Alabama Crimson Tide: AJ McCarron

SEC lunchtime links

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
12:00
PM ET
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.
video
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
PM ET
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
AM ET
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.
Over the span of their careers they threw for 48,824 passing yards. There were a total 403 touchdown passes among them, and they won 184 games in which they appeared, including 11 bowls and two national championships. They were, arguably, the most talented and productive class of quarterbacks ever to play in the SEC at one time. And now they’re all gone.

[+] EnlargeDylan Thompson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDylan Thompson saw a lot of playing time last season when Connor Shaw went out.
The SEC had to say goodbye to James Franklin, Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray and Connor Shaw in January. The void they leave behind is enormous, and while some programs already have an idea of who will take their place next season, not all are so lucky.

We’re counting down the five most pressing questions facing the SEC this spring, in no particular order of importance. First, how do you replace all the veteran quarterbacks the league enjoyed in 2013?

When spring camps open over the next few weeks -- the first being Texas A&M on Friday -- that question will begin to be answered. With each snap and each team meeting, leaders will emerge. Some staffs will look for a winner heading into the summer so they can avoid a quarterback controversy come fall, while others will have to sweat it out through the offseason.

Texas A&M: Surprises will undoubtedly occur, as we saw only a few years ago when a scrappy freshman from Kerrville, Texas, beat out the presumptive favorite to land the starting job at Texas A&M. The Aggies stumbled upon Manziel, and Jameill Showers was quickly forgotten. Kenny Hill and Matt Joeckel are this year’s frontrunners, but they’ll have competition in another freshman nipping at their heels in Kyle Allen. The Arizona native is more of a pure passer than a running quarterback, but he has the tools to sling the ball around in Kevin Sumlin’s offense.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier didn’t mince words when he saidDylan Thompson is “without question going to be our quarterback.” He even asked, “Why open it up when he’s the only one who’s played?” Thompson, a rising senior, doesn’t have the athleticism to break containment quite like Shaw, but Thompson can still move the chains with his feet when necessary. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound South Carolina native doesn’t lack for arm strength and might even have more pure throwing ability than Shaw. But where Thompson must match Shaw is intangibles. There wasn’t a more dynamic leader in the SEC than Shaw last year, and the Gamecocks will miss that kind of will power under center in 2014. While the starting job is Thompson’s to lose, don’t sleep on redshirt freshman Connor Mitch. The former four-star recruit could push Thompson this spring.

Missouri: The race to replace Franklin comes down to one quarterback and one quarterback alone: Maty Mauk. The rising redshirt sophomore showed last season that he can control the offense, starting four games in which he averaged 227.5 yards, 2.5 touchdowns and 0.5 interceptions per game. More importantly, he won three of the four games with the only loss coming in double overtime against South Carolina. He’ll learn from that experience and take over a team that will be moving on from the loss of big-time playmakers Henry Josey, L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas. Having the ultra-talented Dorial Green-Beckham back will help, but an arrest on drug charges in January has clouded his future.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cornwell
Courtesy of Cornwell familyEarly enrollee and former four-star recruit David Cornwell will get his shot at Alabama's starting QB job this spring.
LSU: The Tigers faithful got a sneak peek at their next quarterback, Anthony Jennings, after Mettenberger tore his ACL and was forced to miss LSU’s bowl game. The rising sophomore didn’t drop anyone’s jaw against Iowa, but he did just enough, throwing for 82 yards on 7 of 19 passing, while letting his supporting cast do the heavy lifting. At 6-2 and 205 pounds, Jennings has the look of a starting quarterback in the SEC. The former four-star recruit played sparingly in 2013, though, attempting just 10 passes prior to the Outback Bowl. He’ll have to contend with Brandon Harris, ESPN’s No. 37 overall prospect and No. 2 dual-threat passer in the 2014 class, along with rising senior Rob Bolden and rising sophomore Hayden Rettig.

Georgia: Despite what wasn’t a great performance to end last season -- 21-of-39 for 320 yards, a touchdown and an interception against Nebraska -- Hutson Mason is still the overwhelming favorite to replace Murray. Why? Because Mark Richt and the coaching staff have essentially been grooming Mason to take over for years now, redshirting him in 2012 so he would have a year left to play in 2014. Mason was once a three-star quarterback who put up huge numbers running the spread at Lassiter High School in nearby Marietta, and with Todd Gurley behind him, he won’t be asked to do too much his first year starting. While he might be a year away, don’t write off Faton Bauta just yet. The 6-3, 216-pound redshirt sophomore has impressed the staff with his work ethic and could find his way into some playing time.

