Alabama Crimson Tide: Deion Belue

Room to improve: CB

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
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Editor’s note: This is Part I in a weeklong series looking at Alabama’s top five position groups with room to improve.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The struggle was obvious. Without a premier cornerback to rely upon, Alabama’s defense wasn’t the same. Without the likes of Dee Milliner, Dre Kirkpatrick or Javier Arenas, coach Nick Saban’s defense didn’t have quite the same bite.

Deion Belue was an adequate starter. The former junior college transfer even looked the part as an anchor cornerback for most of the season. But before long he was exposed as someone not entirely capable of locking down half the field. And with a revolving door on the other side with John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson, Maurice Smith and Bradley Sylve all taking unsuccessful shots at starting, the secondary faltered.

Texas A&M gashed the defense early. Auburn and Oklahoma gashed it late.

"We are not used to that," said defensive coordinator Kirby Smart 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.”

Will that frustration subside? Will someone step up in the spring or fall and become that premier cornerback Alabama so desperately needs? Can quality depth emerge at the position?

[+] EnlargeCyrus Jones
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesConverted receiver Cyrus Jones, who started five games at cornerback last fall, will be a contender to be a full-time starter in 2014.
Battling for No. 1: There are plenty of options to consider, and we’ll get into that with the next paragraph. For now, though, there appear to be three serious contenders to become starters at cornerback: rising junior Cyrus Jones and rising sophomores Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith. Jones, you’ll recall, transitioned from wide receiver to defensive back last spring and wound up starting five games. But his size (5-foot-10), is a problem. Enter Smith and Jackson, who both come in at 6 feet. Jackson was a promising option early as a freshman, starting against Colorado State and intercepting a pass against Ole Miss. But inexperience caught up with him and he didn’t start again until the Sugar Bowl. Smith, on the other hand, was a steady presence off the bench. The Texas native wound up playing in 12 of 13 possible games, starting one.

Strength in numbers: Really, it’s a wide-open race. Meaning none of the soon-to-be-mentioned defensive backs are out of contention. We haven’t seen what redshirt freshmen Jonathan Cook and Anthony Averett have to offer. Both were heavily-recruited prospects in the 2013 class that could develop into contributors after spending a year practicing and learning the playbook. Throw in rising junior Bradley Sylve, who actually started three games last season, and you’ve got quite the field of competitors heading into the spring. Sylve has immense speed, but is a shade on the smaller side at 5-11 and 180 pounds. Finally, don’t discount Saban trying a few players at new positions, as he did last spring when he put Cyrus Jones, Christion Jones and Dee Hart all at cornerback.

New on the scene: Many Alabama fans are already pinning their hopes on two true freshmen. And rightfully so, considering the lack of quality depth at the position. Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey do indeed have the opportunity to start from Day 1. Both five-star prospects, they have the build and skill to thrive in Saban’s system. Brown, however, has the clear edge considering he’s already enrolled in school and Humphrey will not do so until after spring practice is already over. The one hangup for Brown, though, is what consequences, if any, will come from his January arrest. Saban, himself, did not make the strongest of comments regarding the arrest, saying, “Some people are in the wrong place at the wrong time,” indicating that rather than a stiff punishment, the staff will look to “use this as a learning experience.”
We at the SEC Blog have spent the last two weeks ranking the top 25 players in the conference, beginning with Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines and wrapping up with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next five: wide receiver Amari Cooper, punter Cody Mandell, linebacker Adrian Hubbard, tight end O.J. Howard and cornerback Deion Belue.
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.

NEW ORLEANS -- As the clock ticks down to Thursday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup between No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) and No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12), it's time to take a look at why Alabama will capture its third straight BCS bowl win.

This might not be a national championship scenario for the Crimson Tide, but coach Nick Saban and his players have made it clear that they are treating this one with the same sort of importance.

Here are 10 reasons why Alabama will beat the Sooners inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

1. Alabama's running game: One thing you can always count on with the Crimson Tide is a stout running game. Led by sophomore running backs T.J. Yeldon (1,163 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Kenyan Drake (694/eight), Alabama averaged 212 rushing yards per game and almost 6 yards per carry. Oklahoma's rush defense is giving up only 138 yards per game, but the push from Yeldon and Drake will just be too much.

2. Play in the trenches: It's cliche, but it's true. If you can't win up front, you can't win at this level. Alabama's offensive line has been a force all year, while the defensive line is bigger than any line the Sooners have faced this year. It doesn't help that Oklahoma is dealing with the loss of two starters on its offensive line.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron will be motivated to have a big finale.
3. That seasoned guy under center: This is AJ McCarron's swan song and you better believe he's fired up about going out on top. Yet again, he was one of the nation's most efficient passers this season, throwing for 2,676 yards and 26 touchdowns with five interceptions. McCarron isn't the most athletic QB, but he knows how to make plays and win games. Expect him to show plenty of moxie and take some shots on the Big 12's No. 1 pass defense.

