Alabama Crimson Tide: Tony Brown

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch when Alabama takes to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday for A-Day, the finale of spring practice.

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

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

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

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

5. The up-and-comers:

  • Derrick Henry: We all know by now what the former five-star athlete did in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma. But can he follow it up?
  • Tony Brown: With Eddie Jackson out and other injuries at the position, the top-five corner and early enrollee has gotten plenty of repetitions. With a strong close to the spring, he could put himself in position to vie for a starting job in the fall.
  • Cam Robinson: The former No. 1 offensive tackle in the ESPN 300 has come on as of late, challenging for the role of left tackle vacated by Cyrus Kouandjio. There’s no question Robinson fits the build from a physical and talent standpoint. The real question is how he acclimates to college and learns the playbook.
  • Reuben Foster: With C.J. Mosley gone, there’s a vacancy at middle linebacker. Foster, a former four-star recruit, has impressed with his athleticism and ability to deliver the big hits. But can he bring the complete package to the table?
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It didn’t take long for the sickening feeling to seep out of Landon Collins’ stomach and circulate through his body.

On the way back to Tuscaloosa after Alabama’s humbling 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the junior safety replayed the nauseating moments from a game in which the Crimson Tide, which entered the contest with the SEC’s top-ranked defense, surrendered 429 yards of offense, nearly 6 yards per play, 348 passing yards and four passing touchdowns.

Collins called the performance by the defense “disgraceful” to Alabama football.

“We weren’t the defense that we always used to be,” Collins told ESPN.com in early April. “That’s what we’re working on this spring.”

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAfter a less-than-stellar performance in its bowl loss to Oklahoma, Landon Collins expects Alabama's defense to play with a chip on its shoulder in 2014.
If Alabama is going to make it back to the national championship, Collins said the defense has to improve. During Alabama’s two-year BCS title run (2011-12), the Tide finished first nationally in total and scoring defense in both seasons. Last season, Alabama finished in the top five in both categories, but that final game serves as a harsh reminder of the defense's flaws.

Associating Alabama’s defense with anything less than elite feels awkward, but that’s all you can say about Bama’s bowl performance. Players were tired and run down against Oklahoma’s hurry-up offense. This spring, Tide defenders saw red, as coaches constantly reminded them of that bowl performance. That led to tougher conditioning routines and more intense player interaction on and off the field, Collins said.

Looking back at the bowl game has been tough for players, but they know that it’s a performance they never want to see again.

“It wasn’t the way we play,” linebacker Trey DePriest said. “We don’t get that many points put up on us. That’s way more than what our goal is -- 13 points or less. It didn’t seem like us. We were ready, we just didn’t go out and leave it on the field like it was our last game. It’s definitely been a driving force.”

But things won’t be easier in 2014, not with a younger defensive look and the loss of leaders -- and producers -- like C.J. Mosley and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Collins and DePriest, picked to replace those two, now head a defense that will be playing angry in 2014 after losing five starters from last season's team.

Can guys like Nick Perry, Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson, A'Shawn Robinson and Jarrick Williams expand their roles? Can some of the youngsters like Tony Brown and Laurence "Hootie" Jones step up? And don't forget about the much-anticipated arrival of defensive end Da'Shawn Hand.

There's no shortage of talent, and this defense might even have a little more athleticism sprinkled around, but we all know talent can only go so far, even with the best teams.

For now, attitudes seem to be flowing in the right direction, DePriest said, but there’s no getting around the fact that this entire defense has to grow up in the coming months to replace some valuable leaders.

“It’s some big shoes to fill, definitely,” Collins said. “A lot of us looked up to those guys. Without that leadership, we have to just step in and take over because we need that on the field constantly, and [we need it] off the field because without that, this program could go in a different direction that it doesn’t need to.”

There’s a certain pride that this defense holds that it lost in that bowl game.

Or was it something that slowly trickled out before the Tide even got to Bourbon Street?

Alabama had holes in its defense all last fall, but found ways of patching them as the season went on. Alabama surrendered a school-record 628 yards in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M, allowed Zach Mettenberger to throw for 241 yards in the win over LSU and watched Auburn rush for 296 yards in that heartbreaking loss on the Plains.

Hundreds of other teams would kill for Alabama’s 2013 defense, but it didn’t live up to the standards this program holds so dear.

For Collins, the secondary is key. While Alabama ranked near the top nationally against the pass, there were times when the secondary surrendered too many big plays. Injuries contributed to some of the secondary’s issues, but the last line of defense never truly looked settled last season.

Collins said the secondary put too much pressure on itself to live up to the enormous preseason hype after back-to-back BCS titles and wasn’t always prepared for games.

“Our downfall was our secondary last year,” Collins said. “We got picked apart because of that.”

“If you watch our film of practice, you can see how hard we work every day. You can tell how hard we’re working to establish our secondary to be dominant again.”

Spring practice can only take a team so far, and Alabama defenders know that. They have that chip, they have that anger, but it’s about carrying that feeling over to the season and performing.

The good thing for the defense is that it has a constant reminder in the bowl game that still fuels this unit.

“That just fires it up, because we know what type of defense we are,” Collins said. “We already know what we are capable of. Just to hear that we got picked apart by an offense that shouldn’t have been on the field with us, that’s a disgrace to Alabama defense. We need to pick it up from that standpoint.”
The injury to Eddie Jackson is still reverberating through Alabama’s roster. The promising young cornerback, who was in position to start as a sophomore, tore his ACL during last weekend’s scrimmage, forcing him to miss the remainder of spring camp. On Tuesday, he was seen in crutches awkwardly stepping into a crimson SUV that carried him away from the football facilities where his teammates were practicing.

With Jackson gone, others have had to step up.

[+] EnlargeEddie Jackson
AP Photo/Dave MartinAlabama will miss cornerback Eddie Jackson, who tore his ACL in a scrimmage.
Alabama’s depth at cornerback was already suspect. Deion Belue, a two-year starter, and John Fulton, a top reserve, have both graduated and moved on. The three most veteran options still at the position -- Cyrus Jones, Bradley Sylve and Jabriel Washington -- have combined for eight starts in their careers. And to make matters worse, one of the talented young corners, Maurice Smith, has been banged up. According to coach Nick Saban, the true sophomore who played in 11 games and made one start last season “got a little bit of a concussion” and didn't participate in Saturday’s scrimmage.

