Alabama Crimson Tide: AJ McCarron

DESTIN, Fla. -- Nick Saban and AJ McCarron won a lot of games together at Alabama. Two of those wins happened to be BCS national titles.

They were a great team in Tuscaloosa and were supposed to win three straight national championships until a fateful night in Auburn helped ruin everything. Since then, we've heard more about how the signs were there all along about last year's team not having the drive it needed.

McCarron went a step further this spring when he publicly put some of the blame on Alabama's youngsters, talking about how some didn't fully buy in.

Saban probably saw the complacency gnaw at his team, but he wasn't pleased with McCarron throwing youngsters under the bus:
“I think a senior player -- and I love AJ -- but I think a senior player has a responsibility as a leader on the team to understand that when younger players come into the program, they are not going to necessarily have all the right stuff or understand the right stuff to be a part of the team. There has to be a tolerance and a commitment on the older players to sort of embrace the younger players to try to get them to where they need to play, even if they don’t play. It should not be something that upsets an older player. It should not be an issue with an older player because I can take some of these same older players and tell you about them when they were freshmen and they needed older players to help them get where they needed to be and they had to learn lessons along the way to help them develop into what they became.”

Basically, Saban delivered a major Shhhhhhhh! to his former star quarterback. You could hear the agitation in Saban's voice with every word he pounded out of his mouth. Saban didn't mince words. He was unhappy.

To McCarron's credit, younger players are more entitled than ever. Thanks to the hype and attention they receive due to the dramatic rise in recruiting popularity, some feel entitled when they get on campus. It's a process that requires breaking down those narcissistic walls, which isn't always easy.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban admits last year's Alabama team had some issues, but he wasn't real pleased to hear former QB AJ McCarron take some shots at the younger players.
But football is a team sport, and for a captain/quarterback/leader to hurl an insult to those youngsters like that takes some of the blame away from himself, and Saban didn't appreciate that -- not one bit.

Saban isn't naive. He understands that there were internal issues that led to a shocking finish to last season for the Crimson Tide.

Well before the season started, it was a foregone conclusion that Alabama would be playing in its third straight BCS title game. Then came Auburn and Chris Davis' last-second, country-shaking kick-six that shattered the Tide's dreams. More than a month later, Oklahoma trumped Alabama by 14 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It was far from the dream ending a veteran-laden team envisioned.

“We obviously didn’t have the right stuff to finish the season the way we needed to finish it," Saban said. "I think we knew when we were going to play the last game of the season that if we were successful in that, we’d play in the SEC championship game. If we were successful in that, we’d play in the national championship game. We in effect were in a playoff.

"Just like in the NCAA basketball tournament, you know you’re in a playoff, you better win the games or you don’t win the next game. Our players understood that and I don’t think that we finished the way that we would have liked to and I don’t think that we always quite did the things late in the season that we needed to do to be able to finish the way we wanted to, for whatever reasons."

Very strong and very honest words from Saban. Despite the talent and veteran leadership sprinkled throughout last year's roster, Alabama just didn't have the killer instinct that made the two championship teams so good and so dominant.

Now, Alabama is without its veteran quarterback and a slew of other older players heading into the 2014 season, but it is still seen as the SEC's top team and a legitimate contender to make -- and win -- the College Football Playoff.

This time around, you better believe Saban will make it a point to eradicate any sort of complacency that might creep in.

“There are some real lessons to be learned for our future teams and certainly this year’s team that we may be able to do it better in the future," he said.
As the 2014 NFL draft drew to a close last Saturday, I could still hear Joe Pendry’s prophetic words in the press box on Nov. 5, 2011.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
Scott Donaldson/Icon SMIC.J. Mosley was taken in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens.
Pendry, who had just retired the previous year as Alabama’s offensive line coach, said there was a very simple reason that nobody could score a touchdown that night in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

“Look out there on the field, and probably 20 of the 22 defensive starters will be playing in the NFL,” said Pendry, who was an offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans before ending his career in the college ranks.

Turns out, he might have undersold just how much talent was on the field, which in my 20-plus years of covering the SEC is unquestionably the gold standard for premium defensive talent on the field together at one time.

In that game alone, which LSU won 9-6 in overtime, there were 28 defensive players who played in the game -- 14 on each side -- who would get drafted. That includes 10 first-rounders.

The grand total of future draftees who played in the game was 42, and that doesn’t even count another handful of players who made NFL rosters as undrafted free agents.

“You don’t see that every Saturday,” said Phil Savage, former Cleveland Browns general manager and current executive director of the Senior Bowl.

“That’s why it was a tug-of-war in the middle of the field, all those future pros on defense. We call it a logo game. Neither offense could move the ball very far past the logo at midfield.”

Savage, the color man on Alabama’s radio broadcasts, remembers doing interviews leading up to that epic No. 1-versus-No. 2 encounter and estimating that 40 to 50 players from the game would end up playing in the NFL.

“It’s as close to an NFL game as you’re ever going to see in terms of a college matchup, with so many future NFL players on each side,” Savage said.

The two teams wound up playing twice that season. Alabama avenged its only loss by beating LSU 21-0 in the BCS National Championship in New Orleans. Alabama finished No. 1 nationally that season in scoring defense, and LSU was No. 2. Between them, they gave up 27 touchdowns in 27 games.

