Alabama Crimson Tide: Denzel Devall

Ranking the SEC linebackers

June, 18, 2014
Jun 18
3:30
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Who are the SEC's top 10 linebackers (inside or outside) for the 2014 season?

Here's the way we see them stacking up:

[+] EnlargeBenardrick McKinney
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesBenardrick McKinney is ready to take the leap to stardom for Mississippi State.
1. Benardrick McKinney, RJr., Mississippi State: At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, McKinney is an imposing figure. He returns as the Bulldogs' middle linebacker, but he's fast enough and athletic enough to also play on the outside. He has recorded 173 total tackles over the last two seasons and is ready to take that next step as one of the SEC's elite defenders.

2. Leonard Floyd, So., Georgia: It's a deep and experienced group of linebackers that Georgia will put on the field this season, and the 6-4, 230-pound Floyd is the most talented of the group. He's a blur coming off the edge from his outside linebacker position in the Dawgs' 3-4 defense. He had a team-high 6.5 sacks last season and will be even better as a sophomore.

3. Curt Maggitt, RJr., Tennessee: There are a couple caveats with the 6-3, 240-pound Maggitt. He missed all of last season after recovering from a knee injury, and he's also likely to line up more at end than outside linebacker. Either way, he's a dynamic playmaker and primed for a big season. If Maggitt stays healthy, he's a good bet to be the Comeback Player of the Year in the league.

4. Trey DePriest, Sr., Alabama: The 6-2, 245-pound DePriest is a two-year starter at middle linebacker. He's not the fastest linebacker Alabama has produced and certainly not in C.J. Mosley's class, but he's a big hitter and loves the physical part of the game. He had 7.5 tackles for loss last season and will take on even more of a leadership role this season.

5. A.J. Johnson, Sr., Tennessee: A starter since his freshman season, the 6-2, 242-pound Johnson has racked up more than 100 tackles each of the last two seasons. His efforts have been overshadowed somewhat because the Volunteers have struggled on defense, but he has been a tackling machine on Rocky Top.

6. Serderius Bryant, Sr., Ole Miss: He might not have the prototypical size for an SEC linebacker, but the 5-9, 218-pound Bryant emerged last season as one of the league's top big-play performers on defense. He led Ole Miss with 12.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. His speed is what sets him apart.

7. Kwon Alexander, Jr., LSU: Making the move to weakside linebacker in LSU's defense, the 6-2, 218-pound Alexander should make even more big plays in 2014. He has tremendous speed and the versatility to play all three linebacker spots. But with Lamin Barrow departing, the Tigers need him most on the weak side.

8. Denzel Devall, Jr., Alabama: After recording three sacks last season in a part-time role, the 6-2, 250-pound Devall is poised to take off and have a breakout season in 2014. He's a natural as an outside linebacker in the Tide's 3-4 scheme and is a good bet to lead Alabama in sacks this season.

9. Jordan Jenkins, Jr., Georgia: The 6-3, 246-pound Jenkins has 10 sacks in his first two seasons and led the Bulldogs last season with 12 tackles for loss. With Jeremy Pruitt taking over as defensive coordinator, the Dawgs will look for more ways to free Jenkins up so he can do what he does best -- rush the passer. That could mean lining up at end in certain situations.

10. Ramik Wilson, Sr., Georgia: In his first season as a starter a year ago, the 6-2, 232-pound Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles from his inside linebacker position and garnered first-team All-SEC honors. He brings experience, instincts and leadership to a Georgia linebacker corps that returns everybody.
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It didn’t take long for the sickening feeling to seep out of Landon Collins’ stomach and circulate through his body.

On the way back to Tuscaloosa after Alabama’s humbling 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the junior safety replayed the nauseating moments from a game in which the Crimson Tide, which entered the contest with the SEC’s top-ranked defense, surrendered 429 yards of offense, nearly 6 yards per play, 348 passing yards and four passing touchdowns.

Collins called the performance by the defense “disgraceful” to Alabama football.

“We weren’t the defense that we always used to be,” Collins told ESPN.com in early April. “That’s what we’re working on this spring.”