So where does that leave the Crimson Tide?

If it were close to the start of the regular season, it would be called a nightmare. But since it’s the spring, it’s more of a sense of opportunity than apprehension. Thanks to a loosened depth chart, coaches will get a sneak peek at some even younger players.

Sylve, Jones and Washington will undoubtably get more reps, and so will players such as Anthony Averett, who redshirted last season, and Tony Brown, who enrolled early in January with the clear purpose of getting a head start during the spring.

According to Saban, Brown has gotten “a ton of reps.” And when you’re talking about a five-star athlete whom ESPN ranked as the No. 2 cornerback in the 2014 class, it’s easy to imagine the possibilities. His talent isn’t in question -- the two-sport star runs track and is one of the more physically impressive corners on the football field -- but his experience has been the biggest hurdle. With more reps, he can close the gap between himself and the more veteran players at his position, clearing the way for a possible run at a starting job this fall.

Landon Collins, who was voted second-team All-SEC at safety last season, said he has seen Brown work hard this spring, “getting it quicker than most people get it.”

Nick Perry agreed. The senior safety was effusive in his praise of Brown earlier this spring, saying that he and fellow freshman safety Laurence 'Hootie' Jones were learning the defense “faster than I’ve seen any freshmen pick it up.”

“Tony is a great competitor,” Perry said. “He’s fast. He’s everything you want in a corner.”

According to Perry, expect to see Brown make a couple of plays this season.

Saturday’s scrimmage was a start for those such as Brown who might not have expected so many reps this spring. There will be ups and downs, Saban said, but overall “it’ll be a good learning experience for them.”

With Jackson gone, the time is now. Smith will be back at practice soon, but there’s no telling who will be next to go down during this final week of spring practice. If someone is sidelined, it might hurt the depth chart as a whole, but it will help certain players in particular.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Perry isn’t doing anything to temper expectations for the Alabama secondary. The senior safety missed all but the first two games last season, and what he saw from the sidelines clearly didn’t suit him. Back from injury, he’s looking for a marked improvement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perry is one of the few familiar faces still around. It’s up to this season’s crop of players to re-establish the standard.
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With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at which programs compiled the nation's best overall position classes in 2014. For the full top position classes series, click here.

Quarterbacks: Florida
The Florida Gators had a major need at quarterback in the Class of 2014, and Will Muschamp and staff more than filled it, signing two of the nation’s top signal-callers. Third-ranked dual-threat prospect Will Grier (Davidson, N.C./Davidson Day School) is already on campus and preparing for spring practice, while No. 7 dual-threat prospect Treon Harris (Miami/Booker T. Washington) was a huge signing-day flip from Florida State. Both prospects are great athletes who are accustomed to operating up-tempo offenses. This should also help newly hired offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who will install a similar scheme in Gainesville.


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Top position classes: DB 

February, 18, 2014
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With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at the top position classes. For the full series, click here.

Nationally (and SEC)

The top class of defensive backs goes to Alabama, by a landslide. While the Crimson Tide have provided many recruiting firsts in recent years under coach Nick Saban, the 2014 class is the first to have two five-star cornerbacks in the same cycle in the years ESPN has been assigning star rankings. No. 8 overall Tony Brown (Beaumont, Texas/Ozen) and No. 15 Marlon Humphrey (Hoover, Ala./Hoover) have the size and speed that Saban and his staff made a must in 2014. Add in No. 3 safety and No. 27 overall Laurence Jones (Monroe, La./Neville) and Alabama signed three of the very best at defensive back. Factor in that No. 7 athlete Ronnie Clark (Calera, Ala./Calera) seems destined to begin his career at safety and the Crimson Tide dominate in the secondary despite having missed out on coveted safety target C.J. Hampton (Meridian, Miss./Meridian).

The Crimson Tide had the nation’s best defensive back class; here’s which schools had the best in each of the remaining power conferences:


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Room to improve: CB

February, 17, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is Part I in a weeklong series looking at Alabama’s top five position groups with room to improve.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The struggle was obvious. Without a premier cornerback to rely upon, Alabama’s defense wasn’t the same. Without the likes of Dee Milliner, Dre Kirkpatrick or Javier Arenas, coach Nick Saban’s defense didn’t have quite the same bite.

Deion Belue was an adequate starter. The former junior college transfer even looked the part as an anchor cornerback for most of the season. But before long he was exposed as someone not entirely capable of locking down half the field. And with a revolving door on the other side with John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson, Maurice Smith and Bradley Sylve all taking unsuccessful shots at starting, the secondary faltered.

Texas A&M gashed the defense early. Auburn and Oklahoma gashed it late.

"We are not used to that," said defensive coordinator Kirby Smart of not having consistent play at cornerback. "We've kind of always had one key guy with all the first-round, second-round corners we've had, we've always had a staple guy there, then kind of an understudy that was the other one who was an up-and-coming corner. Hasn't been that way this year. It's been frustrating.”

Will that frustration subside? Will someone step up in the spring or fall and become that premier cornerback Alabama so desperately needs? Can quality depth emerge at the position?

[+] EnlargeCyrus Jones
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesConverted receiver Cyrus Jones, who started five games at cornerback last fall, will be a contender to be a full-time starter in 2014.
Battling for No. 1: There are plenty of options to consider, and we’ll get into that with the next paragraph. For now, though, there appear to be three serious contenders to become starters at cornerback: rising junior Cyrus Jones and rising sophomores Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith. Jones, you’ll recall, transitioned from wide receiver to defensive back last spring and wound up starting five games. But his size (5-foot-10), is a problem. Enter Smith and Jackson, who both come in at 6 feet. Jackson was a promising option early as a freshman, starting against Colorado State and intercepting a pass against Ole Miss. But inexperience caught up with him and he didn’t start again until the Sugar Bowl. Smith, on the other hand, was a steady presence off the bench. The Texas native wound up playing in 12 of 13 possible games, starting one.