The only games in Savage’s recent memory that would come close to that Alabama-LSU affair in terms of producing NFL draft picks were the Florida State-Miami game in 2000 and the Miami-Ohio State BCS National Championship game to cap the 2002 season.

Miami beat Florida State 27-24 in 2000, snapping the Seminoles’ 26-game regular-season winning streak.

In the next three drafts, Miami produced 26 draft choices, although not all of those players played in that 2000 game. For instance, Willis McGahee and Jerome McDougle redshirted in 2000, and Clinton Portis was injured and didn’t play.

Florida State, over the next three drafts, produced 18 draft choices.

But in one game, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever see 42 future draft choices again on the field playing, and certainly not 28 on defense.

As a comparison, in that FSU-Miami game in 2000, there were a total of 17 defensive players who would end up being drafted.

Now, when it comes to one team, good luck in trumping Miami’s 2001 national championship team. The Hurricanes had 16 players from that team who would go on to be first-round picks.

Here’s a look at the draftees from that Alabama-LSU game in 2011:

ALABAMA

[+] EnlargeBarkevious Mingo
AP Photo/David RichardBarkevious Mingo was one of the many LSU defenders on the 2011 team that was drafted.
2014 draft
2013 draft
2012 draft
LSU

2014 draft
2013 draft
2012 draft
For the eighth consecutive year, the SEC led all conferences with the most NFL draft picks. When all was said and done on Saturday, the SEC had 49 former athletes selected. In 2013, the SEC had a league-record 63 players drafted, and after last year's draft, the league averaged 48.9 players drafted since 2006.

So I guess that whole run of seven straight BCS national championships had some real weight to it, huh?

The last time the SEC didn't lead the nation in draft picks was 2006, when the league had 37 players taken and the Big Ten had 41. This year, the SEC's only real competition in the draft was the ACC, which had 42 players taken.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJadeveon Clowney is the fourth SEC player to be taken first in the draft since 2006.
On Thursday, the SEC led the rest of the conferences with 11 first-round draft picks, including having Jadeveon Clowney selected No. 1 overall by the Houston Texans. Clowney became the fourth player from the SEC to be taken first in the draft since 2006. The SEC also had four players taken within the first 10 picks of the draft.

LSU led the SEC and the rest of the country with nine draft selections. Alabama was second with eight draft picks.

Every SEC team was represented in the draft, and here's a breakdown of how each school fared:

  • Alabama -- 8
  • Arkansas -- 4
  • Auburn -- 4
  • Florida -- 4
  • Georgia -- 2
  • Kentucky -- 1
  • LSU -- 9
  • Mississippi State -- 1
  • Missouri -- 4
  • Ole Miss -- 1
  • South Carolina -- 2
  • Tennessee -- 3
  • Texas A&M -- 3
  • Vanderbilt -- 3

After all the Johnny Manziel drama from the first night of the draft, the SEC had no shortage of intrigue during the next two days of the draft. Everyone waited for AJ McCarron to get drafted in the second round, but he didn't hear his name until the fifth round (No. 164 by the Cincinnati Bengals), and after Aaron Murray was taken a spot ahead by the Kansas City Chiefs. Zach Mettenberger, the quarterback many thought would go first from the SEC, was selected in the sixth round (No. 178) by the Tennessee Titans.

And perhaps the biggest news from the last two days was Michael Sam becoming the first openly gay player to be selected in the draft. The former Missouri defensive end -- and SEC defensive player of the year -- was selected in the seventh round (N0. 249) by the St. Louis Rams, and shared a powerful, historic and emotional scene on live television when he received the news.

It should come as no surprise that the SEC had yet another successful showing at the NFL draft. The league is absolutely stuffed with SEC talent. According to the SEC's official website, the SEC had 340 former players on active 53-man rosters on opening day of the 2013 season. Also, since 2006 the SEC has averaged nearly 280 players per year on NFL opening weekend rosters.

There were some surprising names not called during the three-day draft. Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, who were viewed as top cornerback prospects before the 2013 season, went undrafted, as did former top offensive line prospect Antonio Richardson from Tennessee. Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard and LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson also were left out.

Here's a look at the SEC players taken after Round 1:

ROUND 2

42. Jordan Matthews, WR ,Vanderbilt -- Philadelphia Eagles
44. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama -- Buffalo Bills
51. Ego Ferguson, DT, LSU -- Chicago Bears
55. Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
60. Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri -- Carolina Panthers
63. Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU -- Miami Dolphins
64. Justin Britt, OT, Missouri -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 3

75. Tre Mason, RB, Auburn -- St. Louis Rams
76. Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas -- Detroit Lions
81. Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State -- Oakland Raiders
90. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss -- Indianapolis Colts
92. Trai Turner, OG, LSU -- Carolina Panthers

ROUND 4

101. Jaylen Watkins, DB, Florida -- Philadelphia Eagles
106. Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina -- San Francisco 49ers
123. Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 5

151. Avery Williamson, LB, Kentucky -- Tennessee Titans
155. Arthur Lynch, TE, Georgia -- Miami Dolphins
156. Lamin Barrow, LB, LSU -- Denver Broncos
159. Chris Smith, DE, Arkansas -- Jacksonville Jaguars
160. Ed Stinson, DE, Alabama -- Arizona Cardinals
163. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia -- Kansas City Chiefs
164. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama -- Cincinnati Bengals
167. Vinnie Sunseri, S, Alabama -- New Orleans Saints
169. Ronald Powell, LB, Florida -- New Orleans Saints
173. Wesley Johnson, OT, Vanderbilt -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 6

