Alabama Crimson Tide: D.J. Pettway

We continue our "Most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold a special meaning for one of the teams involved.

Today, we take a look at Alabama.

Most important game: Nov. 8 at LSU

Key players: As always, it's going to come down to who wins the line of scrimmage. And after looking over both teams' personnel, it's a bit of a toss-up.

On the one hand, Alabama is loaded on the defensive line with depth at nose guard and capable pass rushers like A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and D.J. Pettway at the ready. But the offensive line is something of a question mark with two new starters, one of whom could be true freshman Cam Robinson at left tackle.

LSU is looking at the opposite situation with four starters back on its offensive line, including La'el Collins, who passed on the NFL draft this offseason. But the defensive line isn't on its usual solid footing without a pair of tackles you know can anchor the defense. The good news is that the pass rush shouldn't suffer with Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco in place, and Tashawn Bower poised to come into his own.

Where Alabama does have the edge is at the offensive skill positions. While LSU has plenty of pieces in place with Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, they all have either limited or no experience. Alabama, meanwhile, has a bevy of talent and experience with Amari Cooper at receiver, O.J. Howard at tight end and T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry at running back.

The major question mark for both teams is at quarterback. Jacob Coker could be the next great Alabama quarterback, but until we see results we don't really know. LSU has not one but two quarterbacks to choose from in sophomores Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings, but who holds the upper hand is still to be determined.

Why it matters: Oh, you know, there's just a little history with this series as five of the last seven seasons have seen either Alabama or LSU win the West. Despite significant changes to both teams' rosters, this season looks to be no different as both programs harbor hopes of reaching Atlanta.

The road to Week 11 of the season is much kinder to Alabama, as the Tigers must first go through Wisconsin, Mississippi State, Auburn, Florida and Ole Miss, while the Crimson Tide face only two teams that finished last season above .500 (Ole Miss, Texas A&M).

Because of that, you can look at this as a "prove it" game for Alabama. Sure, traveling to Ole Miss presents its challenges, but the last time Alabama lost there was in 2003. And Texas A&M, while talented, likely won't be the same team without Johnny Manziel leading them into Tuscaloosa. Meanwhile, LSU won't be a "young" football team by November, and it will also have Tiger Stadium on its side.

If Alabama can survive LSU, it should be favored in its remaining three games, all of which are at home: Mississippi State, Western Carolina and Auburn.

Now you can jump up and down and say Auburn is the most important game for Alabama, and you'd have a solid argument. There's the fact that it's the best rivalry in college football, that both teams will likely be ranked when they meet Nov. 29 and the most basic issue of revenge to attend to. But it comes down to this for me: If Alabama loses to LSU, how far will the Tide drop in the playoff hunt and will a win over Auburn be enough to put them back in the conversation? Of that I'm not so sure.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Some stocks rise during spring practice and some inevitably fall, and that wave of momentum heading into the offseason can be a valuable determinant when it comes to seeing more playing time during the season.

With that in mind, here’s a look at five players emerging on defense for Alabama.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Allen
AP Photo/Dave MartinSophomore defensive end Jonathan Allen could be a big part of the Tide's defense in 2014.
DE Jonathan Allen: You can’t ask for much more as a true freshman than to play in every game. So while Allen might not have grabbed the same headlines as fellow rookie A'Shawn Robinson last season, he did do enough to see the field early and was able to gain some valuable experience. With Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson now off to the NFL, expect Allen to be in the mix to start at defensive end. And judging by his A-Day performance -- one blocked kick, two sacks, four tackles for loss -- it might be safe to call him a frontrunner to run with the ones as a sophomore.

CB Tony Brown: Even with a shoulder harness on and a black no-contact jersey pulled over his head, Brown found a way to make plays at A-Day, hauling in an impressive interception in his first public appearance in front of the Alabama faithful. The former five-star prospect chose to enroll early at Alabama for that very purpose -- a head start. With Alabama lean on experience at cornerback and Eddie Jackson dealing with a torn knee ligament, Brown has every opportunity to compete for a starting job when practice begins again after the summer.

