Alabama Crimson Tide: Geno Smith

Alabama spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Alabama Crimson Tide:

1. No leader at QB: Blake Sims was said to have made strides as a passer, but he took a serious step back at A-Day, throwing two interceptions. Cooper Bateman, the clear No. 2, wasn’t much better, though he did limit his turnovers. And Alec Morris, the third QB in a three-man race, shined mostly as a punter. For those looking to see separation in the quarterback race, there was none to be had.

2. Depth at RB: T.J. Yeldon and his 2,434 career rushing yards might not be moved from his starting role, but Derrick Henry will try after having what was described as a “fabulous” spring. But behind him, there’s Kenyan Drake to consider. Behind the home run hitter Drake is Altee Tenpenny -- plus Tyren Jones and Jalston Fowler. In other words, Alabama might not have a quarterback, but it has plenty of running backs to turn to in case of emergency.

3. Kiffin effect: The running backs are happy to be featured in new ways. The tight ends are pleased with becoming a bigger part of the offense. The receivers are thrilled with the simpler schemes. Even Nick Saban appears excited, saying how new offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin, will do a good job of getting the ball in playmakers’ hands.

Three questions for the fall:

[+] EnlargeJacob Coker
AP Photo/Phil SearsFlorida State transfer Jacob Coker could be the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback in 2014.
1. But what will Kiffin actually do?: A lot was said about Kiffin this spring, but there was very little in the way of evidence. Practices were kept behind closed doors and the spring game featured what one player described as only 10 percent of the playbook. New plays? We saw none. New formations? None of them either. We’ll have to wait until the regular season to see what Kiffin’s actual imprint on the offense will be.

2. Coker’s arrival: He was the white elephant in the room in the sense that he was never in the room. Jacob Coker, the transfer quarterback from Florida State, wasn’t able to compete in spring practice as he finished his degree. But he’ll be on hand for fall camp and will jump right into the competition for the starting job.

3. Secondary concerns: Landon Collins might be the only sure thing about the Alabama secondary. The safety just so happens to be the only returning starter, too. Nick Perry, Geno Smith and Jarrick Williams will battle it out at free safety and the two cornerback spots are still up for grabs after Eddie Jackson tore his ACL during the spring. Early enrollee freshman Tony Brown shined at A-Day and fellow five-star signee Marlon Humphrey is on the way.

One way-too-early prediction:

It seems like a sturdy ledge, so let’s walk it: Coker will be named the starting quarterback before the start of the regular season. Simply put, Sims is not the type of quarterback to work long-term in a pro-style offense. And whatever added dimension he brought as a runner, Coker also possesses. Alabama wouldn’t have accepted a transfer like Coker if they didn’t believe he could start. And after what we saw from the other quarterbacks at A-Day, there’s no reason to believe he can’t win the job.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- “It’s not like we don’t have anybody at the position,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told a group of reporters prior to the start of spring practice earlier this month, running down the list of questions he had for his team before arriving at the safety position.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is gone at free safety. Vinnie Sunseri is gone at strong safety. Mark Barron has been around the practice facility training lately, but his eligibility ran out long ago, not to mention the pay is decent in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Ryan A. Miller/Icon SMIAlabama will need Landon Collins to solidify his safety role and lead the Tide's secondary.
So while everyone is craving news on the quarterback competition and the progress of new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, Saban, who happens to coach the defensive backs, is looking at the safeties where he must replace his two most veteran starters.

“We lost two safeties, but we've got Jarrick Williams, Landon Collins,” he said. “Nick Perry's coming back. Geno (Smith) spent a year at safety so he's probably going to continue to progress.”

Indeed, there are a few reasons for Saban to feel good about the position, maybe none more so than Colllins, who came on strong last season after playing primarily on special teams as a true freshman in 2012. The former five-star prospect filled in for Clinton-Dix when he was suspended and then changed roles when Sunseri was lost for the season to injury.

He didn’t start the first four games of the season, but Collins was in the lineup for the final nine contests, showing the playmaking ability that made him such a coveted recruit out of Louisiana. He finished second on the team in tackles (70), tied for first in interceptions (2) and fumble recoveries (2) and led everyone with eight passes defended. He was named second team All-SEC by the Associated Press.

