Alabama Crimson Tide: Eddie Jackson

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Some stocks rise during spring practice and some inevitably fall, and that wave of momentum heading into the offseason can be a valuable determinant when it comes to seeing more playing time during the season.

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

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

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

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

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

DE D.J. Pettway: It was almost as if he never left. Pettway got himself thrown off the team following a season in which he was named to the Freshman All-SEC squad. But after paying his penance at a junior college program, he returned this spring and has re-inserted himself in the mix at defensive end. He even had his own “welcome back” moment at A-Day, intercepting a Blake Sims pass and returning it 29 yards for a touchdown.
Not every prediction we made about Alabama heading into the spring panned out, but we got awfully close. Let’s take a look back:

Prediction No. 1: Kiffin provides a jolt

This one appears to be a work in progress as A-Day was not the most impressive performance for the offense. Outside of a failed flea-flicker attempt, there wasn’t any play or formation called by new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin that really wowed you. But, as one player told reporters after the game, only about 10 percent of the playbook was available. With that said, the reviews on Kiffin have been overwhelmingly positive. Nick Saban said he expects Kiffin to get the ball into his playmakers’ hands more often this season, specifically to players such as Amari Cooper. That should be music to fans’ ears. And as far as the players themselves, they’ve noticed a difference in Kiffin’s demeanor and play-calling. They’ve said his offense is much more simple and “player-friendly.” So while we never saw major schematic changes or a change in the tempo of the offense publicly, rest assured that Kiffin is working his magic behind the scenes.

Prediction No. 2: Sophomores emerge

[+] EnlargeTony Brown
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsRobert Foster, who dueled Tony Brown for this pass on A-Day, showed big-play potential this spring.
OK, so this wasn’t exactly an earth-shattering prediction. But we did name names. Reuben Foster, Robert Foster and Maurice Smith were spotlighted as players who missed spring practice last season but would benefit from it as sophomores. And with at least two out of the three, there was some measure of success. Reuben Foster, despite a series of stinger injuries, continued to draw positive praise and should be in the mix for significant reps at middle linebacker this fall. Robert Foster, on the other hand, made some spectacular catches at practice this spring, vaulting himself up the depth chart where he could be one of the first receivers off the bench. Smith, however, remained mostly quiet. Right after Eddie Jackson went down with a torn ACL, Smith missed a scrimmage with a concussion. Tony Brown, a five-star early enrollee, took full advantage of the reps and played well at A-Day, making an impressive interception despite playing in a no-contact jersey.

Prediction No. 3: Frosh challenges at LT

It took some time, but maybe not as much as some might have expected. Cam Robinson skipped his high school graduation and bypassed his prom to enroll at Alabama in January and compete in spring practice. With Cyrus Kouandjio gone at left tackle, he saw an opportunity. And after a few weeks of getting a handle on the offense, Robinson took a step forward, earning reps with the first team at left tackle, where he started A-Day. Robinson still has some growing pains to work out, but given his size, talent and early improvement, he'll be in serious contention to start at left tackle from Day 1. Though Saban called the five-star signee a “work in progress,” he also cautioned that, “You get experience by making mistakes. ... He did some good things, and he’s done some really good things all spring long.”

Prediction No. 4: DePriest steps up game

By the sounds of it, Trey DePriest is doing everything coaches are asking of him this spring. With C.J. Mosley off to the NFL, he has responded by becoming a more vocal presence on the defense, leading a group that’s as young in spots as it is talented. As DePriest put it, “I’m just trying to help out where I can.” And that means calling the majority of plays on defense, getting his front seven in line and the secondary in tune. Saban praised DePriest’s knowledge of the defense as well as his maturity, saying he has the ability to “affect other players in a positive way.” Judging by the small window of A-Day, he has done just that as the defense didn’t allow a point in the first half.

