Alabama Crimson Tide: Dee Hart

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.

SEC's lunch links

February, 18, 2014
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Here's a quick look at what is happening around the SEC:

" Alabama said Monday after running back Dee Hart's arrest on drug possession charges that he has not been a part of the program since the bowl game.

" Ole Miss suspended linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant following their weekend arrests in Oxford.

" Several SEC players made NFL.com analyst Nolan Nawrocki's list of the most controversial players in the draft, including Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who Nawrocki said “carries a sense of entitlement and prima-donna arrogance.”

" Athlon Sports lists the top-10 SEC linebackers of the BCS era.

" Did Georgia recruit too well at running back when it signed Sony Michel and Nick Chubb this year? Highly sought-after 2015 prospect Taj Griffin discusses that and other subjects with the Atlanta Journal Constitution's Michael Carvell.

" USC has removed a signing-day video where an off-camera voice can be heard describing a Tennessee signee as “soft and terrible.”

" Mercedes-Benz won't allow a Birmingham-area car dealership to carry Nick Saban's name, but the Alabama coach is aligned with a proposed dealership that is caught up in litigation ahead of its opening.

" Baton Rouge police arrested three suspects in connection with a weekend home invasion at former LSU athletic director Skip Bertman's residence.

" The Columbia Daily Tribune's David Morrison takes a look at the Tigers' running back depth chart entering spring practice.

" South Carolina's Bruce Ellington followed his mother's advice and opted to enter the NFL draft early.

Dee Hart faces possession charge

February, 18, 2014
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Former Alabama running back Dee Hart was arrested Sunday for possession of marijuana and giving false information, according to reports.

Hart, who was a top recruit for Alabama in 2011, was supposed to head into the fall for his junior season on the field, but the school announced that he is no longer part of the football team. He hasn't been with the team since Alabama's 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Here's the statement from Alabama on Hart's status:
"Dee Hart has not been a part of the football team since the bowl game and has not participated in any of the offseason program. Hopefully he will learn from this mistake and continue to work toward completing his degree, which he is on track to do by the summer."

[+] EnlargeDee Hart
AP Photo/ Butch DillDee Hart never really got his career off the ground at Alabama.
It's unknown if Hart could return to the team beforehand, but this recent arrest certainly won't help him. Hart might have been a top recruit for the Crimson Tide a few years ago, but he was never able to really make much movement on the Tide's depth chart. Hart suffered season-ending ACL injuries in 2011 and 2012 and tried out at cornerback last year before moving back to running back.

Hart rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in 2013 and had 166 yards and a touchdown on 43 career carries with Alabama.

With the return of back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher T.J. Yeldon and backups Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry, it might have been tough for Hart to rise through the ranks at running back. Not to mention, rising sophomore Altee Tenpenny, a former ESPN 300 recruit, saw action last season and Tyren Jones, also an ESPN 300 prospect in 2012, redshirted last year. The arrival of highly touted five-star athlete Bo Scarbrough won't help either, with Scarbrough expected to start his Alabama career at running back.

Heading into the spring, it appears the top spot at running back is going to come down to Yeldon or Henry, who had a breakout performance in the Sugar Bowl. Hart might have a tremendous amount of athleticism and his work ethic was once thoroughly praised by coach Nick Saban, but the chances of him jumping those two was minimal. The chances of him pushing the others out of the way at this point in his career was going to be a mountain to climb as well.

Alabama will be fine without Hart, but here's hoping Hart lands on his feet soon.
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.

AUBURN, Ala. -- All Corey Grant ever wanted was a shot.

He grew up in Auburn's backyard, but the four-star running back committed to cross-state rival Alabama in the Class of 2010 based on a pitch the Crimson Tide staff gave him, promising to open the offense and utilize his blazing speed. Had he stayed home and signed with the Tigers, he would've been a part of the 2010 BCS National Championship team.

Not to worry, Grant surely would get a ring while at Alabama, right?

Wrong. The role he thought he was going to play in Tuscaloosa never panned out, and he transferred to Auburn after his freshman season. He was back home, but he had to watch his former team win back-to-back national championships.

The state of Alabama has claimed the past four crystal balls, and Grant doesn't have a ring to show for it. But none of that matters.