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAfter a less-than-stellar performance in its bowl loss to Oklahoma, Landon Collins expects Alabama's defense to play with a chip on its shoulder in 2014.
If Alabama is going to make it back to the national championship, Collins said the defense has to improve. During Alabama’s two-year BCS title run (2011-12), the Tide finished first nationally in total and scoring defense in both seasons. Last season, Alabama finished in the top five in both categories, but that final game serves as a harsh reminder of the defense's flaws.

Associating Alabama’s defense with anything less than elite feels awkward, but that’s all you can say about Bama’s bowl performance. Players were tired and run down against Oklahoma’s hurry-up offense. This spring, Tide defenders saw red, as coaches constantly reminded them of that bowl performance. That led to tougher conditioning routines and more intense player interaction on and off the field, Collins said.

Looking back at the bowl game has been tough for players, but they know that it’s a performance they never want to see again.

“It wasn’t the way we play,” linebacker Trey DePriest said. “We don’t get that many points put up on us. That’s way more than what our goal is -- 13 points or less. It didn’t seem like us. We were ready, we just didn’t go out and leave it on the field like it was our last game. It’s definitely been a driving force.”

But things won’t be easier in 2014, not with a younger defensive look and the loss of leaders -- and producers -- like C.J. Mosley and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Collins and DePriest, picked to replace those two, now head a defense that will be playing angry in 2014 after losing five starters from last season's team.

Can guys like Nick Perry, Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson, A'Shawn Robinson and Jarrick Williams expand their roles? Can some of the youngsters like Tony Brown and Laurence "Hootie" Jones step up? And don't forget about the much-anticipated arrival of defensive end Da'Shawn Hand.

There's no shortage of talent, and this defense might even have a little more athleticism sprinkled around, but we all know talent can only go so far, even with the best teams.

For now, attitudes seem to be flowing in the right direction, DePriest said, but there’s no getting around the fact that this entire defense has to grow up in the coming months to replace some valuable leaders.

“It’s some big shoes to fill, definitely,” Collins said. “A lot of us looked up to those guys. Without that leadership, we have to just step in and take over because we need that on the field constantly, and [we need it] off the field because without that, this program could go in a different direction that it doesn’t need to.”

There’s a certain pride that this defense holds that it lost in that bowl game.

Or was it something that slowly trickled out before the Tide even got to Bourbon Street?

Alabama had holes in its defense all last fall, but found ways of patching them as the season went on. Alabama surrendered a school-record 628 yards in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M, allowed Zach Mettenberger to throw for 241 yards in the win over LSU and watched Auburn rush for 296 yards in that heartbreaking loss on the Plains.

Hundreds of other teams would kill for Alabama’s 2013 defense, but it didn’t live up to the standards this program holds so dear.

For Collins, the secondary is key. While Alabama ranked near the top nationally against the pass, there were times when the secondary surrendered too many big plays. Injuries contributed to some of the secondary’s issues, but the last line of defense never truly looked settled last season.

Collins said the secondary put too much pressure on itself to live up to the enormous preseason hype after back-to-back BCS titles and wasn’t always prepared for games.

“Our downfall was our secondary last year,” Collins said. “We got picked apart because of that.”

“If you watch our film of practice, you can see how hard we work every day. You can tell how hard we’re working to establish our secondary to be dominant again.”

Spring practice can only take a team so far, and Alabama defenders know that. They have that chip, they have that anger, but it’s about carrying that feeling over to the season and performing.

The good thing for the defense is that it has a constant reminder in the bowl game that still fuels this unit.

“That just fires it up, because we know what type of defense we are,” Collins said. “We already know what we are capable of. Just to hear that we got picked apart by an offense that shouldn’t have been on the field with us, that’s a disgrace to Alabama defense. We need to pick it up from that standpoint.”

SEC lunch links

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
12:00
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While college basketball teams are punching their tickets to the Elite Eight, the SEC's best quarterback of the last two seasons might have cemented his position as an elite talent in the NFL draft.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Maybe Dillon Lee wasn’t ready for the moment so soon. As a still green-under-the-collar rookie, he played in Alabama’s season-opener against Michigan two years ago. The former four-star recruit wasted no time making his presence felt, making his first career tackle and then intercepting a pass in the final two minutes of a blowout win that eventually propelled the Crimson Tide to another national championship.

At the time it looked as if Lee was destined to make an impact as a freshman, mixing in some sneaky athleticism into a group of linebackers that already featured veterans C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson. But time was playing tricks on us. Lee didn't make another tackle all season. He played in the first four games and showed up on the participation chart only four more times over the final 10 games.