Alabama: Oddly enough, the quarterback many presume will take over for McCarron won’t actually arrive until the summer. Jacob Coker, the heralded transfer from Florida State, will be a little late finishing his degree in Tallahassee, which leaves a big opportunity for the rest of Alabama’s quarterbacks to make a first impression. New offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will instead have his focus on Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman this spring. Sims, who best fits the mold of a run-first quarterback, has a lot of work ahead of him to prove he can play from the pocket. Morris, meanwhile, didn’t get much time as a redshirt freshman last season and needs to improve his decision-making from the last time we saw him at A-Day. Bateman and McLeod are relative unknowns after redshirting last season, but Bateman, a four-star recruit, does come with a lofty pedigree. The wild card is David Cornwell, the four-star recruit who enrolled in January and will benefit from the fresh start all of the quarterbacks will get under Kiffin.

SEC lunch links

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
12:00
PM ET
The SEC offseason is churning along. It's not nearly as exciting as Olympic women's hockey, but it's worth keeping an eye on.

SEC lunch links

February, 7, 2014
Feb 7
12:00
PM ET
As the week comes to a close, there’s still a buzz around national signing day. For the latest SEC news and notes, take a look around the league with Friday’s lunch links.
  • Nick Saban addressed comments made by AJ McCarron about certain five-star recruits, saying it was not an on-field issue because ‘none of those guys were playing.’
  • As coach Bret Bielema heads into his second season at Arkansas and second season in the SEC, he made it a point of emphasis to add strength up front with the Hogs’ 2014 class.
  • Auburn is losing three significant contributors in the secondary. To combat that, the coaches made it a priority in recruiting and focused on signing bigger defensive backs.
  • Florida’s new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has been on campus only a month, but he still had a profound impact on the Gators’ 2014 recruiting class.
  • Former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger was rising up draft boards this past season until a knee injury cut his senior campaign short. Now he has much to prove as he works towards recovery.
  • Mississippi State might not have had the best recruiting class based on rankings, but Dan Mullen stands by his recruiting record and his history of success with undervalued players.
  • In only its second season in the SEC, Missouri made it all the way to the SEC title game, so it’s no surprise that the Tigers’ latest recruiting class has some Southern flavor.
  • The odds were stacked against new Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, but he likes his 2014 class and a number of signees who can play multiple positions.
  • The faxes poured in Wednesday as recruits made it official where they were going, but for some players, they’re already enrolled and taking classes. Here’s a look at the SEC early enrollees for 2014.
We at the SEC Blog have spent the last two weeks ranking the top 25 players in the conference, beginning with Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines and wrapping up with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next five: wide receiver Amari Cooper, punter Cody Mandell, linebacker Adrian Hubbard, tight end O.J. Howard and cornerback Deion Belue.
The next player in our countdown should be plenty familiar with SEC fans. A three-year starter, he became the face of a program and a conference.

No. 5: AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama, Sr.

[+] EnlargeMcCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama signal-caller AJ McCarron led the Crimson Tide to a Sugar Bowl appearance in his final season as starter.
2013 summary: He went from a “game manager” to Heisman Trophy contender in the span of a season, ultimately finishing second to Jameis Winston in the award balloting. McCarron threw for 3,036 yards, 28 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Though a rough Sugar Bowl performance soured an otherwise successful senior season, he wind up a respectable 11th nationally in Adjusted QBR (82.7)

Most recent ranking: Ranked No. 4 in the 2013 preseason countdown

Making the case for McCarron: Aaron Murray had his moments. So did Zach Mettenberger and Connor Shaw. And, of course, Johnny Manziel stole the show plenty of times as well.

But McCarron was outdone by no one in 2013. It took a last-minute miracle for Auburn to hand Alabama its first loss of the season, and McCarron couldn’t be blamed for the defeat. His 99-yard go-ahead touchdown pass in the fourth quarter could have been the highlight of the night had Chris Davis not gone 109 yards for the win with no time left.

Still, McCarron was as good as ever. He became the first Alabama quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards, and he did it with a receiving corps that dealt with its fair share of injuries. He came up three touchdowns shy of breaking his own single-season record for touchdown passes, and he did it without the benefit of playing in the SEC Championship Game. In the end, McCarron became No. 1 in the Alabama record books for career wins, touchdowns thrown, passing yards and completion percentage.

These aren’t “lifetime achievement” awards we’re handing out, but it’s impossible to ignore the career McCarron had in Tuscaloosa.

The rundown:

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Saban: Peyton's Visit: 'Mutually Beneficial'
Alex Scarborough discusses Peyton Manning's visit to Alabama and what coach Nick Saban may have been hoping to gain.Tags: Alabama Crimson Tide, Denver Broncos, Peyton Manning, Nick Saban, Alex Scarborough
VIDEO PLAYLIST video