Saban is expecting even more in 2014. From his seat as head coach, he has seen the key to Collins’ improvement: when the games slow down in his head he can play fast, and when he plays fast there’s no stopping him.

“All players have things that they can work on to improve, and Landon's certainly a guy that is a great competitor and really works hard every day to try to improve and has a really good attitude about it,” Saban said following the third practice of the spring on Wednesday. “I think he's trying to affect other people, be a leader set a good example, encourage others to do things the way they need to do it.

“With Landon, to me, when he understands what he's supposed to do, he really plays fast and is effective. I think the more knowledge and experience that he gets, the more consistently he'll be able to play that way, and that's certainly our goal for him this spring.”

Collins wasn’t expected to be a full-time starter last spring, which was his first on campus. This spring there’s no question he’ll be in the lineup week in and week out.

While most players might not love the grind of spring practice, where the finish line of a game each Saturday doesn’t exist, Collins is embracing it.

“Most of us love spring practice,” he told ESPN’s Ivan Maisel. “Speaking for the defensive part of it, a lot of our safeties are just trying to figure it out. It was fast-paced going into the season and in fall camp we still didn’t know a lot of the formations and calls and what to do. [In the spring] the coaches get a chance to sit down and take over everything slowly and go over every point and detail to help them act quickly on the field.”

If Collins can play fast, that’s a good sign for Alabama’s defense moving forward. He’ll need help, though. The free safety spot opposite him is up for grabs, along with both starting cornerback positions.

It will be an uphill climb for Saban and his staff to solidify the secondary, but at least they have Collins to start with. From there, at least there are options. As Saban said, it’s not like there’s no one out there to choose from.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With the start of spring practice only a few weeks away, we’re spending this week discussing five players to keep an eye on when Alabama opens camp on March 15.

Because they’re unpredictable, we’ll avoid first-year players such as Cam Robinson. If you want an idea of who could make an instant impact in 2014, we wrote about that shortly after signing day.

Thursday we turn our attention to a player who spent last year learning a new position on defense.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceGeno Smith got in the dog house in 2013 after an offseason arrest, but he could figure in the mix at safety in 2014.
S Geno Smith
Junior
6-foot, 186 pounds

Credentials: The former four-star defensive back had a stellar freshman campaign at cornerback in 2012, playing in 13 games, including a start against his home-state Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC championship. But that momentum ultimately proved short-lived as Smith was arrested during the offseason for driving under the influence, suspended for the season opener against Virginia Tech and then moved to safety where he struggled to break into the rotation, especially early on. He played in all 12 remaining games but didn't start a single contest. However even in garbage time he tied for third on the team in pass breakups (four).

How he fits: Had only Ha Ha Clinton-Dix left early for the NFL, then there might not have been much of an opportunity for Smith to move up the depth chart. Landon Collins might have made do at free safety and Vinnie Sunseri might have remained the starter at strong safety. But Sunseri's surprise decision to enter the draft allows Collins to remain at his natural position of strong safety and clear an opening at free safety that remains up for grabs. Veteran Nick Perry could play there, but he's coming off a season-ending injury and might not be 100 percent. And Jarrick Williams might be an option, but he seems solidly entrenched at the star cornerback position. That leaves Smith as the most experienced option at free, but there's also some other contenders to consider: former professional baseball player Jai Miller and the No. 3 safety in the ESPN 300, Laurence "Hootie" Jones, who arrived on campus in January.

Best case/worst case: Versatility will be Smith's biggest asset when it comes to his competition at free safety. Having been in the system two full years, he knows how it works. And having defensive coordinator Kirby Smart back coaching safeties will certainly help his cause, too. But knowing how to play back in space as a safety as well as how to play tight in man coverage as a corner should be a big chip in his favor. Still, less than a year removed from his DUI arrest you have to wonder whether he's fully emerged from the dog house enough to be considered for a starting position.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri isn't without good advice to rely upon.