LB Reuben Foster: Someone on campus needs to show Foster the proper way to tackle. He’s always been a reckless head-first linebacker, but after a series of neck stingers, you’d think the staff would have gotten him to change his ways. Well, at A-Day he dove head-first again into a pile and dealt himself a concussion that sent him to the locker room. Even so, with C.J. Mosley gone and a spot at inside linebacker up for grabs, expect Foster to push for more playing time. Injuries are a concern, but his athleticism is too much to keep off the field.

LB Dillon Lee: An arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence clouded an otherwise bright spring for the junior. After getting himself sent home from the BCS National Championship Game as a freshman, it looked like he had turned the corner. Nick Saban even said he was in line to compete for a starting job at outside linebacker. And even though Lee's off-field behavior is a red flag, fans had to be pleased with his response to the situation, coming out at A-Day and leading the Crimson Team with nine total tackles. If he can keep his nose clean this offseason, he should be able to contribute come fall.

DE D.J. Pettway: It was almost as if he never left. Pettway got himself thrown off the team following a season in which he was named to the Freshman All-SEC squad. But after paying his penance at a junior college program, he returned this spring and has re-inserted himself in the mix at defensive end. He even had his own “welcome back” moment at A-Day, intercepting a Blake Sims pass and returning it 29 yards for a touchdown.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- A-Day might not have featured the finest quarterback play. It might not have been the introductory moment offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was hoping for, either.

One thing did, however, go over incredibly well for Alabama on Saturday. The defensive line answered this spring’s most hard-to-pin-down question with a resounding yes.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Pettway
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsD.J. Pettway was a big part of Alabama's resurgent pass rush this spring.
Yes, Alabama has excellent depth up front on defense. And, yes, the line seems ready to get after the quarterback more than it has in seasons past. All you had to do was watch Kiffin’s passing game fold under pressure time and time again to see that.

The ultimate point of pride for defensive line coach Bo Davis and his players had to be the first touchdown of the game: Defensive end D.J. Pettway snags a screen pass from Blake Sims, finds the open field and races 29 yards to pay dirt. After holding the offenses scoreless for 45 minutes, it was the defense that found a way to score.

But as much fun as it was to watch a big man rumble into the end zone, what really had the faithful at Bryant-Denny Stadium giddy was Alabama’s resurgent pass rush. We’d heard all spring how Davis had infused enthusiasm and energy into the defensive line. How he was full of energy. How he was asking his players to read less, react more and get after the quarterback. And unlike the unfulfilled promise of Alabama’s quarterbacks, its defensive linemen delivered, to the tune of seven sacks and 19 tackles for loss.

(For comparison sake, Alabama totaled two sacks and five tackles for loss at last year’s spring game.)

Even coach Nick Saban, who fought speculation about the quality of the defensive line early on this spring, had to concede that he had a talented group of players to work with. In fact, he had to widen his praise to most of the defensive front seven.

“We have a lot of experienced players,” Saban said after the White beat Crimson, 17-13, in a game where the score is meaningless, though White was led by the first-team defense. “[D.J.] Pettway and [Jarran] Reed add a lot of depth and athleticism to that group. A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen were both freshman last year, and I always say that you make the most improvement between your freshman and sophomore year. Those guys got to play a lot last year; they’ve both had great springs.

“We had three inside linebackers that I thought played really well. Trey DePriest had a really good spring. Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster [did] as well. We also had three guys that played really well at outside linebacker. Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson, and Dillon Lee, those guys all had really good springs. Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson both contributed and improved.”

Pettway and Williams played so well on A-Day that they were named co-winners of the Dwight Stephenson Lineman of the Game award. Allen, who had six tackles and two sacks, also blocked a field goal.

“From the front seven stand point, I feel a lot further along,” Saban said.

Trey DePriest, Alabama’s leader on defense at middle linebacker, said the defensive line showed at A-Day what it was capable of.

“My defensive line is great,” he said. “They put their hands on guys, they strike them, they push them back and let me and Reggie hit the holes and run.”

Ragland, for his part, agreed -- though it came with a caveat. How good is the defensive line? “You’ll see coming up," he said.

