Alabama Crimson Tide: Jalston Fowler

Can you believe it? We’ve already reached the halfway point in our journey through the SEC regular-season schedule.

So far we’ve been to Athens, Auburn, College Station, Tuscaloosa, Houston and Norman, Oklahoma, to name a few. With seven weeks down and seven more to go, there’s no more time to waste. We have to get to the best games before it’s too late.

If you’re just now jumping on board our little road trip, we at the SEC blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations for each week of the season.

Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 8:

Oct. 18
Texas A&M at Alabama
Georgia at Arkansas (Little Rock)
Missouri at Florida
Kentucky at LSU
Tennessee at Ole Miss
Furman at South Carolina

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Tennessee at Ole Miss

Sam can have the clear Game of the Week in Texas A&M-Alabama. He’s never been to Bryant-Denny Stadium, so I wouldn’t want to deprive him of that experience.

Instead, I’m going outside of the box and inside The Grove. It’s time to get to Ole Miss. And if you’re like me and watched a certain TexAgs video that went viral last year, the chords of “Mississippi Queen” should come racing to mind right about now.

If you haven’t been to Oxford, you need to go. The game is great and all, but the real fun is in the game-day festivities. The tailgating there might be the best in college football. As they’re oft to say, “Ole Miss never lost a party.” They get there early, they stay late and they even dress up for the occasion. Sure, some commercial aspects of the pregame experience have creeped in over the years, but tailgating in The Grove is as quintessential a Southern football experience as you’ll find.

On a more analytical note, the actual game itself should favor the home team. Ole Miss is better on both sides of the ball with a veteran quarterback, a talented group of skill players on offense and a defense packed with playmakers. Nonetheless, I’m interested in seeing Tennessee at the midway point of the season. Year 2 won’t be easy for Butch Jones, but if he can develop a quarterback or the future and get the defense going in the right direction, it should be a good sign for the hopes of the program in Year 3 of his tenure and beyond.

Sam Khan’s pick: Texas A&M at Alabama

No doubt this is the choice. The Grove is fun, and Mizzou-Florida looks like it might have potential, but the Aggies and Crimson Tide have provided us with highly entertaining games the last two times they met. In 2012, Texas A&M went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and pulled off a stunning upset and last season, Alabama’s offense put on a clinic, running all over the A&M defense and outlasting Johnny Manziel & Co. to exact a little revenge at Kyle Field.

Now, the Aggies make their first trip to Bryant-Denny since that fateful November night in 2012 and there’s no Johnny Football this time around. The Aggies probably will have their quarterback situation established firmly at this point (whether it’s Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen) and the Aggies' offense should still be humming. The question is, will the defense be improved enough to put up a fight against the Crimson Tide?

It had better be, because while Alabama will be working in a first-year starting quarterback of its own, the Crimson Tide have plenty of running backs to throw at the Aggies again, led by T.J. Yeldon, junior Kenyan Drake, the bruising, cruising sophomore Derrick Henry and bowling ball Jalston Fowler. The Crimson Tide should be strong defensively again, so it will be a stiff test for what is still a young Aggies squad. It stands to reason that, at least at this point, Alabama will be favored going into this one.

So far, the first two times Nick Saban and Kevin Sumlin have squared off, it’s turned out to be pretty fun. Here’s betting it is again when they square off in Week 8.

Alabama spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
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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. -- 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 like Cam Robinson. If you want an idea of who could make an instant impact in 2014, we wrote about that shortly after signing day.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDerrick Henry showed what he could do in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries.
So instead, let’s start by taking a look at an athlete who made a splash late last season as a true freshman, creating big expectations for his sophomore campaign.

RB Derrick Henry
Sophomore
6-foot-3, 238 pounds

Credentials: Was he a running back or a linebacker? At 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds -- all muscle, we should add -- it was hard to tell. We hadn’t seen him run the football yet, so for a while he looked like a project. Did he have the necessary speed and elusiveness to get through the holes up front and hit the second level of the defense? And then came the Sugar Bowl. Yes, it took Henry some time to work his way up the food chain at running back, but when he did, he was special. He got around the Oklahoma defense just fine in New Orleans, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries in addition to taking a short pass 43 yards for another score. All told, the former five-star athlete ran for 382 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries as a freshman.

