Alabama Crimson Tide: Alabama football

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's safe to assume that Eddie Jackson understands the opportunity ahead of him at Alabama. He can't say as much publicly because of the school's policy prohibiting freshmen from speaking to the media. But given all he's already gone through, it would be a wonder if he didn't look back on his road to Tuscaloosa and comprehend the enormous turnaround it took for him to get there.

It's a wonder he's wearing Alabama's signature crimson helmet in the first place. The fact that he's starting at cornerback for the defending national champions is something even more implausible considering where he was at this time last year.

Jackson needed a change of scenery before any of the chips fell into place. He likely learned the value of a fresh start from his brother, Demar Dorsey, a former blue-chip defensive back prospect who signed a letter of intent to play for Michigan in 2010 but never made it to Ann Arbor. Dorsey's past included poor grades and three felony charges that robbed him of the opportunity to play at a BCS-level football program. He failed to meet Michigan's standard for admission, announced he would transfer to Louisville, failed to make it there because of more issues and eventually landed at Grand Rapids Community College. Dorsey was supposed to transfer to Hawaii in 2012, but he never reached the Big Island and today is not listed on Hawaii's roster.

[+] EnlargeEddie Jackson
AP Photo/Dave MartinEddie Jackson was a virtual unknown in recruiting at this point last year. Now he's a key piece on defense for the No. 1 team in the country.
Wayne Blair knew of Dorsey's story when Jackson walked into his office at Boyd Anderson High in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., looking to transfer after becoming academically ineligible at his previous school. Blair saw Dorsey's "pitfalls" up close at nearby University School, where he was an assistant in 2009. He took a chance on Jackson, who was then a junior with serious eligibility issues. His grades were "way below normal standards," said Blair, who helped get Jackson eligible just in time for spring football.

Blair's investment and Jackson's hard work paid off instantly.

"He played free safety for us at the time," Blair said of the spring game against University School, a national powerhouse. "He had an interception, he returned one for a touchdown and then had another interception. And I realized then that I had something really, really special on my hands."

Jackson, though, had no college offers at the start of his senior season. Blair worked the phones, calling contacts at all the major conferences looking for someone to take a flier on his wide receiver/defensive back, a tall kid with enormous raw potential. Blair said he told them, "I got a guy that if I can get him NCAA eligible, you might want to go ahead and put your vested interest into him." Of course, no one took him seriously.

What Jackson did on the football field as a senior caught their attention, though, making him an increasingly rare sight in college recruiting: a late-blossoming prospect.

"Every game he either did something extraordinary offensively or completely excellent defensively or on special teams," Blair said. "And the buzz started growing as we had ourselves a good year. We went into the playoffs and he went off."

Jackson's grandmother passed away early in Boyd Anderson's postseason run. Blair said that's when "he went from good to great within a two-week span."

Blair had to chuckle when he retold his "folklore of Eddie Jackson" by telephone this week. He remembered how Florida State offered Jackson as a wide receiver, LSU wanted him as a defensive back and Miami looked at him as a wide receiver. Alabama had him strictly as a cornerback, though, drawn to his raw athleticism and 6-foot-1 frame.

"We thought Eddie was a good player," Alabama coach Nick Saban said Monday. "There were some academic questions and some of those things. We're always looking for longer corners, guys that have got a little bit more size. We had Maurice [Smith], who had committed to us. We were still looking for somebody else and we found Eddie. We'd known about Eddie, but we weren't sure we were going to be able to recruit him. As soon as we found out that he would be qualified and all that, we really jumped on him."

Being able to work closely with Saban, who coaches cornerbacks one-on-one at Alabama, was part of what swayed Jackson to sign with the Tide. The other factor was timing. With last season's top corner for Alabama, Dee Milliner, likely to enter the NFL draft and not much behind him in terms of depth, Jackson and Blair saw an opportunity to play right away.

"I knew he'd probably be jumping into the starting lineup; I just didn't know when," Blair said. "I was thinking by Week 6. Low and behold, here we are."

Blair's prediction was off by two weeks. Jackson accomplished the improbable, learning enough of Alabama's complicated defensive scheme by Week 4 that he was inserted into the starting lineup against Colorado State.

A week later he proved that his first start wasn't a fluke opportunity against a cupcake opponent, starting again against No. 21 Ole Miss. On Saturday, Jackson was fourth on the team in tackles, had two pass breakups and a key interception against the Rebels, prompting senior cornerback Deion Belue after the game to say, "We finally found a piece to our secondary so that we all can come together."

"He fit in perfectly," said safety Vinnie Sunseri. "Having Jarrick [Williams] and Deion [Belue] back was a huge part of it, too, but Eddie in there, and him getting comfortable and getting that one pick, kind of gave him that confidence booster that he needed. He played unbelievable. I was so proud of him."

Jackson's first-half interception was a defining moment. The rookie corner whiffed on Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss' veteran wideout, on the previous play, allowing a 36-yard gain and a first down. Coach Hugh Freeze then reached into his bag of tricks, calling for a backward pass to Laquon Treadwell, who looked toward Jackson's side of the field for a pass. But Jackson didn't bite on the fake, stuck to his assignment and secured the ball for the takeaway.

"He did everything perfect," Sunseri said. "He jammed the guy off the line, stayed, stepped in the divider, and he threw one right to him and he got the pick. It was a great momentum swing for us."

Saban, who covets long, aggressive corners such as Jackson, was pleased. He and his staff had been searching for an answer at the position after John Fulton and Cyrus Jones were torched by Texas A&M and Mike Evans, and in Jackson it appears they've found someone to work with. He's still just a freshman, but he's already done more in one game than all but Belue, Alabama's top on-ball defender.