Strength in numbers: Really, it’s a wide-open race. Meaning none of the soon-to-be-mentioned defensive backs are out of contention. We haven’t seen what redshirt freshmen Jonathan Cook and Anthony Averett have to offer. Both were heavily-recruited prospects in the 2013 class that could develop into contributors after spending a year practicing and learning the playbook. Throw in rising junior Bradley Sylve, who actually started three games last season, and you’ve got quite the field of competitors heading into the spring. Sylve has immense speed, but is a shade on the smaller side at 5-11 and 180 pounds. Finally, don’t discount Saban trying a few players at new positions, as he did last spring when he put Cyrus Jones, Christion Jones and Dee Hart all at cornerback.

New on the scene: Many Alabama fans are already pinning their hopes on two true freshmen. And rightfully so, considering the lack of quality depth at the position. Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey do indeed have the opportunity to start from Day 1. Both five-star prospects, they have the build and skill to thrive in Saban’s system. Brown, however, has the clear edge considering he’s already enrolled in school and Humphrey will not do so until after spring practice is already over. The one hangup for Brown, though, is what consequences, if any, will come from his January arrest. Saban, himself, did not make the strongest of comments regarding the arrest, saying, “Some people are in the wrong place at the wrong time,” indicating that rather than a stiff punishment, the staff will look to “use this as a learning experience.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The paperwork is in for all of Alabama’s 2014 recruiting class. And now that it’s official, it’s time to start the process of analyzing who each prospect reminds us of.

Potential is a dangerous thing, so keep in mind that these comparisons are looking at the best case scenario for each player. As always, everything depends on what happens when they get to campus and how they develop when they get there.

[+] EnlargeDre Kirkpatrick
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsCould five-star cornerback become another Dre Kirkpatrick for the Crimson Tide?
DB Tony Brown
Projects as: He’s a heavier hitter and is maybe more physically developed, but Brown will remind many of former Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick with his length and ball skills. Brown has the kind of size and strength coach Nick Saban covets because it means Brown can be versatile and play near the line of scrimmage when necessary.

ATH Ronnie Clark
Projects as: He’s very much a tweener safety/linebacker prospect, making comparisons difficult. Reaching a bit into the SEC vault, fans can look at former Georgia “rover” Thomas Davis, who was part DB, part linebacker for the Bulldogs.

DL Johnny Dwight
Projects as: Dwight is a bit of an under-the-radar prospect as he was ranked as the 33rd-best defensive tackle in the country. But at 6-foot-2, 282 pounds, he offers a big body who can play end in Saban’s 3-4 scheme. Because of his versatility and lack of acclaim, he reminds some of former Alabama lineman Damion Square.

LB Rashaan Evans
Projects as: In keeping with the Georgia theme, Evans should conjure images of former Bulldogs linebacker Alec Ogletree. Both are slimmer, more athletic linebackers who could slide back and play safety in some systems. As Saban attempts to combat hurry-up no-huddle offenses, having linebackers with Evans’ speed will pay dividends.

DL Joshua Frazier
Projects as: At 6-4 and 336 pounds, Frazier is the type of defensive lineman who eats up space. He’ll likely be a nose tackle in Alabama’s system and primarily fit against the run in the mold of current Tide lineman Brandon Ivory.

LB Shaun Dion Hamilton
Projects as: Hamilton said he’s an inside linebacker who molds his game after former Alabama great C.J. Mosley. But Mosley was probably more athletic than Hamilton, so a more likely comparison might be another former Tide linebacker, DeMeco Ryans. Both are a bit undersized with Hamilton coming in at 5-11.

DL Da'Shawn Hand
Projects as: The comparison to Dont'a Hightower has been thrown around a bit, but given Hand’s size and pass-rush ability, he could easily slide into the Jack linebacker position and play a role similar to the one that made Courtney Upshaw an All-American. Another potential comparison, if he does play with his hand on the ground, is New York Giant Justin Tuck.

LB Keith Holcombe
Projects as: To borrow Holcombe’s father’s comparison, Keith does look a little bit like former Alabama linebacker Cory Reamer. Reamer was a bit of an unheralded recruit coming out of high school like Keith, but both have high motors and deceptive athleticism.

[+] EnlargeLoucheiz Purifoy
AP Photo/John RaouxAlabama signee Marlon Humphrey, a five-star defensive back, compares favorably to former Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy.
DB Marlon Humphrey
Projects as: Like Brown, Humphrey defies comparison because he’s so big for a corner. Because of his other worldly athleticism (just look at his track numbers) he compares favorably to former Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy. They both match up well with taller receivers and can help in run support.

DB Laurence Jones
Projects as: The Landon Collins comparison is going to be thrown around because both hail from Louisiana, but the better comparison might be with former LSU safety Chad Jones, who was also better when the play was in front of him than when he had to drop back in one-on-one coverage. Laurence, who goes by “Hootie,” already has the size (6-2, 208 pounds) to play in the SEC.

LB Christian Miller
Projects as: If he bulks up in a big way, Miller could play Jack. But as it stands, he’s more reminiscent of Adrian Hubbard at the Sam linebacker position. Tall with long arms and a lanky frame, Miller has the skill to rush off the edge but not enough thickness (212 pounds) to put his hand in the dirt on the line.

DL D.J. Pettway
Projects as: The comparisons to Square are going to be there because of his skill against the run and the pass. But Pettway has better production, dating back to his being named to the Freshman All-SEC team in 2012. To borrow and page from former Alabama right tackle D.J. Fluker, Pettway looks more like Marcel Dareus than Square.

DL Jarran Reed
Projects as: At 6-4 and 305 pounds, Reed is similar to former Alabama defensive end/tackle Jeoffrey Pagan. The junior college transfer is mature for a first-year player having gone first to a prep school and then to East Mississippi Community College.