4. This team's mindset: A lot of the talk leading up to this one has been about Alabama's approach to a game that isn't the national championship. Thanks to a miracle kick return, the Tide is on Bourbon Street and not out in Cali. But players sound motivated and ready, while Saban has said all week that he has been proud of his players' preparation. Seniors have talked about younger players buying in and youngsters have talked about sending the seniors out right. This Alabama team also wants to prove that it's still one of the best teams in the country.

5. C.J. Mosley: Is there anything he can't do? Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops called him an "absolute perfect football player." Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard said he was the best defensive football player he has ever seen during his career. Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said he "is the defense." Mosley can move from sideline to sideline, drop back in coverage, stuff the run and rush the passer. He won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker for a reason, and he'll show why over and over Thursday night.

6. A healthier secondary: It seems like Alabama's secondary has been nicked up all year, but the time away from the playing field has given guys the opportunity to rest up and get back up to speed. Clinton-Dix is moving around better after getting his knee scoped and fellow safety Landon Collins is healthy after spraining his ankle early in bowl prep. Corner Deion Belue appears to be feeling much better after dealing with a nagging toe injury all season. This is a unit that has been up and down this season, but Alabama still owned the SEC's best pass defense (166.3 yards per game) and playing a team that rotates at quarterback and averages just 186 passing yards a game could be a good thing for the Tide.

7. Playmakers galore on offense: There will just be too much of a mixture of McCarron, Yeldon/Drake and those talented receivers for Oklahoma's defense to handle. The Sooners have a linebacker in Eric Striker who has made his home in opposing backfields, but I don't see him having too much of an effect on McCarron's ability to throw or those running backs. Alabama will be able to churn yards out on the ground and McCarron will hit a couple of big plays down the field with Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood.

8. Stopping the run early: If Oklahoma can get its running game going early, it will open up things for the pass as the game goes on. That wouldn't be good for the Tide, but Alabama won't have to worry about that because this defense is looking to stop the run first, second and third. Before the Auburn game, Alabama was allowing just 91.3 rushing yards per game and 1.5 yards before contact per rush. OU likes that zone-read, but this isn't Auburn's run game.

9. Oklahoma's revolving quarterback door: The fact that the Sooners won't know who their starting quarterback is until just before a game with Alabama isn't a good thing. Alabama prides itself on its consistency and thrives on opponents' errors. The revolving door at quarterback with Blake Bell and Trevor Knight could be an issue against such a detail-oriented defense. The Tide seems pretty comfortable defending either guy, after both passed for a combined 2,119 yards and 17 touchdowns with nine interceptions.

10. Nick Saban: Is there a better game manager out there? Sure, Gus Malzahn got the best of him on the Plains at the end of the regular season, but Saban is still the coach everyone would want for a game like this … or any game, really. He'll have no problem pumping his team up and preparing it for the Sooners. He's obsessed with details and should have every single one of his bases covered for this game. He wants this win just as badly as his players.

Alabama ready for more of the zone-read

December, 31, 2013
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NEW ORLEANS -- When No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) looks at its matchup with 11th-ranked Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12) in Thursday's Allstate Sugar Bowl, the Crimson Tide can't help but see similarities to their last opponent.

You know, the opponent that derailed Alabama's national championship hopes with a miracle of a kick return and a run game that churned out nearly 300 yards on the Tide's vaunted defense.

Oklahoma, which is averaging 235.8 yards per game this season, isn't quite Auburn, but it does possess that pesky zone-read that gutted the Tide on the Plains. For all the inconsistency that Oklahoma has had this season on offense, Alabama isn't overlooking the Sooners' running game, which could pose quite the threat if it gets going early.

"It's very important [to stop the running run early] because once they get started, they keep on rolling," cornerback Deion Belue said. "They're a tough team as it is because their offensive line is big and strong. The thing is stop the run. If all else fails, we have to do that. If not, they can keep on rolling and then they have the option to run and pass any time they want to."

The thing with Oklahoma is that the offense can get a little complicated at times with quarterbacks Blake Bell and Trevor Knight sharing time. A starter hasn't even been announced for Thursday, but the good news is that both can run the zone-read, which has been pretty successful for the Sooners this season.

Oklahoma averages 7.2 yards per zone-read play when Knight is in and 4.5 yards per play with Bell, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Knight has gained 257 yards and is averaging 10.3 yards per play when he keeps the ball on zone-read rushes, which is the best among AQ players with at least 25 zone-read runs, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

So while the Sooners aren't sure who will be under center first, Alabama knows to expect plenty of running plays, regardless.

"We're just going to look at it as them trying to take our manhood, kinda, and try and down us a little bit [with their run game]," defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan said.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Oklahoma has run 138 zone-read plays this season and averaged 18.7 zone-read plays (130 yards per game) in each of its last three games (all wins) after averaging 9.1 plays per game (47.2 yards per game) in its first nine games.