[+] EnlargeDillon Lee
AP Photo/Butch DillDillon Lee appears ready to be a starter on Alabama's defense.
To make matters worse, his immaturity showed when he and fellow freshman Ryan Anderson were sent home before the BCS National Championship game for missing curfew. Both players would have to work their way out of the doghouse.

Lee, by all accounts, did just that this past season, playing in all 13 games while earning the respect of his teammates and coaches. He was named special teams player of the week by the coaching staff following a victory over Ole Miss. Shortly after, Mosley praised him for being a “diverse player” who can play inside linebacker as well as on the edge. He called Lee “physical” and able to “hold the point of attack.”

Defensive end Ed Stinson called the 6-foot-4, 242-pound Lee “crazy.”

“In a good way,” he explained. “He works hard. He doesn’t ever hold back. He goes hard every time he gets in.”

Fellow linebacker Denzel Devall, who came in with Lee and started all 13 games at outside linebacker as a sophomore last season, echoed his former teammate's sentiments, noting Lee’s talent as well as his attitude.

“Dillon is very versatile,” Devall said. “Great guy. Very physical. Just an athlete. He's smart, and I believe he'll come in and do a great job for us.”

Though it’s still early in the spring, it looks as if Lee will play much more as a junior. While there’s no depth chart -- don’t even ask coach Nick Saban about one -- there is a big vacancy at linebacker where starting jobs at inside and outside linebacker are up for grabs. Lee figures to be best suited to play strong-side linebacker (Sam), where he was No. 2 on last season's depth chart behind Adrian Hubbard, who has since moved on to the NFL.

Lee, who has shown he can handle both positions on the field as well as his responsibilities away from it, could very well end up coming fill circle and start Alabama’s season-opener against West Virginia on Aug. 30 in Atlanta.

“I think Dillon Lee will be a really good player for us,” Saban said. “I think he has a good understanding of what we want him to do. He runs well. He's got good size and plays good block protection, especially at the line of scrimmage.

“We feel like he can be a very good player and competing for a starting job right now. We're confident that if he wins that job, he'll be able to do an outstanding job for us.”

Maybe the loss at Auburn was a warning shot. Or was it the narrow victory at Texas A&M? Possibly the lackluster performances against Colorado State and Mississippi State?

Whenever the signs came that Alabama wasn't all it was cracked up to be, very few, if anyone, saw it coming. But looking back, maybe it all makes sense.

Alabama wasn't the best team in the country Wednesday night. It wasn't even the best team in the Superdome.

The narrative that Alabama would come out in the Sugar Bowl and prove again that it was worthy of being thought of as No. 1 ultimately proved misguided and downright untrue. The team's every flaw was exposed. Every one of Alabama's weaknesses was exploited.

This time there was no kicker to blame. This time it couldn't be chalked up to Lady Luck.

The only championship-caliber team in New Orleans was the one that entered the game a 14-point underdog. And if the way you end a season says anything about how you'll start the next, then Oklahoma should begin next season ranked ahead of Alabama by a mile.

The Sooners' future is undeniably promising. But the Tide's future is now best described as a series of question marks.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron lost in his last two starts for Alabama and didn't look like himself in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
AJ McCarron looked nothing like himself Thursday night, throwing multiple interceptions in a game for just the third time in his career. It was a terrible way for him to leave things at Alabama -- one week a Heisman Trophy finalist, the next a scapegoat. But what's worse is that no one knows who will take over for him in the spring. Will it be the mobile quarterback Blake Sims? The soon-to-be redshirt sophomore Alec Morris? What about the three freshmen: Cooper Bateman, Luke Del Rio and Parker McLeod?

What Alabama wouldn't give to have someone with a future as bright as Oklahoma's Trevor Knight. The last quarterback to improve that much in New Orleans was McCarron in early 2012.

But the problems ahead are much deeper than who's under center. It goes even deeper than who will protect him. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio looks like he needs another year to develop, and even if he returns, Alabama will have to replace veteran right guard Anthony Steen. Leon Brown played OK in his stead, but the chemistry of the entire line was way off. Simply put, you can't give up seven sacks and expect to win many games.

Alabama's defense has to go back to the drawing board, too. All of it.