Prediction No. 5: Ranking Alabama’s QBs

Maybe we were too hard on Blake Sims, ranking him fourth out of five. By Saban’s estimation, he had a great spring, exhibiting control of the offense, improvement as a pocket passer and good production through two scrimmages, reportedly throwing for 515 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. But a sour A-Day performance kept him from being our post-A-Day leader in the clubhouse. Whatever momentum he’d gained before Saturday was lost when he threw one touchdown and two interceptions with a 43 percent completion percentage (13 for 30). Cooper Bateman, whom we previously ranked No. 1, looked the part at A-Day, showing the most poise and control of the quarterbacks. Alec Morris, meanwhile, was somewhat of a disappointment with just seven passing attempts and one interception. Parker McLeod and David Cornwell turned out to be the fourth and fifth quarterbacks in the race, attempting only two passes, completing none and throwing one interception. The one quarterback who did look good at A-Day was incoming transfer Jacob Coker, who looked on from the sideline as a spectator.
The injury to Eddie Jackson is still reverberating through Alabama’s roster. The promising young cornerback, who was in position to start as a sophomore, tore his ACL during last weekend’s scrimmage, forcing him to miss the remainder of spring camp. On Tuesday, he was seen in crutches awkwardly stepping into a crimson SUV that carried him away from the football facilities where his teammates were practicing.

With Jackson gone, others have had to step up.

[+] EnlargeEddie Jackson
AP Photo/Dave MartinAlabama will miss cornerback Eddie Jackson, who tore his ACL in a scrimmage.
Alabama’s depth at cornerback was already suspect. Deion Belue, a two-year starter, and John Fulton, a top reserve, have both graduated and moved on. The three most veteran options still at the position -- Cyrus Jones, Bradley Sylve and Jabriel Washington -- have combined for eight starts in their careers. And to make matters worse, one of the talented young corners, Maurice Smith, has been banged up. According to coach Nick Saban, the true sophomore who played in 11 games and made one start last season “got a little bit of a concussion” and didn't participate in Saturday’s scrimmage.

So where does that leave the Crimson Tide?

If it were close to the start of the regular season, it would be called a nightmare. But since it’s the spring, it’s more of a sense of opportunity than apprehension. Thanks to a loosened depth chart, coaches will get a sneak peek at some even younger players.

Sylve, Jones and Washington will undoubtably get more reps, and so will players such as Anthony Averett, who redshirted last season, and Tony Brown, who enrolled early in January with the clear purpose of getting a head start during the spring.

According to Saban, Brown has gotten “a ton of reps.” And when you’re talking about a five-star athlete whom ESPN ranked as the No. 2 cornerback in the 2014 class, it’s easy to imagine the possibilities. His talent isn’t in question -- the two-sport star runs track and is one of the more physically impressive corners on the football field -- but his experience has been the biggest hurdle. With more reps, he can close the gap between himself and the more veteran players at his position, clearing the way for a possible run at a starting job this fall.

Landon Collins, who was voted second-team All-SEC at safety last season, said he has seen Brown work hard this spring, “getting it quicker than most people get it.”

Nick Perry agreed. The senior safety was effusive in his praise of Brown earlier this spring, saying that he and fellow freshman safety Laurence 'Hootie' Jones were learning the defense “faster than I’ve seen any freshmen pick it up.”

“Tony is a great competitor,” Perry said. “He’s fast. He’s everything you want in a corner.”

According to Perry, expect to see Brown make a couple of plays this season.

Saturday’s scrimmage was a start for those such as Brown who might not have expected so many reps this spring. There will be ups and downs, Saban said, but overall “it’ll be a good learning experience for them.”

With Jackson gone, the time is now. Smith will be back at practice soon, but there’s no telling who will be next to go down during this final week of spring practice. If someone is sidelined, it might hurt the depth chart as a whole, but it will help certain players in particular.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Perry isn’t doing anything to temper expectations for the Alabama secondary. The senior safety missed all but the first two games last season, and what he saw from the sidelines clearly didn’t suit him. Back from injury, he’s looking for a marked improvement.

“I think we’re going to be a better secondary this year,” Perry told reporters late last week. “The world should be ready to see more of the old UA-style secondary.”

Last fall's results fell short of the typical Alabama standard. Though the numbers were far from horrific in the national rankings -- seventh in rushing yards per game, 11th in passing yards per game, fourth in touchdowns allowed -- the secondary was nonetheless vulnerable. Perry and fellow safety Vinnie Sunseri suffered season-ending injuries, starting cornerback Deion Belue wasn’t always 100 percent, and the cornerback spot opposite him was never truly settled as John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson, Maurice Smith and Bradley Sylve all unsuccessfully tried to lock down the position.