“We still have a lot more to prove. We didn’t get to do half the stunts we wanted to.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch when Alabama takes to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday for A-Day, the finale of spring practice.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherQB Blake Sims has had a good spring and hopes to finish with a strong effort in Alabama's spring game on Saturday.
1. The quarterbacks: No, unfortunately the missing piece in the quarterback puzzle, transfer Jacob Coker, won’t be on the field Saturday. Instead, he’ll be in the stands watching his competition get a head start. And so far the clear leader has been veteran Blake Sims, who has put up some monster numbers in earlier scrimmages. He and Cooper Bateman have separated themselves, but Alec Morris and Parker McLeod will have an opportunity, however limited it may be, to make one final push before the offseason.

2. The Lane Train: We’ve heard that he’s more “player-friendly” and has “simplified” the offense since coming to Tuscaloosa. But the specifics of Lane Kiffin’s transformation of Alabama’s offense still remain to be seen. So while fans shouldn’t expect much more than a vanilla playbook, do pay attention to the formations and how the ball is distributed.

3. A young secondary: The focus of the spring has been primarily on Kiffin and the quarterbacks, and maybe that’s rightfully so. But no one should forget Alabama’s secondary, which faces a large rebuilding task. Starting safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri are gone. So is former starting cornerback Deion Belue and top reserve John Fulton. With the exception of Landon Collins at strong safety, every position in the secondary is up for grabs.

4. Rushing the passer: Defensive line coach Bo Davis has brought energy and a renewed focus on rushing the passer to Alabama this offseason. And with the depth he inherited at the position, he has the tools to get after the quarterback. Promising freshmen A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen are a year wiser, Dalvin Tomlinson is back from injury and D.J. Pettway returns after a year of exile. That’s a good nucleus of pass-rushers, but don’t forget Dee Liner and Tim Williams. Though the quarterbacks will essentially be playing two-hand touch, pay attention to how the down-linemen fire off the snap and get into the backfield.

5. The up-and-comers:

  • Derrick Henry: We all know by now what the former five-star athlete did in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma. But can he follow it up?
  • Tony Brown: With Eddie Jackson out and other injuries at the position, the top-five corner and early enrollee has gotten plenty of repetitions. With a strong close to the spring, he could put himself in position to vie for a starting job in the fall.
  • Cam Robinson: The former No. 1 offensive tackle in the ESPN 300 has come on as of late, challenging for the role of left tackle vacated by Cyrus Kouandjio. There’s no question Robinson fits the build from a physical and talent standpoint. The real question is how he acclimates to college and learns the playbook.
  • Reuben Foster: With C.J. Mosley gone, there’s a vacancy at middle linebacker. Foster, a former four-star recruit, has impressed with his athleticism and ability to deliver the big hits. But can he bring the complete package to the table?
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It started out innocently enough as Alabama coach Nick Saban ribbed the media on Monday about returning from spring break. He acted surprised when one reporter said she didn't take the time off, noting sarcastically how, "You really appreciate them when you work hard."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.
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 five-star offensive tackle Cameron 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 sophomore running back Derrick Henry, and today we're focusing on another second-year player -- this time on defense.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Ivory, Jonathan Allen
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJonathan Allen (right) has a chance to make a big impact for the Crimson Tide in 2014.
DE Jonathan Allen
Sophomore
6-foot-3, 264 pounds

Credentials: There are places on the football field where a freshman can make an immediate impact and not necessarily raise an eyebrow. But most of those positions that allow for inexperience come on offense where a player can force the action rather than react to it. And in Nick Saban's defense, getting on the field early is a chore. Some cornerbacks have done it, and even a few linebackers. But playing from Day 1 as a true freshman defensive lineman is rare. Last season Alabama had two such rookies, one who already looks like a contributor for years to come in A'Shawn Robinson, and another who took a little more time to mature and fits a more pure pass-rusher's mold. Allen, the former four-star prospect from Virginia, played all but one game last season, racking up three tackles for loss and a half a sack. While those numbers won't blow you away (Robinson had eight tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks), Allen did show promise by getting on the field and playing well enough to stay there throughout the season as a freshman.

