Alabama Crimson Tide: Grant Hill

Room to improve: Offensive line

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
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Editor’s note: This is Part III in a weeklong series looking at Alabama’s top five position groups with room to improve.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It wasn’t all bad. It’s sometimes important to remember that. Despite a very sour finish against Oklahoma, Alabama’s offensive line wasn’t a complete disaster. In fact, it was far from that. The Tide actually allowed six fewer sacks this past season than they did the season before when the line was hailed as the best in the country and one of the best of all-time.

But, yes, there’s room for the line to improve. The running game wasn’t as dominant as in years past, and the line is somewhat to blame for that. The pocket wasn’t as wide open as quarterback AJ McCarron would have like it, and that came from up front.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesCenter Ryan Kelly will help anchor Alabama's offensive line in 2014.
With Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama’s franchise left tackle, and Anthony Steen, a three-year starter at left guard, off to the NFL, there’s plenty of work to do for offensive line coach Mario Cristobal. He wasn’t there to coach the 2012 offensive line, and now all that Steen and Kouandjio are gone, neither are any of its former five starters.

Battling for No. 1: The good news for Cristobal is that because of the injuries throughout last season, he already has a good idea of who his candidates are to start. Ryan Kelly should remain the starter at center, as should Arie Kouandjio at left guard. Austin Shepherd has done nothing to lost his job at right tackle. And thanks to opportunities throughout the season, we know that Leon Brown is good candidate to start in Steen’s place at guard. And Grant Hill could play either guard or tackle, if need be. Hill, the former No. 1-rated offensive guard coming out of high school, is a more natural fit inside at guard, though.

Strength in numbers: Brandon Hill might be the most intriguing returning player on the offensive line. The massive tackle/guard prospect came to campus last year hugely overweight and has since trimmed down to a more manageable 385 pounds. If he sheds a few more belt sizes, he could be push for time at either position. While you’re at it, don’t count out Alphonse Taylor, either. The rising sophomore is no slouch at 335 pounds and was listed as the backup to Steen throughout the regular season. Meanwhile, look for Chad Lindsay, who started four games, to provide quality depth behind Kelly at center.

New on the scene: The wildcard in the competition to replace Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle is Cameron Robinson. In fact, the two are very similar in that they were both the No. 1-ranked offensive tackle prospects coming out of high school, and they both had the look of an NFL All-Pro from the minute they stepped foot on campus. Robinson, the No. 3 overall prospect in the country, is a massive 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds already. Should he get a firm grasp on the playbook early on -- he’s already enrolled and will compete in the spring, which helps -- he could become a part of the equation by fall camp. Left tackle is one of the most difficult positions on the line to learn, but you’ll recall that Kouandjio played in eight games as a true freshman before suffering a season-ending injury. In addition to Robinson, Alabama will welcome in the No. 1 and No. 2-ranked centers in the country, Josh Casher and J.C. Hassenauer, as well as the No. 28-ranked offensive guard, Montel McBride.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It happens every year now, so don't act surprised. If you're an Alabama fan, deal with it. If you're not, don't weep for the Crimson Tide, either. Coach Nick Saban has lost multiple underclassmen to the NFL before, so Thursday's news that safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan will all leave school early is no insurmountable thing. This is just the reason why Saban and his staff recruit so hard.

[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillSafety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is one of four Alabama players who are leaving school early to enter the 2014 NFL draft.
Their leadership and experience will be missed -- along with seniors AJ McCarron, C.J. Mosley and Anthony Steen -- but their talent can be replaced. When you're the only school in the country to finish in the top three of ESPN's class rankings every year since 2008, you have that luxury of plug-and-play. Blue-chip prospects overflow from Alabama's football offices, rattling out its pockets every once in a while like loose change.

"Our twos and threes could do what I did out there," Clinton-Dix said of the team moving forward. "I'm not worried about any of those guys stepping up."

Alabama will be fine without Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix. Many of their replacements are already on board: Landon Collins at safety, Leon Brown at tackle, Dillon Lee at strongside linebacker, Jonathan Allen at defensive end. Those who will challenge them for playing time are either just now arriving or just now finishing their first seasons in Tuscaloosa: defensive backs ArDarius Stewart and Laurence 'Hootie' Jones, tackles Grant Hill and Cam Robinson, linebackers Tim Williams and Da'Shawn Hand, and defensive ends Dee Liner and D.J. Pettway -- all excellent prospects.