177. Jeoffrey Pagan, DE, Alabama -- Houston Texans
178. Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU -- Tennessee Titans
179. Jon Halapio, OG, Florida -- New England Patriots
181. Alfred Blue, RB, LSU -- Houston Texans
188. E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams
193. Zach Fulton, OG, Tennessee -- Kansas City Chiefs
211. Jay Prosch, FB, Auburn -- Houston Texans
215. Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 7

216. Andre Hal, S, Vanderbilt -- Houston Texans
227. Kiero Small, FB, Arkansas -- Seattle Seahawks
228. Zach Hocker, K, Arkansas -- Washington Redskins
239. James Wright, WR, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
249. Michael Sam, DE, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams
Four SEC quarterbacks are expected to be selected later this week in the 2014 NFL draft, and there’s a chance it could be five if South Carolina’s Connor Shaw is snatched up in the later rounds.

Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel is obviously the SEC’s big-ticket quarterback in this draft and could go in the top 10 picks.

Alabama’s AJ McCarron, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger and Georgia’s Aaron Murray all figure to be off the board by the fourth round.

Even though the SEC might not be known as a quarterback league, this would mark the ninth time in the last 12 years that an SEC quarterback would be taken in the first round -- assuming Johnny Football does indeed get the call on Thursday. That doesn’t count Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill, who was a first-round pick in 2012, because Tannehill never played in the SEC.

Granted, just because a quarterback is drafted high doesn’t mean he’s destined for NFL success. See JaMarcus Russell.

By the same token, if a quarterback isn’t drafted high (or even at all), that doesn’t mean he won’t have a successful NFL career. See Tom Brady.

The SEC school that has produced the most drafted quarterbacks, at least over the last 40 years, is LSU. The Tigers have had eight quarterbacks drafted since 1990 and 10 since 1970. Mettenberger would be the 11th.

Not far behind is Alabama, which has had eight quarterbacks drafted since 1970. However, the last Alabama quarterback to be drafted in the first round was Richard Todd in 1976. Unless McCarron goes higher than expected this year, that’s a drought that will continue.

Speaking of droughts, the last Mississippi State quarterback to be drafted, period, was Dave Marler in 1979. That’s the longest such drought in the league.

The only school even close to that drought is South Carolina. The last Gamecocks quarterback to be taken in the NFL draft was Todd Ellis in 1990. Ellis, now the play-by-play man on South Carolina’s radio broadcasts, played for the Gamecocks before they were in the SEC.

Since 1996, the SEC has had at least one quarterback selected in every draft with the exception of 2012. Again, Tannehill isn't included.

Here’s a look at the SEC first-round picks at quarterback going back to 1970:

SEC lunchtime links

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
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Football has taken a back seat this week to the storms that have ravaged parts of the Southeast, but in case you missed anything, here’s a look at the latest news and notes across the SEC.
  • Former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron says NFL teams are telling him he could be a first-round pick.
  • Auburn coach Gus Malzahn will serve as the honorary pace car driver for Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.
  • Florida is ranked worse than 100th nationally in passing offense the past two years, but coach Will Muschamp believes this year’s wide receivers can help change that.
  • Hutson Mason has established himself as the starting quarterback for Georgia, but who will back him up?
  • The SEC athletic directors voted to keep the eight-game conference schedule, but an argument can be made for both the ACC and the SEC to go to 10-game schedules.
  • Quarterback Patrick Towles arrived at Kentucky with high expectations, but when the Mr. Football winner had to make mechanical changes, he didn’t flinch.
  • Former LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson displays his golden pipes by signing a draft tune (video).
  • With the new policy requiring SEC schools to schedule a 'Big 5' opponent, Mississippi State has a small window to add a marquee game for 2016.
  • Tennessee coach Butch Jones believes the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry is one of the top rivalries in the country and "the best rivalry in the SEC."

SEC lunchtime links

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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Plenty going on as spring practices continue in the SEC. We have pro days, coaching talk, players adapting to new positions and even reality TV news in today's lunch links:
Somewhere, Broadway Joe is smiling.

Former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron isn’t shedding the limelight, he’s running toward it as he and Katherine Webb will be the focus of a reality show documenting their impending nuptials, according to The Auburn Plainsman.

Don’t worry, football fans. It won’t be all dresses and bouquets. The show will also follow McCarron’s path to the NFL.

According to the report, Alan Webb, Katherine’s father, said he didn’t know that the show was happening until recently. However, he promised that it would be “a wholesome one for sure.”

The wedding is set for July 11, so set your DVRs.

“From what I understood, it came from someone else,” Laurie Webb, Katherine’s sister, told The Auburn Plainsman. “I don’t think they were trying to get into a reality show, I think they just had the opportunity and decided to take it.”

McCarron, for his part, took to Twitter to explain his role in the future show, which is to say he doesn't appear to want one.
Brandon Allen. Nick Marshall. Bo Wallace.

That’s it. That’s the list.

Only three quarterbacks who started double-digit games last season return to the SEC this fall, and one of them isn’t even guaranteed to be a starter.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLes Miles and Nick Saban are in no hurry to name their starting QBs for the fall.
Everywhere you turn in this league, there’s a quarterback competition underway, from Alabama to Georgia, Arkansas to Kentucky, LSU to Texas A&M. Maty Mauk is surely the presumptive starter at Missouri, but even he's not a sure thing. Gary Pinkel says he wants competition, never mind that there were times when Mauk looked better than former starter James Franklin.