It's not just the secondary that was atrocious. The big plays speak for themselves, but two true freshmen were on the field at cornerback at one point against Oklahoma. Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson will get better with time. Maybe Cyrus Jones or Bradley Sylve will emerge. Vinnie Sunseri will return at safety to provide some needed leadership and Landon Collins will mature alongside him.

The front seven needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and find a way to help the back end of the defense. There were times where Alabama put pressure on Knight, but rarely did it finish the play. Saban might not think sacks are important, but having just one is pretty glaring. Freshmen defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen have shown promise. It's time to let them loose. If Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall aren't bringing the heat at outside linebacker, someone needs to.

Like McCarron, C.J. Mosley did everything he could to end his career on a high note. But Alabama's back-to-back All-American linebacker couldn't do it all on his own, even though there were times this season where it looked like he could. Trey DePriest, his heir apparent, will now have to shoulder that heavy burden. As Saban attempts to solve the riddle of no-huddle and spread offenses, DePriest will be his centerpiece.

In fact, the entire coaching staff has questions to answer. Yes, even Saban.

Saban and Kirby Smart have seen their defense get exposed one too many times by more developed offenses such as Oklahoma and Auburn. When the pace has picked up, Alabama has been left behind. When quarterbacks have been able to escape the pocket, Alabama has been left holding the bag. Giving up 822 yards in the final two games should be a wake-up call for the entire staff to rethink the way it answers offenses on both fronts.

And don't think that offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier isn't in the same boat. He can no longer afford to leave weapons such as Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard hanging on the shelf. He can't abandon the run and expect his quarterback to save him. Balance always has been preached at Alabama, but it's not always been practiced, and that has to change. The Tide needs an offense that can make up a double-digit deficit in a hurry because the one it's trotted out the last few years has never been capable of that.

But even with all that, don't expect Saban to abandon his process. Wholesale changes aren't likely. Multiple times after the game, Saban said how his is a proven formula. He's focusing instead on how the loss was more of a signal to recommit to it. And maybe he's right.

From afar, the Sugar Bowl has the look of an outlier in a mountain of evidence supporting Saban's way of doing things. But this season showed some of the cracks in its foundation, cracks that could grow into more devastating gaps with time and pressure.

Oklahoma wasn't the only one to expose Alabama. Auburn was the first team to beat the Tide, and Texas A&M, Mississippi State and even Colorado State delivered blows of their own, even in defeat. With each flaw they revealed, a blueprint emerged: Pressure the quarterback, try for turnovers, push the tempo.

At the end of it all, the truth was obvious: Alabama not only wasn't the best team in the country this season, it has a lot of work to do moving forward to regain that title.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There hasn't been much of a letdown in production from Alabama's defense compared to seasons past. The top-ranked Crimson Tide is still among the top-10 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game, passing yards allowed per game, third down conversions, first downs allowed and total defense. It's given up the fewest touchdowns (12) and the fewest points per game (10.2) in all of college football.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban likes the way his Alabama defense has been rushing the passer this season.
One could nitpick and note its lack of a premiere cornerback or a true vocal leader, and he or she wouldn't be wrong. Deion Belue is good, but he's not a shutdown corner like Dee Milliner and Dre Kirkpatrick. And while C.J. Mosley is no doubt the leader of the defense at linebacker, he'd be the first to admit he's the kind to lead through actions and not words, unlike, say, Nico Johnson of a year ago or Dont'a Hightower before him.

But whatever the defense's minor flaws this season, there is one area that's gone under the radar where Alabama has actually improved from years past: rushing the passer. Through 11 games, the Tide has pressured the quarterback 26.1 percent of the time, compared to 22.5 percent in 2012 and 23.8 percent in 2011. UA leads the SEC in pressure percentage, which ESPN Stats and Info calculates as hurries plus knockdowns, divided by total dropbacks.

"I think we're making some improvement there," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of rushing the passer following last Saturday's 20-7 win at Mississippi State. "I think it's going to be critical we can do that in the future."

Alabama dialed up the pressure on Mississippi State, especially in the second half. A'Shawn Robinson, the Tide's standout freshman defensive lineman, had another sack against the Bulldogs, his fifth of the season. Denzel Devall (3), Adrian Hubbard (2) and Ed Stinson (1.5) trail Robinson for the team lead.