"We're going to be all right against it," linebacker Trey DePriest said. "We've repped it. That's the same offense the last we guys we played [ran]."

In Alabama's 34-28 loss to Auburn, the Tigers gained 270 rushing yards on 38 zone-read plays (7.1 yards per carry), including seven runs of 10 yards or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Alabama entered that game allowing 3.6 yards per rush on such plays, which second best in the SEC.

Senior running back Brennan Clay (913 yards) has been the bell cow back for Oklahoma, and while he's been very impressed with Alabama, he thinks Auburn's 296-yard outing against the Tide created a blueprint for how to hurt a rush defense that was allowing just 91 yards a game before facing Auburn.

"They're not the gods that everyone [claims] them to be," Clay said. "I feel like everyone was putting them on such a high pedestal, but anyone can get beat on any given day. It's whatever transpires in between those lines on the football field is what matters.

"If we come out being aggressive, being able to establish the run, make big plays, we'll be fine."

Establishing the run is easier said than done. Before Auburn, Alabama had allowed 100-plus rushing yards just four times and surrendered just five rushing touchdowns. With about a month to prepare, Alabama won't be startled by what it sees inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Thursday.

This isn't a defense prone to continuing its mistakes.

"They're just very technical. They don't make a whole lot of mistakes, they're really physical, they know how to make plays and stop offenses, especially high-powered offenses," Knight said. "That's been a staple of their program the last couple years."

What's also been a staple of this defense is winning up front. Getting the push up in the trenches will be important for both teams, and Oklahoma All-American center Gabe Ikard said winning there will dictate the game. Fail against their big uglies, and Ikard said Oklahoma is toast.

"They're extremely powerful and big up front -- biggest defense we've seen, most physical defense we've seen, best defensive we've seen all year," he said. "It's going to be a great challenge to control the line of scrimmage against those guys. They're D-linemen are bigger than anybody we've seen this year, and that includes Notre Dame.

"If we can't run the ball, it'll be a long day for us."
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The home crowd cheered, oblivious to the billboard-sized scoreboard pointing to their 20-7 defeat. Even some of their players looked content as they sang the school's fight song after the game. The No. 1 team in the country just came into their house and beat them, and yet they all seemed to OK with it.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
AP Photo/Butch DillThe win over Mississippi State wasn't impressive so AJ McCarron and Alabama have some work to do before their Iron Bowl game on Nov. 30.
Alabama wide receiver Kevin Norwood took note of the mood and knew something was wrong. His top-ranked Crimson Tide traveled to Starkville and beat the sub-.500 Mississippi State Bulldogs in such an unconvincing way that the losers of the game didn't even feel like they'd lost.

"If the other team is cheering after a loss," he said, "then you definitely didn't do your job."

Alabama was sluggish, uninspired and out of sorts. The offense turned the ball over a season-high four times, and the defense struggled with communication. The Tide remained undefeated, but at a cost.

A week after beating a BCS-level LSU team convincingly, Alabama was suddenly flawed. UA coach Nick Saban said his team had won, but it really didn't beat Mississippi State in the process. He put the so-so performance on his shoulders and said that there was no question Alabama has to get better if it wants to reach its ultimate goal of a national championship.

"That’s really not how we usually try and do it," Saban said, "but there’s a lot our players [who] can learn from this."

Auburn, a state away and still celebrating its heart-stopping win over Georgia, could take heart: Alabama, for the first time in a long time, appeared beatable. College football's king finally looks capable of being dethroned and the Iron Bowl might just be the game to do it.

When the rivals go toe-to-toe in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 30, everything will be on the line. And if Alabama plays anything like it did on last Saturday night, it can kiss all hope of an undefeated season and a third straight trip to the national championship goodbye because Auburn will beat it.

You can question whether Auburn's program is on the same level of Alabama's right now, but it's hard to argue that the Tigers aren't much better than Mississippi State is today. Their nine wins speak for themselves, even if it took a miracle pass to survive Georgia.

The Iron Bowl won't come down to the wire if Alabama starts slow and turns the ball over four times as it did against Mississippi State. Auburn will run away with the game well before the final minutes.

Everything about last Saturday's game was sloppy on offense. AJ McCarron threw two uncharacteristic interceptions, and T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake each fumbled the ball, brining their combined season total to eight.

Mississippi State didn't take advantage and converted just one of those turnovers into points. Auburn and its fleet-footed quarterback, Nick Marshall, won't have the same trouble. Auburn is 30th nationally in points off turnovers this season, while Mississippi State ranks 99th.

Don't think for a second that Auburn won't look at Alabama's ball control over the next two weeks.

But the Tigers will key in on the Tide's defense, too. Alabama may have knocked down or even intercepted the tipped pass Marshall threw to beat Georgia, but there's also a possibility no one would have been there at all. Considering the way Alabama let Mississippi State's receivers run into empty coverage, there's no telling what would have happened.