"He played well," Saban said of Jackson. "Made a couple of mistakes, but I thought that most of those were because of communication, which is one of the things that we emphasize, where he wasn't sure about what the call was. But when it came to just his technique and what he was supposed to do and the way he competed in the game, I thought he did a really good job."

Blair, who talks to Jackson regularly, said it's now "his position to lose."

"Before it's all said and done, he could end up being the prototype defensive back like that guy over at Seattle, Richard Sherman," he said. "You have a tall, smart kid with good range, good hips. He can end up being the prototype Coach Saban has been looking for."

Reading into Blair's comments, it's clear he thinks that development could happen quickly. And why shouldn't it? It might seem improbable, but everything about Jackson's journey, going from academically ineligible with no college offers to a top prospect signing a letter of intent with Alabama, has been just that.

Jackson turned it around in a hurry in high school. What's to say he can't take the next step in just as timely a fashion? He's certainly showed he's no stranger to making the most of an opportunity.

Week 4 helmet stickers

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
9:00
AM ET
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- No. 1 Alabama had a rocky go of it but wound up getting the job done on Saturday night, beating Colorado State 31-6 in the Crimson Tide's home opener.

During the course of the action, a few players stood out as worthy of a coveted helmet sticker.

WR Christion Jones: He might have been the lone bright spot on an otherwise bleak offensive unit that failed to move the ball well against an undermanned Colorado State team. Jones led the team with nine receptions for 90 yards, hooking up with AJ McCarron on one drive for three straight catches for first downs. Combined with his ability to returns kicks and punts, Jones is quickly developing into Alabama's most dangerous playmaker.

LB C.J. Mosley: It has become a weekly occurrence, Mosley finishing the game as Alabama's leading tackler. This time it was against Colorado State as the All-American senior linebacker had a team-high nine tackles, including one tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries. In a game where Alabama's defense faltered plenty, allowing long drives to an undermanned Rams offense, Mosley simply played his game, making tackle after tackle while also providing some much needed leadership to a group that featured more than its fair share of underclassmen.

RB Kenyan Drake: His rushing numbers won't knock you over, but he made the most of his time against Colorado State, rushing the ball three times for three yards and a touchdown. But it wasn't his rushing performance that earned him a helmet sticker this week. Rather, it was for his work on special teams, blocking a punt that bounced perfectly into the waiting hands of teammate Dillon Lee, who took it to the end zone for Alabama's second touchdown of the game.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's so close you can taste it. The smell of barbecue is set to saturate the air in Atlanta as hoards of tailgaters prepare for Saturday's kickoff between No. 1 Alabama and historic ACC powerhouse Virginia Tech.

To get you ready for the game, here are some things to look for when the two schools take to the turf inside the Georgia Dome:

Alabama will win if …
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Amari Cooper is nonchalant about most things. Still just a fresh-faced sophomore, it's hard to tell whether the enormity of his young career, the one that took off like a rocket last season and ended with consensus All-American honors, has sunk in. Has he felt the impact he's had the Tide? Or the SEC?

Alabama hasn't had a playmaker at wide receiver like him since Julio Jones. He's not as physically intimidating or as wildly popular, but his impact is approaching that of Jones. Cooper set nearly every rookie receiving record at Alabama last season, passing his dreadlocked predecessor and others in the process. And he did all that without starting a game until Week 6.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper, Damian Swann
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsThe go-ahead score against Georgia in the SEC title game, was one of many big plays for Amari Cooper during his 11-score freshman season at Alabama.
"My life hasn't changed," Cooper told reporters on Wednesday night, less than 72 hours removed from the season opener against Virginia Tech in Atlanta. Last December he was there and he was anything but understated when he spiked his foot into the ground to help sell a play-action pass in the fourth quarter. Georgia's Damian Swann nearly fell down when Cooper broke left, and 45 yards later Cooper was in the end zone with the game-winning score to give the Tide the SEC Championship. "On the football field I just try to get better every day, so not much changed there either."

At the end of his signature play in the Georgia Dome, Cooper didn't even break his stride to celebrate. He put one hand up and barely recognized the crowd on his jog back to the sidelines. Meanwhile, quarterback AJ McCarron pumped his fist and waved his arms like a wild man all the way to the back of the end zone.

Nothing seems too big for Cooper; no moment, no situation. Whether it's a defense trying to beat him up in man coverage -- "They're saying their guys is better than you" -- or the pressure of living up to the past -- "I don't feel like I did a whole lot last year" -- there doesn’t seem to be an ounce of stress on his shoulders.

His only expectation: "To have a better year than last year."

"Now I'll be starting the first game this year," he continued. "I didn't start the first game last year. We'll see if I have a better year than last year."

Make no mistake, though, Cooper is confident in his abilities. During his first time speaking with the media in Tuscaloosa this spring, he slipped up and said he only had two years left in school, meaning he intends to enter the NFL draft as an underclassman. The sports information director on hand quickly corrected him and Cooper added "at least" a second too late.

"He can be as great as he wants to be," former UA cornerback Dee Milliner said last October, before the rest of the world had caught on to Alabama's rookie phenom. "He can be one of the greatest receivers we’ve had at Alabama. He does a lot of things you really don’t see freshmen do with his speed, his hands, and his quickness that he got. He can be one of the great receivers in years to come."

Doug Nussmeier didn't hesitate to call Cooper one of the game’s best earlier this month. It wasn't just his 59 receptions, 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns that impressed the second-year offensive coordinator. Instead it was Cooper's savvy.

"Amari, and what he did, from where he started to his progression through the season, we felt that towards the end of the season, he was playing as good as anybody in the country at that position," Nussmeier said. "He continues to develop … he's still learning. He's really starting to focus on the little things that are going to take his game to the next level."