How he fits: And herein lies the rub. Henry, with what he showed against the Sooners, might be more explosive than Alabama’s incumbent starting running back T.J. Yeldon. Given Yeldon’s fumbling woes, many fans are clamoring for Henry to replace him as the lead back. But Alabama has been through this before. Both the Mark Ingram-Trent Richardson and Richardson-Eddie Lacy tandems were balancing acts, and this coming season should be no different. Except that there’s a third back, Kenyan Drake, also begging for carries. Talk about explosion and speed, and you’re talking about Drake, who can take the ball to paydirt any time it touches his hands. One thing is certain: Running backs coach Burton Burns will have a tough time sorting out the depth chart when the season rolls around.

Best case/worst case: We’ve made the mistake of assuming the depth chart order at running back before and have been burned. There’s a case to be made that Henry should start, which would be an intriguing outcome to say the least. But there’s another case, one based on seniority and experience, that could land him third or fourth on the depth chart. You know about Yeldon and Drake, but there’s also the veteran Jalston Fowler and the blue-chip newcomer Bo Scarbrough to consider. Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny are on campus too, remember? The good news for the bevy of Alabama tailbacks is that new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin shouldn’t be constrained by position titles. The former USC head coach is seen as something of an innovator on offense and could move players like Henry, Fowler and Scarbrough around to places like H-back and slot receiver to get them touches.

SEC lunchtime links

November, 7, 2013
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We've got football tonight. In fact, there are a couple of pretty big games. That means we're almost to what could be an important weekend in the SEC.

Here are some links from around the league:
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Ed Stinson's mammoth shoulders shrink, relaxing from the form that only half an hour earlier flexed to crash and beat up on 300-pound blockers for a full 60 minutes. Alabama's senior defensive end looked tired in the eyes after his team beat rival Tennessee 45-10 on Saturday, his dark brown pupils soft and eager for rest. After three straight SEC contests and seven consecutive game weeks, he and his teammates were eager for some time off.

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

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

And that's just the injuries we know of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O.J. Howard leads TE growth at UA

September, 27, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Like countless rookies before him, Alabama tight end O.J. Howard's start to the season was shaky. He dropped the first pass ever thrown to him and never saw the ball come his way again in the season opener against Virginia Tech. The very next game, on the road at No. 6 Texas A&M, he was whistled for a false start on the opening drive, sending his offense in reverse. Predictably, the Crimson Tide went three-and-out, punted and the Aggies got the ball back and promptly scored to go ahead by two touchdowns.

The groans could be heard all the way from Alabama's campus in Tuscaloosa. Howard, however talented he might be, was showing the telltale signs of youth in an environment that dictated nothing less than perfection.

[+] EnlargeO.J. Howard
AP Photo/Butch DillTrue freshman O.J. Howard ranks in the top five nationally among tight ends in yards per catch.
Brian Vogler had been there before and he knew just what to say when the offense got to the sidelines that day at Kyle Field.

"It’s a crazy environment down there," Alabama's veteran tight end said. "I told him, ‘Hey, man, in my first start against Michigan, I got a false start, too, so don’t worry about it.' "

Howard responded. He went back out and caught three passes for 68 yards, helping top-ranked Alabama remain undefeated in an offensive shootout against Texas A&M.

"He grew up a bunch in the Texas A&M game -- and he had to," Tide quarterback AJ McCarron said. "Third down and 12 or 15 or whatever it was and we completed the pass to him late in the game, kind of sealed the deal. He’s done an excellent job for us. Just got to keep progressing, can’t take any steps back.

"He does an excellent job of doing what we ask him to do. Hopefully, we can keep getting him more touches."

McCarron seemed happy to have a tight end who could create mismatches with his height, speed and athleticism. And he should be. He has never had anyone quite like Howard to whom to throw the ball.

Nick Saban has never utilized a tight end with Howard's skill set since taking over at Alabama in 2007. While the rest of the country has moved toward pass-catching tight ends who could be split out wide, Saban kept his tight ends on the line of scrimmage, hand on the ground, pounding away at defensive linemen and linebackers. Big plays have been few and far between. Their job was to block for Heisman hopeful tailbacks and field a handful of passes in the red zone each year.