Though Alabama allowed just seven points to Mississippi State, the defense looked out of whack at times. Cornerback Deion Belue waved his hands and shouted the coverage clear across the field at a hapless Cyrus Jones, and Landon Collins got caught releasing a receiver into thin air. A better offense would have exploited their issues of miscommunication. Gus Malzahn may not have a ton of experience as Auburn's head coach, but no one out there doubts his skill as a play-caller.

If you look at this past weekend in Alabama's bubble, it's alarming. If you're Auburn, you feel great about what you saw.

But that's not how college football works. One bad game or one good game doesn't equal a trend.

Alabama, which will host hapless Chattanooga this coming Saturday, has essentially two weeks to recover from its hangover and get ready for Auburn. The way the Iron Bowl will be hyped, no one with a pulse will enter Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 30 without the proper sense of preparedness.

Alabama's secondary shows flaws

November, 13, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The final score, as it so often happens, was misleading. Alabama thumped LSU, 38-17, at home on Saturday to remain undefeated. The three-touchdown margin was, on the face of it, telling. The top-ranked Crimson Tide looked dominant and deserving of its lofty position in beating LSU so handily.

But when you're No. 1 in the polls, the stat sheet isn't the entire story. Not when the rest of the country is looking for a way to beat you.

And from what they saw from LSU's offense in the first half, the answer was there: Alabama, finally without a shutdown cornerback to rely upon, had trouble stopping the pass. LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger and his tandem of talented wide receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, gave the secondary fits.

Mettenberger completed 10 of 13 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown in the first half, including a perfect 3 of 3 on passes of 15 yards or more. Deion Belue couldn't stop it, neither could Cyrus Jones. Alabama's starting cornerbacks were, for the first time since the Texas A&M game, exposed.

"We weren't going to back down from Alabama," Mettenberger said. "We had a good game plan going, but we just weren't able to execute it."

[+] EnlargeCyrus Jones
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCyrus Jones is one of a handful of players the Tide hopes can develop into a shutdown corner.
The trouble in execution came primarily in the second half, though a key fumble near the goal line in the first quarter did rob LSU of a touchdown. Alabama got a field goal, and LSU coach Les Miles took time to note the 10-point swing early in postgame comments.

But the tenor of the game changed primarily in the third and fourth quarters, and it had more to do with LSU's inability to run the football than Alabama's ability to stop the pass. While the Tide was busy racking up yards on the ground, the Tigers were losing them, rushing for minus-16 yards in the second half. According to ESPN Stats & Info, those 11 second-half rushes contributed to minus-7.1 expected points.

"The first half I didn't think we did a very good job," UA coach Nick Saban said. "We mis-executed a couple pressures, busted a couple things. They played not loose. I told them at halftime, 'Look guys, you've got to cover them. We're not playing split safeties all the time and keeping somebody behind you. We need to pressure the quarterback, we need to affect the quarterback and we're going to have more of an attack mode and you're going to have to cover them.' "

Jones and Belue settled in some in the second half, limiting the deep ball, but they were aided greatly by the front seven stuffing the run and pressuring Mettenberger in the pocket. When LSU's offense became one-dimensional, Alabama's defense thrived.

"I think [Jones] did better as the game went on," Saban said on Monday. "I think he got more confident as the game went on. We obviously did a better job of covering them in the second half than we did in the first.

"We also did a better job of pressuring the quarterback, which I think is also something that goes hand in hand with getting off the field on third down and playing a little better."

But did Jones do enough to secure the starting job opposite Belue? Bradley Sylve, Eddie Jackson and John Fulton have all tried their hands there this season and none has separated himself from the pack.

"We were pleased with the way Cyrus played," Saban said. "We have a lot of confidence in Bradley Sylve, if we can get him healthy. There's certainly going to be competition at every position with guys that have played well for us in the past."

The hope, for Alabama's sake, is that competition breeds improvement in the secondary. Another first half like the one the Tide played against LSU could be the difference between a win and a loss down the road.

The final score and the stat book might not reveal a glaring weakness, but the bottom line is that the back end of Alabama's defense needs work. It's good, but it's not great like in years past. The question, though, is whether it's good enough to win another national championship.

What we learned: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here's a look at three lessons learned during Alabama's 38-17 win over LSU on Saturday night.

T.J. Yeldon is a force: Much of the focus went to Kenyan Drake in recent weeks. It was understandable. After all, Drake can fly. But T.J. Yeldon remained a steady force in the backfield for Alabama. He broke out against LSU, though, showing the kind of vision and patience that makes him a top tailback in the SEC. He ran for a season high 133 yards and two touchdowns to propel Alabama to victory.