DL O.J. Smith
Projects as: He was a natural fit as a nose guard with Alabama from Day 1. That’s why the Louisiana native committed to the Tide before ever getting an offer from LSU. Smith, all 6-2 and 315 pounds of him, isn’t going to wow you with his quickness but he could eat up space much like current Alabama nose guard Brandon Ivory.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- As impressive as Alabama’s 2014 recruiting class was, the fact remains that most of the Tide’s 27 signees will not make significant contributions Year 1 in the program. It never fails. Landon Collins, a former No. 1 safety in his class, spent his entire rookie season playing special teams and learning the system. Adrian Hubbard, a former top-five defensive end in his class, had to physically mature and add weight before he could play on Saturdays.

This past year’s signing class had 20 four- or five-star prospects, and only a handful of them saw the field in any meaningful capacity as true freshmen.

It’s not an easy transition from high school senior to college freshman. Doing so while studying a playbook and earning the trust of a coaching staff is an even more difficult mountain to climb.

Still, as true as it is that most will fail in their goal to play right away, there are always a few who do meet that lofty ambition. Reuben Foster, Robert Foster and Dee Liner never made much of an impact as true freshmen in 2013, but their counterparts A’Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and O.J. Howard did. Derrick Henry took some time to develop, but eventually he emerged as one of the most talented young running backs in the SEC.


So who will be the ones from the 2014 signing class to step up and make an impact as rookies? Not counting the four transfers, let’s take a look at five possible candidates:

CB Tony Brown: The five-star prospect and two-sport star didn’t start his college career the way you’d like with an early arrest for failure to obey. But the hope for Nick Saban and his staff is that Brown has learned his lesson and will be better off for it. If he has, he could develop into a starter at cornerback. Deion Belue is gone and the carousel of starters opposite him isn’t the most inspiring bunch. Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith could still develop as sophomores, but they’re not a sure thing. Enter Brown, who has the size (6-0, 196 pounds) and athleticism (4.35 second 40-yard dash) to play right away. Match that with a muscular frame and some of the best feet in the country, and no one should be counting him out of the race this spring.

[+] EnlargeDa'Shawn Hand
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIDa'Shawn Hand could specialize in rushing the passer as a freshman.
DE/LB Da’Shawn Hand: Saban has said it over and over again the past few months: He needs more athletic pass-rushers -- “quick-twitch,” he calls them -- to combat the rising tide of mobile quarterbacks and hurry-up no-huddle offenses in college football. Hand, who is something of a tweener prospect as a defensive end/linebacker, perfectly fits that bill. He’s got the size (6-4, 262 pounds) to put his hand in the dirt and take on offensive linemen, but he also has the speed and quickness (4.95 second 40-yard dash) to get off the edge and track down the quarterback. Alabama could easily ask him to come on the field for third downs and do nothing but rush the passer as a freshman. And with his raw skill and natural instincts, he might be able to make it work.

CB Marlon Humphrey: The fact that Humphrey isn’t an early enrollee, was beaten to campus by Brown and still has a legitimate chance to work his way into the cornerback rotation speaks to the limited amount of depth Alabama has at the position. Humphrey is as athletic as they come, sporting the same two-sport credentials as Brown. But the five-star corner from nearby Hoover is also one of the most sound athletes in terms of technique in the country. That will help him when he makes it to campus and comes under the watchful eye of Saban, who is the defacto cornerbacks coach in addition to being the head coach. For Humphrey and Brown, the biggest obstacle will be picking up the playbook in a timely fashion.

OT Cameron Robinson: There are so many similarities between Robinson and former Alabama left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio: both were the No. 1 prospects at their position, both were five-star athletes, both came to Alabama from out of state. And last but not least: Both signed on with expectations to start from Day 1. It’s not easy to play as a true freshman on the offensive line, but Kouandjio showed you could do it, starting eight games in 2011 before injuring his knee. Robinson has those same traits to challenge for playing time as a true freshman. At 6-5 and 330 pounds with plenty of athleticism, he’s the complete package.

K J.K. Scott: Didn’t expect to see a specialist on this list, did you? Scott may not jump off the page as a prospect, but he nonetheless has an opportunity to come in and play right away. With senior Cody Mandell gone, the door is open for the Colorado native to take his place as the team’s punter.
Now that signing day is over and the fax machine is allowed another 364 days of rest, it’s time to look back on who did the most on the recruiting trail in the SEC.

It’s important to note that this is not purely a rank of who had the best class. You can go to ESPN’s class rankings for that information. Rather, this list took into account the state of each program and how it performed against expectations, hence Kentucky’s lofty standing.

No. 1: Alabama
Rundown: The class wasn’t just No. 1 overall, it was No. 1 by a mile. Alabama cleaned up with one-third of all the five-star prospects in the ESPN 300, the highest ranking of which was offensive tackle Cameron Robinson, who could challenge for immediate playing time as a freshman. Along those lines, coach Nick Saban and his staff didn’t just sign the best prospects, they signed those that fit the program’s needs. The offensive line class could be the best in Saban’s history, the cornerback class promises two future stars and quarterback David Cornwell helps expand the field of candidates to replace AJ McCarron.

Instant impact signee: Tony Brown won’t be the only five-star cornerback on campus, but he’ll be the first one there. The speedy track star enrolled in January and will compete in spring practice. With both starting cornerback spots open, he’ll have a chance to start right away.

No. 2: Kentucky
Rundown: This ain’t your grandfather’s Kentucky. It’s not your father’s or your older brother’s, either. Mark Stoops didn’t have the highest ranked recruiting class in the country or even the SEC, but the top-20 class far outpaced even the highest expectations . The signees speaks for themselves -- an infusion of young talent desperately needed for the road ahead -- but the overall statement Stoops and his staff made going out and landing the best of the best was huge. Nabbing four-star defensive lineman Matt Elam from Alabama sent shockwaves through college football. It not only said that Kentucky was here to play; it’s here to play and win.

Instant impact signee: There’s opportunity abound in Lexington. At one point, a walk-on was starting at receiver against Alabama. With that, four-star Thaddeus Snodgrass has the athleticism (4.5 second 40-yard dash) to provide a quick spark to the Wildcats’ offense.

