Alabama Crimson Tide: T.J. Yeldon

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- “Man, your boy looked good in the Sugar Bowl,” they tell Bobby Ramsay.

Ramsay has heard that phrase, he said, about 150 times since January. He’s heard it from fans around town in Yulee, Fla. He’s heard it from fellow high school coaches at clinics. He’s heard it from college coaches who have stopped through scouting talent.

If Ramsay turned on the radio, flipped on the TV or simply walked the streets here in Tuscaloosa, he’d hear about his former running back even more. In fact, he might be overwhelmed by the number of people saying how good Derrick Henry looked for Alabama in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma: 161 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. When Henry broke his 43-yard touchdown run the fourth quarter, Ramsay said he received something like 18 text messages in under 30 seconds.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Henry's breakout performance in the Sugar Bowl changed everything for the Alabama running back, but Henry is just focused on getting better.
It’s easy to see why people got excited. The run had the look of a seminal moment for the former five-star athlete who set the national career rushing yards record at Yulee High. The 6-foot-3, 243-pound talent finally showed on a national stage why he was so highly sought after. After carrying the ball minimally throughout the regular season, he blew people away in the bowl game.

All told, Henry ran for 382 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman. And now? Despite being the backup to T.J. Yeldon, he's listed on the sports betting website Bovada as 28-to-1 to win the Heisman Trophy, ahead of Dak Prescott, Duke Johnson and Myles Jack.

Too big? Please

It’s almost laughable to think about it now, but for a long time people questioned whether Henry was cut out to be a running back. He was too big, they thought, too bulky to fit through running lanes. He was too tall to have the proper pad level.

And then there was the Sugar Bowl.

Somewhere in Yulee, Ramsay smiled. What he’d seen in high school and what he saw in bits and pieces throughout the season was showing up on a much larger, unavoidable scale: Henry was meant to play running back.

“I told some people, ‘Man, that looked just like high school. Those DBs didn’t want to tackle him any more than the DBs who played here,’” Ramsay said. “The first touchdown he scored, I was joking, ‘That kid from Oklahoma, he’s running with Derrick so he won’t get yelled at when he goes back to the bench.’ He wasn’t going to try and get him on the ground.”

No one wants to tackle Henry, not even his teammates.

Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland, no slouch at 6-2 and 259 pounds, described his meetings with Henry during practice as both “mean” and “peaceful” because they can’t take one another to the ground.

“He's a big guy,” he said of Henry. “A lot of people are scared to tackle him.”

Said Henry: “During the Oklahoma game, I could tell that they didn't want to tackle me. I just kept the mindset of being physical and keep running hard so everything will open up.”

Growing pains

Henry says one of his goals is to be a starter, but for now he’s “focused on getting better and becoming a complete player.”

Dobbs Not getting that much playing time really taught me a lot. It humbled me. Everything isn't just going to come to you. You have to work for it.

-- Alabama RB Derrick Henry
A year ago that might not have been the case.

Like most blue-chip recruits, Henry first had to deal with reality. Though his talent was undeniable, there were things he hadn’t yet mastered. At Yulee High, he didn’t have to block, pass protect or catch passes out of the backfield. Ramsay only needed him to run the ball. But at Alabama, he wouldn’t see the field until he could do it all.

“Not getting that much playing time really taught me a lot,” Henry said. There wasn’t a game during the regular season where he carried the ball more than six times. “It humbled me. Everything isn't just going to come to you. You have to work for it. You have to take time. This is college football so it's more technique. You have to put more effort into by watching film and really paying attention to the little things”

Saban said the light came on for Henry in the lead up to the Sugar Bowl. Like a lot of freshman, the chance for extra practice time paid off.

Now he’s taking that momentum and running with it.

"Derrick Henry has had a fabulous spring," Saban said on Wednesday. "He picked up right where he left off at bowl practice last year. He works really hard. He runs really hard. He plays with a lot of toughness. He gets it."

Everything has changed, nothing has changed

In a way, Henry is built to be the center of attention. At Yulee High, he was the biggest thing going. As early as the ninth grade, Ramsay said, “They could play football for 500 years in our county and there’s going to be no one better than him.”

“I think it’s helping him now,” Ramsay said. “They protected him from that as a freshman. Now he’s going to have a little more on his plate. … It’s crazy because he hasn’t played a ton but I’ve got people from Alabama, and these are people who have been around the program for years, who have said they haven’t ever seen a guy with this much popularity.

“In a town where every other street is named after Paul Bryant, for someone to say that is big.”

Has Henry changed? Not according to Ramsay: “Nothing. Same guy. Nothing different.”

“Offseason has been good,” Henry said in the most understated way possible. “Coming back from the Sugar Bowl and getting back to lifting weights and doing 4th Quarter [Program], it's been going well. Just trying to get better.”

That simple, singular focus will suit him well. As spring practice wraps up and the march toward the regular season intensifies, so will the scrutiny.

What will aid him most will be his work ethic, the same determination that helped him get through the lows of last season and reach the high of the Sugar Bowl.