Underrated defender: Sure, he made some mistakes by dropping two interceptions that would have put away LSU quicker, but C.J. Mosley didn't let it get to him. Alabama's All-American middle linebacker once again played lights out, helping lead the defense to yet another solid win, coming in first on the team with 12 tackles. His ability to fit the run and make plays in the backfield is too often taken for granted, but his talent and leadership should be noted more often.

Alabama has issues defending the pass: It was never more obvious than Saturday night that Alabama lacks the lockdown cornerback of seasons past. There's no Dee Milliner out there. Deion Belue is a serviceable corner, but the trouble he had shutting down Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry was obvious. When LSU wanted to go deep with the pass, it did. Cyrus Jones, the corner to start opposite Belue, wasn't stellar, but Alabama didn't have the ability to shade to his side like in years past, because Belue wasn't holding up his end of the bargain.

Five things: LSU-Alabama

November, 9, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch as top-ranked Alabama (8-0, 5-0) hosts 13th-ranked LSU (7-2, 3-2)

Running the football: There will be a lot of focus on the quarterbacks and wide receivers in this game, but don't forget that these games often come down to who limits turnovers and runs the football best. Alabama's ground game has improved mightily since the start of the season with T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake developing into a potent duo. LSU, meanwhile, has the top rusher in the league in Jeremy Hill. Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard, his two backups, are no slouches either.

Quarterback play: It's been a tale of two quarterbacks of late: AJ McCarron has gone one way while Zach Mettenberger has gone another. Mettenberger threw 15 touchdowns to two interceptions in his first two games, but four touchdowns and five interceptions in his last two contests. McCarron, meanwhile, has improved since his first four games where he threw six touchdowns and three interceptions, tossing 10 touchdowns and no picks in his last four contests. McCarron's 92.5 Total QBR since Oct. 1 ranks No. 1 in the FBS.

Defending the pass: Whoever starts opposite Deion Belue at cornerback for Alabama on Saturday, likely Cyrus Jones, will have his hands full. Whoever it is, the Tide corners will have their hands full defending Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, LSU's talented tandem of wide receivers. Both rank in the top 10 among SEC receivers in yards and Beckham is second nationally in all-purpose yards per game.

Tale of two defenses: Alabama's defense has been nearly perfect this season. Since giving up 42 points to Texas A&M, Alabama has outscored opponents 246-26. The Tide has five more touchdowns (31) than its opponents have points during that time. LSU, on the other hand, has endured some ups and downs on defense. The Tigers have allowed 21.9 points and 351.7 yards per game, compared to the Tide which has allowed an average of 9.8 points and 280.9 yards per game.

Bye week help: If you think having a bye week before Saturday's game helps Alabama, think again. While getting players close to 100 percent helps, the final outcome hasn't been affected by having a week off. Alabama has lost three games under Nick Saban when coming off a regular season bye week. All three have come against LSU.


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- So much about LSU-Alabama is built around the physical style of play, and rightfully so. UA coach Nick Saban called the game a "heavyweight fight" where you have to show up in every round. His veteran defensive end, Jeoffrey Pagan, said it was a "dog fight" he looks forward to every season.

[+] EnlargeJarvis Landry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsWith a powerful run game, plus Jarvis Landry (pictured) and Odell Beckham Jr. stretching the secondary, LSU's offense presents a bigger challenge to Alabama's depleted secondary.
But it won't be all smash-mouth football when the two teams meet in Tuscaloosa on Saturday night. Don’t be surprised if LSU coach Les Miles puts the ball in the air against the top-ranked Crimson Tide.

And given the Alabama's depth concerns in the secondary, why not? Eight different players have started there and two key pieces at safety -- Vinnie Sunseri and Nick Perry -- are out for the season with injuries. Deion Belue has been consistent, but who plays opposite him at corner hasn't been. John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve have all tried their hands there and none have risen to the top of the pile. It's unclear who among them will start against LSU.

"We like the matchup," Miles said of getting the ball to his two star receivers, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., who rank in the top 10 of the SEC in receiving yards and have combined for 16 touchdown catches. "We think that we kind of give them some challenges on the perimeter. We got a quarterback, first of all, that can make the throw and several receivers that can get open in space.

"Again, who we're playing, they are a very good team, but we think there is a matchup there that benefits us."

LSU certainly has the pieces to hurt Alabama through the air.

Zach Mettenberger had his own personal coming out party against the Tide last season, throwing for a then-career high 298 yards in defeat. He carried that over to this year and has made the most dramatic improvement in opponent-adjusted QBR (+38.6) of any quarterback who qualified. His 85.7 opponent-adjusted QBR is seventh-best in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

It helps that he's got two good ones to throw the football to.

"The combination of these two guys are as good a receivers as we've played against all year long," Saban said. "Not the same style as the Texas A&M guys, but very quick, very athletic. They have the speed to get on top. Very smart in terms of route runners. They do a good job of putting them in various positions that makes them difficult to cover and get the kind of matchups on that you'd like."

