he's been impressed with the way true sophomore Reggie Ragland has improved in his second year.
"Reggie is doing really well," he said. "He's picking up the defense a lot more. He's able to run around and make plays because he knows a little more about the defense."
Ragland is one of several players from Alabama's No. 1-ranked 2012 signing class looking to step up. The former No. 2 inside linebacker prospect spent last season learning behind Nico Johnson. And now that Johnson is in camp with the Kansas City Chiefs, Ragland and fellow linebackers Dillon Lee and Ryan Anderson are poised to move up the depth chart.
While it's unlikely any of the three sophomores will break into the starting lineup, each will have their opportunity to contribute this season. Ragland, at a hefty 259 pounds, is a big body who could come off the bench and stop the run at inside linebacker. Lee, who brings more athleticism to the table, could play either inside or out. And Anderson, a former four-star defensive end prospect, is a tweener who could help boost the Tide's pass rush.
Up front, defensive linemen Dakota Ball and Dalvin Tomlinson could do the same. Both redshirted last season -- Ball rode the bench because of a lack of opportunity while Tomlinson was sidelined while he recovered from a torn ACL. But now that Alabama is looking for more "quick-twitch" linemen to rush the passer, both are ideal candidates to fill that void. Tomlinson, in particular, has drawn high praise from coaches and teammates. Saban indicated last season that the former state wrestling champ would have played as a rookie, if not for his injury.
Getting to the quarterback will be key this season as Saban and Smart bring along an overhauled secondary that could feature two sophomores. Smith, who started his first game against Western Kentucky in Week 10, and Landon Collins, who played primarily on special teams a year ago, could get expanded roles. Smith is positioned to be the nickel corner while Collins, the former No. 1 safety prospect in the country, will battle it out with veterans Vinnie Sunseri and Nick Perry for reps opposite Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at safety.
"Landon is doing excellent," Clinton-Dix said toward the beginning of fall camp, telling reporters that the competition at safety has been cutthroat. "He's a great safety. He's fast, dominant and he's doing a great job right now."
On offense, Kenyan Drake, Chris Black and Alec Morris all have the chance to do more this year. Drake is the frontrunner to back up Yeldon at tailback, Black is competing for reps in a crowded receiving corps and Morris is neck and neck with Blake Sims to become the second-string quarterback.
Though Morris might never see the field in a meaningful way this season, he's nonetheless a vital part of Alabama's title hopes. If AJ McCarron were to go down, it's unclear who would start: Would it be the read-option choice (Sims) or the prototypical drop-back passer (Morris)?
"Very different style of players, obviously," Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. "As you watch the film from when Blake played for us last season, we become a little different in how we approach the game. His ability to run the football and create plays with his feet is different than a good majority of the quarterbacks on our roster. Alec is more of your prototypical drop-back guy. He’s a big, physical guy with a very strong arm. Both those guys need to continue to develop read progression, understanding of the game. But they’re doing a really good job, work extremely hard."
No. 25 Dillon Lee
Expectations for 2013: Lee got off to such a hot start as a rookie in 2012, snatching an interception against Michigan during the season-opening game in Arlington, Texas. But somewhere along the way, the wheels fell off and the former four-star prospect from Buford High in Georgia was relegated to special teams work.
No. 18 Reggie Ragland
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Alabama signed a total 26 prospects in 2012, and not everyone made an impact right away. Some didn't make it at all, as Eddie Williams, Tyler Hayes and Travell Dixon flamed out. Still, UA saw plenty of return on its investment, as two signees made the SEC All-Freshman team. Here's how we see the rest of the class shaping up.
Top of the class
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Fast-forward to the final week of camp and the unit has changed dramatically: C.J. Mosley is stuck in a black no-contact jersey, Trey DePriest is out with a fractured foot and Xzavier Dickson is a question mark after missing Saturday's scrimmage with an injury resembling a bruised knee, according to Bama coach Nick Saban.
None of the injuries threaten to linger on into the fall, supposedly, but it does dramatically change what fans will see come A-Day on Saturday afternoon. Instead of seeing the usual inside linebackers, the annual scrimmage in Bryant-Denny Stadium will spotlight some names people haven't become accustomed to hearing, names such as Tana Patrick, Reggie Ragland, Ryan Anderson and Dillion Lee. The four combined for 25 tackles and zero starts last season.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- A few days ago, TideNation turned its attention to rising senior C.J. Mosley, who is poised to become an every-down linebacker this season after earning All-American honors in 2012. His role is expanding because of the departure of former Alabama inside linebacker Nico Johnson, who is preparing for the NFL draft.
Take for instance this past season's game against the very physical LSU Tigers: Johnson played a season-high 50 snaps and registered a season-high 12 tackles that night, while Mosley played considerably fewer snaps and came away with a then season-low four tackles.
Now that the bigger, bulkier option in Johnson is gone, there's a window of opportunity for another linebacker to fill his shoes. The player best equipped to do so might be rising sophomore Reggie Ragland. At 6-foot-2 and 247 pounds, he's perfectly constructed to stand up to power running games.
Ragland played in 11 games and registered eight tackles during his freshman campaign. The former four-star prospect was listed as the backup to co-No. 1 Mike linebackers Trey DePriest and Nico Johnson. Ragland was one of four true freshmen on the two-deep depth chart, joining cornerback Geno Smith, safety Landon Collins and linebacker Denzel Devall.
Head coach Nick Saban said during the season that he had "high hopes" for Ragland and awarded him special teams players of the week honors along with Collins for their work against Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
And like Collins, Ragland is poised for a bigger role in 2013. Johnson is gone, and one of Ragland's biggest competitors for playing time, Tyler Hayes, is no longer with the team. With a need for heftier inside linebackers off the bench, Ragland could be the perfect fit. He has Mosley in his corner, even if that means taking snaps away from the veteran linebacker.
"I hope the best for him," Mosley said. "Everyone has their chance, and freshmen step in and do great things. If he steps up and becomes a role player, I hope he does."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At Alabama and under coach Nick Saban, you don't just walk onto the defense and start right away. Learning the ins and outs of his complicated 4-3 scheme takes time and patience.
Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw went through their growing pains, so did Mark Barron and Dee Milliner. Stars on defense don't emerge overnight.
As the world turns its attention toward the start of spring practice and the birth of another college football season, here are five players on defense who weren't superstars last season but could prove to become significant contributors in 2013.
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Players Provide Playoff Picks
11:00 AM ET Nevada Louisiana-Lafayette 2:20 PM ET Utah State UTEP 3:30 PM ET 22 Utah Colorado State 5:45 PM ET Western Michigan Air Force 9:15 PM ET South Alabama Bowling Green
6:00 PM ET Marshall Northern Illinois 9:30 PM ET Navy San Diego State
12:00 PM ET Central Michigan Western Kentucky 8:00 PM ET Fresno State Rice
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State