"I'd rather play than sit on the bench and get rings," Grant, now a junior, said.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCorey Grant finally is playing, which means more to him than winning rings while on the sideline.
That's how he always has been.

Grant grew up around football. His father, Ike Grant, was a football coach for 33 years and would take his son with him to work as soon as Corey was old enough to walk. Corey would cut the grass. He would watch film. He would hang out in the weight room with the players. He was always working, always around football.

"Corey didn't have no other choice than to be the kind of kid that he is, simply because I was a football coach and no stranger to hard work," said Ike, the 10th child of 14.

More than anything else, Ike wanted his son to be a good person, but he could see at an early age that Corey was going to be a special athlete. When Corey started walking, it wasn't long before he was running around the house. In pee-wee football, they would toss him the ball and Corey would outrun everybody.

It continued into high school, where he emerged as one of the top prospects in the state.

"Corey had a tremendous junior year," Opelika coach Brian Blackmon said. "Corey had a really big upside. He played a little bit at a bunch of different positions as a sophomore for us. His junior year, though, he had an incredible year. A lot of big plays."

Stanford was the first to offer Corey a scholarship. Auburn was the first SEC school to offer back when Tommy Tuberville was still the head coach. He had double-digit offers but chose Alabama over both Auburn and Florida, which was also in the mix.

But Corey never found a fit while he was in Tuscaloosa.

"He went to Alabama, but we could tell during preseason that he wasn't really happy," his father said. "He wasn't really sure. Midway through the season, we really knew it, because when he'd come home, he would kind of indicate that, and he would always regret going back."

Corey stuck it out through the next spring, but when freshman running back Dee Hart arrived in January and passed him on the depth chart, the writing was on the wall. It was time to move on.

There was just one problem. Nick Saban wouldn't release Corey's scholarship if he chose to play for another SEC school. The Alabama coach knew the caliber of athlete he had and didn't want to have to compete against him for the next two or three years.

That left Corey with very few options. Ultimately, he wanted to come home and play for Auburn. But to do that, he was forced to walk on to the program and live at home for the first year. He would wake up at 4 a.m. and drive to the football complex every morning for practice. It wasn't easy, but it was the only way.

"I think Corey was just happy to be home," Blackmon said. "Corey's a very driven kid. He had to go back and earn it all over again. He went from a four-star, highly recruited kid to a walk-on, having to earn it again."

Corey won multiple team awards the year he walked on and eventually earned a scholarship. But when former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn left for Arkansas State, Corey's opportunity to play left with him. The local kid was working hard and doing everything the right way, but his opportunity never came.

"He's had a hard road, simply because when he got to Auburn, he had to sit down, because Coach Saban wouldn't release him," Ike said. "Then the next year, he stood on the sideline and nobody gave him an opportunity.

"All the coaches would say he's a great kid, he's a great athlete, he's a hard worker, he does what he's supposed to, but he never got that opportunity. He's had a struggle with that."

Flash forward to this season. Malzahn returned to Auburn as head coach, and, in turn, Corey has become an integral part of the rushing attack. He's one of four Tigers with more than 500 yards rushing, and he leads the SEC in yards per carry (9.9) with a minimum of 50 attempts. He had 53 yards and a touchdown on just six carries last week against Georgia.

"He's one of the faster guys probably in college football," Malzahn said. "He's been a speed guy, but he's gotten a lot better at running in between the tackles and doing the things that a normal running back does. He's an outstanding player and an even better person."

It would have been easy to stay at Alabama. He might never have seen the field, but he'd have been part of two national championship teams. Some of his teammates knew they were never going to play but stayed anyway for the shot at getting a ring.

But that's not Corey. His father once asked him about the rings, to which he responded, "Daddy, it don't make no difference if you're not happy."

Corey's finally happy, and he'll get his shot against his former team this Saturday in the Iron Bowl. If Auburn wins, he might even get a chance to play for a ring.

Five things: Alabama-Colorado State

September, 21, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's been a while, Tuscaloosa. For the first time this season, Bryant-Denny Stadium will be put to use, as No. 1 Alabama hosts Colorado State for its home opener.

Here's what we'll be watching when the Crimson Tide kick off on campus.

