Alabama Crimson Tide: Xzavier Dickson

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 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.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban has had no trouble recruiting at Alabama. The number of four- and five-star prospects he and his staff have signed since 2007 is nothing short of staggering. Many of them are already enjoying careers in the NFL.

But which class was best? Which group of blue-chippers was the most impressive?

That’s a difficult question, but one we nonetheless set out to answer this week with a countdown of the top three classes at Alabama during Saban’s tenure, not counting the Tide’s most recent recruiting class.

No. 3 on our list in order of impact is the Class of 2011, which finished No. 2 in that season's ESPN class rankings.

[+] EnlargeCyrus Kouandjio
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsCyrus Kouandjio was an anchor on the Alabama offensive line for three seasons.
The stars: Cyrus Kouandjio didn’t say yes to Alabama first. On signing day, he told a national television audience he would sign with Auburn. But a change of heart and a desire to keep it in the family made Kouandjio go with the Tide, giving Saban his first five-star signee at Alabama. Kouandjio had the look of an All-SEC tackle from Day 1 at 6-foot-7 and 325 pounds, and he delivered on that promise, developing into one of the best at his position in the country. Along with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (the No. 2-ranked safety) and linebacker Trey DePriest (the No. 2-ranked outside linebacker), the class had plenty of headliners.

The contributors: It’s hard to imagine calling Vinnie Sunseri a “contributor” considering how he developed. But it’s important to remember that Sunseri, the son of then-assistant Sal Sunseri, wasn’t a highly thought-of prospect. He was a linebacker/safety tweener that ESPN ranked the No. 18 outside linebacker in the country. But the 5-foot-11, 202-pound athlete showed he had a nose for the football, developing into one of the best playmakers in the SEC, starring on special teams as a true freshman before developing into a heavy hitter at safety. Jeoffrey Pagan turned into an NFL-caliber defensive lineman, Ryan Kelly has the look of a solid center, and Christion Jones has turned into a home run threat as a receiver and kick returner.

The letdowns: There were plenty of misses in this class, though. Duron Carter, son of NFL legend Cris Carter, never played a down with the team after transferring to Alabama. Bradley Sylve, the No. 5 wideout in the class, hasn’t made a splash at cornerback, and Brent Calloway is no longer with the program after an arrest a year ago. LaMichael Fanning, who had the build scouts drool over at defensive end, never panned out, transferring to Jacksonville State after this past season. And most recently Dee Hart, a top 10 running back out of high school, left the team after the Sugar Bowl and was arrested by Tuscaloosa police on Feb. 16.

The results: The final tally is still coming in, but the 2011 class appears to be headed in the right direction. Junior college transfers Jesse Williams and Quinton Dial are already playing professional football, and there’s a solid chance both Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix will be selected in the first round of the NFL draft in May. Pagan and Sunseri will follow in the later rounds. If DePriest, Jones and Kelly develop into NFL prospects as fourth-year players in 2014, that would make nine total NFL players from the class, not counting what Xzavier Dickson or D.J. Pettway could do to impress scouts.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There hasn't been much of a letdown in production from Alabama's defense compared to seasons past. The top-ranked Crimson Tide is still among the top-10 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game, passing yards allowed per game, third down conversions, first downs allowed and total defense. It's given up the fewest touchdowns (12) and the fewest points per game (10.2) in all of college football.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban likes the way his Alabama defense has been rushing the passer this season.
One could nitpick and note its lack of a premiere cornerback or a true vocal leader, and he or she wouldn't be wrong. Deion Belue is good, but he's not a shutdown corner like Dee Milliner and Dre Kirkpatrick. And while C.J. Mosley is no doubt the leader of the defense at linebacker, he'd be the first to admit he's the kind to lead through actions and not words, unlike, say, Nico Johnson of a year ago or Dont'a Hightower before him.

But whatever the defense's minor flaws this season, there is one area that's gone under the radar where Alabama has actually improved from years past: rushing the passer. Through 11 games, the Tide has pressured the quarterback 26.1 percent of the time, compared to 22.5 percent in 2012 and 23.8 percent in 2011. UA leads the SEC in pressure percentage, which ESPN Stats and Info calculates as hurries plus knockdowns, divided by total dropbacks.