His father, Sal, has been an assistant coach in the NFL and in college for nearly three decades. His brother, Tino, was a quarterback at Pittsburgh before joining the Canadian Football League in 2013. And his coach, Nick Saban, has guided countless players to the pros and understands the draft process as well as anyone could.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel and Vinnie Sunseri
Phil Ellsworth / ESPN ImagesAlabama safety Vinnie Sunseri had two interceptions this season before tearing his ACL against Arkansas.
But that's all a way of illustrating how surprising it is that Sunseri would do the unthinkable and forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft, while still recovering from major knee surgery and without any promise of being drafted.

So what was the hurry?

Sunseri has always been one to fly to the ball with reckless abandon. It's what made him a star on special teams as a freshman and a key contributor in the defensive secondary as a sophomore and junior. Before going down with a torn ACL against Arkansas this season, he had two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns. ESPN thought enough to vote him a Midseason All-American.

Maybe that instinct to attack and make something happen is at play here. We all know the draft is a gamble -- go early and you risk it, go late and you risk it just the same -- so Sunseri opting to roll the dice might not be out of character. If he thinks he should strike while the iron is hottest, then best of luck. He's a limited player athletically and sometimes struggles in coverage, but he's as hard a worker as they come and has a nose for the football.

From Alabama's perspective, though, the move is troubling.

The most immediate question -- "Are you running from Tuscaloosa or toward the NFL?" -- isn't readily answered. With so much up in the air this offseason, from coaching staff changes to other underclassmen turning pro, could it have influenced his decision?

Sunseri was the heartbeat of the secondary, its most vocal leader and its best playmaker. He would have been one of the centerpieces of the defense next season. He and Landon Collins playing side by side at safety would have been a good starting point for defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to build around. Mixing in veterans Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry would have been plenty to work with, helping relieve some of the pressure off of Alabama's young set of cornerbacks.

Now Alabama is left with more questions than answers. Losing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at free safety was hard enough. Sunseri vacating his spot at strong safety only makes matters worse. Collins showed he's an immensely talented player this season, finishing second in tackles and first in passes defended, but he's still raw. We saw that in a few key missteps against Auburn to end the regular season and then again against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Granted, Collins will improve, but Alabama will need another player or two to step up and fill Sunseri's shoes.

The silver lining for Saban is he's not without talented players to call upon. Former four-star corner Geno Smith made the transition to safety this past season and former professional baseball player Jai Miller should be better prepared after a season of re-acclimating to the game. Welcoming in two early enrollee defensive backs -- five-star cornerback Tony Brown and No. 2-rated safety Laurence "Hootie" Jones -- will help in terms of depth, too.

But make no mistake, Alabama is in transition. As curious a move as it was for Sunseri to turn pro early, it leads to just as puzzling questions for the Tide moving forward. There are the right coaches in place to make it work -- men like Saban, Smart and others -- but it doesn't make the events any less surprising.

Five things: Alabama-Tennessee

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

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

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

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

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

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

What we learned: Week 8

October, 20, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here's a look at three things learned in No. 1 Alabama's 52-0 win against Arkansas on Saturday night.

Kenyan Drake can fly: OK, so maybe we had an idea of Drake's speed before Saturday, but the game against Arkansas further proved his worth as the No. 2 tailback behind T.J. Yeldon. The speedy sophomore showed lightning quick moves, rushing for 104 yards and two touchdowns on just eight carries. No matter how you slice it, a 13.0 yards per carry average is stunning. Oh, and let's not forget that Derrick Henry, Alabama's five-star freshman, ran for his first career touchdown and broke the 100-yard rushing mark himself.

Alabama can stop the run: It was a refreshing change of pace for Alabama's defense, lining up in base formation time and time again. Finally, guys like nose guard Brandon Ivory could do what they do best: eat up tackles and stuff the run. Against Arkansas, they did just that. The Razorbacks vaunted duo of tailbacks -- Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams -- was held largely in check with 125 yards and no touchdowns on 31 carries.

