Alabama Crimson Tide: Christion Jones

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama isn't in a rush to find its starting quarterback for the 2014 season.

That might sound a little crazy when you consider the high expectations the Crimson Tide will undoubtedly face yet again this fall, but it really isn't the biggest concern for a team that was an improbable play away from repeating as SEC West champs and possibly playing in its third straight BCS title game last season.

[+] EnlargeMorris/Bateman
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlec Morris (left) and Cooper Bateman (right), along with Blake Sims, have separated themselves a bit in Alabama's QB derby.
While the team can wait it out on finding a starter -- especially with former Florida State quarterback Jacob Coker enrolling after spring -- Saturday's scrimmage could go a long way to finding a little separation with the five guys currently vying for the position.

“Obviously, the first scrimmage kind of shows you who wants to really work for the spot and who doesn’t," Crimson Tide center Ryan Kelly said about the quarterback competition.

With Coker not on campus, Alabama has turned to Blake Sims, Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris, David Cornwell and Parker McLeod to share reps under center this spring. Sims, a redshirt senior, is the only one with any experience, but he changes the offense some with his mobility. While all five bring something different to the table, the plan for Alabama will be to run more of a pro-style offense. Sims might be the odd one of the bunch when it comes to that, but new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's arrival shouldn't change the basic structure of an offense Sims is very familiar with.

Alabama has only had a handful of scrimmages, but players have been at it since pre-spring 7-on-7s began. For wide receiver Christion Jones, each QB has taken advantage of every rep afforded to him since last season ended. For now, Jones said Sims, Bateman and Morris have stood out from the bunch.

“Everyone has their time where they struggle a little bit, but those three guys are the ones who overcome," Jones said. "Even when they mess up it’s not really a letdown or they get frustrated. Those three take the coaching better. The other guys still have to learn to take the coaching and take the criticism and make yourself better out of it.”

We'll be able to see a little more of that Saturday. The guys who have prepared the most and bought in more will stand out. They won't have to be perfect, but they'll have to show that they've learned something in the last few weeks.

In a perfect world for the Tide, a starter would be in place and this team could worry more about developing, but trying to find a new signal-caller means that players around them are having to do more. Linemen are having to adjust to five different patterns and cadences from each quarterback, while receivers are dealing with five different releases, five different throwing styles and five different versions of in-huddle terminology.

Jones said it isn't exactly ideal, but it is making receivers better, as they are having to concentrate even more on what they are doing in practices to accommodate for each passer.

“This spring, it’s more of focus level because we don’t know who the starting quarterback is," he said. "Either one of those five guys could be it. We have to be on our Ps and Qs and we have to be at that right spot at that right time. We don’t know what these guys are thinking right now. It makes you always be ball-ready because you never know what can happen.”

Saturday will be a good stepping stone for each quarterback, but it won't necessarily decide anything. To Kelly, it doesn't matter who is under center, he's going to be expected to excel. That's how elite programs roll, and Kelly wants each quarterback he's working with to understand that.

“It doesn’t matter who’s in that position, you’re going to be held to the standard that you’re going to do your job the best you can," Kelly said. "Otherwise, if all five guys aren’t on the same page then something bad is going to happen.”

Opening spring camp: Alabama

March, 14, 2014
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Schedule: The Crimson Tide will open spring practice on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. All practices are closed and only the A-Day scrimmage at 2 p.m. ET on April 19 will be open to the public.

What’s new: The coaching staff has gone under some serious reconstruction. In fact, it looks a lot like Nick Saban’s staffs of old with Kevin Steele as the linebackers coach and Bo Davis as the defensive line coach. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart moved back to coaching the secondary to allow for Steele’s return. And let’s not forget the one new face on the staff, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. You might have heard of him.

On the move: When Saban last spoke to the media a week ago, he said there was “no news on who’s playing what position and who the quarterback is.” But there will be movement. Look for some tweaking in the defensive backfield this spring. Much like last year,when Saban asked offensive players Dee Hart, Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones to try their hand at cornerback, he might ask someone like ArDarius Stewart to see if a return to defense is in order. Considering the lack of depth at cornerback and the departure of safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri, the coaching staff might need to plug some holes in the secondary with some surprise players.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Pettway
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsD.J. Pettway is back and will attempt to earn a shot at playing time at Alabama.
On the mend: One of those defensive backs coming back is Nick Perry. The safety started four games in 2012 and appeared in two more games in 2013 before suffering a season-ending injury. Though he might not be the most talented option at the position, he’s clearly the most experienced, with 30 games under his belt. And that counts for something with Saban, who needs to trust whoever starts opposite Landon Collins.

New faces: Aside from the handful of early enrollees fresh out of high school, there are four junior college transfers to watch, including the return of former Alabama defensive end D.J. Pettway. There’s also tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith, who was at Georgia once upon a time and could add to the passing game behind O.J. Howard; defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who could help plug the middle at 315 pounds; and offensive tackle Dominick Jackson, who was ranked as the No. 1 player at his position and could challenge to replace Cyrus Kouandjio.