But not every coach in the SEC approaches the quarterback position the same way. A quick glance across the league shows a variety of opinions about how to pick a starter.

Mark Stoops is the most urgent-minded coach of the bunch, and given the inconsistency Kentucky had at quarterback last season, it’s easy to understand why. Entering his second season, Stoops said: “I’d love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means everyone is in the mix. Maxwell Smith can’t practice while he recovers from shoulder surgery, but Jalen Whitlow, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and even true freshman Drew Barker are in the hunt.

Barker, a four-star prospect according to ESPN, “has a very good opportunity to take control of it,” Stoops said, praising his maturity for such a young quarterback.

“He’s a guy [who] has high expectations [for] himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position,” Stoops said. “He’s excited about the opportunity, and I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Bret Bielema isn’t outwardly putting a timetable on anything at Arkansas, but he’s encouraging everyone to compete. Allen started 11 games last season but was up and down, with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Bielema was about as no-nonsense as any coach gets about the situation.

“In theory, the first time we yell out for the [first string, Allen is] going to step out there,” Bielema said before the start of spring practice. “But really, in our program, the competition brings the best out of people.

“So B.A. is going to be the first guy in with the ones, but there will be other guys who get opportunity,” he continued. “Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.”

Similar to the case at Kentucky, Bielema isn’t counting out his true freshman. Rafe Peavey, another highly-regarded four-star prospect, is going to be allowed to sink or swim. Bielema loves his talent and praised him as a “football junkie.” But he’s not pampering the rookie.

“It’s no different between the right tackle or the quarterback or the safety,” Bielema said. “It’s all about what a freshman can handle, how they adjust to adversity and how they enjoy success.

“The quarterback gets a lot of attention. They’re usually really pretty, really smart, and everybody likes them. But in reality, they’re like everybody else. Those that play well will play and those that don’t will sit.”

While Bielema and Stoops are anxious for a battle, other coaches around the league are more inclined to sit back and wait.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWho will replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's QB? Kevin Sumlin isn't saying anything right now.
LSU coach Les Miles said he has a good sense of the competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. “But it always plays out,” he said, harkening back to when Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell duked it out eight years ago. It looked like Flynn had the job in hand after winning a bowl game and watching Russell come into camp out of shape in 2006. But Flynn's body faltered down the stretch and Russell kept going, eventually winning the job.

"I want all the quarterbacks to know that it’s going to be given to no one,” Miles said. “[It’s] earned by the one that plays."

Texas A&M and Alabama are taking similar approaches to replacing Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron. In fact, both Kevin Sumlin and Nick Saban are somewhat defiant about holding the cards close to the vest.

Sumlin has gloated before that when people assumed Jameill Showers would beat out Manziel in 2013, "I didn't name a starter [after spring]; y'all did."

So while we watch Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen jockey for position, don’t expect a starter to be named until close to the season.

Saban, for his part, doesn’t want to hear anything about it. His quarterback competition is essentially on hold until the fall, when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Before the start of spring practice, Saban laid out his plan, saying, “Let me be very clear about this: We’re not going to be in a hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”

“You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback,” he added, “and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.’ ”

The only place in the SEC that doesn’t have to be patient in the matter is South Carolina. Coach Steve Spurrier named Dylan Thompson the starter well before spring practice ever began.

Replacing Connor Shaw won’t be easy, but Spurrier said that Thompson was the guy for the job, no question. A fifth-year senior with plenty of in-game experience, Spurrier didn’t have a doubt in his mind.

“I didn’t know there was any question about it,” he said. “Someone said, ‘You’re just naming him the starting quarterback?’ Well, I just said, ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t we?’ ”

Spurrier did it his way. Saban and Sumlin are doing it theirs. Stoops is anxious, and Bielema and Pinkel are only interested in the competition.

Recruiting a quarterback is the furthest thing from an exact science. Finding out who’s ready to start is even more inexact.

This might be the season of new quarterbacks in the SEC, but everywhere there’s a different sense of which way the wind blows.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It started out innocently enough as Alabama coach Nick Saban ribbed the media on Monday about returning from spring break. He acted surprised when one reporter said she didn't take the time off, noting sarcastically how, "You really appreciate them when you work hard."

The jab was obvious as he gave a sly look around the room as if to say that hard work was a foreign concept to the press. One writer quipped, "Why are you looking down here?"

A smirk from Saban: "I don't know. I'm wondering."

The playful mood lasted a hiccup longer and then it was back to business as Saban said how his players were starting to worry too much about the depth chart, followed by a news flash: “We really don’t have a depth chart.”

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsFighting expectations and speculation during spring practice is nothing new to Nick Saban.
Later on came the question that really set him off.

Saban can talk about X’s and O's all day. The problem is there’s hardly anything concrete about spring practice. There’s no game film, no stat book, no players of the week. Without a depth chart, there’s only who’s getting better and who’s getting worse. And without results, that’s a matter of opinion.

But Saban isn’t fond of conjecture. He’s even less fond of appearances, apparently.

“What does appear mean?” Saban said, responding to a question about the perceived depth of his defensive line. “It just means you’ve dreamed about it and it’s there?”