Replacing Vinnie: Really, there's no replacing junior safety Vinnie Sunseri's leadership and big-play ability. He's too good and too experienced a player to just plug someone in and move right along. But Alabama will certainly try, and with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix back from suspension and Landon Collins developing at safety, the Tide is in good position to move forward. Mixing in Jarrick Williams and Geno Smith in the back end of the defense also provides options. Look for the staff to mix and match in the coming weeks as it tries to find the right packages.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Jarrick Williams should have been in this position a year ago. Heading into fall camp last season, he was slated to be Alabama's primary option at nickel back. But in a practice, he went to make a tackle, landed awkwardly, bent backward and felt the tell-tale pop in his knee that every athlete dreads. His ACL gave and he was lost for the season. Geno Smith, a freshman, took over the position and made a handful of key stops against Georgia in the SEC championship game.

[+] EnlargeJarrick Williams
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWhen Jarrick Williams (20) hits, "you feel it," says Alabama teammate Vinnie Sunseri.
Largely overlooked during the offseason, Williams slowly worked his way back into shape. "There were some days I wanted to give up," he said, days where he thought he'd never be the same player again. A former four-star safety out of Prichard, Ala., Williams was a coveted prospect because of his size and athleticism. Scouting profiles noted his fluidity and ability to redirect in the open field -- all key traits in a defensive back. But with a bum knee, those skills were in doubt. Smith, it seemed, was the future at nickel back. Williams, at best, would provide some depth behind him.

"Going through all the surgery and stuff, I've just been ready to get out there on the field," he said.

Williams, who sought counsel from family members such as his mother to keep him focused during his rehab, stayed the course. And when Smith was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence during camp, he seized the opportunity. Immediately he stepped back in at nickel, playing with a physical style.

Trey DePriest, Alabama's starting inside linebacker, said Williams plays like a fellow linebacker only a few feet further removed from the line of scrimmage. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, he has the frame to play wherever he wants.

"Jarrick is real strong, and when he plays and we go dime, he drops down into the box with C.J. [Mosley], he’s got the look of a linebacker," DePriest said. "He brings that presence."

That presence can boil over to off the field, too. Vinnie Sunseri, who directs the defense at strong safety, said, "When you get hit by him, you feel it." And that's not just during games.

"We'll be messing around off-the-field and he'll push me around and I'll say, 'You've got to calm down, man. You're too big to do that now,' " said Sunseri, no slouch at 210 pounds himself. "He can hit you, he can cover, and having him blitzing is a real threat, too."

Opposing offenses have felt Williams' pain as well. He's 10th on the team with 15 tackles. He had a highlight-reel sack against Kentucky last Saturday -- "He was either going to move or me. I moved him," Williams said -- and tipped a pass against Texas A&M that set up an interception return for a touchdown by Sunseri.

Mosley, the heart and soul of the defense at middle linebacker, said Williams has been "holding his own" since taking over at nickel back. Williams injured his eye against Texas A&M and temporarily lost sight in it, causing him to miss the following game. It proved to be a a cautionary step, but given his history, there was concern.

"He came back and hasn't missed a beat," Mosley said. "So he's helping us with our short depth at DB. He's doing a great job."

Williams, a man of few words himself, is now entrenched at nickel back. Smith has since moved to free safety, where he's rotating in with Landon Collins while Ha Ha Clinton-Dix serves a suspension.

With Arkansas next on the docket Saturday, Williams is poised to get plenty of looks in the nickel alignment, which is essentially a base formation for Alabama. The Razorbacks like to run the football, which is exactly like Williams wants to see.

"Oh yeah, a lot of contact," he said. "More tackling for me."
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."

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.
Landon Collins AP Photo/Butch DillWith suspended safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's future status up in the air, sophomores Landon Collins (pictured) and Geno Smith made their career debuts at free safety Saturday against Georgia State.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Getting more insight into the suspension of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix wasn't going to happen Saturday afternoon. No. 1-ranked Alabama had just finished throttling Georgia State 45-3 to cap off the school's homecoming game, and Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban wasn't in the sharing mood when he was asked for an update on his star safety's status.

"I don't have any new information," he told reporters in Tuscaloosa. "And when we get new information, I'll certainly pass it along to you."

And with that, the matter of Clinton-Dix's future with the team was put on hold for another day. Nearly a week after it was announced, neither the nature of the suspension or its intended duration have been officially announced by UA.

But the matter of life without Clinton-Dix was addressed on Saturday when Landon Collins and Geno Smith took up for their departed teammate in the secondary, filling in for him at free safety. Clinton-Dix was on the sidelines, but all he could provide his teammates with was advice.