"I think we're making some improvement there," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of rushing the passer following last Saturday's 20-7 win at Mississippi State. "I think it's going to be critical we can do that in the future."

Alabama dialed up the pressure on Mississippi State, especially in the second half. A'Shawn Robinson, the Tide's standout freshman defensive lineman, had another sack against the Bulldogs, his fifth of the season. Denzel Devall (3), Adrian Hubbard (2) and Ed Stinson (1.5) trail Robinson for the team lead.

The weekend before against LSU, Alabama tackled quarterback Zach Mettenberger for no gain and then sacked him three straight times to end the game.

But if you follow Saban, you know he's not overly concerned with sacks. They have nothing to do with winning, he says, nothing at all. Rather, he wants to "affect the quarterback" where they're throwing the ball off balance and before they're ready, which can results in a much more beneficial stat: turnovers.

So in terms of a stat Saban would care more about -- hurries plus knockdowns, but excluding sacks -- hybrid linebacker/defensive end Xzavier Dickson holds the lead with 13, trailed by Hubbard (12), Robinson (12), Stinson (9) and Devall (6), according to ESPN Stats and Info.

However you define pressure, Alabama's defense is getting it at an impressive pace, and it will need to continue to do so in two weeks against No. 6 Auburn.

Not only do the Tigers lead the SEC in rushing, they have allowed the third fewest sacks in the league and the 10th fewest tackles for loss in the country.

Auburn doesn't throw the ball much, but the hope for Alabama is that it will be in quarterback Nick Marshall's face when he does. It won't be easy, but whether it's a sack or a pressure, the Tide needs to continue to get in the backfield and disrupt.

But however the Iron Bowl goes, expect Alabama's defense to continue its upward trend of affecting the quarterback in the coming seasons. Robinson is just a freshman, and we haven't yet seen the progression of his fellow rookies Jonathan Allen, Dee Liner and Tim Williams. If Dalvin Tomlinson can come back from injury, he's another guy who can rush the passer. And with last weekend's commitment of Da'Shawn Hand, the No. 2 defensive end prospect in the ESPN 300, even more help is on the way.
During the summer, TideNation will analyze each of the scholarship players on the Alabama roster -- excluding the Tide's 2013 recruiting class -- in our Crimson Countdown series. Starting with No. 1 Dee Hart, we will go through the roster numerically, finishing with No. 99 Brandon Ivory.

No. 47 Xzavier Dickson
Junior linebacker

Editor's note: TideNation will use this week to look at the four major positions on the football field and how their outlook has changed after spring practice. Today we examine the front seven:

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Tide's second scrimmage is a mixed bag

April, 13, 2013
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Depending on which way you look at it, Alabama's scrimmage on Saturday was either good or bad for the future of the football team. Good because the offense scored 11 touchdowns and didn't cough the ball up once, and bad because the defense failed to make many stops and didn't generate a single turnover.

Ah, the joy of spring football. When you play against yourself no one really wins. The players simply get to hit one another, and that's a pleasant enough experience.

"Defensively, I guess it’s good and bad news," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "We didn’t create any turnovers but the good news is we didn’t turn it over on offense, so that’s probably a good thing. But we practiced a lot of different situations out there, which is great exposure for our players."

Saturday marked the 12th practice and second scrimmage of the spring for the Crimson Tide. The next scrimmage will be the last when the doors to Bryant-Denny Stadium are swung open on April 20 for A-Day.

And even then, the result of the game-like practice will be the same: either the offense will look spectacular and the defense horrendous, or vice versa.

(Read full post)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There's a healthy dose of expectations and optimism surrounding the new-look Alabama defensive line this spring. Like its counterpart on offense, so much has changed in the trenches from a season ago: nose guard Jesse Williams is gone, along with starting defensive end Damion Square and former top reserve Quinton Dial.