It's easy to look at the loss of stars and say, "Oh no!" but that's not how it works at Alabama. It wasn't that long ago that safety Mark Barron left school and Clinton-Dix entered the fold. D.J. Fluker went to the NFL a year early and Austin Shepherd had little trouble at right tackle in his absence. Eddie Lacy torched Notre Dame in last year's BCS title game, announced he was turning pro and Alabama never missed a beat. Not only is T.J. Yeldon back for his junior season, a fella by the name of Derrick Henry appears ready to be his new sidekick.

This is the program that Saban has built. This is what his "Process" has borne. And it's embraced around campus. Just look at this, this and this from Alabama's director of player personnel Tyler Siskey. As Saban told reporters, "We've had 13 guys go out early for the NFL draft, 11 of those guys have been first-round draft picks."

Often when other schools lose key players to the NFL, there's a mad scramble to find their replacements. At Alabama, coaches turn to a stocked cupboard. Take the safety position, for instance: Cinton-Dix goes out with off-field drama and Collins enters the fold at free safety, followed by Vinnie Sunseri blowing out his knee and Collins then shifting over to strong safety. Collins, a former five-star prospect in his own right, immediately found success. A year after playing primarily on special teams, he finished second on the team in tackles, tied for first in interceptions and tops in passes defended.

Sure, Saban would love to see Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix back for another year. Just don't expect him to openly weep about it. He's probably more than thrilled that Trey DePriest and DeAndrew White should be sticking around for their senior seasons.

You know, two out of six isn't bad. Three championships in five years seems to be going over quite well in Tuscaloosa.

Alabama will survive and new stars will emerge next season. Sometimes you hate to see athletes like Clinton-Dix leave early, but their departure only clears the way for who's next.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's time to put Saban-to-Texas to bed and get back to the matter of playing football.

No. 3-ranked Alabama's season isn't over yet. Practices and a bowl date with No. 11 Oklahoma in New Orleans remain.

For Nick Saban, who after weeks of speculation and a new contract gets to focus solely on his Crimson Tide again, the next few weeks will be valuable. Not only does finishing the season well matter, but gathering momentum into next year is important as well.

With that in mind, here are five key areas Alabama must improve upon between now and the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban and Alabama still have plenty to sort out in preparation for the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Put all the talk to rest: Think AJ McCarron got tired of answering all the questions about his coach leaving for Texas? What about the rest of his teammates, who had to wonder at some point whether all the rumors could turn out to be true? The brief offseason between the Auburn game and the start of bowl practice was more eventful than Alabama and Saban would have liked. In fact, Saban loathes these things. Off-the-field distractions are the bane of his coaching existence. Being on the road recruiting, he didn't have time to address his team. But on Tuesday, he will. Putting the talk to rest and focusing on the task at hand -- Oklahoma, remember? -- will be vital in how the next few weeks play out.

Find motivation: The Iron Bowl loss has to linger. McCarron can say all he wants that he'll root for Auburn now, but in his heart of hearts he has to be jealous. He and his teammates have to be mad. This Alabama team that was supposed to be preparing for a trip to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena, Calif. Instead, it's forced to muster the energy to travel to New Orleans for a BCS bowl no one in Tuscaloosa wanted. Finishing the season off right should be motivation enough, but that's not always been the case. Alabama fans will remember the last Sugar Bowl. It didn't end so well, with Utah upsetting the heavily favored Tide. In their last non-championship bowl, however, Alabama throttled Michigan State at the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., 49-7, on Jan, 1, 2011.

Replace Anthony Steen: Who will it be? The options to replace Steen as the right guard are numerous. Alphonse Taylor is listed as his backup, but Kellen Williams wound up starting in Steen's absence earlier in the season. Then there's Chad Lindsay, who has started three games at center and could slide over to guard. But if Alabama is truly looking ahead, it might turn to Grant Hill, who has played tackle primarily in his freshman season but came to Tuscaloosa as the top-rated offensive guard out of high school. Right tackle Austin Shepherd will return next season and there's a chance top-ranked offensive tackle Cam Robinson could step in at left tackle immediately, should Cyrus Kouandjio enter the draft. If the staff is serious about Hill playing as a sophomore, he might be better off beginning the process at guard now.