Secondary seeking answers: They've heard the criticism all week after getting their doors blown off by Texas A&M this past weekend. The Aggies cut through the UA secondary like hot butter as Johnny Manziel bought time in and out of the pocket before inevitably finding a receiver downfield for a big gain. Mike Evans, by himself, amassed more than 250 yards receiving against a carousel of cornerbacks. In response, Alabama coach Nick Saban called for something of an open competition at defensive back with youngsters like Bradley Sylve, Cyrus Jones, Maurice Smith and possibly Eddie Jackson getting looks against CSU. The Rams aren't near the passing threat of Texas A&M, but they're nonetheless the next challenge and the next opportunity to right the ship.

Running back rotation: We might have to wait until the second quarter to see UA starting tailback T.J. Yeldon, who will reportedly be suspended for a quarter for the unsportsmanlike penalty he received last week against Texas A&M. But even so, the timing couldn't be better as Alabama looks to sort out its running back rotation. Saban said in the offseason that he wanted a five- or six-deep group of backs, and so far we've seen plenty of Yeldon and lead backup Jalston Fowler, but the rest of the backfield hasn't been showcased much. Dee Hart should get some carries, and we'll likely see true freshmen Altee Tenpenny and Derrick Henry get their chances against CSU as well. But how the carries are distributed and whether fellow rookie tailback Tyren Jones sees the field remains to be seen.

Is Amari Cooper in a slump? He's dealt with a number of nagging injuries this year, but he hasn't missed any games because of it. And, according to Saban, defenses aren't do anything different to keep him in check. So why exactly is Alabama's top receiver suddenly not himself? The former Freshman All-SEC selection hasn't had the impact on the game we became accustomed to last year and he hasn't been as sure-handed either, dropping a number of passes against Virginia Tech and Texas A&M. He's tied for the team lead with six receptions, but he's only racked up 72 yards and no touchdowns in the process. Getting Cooper back on track in time for the meat of the SEC schedule will be vital for Alabama's offense.

Continuing progress on the O-line: Alabama's offensive line responded in a big way this past weekend after being abused by Virginia Tech in the season opener. Cyrus Kouandjio and Co. helped open big holes in the running game and protected AJ McCarron beautifully against Texas A&M, enforcing its will much in the same way we saw from Alabama's line a year ago. But will it continue? We'll see against the Rams, who admittedly don't offer much in the way of All-American defenders. Keeping last week's momentum going might be difficult, though, if starting right guard Anthony Steen is unable to play after injuring himself against the Aggies. Kellen Williams, who filled in admirably in his absence, could be called on to give Steen a rest early if the pain he experienced last weekend returns.

Championship fatigue: It's been written about a good deal -- Alabama fans getting tired of winning. After three championships in four season, would anyone blame them? Alabama winning football games has become something of a ho-hum affair of late. Setting aside the time and money to see the Tide play in Bryant-Denny Stadium isn't quite as appealing when you know the outcome of the game ahead of time. Heck, some students would rather stay home and watch the game on TV with the luxury of being able to channel surf when the score inevitably gets out of hand. If fans truly are getting tired of going to games, we'll see the effect in the bleachers against nonconference cupcakes like Colorado State.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban didn't like the idea of doing it, but he did his duties and released a depth chart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All told, 11 true freshmen made the two-deep, though none are projected to start: nose guard A'Shawn Robinson, defensive end Jonathan Allen, linebacker Reuben Foster, cornerback Maurice Smith, offensive tackle Grant Hill, tight end O.J. Howard, receivers Raheem Falkins and Robert Foster, long snapper Cole Mazza and tailbacks Henry and Tenpenny.

Alabama season preview

August, 19, 2013
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Today, we're looking at Alabama, which enters the 2013 season looking to make history with a third straight national championship.

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

2012 record: 13-1 (7-1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Five wins vacated in 2007
YeldonRandy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsSophomores T.J. Yeldon (pictured) and Kenyan Drake are established Alabama tailbacks, but the Crimson Tide are hoping that their four incoming freshman can provide immediate depth.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban is no stranger to managing a crowded backfield. Since he took over as head coach at Alabama in 2007, he's featured two lead tailbacks and a supporting cast of one or more every season. Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy were the players fans across the country knew best, but they wouldn't have been as explosive as they were without help from the bench.