Question marks: We’ve detailed the problems in the secondary and hinted at the battle at left tackle, leaving a major unanswered question as to who replaces C.J. Mosley on defense. The former All-American linebacker was the heart and soul of the unit. We know Trey DePriest wants to take on the role, but is he ready? And who will play alongside him at inside linebacker? Reuben Foster was an immensely talented linebacker coming out of high school -- with a dramatic recruitment, no less -- but he played mostly on special teams as a freshman. He’ll have a lot of competition for playing time, with Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland hoping to emerge.

Key battle: Unfortunately, this one won’t be solved until the fall. But that makes the battle no less important. Alabama needs to find a starting quarterback to replace AJ McCarron, and until that’s resolved, it’s priority No. 1. Jacob Coker, the Florida State transfer, won’t arrive on campus until May. So that leaves a bevy of unproven options under center. Blake Sims will get his shot after backing up McCarron last year, but it remains to be seen how the run-first athlete will do as a pocket passer. Beyond Sims, there’s rising sophomore Alec Morris and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod. If one stands out this spring, he’ll surely have the upper hand come fall and could challenge the presumed frontrunner, Coker.

Breaking out: It was a process started at the Sugar Bowl that many Alabama fans hope will continue right on into his sophomore season. Derrick Henry didn’t do much during the regular season, carrying the ball a total of 28 times. But all you’ll remember is the bowl game and his eight carries and one reception against Oklahoma, accounting for 161 yards and two touchdowns. He’s big (try 6-3 and 238 pounds) and he’s deceptively fast. With dreadlocks that stick out from under his helmet, picture a stretched out Trent Richardson. After losing a large chunk of practice last spring to a broken leg, he’ll have the benefit of a full offseason to climb the depth chart and nip at the heels of incumbent starter T.J. Yeldon.

Don’t forget about: Don’t sleep on Yeldon. He’s pretty darn good, with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons to start his career. But don’t forget Alabama’s depth at wide receiver. Whoever starts at quarterback will have plenty of receivers to throw to. Amari Cooper, who is among the best in the SEC when healthy, is just the tip of the iceberg. DeAndrew White and Christion Jones are two veteran pieces, and tight end O.J. Howard has the potential to be one of the disruptive offensive weapons in the league if he reaches his potential. Given the way Alabama has recruited of late, look for one or two blue-chip prospects to emerge. Chris Black has been waiting patiently, and Robert Foster seems poised to step up with a year of experience under his belt.

All eyes on: There’s going to be a quarterback competition, position battles and several new players will emerge. But keep an eye on Alabama’s attitude. Saban’s dynasty in Tuscaloosa was shaken but not entirely derailed last season. Losing the final two games, to Auburn and Oklahoma, in such unspectacular fashion hurts. The question is how Alabama will respond. It worked out well after the 2010 season, but this isn’t the same team. There are quite a few leaders in need of replacing, and there might be something to McCarron’s criticism that a five-star sense of entitlement crept into the program. Righting the ship won’t be easy for Saban and his staff, but he will have the luxury of putting a gigantic chip on his players’ shoulders this offseason. How they respond is up to them.
Editor’s note: This is Part I of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Alabama this spring.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was a long and winding quote that really ended nowhere and didn’t reveal much at all. Alabama coach Nick Saban was asked what impact Lane Kiffin might have on the offense in 2014, and he didn’t bite. So far removed from the start of the season, he chose to play it close to the vest, answering the question in a way that gave away nothing.

“Every coach wants to create as much improvement as possible as he can with the players he coaches and the unit he's responsible for. I think Lane certainly has the knowledge and experience to do that," Saban said of his new offensive coordinator, the former USC and Tennessee head coach. "I think players sort of respect him and, from what I've seen so far, [they] have a good relationship. You're talking about offseason program and off-the-field kind of stuff, but I think from an accountability standpoint, coaches and players, that because of his knowledge and experience that would be something that he can contribute to our team in a positive way with.”

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesExpect Lane Kiffin to find new and unique ways to utilize players such as sophomore RB Derrick Henry.
If you were looking for more in the way of specifics, you were left disappointed. But it wasn't altogether unexpected. Kiffin should enact significant changes on the offense in 2014 -- just don’t expect to know what they’ll be ahead of time. Neither he nor Saban are ones to tip their hand early.

Overall, Kiffin is expected to bring more punch to Alabama’s attack. First, he’ll have to settle on a starting quarterback, of course, but beyond that he’ll bring a new flavor to Tuscaloosa, Ala., starting with a more up-tempo feel. Saban hinted at such a change last season when he told ESPN in September that, “It’s something we’re going to look at. I think we’ll have to.