How he fits: Considering that Ed Stinson graduated and Jeoffrey Pagan declared for the NFL draft a year ahead of time, there's an opportunity for Allen to insert himself into the starting lineup in 2014. Clearly Allen did a good job of grasping the defense to stay on the field so much as a rookie -- one that didn't enroll early, no less. But he'll have to do more than hold his own as a sophomore. Allen was brought to Alabama to provide more of what Saban calls "quick-twitch" defenders. In other words, someone who has the speed and athleticism to chase the quarterback and play in space in a league that's increasingly gone more toward mobile quarterbacks and hurry-up, no-huddle offenses. Early on in Allen's ESPN recruiting scouting report it states that he "displays very nice first-step quickness and can be a quick penetrator." To beat out the competition and develop into an All-SEC defensive linemen, Allen will have to use those tools and get in the quarterback's face more in 2014.

Best case/worst case: It's easy to see Allen and Robinson forming a good nucleus on the defensive line for years to come. Both possess the skills to flourish in the new pass-happy SEC. Allen has the size, speed and athleticism to become the kind of edge rusher the Tide has been missing of late. But nothing is guaranteed. Not in Tuscaloosa where Saban and his staff are stockpiling defensive linemen who fit the very same billing as Allen. Dalvin Tomlinson, for instance, is the kind of athlete who won state wrestling titles and played soccer in high school. After back-to-back leg surgeries, he'll return this spring, hopefully at 100 percent. D.J. Pettway, Korren Kirven and Dakota Ball are a few other veterans Saban could turn to. And if experience isn't a factor, there's Dee Liner, a former four-star prospect coming off a redshirt season, and Da'Shawn Hand, who was one of 15 five-star prospects in this year's ESPN 300. Allen has something of a head start and all of them by playing so much in 2013, but he'll have plenty of competition on his hands this spring if he does want to develop into a full-time starter.
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: Defensive line

February, 20, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is Part IV in a weeklong series looking at Alabama’s top five position groups with room to improve.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With a new position coach, maybe it’s time for new expectations. Alabama’s defensive line always has been solid, but when was the last time it was impressive? When was the last time it created the type of pressure that routinely moved quarterbacks off their spot and into bad situations?

Bo Davis’ return to Tuscaloosa as defensive line coach represents an opportunity for Alabama. With starters Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson off to the NFL, there’s room for both a shakeup in personnel and philosophy.

Granted, Nick Saban is never going to be the type of head coach who chases sacks, or any stat for that matter, but there’s no doubt Alabama could stand to get better at rushing the passer up front.

With more hurry-up offenses and mobile quarterbacks taking over in the SEC and college football, simply getting in the face of the passer won't do it anymore -- the ball is out too quickly or the quarterback will too often scramble out of pressure.

[+] EnlargeA'Shawn Robinson
AP Photo/Butch DillA'Shawn Robinson made an immediate impact as a freshman.
Davis, though, has more than a passing familiarity with uptempo offenses and speedy quarterbacks. After three seasons in the pass-happy Big 12, he understands the demands of pressuring the quarterback in today’s game.

Battling for No. 1: Based on last season, the writing might already be on the wall for who replaces Pagan and Stinson in the starting lineup. Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake should continue to hold down at nose guard, and the way true freshman A’Shawn Robinson played, leading the team with 5.5 sacks, he’s a lock to start. At 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds with surprising athleticism, he’s the kind of “quick-twitch” down lineman Saban has been looking for. The same can be said of fellow rookie Jonathan Allen, who played in all but one game last season. His 16 tackles and half a sack won’t knock your socks off, but considering he played so much as a true freshman without the benefit of spring practice, it’s nonetheless impressive.

Strength in numbers: The return of D.J. Pettway from junior college could push the presumptive starters, however. You’ll recall that Pettway was a Freshman All-SEC selection in 2012 and only left the team after being arrested in an on-campus altercation. Should he remain out of trouble and regain the confidence of coaches on the field, he could make an immediate impact. He’ll be joined by a handful of solid reserves: Dalvin Tomlinson, Dee Liner, Korren Kirven and Dakota Ball. Tomlinson is an intriguing prospect; coaches and players have raved about his potential, but knee injuries in successive years have forced him out of the lineup.