[+] EnlargeNick Perry
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsDespite their youth and inexperience, Nick Perry believes Alabama's secondary is ready for a return to glory.
Alabama’s defense surrendered its highest Raw QBR score (38.1) since 2007 -- by comparison, that number averaged out to 22.5 from 2009-12. The Tide defense was ranked 60th nationally in the percentage of pass completions gaining 10 yards or more (46.2).

Still, Perry is confident this season will be different, even though that flies in the face of some noticeable obstacles. For one, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix left early for the NFL. Along with Belue and Sunseri, three-fourths of last season’s secondary is gone. For another, Jackson tore his ACL on Saturday and will be out for several months, removing a promising talent from the equation. Barring an Adrian Peterson-like comeback, it’s hard to envision the sophomore playing this season.

Those moves ultimately leave more questions than answers for Alabama's personnel. But it’s not the personnel that has Perry hopeful. It’s the coaching.

“Having Kirby [Smart] and [Nick] Saban in the same room coaching the same position is a dream come true for any defensive back,” he said.

Perry called the two “geniuses at their position.” He said that Smart is already “putting his new spin on things.”

“It’s tremendous,” said fellow safety Landon Collins. “[Smart] just coaches us at a different level, trying to get us to understand it from his point of view because he played the position, and he knows what’s going on. It’s his defense. So basically it’s a tremendous thing for us safeties because he sits down and goes step-by-step on what we need to do and what will make us a better player.”

Saban has long worked with cornerbacks during practice, but this spring, Smart, Alabama’s defensive coordinator, moved from coaching linebackers to safeties in order to clear the way for Kevin Steele’s return.

“I’ve always liked it when Kirby coaches the secondary,” Saban explained. “I think it's really hard for one guy to coach the secondary right now. I’m really sort of his [graduate assistant]. He's kind of working with the safeties and the whole group and then when we break down, I kind of try to work with the corners a little bit.

“I thought last year, we didn't play with enough consistency back there. We had a lot of different rotating parts, different starters, different corners starting. We've got to come up with some guys that can develop some consistency in performance.”

As with most springs, the most talked-about players are the true freshmen. Five-star cornerback Tony Brown and four-star safety Laurence 'Hootie' Jones have been on campus since January, participating in the offseason conditioning program and spring practice. To Perry’s eye, they haven’t disappointed.

“Those guys have a bright future,” he said. “They’re picking up the defense pretty good, faster than I’ve seen any freshman pick it up. They came in early, and they’re ready to work.”

Perry was kind enough to break down each players’ strengths.

“Tony is a great competitor. He’s fast. He’s everything you want in a corner,” he said. “Hootie is your prototypical safety, you know. He’s big. He has long arms. He has speed.

“Expect those guys to make a couple of plays this year.”

In order to return to the Alabama secondary of old, they’ll need to.

Perry is one of the few familiar faces still around. It’s up to this season’s crop of players to re-establish the standard.
Editor’s note: This is Part II in a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Alabama this spring.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Early enrollees get all the love. Because they graduate high school a semester ahead of schedule and arrive on campus in time for spring practice, their development is accelerated. In the case of Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard, we saw what a few months could do. Both became significant contributors as true freshmen, with the latter coming on in a big way in the bowl game.

[+] EnlargeReuben Foster
AP Photo/Rusty CostanzaLinebacker Reuben Foster could become a force in his sophomore season.
Along the way we neglected the rest of the 2013 signing class. A few of its members -- Jonathan Allen and A’Shawn Robinson, for example -- made an impact as true freshmen, but the rest of the late arrivals were largely forgotten, buried on the depth chart or tucked away even deeper on the scout team.

They’re not gone, though. As Alabama marches toward the start of spring practice, watch out for many of the redshirt freshmen and true sophomores who enrolled late in 2013 to take a major step forward on both sides of the football. With fall camp and an entire season of development under their belt, now is the time where we should see their biggest growth spurt in the program.