“I think we need to play faster and will have to do more of that going forward,” he said at the time. “The only reason we haven't done more of it to this point is that our guys seem to play better when we don't [go fast] just because it's been our style and we've had reasonably good success moving the ball and running the ball.”

But that will change this spring. AJ McCarron is gone from under center. Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell are no longer out wide at receiver. The conservative tendencies of Doug Nussmeier and Jim McElwain before him have been replaced by the more forward-thinking Kiffin.

Along with a quicker tempo, expect more playmakers to emerge under Kiffin’s rule.

Alabama has too much talent at running back to continue rotating backs on the field one at a time. With versatile weapons such as Derrick Henry and Bo Scarbrough available, Kiffin could easily split them out at receiver or shift them on the line at H-back. Just the threat of a quick pass out to a player with breakaway speed like theirs should be enough to make opponents commit a defender, freeing up a teammate in the process.

Speaking of stretching the defense thin, look for O.J. Howard to do much more in the passing game as a sophomore. The former No. 2-rated tight end in the ESPN 300 showed flashes of promise as a true freshman in 2013 but went missing at times. Whether that was the fault of his own inexperience or poor coaching is up for interpretation.

Whatever the answer, though, it won’t be an excuse in 2014. There’s no greater threat to the defense than an athletic tight end who can split the middle of the defense. Howard, at 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds with receiver-like speed, fits that mold perfectly. Kiffin had great success with Fred Davis at USC and Luke Stocker at Tennessee and could find a similar payout with Howard at Alabama.

Finally, don’t forget the wealth of talent Kiffin inherits at receiver. Despite Norwood and Bell departing, there’s plenty left in the cupboard in Tuscaloosa. Amari Cooper, when healthy, is among the best receivers in the SEC. Given Kiffin’s work with Marqise Lee, Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett at USC, Cooper should be licking his chops to work with his new offensive coordinator.

Throw in DeAndrew White, Christion Jones and a slew of other young, talented receivers behind them and Kiffin has more than enough weapons to work with.

The 38-year-old's reputation as a play caller and developer of talent precedes him, according to David Cornwell, who committed to Alabama prior to Kiffin's arrival and enrolled early in January just days before the hire was announced.

"Coach Kiffin, man, he’s the guy," the No. 4-rated pocket passer in the 2014 ESPN 300 explained. "I really look forward to getting to know him. I think you all know what he can do. You look at him offensively, I think he’s going to do great things for Alabama.”

But what in particular?

“His explosiveness," Cornwell said, with a smirk. "I know he’ll bring a different kind of feel to Alabama. From what I hear, it could be a whole different offense."

While some of Alabama’s offensive inefficiencies in the recent past have been greatly exaggerated, there’s still more than enough room for Kiffin to improve upon. By upping the tempo and developing more playmakers, he stands to breathe some much-needed life into the Tide in 2014. Whether it's a David Cornwell, a Jacob Coker or an Alec Morris under center at quarterback, he'll have the keys to a potentially speedy ride.

Granted, we won’t know specifically what the offense is capable of until we see it in action. But from the outside looking in, the possibilities are great.

Hopefully we'll get a sneak peek when spring practice starts later this week, but don't count on it.

Tide players to watch: Chris Black

March, 5, 2014
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With the start of spring practice only a few weeks away, we’re spending this week discussing five players to keep an eye on when Alabama opens camp on March 15.

Because they’re unpredictable, we’ll avoid first-year players like Cam Robinson. If you want an idea of who could make an instant impact in 2014, we wrote about that shortly after signing day.

On Monday, we wrote about running back Derrick Henry jumping onto the national stage in the Sugar Bowl. On Tuesday, we covered Jonathan Allen's room for growth at defensive end. And today we're looking at a player with a few years in the program and plenty of untapped potential.

[+] EnlargeChris Black
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Black finds plenty of competition for playing time.
WR Chris Black
Redshirt sophomore
5-foot-11, 182 pounds

Credentials: The 2012 season was over for him before it ever began. Alabama fans will remember that it was Black -- not Amari Cooper -- who entered fall camp with all the buzz. He was ranked higher by ESPN and other recruiting services out of high school, and the way he looked in practice at Alabama did nothing to quell the excitement over his potential early impact at receiver. But a shoulder injury he sustained in mid-August robbed the speedy Florida native of his first year on campus, forcing him to take a redshirt. And when he came back in 2013, Cooper was coming off a freshman All-American season and the rest of the receiving corps was stuffed with veterans like Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell and DeAndrew White. Black appeared in eight games and caught eight passes for 79 yards and two touchdowns -- all from backup quarterback Blake Sims in what amounted to garbage time.