It was an awkward position for both sophomores to be in. Neither had started a game or played a meaningful snap at free safety in their careers. Smith was a cornerback all of last season before being moved to safety this fall. Collins, meanwhile, played almost every position but free safety prior to this week. The former five-star athlete learned cornerback, money, star and strong safety already, but he'd never tackled Clinton-Dix's position.

So like any college student would, Smith and Collins put in extra hours during the week studying. Under the direction of Professor Saban and his assistant, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, they took a crash course Free Safety 101. The syllabus might have read something like: Basic understanding of coverages with an emphasis on footwork, alignment and communication.

"Those guys came in at 1:15 every day, so for 45 minutes I would just meet with them about basic fundamental things," Saban said. "I would show teaching tapes of guys doing it correctly, whether it's hitting your mark in Cover 2 or how to play Cover 7. Whatever the circumstance was.

"Those days really helped those guys, because it gave them a visual of this is how we're supposed to do it and why. I think that extra time is just really beneficial to helping the players."

Collins said the one-on-one work made him more confident when game day finally arrived. Sure it was just Georgia State, a team in its first year in the FBS, but Collins felt some anxiousness when he took the field.

"It was my first start, so yeah I had some butterflies," he said.

It took only one play for those feelings to evaporate according to Collins, who said he thought he played well and made the right calls working alongside veteran strong safety Vinnie Sunseri.

Georgia State amassed all of 160 yards through the air, completing just 12 of 22 passes. Alabama gave up just two passing plays of 20 or more yards and, more importantly, no touchdowns.

Saban lauded the effort of both of his young safeties, saying of Smith that there were only "a couple of things that we'd like for him to do better." In the ultra-critical world of Alabama, that might be considered a compliment.

"I'm hopeful that they continue to improve," Saban said. "Landon Collins has been a really good player for us in whatever role we put him in. He's a fantastic special teams player. He also has played with six defensive backs in the game, so he's played a significant role and he does a great job at that. He hasn't had to play a lot of safety, but now he's playing safety and he did a good job out there today. I think that experience will help him feel more comfortable and confident.

"Geno hasn't played safety as long, so that will continue to be a work in progress. But Geno's got a great attitude and wants to do well and works hard. "

Smith and Collins did inspire some confidence in their opening auditions, but it's still unclear whether they'll be ready when the main event arrives in the form of LSU on Nov. 9. While it's expected that Clinton-Dix will return to the starting lineup by then, without official word from UA the future remains somewhat in doubt.

Saban and Alabama can take heart, though, as there will be plenty more opportunities for Smith and Collins to prepare in the meantime with three more unranked teams (Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee) and a bye week before LSU.

Games like Saturday's against Georgia State might not be inspiring in the grand scheme of things, but the opponent doesn't matter. The experience, for players like Smith and Collins, is what does.

"It's a mental thing," Collins said. "We always say we play against ourselves."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama did just about everything everyone expected it to. Playing an overmatched Georgia State, the top-ranked Crimson Tide dominated every area in their 45-3 win Saturday.

These games might be snoozers, but Alabama coach Nick Saban considers them valuable learning experiences and opportunities to clean up the little things that could cost the Tide in conference games.

[+] EnlargeKenyan Drake
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesKenyan Drake was among the many Tide players to see action in Alabama's rout of Georgia State.
"We executed better, and our players made some improvement," Saban said.

While Georgia State clearly couldn't touch Alabama's talent pool, this was arguably Alabama's most complete game of the season, offensively and defensively. The Tide scored on their first seven possessions of the game. The defense gave up 1.9 yards per play in the first half and 3.9 for the game. Alabama started with five straight touchdown drives to take an early 35-0 lead before heading into the half up 38-0.

Georgia State's only points came on a school-record 53-yard field goal.

Quarterback AJ McCarron was lights out, going 15-of-16 passing for 166 yards and four touchdowns. He was out of the game before halftime even rolled around. Running back T.J. Yeldon looked like his old springy self, rushing for 51 yards on six carries before his early trip to the sideline. Wide receiver DeAndrew White made a circus catch for a touchdown late in the first quarter, and Alabama had 308 yards and 19 first downs to Georgia State's 41 yards and three first downs in the first half.