A quick clarification before he fired back: “What it looks like on paper? We’ve never seen these guys play or seen them take on an SEC lineman. But it appears.”

He continued, putting a point on the matter: “That’s how we form public opinion because something appears to be that way and everyone believes it.”

Such was a sneak peek into the mind of Saban. There’s no room in there for what could be. There’s a standard he’s trying to uphold and anything that takes him away from that -- say, speculation -- isn’t tolerated.

It’s an odd conundrum to have a program that loathes appearances while at the same time being such an object of speculation. It’s like a celebrity shunning the paparazzi. You want to avoid them but they’re always there.

Alabama is nonetheless wrought with pressure from the outside. Inside the bubble of the football offices it’s all business, but everywhere around there’s immense expectations and boundless conjecture about wins, losses, championships and future stars.

Saban might claim to not have a depth chart, but every day is a constant battle for fans to determine who the starters will be on a team that loses two starting offensive linemen, two veteran receivers, two high-profile linebackers and three key contributors in the secondary. Oh, and there’s also the small matter of AJ McCarron leaving a vacancy at starting quarterback -- just don’t ask Saban about that race because he’ll tell you to hold your horses and be patient.

Take for instance the question about the defensive line. Saban might not see his group in a good light today, but when you look at the depth Alabama has up front on defense, it’s scary. A’Shawn Robinson was one of the most impressive rookies in the SEC last season. He’s joined by Jonathan Allen, another true freshman who was promising off the bench. Brandon Ivory is back at nose guard, Darren Lake returns as his backup and there are a number of options to bring in the rotation around them. Dalvin Tomlinson, when healthy, has the potential to be a game changer. And we haven’t even mentioned the return of former Freshman All-SEC choice D.J. Pettway and the eventual arrival of five-star Da’Shawn Hand.

List those names all you want, just don’t expect Saban to sing their praise. It’s simply not his way to buy into the hype.

“I’m not satisfied with the way any of them are playing, if you want to know the truth about it," Saban said of his D-line. "They’ve got to be more aggressive, physical, play with better leverage, hold the point better, rush the passer better. I didn’t think that last year was one of our best years up front, and even though we have a couple new players competing and Dalvin Tomlinson back, I think all of them have a ways to go. A’Shawn Robinson has a lot of ability, but I think we need to get him in shape and he’s got to play with better focus and intensity down in and down out to be more consistent.

"So defensively we have a ways to go to improve to get back to the level and our standard of what we like to play here.”

Though sometimes it feels like Saban is constantly fighting with reporters, he’s not. The speculation extends far beyond the walls of the media room and the pages of newspapers. It’s all the talk that drives Saban nuts because it has a way of reaching his players, inflating their egos long before they’ve earned their stripes. Remember Saban’s comment about the depth chart? That came unsolicited, a direct shot at his team one floor below in the locker room.

What Saban is fighting is the standard. While others are taking time off, he’s busy worrying about the next move, not the next question about how things appear.

How it looks on paper? He’d rather see how it looks with his eyes, and then he’ll get back to you.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Whether he’s beginning the process of defending a national championship or rebounding from a disappointing season, Nick Saban remains the same.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban and the Crimson Tide
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDespite some new faces at Alabama, Nick Saban is a creature of habit whose goals remain the same.
After five decades coaching college football, he’s become a creature of habit. Every time he opens practice at the University of Alabama, it looks the same. There’s an order to it. Each position group is where it's supposed to be. Every player's actions are accounted for. It’s like clockwork. There are no wasted movements. Every moment goes according to his plan.

And, as it turns out, Saban’s process boils all the way down to what he puts on in the morning. Whether it’s been by design or not, the notoriously meticulous head coach has worn the same exact outfit for the first day of spring practice ever since 2008. This year was no different.

A new group of players and coaches walked onto the Thomas-Drew Practice Field for the first time on Saturday afternoon. AJ McCarron was gone from under center, C.J. Mosley was no longer captaining the defense and a number of other familiar faces were noticeably absent. But Saban remained. He put on the same red sweater, khaki pants and nondescript sneakers he’s worn for the first day of spring practice the past seven years. He donned the same straw hat he’s used every year since then, too, with the exception of a rainy day in 2009 that forced his team indoors.

Anyone looking for Alabama to change after ending last season with two losses will be disappointed. Saban may have a new roster, a new coaching staff and a new set of challenges, but his demeanor is exactly the same. His goals haven’t fluctuated: create incremental improvement and focus on what he calls “consistency in performance," which is his process, in a nutshell.

“The first practice is always a sort of work in progress for everybody. [It's] new players learning where to go, old players trying to get back into the swing of things," Saban said.

He used the phrase “work in progress” three times during a hurried seven-minute news conference. He was in a rush, one of his staffers said, because there were a number of recruits he needed to visit with. He went through the motions, answered three questions and was off. With the exception of one position change (ArDarius Stewart at safety) and a few roster moves (Harrison Jones, Chad Lindsay and Jai Miller are gone), it was business as usual.

Saban said he was pleased with the way his team responded to the offseason conditioning program and was eager to see how spring practice would play out. Re-establishing the fundamentals will be the focus for the first few days, he explained, and then they’ll get into the playbook. He made no mention of last season, the last-second loss at Auburn or the poor showing against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It has weighed heavily into the national conversation, but it’s clear Saban has moved on.

“Players have to develop the discipline to sustain so we finish practice, finish games, finish quarters, finish halves like we really want to,” he said.