“Right now he’s in a very comfortable place,” Ramsay said. “Initially all freshmen go through the process of being in a new place and having a new way of doing things. One thing with Derrick is he’s never let it affect his effort level. ... Every time I talked to [running backs coach Burton Burns] about it, he’d say, ‘Oh man, We want all the guys to be like Derrick. He’s pulling G.A.’s aside to work on things extra after practice, he’s getting extra film work.’”

A moment later, Ramsay put an exclamation point on the subject.

“He’s not expecting to have rose pedals thrown at his feet,” he said of Henry.

Ramsay’s boy looked awfully good in one game, but both he and Henry understand that last season was only the first step. What comes next is a whole different set of challenges.

Opening spring camp: Alabama

March, 14, 2014
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Schedule: The Crimson Tide will open spring practice on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. All practices are closed and only the A-Day scrimmage at 2 p.m. ET on April 19 will be open to the public.

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.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Pettway
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsD.J. Pettway is back and will attempt to earn a shot at playing time at Alabama.
On the mend: One of those defensive backs coming back is Nick Perry. The safety started four games in 2012 and appeared in two more games in 2013 before suffering a season-ending injury. Though he might not be the most talented option at the position, he’s clearly the most experienced, with 30 games under his belt. And that counts for something with Saban, who needs to trust whoever starts opposite Landon Collins.

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. -- With the start of spring practice only a few weeks away, we’re spending this week discussing five players to keep an eye on when Alabama opens camp on March 15.

Because they’re unpredictable, we’ll avoid first-year players like Cam Robinson. If you want an idea of who could make an instant impact in 2014, we wrote about that shortly after signing day.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDerrick Henry showed what he could do in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries.
So instead, let’s start by taking a look at an athlete who made a splash late last season as a true freshman, creating big expectations for his sophomore campaign.

RB Derrick Henry
Sophomore
6-foot-3, 238 pounds

Credentials: Was he a running back or a linebacker? At 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds -- all muscle, we should add -- it was hard to tell. We hadn’t seen him run the football yet, so for a while he looked like a project. Did he have the necessary speed and elusiveness to get through the holes up front and hit the second level of the defense? And then came the Sugar Bowl. Yes, it took Henry some time to work his way up the food chain at running back, but when he did, he was special. He got around the Oklahoma defense just fine in New Orleans, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries in addition to taking a short pass 43 yards for another score. All told, the former five-star athlete ran for 382 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries as a freshman.

How he fits: And herein lies the rub. Henry, with what he showed against the Sooners, might be more explosive than Alabama’s incumbent starting running back T.J. Yeldon. Given Yeldon’s fumbling woes, many fans are clamoring for Henry to replace him as the lead back. But Alabama has been through this before. Both the Mark Ingram-Trent Richardson and Richardson-Eddie Lacy tandems were balancing acts, and this coming season should be no different. Except that there’s a third back, Kenyan Drake, also begging for carries. Talk about explosion and speed, and you’re talking about Drake, who can take the ball to paydirt any time it touches his hands. One thing is certain: Running backs coach Burton Burns will have a tough time sorting out the depth chart when the season rolls around.

Best case/worst case: We’ve made the mistake of assuming the depth chart order at running back before and have been burned. There’s a case to be made that Henry should start, which would be an intriguing outcome to say the least. But there’s another case, one based on seniority and experience, that could land him third or fourth on the depth chart. You know about Yeldon and Drake, but there’s also the veteran Jalston Fowler and the blue-chip newcomer Bo Scarbrough to consider. Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny are on campus too, remember? The good news for the bevy of Alabama tailbacks is that new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin shouldn’t be constrained by position titles. The former USC head coach is seen as something of an innovator on offense and could move players like Henry, Fowler and Scarbrough around to places like H-back and slot receiver to get them touches.

Dee Hart faces possession charge

February, 18, 2014
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Former Alabama running back Dee Hart was arrested Sunday for possession of marijuana and giving false information, according to reports.

Hart, who was a top recruit for Alabama in 2011, was supposed to head into the fall for his junior season on the field, but the school announced that he is no longer part of the football team. He hasn't been with the team since Alabama's 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Here's the statement from Alabama on Hart's status:
"Dee Hart has not been a part of the football team since the bowl game and has not participated in any of the offseason program. Hopefully he will learn from this mistake and continue to work toward completing his degree, which he is on track to do by the summer."

[+] EnlargeDee Hart
AP Photo/ Butch DillDee Hart never really got his career off the ground at Alabama.
It's unknown if Hart could return to the team beforehand, but this recent arrest certainly won't help him. Hart might have been a top recruit for the Crimson Tide a few years ago, but he was never able to really make much movement on the Tide's depth chart. Hart suffered season-ending ACL injuries in 2011 and 2012 and tried out at cornerback last year before moving back to running back.

Hart rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in 2013 and had 166 yards and a touchdown on 43 career carries with Alabama.

With the return of back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher T.J. Yeldon and backups Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry, it might have been tough for Hart to rise through the ranks at running back. Not to mention, rising sophomore Altee Tenpenny, a former ESPN 300 recruit, saw action last season and Tyren Jones, also an ESPN 300 prospect in 2012, redshirted last year. The arrival of highly touted five-star athlete Bo Scarbrough won't help either, with Scarbrough expected to start his Alabama career at running back.