[+] EnlargeJeoffrey Pagan
AP Photo/Dave MartinJeoffrey Pagan is hoping to provide Alabama a pass rush that it lacked at times last season.
But unlike the offensive line, which is seeking to replace three All-SEC starters, there's no hint of an expected of a drop off in production from the defensive front. In fact, it's quite the opposite. If there is an area on defense that's in need of the most improvement, it might be the defensive line, particularly the pass rush.

Alabama failed to finish in the top 25 nationally in sacks or tackles for loss last season, trailing eight other SEC teams in negative plays. With underclassmen such as Jeoffrey Pagan and Xzavier Dickson a year older, the hope is that those numbers will improve.

"We've got some really talented guys and guys that work really hard on the defensive line, Pagan especially," Alabama tight end/H-back Harrison Jones said. "I see those guys really stepping up and filling the spots that were left open last year from guys leaving the team, big team leaders like Damion Square and Jesse Williams and guys like Quinton Dial.

"That's something that's going to be a big part of our team this year the defensive line stepping up and I feel like they're doing a good job of that so far."

Pagan, who has played as a reserve his first two seasons, admits the pass rush "struggled a little bit" in 2012. He said he welcomes the task of improving upon it as well as the personal responsibility of rising up the depth chart to a possible starting role. He added on five pounds from a year ago and wants to make his game more well-rounded, stopping the run and the pass.

"I've gotten better," he explained. "I've grown as a person, I've learned from great players."

Pagan credited Square for teaching him what coaches couldn't -- the intangibles of the game. And now that Square is gone, it's fallen on the broad shoulders of Ed Stinson to captain the defensive line. Stinson, the lone returning starter on the line, added 10 pounds to his already stocky frame and has developed into a leader among his peers.

(Read full post)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Spring is a time for change. The ice breaks, leaves blossom and nature starts over again. For the University of Alabama football team, this time of year is treated much in the same way.

New players are tested and familiar faces try out new roles. There's return and there's turnover. It's a time for reinvention, head coach Nick Saban said on Saturday, the first day of spring camp for the defending national champion Crimson Tide.

"Like I've said before," the 61-year-old coach said, "every year you've got to reinvent your team. Who are going to be the leaders? Who are going to be the guys that set an example? Who steps forward as young players who show that they have the responsibility to do a job and be dependable in doing that job so we that have a chance to play winning football with them?"

Alabama won the national title just three months ago, but when Saban took the podium at the Mal Moore Athletic Facility following the first day of practice, it felt like eons ago. The coach wears no championship rings and counts the minutes, not the days or hours, until he can forget a win and move on to the next thing. He jovially asked the assembled media if they had a pleasant off-season, smiled when one reporter said it was short and shot back with, "You think it was short for you."

Saban and a renovated coaching staff went back to work months ago, the process never quite giving into themes like a finish line. And when he looked at the product of 2012 and the players he lost to the draft and graduation, he and the staff decided to do some tinkering. Jack linebacker Xzaiver Dickson practiced at defensive end in a possible attempt at increasing a rather lackluster pass rush and the wide receiver position was shaken up in order to give the secondary some added depth. Wideouts Cyrus Jones and Christion Jones spent time at cornerback, along with running back Dee Hart, who practiced in a black no-contact jersey during the media viewing portion of practice.

The position changes, Saban knew, would be a source of speculation. Rather than let it hang there in the room like a white elephant, he addressed the moves in his opening remarks.

(Read full post)

The uncommitteds: Reuben Foster 

January, 28, 2013
Editor's note: From now until signing day, TideNation will examine the remaining uncommitted prospects still considering the University of Alabama. Today, we look at ESPN 150 linebacker Reuben Foster.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Editor's note: Every day from now until kickoff in Miami, TideNation will break down the match-ups position-by-position. Today we'll look at the battle of the linebackers.

Alabama: What Alabama lost in experience from a season ago, the Crimson Tide made up for with depth. Coach Nick Saban loves to create personnel packages for every situation, whether it be third-and-long or fourth-and-goal, and with versatile linebackers like Adrian Hubbard and C.J. Mosley, he had the options to make his schemes work effectively.