The second half was all about the youngsters, as Saban sat most of his starters to give reserves some valuable time before heading deeper into SEC play.

"The experience creates the best learning opportunity for every guy that got an opportunity to play," Saban said. "Some of those things got a little sloppy at times, but the benefit far outweighs the consequence in terms of the experience that guys were able to gain."

You knew the day was for the backups when Blake Sims replaced McCarron with 4:26 remaining in the second quarter. Saban said the idea was to let Sims, who entered the game with just two pass attempts on the year, run the offense. Saban didn't want any designed QB runs; he wanted Sims to take charge and throw.

It worked, as Sims completed 14 of 18 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown. Forget who the opponent was, that was a confidence-building performance that could go a long way the next time Sims gets into a game.

Seventy Alabama players played, including sophomore wide receiver Chris Black, who led the Tide with six catches for 54 yards and a touchdown. It was the most time he had seen in a game during his career, after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury.

"I'm looking forward to improving, getting better and doing work," Black said.

Saturday was also a chance for Landon Collins and Geno Smith to get time at free safety, where the suspended Ha Ha Clinton-Dix played. It was the first time Collins had played in a game at free safety, and he said he was nervous for one play -- the first one.

It was a chance for offensive lineman Grant Hill to get in and prove that burning his redshirt for the season was worth it. And it was a chance for freshman Altee Tenpenny to carry the ball four times on Homecoming inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.

These might look insignificant, but more learning experiences and more game action will go a long way for Alabama's youngsters.

"Coach isn't there to help them each and every step, like he is in practice, so it gives them more confidence," White said. "In the future, we're not going to be able to hold their hands the whole way. For us to get out of the game and them come in the game and we're not missing a beat, that's real good."
Top-ranked Alabama should have little trouble dispatching Georgia State on Saturday, but there still will be some plenty of items of interest. Here are five things to watch when the Crimson Tide take to the field inside Bryant-Denny Stadium:

1. Replacing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: Will it be Landon Collins or Geno Smith filling in for the suspended free safety? We haven't heard Smith's name called much this season, but we saw what the talented sophomore was capable of last season when he came on late in the year and locked down the nickel cornerback position. Collins, meanwhile, has continued his upward trajectory, making big play after big play on special teams. He has done more on defense as well, playing nickel corner and some safety.

2. Eddie Jackson's maturation: Sense a theme? Yeah, the secondary is going to be under the microscope Saturday. Eddie Jackson, Alabama's freshman cornerback, played particularly well in only his second career game last weekend, shutting down Ole Miss wideout Donte Moncrief while also turning in a key interception. Jackson has all the physical tools to develop into a shutdown cornerback, but he's still very green. As UA coach Nick Saban said Thursday, teams weren't sure what to expect from Jackson early on but they'll have a scouting report on him soon. How he responds to that focus will be key.

3. Grant Hill gets his chance: Saban called Grant Hill one of the best five linemen on Alabama's roster right now, even though the talented true freshman hasn't seen the field. That will change Saturday, though, because as Saban put it, "He deserves to play." Hill, the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2013 class, has played some tackle and could wind up seeing the field at that position against Georgia State. While it's unlikely Hill unseats any of Alabama's starters on the offensive line, he could develop into a top reserve with some more work.

4. Continuing to establish the running game: Alabama won't meet much resistance up front against Georgia State. So any excuse about not being able to control the line of scrimmage and run the football should go out the door before kickoff. Alabama has been inconsistent moving the football on the ground this season, but the Ole Miss game this past weekend signaled some hope as both T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake went over 100 yards. Expect some of the reserves such as Altee Tenpenny and Derrick Henry to get involved Saturday as Alabama looks to build on its recent success running the football.

5. Competing against itself: Saban acknowledged how uninspiring this weekend might be when he said, "I know nobody is probably excited about this game." But he wants fans and players to forget about that and focus on the game within the game. Saturday isn't about Georgia State. It's about Alabama playing to a standard and continuing to improve. The Crimson Tide has been inconsistent this season, struggling to move the ball on offense and giving up big plays through the air one week before moving the chains seemingly at will and shutting down opponents' passing games the next. Against Georgia State and the slew of unranked opponents that follow, the key for Alabama will be to come out and play to a high standard and establish the kind of consistency that has been lacking of late.