Up and down the roster there's respect for Cooper, who added 7 pounds and cut his 40-yard dash time from 4.4 seconds to 4.3 this offseason. Fellow wideout Kenny Bell marveled at Cooper's growth, saying he could be even more explosive this year. Junior tight end Brian Vogler said he "really loves the game," praising his hard work and dedication.

John Fulton has had to go up against Cooper countless times during practice. The senior cornerback said that some of the stuff Cooper does, Fulton has "no idea where he learned it from, but he's absolutely amazing."

"He has this thing he does off the line," Fulton said. "I'm kind of catching onto it now, but he's going to develop something else to mess with my head. He'll take two steps outside, shake inside, shake outside and then shake back inside for a slant and its under .5 seconds. It's so fast, you can't time it. It's crazy."

Defenders around the SEC understand. Coaches do too. Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer took a second to connect Cooper with the game film during a conference call on Monday, but when he did he compared him to a two-time, first-team All-American receiver in his conference.

"I know who he is," Beamer said. "In our league he reminds you of Sammie Watkins there at Clemson. A guy that's just athletic, can go. They've got a good group of wide receivers, but certainly Cooper is a guy who is hard … It's hard to cover that guy."
Alabama Crimson Tide Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesAlabama's players can look at the Georgia Dome as another home field. The Crimson Tide have won three big games in a row in Atlanta, including the SEC championship in 2012.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The way Brian Vogler looks at it, Alabama is the home team and Virginia Tech will be its guests when the teams meet in the Georgia Dome on Saturday night. Though there's been no official designation for who's the home team in the neutral site game, Alabama's junior tight end feels his team has earned the right to call the stadium in the heart of Atlanta home.

"What it means to play in there," he said, "for us, it's the SEC championship. You sort of take pride as an SEC team having an ACC team you want to defend what is essentially your home. Just the pride of playing in the Georgia Dome, for us, as you could say reigning SEC champions, so I guess you could say it's our home."

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Frank Beamer and Nick SabanIcon SMI, Getty ImagesVirginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, the winningest active head coach in college football, has a lot of respect for Nick Saban's Alabama team.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban doesn't blush, he fumes. Ask the enigmatic, often high-handed coach of the Crimson Tide about being ranked No. 1 and you'll see his nostrils flair as he grips the podium in disdain. Polls, especially those done before the start of the season, are useless to him. He'll say politely that they appreciate the recognition, but that's merely a preamble to a sermon on their worthlessness. The rest of college football might see his team as the front-runner to reach the national championship, but he sees a team that's yet to accomplish a single thing.

"You can make any kind of predictions that you want about what you think you have or what you think you are," Saban said, "but until you actually go and play a game and see how your team's going to respond [you don't know.]"

Frank Beamer sees it another way. He has watched the tape and studied Alabama's roster in preparation for Saturday's season opener in Atlanta. He knows all about AJ McCarron, Amari Cooper and the Tide's stifling defense, led by All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley. And what he's seen in film study is a team that's fully justified of its position atop the polls.

"They've just got it all," Virginia Tech's veteran head coach told reporters, repeatedly calling Alabama the No. 1 team in the country. "They do everything well."

It could have been a classic coaching maneuver, praising the opponent into a false sense of security, but Beamer sounded downright resigned to defeat during a roughly 20-minute teleconference on Monday. He was asked whether he had found any area of Alabama's game he felt the Hokies could exploit, and he said there was none to be had, going so far as to praise Alabama's punter, Cody Mandell, rattling off his 44.3 yards per punt average from a season ago.

"I don't think they have a weakness," he explained. "They're just as solid as the day is long."

Saban and Beamer aren't new to this song and dance. With 80 years of coaching experience between them, they know how to play to expectations. The Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game means something different to each team. For Alabama, the stakes are high. It could either be the first step or the fatal fall in the Tide's run toward the championship. For Virginia Tech, the stakes are far less dramatic. The goal is to win, but the more realistic venture is to simply improve as a football team.

"Sometimes when you have runaway wins to start the season, you don't really find what you need to work on or sometimes that's not as clear," Beamer said. "I think playing a team like Alabama, you become a better football team. We understand what a task it is to go in there and beat Alabama. But it's not often that you get a chance to play the best team in the country, the number one team in the country. I think there's plusses, it's certainly a challenge and we know what kind of game we have to play to have a chance."

Is it fair to call the Hokies underdogs? Beamer thinks so.

"I think facts are facts," he said. "We are. I don't think you'll see many people, if any, picking us."

Even with his team favored by three touchdowns, Saban isn't sleeping on Virginia Tech. Always the cynic, he's concerned about how some of his younger players will perform and how the Tide's rebuilt offensive line will play together in its first meaningful action. Alabama lost 10 starters from a year ago, and there are 11 true freshmen on the two-deep depth chart. The ratio is enough to give any coach chills.

"I'm not disappointed in the way we've prepared and the way we've practiced, the things we've done," Saban said. "I'm anxious to see how it all comes together when we play a game."

The seventh-year head coach of the Crimson Tide called Hokies' quarterback Logan Thomas "an outstanding player" that will be "a big challenge for our defense." He went on to praise both the their defense and special teams, saying the first-team defense looked "dominant at times" during their spring game. In the end, though, Saban kept coming back to Virginia Tech's head coach, a man who has the most wins of any current coach in college football.

"I've known Frank for a long time," Saban said. "I think he's certainly a class guy that's a credit to college football in everything that he does, from how he represents our game with a lot of class and integrity and the outstanding job he's done as a coach in terms of the product that he's put on the field on a consistent basis over a long period of time.