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireManti Te'o gets the headlines but Notre Dame's other linebackers are playmakers as well.
Mosley was the most productive linebacker this season, leading the team with 99 tackles. The last Alabama defender to break the century mark? Former All-American and eventual first-round pick Rolando McClain. Mosley sits one tackle away from 100 despite not being the clear-cut starter. He shares time with both Nico Johnson and Trey DePriest at inside linebacker depending on the formation and down and distance.

Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson are the primary options at outside linebacker. Their talent is undeniable but they've had their ups and downs. Hubbard leads the team with six sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Talented freshman Denzel Devall figures into the rotation as well. Another rookie to keep an eye on is converted defensive end D.J. Pettway, who could play at Jack where he can utilize his skill rushing the passer, an area Alabama has struggled to gain consistency.

Notre Dame: Saban called Notre Dame's front seven the best he's seen in college football this season, and it's led by a linebacker who was a strong contender to become the first purely defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. Of course Johnny Manziel took home the bronze statue, but it did nothing to diminish the play of Manti Te'o.

Te'o saved his best for last, racking up the Chuck Bednarik, Dick Butkus and Walter Camp Awards his senior year. He finished 59th in the country with 103 tackles, helping the Fighting Irish to the No. 1 scoring defense. He's the total package, with the strength to take on linemen in run support and the speed to track down receivers over the middle. If there's a linchpin to the Notre Dame defense, it's Te'o.

Outside of Te'o, Notre Dame has a pair of future NFL players in Dan Fox and Prince Shembo. Fox, who has 57 tackles, starts at inside linebacker and Shembo, who leads the team with 12 quarterback hurries, is the Irish's best pass rusher at outside linebacker. Carlo Calabrese, Danny Spond and Ishaq Williams round out the bulk of the rotation at linebacker in Brian Kelly's 3-4 alignment.

Final Verdict: Notre Dame's star power at linebacker isn't without reason. Te'o is capable of changing the outlook of the game, especially when it comes to Alabama's ability to run the football. If he can stuff the run and force the burden on the passing game, the Irish could be in good shape as UA has struggled in pass protection throughout the season, most recently in the first half against Georgia. Unlike some of the top defenses Alabama has faced, Notre Dame can stop the run and affect the pass. The Fighting Irish rank in the top 25 overall in rushing defense, passing defense, yards allowed and sacks. While Alabama has depth at linebacker, it doesn't have the top producers like Notre Dame.

Tracking the Tide: Xzavier Dickson

December, 12, 2012
Editor’s note: Each day between now and Alabama's date with Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship, we will review the season for a key Crimson Tide player and attempt to project what’s next for him. Today we’ll look at linebacker Xzavier Dickson.

No. 47 Xzavier Dickson
Outside linebacker
33 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks

Role in 2012: Dickson was the starting Jack linebacker and one of the top pass-rushing threats for the Crimson Tide.

The good: The sophomore had some very large shoes to fill with the departure of Courtney Upshaw, who was picked at the top of the second round by the Baltimore Ravens. While he wasn't as dominant as his predecessor, Dickson filled in admirably considering he recorded just three tackles in seven games last season. The former four-star prospect showed glimpses of the tools necessary to play the Jack position: size, strength, agility and a high motor. He saved his best game of the year for last, tallying two sacks against Georgia in the SEC Championship.

The bad: While Dickson was able to get pressure on the quarterback in some games, others he struggled to get upfield and affect the opposing offense. Consistency has eluded the first-time starter. He'll need to learn to shed tackles better and bring it every week to make the jump from good to elite.

Crystal ball: Just because Dickson started at Jack this season doesn't mean he's destined to continue there next year and beyond. Alabama has recruited linebackers with the tweener linebacker-defensive end mold very well, which means that much more competition. Ryan Anderson, a former four-star who redshirted this season, will have a say. So will Denzel Devall, who was able to make a significant contribution off the bench this season. It's possible recruits like DeMarcus Walker and Jonathan Allen could make a run at early playing time as well.

Alabama 10: Week 14 power rankings 

December, 3, 2012
The TideNation's power rankings look at the top 10 Alabama players who have raised their game. Every week, we’ll update these rankings to reflect how specific areas of the Alabama football program are faring.