Heading into the spring, it appears the top spot at running back is going to come down to Yeldon or Henry, who had a breakout performance in the Sugar Bowl. Hart might have a tremendous amount of athleticism and his work ethic was once thoroughly praised by coach Nick Saban, but the chances of him jumping those two was minimal. The chances of him pushing the others out of the way at this point in his career was going to be a mountain to climb as well.

Alabama will be fine without Hart, but here's hoping Hart lands on his feet soon.
On the eve of national signing day, it's always fun to go back and examine where the top players in the SEC from this past season were ranked coming out of high school.

Of the 23 position players who made the 2013 ESPN.com All-SEC team, seven were three-star prospects, according to the ESPN Recruiting Nation rankings. The only five-star prospects were Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Beth Hall/USA TODAY SportsJadeveon Clowney was one of only two five-star recruits on the 2013 ESPN.com All-SEC team.
Even more telling, only eight of the 23 players were ranked among the top 10 players at their respective positions.

Of note, Vanderbilt's record-setting Jordan Matthews was ranked as the No. 153 receiver, Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson was the No. 125 offensive tackle, Arkansas' Travis Swanson was the No. 91 offensive guard, Missouri's Michael Sam was the No. 75 defensive end and LSU's Lamin Barrow was the No. 82 outside linebacker.

Here's a closer look:

OFFENSE

  • QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: Three stars, No. 39 QB, Class of 2011. Grade: 78.
  • RB Tre Mason, Auburn: Four stars, No. 21 RB, Class of 2011. Grade: 79.
  • RB T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: Four stars, No. 55 overall prospect, No. 4 RB, Class of 2012. Grade: 81.
  • WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M: Three stars, No. 52 WR, Class of 2011. Grade: 79.
  • WR Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt: Three stars, No. 153 WR, Class of 2010. Grade: 74.
  • AP Odell Beckham Jr., LSU: Three stars, No. 62 athlete, Class of 2011. Grade: 78.
  • TE Arthur Lynch, Georgia: No. 7 TE, Class of 2009. Grade: 79.
  • OL Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State: No. 125 OT, Class of 2009. Grade: 74.
  • OL Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama: Five stars, No. 3 overall prospect, No. 1 OT, Class of 2011. Grade: 87.
  • OL Jake Matthews, Texas A&M: Four stars, No. 90 overall prospect. No. 7 OT, Class of 2010. Grade: 81.
  • OL Greg Robinson, Auburn: Four stars, No. 10 OG, Class of 2011. Grade: 80.
  • C Travis Swanson, Arkansas: No. 91 OG, Class of 2009. Grade: 76.
DEFENSE

  • DL Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina: Five stars, No. 1 overall prospect, No. 1 DE, Class of 2011. Grade: 95.
  • DL Dee Ford, Auburn: No. 35 DE, Class of 2009. Grade: 79.
  • DL Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina: Four stars, No. 124 overall prospect, No. 11 DT, Class of 2010. Grade: 81.
  • DL Michael Sam, Missouri: No. 75 DE, Class of 2009. Grade: 76.
  • LB Ramik Wilson, Georgia: Four stars, No. 11 ILB, Class of 2011. Grade: 79.
  • LB C.J. Mosley, Alabama: Four stars, No. 99 overall prospect, No. 7 OLB, Class of 2010. Grade: 81.
  • LB Lamin Barrow, LSU: No. 82 OLB, Class of 2009. Grade: 76.
  • DB Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama: Four stars, No. 19 overall prospect, No. 2 S, Class of 2011. Grade: 84.
  • DB E.J. Gaines, Missouri: Three stars, No. 57 CB, Class of 2010. Grade: 76.
  • DB: Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt: Three stars, No. 43 S, Class of 2010. Grade: 78.
  • DB: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: Three stars, No. 78 athlete, Class of 2011. Grade: 77.
We at the SEC Blog have spent the last two weeks ranking the top 25 players in the conference, beginning with Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines and wrapping up with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

There were a few Alabama players among the countdown -- four to be exact -- but that wasn’t enough. Here’s a look at the top 10 performers on the Crimson Tide this past season.

[+] Enlarge T.J. Yeldon
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY T.J. Yeldon was the top tailback on an Alabama roster full of talented backs.
1. C.J. Mosley, LB: He was arguably the most talented player on the team, the complete package. He was fast, strong and as sure a tackler as they come. In fact, he was the first player in the Nick Saban era at Alabama to register 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. And on top of that, he became a leader, transforming from a soft-spoken linebacker to the vocal center of the defense.

2. AJ McCarron, QB: What more can you say about McCarron’s career in crimson? Sure, he didn’t look so hot at the Sugar Bowl, but don’t let that cloud his accomplishments. He became the first Alabama quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards, and in the process he set more school records for career passing yards, career completion percentage and career wins. Even with a poor close to his senior season (see: Auburn, Oklahoma and even Mississippi State), McCarron finished 11th nationally in Adjusted QBR.

3. T.J. Yeldon, RB: Like McCarron, don’t judge Yeldon on one bad game. His fumble against Oklahoma sure stands out, but don’t forget his accomplishments throughout the course of the regular season. There’s not much more you could have asked him to do. His 1,279 yards and 14 touchdowns on 207 carries were both improvements over his stellar freshman campaign. Yes, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry appeared to be the more explosive tailbacks on the roster, but Yeldon was no slouch as his 34 rushes of 10 yards or longer ranked 30th nationally.

4. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S: The secondary was not a shining light of achievement for Alabama this past season. The cornerback situation was murky at best, and when Vinnie Sunseri was injured at safety, some air went out of the balloon. But Clinton-Dix, despite missing two games himself, had no such letdown. He was one of the most talented defensive backs in the country with the kind of football instincts to match his exceptional athleticism.

5. Kevin Norwood, WR: Norwood wasn’t there all the time, but he was there every time he was needed. The self-described “possession receiver” didn’t wow anyone with his athleticism or home-run ability, racking up just 38 receptions for 568 yards in 2013, but he made the most of every catch. If it was a critical moment in a critical game (see: Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi State or Auburn), Norwood came through.

6. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT: The junior left tackle endured his fair share of ups and downs this past season, but regardless of the low points (again, the Sugar Bowl) he was one of the most talented offensive linemen in the country. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound former five-star recruit was the anchor of the Alabama offensive line in 2013, protecting McCarron’s blind side to the tune of only 17 sacks, down from 23 the season before.

7. Christion Jones, WR/PR/KR: When Jones went back to field a punt, you didn’t know what was going to happen; you just knew it would be interesting. Though he did make some questionable decisions with the ball at times, he also hit a few shots, most notably against Virginia Tech, when he returned both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. All told, he returned three kicks for touchdowns and was named SEC Player of the Year on special teams, in addition to finishing third on the team with 27 receptions for 368 yards and four touchdowns.

8. Landon Collins, S: He came on late when Clinton-Dix missed time, filling in at free safety. Then Sunseri went down and he started at strong safety. In both spots, Collins flourished. The talented sophomore finished second on the team in tackless (70), first in passes defended (8) and tied for first in interceptions (2).

9. Anthony Steen, RG: No player was more consistent on the offensive line than Steen, who wound up starting in his final three seasons on campus. He was a candidate for the Outland Trophy. He blocked for a 100-yard rusher more than 25 times in his Alabama career.

10. A’Shawn Robinson, DL: Rarely do freshmen start on the defensive line, but Robinson is a rarity. He doesn’t even look like a freshman. If his 6-4, 320-pound frame doesn’t make you question his age, his jet black beard might lead you to believe he’s closer to 30 years old. But Robinson was more than big and scary; he was productive. He wound up leading the Tide with 5.5 sacks and finished second with eight tackles for loss.

The next five: wide receiver Amari Cooper, punter Cody Mandell, linebacker Adrian Hubbard, tight end O.J. Howard and cornerback Deion Belue.
Nine of the SEC's top 13 rushers from this season will return in 2014.

Who's the odds-on favorite to lead the league in rushing next season? That's your job.

SportsNation

Who will lead the SEC in rushing in 2014?

  •  
    18%
  •  
    19%
  •  
    38%
  •  
    11%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 10,953)

So go to our SportsNation poll and vote, and we'll break down the results later this week.

The top two rushers in the SEC this season -- Auburn's Tre Mason and LSU's Jeremy Hill -- opted to turn pro and won't be back.

But five more 1,000-yard rushers from this season will return, not to mention Georgia's Todd Gurley. Hurt for part of this season, Gurley still flirted with 1,000 yards in just 10 games.

It could be that the SEC's rushing leader next season isn't exactly a household name at this point. Not many people would have picked Mason at the start of this season to lead the league in rushing even though he rushed for 1,000 yards the year before. And two years ago, nobody saw Johnny Manziel bursting onto the scene as a redshirt freshman and leading the league in rushing.

Of the returnees, Alabama's T.J. Yeldon had the most rushing yards this season (1,235), and Yeldon also led the league in rushing in SEC games. Of course, next season, Yeldon will almost certainly share the backfield duties with Derrick Henry, who was lights out for the Crimson Tide in the bowl game.
The next player on our list of the SEC's 25 best from was a bit under-appreciated for his work in 2013. He wasn't the flashiest of athletes, but he was certainly consistent.

No. 18: T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama, Soph.

[+] EnlargeAlabama's T.J. Yeldon vs. LSU
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertT.J. Yeldon doesn't always get the hype, but he always seems to get his yards, finishing with over 1,000 yards rushing for the second straight season.
2013 summary: The league's coaches thought enough of Yeldon to vote him First-Team All-SEC along with Auburn running back Tre Mason. Yeldon followed up a stellar freshman campaign by posting even more impressive numbers as a sophomore: 1,279 yards and 14 touchdowns on 207 carries. He averaged more than 100 yards per game and had the ninth-fewest rushes for zero or negative yards in the country (minimum 200 carries).

Most recent ranking: Ranked No. 11 in the 2013 preseason countdown

Making the case for Yeldon: No, he wasn't the most eye-popping running back in the SEC this season. He didn't blow anyone away with his speed or his moves, and he didn't have that signature jaw-dropping moment to go straight to YouTube. But Yeldon was still one of the most productive running backs in the country, let alone the SEC.

True freshman Derrick Henry did his best to upstage Yeldon in the Sugar Bowl, but he can't take away a season's worth of numbers.