No. 3: Tennessee
Rundown: No program brought in more young talent than the Vols. All told, Tennessee signed 35 prospects, far more than any BCS-level program. Coach Butch Jones joked that he’ll have an all-freshman team next year, and with 11 ESPN 300 players in the class it’s not that farfetched an idea. Not only did Jones lock down in-state stars like Josh Malone, Todd Kelly Jr. and Jalen Hurd, he reached across borders and landed LaVon Pearson and Dillon Bates. Where his first recruiting class in 2013 was more about creating buzz, 2014 was about fulfilling a promise.

Instant impact signee: Jones and his staff are high on junior college offensive tackle Dontavius Blair, who enrolled at Tennessee early. Considering the Vols are completely reloading on the offensive line, the 6-7, 307-pound Blair will have the chance to step in and play from Day 1.

No. 4: LSU
Rundown: Les Miles was on the hook after losing several in-state stars to programs like Alabama, Texas A&M and Florida. Seeing Cam Robinson, Speedy Noil and Laurence Jones commit elsewhere cast LSU’s recruiting efforts in a bad light. But that all changed when Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 overall prospect in the country, announced that he would be a Tiger. And on Wednesday, Malachi Dupre, the No. 1 wide receiver in the nation, followed suit. By the end of the day, 11 of the top 25 players in Louisiana ended up at LSU.

Instant impact signee: Fournette is the No. 1 overall prospect for a reason. He’s got all the physical tools and the mindset to play at the next level. Because of that he’s been compared favorably to former Sooner Adrian Peterson. With Jeremy Hill off to the NFL, Fournette can insert himself into the running back rotation right away.

No. 5: Texas A&M
Rundown: In 2012, Texas A&M signed the 15th best recruiting class in the country. In 2013, it joined the SEC and rose to eighth in the rankings. And on Wednesday, it completed that climb by finishing fourth. Kevin Sumlin and Co. signed an impressive 10 ESPN 300 recruits, including the No. 1 defensive end, the No. 1 athlete and the No. 1 pro-style quarterback. Signing a pair of junior college offensive linemen -- Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor -- solidifies depth on a line moving on without Jake Matthews.

Instant impact signee: There’s no doubt Texas A&M needs help on the defense. Defensive end Myles Garrett's body is college-ready (6-5, 255 pounds) and he’s ripped to shreds. If he can pick up the defense and show he's capable of holding up against the run, he could play soon.

No. 6: Florida
Rundown: It’s the win coach Will Muschamp so desperately needed. Keeping together this class after one of the most disastrous seasons in program history was a remarkable feat. In all, Florida signed 13 ESPN 300 commitments, including seven players who rank among the top 10 nationally at their position. Even more impressive was that Muschamp sold Florida against some other top programs, flipping four-star Florida State quarterback commitment Treon Harris to cross the state to Gainesville.

Instant impact signee: Jalen Tabor has as good a chance as anyone to start at cornerback opposite Vernon Hargreaves III, the former standout freshman whose footsteps he's trying to follow. Florida coaches are high on his talent and skill level, and of course, being an early enrollee helps.

No. 7: Georgia
Rundown: Mark Richt got his guy in Lorenzo Carter. Without him, the entire outlook of the class changes. While it wasn’t high on numbers -- 21 signees in all -- the quality of Georgia's class was impressive. Richt signed 11 ESPN 300 recruits, including the No. 2 and No. 7 running backs in the country. Four-star athlete Isaiah McKenzie was a big signee as well. He’s small in size (5-8), but his speed and quickness could translate to early playing time.

Instant impact signee: “That defense is going to be nasty,” Carter said. “And I plan on being a part of it.” With that, Georgia got a taste of the energy the No. 3-rated defensive end will bring to Athens. His ability as a pass-rusher will help the Bulldogs right away, and if he adds a few more pounds he could develop into an every-down lineman.

No. 8: Auburn
Rundown: It’s not always about who you sign, but who you miss. The loss of Rashaan Evans still stings a day later, but Auburn landed commitments from offensive lineman Braden Smith and defensive end Andrew Williams to close out what was already an impressive class. In all, the Tigers have 12 signees in the ESPN 300 and two ranked in the ESPN JC 50. Despite losing Evans to the Tide, Auburn signed four of the state’s top 10 players, including its top-ranked player in the class, running back Racean Thomas.

Instant impact signee: Nobody is more qualified to step in and contribute than wide receiver D'haquille Williams. He’s the No. 1 junior college player in the country, and he’s already on campus. Don’t be surprised if he becomes the team’s go-to wide receiver by the start of next season.

No. 9: Ole Miss
Rundown: The class wasn’t filled with stars like the year before, but coach Hugh Freeze and his staff didn’t let up in 2014. The Rebels went after more seasoned recruits, signing six players from either junior college, prep schools or delayed enrollment. Actually, this year’s class might end up having more depth than the previous year’s as 15 four-star recruits signed in 2014, compared to 12 four-star recruits and two five-star recruits in 2013. With players like Garrald McDowell and C.J. Hampton, there’s plenty to build around.

Instant impact signee: Ole Miss needed help on the offensive line and four-star Rod Taylor could be the man to give them a boost. The No. 2 offensive guard in the ESPN 300 and the Rebels’ highest ranked signee enrolled in school early and will compete in spring practice.

No. 10: South Carolina
Rundown: It wasn’t the most heralded class in Steve Spurrier’s tenure at South Carolina, but it didn’t lack talent, especially on defense where the Gamecocks signed four defensive linemen and four cornerbacks. Stealing defensive tackle Dexter Wideman from Florida State and nabbing cornerback Chris Lammons from Wisconsin’s sights was huge in moving South Carolina up from 27th in the class rankings to 19th.

Instant impact signee: He’ll no doubt add a few pounds to his 6-3, 250-pound frame, but no amount of weight will help Dante Sawyer's attempts to fill Jadeveon Clowney's sizable shoes at South Carolina. That’s not Sawyer’s job as a freshman, though. The four-star prospect should help the Gamecocks pass rush and is versatile enough to play either outside linebacker or defensive end.

No. 11: Arkansas
Rundown: When I spoke to Bret Bielema during the season, he told me that he wasn’t going after guys based on their rankings. He wanted “his guys,” guys who fit his blue-collar system. And he did exactly that with six of his top eight signees coming on the offensive and defensive lines. Throw in Rafe Peavey, the No. 10 dual-threat quarterback, and Arkansas’ got a good foundation to build upon.