"I mean, 27 years is a long to be someplace and to have the consistent success that he's had over time, you have to have a tremendous amount of respect for that."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban didn't like the idea of doing it, but he did his duties and released a depth chart.

"If I were you, I wouldn't make to much of the depth chart we released," Alabama's head coach warned during Monday's news conference. "It's a chore for me to do that, it really is. I know it's important to you so we wanted to provide you with something. But don't ask me questions cause I'm telling you now, it's for you. The depth chart isn't for our team, it's for you so you can have it, write about it and talk about it. You made me do a depth chart when I didn't want to do one. So that's how I'm going to answer you."

[+] EnlargeKenyan Drake
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireKenyan Drake, Alabama's third-leading rusher in 2012, wasn't included in the 2013 depth chart released on Monday.
Try all he like, Alabama's depth chart did mean something.

Kenyan Drake, the team's third-leading rusher and a top candidate to back up starting tailback T.J. Yeldon this fall, wasn't even on it. Instead, Jalston Fowler was listed as the No. 2 back with Dee Hart, Derrick Henry and Altee Tenpenny listed as co-No. 3 at the position. Why Drake was missing is anyone's guess. Saban hasn't said a word on the subject and because the depth chart was handed out after his regular Monday press conference, no one could ask.

"T.J. certainly is a guy that has played a lot and has experience," Saban said. "I think Jalston Fowler is another guy who's played a lot and had experience. He's going to play a dual role in this game. He'll play some running back, some H-back. Dee Hart is a guy that's played some who will have some situational playing opportunities in this game as well.

"I think that there's probably two of the freshmen that have sort of -- I think they're all good. Kamara had an injury, so he missed a while. He'll be back practicing today, but it's hard to get him ready to play this game right now. Tyren Jones did a good job in the last scrimmage, but really Altee and Derrick Henry have gotten the most reps and are probably the most prepared to be able to play right now."

The offensive line came in as expected with Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle, Arie Kouandjio alongside him at left guard, Ryan Kelly at center and Anthony Steen and Austin Shepherd at right guard and right tackle, respectively.

AJ McCarron was the obvious first-team quarterback and Blake Sims his assumed second in line, but it was curious that Alec Morris was not listed as the third option off the bench.

Former starter Xzavier Dickson will share his starting duties with true sophomore Denzel Devall at Jack linebacker, but that move was expected with Dickson spending some time at defensive end this fall.

The rest of the starting linebackers remained the same with C.J. Mosley at Will, Trey DePriest at Mike and Adrian Hubbard at Sam.

Vinnie Sunseri ultimately won the starting job at strong safety opposite Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on paper, but the move was mostly superficial as both Landon Collins and Jarrick Williams will spend time there as well. Nick Perry, one of two seniors in the secondary, is slated to back up Clinton-Dix at free safety.

All told, 11 true freshmen made the two-deep, though none are projected to start: nose guard A'Shawn Robinson, defensive end Jonathan Allen, linebacker Reuben Foster, cornerback Maurice Smith, offensive tackle Grant Hill, tight end O.J. Howard, receivers Raheem Falkins and Robert Foster, long snapper Cole Mazza and tailbacks Henry and Tenpenny.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- They all look the part: long, lean, athletic. It's easy to see why they arrived in on campus with four or five stars assigned to their names.

On the practice field, Alabama's freshmen hardly look green. The country's No. 1-ranked class hasn't disappointed the eye test. Throughout fall camp, you could see their potential.

More importantly, though, you could begin to see where they might fit into the defending champion Crimson Tide's plans.

This year, not the next or the year after that, some Alabama's 25 scholarship freshmen will be called on to contribute, whether it's on special teams or in a more meaningful way on offense or defense.

Last season, 10 true freshmen played for Alabama. Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon headlined the group, but players such as Denzel Devall, Darren Lake and Geno Smith made a difference as well. Kenyan Drake carried the ball 42 times at tailback and Cyrus Jones totaled 364 all-purpose yards between playing wide receiver and returning punts.

Starting Saturday, we'll begin to see how many members of Alabama's 2013 signing class make a similar impact. After watching them develop over the past few months, here's our best guess.

Ready now

[+] EnlargeReuben Foster
Miller Safrit/ESPNFreshman linebacker Reuben Foster is getting more reps in practice.
WR Raheem Falkins: He's more than just the tallest wideout on the roster at 6-foot-4. The former three-star prospect from Louisiana has been a vacuum catching the football, impressing coaches and players alike. AJ McCarron said he's liked what he's seen. With his size, he could become a favorite target in short-yardage and red-zone situations.

ILB Reuben Foster: Saban has lauded the blue-chipper's progress throughout camp, noting a "tremendous amount of progress." He's been rewarded with increased reps to help cut down on the learning curve, and it looks as if he's made the most of it. Though he'll likely start out on special teams, don't be surprised if he makes his way into the rotation at inside linebacker early on.

TE/H O.J. Howard: He's shown signs of promise in the passing game, but the staff wants to see more. The 6-6, 237-pound Howard has all the gifts athletically to terrify defenses with his wide receiver speed and a power forward size. Even if he's a ways off in terms of his comfort level with the playbook, as Saban has indicated, it's hard to see the staff keeping him off the field.

OG Grant Hill: His name has consistently come up among those who have made an impression on his teammates. And he hasn't disappointed on the field, either. The former No. 1 offensive guard in the country has played some tackle, backing up Cyrus Kouandjio on the left side. Though he won't start, you have to expect injuries will happen in the SEC. Should Kouandjio or another lineman go down, the staff could be tempted to put Hill in.

LS Cole Mazza: With long-time snapper Carson Tinker gone, the specialist role is all Mazza's. On field goal attempts and punts, he'll be the one delivering the football.