Yeldon was a beast between the tackles for Alabama, putting together the second straight 1,000-yard season of his career. And while consistency's been his hallmark, that's not all he was good for in 2013. His 34 rushes of 10 or more yards ranked 30th nationally and his percentage of touchdowns per rush ratio (6.8) was good enough to rank in the top 10 among those with 200 or more rushing attempts.

Sure, the talk of Yeldon being the second most talented running back at Alabama will intensify now that Henry has emerged. But, really, that's not a bad place to be as the same thing was said about Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, and we all saw how well their careers turned out.

The rundown:

No. 19: Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU, Jr.
No. 20: Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss, Jr.
No. 21: Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn, Jr.
No. 22: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama, Jr.
No. 23: Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State, Sr.
No. 24: Kenny Ladler, S, Vanderbilt, Sr.
No. 25: E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri, Jr

Season report card: Alabama

January, 23, 2014
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It’s time to start passing out the report cards for the 2013 season, and Alabama is up first.

OFFENSE: B-

[+] EnlargeAlabama Crimson Tide
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesC.J. Mosley and Alabama's defense had some uncharacteristically bad performances in 2013.
For all the grumbling in and around Tuscaloosa this season regarding the offense, Alabama was one of three teams in the SEC to average more than 200 rushing yards and 200 passing yards per game. The other two were LSU and Missouri. Alabama also scored more than 30 points in 10 of its 13 games, with T.J. Yeldon leading the league in rushing yards in SEC games and AJ McCarron ranking third in the SEC in passing efficiency. So it was far from a disaster. However, there was too much inconsistency offensively to suit Nick Saban, particularly up front, and it all unraveled in the Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma with the five turnovers.

DEFENSE: B+

Let's face it. Alabama's defensive standards are dizzying. The Crimson Tide finished fourth nationally in scoring defense (13.9 points per game) and fifth nationally in total defense (286.5 yards per game). For most programs, those are "A" numbers. But there were also more glitches than usual. The Crimson Tide struggled at cornerback with youth and inconsistency and were vulnerable against the pass most of the season. They were shredded by Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel for 42 points and 628 yards in an early-season win over the Aggies and gave up 348 passing yards and four touchdown passes to Oklahoma's Trevor Knight in the bowl loss. It was a good Alabama defense, but not a great one.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-

Even though Christion Jones would make decisions sometimes that were questionable at best, he was still one of the most dangerous return men in the league. He had two punt returns for touchdowns and one kickoff return for a touchdown. Of course, what everybody will remember about this season for Alabama was the kick-six that won it for Auburn. It was one of four missed or blocked field goals by the Crimson Tide in that 34-28 loss. On the bright side, punter Cody Mandell was excellent and finished second in the league with a 47.1-yard average.

OVERALL: B-

The grading scale is always a little tougher when you've won consecutive national championships. While 11 wins is never anything to sniff at, even at Alabama, the Crimson Tide failed to win their own division and ended the season with back-to-back losses for the first time since the end of the 2008 season. In most cases, it's a season that would still qualify as a solid "B." But with the schedule being one of the cushier ones in the league, that takes the Tide's grade down a notch.

SEC's Heisman hopefuls in 2014

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
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The SEC did pretty well for itself in the Heisman Trophy balloting last year. Even though Florida State's Jameis Winston ultimately wound up hoisting the prize, three SEC players found themselves among the top six receiving votes.

All three of those players are gone. AJ McCarron, Johnny Manziel and Tre Mason are off to try their hand in the National Football League.

With that, we're left to wonder who will emerge as the SEC's Heisman favorites in 2014. With so many big names gone -- Aaron Murray, Jadeveon Clowney, Odell Beckham Jr., Zach Mettenberger -- the field of favorites is as wide open as ever.

Here is our list of the top five candidates to win the 2014 Heisman Trophy from the SEC:

Georgia RB Todd Gurley: Had Gurley stayed healthy, he may have had a seat in New York last year. Had he not missed all of October, he might have had the stats to support such a trip. Even so, the talented tailback averaged 98.9 yards per game and had one of the most impressive touchdown-to-rush ratios in the country at 6.1 percent, a full percentage point more than Boston College's Andre Williams, who finished fourth in the Heisman balloting. At the Gator Bowl, Gurley showed that even on a sore ankle he is one of the best backs in the country, racking up 183 total yards of offense against the Blackshirts of Nebraska. With a full offseason to heal and a new quarterback under center, Gurley could be asked to do even more in 2014.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Nick Marshall has been a Division I QB for just one season and is already one of the SEC's biggest playmakers. His potential is scary.
Auburn QB Nick Marshall: Gus Malzahn brought this point up an awful lot last season, but it bears repeating: Marshall became a Division I quarterback only some seven months ago. He didn't have the benefit of spring practice and still won the starting quarterback job at Auburn. After a few bumpy starts, he became one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the league. For the first six games of the season, he ranked 40th in the country in Adjusted QBR. From then on he would rank third in Adjusted QBR with 20 total touchdowns, two interceptions and an average of 231.8 total yards per game. Now imagine all he could do with that kind of momentum and a full offseason to prepare.