Stop the running game: It wasn't as if Alabama wasn't ready for Auburn's running game. Gus Malzahn's Tigers made no secret of their desire to move the ball on the ground against the Tide. And still, Saban and Co. couldn't stop it. Tre Mason and Nick Marshall helped Auburn to 296 yards rushing, the most allowed by Alabama since it faced Georgia Southern in 2011. In fact, Marshall's 99 rushing yards were the most by a quarterback in the Saban era at Alabama. Now, Oklahoma is not the same type of dynamic running team as Auburn, but it's not as far off as you might expect. The Sooners have demonstrated an ability to run the ball this season, averaging 235.8 yards on the ground per game, good enough for 18th in the country. For the sake of the bowl game and for the many Iron Bowls that lie ahead, Alabama has to figure out how to stop the run.

Find a quarterback: It would be unreasonable to assume that Alabama hasn't already begun looking for McCarron's replacement at quarterback. But the process that began long ago should begin in earnest during bowl practice. McCarron will continue taking reps, but at this point in his career, he doesn't need every snap to be prepared. Why not stick another quarterback in with the first team and see what they can do? Whether it's Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod or Luke Del Rio -- and, yes, the list of candidates is that long -- someone needs to emerge before the start of spring practice. By getting a jump start now, Alabama can go into the offseason with a plan in place.

#AskLoogs: Robinson's impact

October, 22, 2013
10/22/13
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Want to ask ESPN RecruitingNation senior analyst Tom Luginbill a question about your team? Tweet it to @TomLuginbill using the hashtag #AskLoogs.



Aside from the quarterback position, I would argue that playing left tackle as a true freshman is the most difficult adjustment any player can make entering into college, if thrust into duty right out of the gate. That being said, Cameron Robinson might be the most equipped player we have seen over the last eight seasons to do it if the opportunity presents itself, which it just might.

As it relates to Grant Hill, Hill can play anywhere along the line and he is a more physically talented version of Barrett Jones. I believe in the long term, Hill will be the anchor to this group from a leadership and versatility standpoint, but he does not possess Robinson’s rare physical talents, particularly as a tackle. Remember, as it relates to playing early, physical ability is rarely the area that prevents this from happening. As with all true freshmen, including Robinson, it will come down to how much he can handle mentally and competitively, and his aptitude to process will be tested. These are the areas that will dictate just how fast Robinson comes along.

Planning for success: Alabama

October, 17, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's about that time. No. 1 Alabama is in the final stages of preparing for its showdown with Arkansas at home on Saturday.

The Crimson Tide will win if …

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesAJ McCarron and Co. figure to make this signal with frequency against an Arkansas defense that yielded 52 points on Saturday.
For the time being, winning is simply a matter of showing up and continuing to make progress. Though things looked shaky at first against Kentucky this past weekend, we saw Alabama steadily improving. Coach Nick Saban said he was proud of the way his team controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and how the offense was able to move the chains effectively in Lexington. He might pull his hair out if he sees the same number of turnovers, but past history says not to expect T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake to cough up the football again.

Though Arkansas presents a different set of challenges on Saturday, what it really comes down to for Alabama is staying the course. After all, Arkansas allowed 52 points to South Carolina in its last game. It's safe to say Alabama's offense is capable of the same type of success. The front seven will be tested with the Razorbacks' running game, but the Tide know the drill. Day after day in practice it goes up against an offense that similarly prides itself on a physical style of play. As long as Brandon Ivory holds down the middle and C.J. Mosley, Trey DePriest and Co. wrap up and don't allow many broken tackles, Alabama should be fine.

The Razorbacks will win if ...

Arkansas' best shot of coming out of Tuscaloosa with the upset victory rests in the hands of its two talented running backs. Jonathan Williams, who was a third-string back a year ago, is among the top 10 rushers in the SEC today. And he's essentially a sidekick to Alex Collins, who has put up monster numbers his freshman year, ranking 11th nationally in rushing yards. If those two can move the chains, control the clock and find the end zone a few times, they'll have half the recipe for a win. That is, of course, if Brandon Allen can give Arkansas some production at quarterback.