Freshmen tailbacks: Not one or two, but all four of Alabama's coveted freshmen tailbacks are expected to play as rookies. Derrick Henry is likely the group's ringleader and is the most ready to contribute, but Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones have impressed as well. When Alvin Kamara returns from injury, he could be an added dimension to the offense, a scat-back type who can catch the ball out of the backfield or split out at wide receiver.

Coming soon

WR Robert Foster: He could be the best player to not see the field for Alabama this season. The former top-five wide receiver prospect came to camp at the last moment but never looked like he missed a beat, showing off tremendous athleticism and good hands. Because of the Tide's depth at the position, he shouldn't be needed this season. But if injuries occur, he could be called on.

OL Brandon Hill: No player made better progress physically from the spring to the fall than Hill, who is listed at 6-6 and 385 pounds and shed somewhere around 50 pounds during the course of the offseason. Though he's still not the ideal weight for a tackle, you can see now why the staff was so high on him. He's big, obviously, but he's got good quickness and strength, too. Like so many of this year's starters, he could come off the bench late in games as part of the second-team offensive line.

S Jai Miller: He's no rookie at nearly 30 years old, not to mention he's 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds. Miller, who spent a decade playing professional baseball, has experienced something of a learning curve since walking on at Alabama and only recently have we started to see where he might establish a role for himself. He's shadowed Landon Collins at money (dime) defensive back of late and could be a real spark for the Tide on special teams.

DLs Jonathan Allen, Dee Liner and A'Shawn Robinson: Senior defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan called the Tide's group of rookies the smartest he'd ever seen. Saban followed up that comment by saying all three have the ability to contribute this coming season. In need of pass-rushers, Allen and Liner could come off the bench to provide that spark. And Robinson, a mammoth of a freshman at 320 pounds, could give depth at nose guard, where Brandon Ivory is coming off an injury.

CBs Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson: The battle for a rookie to play cornerback at Alabama is so steep, most don't make it. Geno Smith's late ascent to the starting lineup last season was rare. Though Smith and Jackson fit the bill physically as 6-footers with good size, the learning curve will be difficult with Saban handling the position himself. With the Tide thin at corner, they could make an impact late in the season if they play their cards right.

A ways off

CBs Jonathan Cook and Anthony Averett: There's time left to jockey for position, but it looks like Smith and Jackson have passed fellow rookies Cook and Averett on the fast track to playing time.

LBs Tim Williams and Walker Jones: It's hard to see either Williams or Jones playing much as rookies. Jones has too much ahead of him and Williams, who has made strides during camp and looks like a young Adrian Hubbard, isn't there physically yet.

WR ArDarius Stewart: He came in as an athlete who could have played on either offense or defense. Ultimately the staff put him at wide receiver, where he's looked good, but he'll need time to adjust to playing there full time.

QBs Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod and Luke Del Rio: Ideally, all three will redshirt the season and retain full eligibility heading into next season, when the Tide will figure out who AJ McCarron's successor will be. With Blake Sims and Alec Morris dueling it out for No. 2 now, expect the rookies to ride the bench and learn the ropes in 2013.

Alabama Intel: Wrapping up camp 

August, 23, 2013
8/23/13
7:00
AM ET
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Camp formally ended for the Crimson Tide on Monday when the fall semester began on the University of Alabama campus. And while studies have gotten in the way of the early morning practices and two-a-days players had become accustomed to, the mood of preseason camp lingered for much of the week, as players fought to climb the depth chart and position changes remained in effect.

Preparation for Virginia Tech didn't begin until Thursday afternoon, when the second half of the brief media viewing portion of practice came with the condition that cameras not film the proceedings. For the first time, there was something coaches weren't willing to show the outside world.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsComing out of preseason practice, Blake Sims is the clear cut No. 2 quarterback for the Crimson Tide.
But even so, there was plenty to report, and in the final edition of Alabama Intel we'll try to do just that.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Every few snaps there's a different alignment and a different personnel package is shuffled onto the practice field. Nick Saban looks on in silence, straw hat atop his head, eyes narrowed as he looks over his defensive layout. The ball is snapped and the pieces shift like marble on a chessboard. The 61-year-old head coach of the Crimson Tide makes his hand into a fist, resting it on his chin as he thinks.

The season opener against Virginia Tech is less than two weeks away and Alabama's first-team defense is coming into view. The combinations Saban will employ are numerous, mixing and matching his way to the best group of 11 on the field in any given situation. There are a few common denominators: All-American C.J. Mosley rarely leaves the field at inside linebacker, Deion Belue and John Fulton have been regulars at cornerback, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has played the vast majority of reps at free safety, falling back like a center fielder would in baseball.

[+] EnlargeDeAndrew White
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesSophomore Landon Collins (26) is making a strong case for playing time at strong safety.
Who will start opposite him at strong safety, however, is in question. Nick Perry is the most veteran option, a senior who started four games last year and played in all 14 contests. Junior Vinnie Sunseri is making a run at the job, too. He has made big plays ever since he was a freshman in 2011. And don't forget about Landon Collins. The true sophomore and former No. 1-rated safety in his class looks to be worth every one of his five stars.

"Landon's at the top of the peak right now," Clinton-Dix said of the burgeoning youngster he has helped develop under Saban. "He's doing very well, run conflict, pass conflict, he can cover it. He's very physical. So he's doing a great job for us right now."

Collins might not begin the season a starter, but by year's end he could be right on Sunseri and Perry's heels. As Clint0n-Dix said early in fall camp, the competition has been anything but cordial.

"It's nothing friendly," he said. "It's camp. It's everybody by themselves, just trying to compete for a job. All of us are great. You just gotta find that one inch you can to pull ahead of someone else."