South Carolina RB Mike Davis: We entered last season touting the SEC's stellar class of young running backs with Gurley, Marshall and Mason. For a while we left out Davis, a relative unknown after staying in the shadow of Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina. But Davis let us know who he was right away, running for 115 yards in the season opener against North Carolina and 149 more in a prime-time matchup with Georgia. He wound up rushing for 100 or more yards in all but two of the Gamecocks' first nine games. He fell off the map some in his final three games, due in no small part to a nagging ankle injury. If he can get that corrected, he could be one of the league's most productive backs in 2014.

Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon: He's not thought of as an explosive back, but why not? Yeldon finished last season with an impressive 34 rushes for 10 or more yards, more than every running back in the SEC not named Tre Mason or Jeremy Hill. All told, Yeldon rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns -- both improvements from his freshman year. With the help of Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, Yeldon won't have to shoulder the load next season, but he'll still be the man with the most carries and the best shot at making it to New York.

Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott: He's a dark horse, no doubt, but don't count out Prescott. He didn't finish the season 10th in Adjusted QBR for no reason. The talented sophomore quietly put up some big numbers and ended the year strong, coming off the bench to lead a fourth-quarter comeback against Ole Miss and following that up with a five-touchdown performance in the Bulldogs' bowl win over Rice. With so many veteran quarterbacks of the SEC gone, he could quickly pick up the mantle as the league's best.
Editor's note: This is Part V in a week-long series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Some problems are complicated. Some problems are large. This particular issue of Alabama's might seem like neither, but it is. Just because it's an obvious concern with a seemingly obvious solution doesn't mean it's not the most troubling scenario a coach can face.

Turnovers wrecked the Crimson Tide in 2013. Without the interceptions and fumbles, Alabama very well could have reached the BCS National Championship Game for an unprecedented third year in a row. Auburn wouldn't have won the Iron Bowl, and the debacle at the Sugar Bowl might never have happened.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban and the Tide were frustrated -- and their title hopes were dashed -- by the turnover bug that hit Alabama this season.
Moving forward, there's no way around the fact that if Nick Saban's dynasty is to get back on the rails in 2014, he can't afford any more costly turnovers. Saying "be patient" and "it will get better" are no longer viable options. T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake have a full-blown fumbling problem. AJ McCarron caught the interception bug late and even though he may be gone to the pros now, whoever replaces him under center can't give possessions away like he did down the stretch.

"Even though we outgained them in the game, we probably gained enough yards," Saban said after the Tide's loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. "But we had four turnovers that led to 28 points, and one turnover in the red zone and one missed field goal in the first half, and those things probably were, you know, a big difference in the game."

Said McCarron: "Put it all on me. I had two turnovers, [Oklahoma] ended up scoring 14 points, and we lost by 14."

A year after throwing just three interruptions, McCarron tossed four picks in his final four games. Yeldon and Drake combined for four fumbles in 2012, but together they wound up with nine this season.

The difference between good and great, between title contender and championship winner, is razor thin. A handful of turnovers is enough to tip the scales in either direction. Alabama averaged 13 turnovers in 2009, 2011 and 2012. In 2013, Alabama gave the ball away 17 times, the most since 2008.

Saban needs a quarterback who will take care of the football, whether that's Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman or Parker McLeod. Sims has been McCarron's backup the past two seasons, but he's shown a propensity for interceptions during scrimmages. How he'll hold up in passing situations during games is anyone's guess.

And if Yeldon and Drake can't stop from coughing up the rock, then it's up to someone else to take over at running back. That's a point running backs coach Burton Burns will surely drive home this offseason. Derrick Henry seemed more than willing to take their spot against Oklahoma. The enormous former five-star athlete was Alabama's lone bright spot in the Sugar Bowl, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown while also taking a short pass 61 yards for a score. He didn't fumble the ball once as a true freshman.

Stopping the turnovers might be a painfully obvious thing to say, but it's worth repeating. And repeating. And repeating.

Any coach will tell you: Giving the ball away is the single biggest difference between winning and losing.

Even if Alabama fixes Parts I-IV on its to-do list, without solving Part V, it will all be for naught.
AJ McCarron let Derrick Henry know that he would be the safety valve. Less than seven minutes remained in the fourth quarter of this year's Allstate Sugar Bowl, with No. 3 Alabama trailing No. 11 Oklahoma 38-24, and McCarron was prepared to put a critical second-and-8 on the shoulders of a freshman who had just 28 touches on the season before the game.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAlabama RB Derrick Henry had a breakout performance in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Could it be a sign of things to come in 2014?
Smart move.

With Henry, one of the top overall prospects in the 2013 recruiting class, shifting out to the right flat just after the ball was snapped, McCarron looked down field before quickly checking down to Henry. Henry made a nifty move on an Oklahoma linebacker toward the middle of the field before sliding by another defender and sprinting to pay dirt. After stepping through another failed tackle attempt, Henry was gone for a 61-yard touchdown that brought the Crimson Tide within one score of the Sooners.

"I just saw the hole," Henry said with a laugh. "I went out there and read what I was supposed to read, [did] my assignment and hit the hole. ... He threw it to me and I just had to make a play."

Henry's play was one that will be burned into Alabama fans' minds for a while, and the thought of his future with the Tide could help ease the pain of the eventual 45-31 loss to Oklahoma. But before Henry was off to the races with a play that appeared to bring Alabama back into such a back-and-forth game, he was making plays that had many wondering why he wasn't on the field more throughout the season.