Here are three such players who could make an impact in 2014:

LB Reuben Foster: Boy, was his recruitment a whirlwind of emotion. It wasn’t really until he arrived in Tuscaloosa that he could finally take a deep breath and relax. Now the former blue-chip linebacker isn’t being questioned about his Auburn tattoo or his flip-flop commitment. That’s all a thing of the past. After playing mostly on special teams as a freshman, appearing in nine games and registering 12 total tackles, he has the chance to break through into the starting rotation. With C.J. Mosley off to the NFL and his inside linebacker spot up for grabs, look for the athletic Foster to compete with the likes of Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland for more playing time in 2014.

WR Robert Foster: The departures of Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell have created movement in the receiver ranks. And while no one is moving Amari Cooper off the top spot, the rest of the rotation is continually in flux. DeAndrew White and Christion Jones should help form the top three, but Alabama routinely needs fourth and fifth options off the bench, which Foster could provide. The former No. 2-ranked wide receiver has the build coaches covet. At 6-foot-3 with good hands and good speed, he’s a potential matchup nightmare for defenses. As new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin attempts to find more playmakers, he could discover one in Foster.

CB Maurice Smith: It’s far too early to count out another former rookie cornerback in Eddie Jackson. Though his playing time went way up then way down and back again in 2013, he still possesses the size and athleticism defensive coaches like Nick Saban and Kirby Smart love. But don’t forget Smith, who started only one game as a true freshman last season and played in all but one contest, unlike Jackson who missed a total of six games. Smith was the highest-rated cornerback Alabama signed last year -- the No. 12 corner in the ESPN 300 -- who didn’t make the trek from his native Texas to Tuscaloosa until the summer. With a full season of preparation and an entire offseason of conditioning, he could make a move at cornerback where both starting positions are up for grabs and no true incumbent is present.

  • Part I: Lane Kiffin provides a jolt

Room to improve: CB

February, 17, 2014
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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.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The shakeup on Nick Saban's staff at Alabama will continue as Greg Brown is expected to step down as defensive backs coach to clear the way for Kevin Steele to transition from his role as director of player personnel to an on-field position coaching linebackers, sources told ESPN.

Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will shift from coaching linebackers to the secondary to make way for Steele's move. Steele, according to ESPN, was offered the Louisville defensive coordinator job but turned it down to remain with Saban in Tuscaloosa.

The latest staff shakeup comes on the heels of Saban hiring Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator and Bo Davis as defensive line coach. Doug Nussmeier left after two seasons to lead Michigan's offense and Chris Rumph left after three seasons to coach Texas' defensive line.

Brown spent one season with the Tide after two years as Colorado's defensive coordinator. Like Saban, he had a wealth of NFL experience with 15 years coaching in the league.

Steele joined Alabama's support staff in 2013, directing the Tide's recruiting efforts. But Steele made his career as an on-the-field coach, spending time as a defensive coordinator at Clemson and Alabama and three seasons as head coach at Baylor from 1999-2002.

By moving to coach the secondary, where Smart has worked before, Smart will have a chance to work more hands on with a unit that had its struggles in 2013.

Prior to the Sugar Bowl, Smart lamented Alabama's inconsistency at cornerback.

"We are not used to that," he said. "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."

Smart will have plenty of young talent to develop, though, as Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith both showed promise in 2013, playing significant snaps as freshman. Alabama also welcomed in five-star cornerback Tony Brown as an early enrollee this month.

ESPN's Chris Low contributed to this report.
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.

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.

Planning for success: Alabama

November, 7, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's about that time. No, it's not the "Game of the Century" as Alabama-LSU matches have been called in years past, but Saturday's game in Tuscaloosa might just be the biggest of the season for the top-ranked Crimson Tide.

LSU players to watch

[+] EnlargeLSU/Georgia
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsAlabama will need to find a way to slow down LSU QB Zach Mettenberger, who has thrown for nearly 2,500 yards and 19 TDs this season.
QB Zach Mettenberger: LSU's veteran quarterback needs to get back on track against the Tide. After starting out the season on fire, Mettenberger has seen the pendulum swing decidedly out of his favor with six interceptions in his past four games. Still, he has the arm to hurt Alabama with the deep ball, as he did in last year's game when he threw for 298 yards and brought the Tide defense to its knees.

WRs Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.: One of them would be enough. But two? That's not fair. LSU has two of the best wideouts in the game in Landry and Beckham. They've combined for more than 1,800 yards and 16 touchdowns this season.