The numbers bear out that fact. No tight end has ever caught more than 35 balls or broken the 400-yard receiving mark at Alabama under Saban. Meanwhile, college football has seen 83 instances of a tight ends finishing the season with more than 35 receptions and 400 yards. All-American Tyler Eifert had 113 catches and 1,485 yards over his final two seasons at Notre Dame.

Alabama's lackluster numbers were the biggest reason why Howard entered his rookie season viewed as something of a savior at the position. Not since Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome in the 1970s had UA featured a tight end who could move like Howard, whose long legs bound effortlessly like a deer when he runs upfield. He's big yet graceful, jumping and pivoting like a power forward in shoulder pads.

"O.J. Howard is a different kind of player, young player, very athletic, pretty good pass receiver," Saban said. "[He] has to get a little bigger and stronger, maybe work on his blocking a little bit, but he is tough and he will try and get after you. His athleticism is a real asset to the passing game. He gives us another threat out there. We’re really pleased with his development."

The tight end position as a whole has grown leaps and bounds this season. Howard's 13 catches for 148 yards has something to do with that. He is, after all, tied for fourth nationally in yards per reception among tight ends. But Vogler and utility back Jalston Fowler have picked up the pace as well.

All told, Alabama's tight ends are on pace to finish the season -- should it go 13 games -- with 57 catches and 642 yards. That number would surpass the previous high in production when Brad Smelley and Co. ended the 2011 season with 52 receptions and 558 yards. And that's if things stay on course. As Howard keeps developing and growing more comfortable in the offense, he stands to do even more in the passing game.

Howard still shows some signs of youth, and the growth of the tight end position as a whole is still in its embryonic stages. After a rough start to the year, things are coming along. After dealing with early season frustrations, there's reason to believe Howard and his fellow tight ends are ready to take the next step.

Five things: Alabama-Colorado State

September, 21, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's been a while, Tuscaloosa. For the first time this season, Bryant-Denny Stadium will be put to use, as No. 1 Alabama hosts Colorado State for its home opener.

Here's what we'll be watching when the Crimson Tide kick off on campus.

Secondary seeking answers: They've heard the criticism all week after getting their doors blown off by Texas A&M this past weekend. The Aggies cut through the UA secondary like hot butter as Johnny Manziel bought time in and out of the pocket before inevitably finding a receiver downfield for a big gain. Mike Evans, by himself, amassed more than 250 yards receiving against a carousel of cornerbacks. In response, Alabama coach Nick Saban called for something of an open competition at defensive back with youngsters like Bradley Sylve, Cyrus Jones, Maurice Smith and possibly Eddie Jackson getting looks against CSU. The Rams aren't near the passing threat of Texas A&M, but they're nonetheless the next challenge and the next opportunity to right the ship.

Running back rotation: We might have to wait until the second quarter to see UA starting tailback T.J. Yeldon, who will reportedly be suspended for a quarter for the unsportsmanlike penalty he received last week against Texas A&M. But even so, the timing couldn't be better as Alabama looks to sort out its running back rotation. Saban said in the offseason that he wanted a five- or six-deep group of backs, and so far we've seen plenty of Yeldon and lead backup Jalston Fowler, but the rest of the backfield hasn't been showcased much. Dee Hart should get some carries, and we'll likely see true freshmen Altee Tenpenny and Derrick Henry get their chances against CSU as well. But how the carries are distributed and whether fellow rookie tailback Tyren Jones sees the field remains to be seen.

Is Amari Cooper in a slump? He's dealt with a number of nagging injuries this year, but he hasn't missed any games because of it. And, according to Saban, defenses aren't do anything different to keep him in check. So why exactly is Alabama's top receiver suddenly not himself? The former Freshman All-SEC selection hasn't had the impact on the game we became accustomed to last year and he hasn't been as sure-handed either, dropping a number of passes against Virginia Tech and Texas A&M. He's tied for the team lead with six receptions, but he's only racked up 72 yards and no touchdowns in the process. Getting Cooper back on track in time for the meat of the SEC schedule will be vital for Alabama's offense.