Here are this week's power rankings:

1. G Chance Warmack: Saturday was the Alabama offensive line's most outstanding performance of the season. When the Tide needed yards, the men in the trenches delivered. And if one lineman best represents consistency and dominance, it's Warmack.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

3 Up, 3 Down: Alabama 32, Georgia 28 

December, 2, 2012
ATLANTA -- A look at the good and bad from Alabama's four-point win over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.

1. Downhill running: When Alabama wanted to run the ball, there was nothing Georgia could do about it. The offensive line was punishing, pushing the line of scrimmage 3, 4 and 5 yards at a time. All Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon had to do then was find a hole and run through it. Alabama set an SEC title game record with 350 yards rushing with Lacy accounting for 181 yards and two touchdowns. Yeldon's 154 yards was just enough to get the freshman to 1,000 for the season.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Recruiting battles: Alabama vs. Georgia 

November, 27, 2012
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Alabama takes the field on Saturday in the Georgia Dome, it will be a homecoming for nearly 20 Crimson Tide players who hail from the Peach State. Many of those players the UA coaching staff stole away from the team who will stand on the opposite sideline, the Georgia Bulldogs.

The most notable Georgia natives for Alabama this season include offensive lineman Chance Warmack and linebackers Xzavier Dickson and Adrian Hubbard.

Warmack, a native of Atlanta, never had a scholarship offer from UGA. At Alabama, he has developed into one of the top offensive linemen in the country and is projected to be a first-round pick in next April’s NFL draft.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Inside the program: Kirby Smart

October, 31, 2012
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Kirby Smart came in with scruff on his face that looked less like a 5 o'clock shadow and more like a day-after cover. In fact, it was only midday on the University of Alabama campus and the Crimson Tide's defensive coordinator was in a hurry.

It's LSU week in the football offices and Smart has his work cut out for him. His young defense has been the best in the country this season, coming in first in all four major defensive categories, but on Saturday it will face a top-5 team that knows its strength: power football.

"They really run the ball well," Smart told ESPN's Samantha Steele. "You have to stop them."

Even when they do get bogged down, the Tigers don't give up.

"They're stubborn with the run and that's toughest to defend," Smart continued.

Alabama has the bodies to match up with LSU up front. Smart said that despite losing three-quarters of his starters from a year ago, he feels UA has more depth on the line, and possibly less in the secondary. When you're going up against a team with a sometimes shaky starter in Zach Mettenberger and a consistently bruising rushing attack, that's a good thing. Not that Smart is sleeping on the passing game.

"Zach throws a good deep ball," Smart explained. The lanky quarterback who transferred to LSU from Georgia has thrown for 1,419 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions this season.

Starting cornerbacks Dee Milliner and Deion Belue will be tasked with defending LSU's weapons on the outside. Milliner leads the country in passes defended, a stat that combines pass breakups with interceptions. Belue hasn't been much easier to throw on either. The junior college transfer stepped in as the starter opposite Milliner right away.

LSU coach Les Miles told ESPN on Tuesday that his team will have to throw the ball against Alabama, something the secondary is prepared for.

“We know they are going to run the ball and take shots down the field," UA safety Robert Lester said. The senior from southern Alabama has gone back-to-back weeks with an interception, his last coming in the end zone against then-undefeated Mississippi State. "As long as we’re prepared for it and we know at least something that is coming, I think we’ll be good.”

Lester is one of the few returning starters from a year ago. Smart and head coach Nick Saban had to rebuild Alabama's defense this offseason, incorporating first-time starters such as Milliner and Belue, as well as sophomores such as Trey DePriest and Vinnie Sunseri who starred on special teams last season.

Smart said he's seen a more hungry, more coachable group of players this season. The latter might contribute to the scruffy beard.

"There's a lot of work, a lot of effort," Smart explained.

In Baton Rouge, the Crimson Tide will need all the effort they can muster. Only one team will leave Death Valley on the fast track to the SEC Championship Game, and the defense is likely to be the difference in who comes out on top.


Scout's Take: Atlanta Opening Regional
National recruiting analyst Gerry Hamilton joins ESPN's Phil Murphy to discuss top performers from the Nike's The Opening regional camp in Atlanta.