New on the scene: Alabama won’t be hurting for depth as it welcomes in four defensive linemen, not counting Pettway. Junior college transfer Jarran Reed is one to watch. At 6-4 and 315 pounds, he could compete for time at nose guard. Four-star prospects O.J. Smith, Johnny Dwight and Joshua Frazier are big bodies who could fill roles as interior linemen. And don’t forget the most high-profile recruit of them all: Da'Shawn Hand. The five-star defensive end from Virginia is a physical marvel at 6-4 and 262 pounds with a sub-5.0 40-yard dash. He could easily trim down and play outside linebacker, but coaches will get a better look when he enrolls this summer.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The paperwork is in for all of Alabama’s 2014 recruiting class. And now that it’s official, it’s time to start the process of analyzing who each prospect reminds us of.

Potential is a dangerous thing, so keep in mind that these comparisons are looking at the best case scenario for each player. As always, everything depends on what happens when they get to campus and how they develop when they get there.

[+] EnlargeDre Kirkpatrick
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsCould five-star cornerback become another Dre Kirkpatrick for the Crimson Tide?
DB Tony Brown
Projects as: He’s a heavier hitter and is maybe more physically developed, but Brown will remind many of former Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick with his length and ball skills. Brown has the kind of size and strength coach Nick Saban covets because it means Brown can be versatile and play near the line of scrimmage when necessary.

ATH Ronnie Clark
Projects as: He’s very much a tweener safety/linebacker prospect, making comparisons difficult. Reaching a bit into the SEC vault, fans can look at former Georgia “rover” Thomas Davis, who was part DB, part linebacker for the Bulldogs.

DL Johnny Dwight
Projects as: Dwight is a bit of an under-the-radar prospect as he was ranked as the 33rd-best defensive tackle in the country. But at 6-foot-2, 282 pounds, he offers a big body who can play end in Saban’s 3-4 scheme. Because of his versatility and lack of acclaim, he reminds some of former Alabama lineman Damion Square.

LB Rashaan Evans
Projects as: In keeping with the Georgia theme, Evans should conjure images of former Bulldogs linebacker Alec Ogletree. Both are slimmer, more athletic linebackers who could slide back and play safety in some systems. As Saban attempts to combat hurry-up no-huddle offenses, having linebackers with Evans’ speed will pay dividends.

DL Joshua Frazier
Projects as: At 6-4 and 336 pounds, Frazier is the type of defensive lineman who eats up space. He’ll likely be a nose tackle in Alabama’s system and primarily fit against the run in the mold of current Tide lineman Brandon Ivory.

LB Shaun Dion Hamilton
Projects as: Hamilton said he’s an inside linebacker who molds his game after former Alabama great C.J. Mosley. But Mosley was probably more athletic than Hamilton, so a more likely comparison might be another former Tide linebacker, DeMeco Ryans. Both are a bit undersized with Hamilton coming in at 5-11.

DL Da'Shawn Hand
Projects as: The comparison to Dont'a Hightower has been thrown around a bit, but given Hand’s size and pass-rush ability, he could easily slide into the Jack linebacker position and play a role similar to the one that made Courtney Upshaw an All-American. Another potential comparison, if he does play with his hand on the ground, is New York Giant Justin Tuck.

LB Keith Holcombe
Projects as: To borrow Holcombe’s father’s comparison, Keith does look a little bit like former Alabama linebacker Cory Reamer. Reamer was a bit of an unheralded recruit coming out of high school like Keith, but both have high motors and deceptive athleticism.

[+] EnlargeLoucheiz Purifoy
AP Photo/John RaouxAlabama signee Marlon Humphrey, a five-star defensive back, compares favorably to former Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy.
DB Marlon Humphrey
Projects as: Like Brown, Humphrey defies comparison because he’s so big for a corner. Because of his other worldly athleticism (just look at his track numbers) he compares favorably to former Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy. They both match up well with taller receivers and can help in run support.