Beckham is as dangerous a weapon as there is in the SEC with his ability to create separation. He has premier top-end speed and the burst to make a guy miss and take it to the house. He's currently second in the country in all-purpose yards.

Landry, on the other hand, can go up and get it. He's listed as 6-foot-1, but plays much larger. He's sixth in the country in receptions (57), seventh in yards per catch (21.02) and fifth in creating first downs on a reception (40).

"They know how to run their routes, just like our receivers," UA safety Landon Collins said. "It’s hard to stick our receivers. They know how to run their routes and stick on a dime. Watching it on film, it’s going to be a pretty tough game sticking them, our safeties playing their wide receivers."

It won't help that LSU is so balanced. Alabama won't be able to help the secondary out by dropping many defenders back in coverage. There's simply no ignoring LSU's running game, headlined by Jeremy Hill, who ranks 13th nationally in rushing yards (922) and is tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns (12).

Given all that, the Tide secondary knows the task that lies ahead.

"They have very good wide receivers, very good quarterback," Collins said. "And their run game is tremendous. We just have to stay settled and stay watching our keys."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Ed Stinson's mammoth shoulders shrink, relaxing from the form that only half an hour earlier flexed to crash and beat up on 300-pound blockers for a full 60 minutes. Alabama's senior defensive end looked tired in the eyes after his team beat rival Tennessee 45-10 on Saturday, his dark brown pupils soft and eager for rest. After three straight SEC contests and seven consecutive game weeks, he and his teammates were eager for some time off.

"I've been waiting for it," he said, flashing a slight grin. An ear-to-ear smile would have required too much energy. "I'm one of the guys [who] needs to be healed."

[+] EnlargeChristion Jones, Amari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAfter playing for seven straight weeks, No. 1 Alabama gets the weekend off to recover and heal.
The nature of his injuries are unknown, a buildup of bumps and bruises on his 6-foot-4, 292-pound frame. Nose guard Brandon Ivory, no lightweight at more than 300 pounds, is out in what coach Nick Saban describes as a "medical issue." H-back/running back Jalston Fowler can't make contact in practice because of a concussion. Cornerback Deion Belue is dealing with a nagging toe injury and the starter opposite him, Bradley Sylve, isn't yet 100 percent either.

And that's just the injuries we know of.

The bye week comes at the perfect time for top-ranked Alabama. The scoring margin the past six weeks, 246-26, has made it look easy. But the games have demanded their own pound of flesh, the toll evidenced in every wince and limp.

"In the SEC you bang hard every week, so you need time to rest up," Belue explained to reporters on Saturday night. "Then we have LSU, and they're going to come in and bang some more."

Ah, the matter of LSU. The 13th-ranked Tigers represent the biggest challenge to Alabama's undefeated season. Les Miles' squad always gives Alabama a hard time, and the last time his team came to Tuscaloosa (2011), it won. With a much improved offense thanks to new coordinator Cam Cameron, get ready for calls of an upset. Zach Mettenberger has progressed quickly into an NFL quarterback and with two of the best receivers in the SEC -- Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. -- to throw the ball to, they''ll be licking their chops to get at Alabama's secondary, which doesn't have much quality depth.

But in Alabama's camp, that's not the focus yet. At least not externally.

"I'm not thinking about that right now," quarterback AJ McCarron said Saturday in his usual no-nonsense manner, mimicking his head coach. "We've got a 24-hour rule and then a week off so I'm not really thinking about who we got next."

Said Saban: "We've got some big challenges and some stiff competition against some teams coming up here. This bye week comes at a pretty good time for us. We have a lot of guys banged up. We could use the rest, and we can use the time to try to help some of our players improve. So that's going to be our focus this week."

Notice the utter avoidance of LSU? The game was on the lips of every fan around Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night, but it was nowhere to be found in Saban's postgame comments. When he spoke to the media again on Tuesday, he got three-quarters of the way through before LSU entered his consciousness, and even then it was to relive the 2011 game, not to focus on the game ahead of him.

"Just because we don't have a game doesn't mean you change anything about how you think and what we need to do to get better as a team," Saban said.

You're not going to catch this Alabama team looking ahead to LSU. Not even when LSU is the next team on the schedule. In their mind, this week is about recovery and a return to the basics. Saban said they'll spend an extra day on LSU preparation, but he doesn't want to throw the team off its usual schedule or burn them out too quickly, showing them the same plays and schemes too many times over the next two weeks.

Trey DePriest, Alabama's starting inside linebacker, said he didn't think they'd spend any time on LSU this week. Maybe it was a bit of gamesmanship, but he reiterated it, saying they'd go back to "camp rules." Stinson backed him up, adding that there would be "no talk at all" of LSU.

"It's a positive, and it's definitely going to help us out," said veteran defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, opening up where his teammates hadn't. "LSU's a tough team, and that kind of gives us an advantage to study the opponents more."