The weekend before against LSU, Alabama tackled quarterback Zach Mettenberger for no gain and then sacked him three straight times to end the game.

But if you follow Saban, you know he's not overly concerned with sacks. They have nothing to do with winning, he says, nothing at all. Rather, he wants to "affect the quarterback" where they're throwing the ball off balance and before they're ready, which can results in a much more beneficial stat: turnovers.

So in terms of a stat Saban would care more about -- hurries plus knockdowns, but excluding sacks -- hybrid linebacker/defensive end Xzavier Dickson holds the lead with 13, trailed by Hubbard (12), Robinson (12), Stinson (9) and Devall (6), according to ESPN Stats and Info.

However you define pressure, Alabama's defense is getting it at an impressive pace, and it will need to continue to do so in two weeks against No. 6 Auburn.

Not only do the Tigers lead the SEC in rushing, they have allowed the third fewest sacks in the league and the 10th fewest tackles for loss in the country.

Auburn doesn't throw the ball much, but the hope for Alabama is that it will be in quarterback Nick Marshall's face when he does. It won't be easy, but whether it's a sack or a pressure, the Tide needs to continue to get in the backfield and disrupt.

But however the Iron Bowl goes, expect Alabama's defense to continue its upward trend of affecting the quarterback in the coming seasons. Robinson is just a freshman, and we haven't yet seen the progression of his fellow rookies Jonathan Allen, Dee Liner and Tim Williams. If Dalvin Tomlinson can come back from injury, he's another guy who can rush the passer. And with last weekend's commitment of Da'Shawn Hand, the No. 2 defensive end prospect in the ESPN 300, even more help is on the way.

Planning for success: Alabama

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The hits keep on coming. Alabama gets to take its show on the road this weekend as it travels to Lexington, Ky., to face the upstart Wildcats.

The Crimson Tide will win if …

Just do what you do. In fact, that last sentence could be the theme of the month of October for No. 1 Alabama. No one on this month's slate is capable of upsetting the Tide if they plays their game and don’t slip on the proverbial banana peel. Thumping Georgia State this past weekend was a good way to build momentum off a solid beat down of Ole Miss the week before. With the offensive line playing better, the passing game humming along and the defense continuing to improve thanks to young guns like Eddie Jackson, Alabama should be able to take care of business on the road and continue to mow through what will be an easy slate of October games.

The Wildcats will win if …

It will take another Bluegrass Miracle for Kentucky to pull off the upset at home over the top-ranked Crimson Tide. Jalen Whitlow is showing signs of improvement as a passer, but he's still got a long ways to go. The best UK fans can hope for is an early turnover and a quick score to put Alabama on its heels. Kentucky's defense has held its own and features a pair of good pass-rushers. If it can force UA to pass and get come pressure on the pocket, the Wildcats could have a puncher's chance.

Kentucky players to watch

QB Jalen Whitlow: The staff waited until Week 7 of the season to finally play just one quarterback in a game, and it was Whitlow. The dual-threat athlete completed 17 of 24 passes for 178 yards and two scores, and he also led the team with 69 yards and a touchdown rushing.

DE Za'Darius Smith: The No. 2-rated defensive end in junior college a season ago has made the most of his opportunity at Kentucky, ranking 15th in the country with 4.5 sacks. He and junior Alvin Dupree have combined for nine sacks on the season.

LB Avery Williamson: The Butkus Award Watch List selection has picked up where he left off last season when he finished second in the SEC in tackles, tying for 15th nationally with 10.2 tackles per game.

Alabama players to watch

OLB Denzel Devall: The sophomore linebacker has battled a knee injury throughout the week and was spotted wearing a knee brace during practice. But he appears ready to go, and Alabama will need him to play well, pressuring Whitlow while keeping containment.

OT Grant Hill: Alabama coach Nick Saban put the pressure on the true freshman before last week's game when he called him one of the best five linemen on the roster even though he hadn't started a game. And against Georgia State, he delivered, playing well in relief and showing some of the traits that made him the No. 1 offensive guard in the country out of high school.

QB Blake Sims: That wasn't a typo you saw in last week's stat sheet. Sims did indeed lead the Tide in passing, completing 14 of 18 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown against Georgia State. Saban has praised his development time and time again. The more he plays, the more you have to figure he'll compete to become Alabama's next starting quarterback when AJ McCarron leaves.