DB Laurence Jones
Projects as: The Landon Collins comparison is going to be thrown around because both hail from Louisiana, but the better comparison might be with former LSU safety Chad Jones, who was also better when the play was in front of him than when he had to drop back in one-on-one coverage. Laurence, who goes by “Hootie,” already has the size (6-2, 208 pounds) to play in the SEC.

LB Christian Miller
Projects as: If he bulks up in a big way, Miller could play Jack. But as it stands, he’s more reminiscent of Adrian Hubbard at the Sam linebacker position. Tall with long arms and a lanky frame, Miller has the skill to rush off the edge but not enough thickness (212 pounds) to put his hand in the dirt on the line.

DL D.J. Pettway
Projects as: The comparisons to Square are going to be there because of his skill against the run and the pass. But Pettway has better production, dating back to his being named to the Freshman All-SEC team in 2012. To borrow and page from former Alabama right tackle D.J. Fluker, Pettway looks more like Marcel Dareus than Square.

DL Jarran Reed
Projects as: At 6-4 and 305 pounds, Reed is similar to former Alabama defensive end/tackle Jeoffrey Pagan. The junior college transfer is mature for a first-year player having gone first to a prep school and then to East Mississippi Community College.

DL O.J. Smith
Projects as: He was a natural fit as a nose guard with Alabama from Day 1. That’s why the Louisiana native committed to the Tide before ever getting an offer from LSU. Smith, all 6-2 and 315 pounds of him, isn’t going to wow you with his quickness but he could eat up space much like current Alabama nose guard Brandon Ivory.
Editor's note: This is Part IV in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The body of evidence is compelling. Alabama, after years of defensive dominance, has a problem with the hurry-up, no-huddle offense.

Da'Shawn Hand
Scott Fink for ESPNThe addition of athletic defensive linemen like Da'Shawn Hand could be the difference for the Tide's defense against spread teams.
Nick Saban can't avoid it any longer. After an offseason spent agonizing over offenses like Texas A&M's, he and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart came up empty. Alabama gave up the most yards in school history to Texas A&M this past season and followed that up with a poor performance against Auburn in the Iron Bowl and a disastrous showing against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

It's time to change. Or at least make significant tweaks.

Alabama's defense won't be the same next season. Three-quarters of the secondary will be gone and more than half of the front seven will be out the door as well. Greg Brown won't be coaching the secondary and Chris Rumph won't be coaching the defensive line any longer. That kind of large-scale turnover can be viewed as a negative or a positive. The silver lining for Saban is that he has a chance to start fresh.

"If you continue to do what you have been doing, you will continue to get the same results," Saban told the audience at the annual American Football Coaches Association conference in Indianapolis this week.

Continuing to get outflanked by the spread, outmatched by mobile quarterbacks and outwitted by uptempo offenses can't be the answer. Saban's defense has a strong track record, but adjustments must be made for success in the long term. There's simply too much football knowledge among Alabama's coaches to not adapt and overcome.

"All you're trying to do is get lined up [on defense]," Saban said of facing uptempo offenses in late September. "You can't play specialty third-down stuff. You can't hardly scheme anything. The most important thing is to get the call so the guys can get lined up, and it's got to be a simple call. The offense kind of knows what you're doing."

Corralling new-age offenses is a big task, one that no coach in college football has really mastered. But for Alabama's dynasty to be revived in 2014, tackling those kinds of scheme must happen. Teams like Texas A&M and Auburn aren't going away. Nick Marshall will be back under center for the Tigers next season, Ole Miss will continue to push the tempo under coach Hugh Freeze and even Mississippi State will look to beat the Tide with a spread offense and an athletic quarterback in Dak Prescott. West Virginia has run the spread for years, Tennessee's Butch Jones runs a version of it and even Florida coach Will Muschamp says the Gators are going that way too.

While the spread, uptempo offenses were a unique challenge a few years ago, next season they'll be more of the norm with at least seven of Alabama's 12 scheduled opponents featuring some form of the increasingly popular scheme.