Trey DePriest, however, is using last season as inspiration. He was on the field when the Sooners embarrassed his defense in New Orleans, racking up 45 points and 429 yards. He was on the sidelines a month earlier when Chris Davis went 109 yards to steal an Iron Bowl win and an undefeated season away from the Tide. The last time Auburn dealt Alabama such a blow, a motivational poster was made as a reminder. “Never Again,” it read, along with a grinning picture of Cam Newton. The next year Alabama destroyed Auburn, went 12-1 and won a national championship.

“Guys are just a lot more hungry,” DePriest said. “We didn’t finish the season like we wanted to. Guys knew that and they just took a different approach to it, and [we] are trying to get back to the standard to how we do stuff.”

Amari Cooper wasn’t around when Alabama was dealt a similar setback in 2010, losing three games after being ranked preseason No. 1. But the standout junior receiver has noticed a different motivation from his teammates this spring. The leaders are stepping up more, he said. What Saban is asking them to do -- “stay focused and finish” -- isn’t different from years past, but Cooper has seen a better focus from everyone.

[+] EnlargeJacob Coker
Jeff Gammons/Getty ImagesExpect the Crimson Tide's QB competition to heat up in May when Jacob Coker arrives.
What remains to be seen is how that sustains itself and translates into results. Cooper doesn’t have McCarron throwing him the football anymore. Doug Nussmeier is no longer his offensive coordinator. He now has five unknown candidates at quarterback, a sixth on the way and a coordinator with a somewhat checkered past. So far, Cooper said, he’s enjoyed the change, noting how Lane Kiffin has simplified the offense and made it more “player-friendly.”

As far as the quarterback battle, he thinks that will be fine, too.

“It’s not weird,” he said. “It’s just a quarterback competition. I think schools have that every year.”

But Alabama isn’t any school. Not when you win three of the past five national championships. Not when your head coach is Nick Saban and losing two games is a disappointment.

The quarterback competition may be simmering on the back burner now, but it’s going to heat up when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives in May. As far as Saban is concerned, he’d like to keep that on the periphery. He’s going to be asked 1,000 times about it, and 1,000 times he’s going to give the same answer: “We’re going to wait and see.”

If you’re looking for Saban to give into the pressure of naming a starter before he’s ready, you’ll be disappointed. As with everything else he’s done as a head coach, he’s doing this on his own terms. His process is set, his plan is laid out, and after five decades of coaching, there’s no changing it. When a man wears the same thing for seven years in a row, you have to expect some consistency from him.
Editor’s note: This is final part in a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Alabama this spring.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There’s a lot that stands to happen during spring practice at Alabama, but naming a starting quarterback isn’t one of them. Nick Saban has made it clear he and his staff are in no rush to find AJ McCarron’s replacement under center, adding that it would only be fair to give every quarterback a shot at winning the job. That, of course, comes as a nod to the only quarterback not yet on campus, soon-to-be Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, who should finish his degree and get to campus in May.

[+] EnlargeJacob Coker
Jeff Gammons/Getty ImagesJacob Coker, despite the fact he won't be on campus in time for spring practice, looks like the favorite in the race to replace AJ McCarron.
“We're not going to be in any hurry to decide who the quarterback is,” Saban told reporters last week. “We're going to give everybody a lot of opportunity to compete. You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback, and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and sees.’ "

If Coker wasn’t the frontrunner to land the job, why wait? Why not have the quarterback competition begin in earnest now and let the chips fall where they may? Is it really fair to make those already on campus wait? If one of them looks like the starter this spring, would it be right to hold off on making that decision? Wouldn't some continuity benefit everyone involved?

The inevitable answer to nearly every question surrounding Alabama’s quarterback competition is that Coker -- barring someone coming out of nowhere -- will remain the favorite through spring practice and on into fall camp. From everything that’s been reported, he might be the most talented option on the roster. And after three years at a very similar offensive system at Florida State, he might be the most experienced option on the roster, too.

But all that is not to say that someone can’t make a name for himself this spring. The quarterbacks currently in camp aren’t chopped liver, remember. They are all talented and eager and have the benefit of a head start. Should someone perform well and catch the eye of the coaching staff during these next 15 practices, he very well could get a leg up on Coker and the rest of the competition heading into the fall.

So who is best equipped to do that? Let’s handicap the race, ranking the quarterbacks from most likely to succeed to least.

1. Cooper Bateman: Long time, no see. You came to Alabama early in 2013 as a highly regarded prospect, the No. 3 pocket passer in the ESPN 300. Since then, we haven’t heard much from you. Of the two guys ESPN ranked above you -- USC’s Max Browne and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg -- one has already won a starting job and the other is competing for one this spring. Can you do the same? You redshirted last season, which is normal for first-year quarterbacks, but what did you learn in that time? Did it mean anything to you when Alabama went and signed another blue-chip quarterback, David Cornwell? Did you think anything of Alabama then going out and getting Coker from Florida State? There has already been one highly thought of quarterback like you come to Tuscaloosa, fall behind and transfer (former No. 1 QB prospect Phillip Sims). Will you do the same? Or will you show us what made you a top recruit only a year ago?