The living, breathing, truck of a frosh started wowing folks with his speed, agility and strength early in the third quarter of the Sugar Bowl when he took a carry and barreled through the middle of both lines, shaking a tackle and then cutting to the right side of the field before winning a footrace with Oklahoma's defense for a 43-yard touchdown run that cut OU's lead to 31-24.

After that -- and a previous T.J. Yeldon fumble -- Henry was Alabama's primary back from then on in the game, carrying the ball eight times on the night for a game-high 100 yards and a touchdown. Henry looked like the record-breaking high school baller who garnered attention from just about every major university before signing with Alabama. He cut, steamrolled and shot himself out of a cannon with his runs.

It was possibly a glimpse into a very bright future for both Henry and Alabama.

"I was ready. The whole season I've been waiting," said Henry, who finished the 2013 season with 382 yards, three touchdowns and 36 carries in nine games of work. "Since I started, I was sixth string and I've just been improving the whole season and I just worked my way up. I thank God for it and thank these coaches for believing in me."

The question now is whether Henry or Yeldon will be the main back going forward. Yeldon has put in two solid years of work with the Tide, but his fumbling issues have always been a drain. Henry passed backup Kenyan Drake, who rushed for 694 yards and eight touchdowns on the season, during bowl prep and could have the upper hand on him again heading into spring.

Regardless, Henry showed why he was such a special high school prospect and why his coaches and teammates were raving about him before he fractured his leg during spring practice. Henry will get plenty of opportunities going forward, and could be one of the big breakout players to keep an eye on in 2014.

"I'm just ready to get to work, become a better student of the game, become a better running back by working on my cuts, bursting and being more physical so I can be a complete back," Henry said.

Can Alabama be a top-5 team?

January, 8, 2014
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Only Alabama could end one season with back-to-back losses and begin the next as a favorite to play for the national championship. But such is the empire that coach Nick Saban has built in Tuscaloosa: through recruiting, through coaching, through sheer determination, through "The Process."

The two losses were heartbreaking. One took the Tide's breath away. The other took the Tide's heart. Rebounding from that devastating punch combination won't be easy.

But given how the season ended and who won't be back for the 2014 reboot, does Alabama deserve to be No. 2 in Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25? Let's take a look and see if it makes sense.

The case for

Yes, AJ McCarron is leaving for the NFL. So is C.J. Mosley. And several underclassmen could follow their lead as well.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama loses plenty of experience and talent from its 2013 team, but potential stars such as Derrick Henry are waiting for their chance.
But Alabama has a precocious commodity right now: Stability. Saban didn't bolt for Texas, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier didn't get the job at Washington and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart hasn't seen his name bandied about in coaching circles as much as in years past. While there's a lot of time left for such moves to be made, right now the entire staff looks to be back for next season.

Beyond the coordinators and assistants, Saban's "process" remains in place, and that should be the biggest boon for Tide fans heading into an offseason wrought with question marks. Saban's way of doing things -- recruiting the best talent in the country, coaching 'em up and sticking to certain fundamentals on both sides of the ball -- has worked awfully well the past five years. As I've caught many around Tuscaloosa saying of late, "Three out of five ain't bad."

The quarterback position will be critical this spring and fall camp, but there won't be a lack of talent surrounding whoever wins the job. Alabama is stacked at receiver, with a healthy Amari Cooper leading the charge. O.J. Howard looks like a difference maker at tight end. And then there's the matter of T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and the rest of the running backs.

Talent, on both sides of the ball, is reason enough for having Alabama ranked so highly.

The case against

Try ignoring the loss of McCarron all you want, but it's unavoidable. And, yes, the same could be said for Mosley.

Really, they're the same player in a lot of ways, one quarterbacking the offense and the other quarterbacking the defense. Both won multiple championships, both were unquestioned leaders and both were NFL talents.

But beyond the personnel on the field and beyond the coaching staff is a fundamental concern for Alabama. The question is one that was unthinkable in the recent past: Is Saban's "process" being passed by?

It's probably too early to say, but the evidence is growing. You can call Auburn's Iron Bowl victory a fluke, but how the Tigers got so close -- running all over the defense, forcing Saban into questionable calls -- was no accident. The same can be said of Oklahoma as the Sooners gashed the defense and pressured the quarterback. Even in defeat, Mississippi State and Texas A&M made Alabama look bad at times.

Going back to the drawing board won't be easy, but it's worth a try. With a new quarterback, even the offense has a chance to change for the better.

But with so much change and so many questions to be answered, does Alabama deserve to be looked at as the No. 2 team in the country next year?

Maybe not now, but maybe later. And that's what the offseason is for.

  • Click here to view the full Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25.
  • Click here Insider to see how all of the schools in the Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25 are faring in recruiting for the Class of 2014.

NEW ORLEANS -- As the clock ticks down to Thursday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup between No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) and No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12), it's time to take a look at why Alabama will capture its third straight BCS bowl win.

This might not be a national championship scenario for the Crimson Tide, but coach Nick Saban and his players have made it clear that they are treating this one with the same sort of importance.