Getting more athletic up front on defense seems to be a significant part of the answer for Alabama. With true freshmen like A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen emerging as dangerous pass-rushers, that's a good place to start. The return of D.J. Pettway should help, as should the eventual arrival of five-star commitment Da'Shawn Hand.

Matching athleticism with athleticism will go a long way, but the staff will have to do more to confront its most glaring weakness. Trey DePriest will have to take on a more influential leadership role with C.J. Molsey gone, and the back end of the defense will need to improve as well.

One offseason wasn't enough to solve the hurry-up no-huddle conundrum. The hope for Alabama fans is that with one more offseason to prepare, a few more staff changes and some better personnel, the problem won't be so pronounced.
Editor's note: This is Part III in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With so many big-picture items on Alabama's to-do list this offseason, it's no wonder we're seeing a shakeup on the coaching staff. Lane Kiffin is the most buzz-worthy new hire with a big job to accomplish, but he's not alone. Bo Davis, who is set to become the Crimson Tide's new defensive line coach, has another important issue to tackle: generate a more consistent pass rush.

But he won't be alone. Head coach Nick Saban, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and linebackers coach Lance Thompson all must work together to find a way to get to the quarterback more often.

[+] EnlargeA'Shawn Robinson
AP Photo/Butch DillFreshman A'Shawn Robinson led the Tide in sacks with 5.5.
Whatever you do, though, don't mention sacks as a statistic in making an argument to this coaching staff. Saban notoriously loathes the idea that sacks are a measure of a good defense. But even he would concede that the pressure Alabama brought on quarterbacks in 2013 wasn't enough. Alabama's total number of hurries, knockdowns and sacks have risen steadily over the past three season (48 in 2011, 53 in 2012 and 79 in 2013, according to ESPN Stats and Information), but with more and more mobile quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel and Nick Marshall, simply getting in the face of the passer won't do it -- they'll too often scramble and find a way to pick up yards with their feet or their arm.

Enter Davis, who has more than a passing familiarity with uptempo offenses and speedy quarterbacks. After three seasons in the pass-happy Big 12 at Texas, he is well acquainted with the demands of pressuring the quarterback. His Longhorns registered 100 sacks to the Tide's 87 over that time.

Losing a talented pass-rusher like Adrian Hubbard to the NFL draft hurts, but Alabama isn't without options. And unlike in years past, the heat may come from the down linemen more than the linebackers. With young up-and-comers A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen emerging at defensive end, Alabama is well equipped to get after the quarterback.

Robinson was one of the most impressive freshmen in all of the SEC this past season. Teammates joked that he looked 30 years old when he first enrolled, but opponents weren't laughing. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound true freshman wound up leading Alabama with 5.5 sacks, finished second with eight tackles for loss and tied for third with four quarterback hurries.

"I wondered where his whistle was because he looks like a coach," Smart said of Robinson prior to the Sugar Bowl. "He's about a 28-looking-year-old dude. When we recruited him, we always thought he was going to be a special player, big size, speed guy, what you wanted athletically, didn't know how developed he would be technically on the field. He was a real raw talented guy. He's come a long way and he still has a long way to go. But he's a talented young man. He's worked his tail off this year to contribute, especially mentally picking up the defense early on.

Allen, meanwhile, made the most of fewer snaps. The former four-star recruit from Virginia had half a sack and three tackles for loss as a true freshman. Though his numbers weren't eye-popping, he showed excellent athleticism while on the field, especially late in the season.

"We don't have as much depth on the defensive line that we always had," Smart said. "Without him and Jonathan Allen we would have had a hard time this year getting through at the D-line position."

With Dakota Ball and Dalvin Tomlinson back from injury and Dee Liner no longer sporting a redshirt, Alabama should have the numbers next season to rotate in fresh legs on the defensive line. Throw in the return of former SEC All-Freshman D.J. Pettway and incoming true freshman Da'Shawn Hand, and all the parts are there.