How he fits: He may not have a stunning résumé, but to see Black run routes in practice makes you forget all that. The shifty receiver is silky smooth and hits a high gear with seemingly little effort. Now that Norwood and Bell are gone and the depth chart has loosened some, it's Black's time to show whether he'll sink or swim at Alabama. He clearly has the tools, but he'll have to beat out plenty of other talented pass-catchers before he can see the field. Cooper won't be moved, White has a bevy of experience and junior Christion Jones has been a fixture as slot receiver the past two seasons. It's realistic that Black could become the fourth receiver and catch 30 or so balls, but he'll have to fend off a slew of other youngsters: the physically imposing Raheem Falkins, the No. 2-ranked receiver prospect in 2013 Robert Foster and the No. 8-ranked receiver prospect in 2014 Cameron Sims.

Best case/worst case: A repeat of 2013 would be a major setback for Black, especially considering all the youth suddenly behind him at receiver. If he has another year of single-digit receptions, there's a chance he could be passed by. But the good news for Black is that he has what amounts to the freshest of starts college football can offer. He'll not only have a new quarterback throwing him the football (AJ McCarron seemed to prefer veterans he knew better), but he'll also have the benefit of a brand new offensive coordinator who comes to Tuscaloosa with an eye on adding more explosive elements to the offense. Lane Kiffin's arrival could mean a shuffling of personnel at every position, and the receiver corps is especially ripe for an overhaul. If Black can use the spring to establish a rapport with the new quarterbacks and provide Kiffin a good first impression, he could ready himself to compete for a starting job come fall.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban has had no trouble recruiting at Alabama. The number of four- and five-star prospects he and his staff have signed since 2007 is nothing short of staggering. Many of them are already enjoying careers in the NFL.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The results: The final tally is still coming in, but the 2011 class appears to be headed in the right direction. Junior college transfers Jesse Williams and Quinton Dial are already playing professional football, and there’s a solid chance both Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix will be selected in the first round of the NFL draft in May. Pagan and Sunseri will follow in the later rounds. If DePriest, Jones and Kelly develop into NFL prospects as fourth-year players in 2014, that would make nine total NFL players from the class, not counting what Xzavier Dickson or D.J. Pettway could do to impress scouts.

Room to improve: WR

February, 18, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is Part II in a weeklong series looking at Alabama’s top five position groups with room to improve.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- They never caught much flack, which is understandable. Considering the numbers AJ McCarron put up at quarterback this past season (3,063 yards, 28 touchdowns passing), why pick on Alabama’s wide receivers? Their overall production wasn’t bad at all.

But considering all the talent Alabama has amassed at the position, shouldn’t they have been better? Shouldn't they have been more explosive? Alabama had 45 passing plays that went for 20 yards or more, which was squarely in the middle of the pack of the SEC, trailing the likes of Ole Miss, South Carolina, Missouri, LSU, Georgia and Texas A&M.

Granted, it’s hard to supplant entrenched veterans like DeAndrew White, Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell, but the way Nick Saban and his coaching staff have recruited the top talent at receiver in recent years, you’d think someone would have emerged who could stretch the field more vertically. In fact, not a single freshman -- redshirt or otherwise -- made a significant impact at the position in 2013.

Now we all know how talented and how explosive Amari Cooper has been in his first two seasons on campus. He’s been nothing if not an immediate success. But he can’t be the only youngster to stand out at the position. Not in 2014 when a new quarterback is under center and Norwood and Bell are off to professional careers. More will have to come from those further down the depth chart.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper is one of the best wideouts in the country and anchors the wide receiving corps.
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAmari Cooper is one of the best wideouts in the country and anchors the Bama wide receiving corps.
Battling for No. 1: No one is supplanting Cooper in the starting lineup. A healthy Cooper is among the best wideouts in the country. We saw as much late in the season when he began to look like himself against Auburn and Oklahoma. And chances are that White and Christion Jones, both seniors, will start alongside him once again. But with new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin at the helm and some of the logjam at receiver erased with Norwood and Bell gone, there’s a chance we see some competition for the top few reserves off the bench.

Strength in numbers: Chris Black is no longer a young pup. Fans will remember that he was actually ranked higher than Cooper by most recruiting services coming out of high school. He was injured and redshirted his first year on campus, and last season he caught just eight passes. A speedy target with good hands, he’ll be among the leading contenders off the bench. He’ll be joined by a few others, though, as Robert Foster, the former No. 2-ranked receiver in his class, and Raheem Falkins, an impressive target at 6-foot-4, enter their second year in the program.

New on the scene: Cameron Sims will only add to the deep supply of young talent at receiver when he arrives on campus. The four-star athlete and No. 8-ranked wideout in the ESPN 300 has the height (6-4) and speed (roughly a 4.52 second 40-yard dash) to make an immediate impact. He’ll have to add some weight to his 190-pound frame, but strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran is well versed in tackling that challenge. Joining Sims in the 2014 signing class is Ohio native Derek Kief. The No. 26-ranked receiver is another big target at 6-5 and 198 pounds.
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.

Season report card: Alabama

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It’s time to start passing out the report cards for the 2013 season, and Alabama is up first.