Key stats

14: It's hard to judge Kentucky in Stoops' first season at the helm. Why? Because the Wildcats are one of the most inexperienced teams in the country with 14 newcomers and eight true freshmen having already played this season.

93.7: Granted it was Georgia State, but what McCarron did to the Panthers completing 15 of 16 passes for 166 yards and four touchdowns was something special.

2: In 39 tries, Kentucky has beat Alabama just twice with the last coming in 1997 when the Wildcats upset the Tide 40-34 in overtime.

Video: SEC preseason impact players

August, 22, 2013
8/22/13
4:00
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Chris Low looks around the SEC at those players who've made big splashes this preseason.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Two-a-days are over and camp is nearly at a close for the University of Alabama.

Well, technically speaking. Nick Saban isn't ready to stop teaching.

"Now, even though the players are moving out of the dorm, camp doesn’t really end, to me, until camp ends," the Tide's demanding head coach told reporters on Thursday. "And camp really doesn’t end to me until school starts. And school doesn’t really start to where they’ve got school stuff until next week. So we’ll continue with our meetings and all the things that we do and kind of go from there."

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- For some members of Alabama's 2012 signing class, success came swiftly.

T.J. Yeldon burst onto the scene in the season opener against Michigan, becoming the first player in school history to rush for 100 yards in his debut. Amari Cooper had his first career reception in the same game, but waited until Week 6 to get his first start at wide receiver. And what did he do? The former four-star prospect set nearly every rookie receiving record at Alabama, passing former Freshman of the Year Julio Jones on his way to 59 catches for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Deion Belue, Denzel Devall and Geno Smith all found their way onto the field as freshman, too. Belue, a junior college transfer, started opposite Dee Milliner at cornerback, and Devall and Smith played in reserve roles at linebacker and cornerback, respectively, on Kirby Smart's defense.

"First of all, opportunity is important, to have an opportunity to do that," Smart, Alabama's 37-year-old defensive coordinator, said during Alabama's media day a week ago. "[It takes a] very conscientious kid to understand, 'Hey, I got to know this defense inside and out, I got to know all the checks, I got to know all the motions and checks, I got to know all the adjustments.' You've got to be very conscientious to do that, but you've got to have some ability.

"It's very easy for us to find those guys out there. When we recruit good players, they usually stick out as freshmen. We find ways to get them on the field and always have in some kind of role."

Reggie Ragland
Jim Dedmon/Icon SMIKnowledge of the defense is key for Alabama sophomore linebacker Reggie Ragland, one of the top prospects in the 2012 recruiting class.
But as head coach Nick Saban has explained in the past, the ascent is not always swift. His defense takes about a year to get a handle on, he says, and until the light comes on, it's hard to play with the speed necessary to make an impact.

Junior linebacker Trey DePriest told reporters that he's been impressed with the way true sophomore Reggie Ragland has improved in his second year.

"Reggie is doing really well," he said. "He's picking up the defense a lot more. He's able to run around and make plays because he knows a little more about the defense."

Ragland is one of several players from Alabama's No. 1-ranked 2012 signing class looking to step up. The former No. 2 inside linebacker prospect spent last season learning behind Nico Johnson. And now that Johnson is in camp with the Kansas City Chiefs, Ragland and fellow linebackers Dillon Lee and Ryan Anderson are poised to move up the depth chart.

While it's unlikely any of the three sophomores will break into the starting lineup, each will have their opportunity to contribute this season. Ragland, at a hefty 259 pounds, is a big body who could come off the bench and stop the run at inside linebacker. Lee, who brings more athleticism to the table, could play either inside or out. And Anderson, a former four-star defensive end prospect, is a tweener who could help boost the Tide's pass rush.

Up front, defensive linemen Dakota Ball and Dalvin Tomlinson could do the same. Both redshirted last season -- Ball rode the bench because of a lack of opportunity while Tomlinson was sidelined while he recovered from a torn ACL. But now that Alabama is looking for more "quick-twitch" linemen to rush the passer, both are ideal candidates to fill that void. Tomlinson, in particular, has drawn high praise from coaches and teammates. Saban indicated last season that the former state wrestling champ would have played as a rookie, if not for his injury.