After three weeks of trying, there hasn't been much separation. All three have seen the field, albeit in a variety of ways. Sunseri has played the most strong safety of the bunch, but he has dropped down and played nickel, or "star" as Saban describes it, allowing either Perry or Collins to play alongside Clinton-Dix on the back end of the defense.

Depending on the situation, all four safeties can be on the field at the same time.

"The way the defense is set up we have a lot of DBs who play at one time," Clinton-Dix said. "We have seven on the field at one time, six, five, you can play with them a lot, so you just find your role on this team."

Jarrick Williams, often a forgotten man at safety thanks to a season-ending knee injury last year, has joined in on the action as well. With Geno Smith suspended, Williams has been playing with the first team some at star.

As Mosley put it, Williams has his "chance to shine."

"Jarrick Williams has had a fantastic camp so far and is going to get some opportunity to play this year," Saban said. "We’re excited about it. He really feels comfortable and confident in what he’s doing. He’s playing in nickel and dime and also in safety, so he’s got a lot of multiple roles on the team and he’s really done a good job."

If Williams becomes a regular with the first team, there's no telling how many safeties will play on defense for the Tide this season. The cornerbacks might get jealous.

But if one thing is certain, it's this: Saban will devise a way to make the most of what he has. Pawn or knight, rook or bishop, he doesn't care. If he has the pieces, he's going to play the game the way he sees fit.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- He was talking about football at the time, but what Alabama coach Nick Saban said following Saturday's scrimmage was exactly the type of message he likes to deliver at this point of the year, a warning that every action has a consequence whether it's on the field or off of it. With the season opener exactly two weeks away, Saban outlined what his players couldn't be if they wanted to be successful.

"We can't have complacency," he said. "Can't be satisfied with where we are. … Can't have selfishness on the team because that will fracture the team chemistry. We can't lose our accountability and attention to detail. Those three things right there are very important in us being the kind of team we're capable of being. Everybody's got to make that choice and decide are they willing to do the things they need to do to do it."

[+] EnlargeAlabama's Geno Smith
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsDefensive back Geno Smith was a key contributor late last season for Alabama.
He couldn't have made it any clearer, but what Alabama's seventh-year head coach said fell on deaf ears for sophomore cornerback Geno Smith, who dealt himself a major setback only hours later when he was arrested by the Tuscaloosa police department for suspicion of driving under the influence. He was held on $1,000 bond by the sheriff's office, but no amount of cash could save him from the one-game suspension Saban awarded him on Tuesday for his reckless behavior.

"He's never been in trouble here before, never been in my office for anything," Saban said, "but I think this is something that everybody should learn from that when you make a bad choice, sometimes the consequences of that choice can really have a negative effect. Some of these guys don't have enough foresight to understand cause and effect, but Geno has been a really good person in the program and just made a choice, bad decision. Made several of them, so now he's got consequences for it."

Smith, a former four-star prospect who came on late last year as a freshman, was expected to log significant minutes this season as the team's nickel back. Against teams like Virginia Tech who like to spread the field with multiple receivers, he would have played a big part of the Tide's defense, matching up against the slot receiver.

Now, Alabama must go back to the drawing board to determine who can fill his vacancy during the suspension. With Deion Belue and John Fulton projected to start as boundary corners, it falls to sophomores Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve to step up among the cornerbacks. Jones shifted to defense from wide receiver this year and has looked promising at the position, which he played in high school.

But the intriguing, and more likely option, is for Saban to utilize his depth at safety and bring down someone like Nick Perry, Vinnie Sunseri, Jarrick Williams or Landon Collins to play nickel, or "star" as Saban describes it. To get an idea of all the different combinations that are possible, take a look at what Saban said of the star and money positions in early April.

"Geno's been playing star, Vinnie can play star -- he played it all last year," Saban said. "Geno did it for the last three or four games of the season. Vinnie's been playing money, Landon Collins has been playing money, Jarrick Williams has been playing money, which is what he was before he got hurt. We've been trying to develop somebody other than Vinnie. Nick Perry can play star. We don't really have another corner that can play star. Also, Jarrick Williams is playing star. We have more multiples of guys right now than we had a year ago."

The options, clearly, are there. The problem, though, is that while Alabama is deep at safety, it's thin in terms of true cornerbacks. Signing Anthony Averett, Jonathan Cook, Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith in February helped, but a freshman learning curve is inevitable. Given Saban's complicated defense, it's hard for rookies to see the field early. Hence, Geno Smith not coming on until late last year.

"First of all, opportunity is important, to have an opportunity to do that," Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart explained. "[It takes a] very conscientious kid to understand, 'Hey, I got to know this defense inside and out, I got to know all the checks, I got to know all the motions and checks, I got to know all the adjustments.' You've got to be very conscientious to do that, but you've got to have some ability. It's very easy for us to find those guys out there. When we recruit good players, they usually stick out as freshmen. We find ways to get them on the field and always have in some kind of role."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Without AJ McCarron, where would Alabama be?

For a split-second following the Tide's first scrimmage of fall camp the nightmare scenario had to be considered. Nick Saban told reporters that his quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate had his leg stepped on and was forced to the sideline late in the practice.

Gulp. Take a deep breath.

Then Saban made it clear: there was no real injury to McCarron and he'd be at practice the following Monday. And he was, much to the relief of Alabama's title chances. The strong-armed and accurate senior was at practice every day last week and participated fully in Saturday's scrimmage.

But wait the rumors of another injury to McCarron struck a week later. This time Saban said nothing, and instead McCarron took to Twitter himself, writing, "Ankle seems great to me. Rocking these @kobebryant shoes." He even provided photographic evidence of his feet, replete with the snazzy red sneakers.