Whether that translates into a better pass rush, and, yes, more sacks, is anyone's guess. With Davis back and the needs of defenses changing, the hope for Alabama fans is that the answer is in the affirmative.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It happens every year now, so don't act surprised. If you're an Alabama fan, deal with it. If you're not, don't weep for the Crimson Tide, either. Coach Nick Saban has lost multiple underclassmen to the NFL before, so Thursday's news that safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan will all leave school early is no insurmountable thing. This is just the reason why Saban and his staff recruit so hard.

[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillSafety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is one of four Alabama players who are leaving school early to enter the 2014 NFL draft.
Their leadership and experience will be missed -- along with seniors AJ McCarron, C.J. Mosley and Anthony Steen -- but their talent can be replaced. When you're the only school in the country to finish in the top three of ESPN's class rankings every year since 2008, you have that luxury of plug-and-play. Blue-chip prospects overflow from Alabama's football offices, rattling out its pockets every once in a while like loose change.

"Our twos and threes could do what I did out there," Clinton-Dix said of the team moving forward. "I'm not worried about any of those guys stepping up."

Alabama will be fine without Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix. Many of their replacements are already on board: Landon Collins at safety, Leon Brown at tackle, Dillon Lee at strongside linebacker, Jonathan Allen at defensive end. Those who will challenge them for playing time are either just now arriving or just now finishing their first seasons in Tuscaloosa: defensive backs ArDarius Stewart and Laurence 'Hootie' Jones, tackles Grant Hill and Cam Robinson, linebackers Tim Williams and Da'Shawn Hand, and defensive ends Dee Liner and D.J. Pettway -- all excellent prospects.

It's easy to look at the loss of stars and say, "Oh no!" but that's not how it works at Alabama. It wasn't that long ago that safety Mark Barron left school and Clinton-Dix entered the fold. D.J. Fluker went to the NFL a year early and Austin Shepherd had little trouble at right tackle in his absence. Eddie Lacy torched Notre Dame in last year's BCS title game, announced he was turning pro and Alabama never missed a beat. Not only is T.J. Yeldon back for his junior season, a fella by the name of Derrick Henry appears ready to be his new sidekick.

This is the program that Saban has built. This is what his "Process" has borne. And it's embraced around campus. Just look at this, this and this from Alabama's director of player personnel Tyler Siskey. As Saban told reporters, "We've had 13 guys go out early for the NFL draft, 11 of those guys have been first-round draft picks."

Often when other schools lose key players to the NFL, there's a mad scramble to find their replacements. At Alabama, coaches turn to a stocked cupboard. Take the safety position, for instance: Cinton-Dix goes out with off-field drama and Collins enters the fold at free safety, followed by Vinnie Sunseri blowing out his knee and Collins then shifting over to strong safety. Collins, a former five-star prospect in his own right, immediately found success. A year after playing primarily on special teams, he finished second on the team in tackles, tied for first in interceptions and tops in passes defended.

Sure, Saban would love to see Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix back for another year. Just don't expect him to openly weep about it. He's probably more than thrilled that Trey DePriest and DeAndrew White should be sticking around for their senior seasons.

You know, two out of six isn't bad. Three championships in five years seems to be going over quite well in Tuscaloosa.

Alabama will survive and new stars will emerge next season. Sometimes you hate to see athletes like Clinton-Dix leave early, but their departure only clears the way for who's next.

SEC recruiting storylines: Oct. 17 

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
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Taking a look back at the week that was in SEC recruiting and looking ahead to future visits as teams build toward signing day:

Aggies could make big splash Saturday

Five Tide players emerging on defense 

February, 15, 2013
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Adrian HubbardNelson Chenault/US PresswireLinebacker Adrian Hubbard closed last season strong, and more is expected in 2013.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At Alabama and under coach Nick Saban, you don't just walk onto the defense and start right away. Learning the ins and outs of his complicated 4-3 scheme takes time and patience.

Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw went through their growing pains, so did Mark Barron and Dee Milliner. Stars on defense don't emerge overnight.

As the world turns its attention toward the start of spring practice and the birth of another college football season, here are five players on defense who weren't superstars last season but could prove to become significant contributors in 2013.


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