OFFENSE: B-

[+] EnlargeAlabama Crimson Tide
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesC.J. Mosley and Alabama's defense had some uncharacteristically bad performances in 2013.
For all the grumbling in and around Tuscaloosa this season regarding the offense, Alabama was one of three teams in the SEC to average more than 200 rushing yards and 200 passing yards per game. The other two were LSU and Missouri. Alabama also scored more than 30 points in 10 of its 13 games, with T.J. Yeldon leading the league in rushing yards in SEC games and AJ McCarron ranking third in the SEC in passing efficiency. So it was far from a disaster. However, there was too much inconsistency offensively to suit Nick Saban, particularly up front, and it all unraveled in the Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma with the five turnovers.

DEFENSE: B+

Let's face it. Alabama's defensive standards are dizzying. The Crimson Tide finished fourth nationally in scoring defense (13.9 points per game) and fifth nationally in total defense (286.5 yards per game). For most programs, those are "A" numbers. But there were also more glitches than usual. The Crimson Tide struggled at cornerback with youth and inconsistency and were vulnerable against the pass most of the season. They were shredded by Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel for 42 points and 628 yards in an early-season win over the Aggies and gave up 348 passing yards and four touchdown passes to Oklahoma's Trevor Knight in the bowl loss. It was a good Alabama defense, but not a great one.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-

Even though Christion Jones would make decisions sometimes that were questionable at best, he was still one of the most dangerous return men in the league. He had two punt returns for touchdowns and one kickoff return for a touchdown. Of course, what everybody will remember about this season for Alabama was the kick-six that won it for Auburn. It was one of four missed or blocked field goals by the Crimson Tide in that 34-28 loss. On the bright side, punter Cody Mandell was excellent and finished second in the league with a 47.1-yard average.

OVERALL: B-

The grading scale is always a little tougher when you've won consecutive national championships. While 11 wins is never anything to sniff at, even at Alabama, the Crimson Tide failed to win their own division and ended the season with back-to-back losses for the first time since the end of the 2008 season. In most cases, it's a season that would still qualify as a solid "B." But with the schedule being one of the cushier ones in the league, that takes the Tide's grade down a notch.
Editor's note: This is Part II in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There are a lot of things that make Alabama's defense work. Contrary to Nick Saban's public assertions, it's a difficult scheme to learn -- many players have said so -- because it's filled with so many moving parts. There's the disguised coverage on the back end, the pressure that comes off the edge, and the idea that fitting the gaps is priority No. 1.

But one of the linchpins in Saban's system is that of a shutdown cornerback. Saban himself would shudder at the term "shutdown corner," but that's what it takes for his defenses to go from good to great. Every top Alabama defense since his arrival has featured one, from Javier Arenas to Dre Kirkpatrick to Dee Milliner. This past season it looked like Deion Belue might have developed into that type of guy, but he didn't and we all saw how that affected the defense against the pass.

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

[+] EnlargeCyrus Jones
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCyrus Jones is one of a handful of players the Tide hope can develop into a shutdown corner.
"Deion we feel like has been our best corner, but he's been in and out because of injury. Opposite him, it's been musical chairs. Eddie Jackson played pretty well. But he also got injured so it pulled him out for a while. We've had other guys play well one game, not play well the next. We've not gotten the consistency we want out of that position. And we don't have the depth that we've had in the past, so it's been a struggle."

With so much of Alabama's defense turning over this spring -- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Belue are all gone from the secondary -- it's vital that Smart and Saban establish who the one-two punch at cornerback will be. In fact, outside of finding a starter under center, finding an anchor at cornerback is arguably the second biggest challenge facing the Tide this offseason. Otherwise we'll continue to see more poor performances against the pass like we saw against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

The good news for Alabama is that there's plenty of young talent at cornerback and a decent mix of veterans to rely upon in soon-to-be juniors Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve. Though Jones struggled at times last season, let's not forget that it was his first full season on defense since joining the Tide. And Sylve didn't play half bad when called upon either. Had he not developed a high ankle sprain, he might have been a more regular starter.

But the more intriguing bets are on either Maurice Smith or Jackson, the two true freshmen who saw the most significant time at cornerback in 2013. Smith played in all 12 games to Jackson's seven appearances, but Jackson was the first to start at corner, doing so Week 4 against Colorado State and then again the following week against Ole Miss. He fell off the map after that, succumbing to an injury and what Saban said was something of a rookie regression, but he'd come back and start again in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.

Beyond Jackson and Smith, there are a few other options. Both Anthony Averett and Jonathan Cook will benefit from redshirting their first year on campus, and early enrollee Tony Brown, a five-star prospect out of Texas, will look to compete for a job right away.

Be on the lookout for position changes, too, as last spring Saban moved Cyrus Jones, Dee Hart and Christion Jones from wide receiver to defensive back. With Lane Kiffin taking over as offensive coordinator, could someone like ArDarius Stewart be asked to try his hand on defense?