DL Anthony Johnson: Say what you will about LSU's lackluster defense. The numbers bear that out. But don't question what the Tigers have up front with guys like Johnson, who's a load at nearly 300 pounds. He and fellow defensive tackle Ego Ferguson will pressure the interior of Alabama's offensive line.

Alabama players to watch

QB AJ McCarron: This is his game. You can trace McCarron's growth as a quarterback to his games against LSU. Remember the regular season loss in 2011? He learned not to play without passion then. In the rematch at the national championship that season, we saw him develop into the passer he is today, throwing the ball with staggering efficiency. And last year? Though he didn't play his best, he found a way to put the team on his back and will his way to a win.

CB X: No, that "X" isn't a typo. We, in fact, don't know who will start at cornerback opposite Deion Belue. John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve have all tried their hands there and none have emerged as the clear frontrunner. Whoever it is won't like their job, though, as they'll be forced to cover either Landry or Beckham for most of the night.

OLB Adrian Hubbard: It's been a slow go of it for Hubbard this season with zero sacks to his name. If he's going to turn the corner, it needs to happen soon. It needs to happen against LSU, who has had trouble when defenders get in Mettenberger's face. If there's hope for Tide fans, it's that Hubbard did this same trick last year, registering a sack in each of his final three games.

Key stats

.478: Alabama enters Saturday ranked sixth in the country in percentage of possessions resulting in a touchdown. The Tide have found the end zone in 43 of 90 drives this season.

17: The Tide offensive line, maligned at the start of the season, has been on a roll of late. It hasn't allowed a sack in 17 consecutive quarters, dating back to the third quarter of the Ole Miss game.

29: LSU and Alabama have been NFL factories, producing a combined 29 first-round draft picks since 2004.


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."

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.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There's an elusive nature to Vinnie Sunseri's game, a nagging need to define what makes him so special. In a sports that lusts after measurables, he doesn't fit the mold. He makes play after play at safety for Alabama, but we're not sure why or how.

[+] EnlargeVinnie Sunseri
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsVinnie Sunseri has shown a big-play ability this season as both of his interceptions have been returned for scores.
Trey DePriest wishes he could tell you what makes his friend and teammate such a playmaker, but the junior linebacker doesn't know. The two came up on special teams together as freshman and he's still trying to figure him out. Both of Sunseri's interceptions this season have been returned for touchdowns, including one which came against Texas A&M when he juked Johnny Manziel out of his shoes. He had no business making the defending Heisman Trophy winner look that bad. No one expected it.

"That's just what he does," DePriest said. "That's him."

At 6-feet tall, there's nothing inspiring about Sunseri's size. Sure he's sturdy, quick and has a nose for the football, but in terms of what scouts crave -- the numbers combines generate like 40-yard dash, vertical jump and the three cone drill -- he leaves something to be desired. But as Mike Smith, Sunseri’s former coach at Northridge High (Ala.), said via text: "He's a relentless competitor!"

"He's a throwback guy in a modern era," Smith said. He knows how athletic Sunseri is having played him at linebacker, punt returner and running back, but defines him in simpler terms. "He's the way it used to be played. He breaks the mold of what we are led to believe is needed to win in college football."

Sunseri, the son of longtime college football assistant coach Sal, is a coach's dream. He hurls his body around like a bowling ball crashing against the lanes. And more than making plays at pivotal moments, he's a teacher and a leader. In a secondary that's had more than its fair share of turnover, he's been a driving force for youngsters like Landon Collins and Geno Smith who have had to fill in at free safety with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix serving a suspension.

One week it's Sunseri shouting out the play to John Fulton at cornerback, the next it's Eddie Jackson and then the next it's Bradley Sylve. The carousel in the back end of Alabama's defense has been spinning from early on this season with Sunseri calmly holding the wheel.

"Vinnie's a very smart guy," UA coach Nick Saban said. "He's been showing leadership in terms of making calls and trying to help the other guys in the secondary, which I think they appreciate.

"He all of a sudden is one of the most experienced guys back there right now."