Just don't expect to hear much beyond that. Mettenberger and the LSU offense haven't been brought up. Neither has LSU's defense. Right now it's a matter of staying focused on the task at hand, even if that task doesn't involve another football team.

Really, it's Saban's way. When asked how he'd celebrate his birthday this week, he responded bluntly, "Whatever Miss Terry has planned is what I'll be doing."

If he could, he'd blow out his candles in the film room watching practice tape.

His is the kind of singular focus, and that makes Alabama unique. The build up to big games is the same as smaller ones. In fact, you often see a more fired up coaching staff for cupcakes like Georgia State than for "Game of the Century" type contests with LSU. They have to light a fire under their players for some games, but that won't be the case for next Saturday's home game against LSU. The battle lines were drawn well before the start of the season.

So why emphasize the matchups and specifics of the game now? With so many players hurt, why not take the week to rest? Inside the walls of Alabama's football offices, it might be different, but outwardly players aren't anxious for what's next.

"Our bodies need time to get ready for another physical game," said veteran wideout Kevin Norwood. "That's what we're going to do."

Helmet Stickers: Week 9

October, 27, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- No. 1 Alabama took care of Tennessee in dominating fashion Saturday night, throttling the Volunteers 45-10.

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

S Landon Collins: He got beat early. Collins got turned around in coverage and surrendered a 43-yard reception to Tennessee just before halftime. It was no matter, though. The true sophomore came out the very next play and redeemed himself, intercepting a pass and taking it 89 yards for a touchdown. Collins played well replacing Vinnie Sunseri at strong safety, leading the team with six tackles.

QB AJ McCarron: Another week, another overwhelmingly efficient performance from McCarron. He completed 19 of 27 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns.

CB Deion Belue: The poor guy had to get a sticker sometime. Trouble is no one ever throws the ball his way these days. Belue didn't get very many opportunities against Tennessee, but he was able to record his first interception of the season. He might not show up on the stat sheet each week, but neither does the guy he's covering and that's what matters.

Five things: Alabama-Tennessee

October, 26, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch as top-ranked Alabama (7-0, 4-0) hosts upstart Tennessee (4-3, 1-2) on Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa:

Start of life without Sunseri: Vinnie Sunseri, Alabama's junior starting safety, has a brace on his knee after undergoing season-ending surgery earlier in the week. Saturday might be even more difficult as he'll have to watch from afar as Landon Collins starts in his place. Collins is talented, but young. The good news is he's played well of late, filling in for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at free safety, and now he'll be back in his natural position at strong safety. Look for Jarrick Williams and Geno Smith to play there as well.

Penalty-free play: First, do yourself a favor and check out Holly Rowe's video feature on long-time Alabama referee Ed Conyers. Then take a minute to reflect on the Crimson Tide's historic performance last weekend when it failed to commit a single penalty against Arkansas. Alabama hadn't gone penalty free since Sept. 1982.

Offensive line humming: Will Ryan Kelly play or not? The sophomore hasn't started at center since injuring himself against Ole Miss, and Chad Linsday has played well in his place. Alabama coach Nick Saban said Kelly has been "full go" this week, so he's likely to see the field in some form or fashion. If he does, he'll have to help continue another impressive streak Alabama has going: The Tide hasn't surrendered a sack since the third quarter against Ole Miss on Sept. 28.

Is it now or never for Cooper?: It's tough to make that statement for a player like Amari Cooper, who has battled some nagging injuries. But sooner or later you have to wonder if he'll ever get back to the form that made him a consensus Freshman All-America a year ago. Cooper's played better of late, catching three passes in each of the last two games. He blew up against Tennessee last season with 162 yards and two touchdowns. Maybe a familiar foe will help jump start his sophomore campaign.

Cornerback carousel: First it was John Fulton. Then it was Cyrus Jones. Then it was Eddie Jackson. Then it was Bradley Sylve. And then it came back to Fulton. But his stint opposite Deion Belue at cornerback appears to be short-lived, as Saban said on his weekly radio show that Jones will likely start in place of Sylve, who is out with a high ankle sprain. Saban said Jones, who switched from receiver to defensive back this spring, is "probably played the best of all those guys right now." As far as Jackson and fellow freshman Maurice Smith, "It's still a little bit of a work in progress," Saban said.

What we learned: Week 7

October, 13, 2013
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LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Here's a look at three lessons learned in No. 1 Alabama's 48-7 win over Kentucky on Saturday night.

Secondary solutions: After the Texas A&M debacle where the defense gave up the most yards in school history, there was little doubt what Alabama's biggest weakness was. Deion Belue could cover one-on-one, but behind him there wasn't much to draw from at corner. John Fulton, one of a few veterans, was beaten badly, and talented sophomore Cyrus Jones simply wasn't ready. Enter Eddie Jackson, a true freshman who came out of nowhere to lock down Ole Miss' No. 1 target Donte Moncrief a few weeks ago. But Jackson was out this week along with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. But instead of ringing the alarm, Alabama simply plugged in other parts. Landon Collins again played well at free safety, and the seldom-used Bradley Sylve started at corner and held down the fort. Suddenly it looks like corner might not be such a glaring concern. Suddenly Alabama is creating depth at a position where there was previously little to be had.