Continuing progress on the O-line: Alabama's offensive line responded in a big way this past weekend after being abused by Virginia Tech in the season opener. Cyrus Kouandjio and Co. helped open big holes in the running game and protected AJ McCarron beautifully against Texas A&M, enforcing its will much in the same way we saw from Alabama's line a year ago. But will it continue? We'll see against the Rams, who admittedly don't offer much in the way of All-American defenders. Keeping last week's momentum going might be difficult, though, if starting right guard Anthony Steen is unable to play after injuring himself against the Aggies. Kellen Williams, who filled in admirably in his absence, could be called on to give Steen a rest early if the pain he experienced last weekend returns.

Championship fatigue: It's been written about a good deal -- Alabama fans getting tired of winning. After three championships in four season, would anyone blame them? Alabama winning football games has become something of a ho-hum affair of late. Setting aside the time and money to see the Tide play in Bryant-Denny Stadium isn't quite as appealing when you know the outcome of the game ahead of time. Heck, some students would rather stay home and watch the game on TV with the luxury of being able to channel surf when the score inevitably gets out of hand. If fans truly are getting tired of going to games, we'll see the effect in the bleachers against nonconference cupcakes like Colorado State.
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. -- Two-a-days are over and camp is nearly at a close for the University of Alabama.

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

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

YeldonRandy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsSophomores T.J. Yeldon (pictured) and Kenyan Drake are established Alabama tailbacks, but the Crimson Tide are hoping that their four incoming freshman can provide immediate depth.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban is no stranger to managing a crowded backfield. Since he took over as head coach at Alabama in 2007, he's featured two lead tailbacks and a supporting cast of one or more every season. Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy were the players fans across the country knew best, but they wouldn't have been as explosive as they were without help from the bench.

T.J. Yeldon understands that. The soft-spoken sophomore backed up Lacy in 2012 and was able to make a name for himself in the process, becoming the first UA tailback to rush for more than 1,000 yards in his freshman season. All told the former four-star prospect from South Alabama ran for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns on 12.5 carries per game.

"He's bright. He learns well. He understands the offense. He's a good blocker. He's a complete player. He's a really good receiver, and he's a good runner," Saban said of his Pre-Season All-SEC back. "And he understands what he's doing, and he's played enough that his knowledge and experience certainly helps him with the rest of the players."

Yeldon and his presumptive backup, Kenyan Drake, are givens, but the rest of the backfield is where things get sticky. Where will the rest of the Tide's cast of characters fit in?

In addition to veterans Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart, Alabama signed four tailbacks in the 2013 class. Each rookie brings something different to the table: Derrick Henry is a physical freak at 6-foot-3 and 243 pounds, Altee Tenpenny is a bruiser with good lower body strength, Alvin Kamara is a scat-back type with good catching ability and Tyren Jones is a somewhere in the middle, a power back with good shiftiness and explosion. And according to those inside the program, all four not only are on track to play early, but are expected to do so this season.

Saban hinted as much at his signing day press conference when he scoffed at the notion of a "stacked" running back corps. He said then that good depth at the position meant five really good players, with three playing a lot. With Fowler practicing at H-back and Hart a question mark given his health concerns, the numbers add up.

On Tuesday, Saban updated the situation at tailback and praised his freshmen in the process.

"I think all the running backs are really good, the freshmen, and I think they'll all be able to contribute," he said. "Some of the guys who are showing a little bit more maturity and learning and being able to sustain performance, which I think is going to help their development and it's going to help them be able to contribute and play.

"Derrick Henry being here in the spring obviously helps his (chances). Altee Tenpenny seems like he's a guy that seems to get it and is pretty well-rounded and has been able to grasp things and sort of learn quickly. But the other guys have done a good job as well."

Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said less than two weeks earlier that the most important thing for the young backs such as Tenpenny and Henry is to get the system down pat. Then and only then can they move on to the idea of playing time.

"So that's the biggest thing is to teach them once again the big picture -- how you get lined up, what kind of stance, what kind of footwork. Everybody focuses on the running back position about what the player does with the ball in their hands. There's so much more to it," he said. "You start talking about protection-type things. What we see from our defense every day, the complexity of blitzes and those type of things, it's very important that those guys grow in that area.