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Kickoff is just a day away. Week 6 might not offer any marquee matchups in the SEC, but there are plenty of intriguing games across the league. Here's one last look around the conference to get you ready for Saturday.
  • With HaHa Clinton-Dix suspended indefinitely, Alabama will turn to sophomores Landon Collins and Geno Smith to fill the void. It’s a big opportunity for both players.
  • Georgia’s Josh Harvey-Clemons was a linebacker coming out of high school, but he’s growing into his new role in the secondary.
  • Before the season, there were plenty of questions about LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger. But after his latest performance at Georgia, he’s put himself in the Heisman race.
  • LSU tight end Travis Dickson grew up a Mississippi State fan. This weekend, he returns to the place where he once donned Bulldog attire and rang cowbells.
  • Steve Spurrier knows the Stoops’ family well, and he believes Mark Stoops can win at Kentucky over time. The two SEC coaches will be on opposing sidelines this Saturday.
  • Arkansas running back Alex Collins will make his return to the state of Florida this weekend to face the Gators. The freshman star has already caught the attention of UF coach Will Muschamp.
  • It could be a track meet between Auburn and Ole Miss on Saturday. Head coaches Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze will likely push the limits on number of plays run.
  • In year one of the rebuilding process, Malzahn and his Auburn Tigers could land a signature win against a resurgent Ole Miss squad.
  • Missouri is 4-0 and eager to put last year’s SEC play behind them. The Tigers start the 2013 conference play this Saturday on the road at Vanderbilt.
  • First-year coach Butch Jones took on a challenge when he took the job at Tennessee, but after a 3-2 start, can he lead the Volunteers to a bowl game?
It's hard to say what happened or how long the impact will last. Alabama's star safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is suspended for violation of team rules, and thus ends the limited amount of information we know at this time.

"When guys get suspended, I never ever say what it's for, so I'm not going there so don't ask me," coach Nick Saban told reporters Wednesday afternoon in Tuscaloosa. "It's the way I've always handled this -- every guy. They do right, they wouldn't be getting suspended. And I don't know for how long this will be so don't ask me that either."

It's Saban's prerogative to keep that kind of information private. Nothing in either the NCAA or SEC rulebook prohibits him from doing so. And really, what matters most is the timetable and it's not terribly interesting either -- at least not for a few weeks.

Losing Clinton-Dix hurts. He's arguably Alabama's most talented defensive back and a possible first-round pick in next year's NFL draft. But considering Alabama's competition in the month of October, it's not the end of the world for the top-ranked Crimson Tide.

Georgia State, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee don’t have the kind of passing games that strike fear into a secondary. None of the four are ranked in the top 45 nationally in passing efficiency. Kentucky has the highest number of passing yards among that group with 955 on the season, and that number is only good enough for 72nd in the country.

It could be argued, and it wouldn't be a stretch, that the timing couldn't be better. With Clinton-Dix out, Landon Collins and Geno Smith will have time to develop. Collins, in particular, has come on strong on special teams and inside cornerback this season, and could be poised to do even more with a greater number of reps.

With Vinnie Sunseri firmly entrenched as a leader at strong safety, he should be able to shepherd whoever the starter is through the next few weeks.

The big negative in all this is the big picture, though. Alabama has already had enough off-field troubles for one season, the most high profile of which coming back in late February when Eddie Williams, Brent Calloway, Tyler Hayes and D.J. Pettway were all kicked off the team. All told, three players were suspended since then: Trey DePriest and Malcolm Faciane for separate instances of "violation of team rules", and Smith for his arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence. All the suspensions were relatively short-lived, but they raised the question of whether the number of off-field distractions were building toward a larger problem that could ultimately affect the team's championship hopes.

Answering that question was hard to do then and it's hard to do now. Because of the limited information coming from Alabama on its latest suspension of Clinton-Dix, all there is to do is wait.

And waiting, as it relates to the football field, won't hurt that much in the short term.