Finding holes: Is it finally safe to say Alabama's running game is back? After starting the season on shaky ground, it appears that the answer is yes. Building off solid performances against Ole Miss and Georgia State, Alabama's offensive line imposed its will against Kentucky, pushing the line of scrimmage. T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake benefitted, rushing for more than 100 yards each. The Tide averaged better than 6 yards per rush. And the impact on the offense as a whole was obvious. With a solid running game, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier could mix in play action and make Kentucky defend all areas of the field. When UA has this kind of balance, its hard to beat.

Go-to guy: There shouldn't be any doubt where AJ McCarron is going with the football in key situations anymore. There are a lot of talented receivers he can choose from, but when it comes time he'll look to Kevin Norwood. It's happened time and time again in his career and it happened again on Saturday night when McCarron threw the ball into double coverage only to have Norwood somehow outmuscle two defenders to make another inexplicable touchdown grab. He may not be the most talented player on Alabama's roster, but in the biggest moments Norwood seems to find a way to make something happen.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The month of October has been about working on the little things for the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide. Against a slew of unranked opponents, beginning with Georgia State this past weekend and continuing against one-win Kentucky on Saturday, the matter of remaining undefeated has taken a back seat to improving the product as a whole.

[+] EnlargeEddie Jackson
AP Photo/Dave MartinEddie Jackson is proving he has the speed and skills to step up in Alabama's secondary.
And that, more than anything, means adding to the team's depth.

The offense seems set in that department. Alabama's never had as deep a corps of receivers as it does this season. Chris Black, a seldom used backup this season, led the team in receiving against Georgia State. Even scout teamer Parker Barrineau got a catch. The running backs have gotten plenty of carries, too. T.J. Yeldon has given way to Kenyan Drake, Derrick Henry and Altee Tenpenny, in addition to usual suspects Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart.

But the defense, more importantly, has found some more pieces to the puzzle. The emergence of true freshman Eddie Jackson at cornerback, which began against Colorado State and continued against Ole Miss and Georgia State, is bolstering a secondary that struggled to defend the pass early in the season. The players who began the year as likely starters opposite Deion Belue -- John Fulton and Cyrus Jones -- have given way to Jackson.

Belue, who said with Jackson, the secondary found some chemistry that has been coming for a few weeks.

But Belue sees more in Jackson that just someone who fits in with the rest of the secondary.

"Oh man, he’s got the whole package," Belue said. "He has the quickness, the speed. He’s got the length, you know, his arms are long. So he brings everything that we need."

But Jackson isn't the only youngster emerging on Alabama's defense which ranks 12th nationally in yards per game (299.8) and third in touchdowns allowed (7).

With Ha Ha Clinton-Dix sidelined indefinitely -- UA head coach Nick Saban said Wednesday that, "Ha Ha's suspended until we make an announcement that he's not" -- true sophomores Geno Smith and Landon Collins have stepped up at free safety in his absence. Collins had two tackles against Georgia State and Smith was one of three defenders to break up a pass in the game.

But their development is an ongoing process. Smith played cornerback as a freshman and transitioned to safety during fall camp. Collins, who has played every spot in the secondary but free safety, took up the position only a week ago.

Said Collins: "It’s, I wouldn’t say easy, but it’s getting back to me and it’s becoming normal."

The youth movement hasn't been limited to the secondary, though. A'Shawn Robinson, a mammoth freshman defensive tackle at 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds, is currently tied for second on the team in tackles for loss (3) and is tied for the team lead in sacks (2).

"A'Shawn Robinson has really made a significant improvement over the last two or three weeks as an upfront guy, which is really important to us," Saban said.

It hasn’t been all good news. True freshman linebacker Reuben Foster has come along slowly. The former No. 1-rated inside linebacker prospect has played in four games this season and registered two tackles in the process.

"He's still got a lot of work to do, most of the younger guys do," UA starting linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "At the end of the day we like to see our guys still play to our standard and then did. They didn't give up a touchdown or a field goal [against GSU]. So we felt like at the end of the day they did what they had to do to play to the Alabama defensive standard."

Saban called Foster someone "we're hopeful can play for us down the road." But he's not the only one. As Saban said following the Georgia State game, now is the time for youngsters like Foster, Robinson and Jackson to step up because there's no telling when their number will be called in the weeks to come.

"We need those guys to get some experience, make some mistakes, so that they can learn from those things," he said. "I think it creates an awareness, especially with young players, of how important it is to prepare and pay attention to detail when you're getting ready to play, because a lot of those guys are one injury from having to play."

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