Saban explained how the communication Sunseri provided against a no-huddle team like Kentucky was vital to the Tide holding the Wildcats one touchdown, less than 200 total yards of offense and under 50 percent completions through the air. Sunseri narrowly missed his third interception of the year when he jumped in front of a pass from Maxwell Smith, knocking it to the turf.

It was easy to see the joy in his face in the waning moments of the Kentucky game. He bear-hugged wide receiver Kevin Norwood on the sideline and congratulated his fellow defensive backs for a job well done. They'll need to improve with Arkansas coming to town this week and LSU in less than a month's time.

"It's been fun to see all these guys develop: Bradley, Eddie, Landon Collins, and see the players they're becoming and teach them all the things they need to know has just been something really fun," Sunseri said. "They're doing a great job."

"He’s taken the leadership role very hands-on because he’s got to make more calls now because we’ve got two new safeties doing the position,” Collins said. “There’s more calls now, doing a lot more and talkative so he’s helping a lot more than I think and I appreciate that."

Though his role as a starter and leader of the secondary might be larger, teammates insist nothing has changed. He doesn't have the flash of some big-name players in the SEC, but he's just as important as any of them to his team.

"He's still the same old Vinnie, which has always been a leader," defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan said. "Since he's been here he's always been a leader."

It’s everyone else that’s just now catching on. Both ESPN and CBS Sports named Sunseri a Midseason All-American this week, though as many as three of Alabama's defensive backs could be more physically gifted. But it's that old-school idea that production trumps all that makes Sunseri so special. After a while, the interceptions and big plays are too much to ignore. The why and how he's doing it starts to become irrelevant.

"He's got great ball instinct," Pagan said matter-of-factly. "The guy knows football. I'll give him this: he's a football player."

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.

Five things: Alabama-Kentucky

October, 12, 2013
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LEXINGTON, Ky. -- No. 1-ranked Alabama takes its show on the road today when it faces upstart Kentucky. The Crimson Tide is heavily favored to beat the young Wildcats, but there's nothing for certain in the SEC, especially on the road. Here are five things to watch when the game begins.

1. Which quarterback will it be?: As I wrote Thursday, Alabama is preparing as if both Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith will play. But it looks increasingly like Whitlow, who took every snap last week against South Carolina, will get the nod as the Wildcats starting quarterback. The former Prattville High (Ala.) star gives an added dimension to the offense with his ability to get outside the pocket and make plays with his feet.

2. Replacing Ha Ha: Both Geno Smith and Landon Collins did a good job filling in for suspended starting free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix against Georgia State. But let's face it, it would have been a shock if they looked bad against the Panthers, who are in their first season at the FBS level. Against Kentucky, we'll get a better idea of where the two true sophomores stand. Collins, though, seems to be ahead in his development. Look for him to start and Smith to come on at safety in certain packages.

3. Efficient passing: It certainly helped that there was little to no pressure on them, but both AJ McCarron and Blake Sims were particularly efficient passing the ball last weekend. McCarron completed 15 of 16 passes for four touchdowns while Sims, who was asked to do less with his feet and more with his arms, connected on 14 of 18 attempts. Kentucky's secondary, as well as its ability to rush the passer, will provide a better challenge, though.

4. Drake's job?: UA head coach Nick Saban went off a bit when he was asked why Kenyan Drake was sent plummeting down the depth chart at the beginning of the season. " Look, Kenyan Drake didn't play in the first game because he didn't do what he was supposed to do," Saban said. "So he might have played more in the first game if he had done what he was supposed to do." Now that Drake is doing his job and appears to be out of Saban's doghouse, he looks to be close to claiming the job we all thought he'd have at the beginning of the season, backing up starting running back T.J. Yeldon. Drake has rushed for 133 yards and a touchdown in his past two games.

5. Developing depth: Should Alabama jump out to a big lead again, we could see the youngsters on defense that many people have been talking about this past week. Eddie Jackson, the true freshman who has developed into a starter at corner, is continuing to progress. A'Shawn Robinson, the mammoth rookie defensive tackle, is pushing for more and more playing time each week. And Reuben Foster, the center of one of the most heated recruiting battles in recent memories last year, has come along slowly at linebacker. The more playing time youngsters like Foster receive, the better off the defense will be as a whole when the real challenges like LSU come.

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