T.J. Yeldon understands that. The soft-spoken sophomore backed up Lacy in 2012 and was able to make a name for himself in the process, becoming the first UA tailback to rush for more than 1,000 yards in his freshman season. All told the former four-star prospect from South Alabama ran for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns on 12.5 carries per game.

"He's bright. He learns well. He understands the offense. He's a good blocker. He's a complete player. He's a really good receiver, and he's a good runner," Saban said of his Pre-Season All-SEC back. "And he understands what he's doing, and he's played enough that his knowledge and experience certainly helps him with the rest of the players."

Yeldon and his presumptive backup, Kenyan Drake, are givens, but the rest of the backfield is where things get sticky. Where will the rest of the Tide's cast of characters fit in?

In addition to veterans Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart, Alabama signed four tailbacks in the 2013 class. Each rookie brings something different to the table: Derrick Henry is a physical freak at 6-foot-3 and 243 pounds, Altee Tenpenny is a bruiser with good lower body strength, Alvin Kamara is a scat-back type with good catching ability and Tyren Jones is a somewhere in the middle, a power back with good shiftiness and explosion. And according to those inside the program, all four not only are on track to play early, but are expected to do so this season.

Saban hinted as much at his signing day press conference when he scoffed at the notion of a "stacked" running back corps. He said then that good depth at the position meant five really good players, with three playing a lot. With Fowler practicing at H-back and Hart a question mark given his health concerns, the numbers add up.

On Tuesday, Saban updated the situation at tailback and praised his freshmen in the process.

"I think all the running backs are really good, the freshmen, and I think they'll all be able to contribute," he said. "Some of the guys who are showing a little bit more maturity and learning and being able to sustain performance, which I think is going to help their development and it's going to help them be able to contribute and play.

"Derrick Henry being here in the spring obviously helps his (chances). Altee Tenpenny seems like he's a guy that seems to get it and is pretty well-rounded and has been able to grasp things and sort of learn quickly. But the other guys have done a good job as well."

Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said less than two weeks earlier that the most important thing for the young backs such as Tenpenny and Henry is to get the system down pat. Then and only then can they move on to the idea of playing time.

"So that's the biggest thing is to teach them once again the big picture -- how you get lined up, what kind of stance, what kind of footwork. Everybody focuses on the running back position about what the player does with the ball in their hands. There's so much more to it," he said. "You start talking about protection-type things. What we see from our defense every day, the complexity of blitzes and those type of things, it's very important that those guys grow in that area.

"[The coaches are] very, very pleased with the depth that we have there, really good players. Jalston Fowler, you know he missed most of last season. Dee Hart coming back off of injury. Kenyan Drake returning. And then we talked about Derrick and the young guys that are coming in. So we've got a lot of depth there."

Yeldon told reporters on Tuesday that the young backs have been leaning on him for advice while they learn the ropes during fall camp. Funny because it was only a year ago that he was doing the same thing, splitting carries as he studied under Lacy. Now it's Yeldon leading the charge as he wonders who will split carries with him as the team's feature back.

But who looks best so far? Yeldon can't tell.

"Every guy is different," he said. "They have different running abilities. All of them are looking pretty good."
College football prognosticator Phil Steele continues his look at the top depth charts around the country. Today, we're looking at his top running back depth charts Insider.

Steele has three SEC teams on his list, with Georgia taking his top spot. Alabama is No. 2, while Texas A&M is 14th.

It's hard to argue against having Georgia No. 1. The Bulldogs bring back the top one-two rushing punch in Todd Gurley, who led SEC running backs with 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns, and slasher Keith Marshall. The duo combined for 2,144 yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry. There isn't much behind these two, but they did just fine with the majority of the carries last year.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
AP Photo/Romeo GuzmanT.J. Yeldon returns to lead a deep backfield for the Crimson Tide this season.
Alabama has a very deep backfield that's led by sophomore T.J. Yeldon, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year. He should compete to be one of the top players at his position this fall as both a slasher and a pounder. The Tide will get back the beastly Jalston Fowler, who is coming off of knee surgery, and scat back Dee Hart, who is also returning from a knee injury. Sophomore Kenyan Drake is back and true freshman Derrick Henry should help out as both a running back and H-back this fall.