Instant impact signee: With starting defensive tackle Byran Jones gone, the door is open for big Bijhon Jackson, who comes in at a hefty 6-2 and 330 pounds. The No. 6-ranked defensive tackle is one of three ESPN 300 member in Arkansas’ recruiting class.

No. 12: Mississippi State
Rundown: The Bulldogs’ 2014 signing class was on the small side with 23 signees, and it was planned that way. With so few seniors, coach Dan Mullen chose to be selective. Still, the class left something to be desired without a single player ranked in the top 10 nationally at their position. It was good to see the Bulldogs get so many in-state recruits, but the furthest their reach went was to Texas, Alabama and Georgia. That said, Mississippi State fans will be glad to see that both of its ESPN 300 signees -- Jamoral Graham and Jesse Jackson -- were skill players on offense, an area in need of development.

Instant impact signee: There’s plenty of opportunity in the Bulldogs’ backfield now that LaDarius Perkins is off to the NFL. Enter Aeris Williams, a four-star prospect from Mississippi. With Dak Prescott at quarterback, Williams could make hay on the read-option.

No. 13: Missouri
Rundown: Maybe the SEC East title and the trip to Atlanta didn’t amount to much on the recruiting trail. Maybe the thrilling Cotton Bowl win didn’t impress enough recruits either. Whatever it was, coach Gary Pinkel didn’t exactly make hay on signing day. Landing just two ESPN 300 commitments was underwhelming, as was the grand total of four four-star recruits. The signing of Andy Bauer, a four-star offensive tackle who was targeted by Alabama, does engender some hope. Still, as we watch Texas A&M take advantage of the bump it received in recruiting since joining the SEC, one has to wonder why Missouri hasn’t done the same.

Instant impact signee: Brandon Lee, the nation's No. 17 outside linebacker, comes in at a healthy 6-2 and 210 pounds. Given that two of the Tigers’ three starting linebackers were seniors last season, Lee will have a chance to come in and contribute right away.

No. 14: Vanderbilt
Rundown: With so little time to recruit, Derek Mason couldn’t put together the class he wanted. And with former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin poaching so many of his former recruits at Penn State, it only made matters worse. So don’t judge Mason’s first class and its two ESPN 300 signees too harshly. But do give him credit for convincing Nifae Lealao, the No. 20 defensive tackle, to come to Nashville. The four-star prospect is among the most highly rated recruits to ever sign with the Commodores.

Instant impact signee: It isn’t just Jordan Matthews who's leaving. So is Jonathan Krause, who started 11 of 13 games last season. Enter three-star Rashad Canty. He’s not the most highly ranked recruit, but the 6-3, 201-pound receiver has the tools to make a push for reps early.

Recruiting hits and misses: SEC West

February, 6, 2014
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Now that the fax machines are quiet, the 2014 signing classes have been announced and before we start looking ahead to 2015, let's take a moment to examine how each of the SEC schools did in filling immediate needs via recruiting.

We're checking out what all 14 teams did to fill holes, and we're looking at which holes still remain. We'll start with the SEC West (click here for the SEC East):

ALABAMA

Needs filled: It was obvious Alabama needed help at cornerback, and the Crimson Tide went out and got two of the best in the country in five-star prospects Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey. Pass rushers were also a priority, which makes five-star defensive end Da'Shawn Hand and four-star outside linebackers Rashaan Evans and Christian Miller key pickups. Cameron Robinson, yet another five-star prospect, could end up starting at left tackle next season on the offensive line.

Holes remaining: The Crimson Tide could have used another marquee receiver and lost out on No. 1 wideout Malachi Dupre to LSU. With Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri both heading early to the NFL, the Tide also might have come up short at safety.

ARKANSAS

Needs filled: The Hogs’ passing game was in need of a jump-start, and getting an ESPN 300 player out of Miami the caliber of JoJo Robinson adds another playmaker to the equation. Arkansas’ offensive line class is equally impressive with four-star prospects Brian Wallace and Frank Ragnow and three-star prospect Jovan Pruitt joining Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper from last year’s class.

Holes remaining: The highest-ranked player in the Hogs’ class was defensive tackle Bijhon Jackson of El Dorado, Ark., which was big considering they need help everywhere on defense. But they missed out on a pair of highly ranked defensive ends in Solomon Thomas and Demetrius Jackson.

AUBURN

Needs filled: Gus Malzahn called ESPN 300 prospect Tre' Williams the key to the class, and he should provide an immediate boost at linebacker. With Chris Davis departing, the Tigers also needed to replenish at cornerback, which is where four-star prospects Kalvaraz Bessent and Stephen Roberts come in. Both were ranked in the top 10 nationally at their position. With Greg Robinson leaving early for the NFL draft, it was good to add muscle on the offensive line with ESPN 300 prospect Braden Smith, who could play guard or tackle.

Holes remaining: The sting of losing Evans, who’s from Auburn, to Alabama could be felt for a while. He's the kind of explosive athlete who would fit on any defense, and the Tigers need more of those guys, particularly at linebacker.

LSU

Needs filled: The loss of running back Jeremy Hill early to the NFL draft was lessened by landing Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 overall prospect in this class. It only got better for the Tigers’ offense on signing day when the country’s No. 1 receiver, Dupre, said he would play his college football on the Bayou. Safety was a real sore spot on defense last season, so getting ESPN 300 prospect Jamal Adams was a major pickup. Adams is rated by ESPN RecruitingNation as the No. 2 safety in the 2014 class.

Holes remaining: Robinson would have been a nice centerpiece on that LSU offensive line, but Alabama came into West Monroe, La., and swiped the five-star prospect. The Tigers also lost five-star athlete Speedy Noil of New Orleans to Texas A&M.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Needs filled: Junior college signee Jocquell Johnson is already on campus and will battle for a starting job next season on an offensive line that’s losing two starters, including All-SEC guard Gabe Jackson. The Bulldogs also added a pair of playmakers at receiver in ESPN 300 prospects Jamoral Graham and Jesse Jackson. Flipping 6-foot-6, 265-pound defensive lineman Cory Thomas from Tennessee on signing day added some more punch to an already deep and talented defensive line in Starkville.