We'll see what changes are made come spring practice. Smart and Saban have plenty of pieces to move around, but finding the right fit won't be easy. The hope has to be that somewhere among the bunch will emerge a shutdown corner they can rely upon and build around.

Our All-SEC second team choices

December, 17, 2013
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On Monday, we gave you guys our All-SEC first team. Today, we thought we'd unveil our second team for 2013. There are so many guys in this league who deserve recognition that we just wouldn't feel good about not having another team to give props to during the holiday season:

OFFENSE

QB: AJ McCarron, Alabama
RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU
RB: Mike Davis, South Carolina
WR: Jarvis Landry, LSU
WR: Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt
OL: Justin Britt, Missouri
OL: A.J. Cann, South Carolina
OL: La'el Collins, LSU
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
AP: Todd Gurley, Georgia

DEFENSE

DL: Kony Ealy, Missouri
DL: Chris Smith, Arkansas
DL: Ego Ferguson, LSU
DL: Markus Golden, Missouri
LB: A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
LB: Avery Williamson, Kentucky
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt
DB: Chris Davis, Auburn
DB: Taveze Calhoun, Mississippi State

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: Colby Delahoussaye, LSU
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
PR: Christion Jones, Alabama
KR: Christion Jones, Alabama

Tre Mason named SEC Offensive POY

December, 11, 2013
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The SEC awards for 2013 were announced on Wednesday, and Auburn running back Tre Mason was named the league's Offensive Player of the Year.

The awards were voted on by the league's 14 head coaches, and they weren't allowed to vote for their own players.

In a league that houses Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray, Mason stood above the rest after his record-setting, MVP performance in Auburn's SEC title game win over Missouri. Mason, a junior, ran for a title game-record 304 yards and four touchdowns in Auburn's 59-42 victory over Mizzou.

But that wasn't all Mason did this season. He led the SEC with 1,621 yards and a league-high 22 rushing touchdowns. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry and rushed for 100-plus yards eight times.

Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley and Missouri defensive end Michael Sam were named Co-Defensive Players of the Year. Mosley leads Alabama and is tied for fourth in the SEC with 102 total tackles, including 56 solo stops. He averaged 8.5 total tackles per game and had a team-high nine tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries.

Sam leads the SEC with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. He also leads the SEC in sacks per game (0.81) and tackles for loss per game (1.38).

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn also won Coach of the Year after going 12-1 (7-1 SEC) in his first season as the Tigers' head coach. Auburn bounced back from a 3-9 season to beat rival Alabama, claim the SEC and a spot in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game against No. 1 Florida State.

Here are all the awards given out:

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Tre Mason, Auburn

CO-DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
C.J. Mosley, Alabama
Michael Sam, Missouri

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Christion Jones, Alabama

FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss

SCHOLAR-ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
Aaron Murray, Georgia

JACOBS BLOCKING TROPHY
Jake Matthews, Texas A&M

COACH OF THE YEAR
Gus Malzahn, Auburn

Alabama leads coaches All-SEC team

December, 10, 2013
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The SEC coaches have spoken, and Alabama has once again taken over their end-of-the-year All-SEC team.

The Crimson Tide led the rest of the league with nine representatives on the coaches' teams, including an SEC-leading five first-team selections. LSU followed with eight total representatives. Texas A&M had four first-team members, while Auburn and Georgia both had three each.

Twelve of the league's 14 teams had at least one player on the first team, while every team was represented on at least one team. Coaches weren't allowed to vote for their own players.

Here are the coaches' first- and second-team selections:

First team

OFFENSE
QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
RB: Tre Mason, Auburn
RB: T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
AP: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
TE: Arthur Lynch, Georgia
OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
OL: Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State
OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
WR: Mike Evans, Texas A&M
WR: Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt

DEFENSE
DL: Michael Sam, Missouri
DL: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
DL: Dee Ford, Auburn
DL: Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina
LB: C.J. Mosley, Alabama
LB: Ramik Wilson, Georgia
LB: A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
DB: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss
DB: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
DB: E.J. Gaines, Missouri
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida

SPECIAL TEAMS
K: Marshall Morgan, Georgia
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
RS: Christion Jones, Alabama *
RS: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU *

Second team

OFFENSE
QB: AJ McCarron, Alabama
RB: Mike Davis, South Carolina
RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU
TE: Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State
OL: La'el Collins, LSU
OL: Antonio Richardson, Tennessee
OL: Justin Britt, Missouri
OL: Anthony Steen, Alabama
C: Travis Swanson, Arkansas
WR: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
WR: Jarvis Landry, LSU
AP: Marcus Murphy, Missouri

DEFENSE
DL: Anthony Johnson, LSU
DL: Chris Smith, Arkansas
DL: Ed Stinson, Alabama
DL: Trey Flowers, Arkansas
LB: Lamin Barrow, LSU
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
LB: Avery Williamson, Kentucky
DB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt
DB: Chris Davis, Auburn
DB: Nickoe Whitley, Mississippi State
DB: Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt

SPECIAL TEAMS
K: Michael Palardy, Tennessee
P: Cody Mandell, Alabama
RS: Solomon Patton, Florida

-- (*-ties)

Don't call Auburn lucky

November, 26, 2013
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Don't call Auburn a lucky football team. The Tigers are 10-1 and fourth in the BCS standings thanks to a tipped Hail Mary touchdown pass against Georgia, but Alabama coach Nick Saban isn't about to say his SEC West rivals are anything other than good and deserving of their lofty ranking.