As for the Aggies, they're also very deep at running back. Leading rusher Ben Malena (808 yards) is back, and he'll be working with some younger but very talented teammates. Brandon Williams, who transferred from Oklahoma, has the potential to be very special. Then you have Oregon transfer Tra Carson and sophomore Trey Williams. There is a lot of speed and athleticism in Texas A&M's running back stable.

I'd also keep an eye on Florida, LSU and Ole Miss this fall. The Gators will be led by sophomore Matt Jones, who had a very good spring and should pick up right where Mike Gillislee left off. He'll also get help from redshirt junior Mack Brown, who left spring as the No. 2 back, and freshmen Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane. Taylor had a good spring and Lane should come in and help right away.

LSU might have made Steele's list if Jeremy Hill wasn't suspended from the team. Hill's recent arrest has his future at LSU in doubt, but if he plays this fall he'll be one of the league's best. Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue are nothing to sneeze at. Both have shown flashes in the past and Blue should be healed from a knee injury that cost him most of his 2012 season. Losing Hill will really hurt, but the Tigers have a solid duo in Hilliard and Blue to work with.

Ole Miss returns rushing leader Jeff Scott and a talented bunch of youngsters. Scott is a solid all-purpose-type back, while sophomores I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton came on strong late last year and this spring. True freshman Mark Dodson will get his chance to see the field as well after a strong spring.

Crimson Countdown: Dee Hart

May, 13, 2013
5/13/13
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During the summer, TideNation will analyze each of the scholarship players on the Alabama roster -- excluding the Tide's 2013 recruiting class -- in our Crimson Countdown series. Starting with No. 1 Dee Hart, we will go through the roster numerically, finishing with No. 99 Brandon Ivory.

No. 1 Dee Hart
Redshirt sophomore running back

Expectations for 2013: Until he proves he can get to 100 percent and stay there, it's hard to determine just what kind of impact he'll have on the football field. He does have a unique skill set, though, with the speed to get outside the tackles and the hands to catch the ball out of the backfield. Simply put, he's a scatback in a room full of bruisers. But it's also a crowded rotation with T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Jalston Fowler all vying for carries. The addition of early enrollee Derrick Henry further complicates things, and it's conceivable that one of the three incoming freshmen at the position creates a role for himself as well.

Best-case scenario: Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier can get creative with Hart if he chooses. In addition to being a threat in the return game, Hart could be a weapon on third down and a possibility to split out as a wide receiver at times, something Alabama hasn't done much of in years past. He may not be a guy the defense circles in the running game, but he's someone it will have to account for as a pass-catcher. However, Hart's biggest asset might be his knowledge of the system and his ability to pass protect, something Yeldon struggled with at times last season and something the younger backs will have to pick up quickly.

Worst-case scenario: Hart isn't someone the staff should rely on this season. You can't ignore back-to-back major knee operations. And even if he finds a way to stay healthy, there are still questions whether or not he'll have the same burst that made him such a highly regarded prospect coming out of high school.

Future impact: A few carries per game a significant role on special teams looks to be Hart's future at Alabama for the time being. After a spring spent learning the ropes on defense, there's also a real possibility that he could transition to cornerback in the event of a few injuries at that position.


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There goes the family vacation. Alabama fans planning their annual pilgrimage to Tuscaloosa for the A-Day scrimmage this Saturday were hit with some disappointing news when it was learned that fab freshman tailback Derrick Henry would miss the remainder of spring because of a fractured leg.

A-Day had been built as Henry's opening act. For months, we had heard how talented the former five-star athlete was: A 6-foot-3, 238-pound man-child with the shoulders of a linebacker and the feet of a tailback. Much of signing day was devoted to what position he would play at Alabama: running back, H-back, linebacker, something in between?

Tide's second scrimmage is a mixed bag

April, 13, 2013
4/13/13
6:50
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Depending on which way you look at it, Alabama's scrimmage on Saturday was either good or bad for the future of the football team. Good because the offense scored 11 touchdowns and didn't cough the ball up once, and bad because the defense failed to make many stops and didn't generate a single turnover.