Holes remaining: More secondary help would have been nice, which is why losing cornerback Tee Shepard to Ole Miss on signing day was a downer. A couple of the offensive linemen the Bulldogs wanted, Jordan Sims and Sean Rawlings, also opted for Ole Miss.

OLE MISS

Needs filled: The Rebels wanted to continue to stockpile talent on the offensive line after reeling in Laremy Tunsil and Austin Golson a year ago and did that with four-star prospects Rod Taylor, Tyler Putman and Sims. Upgrading the defense was also a priority, which is why beating Alabama for ESPN 300 safety C.J. Hampton was so important along with getting ESPN 300 defensive end Garrald McDowell out of Louisiana. Flipping junior college cornerback Shepard from Mississippi State was a nice signing day coup.

Holes remaining: You can never have enough defensive linemen in the SEC, so losing defensive tackle Michael Sawyers to Tennessee was a blow. The same goes for ESPN 300 defensive end Davon Godchaux, who stuck with his commitment and signed with LSU.

TEXAS A&M

Needs filled: With Johnny Manziel taking his show to the NFL, Texas A&M has to find a quarterback. Early enrollee Kyle Allen is an ESPN 300 prospect and ranked as the No. 1 pocket passer in this class. Noil, another early enrollee, should help fill a void with big-play receiver Mike Evans headed to the NFL, and the Aggies also loaded up on offensive linemen, including a pair of junior college signees. Any help on defense was a priority, which makes five-star defensive end Myles Garrett one of the keys to the class.

Holes remaining: The Aggies are still thin at safety after swinging and missing on several of their top targets in this class, including Adams, Steven Parker II and Mattrell McGraw. They also had ESPN 300 safety Dylan Sumner-Gardner committed but lost him to Boise State when Marcel Yates took the defensive coordinator job there.

Signing day wrap: SEC

February, 5, 2014
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The Southeastern Conference had a strong finish the 2014 recruiting class. Alabama, which received a commitment from four-star outside linebacker Rashaan Evans (Auburn, Ala./Auburn) on Wednesday, finished with the top overall class by a landslide, and seven of the top 10 recruiting classes in the country are in the SEC. Here’s a closer look at some of the top news from around the SEC on national signing day.

Top class

[+] EnlargeRashaan Evans
AP Photo/Butch DillESPN 300 OLB Rashaan Evans, who chose Bama over Auburn, made a great class even better.
There is no question Alabama had the top overall class. The Crimson Tide finished with 27 signees, including 19 ranked in the ESPN 300 and five five-star prospects. In addition to the incredible class Alabama put together leading up to signing day, the Crimson Tide were also able to land Evans, the No. 52 player in the country. Evans chose Alabama over arch-rival and hometown Auburn Tigers.

The Alabama class was led by the No. 1 offensive tackle in the country, Cameron Robinson (West Monroe, La./West Monroe), the No. 2-ranked defensive end Da'Shawn Hand (Woodbridge, Va./Woodbridge) and the No. 2-ranked cornerback in the country Tony Brown (Beaumont, Texas/Ozen), who is already enrolled.

The SEC West alone had three schools, Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M, finish in the top five of the final recruiting team rankings. In all, 13 of the 14 SEC schools finished in the top 40 of the team recruiting rankings.

South Carolina, LSU and Georgia finish strong

South Carolina had arguably the best finish of any class in the SEC. The Gamecocks were able to flip ESPN 300 defensive end Dexter Wideman (Saluda, S.C./Saluda) from Florida State and defensive tackle Blake McClain (Jacksonville, Fla./Sandalwood) from Nebraska. They were also able to land ESPN 300 defensive backs Chris Lammons (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./Plantation) and Wesley Green (Lithonia, Ga./Martin Luther King) giving the Gamecocks a very athletic secondary.

If South Carolina was the best, LSU wasn’t far behind. The Tigers were able to land the No. 1 wide receiver in the country Malachi Dupre (River Ridge, La./John Curtis) and ESPN 300 defensive tackle Travonte Valentine (Hialeah, Fla./Champagnat Catholic). Dupre chose LSU over UCLA, Ole Miss, Alabama and FSU. Valentine had decommitted from three different schools – Louisville, Florida and Miami -- over the course of his recruitment before finally settling on LSU. The Tigers were also able to hang on to defensive end Davon Godchaux (Plaquemine, La./Plaquemine), who had been wavering on his commitment leading up to signing day.

Georgia, meanwhile, added five-star defensive end Lorenzo Carter (Norcross, Ga./Norcross), who chose the Bulldogs over LSU, FSU and Florida. They also added four-star wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie (Plantation, Fla./American Heritage). The ESPN 300 wide receiver wasn’t even considering Georgia until earlier this week, but a late offer from the Bulldogs was enough for McKenzie to pull the trigger and sign with Georgia.

Several schools lose commits

Signing day was full of surprises, including several prospects who backed off of their commitments and signed with a different school. Three-star defensive tackle Cory Thomas (McCalla, Ala./McAdory), a long-time Tennessee commit, spurned the Volunteers and signed with Mississippi State. But not all was good news for Mississippi State. Ole Miss was able to steal junior college defensive back Tee Shepard (Fresno, Calif./Holmes CC), the No. 22-ranked player in the ESPN JC 50. The Vols took another hit when three-star offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. (Duluth, Ga./Peachtree Ridge) unexpectedly signed with Oklahoma. The Volunteers, however, were able to land four-star defensive tackle Michael Sawyers (Nashville/The Ensworth School), and had the No. 5 recruiting class in the country -- one that included 11 players ranked in the ESPN 300.

Quarterback Treon Harris (Miami/Booker T. Washington) backed off his pledge to FSU and signed with Florida. Offensive tackle Andrew Mike (Tucson, Ariz./Sabino) was only a part of Vanderbilt’s class for one short day, but the three-star tackle flipped on Tuesday night and signed with Florida on Wednesday. Four-star Alabama safety commit Chris Williams (Kingsland, Ga./Camden Co.) flipped and signed with UCF because of personal family reasons. Four-star wide receiver DeSean Blair (Jacksonville, Fla./Sandalwood) flipped his commitment from Louisville and signed with Missouri.