The other half of the equation involves Arkansas' defense. There are some good parts there with Chris Smith rushing off the edge and Tevin Mitchell at cornerback, but there are also some major holes. South Carolina nearly exposed them all when it hung 52 points on the Razorbacks this past weekend. It doesn't get any easier as they'll have their hands full again on Saturday with AJ McCarron and his group of talented wide receivers. If Arkansas can't slow down Alabama's offense and create a few turnovers, it won't matter what Collins and Williams do.

Arkansas players to watch

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsFreshman Alex Collins leads a potent Hogs running game.
RB Alex Collins: When Bielema took the job at Arkansas, we knew he was going to put a major emphasis on running the football. What we didn't know was who would be the one to shoulder the load. Well lo and behold it was a true freshman. Collins, a former four-star recruit from Florida, who stepped in and was an immediate success, setting an NCAA record by becoming the first freshman to rush for 100 yards or more in his first three games.

C Travis Swanson: Bielema didn't hesitate when he named Swanson as one of his top two players at SEC Media Days a few months ago. The senior isn't a household name because of his position, but he's a Rimington Trophy candidate for a reason. A team captain for the third straight season, he's the heartbeat of the Arkansas offense.

DE Chris Smith: Alabama hasn't faced an elite pass rusher like Smith yet this season. The 6-foot-3, 268-pound end was an honorable mention choice on the All-SEC team a year ago with 13 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. Now a senior, he has picked up where he left off, leading the team with six sacks and eight tackles for loss.

Alabama players to watch

LB C.J. Mosley: This is the type of game Mosley returned to school for. He has shown how dominant a force he can be against spread teams, but the question mark has always been how he holds up against traditional offenses that run between the tackles. Well, Arkansas is as old school as they come.

OT Grant Hill: Boy, Hill got quite the tongue-lashing from Saban for his penalty against Kentucky this past weekend. But really it has been the one noticeable hiccup since the true freshman has come on at right tackle the past few games. As he continues to develop, one has to ask whether Austin Shepherd is in danger of losing his job starting at right tackle.

CB Bradley Sylve: It looked like Eddie Jackson had the starting job to himself after back-to-back solid performances against Colorado State and Ole Miss. But an injury and a setback in his development thrust Sylve, a third-year sophomore, into the starting lineup against Kentucky. He played well and could start again this week.

Key stats

10: Arkansas freshman running back Alex Collins runs hard. Thirty-seven percent of his rushing yards have come after contact and he leads the SEC in broken tackles with 10.

216.3: It will be a significant change of pace for the Alabama defense against Arkansas. The Tide's previous six opponents have averaged 28.6 carries and 86.7 rushing yards per game, compared to Arkansas' per game average of 39.6 carries and 216.3 rushing yards.

5: The streak of quarters without allowing a touchdown ended for Alabama's defense at 14. But another impressive stat remains as the Tide extended its number of games allowing 10 or fewer points to five.

Video: Alabama-Kentucky preview

October, 11, 2013
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Alex Scarborough breaks down No. 1 Alabama's road trip to take on Kentucky.

Planning for success: Alabama

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

The Crimson Tide will win if …

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

The Wildcats will win if …

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

Kentucky players to watch

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

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

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

Alabama players to watch

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

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

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

Key stats

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

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

2: In 39 tries, Kentucky has beat Alabama just twice with the last coming in 1997 when the Wildcats upset the Tide 40-34 in overtime.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Grant Hill's ascent to one of Alabama's best offensive linemen shouldn't be surprising. He's risen quickly before. The true freshman has been taken for granted, and he's shown again and again why he's better than expected.

[+] EnlargeGrant Hill
Jeri A. Gulsby/Alabama AthleticsHis teammates and coaches have appreciated freshman Grant Hill's work ethic and intangibles.
For a long time, we didn't know exactly who Grant Hill was. He seemed like another faceless brute in the trenches, a blue-collar kid from Northern Alabama who lacked flash but made up for it with intensity. So often we root for those type of kids to pan out in college, only they rarely do. In the SEC, you need more than true grit. You need skill.