[+] EnlargeCyrus Kouandjio
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsCyrus Kouandjio keys the Alabama offensive line and keeps AJ McCarron upright and the Tide could ill afford to lose him.
Whew. Crisis averted.

If all the nervousness and excitement around McCarron seemed silly, it's because it was. There was never anything seriously wrong with him. There was never any reason to believe he'd miss a game. In fact, he could have sneezed at the wrong pitch and Alabama would have rushed to Dr. James Andrew for advice on what exactly the gesticulation meant.

But the truth is McCarron means everything to the Tide's title hopes. Without him, there's no telling how many games Alabama loses. Could a quarterback be made ready in time for the opener against Virginia Tech? Maybe, maybe not. And what about Texas A&M two weeks later? Alabama couldn't beat the Aggies with McCarron a year ago. What would happen without him?

On and on down the schedule you could pick out close games and potential losses if McCarron weren't taking snaps under center.

Why? Because for as good a running quarterback backup Blake Sims is, he's not the answer in a long-term scenario. Saban can say how well he plays, as he did Saturday, but there's always a note at the end. This past weekend it was the small fact that he forced too many passes and threw three interceptions.

The truth of the matter is that Sims is inaccurate and he does force too many passes to covered receivers. If you watch enough of practice you'll see how the ball comes out of his hand. It isn't what you'd call "typical" of an SEC quarterback. He isn't the guy to sit in the pocket and make the progressions. He tucks and runs. And that's fine coming off the bench. But starting? No, after a few turnovers that job would likely fall to more of a pure passer like Alec Morris or Luke Del Rio or Cooper Bateman or Parker McLeod -- combined playing experience: zero games started, zero snaps taken, zero passes thrown.

If McCarron went down, Alabama truly would be in a world of hurt.

But that's almost too obvious. Outside of McCarron, who are the three most indispensable players for the Tide?

C.J. Mosley: Nothing about Mosley's game fits the typical Alabama mold. He's rarely the biggest or the strongest player on the field. Next to Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, he looked like a safety. But Mosley's sideline-to-sideline speed is outstanding, and in a league that continues to feature mobile quarterbacks that trait is invaluable. Last season Mosley became the first UA defender to break the 100-tackle mark since Rolando McClain, and he did it while splitting time. Now that the job is all his, it's up to Mosley to do even more in terms of production and leadership.

Deion Belue: A year ago Alabama fans would have scoffed at the notion of Belue being indispensable, but now he's the Tide's best cornerback and one of the few with any real experience. Without him, there really isn't much help for Saban to turn to off the bench. Geno Smith's status is unknown after a DUI, Cyrus Jones is still transitioning from playing offense a year ago and Bradley Sylve hasn't yet shown he's capable of playing meaningful snaps. Rookies Anthony Averett, Jonathan Cook, Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith could contribute in the future, but now they're too green under the collar.

Cyrus Kouandjio: It makes sense that if McCarron is the most valuable player on the roster, the man charged with keeping him upright would have to be the second-most valuable. If that logic holds true, Kouandjio is irreplaceable as the Tide's left tackle and protector of McCarron's blind side. A future first-round pick with all the talent in the world, Kouandjio is the anchor to the offensive line. Without him, the group would be thrown out of whack and both the running and the passing game would suffer.

Alabama season preview

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
9:30
AM ET
Today, we're looking at Alabama, which enters the 2013 season looking to make history with a third straight national championship.

Coach: Nick Saban (154-55-1 overall, 63-13* at Alabama)

2012 record: 13-1 (7-1)

Key losses: C Barrett Jones, LG Chance Warmack, RB Eddie Lacy, NG Jesse Williams, CB Dee Milliner, S Robert Lester

Key returnees: QB AJ McCarron, LB C.J. Mosley, LT Cyrus Kouandjio, RG Anthony Steen, WR Amari Cooper, RB T.J. Yeldon, CB Deion Belue, DL Ed Stinson

Newcomer to watch: TE/H O.J. Howard

Biggest games in 2013: Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, LSU

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Saban is the first to admit the secondary is a "work in progress" after losing his shutdown cornerback and three-year starter at safety. The seventh-year head coach tried shifting running back Dee Hart and wideouts Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones to cornerback, but only Cyrus stuck on defense. The former four-star athlete will be a much-needed option off the bench behind projected starters Deion Belue and Geno Smith. Depth isn't quite a concern on the back end, though, as Saban can mix and match veterans Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Nick Perry with former No. 1 safety prospect Landon Collins. In a year where the SEC is arguably the strongest quarterback conference in the country, it's vital that Saban stabilize his passing defense.

Forecast: What Alabama is attempting to do this season borders on the impossible. History dictates the Tide fall short of another national championship, but the talent assembled in Tuscaloosa, Ala., dictates otherwise. Despite losing nine starters to the NFL, Alabama is in good position for a three-peat thanks to back-to-back No. 1-ranked recruiting classes and six straight top five finishes overall.

But it's not just new faces like Reuben Foster and Derrick Henry that give Tide fans hope. They're simply the icing on a cake that already features a league-best 16 preseason All-SEC selections. The offense is loaded with a Heisman Trophy-caliber backfield and a wide receiver corps that's deeper and more talented than at any point in recent memory. The defense should be in good shape, too, with All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley back for his senior year and Butkus Award hopeful Adrian Hubbard poised for a breakout season.

No, the level of talent isn't in question at UA. And, no, the schedule isn't insurmountable, either. Getting Virginia Tech and Texas A&M back-to-back is a rough way to open the season, but Alabama won't have to face any of the SEC East power programs, and cupcakes like Georgia State and Chattanooga are basically third and fourth bye weeks. Rather, the real question is how this team handles expectations. "Championship or bust" is a familiar slogan for Saban and Co., but living in that kind of pressure-packed atmosphere can prove difficult.