Vanderbilt able to rebound

The Vanderbilt class may not be filled with four- and five-star prospects, but the job new head coach Derek Mason did to rebuild the Commodores’ class is nothing short of amazing. After James Franklin left to take the head coaching job at Penn State and a string of decommitments followed, Vanderbilt was down to eight verbal commitments. After an impressive few weeks of recruiting the Commodores finished with 22 signees, including 17 prospects ranked three stars or higher.

The class is led by ESPN 300 defensive tackle Nifae Lealao (Sacramento, Calif./Capital Christian) and four-star running back Dallas Rivers (Stone Mountain, Ga./Stephenson). After losing ESPN 300 quarterback Kyle Carta-Samuels to Washington, Vanderbilt was able to flip Pitt quarterback commit Wade Freebeck (Fort Lauderdale, Fla/St. Thomas Aquinas) and former ECU commit Shawn Stankavage (Raleigh, N.C./Cardinal Gibbons).
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It was another successful national signing day for the SEC. After all 14 schools officially announced their 2014 signing classes, the SEC finished the day with 10 schools in the top 25 and 13 schools in the top 40 of the ESPN RecruitingNation class rankings.

Seven schools -- Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and Georgia -- ranked in the top 10, while Alabama took home the nation's No. 1 class. The Crimson Tide signed 27 players, including 19 ESPN 300 recruits and five five-star prospects: OT Cameron Robinson (West Monroe, La./West Monroe), DE Da'Shawn Hand (Woodbridge, Va./Woodbridge), CB Tony Brown (Beaumont, Texas/Ozen), RB Bo Scarbrough (Northport, Ala./Tuscaloosa County) and CB Marlon Humphrey (Hoover, Ala./Hoover).

LSU ranked second, bringing in 22 signees, including 15 ESPN 300 members and one five-star prospect: No. 1 running back Leonard Fournette (New Orleans/Saint Augustine). The Tigers could add No. 23 and their 16th ESPN 300 member Thursday once defensive end Deondre Clark (Oklahoma City/Douglass) signs his letter of intent. The four-star prospect was unable to sign his LOI after weather canceled his signing ceremony Wednesday.

As a whole, the SEC brought in 120 ESPN 300 prospects (the most of any conference) and 10 of the 15 five-star prospects in the ESPN 300.

You can check out all 14 SEC schools' 2014 recruiting classes in our ESPN RecruitingNation database:
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri isn't without good advice to rely upon.

His father, Sal, has been an assistant coach in the NFL and in college for nearly three decades. His brother, Tino, was a quarterback at Pittsburgh before joining the Canadian Football League in 2013. And his coach, Nick Saban, has guided countless players to the pros and understands the draft process as well as anyone could.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel and Vinnie Sunseri
Phil Ellsworth / ESPN ImagesAlabama safety Vinnie Sunseri had two interceptions this season before tearing his ACL against Arkansas.
But that's all a way of illustrating how surprising it is that Sunseri would do the unthinkable and forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft, while still recovering from major knee surgery and without any promise of being drafted.

So what was the hurry?

Sunseri has always been one to fly to the ball with reckless abandon. It's what made him a star on special teams as a freshman and a key contributor in the defensive secondary as a sophomore and junior. Before going down with a torn ACL against Arkansas this season, he had two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns. ESPN thought enough to vote him a Midseason All-American.

Maybe that instinct to attack and make something happen is at play here. We all know the draft is a gamble -- go early and you risk it, go late and you risk it just the same -- so Sunseri opting to roll the dice might not be out of character. If he thinks he should strike while the iron is hottest, then best of luck. He's a limited player athletically and sometimes struggles in coverage, but he's as hard a worker as they come and has a nose for the football.

From Alabama's perspective, though, the move is troubling.

The most immediate question -- "Are you running from Tuscaloosa or toward the NFL?" -- isn't readily answered. With so much up in the air this offseason, from coaching staff changes to other underclassmen turning pro, could it have influenced his decision?

Sunseri was the heartbeat of the secondary, its most vocal leader and its best playmaker. He would have been one of the centerpieces of the defense next season. He and Landon Collins playing side by side at safety would have been a good starting point for defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to build around. Mixing in veterans Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry would have been plenty to work with, helping relieve some of the pressure off of Alabama's young set of cornerbacks.

Now Alabama is left with more questions than answers. Losing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at free safety was hard enough. Sunseri vacating his spot at strong safety only makes matters worse. Collins showed he's an immensely talented player this season, finishing second in tackles and first in passes defended, but he's still raw. We saw that in a few key missteps against Auburn to end the regular season and then again against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Granted, Collins will improve, but Alabama will need another player or two to step up and fill Sunseri's shoes.

The silver lining for Saban is he's not without talented players to call upon. Former four-star corner Geno Smith made the transition to safety this past season and former professional baseball player Jai Miller should be better prepared after a season of re-acclimating to the game. Welcoming in two early enrollee defensive backs -- five-star cornerback Tony Brown and No. 2-rated safety Laurence "Hootie" Jones -- will help in terms of depth, too.

But make no mistake, Alabama is in transition. As curious a move as it was for Sunseri to turn pro early, it leads to just as puzzling questions for the Tide moving forward. There are the right coaches in place to make it work -- men like Saban, Smart and others -- but it doesn't make the events any less surprising.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The shakeup on Nick Saban's staff at Alabama will continue as Greg Brown is expected to step down as defensive backs coach to clear the way for Kevin Steele to transition from his role as director of player personnel to an on-field position coaching linebackers, sources told ESPN.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We are not used to that," he said. "We've kind of always had one key guy with all the first -round, second-round corners we've had, we've always had a staple guy there, then kind of an understudy that was the other one who was an up-and-coming corner. Hasn't been that way this year. It's been frustrating."

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

ESPN's Chris Low contributed to this report.

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