Hill had that, but we just couldn't see it yet. Something in the film didn't jump out the way former No. 1 offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio did: His reach held defenders perpetually at bay while his quickness revealed itself as he slid effortlessly left to right. Hill, meanwhile, seemed stuck as a middle of the road prospect waiting to emerge.

"Usually, the guys who are bigger may not have that hunger or that desire, but Grant is an extremely hard worker whether it’s in the weight room or on the field," Scott Sharp, Hill's coach at Huntsville High, told ESPN at the time of his commitment. "He has that meanness that you look for in those offensive linemen. He really has the desire to finish plays, finish blocks. And to not just block folks, but maul them."

It took a while, but we eventually took heed of Hill as an elite prospect. His size was always ideal, but it wasn't until late that his athleticism stood out. We started to see why he was a two-sport star making time to meet with track and field coaches during his visits to campus. His hands were superb, his quickness far better than expected. When he faced the best pass-rushers in the country, he was doing more than holding his own, he was stopping them dead in their tracks. At the Under Armour Game, he was named his team's top offensive lineman.

Hill, who began as a filler prospect in Alabama's recruiting class, was suddenly a centerpiece as the No. 1-ranked guard. He enrolled in school and immediately made an impression.

"He's fast and strong, which I wasn't expecting that," UA right guard Anthony Steen said at SEC media days. He obviously wants to start. Every day he gets up at 6 a.m."

Steen's opinion never wavered. When fall camp began, he complimented Hill's work ethic again, saying, "He's never relaxing. I like that about him."

"He'll probably be one of the best left tackles to come out of here soon," said Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama's starting tackle.

We didn't know how soon. The starting five was set early in fall camp, and Hill was predictably not a part of it, backing up Kouandjio at left tackle. But even as a reserve, Hill made waves.

Head coach Nick Saban looked at Hill and knew he'd have to burn his redshirt. Saban said he "isn't a guy who's going to sit here with a bad hand" if he can make it better, and in Hill he saw that opportunity.

"I don't care if we're getting beat by 40 or winning by 40, it doesn't matter," Saban said on his radio show last week. "We're going to play him because he deserves to play."

Hill took to the field early this past Saturday, becoming the 10th true freshman to play this season.

"I feel like we need him," Saban said after the game. "I think it creates some competition. I think he's very close to being one of our five best players."

Saban praised Hill's intelligence, calling him a "very bright guy" with "great intangibles."

"Very football smart. ... He's one of those guys that is going to make sure he knows what to do and how to do it."

Hill isn't allowed to speak with the reporters because of UA's policy regarding freshmen, but that didn't stop teammates from praising him after Alabama's rout of Georgia State.

"Grant's a great player," Arie Kouandjio, UA's starting left guard, said. "He's got a lot of potential, and he's really good at focusing in. I think the sky's the limit if he keeps improving."

For now, Hill's impact should be limited to a reserve capacity. Depth, though, is what the offensive line needs. It's already lost Ryan Kelly to an injury, and there's no telling when the injury bug might hit again. With games against unranked Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee in the coming weeks, Hill should get plenty of reps to build on what's already been a solid start.

He may remain an under-the-radar player for the time being, but don't expect it to stay that way for long. We may not see all he has to offer now, but we're getting a glimpse of where he's headed.

"You couldn't ask for a guy [who] has better intangibles," Saban said. "When you have great intangibles, that's what helps you sort of accomplish whatever your goals are, whatever your vision is for what you want to do."
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.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban didn't like the idea of doing it, but he did his duties and released a depth chart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All told, 11 true freshmen made the two-deep, though none are projected to start: nose guard A'Shawn Robinson, defensive end Jonathan Allen, linebacker Reuben Foster, cornerback Maurice Smith, offensive tackle Grant Hill, tight end O.J. Howard, receivers Raheem Falkins and Robert Foster, long snapper Cole Mazza and tailbacks Henry and Tenpenny.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- They all look the part: long, lean, athletic. It's easy to see why they arrived in on campus with four or five stars assigned to their names.