Getting to the quarterback will be key this season as Saban and Smart bring along an overhauled secondary that could feature two sophomores. Smith, who started his first game against Western Kentucky in Week 10, and Landon Collins, who played primarily on special teams a year ago, could get expanded roles. Smith is positioned to be the nickel corner while Collins, the former No. 1 safety prospect in the country, will battle it out with veterans Vinnie Sunseri and Nick Perry for reps opposite Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at safety.

"Landon is doing excellent," Clinton-Dix said toward the beginning of fall camp, telling reporters that the competition at safety has been cutthroat. "He's a great safety. He's fast, dominant and he's doing a great job right now."

On offense, Kenyan Drake, Chris Black and Alec Morris all have the chance to do more this year. Drake is the frontrunner to back up Yeldon at tailback, Black is competing for reps in a crowded receiving corps and Morris is neck and neck with Blake Sims to become the second-string quarterback.

Though Morris might never see the field in a meaningful way this season, he's nonetheless a vital part of Alabama's title hopes. If AJ McCarron were to go down, it's unclear who would start: Would it be the read-option choice (Sims) or the prototypical drop-back passer (Morris)?

"Very different style of players, obviously," Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. "As you watch the film from when Blake played for us last season, we become a little different in how we approach the game. His ability to run the football and create plays with his feet is different than a good majority of the quarterbacks on our roster. Alec is more of your prototypical drop-back guy. He’s a big, physical guy with a very strong arm. Both those guys need to continue to develop read progression, understanding of the game. But they’re doing a really good job, work extremely hard."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- One thing leads to another, at least on defense.

Alabama's secondary wasn't its best for some parts of last season, giving up big plays against LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia, to name a few. There were times where starting cornerback Deion Belue was picked on and moments where safeties Vinnie Sunseri and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix looked out of place. Zach Mettenberger threw for a career-high 298 passing yards in Baton Rouge, Johnny Manziel had his Heisman Trophy moment in Tuscaloosa and Aaron Murray moved the ball everywhere but the final 5 yards he needed to win in Atlanta.

[+] EnlargeXzavier Dickson, Aaron Murray
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama's defense produced only 86 tackles for loss in 2012, five from linebacker Xzavier Dickson. In 2011, the Tide produced 96 tackles for loss in one fewer game.
The secondary wasn't perfect, but it wasn't the whole story.

Alabama's pass rush wasn't its best for all of last season either, failing to register multiple sacks in five games. The pressure, as coach Nick Saban would put it, was not coming consistently enough. The defense didn't finish in the top 25 nationally for sacks or tackles for loss in 2012, trailing eight other SEC teams in negative plays. And without help from the front seven, the back end of the defense was exposed.

As Saban pointed out after Alabama's spring game, pass defense boils down to two things: "I'm talking about pass rush; I'm talking about discipline in coverage."

Now that fall camp is nearly here, the defense will have its opportunity to improve in both areas. Clinton-Dix and Belue are a year wiser, and the defensive line has some fresh blood to it with Jeoffrey Pagan and Brandon Ivory moving into starting roles.

Veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley said at SEC Media Days last week that he felt like the secondary is "bonding together" and that it is in line to have a good year. The loss of shutdown corner Dee Milliner hurts, but Mosley feels like the defense has a star in the making in Clinton-Dix, who has played in 27 games and made 10 starts since signing with Alabama in 2010.

"He's smart, he's a leader in that secondary and he's starting to be more vocal," Mosley said. "I expect big things out of him this year."

Mosley went on to say that he was impressed with the way Cyrus Jones transitioned to defensive back in the spring. The former wide receiver ran some with the first-team defense at nickel and has a chance to compete with senior John Fulton to become one of the first cornerbacks off the bench.

"This summer, he basically knows the whole defense," Mosley explained.

Saban said that while he hasn't had the chance to see his secondary since spring camp, he's hopeful they're doing better.

"Fulton coming back is a little more experienced guy who wasn’t in spring practice," Saban said. "We had a lot of young guys who made a lot of mistakes, and that’s important to development and important to learning, and hopefully those guys will improve because of that."

True freshmen Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Eddie Jackson will all compete at defensive back this fall. Fellow 2013 signees Anthony Averett and ArDarius Stewart might see some time there as well, as both are currently listed on the roster as athletes. And judging by the staff's use of running back Dee Hart and wide receiver Christion Jones at corner this spring, anyone is an option to provide depth at cornerback this season.