Alabama wasn't perfect a season ago: the secondary was shaky, the pass rush was inconsistent and there were times where the run-pass balance on offense looked out of whack. A heartbreaking loss to Texas A&M nearly derailed the Tide. But a bizarre weekend where No. 1 and No. 2 in the polls both lost cleared the way, and Alabama gladly picked up the slack. Will UA get so lucky again? Or will this team take fate out of the equation, learn from its mistakes and realize its potential?

*Five wins vacated in 2007
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Things had been going almost too smoothly for coach Nick Saban and the defending champion Crimson Tide this summer. But then the end of fall camp came on Saturday afternoon and the arrest of sophomore cornerback Geno Smith for driving under the influence showed up shortly thereafter.

Smith, a potential starter for Alabama at nickel back this season, was held for $1,000 bond by the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office.

The former four-star prospect out of Georgia played in 13 games last year, racking up nine tackles and two pass break-ups. With his status now in question, fellow sophomores Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve could become the top two cornerbacks off the bench for the Tide.
A.J. McCarron and Nick SabanRobert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsAfter initial issues with Nick Saban, QB AJ McCarron has developed a strong bond and a similar mindset.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Most players on Alabama's roster are like Anthony Steen. The veteran right guard isn't scared of his coach, necessarily, but he has a healthy fear of what happens when Nick Saban gets upset. When Saban calls you into his office and pushes a button to close the door behind you, you know something's wrong. It's a scene straight out of a B-rated thriller: Once the door locks, there's no telling if you're coming back out.

AJ McCarron, though, isn't like most players. He doesn't wait to get called upstairs. He marches there himself.

Five years ago, when McCarron was distinguished mostly by his flop of hair and spread of tattoos, he showed up to his first scrimmage at Alabama expecting a spot on the depth chart that wasn't there. Upset, he went straight to the coach's office. What happened next is burned into Saban's mind forever.

"AJ was on our team for 11 days, and he thought he should be second team and we played him on third team," Saban recalled. "He came fussing and kicking and cussing up to my office after the scrimmage because he was disappointed he didn't play with the second team."

Saban's message to his young quarterback: "We're only evaluating you on one thing today and that was leadership, and you failed dramatically."

The rest, as they say, is history.

In the past four years, coach and quarterback have become remarkably similar. Their mannerisms are often the same -- kicking dirt, slapping hands, shouting at players -- as are their attitudes. Imperfection in any form isn't tolerated, and mental mistakes are disdained.

"AJ and Coach Saban get along better than anyone else on the team," Steen said. "They have their certain jokes that I don't even get sometimes, talking straight about football, too. I just pretend and laugh with them.

"The other day we were in a meeting and he said something to Coach picking at him and he went right back at him. I know I wouldn't get into an argument with Coach."

Their bond didn't start out that way. McCarron was a lot like his fellow teammates when he first got to campus, a "results-oriented guy" who focused on scoring touchdowns and making big plays rather than the process of the day-to-day and what it meant to be a leader. Now he's matured into a guy who wants to play winning football at all costs.

When McCarron was asked at SEC media days what he thought of the seeming lack of attention he receives despite winning so many games, he responded in typical Saban form. He wanted to meet who "they" were, the ones who were saying all of these things about him.

"It's funny to me," he said. "Sometimes I feel like any other quarterback in the country wins two national championships and he's the best thing since sliced bread. And I'm still labeled a game manager.

"It's fine with me. They can call me a bench rider. As long as we keep winning, I don't care."

Saban wasn't there to hear his quarterback's response, but it's safe to say he would have enjoyed it. Maybe more than anything, it's a sign of how far McCarron has come.

McCarron is now the unquestioned leader of the two-time defending champion Crimson Tide and a safe bet to land somewhere in the early rounds of next year's NFL draft. He finished last season ranked first in the country in passing efficiency, and this year he has even more talent at receiver with DeAndrew White, Chris Black and Kenny Bell all back from injury. Amari Cooper has progressed into an All-American talent, and Kevin Norwood is as steady a target as they come in the SEC.

The offense, Bell said, has a chance to be the best in college football.

"We do, especially since we have the people we have on offense," he said. "We have a great quarterback, a great running back, great receivers, a great offensive line. We can be one of the stellar offenses in the country."

A year stronger and a year wiser, McCarron is one of the front-runners to win the Heisman Trophy. Teammates say they've noticed that his strength and accuracy are improved, and no one is asking about his commitment to the game.

"AJ gets better every day, every year," junior wideout Christion Jones said. "He's going to get better no matter if it's the passing game or better fakes."

McCarron, for his part, isn't willing to self-analyze or speculate -- yet another example of the mirror image of Saban he's become. There's still some of the hot-tempered freshman in him somewhere, but much of it has changed to reflect the coach he's followed into three national championships in four seasons.

"I'd be lying to say no, the Heisman, I've never thought of it," he said. "My mom still has a picture of me ... dressed up in a Bama football costume and [doing] the Heisman pose. It's always been a dream of mine, but at the same time I'm not going to let my personal goals come in the way of our team goals. If I achieve that, that's great. I'm happy.

"But at the same time, I'm a team-first guy. I've always been that way. You'll never hear anybody say I'm selfish in any type of way. That's when your program and team starts to fall off, when you're not team-oriented and you're more into personal goals. That's the ingredients for failure there."

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Alabama Pulls Away From Florida
Alabama used big days from Blake Sims and Amari Cooper to pull away from Florida in the second half for a 42-21 win.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video