On the practice field, Alabama's freshmen hardly look green. The country's No. 1-ranked class hasn't disappointed the eye test. Throughout fall camp, you could see their potential.

More importantly, though, you could begin to see where they might fit into the defending champion Crimson Tide's plans.

This year, not the next or the year after that, some Alabama's 25 scholarship freshmen will be called on to contribute, whether it's on special teams or in a more meaningful way on offense or defense.

Last season, 10 true freshmen played for Alabama. Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon headlined the group, but players such as Denzel Devall, Darren Lake and Geno Smith made a difference as well. Kenyan Drake carried the ball 42 times at tailback and Cyrus Jones totaled 364 all-purpose yards between playing wide receiver and returning punts.

Starting Saturday, we'll begin to see how many members of Alabama's 2013 signing class make a similar impact. After watching them develop over the past few months, here's our best guess.

Ready now

[+] EnlargeReuben Foster
Miller Safrit/ESPNFreshman linebacker Reuben Foster is getting more reps in practice.
WR Raheem Falkins: He's more than just the tallest wideout on the roster at 6-foot-4. The former three-star prospect from Louisiana has been a vacuum catching the football, impressing coaches and players alike. AJ McCarron said he's liked what he's seen. With his size, he could become a favorite target in short-yardage and red-zone situations.

ILB Reuben Foster: Saban has lauded the blue-chipper's progress throughout camp, noting a "tremendous amount of progress." He's been rewarded with increased reps to help cut down on the learning curve, and it looks as if he's made the most of it. Though he'll likely start out on special teams, don't be surprised if he makes his way into the rotation at inside linebacker early on.

TE/H O.J. Howard: He's shown signs of promise in the passing game, but the staff wants to see more. The 6-6, 237-pound Howard has all the gifts athletically to terrify defenses with his wide receiver speed and a power forward size. Even if he's a ways off in terms of his comfort level with the playbook, as Saban has indicated, it's hard to see the staff keeping him off the field.

OG Grant Hill: His name has consistently come up among those who have made an impression on his teammates. And he hasn't disappointed on the field, either. The former No. 1 offensive guard in the country has played some tackle, backing up Cyrus Kouandjio on the left side. Though he won't start, you have to expect injuries will happen in the SEC. Should Kouandjio or another lineman go down, the staff could be tempted to put Hill in.

LS Cole Mazza: With long-time snapper Carson Tinker gone, the specialist role is all Mazza's. On field goal attempts and punts, he'll be the one delivering the football.

Freshmen tailbacks: Not one or two, but all four of Alabama's coveted freshmen tailbacks are expected to play as rookies. Derrick Henry is likely the group's ringleader and is the most ready to contribute, but Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones have impressed as well. When Alvin Kamara returns from injury, he could be an added dimension to the offense, a scat-back type who can catch the ball out of the backfield or split out at wide receiver.

Coming soon

WR Robert Foster: He could be the best player to not see the field for Alabama this season. The former top-five wide receiver prospect came to camp at the last moment but never looked like he missed a beat, showing off tremendous athleticism and good hands. Because of the Tide's depth at the position, he shouldn't be needed this season. But if injuries occur, he could be called on.

OL Brandon Hill: No player made better progress physically from the spring to the fall than Hill, who is listed at 6-6 and 385 pounds and shed somewhere around 50 pounds during the course of the offseason. Though he's still not the ideal weight for a tackle, you can see now why the staff was so high on him. He's big, obviously, but he's got good quickness and strength, too. Like so many of this year's starters, he could come off the bench late in games as part of the second-team offensive line.

S Jai Miller: He's no rookie at nearly 30 years old, not to mention he's 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds. Miller, who spent a decade playing professional baseball, has experienced something of a learning curve since walking on at Alabama and only recently have we started to see where he might establish a role for himself. He's shadowed Landon Collins at money (dime) defensive back of late and could be a real spark for the Tide on special teams.

DLs Jonathan Allen, Dee Liner and A'Shawn Robinson: Senior defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan called the Tide's group of rookies the smartest he'd ever seen. Saban followed up that comment by saying all three have the ability to contribute this coming season. In need of pass-rushers, Allen and Liner could come off the bench to provide that spark. And Robinson, a mammoth of a freshman at 320 pounds, could give depth at nose guard, where Brandon Ivory is coming off an injury.