"I don't think they were lucky to win," Saban said of the Georgia game. "I'm not saying that at all.

"They really probably deserved to win the game, based on how they played in the game, and they got rewarded for it in the end by making a big play."

Call Auburn whatever you want. Call what's happening on The Plains a miracle season, if you must, and point to the last-second win over Georgia or the utter lack of passing game as serious flaws in Auburn's championship resume. But recognize that none of what you're saying takes anything away from what the Tigers have accomplished and what they're capable of accomplishing come Saturday afternoon when they take on the top-ranked Crimson Tide at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

The Iron Bowl is alive and well because Auburn is a good football team once again. This isn't 2011 or 2012 where Alabama won both games by a combined score of 91-14, failing to surrender a single offensive touchdown in the process. Gus Malzahn was Auburn's offensive coordinator for one of those games and absent at Arkansas State during the other. Since returning as Auburn's head coach this season, he's completely turned around what was a dysfunctional program.

Nick Marshall has developed into one of the most dynamic athletes in the SEC, Tre Mason is the league's leading rusher and the defense, while porous at times, has been good at creating takeaways. Sound familiar? It should because you could describe the 2010 Tigers that beat Alabama and won the national championship with Cam Newton and Michael Dyer in the same way.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAuburn quarterback Nick Marshall has thrown for 1,530 yards and rushed for 823 yards this season.
They were called lucky then, if you remember. Alabama was even favored to beat Auburn in that year's Iron Bowl. The Tigers are a two-touchdown underdog this go around.

"We don't feel lucky, of course," said Auburn defensive end and sack leader Dee Ford. "But we feel like it would definitely close a lot of the mouths [beating Alabama] with the things that we've been hearing. At the end of the day, that's not one of our goals. We're not really worried about the outside world because the outside world didn't even believe in us last year.

"We know it will close mouths [talking] about this being a fluke season."

Teammate C.J. Uzomah said they've been aware of Alabama's success this season. It's been hard to miss the constant media coverage, he explained, and on Saturday, he and his teammates will get to show they're deserving of the same type of respect by playing them heads-up at home.

"I think that's just fuel for us," Uzomah said of the uneven attention paid to the two programs, "just knowing there's so much hype and talk about them that we're going to prove ourselves, and we feel like we will.

"We feel like we've had a great season thus far, but we aren't satisfied. We want to win this game, and I think this will be a measuring stick of how we've grown as a team, where we are and where we want to head."

Malzahn, who called Alabama the best defense his team will see this season, said he's not letting he or his players get too caught up in the national picture. Improving every day is the goal, he said, not worrying about who's saying what. As he told his team a few weeks back: "We'll worry about all that patting ourselves on the back stuff after the season."

"Anytime you win 10 games, your team has done some right things," Malzahn said of proving his team is good and not lucky. "We're playing the No. 1 team in the country for the right to go to Atlanta. That's big enough in its own right."

Taking a cue from their head coach, Alabama's players aren't about to call Auburn lucky either. If anything, they agreed that having their rival playing good football makes the Iron Bowl better.

"They're a great team," UA receiver Christion Jones said, adding that he wasn't surprised by their success. "Auburn's a good unit."

But how good? Just ask Saban, who had no trouble heaping praise on those lucky Auburn Tigers.

"They're one of the leading offensive teams in the country ... Nick Marshall has almost 1,000 yards rushing himself," he explained. "They create a lot of issues and a lot of problems. They have good receivers that can make plays down the field when you try to load up on them.

"Defensively, they've played really, really well. They're hard to score on. ... Very, very good in the kicking game. Most of the time the guy kicks the ball out of the end zone. ... All the way around, this is a very, very good team, and I think their record sort of reflects that."

What we learned: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here's a look at three lessons learned in Alabama's 49-0 win over Chattanooga on Saturday afternoon.

Starting off slowly: There's something about the first quarter that Alabama's offense doesn't like. Even against inferior competition, the Tide struggle to score points early. We saw it against Mississippi State last week and we saw it again with Chattanooga on Saturday. All told, Alabama has scored 13 points in the first quarter of its last three games. Thankfully for AJ McCarron and the offense, their defense has come ready to play, shutting out opponents over the same period of time.