While it's unsure whether any of the rookies will pick up the defense in time to contribute as freshmen, one thing is certain: a strong defensive line will go a long way in helping the secondary.

Mosley said that while the defense may lack a "dominant player," he's looking for Adrian Hubbard to come into his own in 2013 and pick up where he left off last season, when he had three sacks in his final three games.

"He's going to mean a lot," Mosley said, "especially being one of our key rushers and one of the leaders at outside linebacker. We need to make sure that we hold him accountable to his job and he's doing the right thing to better the young guys that are looking up to him.

"This past season he showed a glimpse into what he's capable of, but this season we're going to need a lot more, and we're going to need to make sure he brings his 'A' game every day."

One of those young guys learning from Hubbard is redshirt freshman defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson, who has drawn positive reviews from teammates and coaches alike since missing all of last season recovering from an injury. Saban touted the former state wrestling champ's athleticism and quickness and said he has a chance to be part of the rotation on the defensive line. Pagan called Tomlinson a "different man" this spring, someone who can be an impact player.

Mosley, for his part, said he was ready for fall camp to arrive so he can see what his defense is made of. So far some freshmen have caught his eye, but only time will tell how they stand up to the real pressure.

"Denzel Devall is doing good, Reuben Foster, Walker Jones, a lot of the defensive players, a lot of the freshmen that came in, especially at DB," he said when asked who has stood out during summer workouts. "They're doing a good job competing with each other.

"When camp comes, when coach starts getting on them, and that heat starts getting on them, we'll really see what players are made of."

Crimson Countdown: Denzel Devall 

June, 19, 2013
6/19/13
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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. 30 Denzel Devall
Sophomore linebacker

Expectations for 2013: He wasn't the highest-rated linebacker to sign with Alabama in 2012, but he wound up being the most effective on the football field as a freshman. Devall played in all 14 games, racking up two sacks and three quarterback hurries in what amounted to a third-down pass rushing role for defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. As a sophomore, he'll be asked to do more of the same at outside linebacker, backing up starters Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson.


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Tales From the Road: Alabama 

May, 22, 2013
5/22/13
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Each week, Tales From The Road provides news and updates about where Alabama’s coaches are recruiting and which prospects are getting noticed.

This week’s targets: Spring practice is over in most states with the exception of California and Florida. Consequently, the Alabama coaching staff has made those two states a priority this week in recruiting. On Monday, UA offensive line coach Mario Cristobal made a stop at La Mirada (Calif.) High School. Even though it’s not his designated area, Cristobal likely wanted to see ESPN 150 tight end Tyler Luatua, who has been called an unbelievable blocker by his coach. La Mirada also has a 2014 offensive lineman, Michael Trani, who has seen his recruitment take off this spring. Cristobal made a stop at Corona (Calif.) Centennial on Tuesday to see ESPN 150 offensive lineman Viane Talamaivao, and he’s also expected to see four-star offensive lineman Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif./John Bosco) while on the West Coast.

Area of interest: Louisiana is notorious for the talent that comes out of New Orleans every year, but some of the state’s top 2014 prospects hail from the northern part of the state, primarily the Monroe area. Alabama has found success there before with current linebacker Denzel Devall, but that would be nothing compared to the recruits to be had in this class. It starts with five-star offensive tackle Cameron Robinson (West Monroe, La./West Monroe) and ESPN 150 safety Laurence Jones (Monroe, La./Neville), who both visited Alabama last month for A-Day. Last week, UA assistant coach Billy Napier was at Ouachita High School’s spring game to watch wide receiver Cameron Sims. He finished with four catches for 165 yards and three touchdowns.

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Not every tree sprouts overnight. Some roots take time to grab hold.

Alabama signed a total 26 prospects in 2012, and not everyone made an impact right away. Some didn't make it at all, as Eddie Williams, Tyler Hayes and Travell Dixon flamed out. Still, UA saw plenty of return on its investment, as two signees made the SEC All-Freshman team. Here's how we see the rest of the class shaping up.

Top of the class


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The uncommitteds: Reuben Foster 

January, 28, 2013
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Editor's note: From now until signing day, TideNation will examine the remaining uncommitted prospects still considering the University of Alabama. Today, we look at ESPN 150 linebacker Reuben Foster.


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