CBs Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson: The battle for a rookie to play cornerback at Alabama is so steep, most don't make it. Geno Smith's late ascent to the starting lineup last season was rare. Though Smith and Jackson fit the bill physically as 6-footers with good size, the learning curve will be difficult with Saban handling the position himself. With the Tide thin at corner, they could make an impact late in the season if they play their cards right.

A ways off

CBs Jonathan Cook and Anthony Averett: There's time left to jockey for position, but it looks like Smith and Jackson have passed fellow rookies Cook and Averett on the fast track to playing time.

LBs Tim Williams and Walker Jones: It's hard to see either Williams or Jones playing much as rookies. Jones has too much ahead of him and Williams, who has made strides during camp and looks like a young Adrian Hubbard, isn't there physically yet.

WR ArDarius Stewart: He came in as an athlete who could have played on either offense or defense. Ultimately the staff put him at wide receiver, where he's looked good, but he'll need time to adjust to playing there full time.

QBs Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod and Luke Del Rio: Ideally, all three will redshirt the season and retain full eligibility heading into next season, when the Tide will figure out who AJ McCarron's successor will be. With Blake Sims and Alec Morris dueling it out for No. 2 now, expect the rookies to ride the bench and learn the ropes in 2013.
Landon CollinsMarvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsFreshman O.J. Howard is already a load for Alabama, as the four-star tight end will most certainly see quite a bit of playing time for the Crimson Tide this season.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- They haven't taken their first college class, but Alabama's freshmen have begun their education in Tuscaloosa. Fall camp, with all the difficulties and challenges it presents, is in full swing for the defending champion Crimson Tide and rookies such as Reuben Foster and Grant Hill are getting their first taste of what it means to compete in the SEC.

With a full week of practice already in the books, Alabama's No. 1-ranked signing class has been met with overwhelmingly positive reviews. Veteran defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan said there are some potential impact players in the class, saying of the group: "They're really smart, they're fast, they're big."

Ed Stinson, another established player on the defensive line, said the newcomers don't even look like freshmen.

"They're some big boys," he said. "They're strong."

Nick Saban, meanwhile, wasn't nearly as complimentary. That's to be expected, as the seventh-year head coach has had impressive looking players before. What he cares about is how they put those talents to use.

"You can look at that glass as half empty or half full," Saban said earlier in the week. "You see some players who can do it and you see some players who struggle to do it. I'm not disappointed. You make players aware of it. You point it out to them. 'Are you giving the kind of effort that you need? Are you having the kind of focus to execute the technique we need to have you execute?' I don't think there's any player who doesn't want to do it. It's just building the maturity and mental toughness to sustain it. That's part of the development of every player. The older players can do it because they've been through it before and can understand it. It's a process that the younger players have to go through so that they can develop those qualities and characteristics."

Saban wouldn't say who has disappointed and who has impressed. That's not his way. But this reporter has no such qualms. In this week's edition of Alabama Intel, we look at which freshmen have stood out so far.

Alabama camp primer: Who to watch 

August, 1, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's time. After months and months of waiting, the start of pre-season camp is finally upon us.

Alabama players report today and begin practicing under the direction of coach Nick Saban and the staff tomorrow. To get you ready for all the action, here's a piece-by-piece look at some areas and players to watch.

Making their move


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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The last month has been a productive one for the University of Alabama in terms of recruiting.

Sure, the Crimson Tide still have just three commitments for 2014 -- far less than they’ve had at this time in years past -- but since the beginning of spring practice, they have hosted some of the nation’s top recruits. If the talent on campus this spring is any indication, Nick Saban is well on his way to another No. 1 recruiting class.

With just a week until A-Day, TideNation breaks down the recent visitors, position-by-position, beginning with the offense Thursday.


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The O-zone: Grading the 2013 class 

February, 13, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Last week, the University of Alabama inked the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class for the second year in a row. The class was made up of prospects from 13 different states and featured a combination of skill players and interior linemen.

This week’s O-zone takes a closer look at the class, breaking down its strengths and weaknesses, and singling out a few players who could stand out when they get on campus.


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