Here are 10 reasons why Alabama will beat the Sooners inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

1. Alabama's running game: One thing you can always count on with the Crimson Tide is a stout running game. Led by sophomore running backs T.J. Yeldon (1,163 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Kenyan Drake (694/eight), Alabama averaged 212 rushing yards per game and almost 6 yards per carry. Oklahoma's rush defense is giving up only 138 yards per game, but the push from Yeldon and Drake will just be too much.

2. Play in the trenches: It's cliche, but it's true. If you can't win up front, you can't win at this level. Alabama's offensive line has been a force all year, while the defensive line is bigger than any line the Sooners have faced this year. It doesn't help that Oklahoma is dealing with the loss of two starters on its offensive line.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron will be motivated to have a big finale.
3. That seasoned guy under center: This is AJ McCarron's swan song and you better believe he's fired up about going out on top. Yet again, he was one of the nation's most efficient passers this season, throwing for 2,676 yards and 26 touchdowns with five interceptions. McCarron isn't the most athletic QB, but he knows how to make plays and win games. Expect him to show plenty of moxie and take some shots on the Big 12's No. 1 pass defense.

4. This team's mindset: A lot of the talk leading up to this one has been about Alabama's approach to a game that isn't the national championship. Thanks to a miracle kick return, the Tide is on Bourbon Street and not out in Cali. But players sound motivated and ready, while Saban has said all week that he has been proud of his players' preparation. Seniors have talked about younger players buying in and youngsters have talked about sending the seniors out right. This Alabama team also wants to prove that it's still one of the best teams in the country.

5. C.J. Mosley: Is there anything he can't do? Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops called him an "absolute perfect football player." Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard said he was the best defensive football player he has ever seen during his career. Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said he "is the defense." Mosley can move from sideline to sideline, drop back in coverage, stuff the run and rush the passer. He won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker for a reason, and he'll show why over and over Thursday night.

6. A healthier secondary: It seems like Alabama's secondary has been nicked up all year, but the time away from the playing field has given guys the opportunity to rest up and get back up to speed. Clinton-Dix is moving around better after getting his knee scoped and fellow safety Landon Collins is healthy after spraining his ankle early in bowl prep. Corner Deion Belue appears to be feeling much better after dealing with a nagging toe injury all season. This is a unit that has been up and down this season, but Alabama still owned the SEC's best pass defense (166.3 yards per game) and playing a team that rotates at quarterback and averages just 186 passing yards a game could be a good thing for the Tide.

7. Playmakers galore on offense: There will just be too much of a mixture of McCarron, Yeldon/Drake and those talented receivers for Oklahoma's defense to handle. The Sooners have a linebacker in Eric Striker who has made his home in opposing backfields, but I don't see him having too much of an effect on McCarron's ability to throw or those running backs. Alabama will be able to churn yards out on the ground and McCarron will hit a couple of big plays down the field with Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood.

8. Stopping the run early: If Oklahoma can get its running game going early, it will open up things for the pass as the game goes on. That wouldn't be good for the Tide, but Alabama won't have to worry about that because this defense is looking to stop the run first, second and third. Before the Auburn game, Alabama was allowing just 91.3 rushing yards per game and 1.5 yards before contact per rush. OU likes that zone-read, but this isn't Auburn's run game.

9. Oklahoma's revolving quarterback door: The fact that the Sooners won't know who their starting quarterback is until just before a game with Alabama isn't a good thing. Alabama prides itself on its consistency and thrives on opponents' errors. The revolving door at quarterback with Blake Bell and Trevor Knight could be an issue against such a detail-oriented defense. The Tide seems pretty comfortable defending either guy, after both passed for a combined 2,119 yards and 17 touchdowns with nine interceptions.

10. Nick Saban: Is there a better game manager out there? Sure, Gus Malzahn got the best of him on the Plains at the end of the regular season, but Saban is still the coach everyone would want for a game like this … or any game, really. He'll have no problem pumping his team up and preparing it for the Sooners. He's obsessed with details and should have every single one of his bases covered for this game. He wants this win just as badly as his players.

SEC's lunch links

January, 1, 2014
Jan 1
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Happy new year. Take some time from watching football all day and see what’s happening around the SEC in today’s lunch links, the first of 2014.
  • An Auburn fan from Phenix City, Ala., was at the miracle victory against Georgia. He got to meet Gus Malzahn three weeks later. Now, thanks to a hotel guest, he’s headed to Pasadena to see the Tigers play in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.
  • With the impending departure of AJ McCarron, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon is primed to be the face of the Crimson Tide offense.
  • South Carolina has won back-to-back bowl games against Big Ten teams, but yet the Gamecocks are underdogs against Wisconsin in Wednesday’s Capital One Bowl. Why?
  • LSU and its fans have been uninspired in two of their last three non-BCS bowls. Will the Tigers be motivated for Wednesday’s Outback Bowl against Iowa?
  • Georgia is used to playing its SEC East opponents (and Auburn) on an annual basis, but the Bulldogs will see a familiar foe when they face Nebraska in the Gator Bowl.
  • Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy and Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Henson, who worked together under Les Miles, share the same philosophy on offense.
  • It was all about Johnny Manziel in Texas A&M’s comeback win over Duke in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, but the seniors stepped up when the Aggies needed them most.

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