The month of October doesn't present many challenges and even the first weekend of November affords Alabama a bye to regroup. Then it's No. 10 LSU coming to town. If Clinton-Dix is still out by then, questions will have to be answered and the real concern begins.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Deion Belue, Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry walked onto the field Saturday dressed in sweatpants, you knew the game would be different. Those were three of the most experienced members of Alabama's secondary on the sideline, unable to play against Colorado State because of lingering injuries.

Then Kevin Norwood, who started 11 games at wide receiver last season, followed them out of the tunnel, wearing the same crimson pants and sneakers. He too would miss the game.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban's Alabama squad wasn't sharp in the win over Colorado State as the Tide played several youngsters on defense.
And as we later found out, they wouldn't be alone. Right guard Anthony Steen and wide receiver Amari Cooper, both key starters on offense, dressed for the game but never played. Steen sat out with a headache and Cooper rested with a sprained toe, never so much as picking up a helmet on the sideline. To make matters worse, starting running back T.J. Yeldon sat out the first quarter, serving a suspension for his behavior in the game against Texas A&M the week prior.

Alabama coach Nick Saban had said throughout the week to expect some younger players to get a chance to compete Saturday, but we had no idea it would go like it did. The offense struggled to move the ball with any consistency and the secondary, already reeling from a poor performance against Texas A&M the week before, was put to the test with so many players sidelined with injuries.

Very little was expected from reserve cornerbacks Bradley Sylve and Eddie Jackson coming into the season, and yet there they were being announced over the P.A. system in Bryant-Denny Stadium as starters in the home opener. The near-capacity crowd cheered, but only wearily, unsure of anything to expect other than the color of the jerseys. Jackson, a true freshman, hadn't played a single snap in the first two games of the year. Sylve, who had all of six tackles a season ago, hadn't been in on a single stop this year.

John Fulton, the only senior available in the secondary, didn't play until the second half as the staff opted instead to try out youngsters like Jackson, Sylve, Maurice Smith, Cyrus Jones and Geno Smith.

The results were predictable. Colorado State played on Alabama's youth, hitting up the defense for a number of big gains, 10 plays going for 10 or more yards, including four of which that went for 20-plus yards. Rams coach Jim McElwain, a former offensive coordinator at Alabama, was able to move the ball downfield almost at ease, dinking and dunking the defense with screens and misdirection plays when it didn't go for the deep pass from quarterback Garrett Grayson.

It was death by a million paper cuts as UA allowed more yards to a sub-.500 Mountain West team (279) than it did in all but five games last season. Five SEC teams and Big 10 powerhouse Michigan had less success against the Tide defense in 2012.

"Well, they all made mistakes," Saban said of his young corners. "Their little bit of lack of experience shows up like [when CSU] hit that little x-screen with the halfback blocking the corner about three times for first downs, and I don't know that we've ever given up a first down on that play. It wasn't played correctly."

Landon Collins, a sophomore, is still learning the ins and outs of Saban's defense at safety. And yet on Saturday he was the veteran voice in the secondary, calming down his even more inexperienced teammates.

"Just a lot of new guys on the field," Collins said. "We've got to figure out what to do. They're going to be some great players when they come down to it and know what they really have to do.

"I told them just be calm. It's a fast game. Everything's going to slow down after a while."

If Saban wanted to find someone capable of joining the cornerback rotation this season, that player didn't appear to emerge Saturday. The job of starting opposite Belue might return to Fulton, who has been underwhelming thus far, or Jones, who is still experiencing some growing pains at the position after playing wide receiver last season.

With Ole Miss coming to town this weekend, whoever wants the job must step up now. The Rebels, which average 490 yards and 38 points per game, can make a veteran defense look bad. As UA linebacker C.J. Mosley said of the mistakes made Saturday, "Some of those little things will get us beat next week."

"We played about five guys at corner, just kind of rotated them in there with the idea that we're going to see if somebody can play the position with any kind of consistency and do their assignment and do their job," Saban said after the game. "That's an area we need to do better in. It'd certainly be helpful if we get Deion back."

If Alabama doesn't get Belue back, it could be in trouble. Another game like the one against CSU could blow a hole in the Tide's championship hopes.

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