2. Alec Morris: What are we to think of you, Alec? On the one hand, you look the part. You’re a big dude at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, bigger than any Alabama quarterback on campus last year. And when you rear back to throw the football, it has some zip on it. Redshirting your first year on campus didn’t hurt you, but your lack of pass attempts last season -- as in, zero -- doesn’t bode well. If Blake Sims really isn’t the guy for the job this season, why didn’t you play ahead of him? You got into one game all season, while he got into eight and threw the ball 29 times. None of those passes was meaningful, the game always being well in hand by the time he stepped on the field, so why not give those valuable reps to you and get you ready for 2014? The hope for you is that last year was no indication of future success, but that’s a tough thesis to subscribe to.

3. Parker McLeod: We don’t know much about you, Parker, except that you’re supposedly very smart, very tall and have red hair. None of that’s going to hurt you. Heck, Greg McElroy had the same hue of hair. But on a more serious note, you weren’t as highly regarded as your fellow Class of 2013 quarterback. You were a three-star prospect and the fifth-best quarterback in the state of Georgia, according to ESPN. Still, you’re a wild card after redshirting your first year on campus. We didn’t see much of you. You have good size (6-3, 193 pounds) and you do have that red hair going for you. Now build on that.

4. Blake Sims: Sorry, Blake. It’s understood that you’re the most experienced man for the job. With 18 games under your belt at quarterback and all of last season as McCarron’s top backup, you probably understand the offense better than most. You’re definitely the most athletic.You’re dangerous when you run the read-option and get the ball into open space. The problem is we don’t know what you can do throwing the football, especially from the confines of the pocket. Until we see that, it’s hard to say you’re the man for the job -- not for a coaching staff that values balance on offense.

5. David Cornwell: You’re talented, sure. Big, strong, a cannon for an arm; you have the look of an SEC quarterback down the road. But right now you’re too young. You just got on campus in January and, on top of that, you missed much of your senior season in high school with a knee injury. You say your rehab has gone well and you’re ready to compete, but that’s asking a lot. The good news for you is that everyone will be starting from scratch under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. The question is whether you can pick up your first college playbook faster than those that have been doing it longer than you.

SEC's lunch links

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
12:00
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LSU, Missouri, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt have all opened spring practice. Forget one day closer to the weekend, we're one day closer to more teams around the SEC starting camp. Alabama gets going on Saturday and Arkansas will follow suit on Sunday.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The recruiting classes have all been spectacular since Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2007. Simply put, there hasn’t been a better program in college football at gathering, signing and developing blue-chip recruits over the past decade or so.

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
AP Photo/Greg TrottFormer Alabama tailback Trent Richardson was ranked as the No. 6 prospect in the Class of 2009.
But all we’ve done the past few days has led us to answer this difficult question: Which class was the best and most impactful of Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa? The 2008 class started it all with guys like Julio Jones and Mark Ingram, and the 2011 class had upward of nine future NFL players with potential first-round picks Cyrus Kouandjio and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. And all that goes without mentioning the three consecutive No. 1-ranked classes from 2012-14 that are still in the process of maturing.

So determining the best class, in that context, was not easy. Our Nos. 2 and 3 classes both had arguments for the top spot. But ultimately the decision was simple: The Class of 2009 was too talented and too deep to keep from coming out No. 1 on our list. Too many current and future professional players dotted the 30-man signing class to ignore.

There was not only the drama of Trent Richardson’s announcement (Saban was uncharacteristically “elated, ecstatic, happy and really pleased," when he signed), but there was also the risk of taking just one quarterback in the class. Obviously, that maneuver paid off as AJ McCarron became arguably the most decorated quarterback in SEC history.

“We thought AJ McCarron was an outstanding prospect in our state,” Saban told reporters way back on Feb. 4, 2009. “Once he committed to us, we felt like someone had to be at least as good as him or better if we were going to take another player at that position. I think that is just kind of how it worked out.”

As it turned out there wasn’t anyone better. And it's just one reason why the 2009 class should go down as the most impactful of Saban’s tenure at Alabama.

The stars: McCarron has the chance to go down as the best quarterback in Alabama history, surpassing Goliath's like Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler and Jay Barker. With two championships as a starter and a slew of passing records to his name, he’s clearly the headliner of the class. But he’s not alone, not by a long shot. Richardson was the No. 1 running back in the country and became the first back taken in the 2012 NFL Draft, going third overall. The second running back Alabama took -- the lesser known Eddie Lacy -- would get drafted a year later and become the Offensive Rookie of the Year with the Green Bay Packers in 2013. On the other side of the ball, Dre Kirkpatrick lived up to the hype as the No. 1 cornerback in the country, going in the first round of the draft to the Cincinnati Bengals. And Chance Warmack surpassed all expectations when he rose from a midlevel college prospect to the top offensive guard in the country to a first round pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2013.

[+] EnlargeDre Kirkpatrick
AP Photo/David KohlAlabama signed three prospects ranked in the top 12 of the Class of 2009, including cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (No. 4).
The contributors: Anthony Steen was much more than a contributor, but considering how he came to Alabama as the No. 39 defensive tackle in the country it’s a wonder he developed into a three-year starter at guard and a hopeful NFL draft pick. His career was arguably more fruitful and definitely more consistent than that of D.J. Fluker, who went from being the No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2009 class to a first round pick of the San Diego Charger’s in 2013. Along with Steen, signees like Nico Johnson, Ed Stinson, Quinton Dial and Kevin Norwood carved out nice careers at Alabama with the type of accomplishments that would land them on the radar of NFL executives.