Ah, the joy of spring football. When you play against yourself no one really wins. The players simply get to hit one another, and that's a pleasant enough experience.

"Defensively, I guess it’s good and bad news," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "We didn’t create any turnovers but the good news is we didn’t turn it over on offense, so that’s probably a good thing. But we practiced a lot of different situations out there, which is great exposure for our players."

Saturday marked the 12th practice and second scrimmage of the spring for the Crimson Tide. The next scrimmage will be the last when the doors to Bryant-Denny Stadium are swung open on April 20 for A-Day.

And even then, the result of the game-like practice will be the same: either the offense will look spectacular and the defense horrendous, or vice versa.

(Read full post)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's a good problem to have, losing players early to the NFL draft. Alabama coach Nick Saban knows all too well what it's like to watch talent walk out the door, especially from the secondary. In two of the last three drafts he's seen at least one of his defensive backs get taken in the first round. This year will be no different as Dee Milliner is likely to go among the top 10 picks.

"We keep losing first-round picks back there," Saban told ESPN on Wednesday afternoon. "For guys to step up on a consistent basis is the biggest concern I have."

Not a rebuilt offensive line, a thin linebacking corps or a defensive line replacing two of three starters. It's the secondary that worries Saban most.

[+] EnlargeDee Milliner
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireDee Milliner stepped in and became an immediate impact player in Alabama's secondary. Now that he's NFL-bound, who's next for the Tide?
"Even though we have a lot of guys back at safety, we don't have the depth or quality corners and experience at corner that we've had in the past," he said, "so that's the challenge."

With top reserve cornerback John Fulton out all spring recovering from a turf toe injury, the depth in the secondary has been left wanting. As a result, Alabama opened camp with three offensive players trying their hands at cornerback: running back Dee Hart and wide receivers Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones.

It was an experiment, Saban said, one he hoped would yield at least one player who could make the move to defense full time. And after 10 practices it appears he's found his man. Cyrus, who caught four passes as a reserve wideout last season, has practiced every day at corner and has even spent some time with the first unit at nickel back.

"The first couple weeks out there, it felt weird because [Cyrus] used to be right next to me, running routes with me," said UA receiver Kenny Bell, "but he took ownership of the position."

Bell went on to say that Cyrus has become a "great player" on defense, a spot he's familiar with from his time at Gilman School in Baltimore. Cyrus was the No. 4-rated athlete in the 2012 class and could have played on either side of the ball, according to scouts. It just so happens he would play both in his first two years on campus.

"He picked up on it fast and he comes out there and competes," Bell said.

(Read full post)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Spring is a time for change. The ice breaks, leaves blossom and nature starts over again. For the University of Alabama football team, this time of year is treated much in the same way.

New players are tested and familiar faces try out new roles. There's return and there's turnover. It's a time for reinvention, head coach Nick Saban said on Saturday, the first day of spring camp for the defending national champion Crimson Tide.

"Like I've said before," the 61-year-old coach said, "every year you've got to reinvent your team. Who are going to be the leaders? Who are going to be the guys that set an example? Who steps forward as young players who show that they have the responsibility to do a job and be dependable in doing that job so we that have a chance to play winning football with them?"

Alabama won the national title just three months ago, but when Saban took the podium at the Mal Moore Athletic Facility following the first day of practice, it felt like eons ago. The coach wears no championship rings and counts the minutes, not the days or hours, until he can forget a win and move on to the next thing. He jovially asked the assembled media if they had a pleasant off-season, smiled when one reporter said it was short and shot back with, "You think it was short for you."

Saban and a renovated coaching staff went back to work months ago, the process never quite giving into themes like a finish line. And when he looked at the product of 2012 and the players he lost to the draft and graduation, he and the staff decided to do some tinkering. Jack linebacker Xzaiver Dickson practiced at defensive end in a possible attempt at increasing a rather lackluster pass rush and the wide receiver position was shaken up in order to give the secondary some added depth. Wideouts Cyrus Jones and Christion Jones spent time at cornerback, along with running back Dee Hart, who practiced in a black no-contact jersey during the media viewing portion of practice.

The position changes, Saban knew, would be a source of speculation. Rather than let it hang there in the room like a white elephant, he addressed the moves in his opening remarks.

(Read full post)

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