Future starter?: Cyrus Jones could have started. So could have Eddie Jackson. John Fulton would have been the sentimental pick to start at cornerback opposite Deion Belue on senior day. But in the end it was true freshman Maurice Smith trotting out to start at cornerback in the first series against Chattanooga. He played well, too, keeping the Mocs receivers in check and failing to draw a penalty. Whether he'll start moving forward this season is unknown, but Saturday's game may wind up being looked back on this offseason when fans and prognosticators analyze Alabama's cornerback situation in 2014.

Special teams: We've written at length about Alabama's offense and defense, so now seems like a good time to point out just how good the special teams have been. The forgotten unit has more than held its own this season. Cody Mandell has been one of the best punters in the nation, Cade Foster has been more than reliable kicking field goals and the coverage teams have kept the field position battle in Alabama's favor. But the big difference this year is the number of big plays out of the special teamers. Christion Jones returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown against Chattanooga, his third touchdown returning kicks this year, and A'Shawn Robinson later blocked a field goal attempt, setting up another score. All told, Alabama has seven non-offensive touchdowns this season, the most since 2008.

SEC assessments at the quarter pole

September, 24, 2013
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We’re a quarter of the way into the college football season, and two-time defending national champion Alabama is right where it started -- No. 1 in the polls.

In fact, Alabama is the only one of the five SEC teams that opened the season in the top 10 that hasn’t lost a game. So everybody’s still chasing the Crimson Tide, but it’s a race that could still go any number of ways, especially with some of the offensive numbers being generated. If the first four weeks taught us anything, you better be ready to score some points if you’re going to win a title this season.

Here’s a quick recap:

Best game: Take your pick. There have been some dandies to this point. The very first SEC game between Ole Miss and Vanderbilt on a Thursday night produced a thrilling ending in Nashville with the Rebels pulling out a 39-35 win. Both of Georgia’s first two games were incredibly entertaining, their 38-35 loss at Clemson and then their 41-30 win over South Carolina the next week. But nothing tops Alabama’s wild 49-42 win at Texas A&M in Week 3. The two teams combined for 1,196 total yards and 62 first downs. The Aggies jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but the Crimson Tide answered with 35 unanswered points only to have the Aggies come roaring back with three fourth-quarter touchdowns. It was so much fun that maybe we’ll see them go at it again in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game if everything falls right. Wouldn’t the rest of college football just love that?

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesAs good as Johnny Manziel was last season when he won the Heisman Trophy, he's even better this year.
Best player: Even though he caused an uproar with some of his antics and a 15-yard taunting penalty in the opener against Rice, the real news surrounding Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is that he’s even better than he was a year ago. All he did a year ago was win the Heisman Trophy and set the SEC record for total offense. Manziel’s arm strength has improved. He’s spreading the ball around, and he’s still carving defenses apart with his ability to make something out of nothing. Manziel is averaging 370.8 yards of total offense per game, completing 70 percent of his passes and has already accounted for 15 touchdowns. Honorable mention goes to Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews and LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

Best performance: Once again, Johnny Football takes top honors. Yes, it came in a loss, but he was brilliant in passing for five touchdowns and rolling up 562 yards of total offense (the most ever in an SEC game) in the 49-42 setback to Alabama. The guy Manziel was throwing to that day, sophomore receiver Mike Evans, comes in a close second with his seven catches for 279 yards. And let’s also not forget about how good Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron was in that game. He finished 20-of-29 for 334 yards and four touchdowns, completing passes to 10 different players. Sticking with Alabama, Christion Jones returned a kickoff for a touchdown, returned a punt for a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass in the season-opening win over Virginia Tech. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray deserves a shout-out for his four-touchdown outing in the win over South Carolina, and the same goes for Ole Miss running back Jeff Scott and his 243 all-purpose yards in the win at Texas. Scott rushed for a career-high 164 yards and a touchdown and also scored on a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown.

Best surprise: It has to be LSU’s passing game and how balanced the Tigers have been offensively through four games. In the offseason, Les Miles talked about the need to throw the ball better, and that’s exactly what the Tigers have done under first-year coordinator Cam Cameron. The days of loading up against LSU's running game and not worrying about the passing game are over. Mettenberger has 10 touchdown passes and only one interception. The receiving duo of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham has been dynamite with 11 combined touchdowns, and then there’s also Jeremy Hill trucking everything in sight in the running game. This has the makings of Miles’ best and most explosive offense since he has been in Baton Rouge.

Biggest disappointment: Granted, the expectations were through the roof, but South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has been a mere mortal in the Gamecocks’ first three games. He has been solid, but hasn’t been that consistent of a disruptive force so many people were anticipating to start his junior season. To be fair, he’s dealing with a foot injury that sounds like it will plague him for the rest of the season, and teams have done their best to run away from him and make him chase. Clowney still has two sacks, and at this point a year ago, he had only three and finished the season with 13. The Heisman Trophy chatter may have quieted, but you can bet that No. 7 won’t stay this quiet on the field all season.

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