The letdowns: Compared to other top classes, there were very few letdowns to come from 2009’s crop of signees. Really, all of Alabama’s top five prospects panned out. Had Johnson not had C.J. Mosley behind him, his career might have been looked upon with more favor, and still he was a solid SEC linebacker who would get drafted in the fourth round by the Kansas City Chiefs. But there were some misses as Kendall Kelly never really caught on, Tana Patrick never became more than a sub off the bench, and Petey Smith never stuck around, transferring to a community college in 2011. The biggest whiff of all had to be Darrington Sentimore, though, and not because he was a heralded prospect like the others. The No. 20-ranked defensive tackle wound up transferring to a junior college and then on to Tennessee where he developed into one of the more disruptive defensive linemen in the SEC.

The results: All told, 13 of Alabama’s 30 signees in 2009 are playing in the NFL currently or have futures in the league in 2014. As far as percentages go, that’s a success rate even the most accomplished programs can be proud of. Churning out NFL prospects is one thing, though. Taking five-stars and sending them to the league isn’t unheard of. No, the most impressive thing was the depth of the class as a whole. Not only did blue-chip prospects like Kirkpatrick, McCarron and Richardson pan out, so did developmental recruits like Warmack, Steen, Norwood and Lacy. To have that range of success is almost unheard of. Saban and his staff really did it all with the 2009 class, not only signing the top talent in the country, but also doing the more difficult thing by developing many of them into accomplished players.

Will SEC defenses improve in 2014?

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
10:30
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With so much quarterback talent leaving the SEC after the 2013 season, it seems nearly impossible for the league's offenses to maintain their production from a year ago. There is simply too much to replace at the game's most important position to predict that SEC offenses won't experience at least a temporary efficiency gap.

Last fall featured a collection of some of the most productive SEC players who ever lined up under center -- led by 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, 2013 Heisman runner-up AJ McCarron and the league's all-time leading passer Aaron Murray. Throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw, LSU's Zach Mettenberger, Missouri's James Franklin and Vanderbilt's Austyn Carta-Samuels, and you have veterans who posted eye-popping numbers or who helped their teams ascend to rarely-seen heights in their respective programs' histories.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban and the Alabama defense will have their work cut out for them with the high-powered SEC offenses.
They're all gone now, leaving offensive coordinators at some of the league's most prominent programs to start over with new quarterbacks -- and in some cases, quarterbacks who haven't started a single game.

That has to help the league's defensive coaching staffs feel a bit more confident despite the thrashings their units absorbed over the last year or two, but I've got some bad news for them. Their problems are far from solved.

The last couple of seasons only continued a trend toward more explosive offense and away from the suffocating defense that was the SEC's trademark for many years. Just a few seasons ago, nearly every SEC defense ranked among the nation's top half in terms of yards allowed. That's no longer the case, as about half of the league's defenses trended toward the bottom in 2013 -- with Arkansas (76th), Missouri (81st), Tennessee (83rd), Auburn (86th), Kentucky (91st) and Texas A&M (109th) all ranking 75th or worse nationally in total defense.

Getting rid of some great quarterbacks will certainly help improve those numbers, but this is no longer the smashmouth, pound-the-run league that it once was. It's not as simple to defend what today's offenses throw at you as it was during the I-formation days of yore, and several SEC defenses have a long way to go before anyone would consider them competent at containing such attacks.

You have Gus Malzahn's ground-based spread at Auburn, which led the nation with 328.3 rushing yards per game and nearly carried the Tigers to a BCS crown. There's Missouri's version that featured one of the league's top rushing attacks and some dangerous (and huge) weapons at wideout. Kevin Sumlin's spread at Texas A&M obviously benefited from having Manziel as the triggerman, but the Aggies are still going to post big numbers even without Johnny Football.

And you've still got versatile offensive schemes such as those at Ole Miss, South Carolina and Georgia -- all of which will start senior quarterbacks -- that will almost certainly continue to produce on the ground and through the air. Wild cards LSU, Florida and Mississippi State also have the potential to be impressive on offense depending on how their quarterbacks and young skill players develop.

Add it all up and it still looks like 2014 will still be a promising year for SEC offenses, even if it might not match the production from a period that featured some of the league's best quarterback talent in at least a generation.

That said, the league will still have its share of defensive stalwarts, and that group might even grow a bit larger this fall.

Alabama's defense is always one of the best, and a talented Florida team should take a step forward after injuries crippled it a season ago. South Carolina, LSU and Mississippi State all look to be impressive, while Georgia returns most of its starters and scored points in convincing Jeremy Pruitt to defect from Florida State to become its new defensive coordinator.

Those groups should be fine. If the league is to recover some of its defensive reputation, however, it will be a matter of the league's worst defenses suddenly getting their acts together -- and that will be a tall order since some of them were truly awful last season.

So to answer the original question, will SEC defenses improve this season? Sure, but don't expect a defensive renaissance to occur anytime soon. As long as the league features this many innovative offensive minds and explosive playmakers, the days where most SEC teams dominated the national defensive rankings are not coming back.

SEC lunchtime links

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
12:00
PM ET
Forty-yard dash times and bench-press figures. Measuring height and weight down to the seventh of an inch. It's the annual meat-market bonanza known as the NFL combine and it came to you fast and furious throughout the weekend. When you're done scrolling through the day's SEC links, be sure to check out the rest of ESPN's NFL draft coverage at our combine headquarters.

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