"[The coaches are] very, very pleased with the depth that we have there, really good players. Jalston Fowler, you know he missed most of last season. Dee Hart coming back off of injury. Kenyan Drake returning. And then we talked about Derrick and the young guys that are coming in. So we've got a lot of depth there."

Yeldon told reporters on Tuesday that the young backs have been leaning on him for advice while they learn the ropes during fall camp. Funny because it was only a year ago that he was doing the same thing, splitting carries as he studied under Lacy. Now it's Yeldon leading the charge as he wonders who will split carries with him as the team's feature back.

But who looks best so far? Yeldon can't tell.

"Every guy is different," he said. "They have different running abilities. All of them are looking pretty good."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Consistency has been the hallmark of the tight end position at Alabama since Nick Saban arrived in 2007.

Michael Williams was as dependable as they come, starting 41 games in his four years on campus. He was big, hard-nosed and reliable, a force blocking downhill in the running game and a sure-handed target in the red zone. Brad Smelley and Preston Dial before him were the same way, blue-collar players who put their hand on the ground and went to work everyday.

Brian Vogler doesn't want that identity to change. Rather, he'd like to see it evolve.

[+] EnlargeBrian Vogler
Greg McWilliams/Getty ImagesBrian Vogler hopes he can play a big role in Alabama's offense.
A former four-star prospect out of Georgia, Vogler signed with Alabama in 2010 and watched the progression of the tight end position from afar. And like those before him, his No. 1 point of pride is his work ethic. No. 2 is his intelligence. He may not be the fastest or the most athletic, he admits, but he wants to bring a little something different to the table this season as the presumptive starter.

"Each year you have a different mold of a guy," he explained. "When you watch film on each guy, you try to take something they do and bring it into your game. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to pull everything I see out of their talents and try to mix it in my game."

At 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds, his size is the first thing you notice. And despite what he'd describe as lackluster athleticism, he can move. A former high school basketball player, he knows how to create space and use his long arms to shield defenders. That's only translated to three career receptions thus far, but that should change as he becomes a focal point of the offense.

Nick Saban called Vogler "one of the top conditioned guys coming back from summer," and praised his ability to sustain. Much of fall camp has been about promoting mental toughness for Alabama's seventh-year head coach, and he was able to point to Vogler on Tuesday as an example of just that.

"You create your own standard of superiority whatever you're trying to do," Saban said. "But the challenge is, Can you sustain that? Can you continue to do it with consistency and consistency in performance? That's one thing that he has, the mental toughness and maturity to do so it allows you to continue to improve."

Trust has never been in short supply at the tight end position for Saban. Unfortunately the ability to create big plays has.

If there's been one noticeable gap in Alabama's offense in recent years, it's been that no tight end has had more than 35 catches in a season since 2007. This past year was an all-time low as Williams and Co. combined for a paltry 33 catches and 249 yards. Meanwhile a new wave of tight ends like Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert snagged 50 receptions and 685 yards.

Vogler isn't likely to develop into that type of player overnight. But combined with backups Harrison Jones, O.J. Howard and Jalston Fowler, the position could become more potent in 2013.

Fowler's transition to a utility running back/fullback/H-back role was cut short by season-ending knee surgery last season, but now he's back where he left off, according to Vogler, who called the bowling ball of a back a "hard-hitting guy who's not afraid of anybody."

"That's the exact same guy you're going to see at the H-back position," he said.

Fowler's ability to play multiple spots on the field could be of use to offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Fowler said he had begged coaches to let him catch the football, and last year they finally listened. After having things end tragically, he said he's coming out with something to prove.

"I've got a big chip on my shoulder," he said. "I'm trying to show the world what I'm worth."

The wild card in it all is Howard, an early enrollee who came to campus in January and immediately began making waves. If there's anyone on the roster capable of taking the tight end position into the 21st century, it's him. A former four-star recruit, he was a "monster on tape," according to scouts. He has the size at 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds to dominate cornerbacks and the track-level speed to blow by linebackers.

Vogler called Howard a "whole new dimension to this offense" in the spring and praised his athleticism and ability to run after the catch. If he made the right kind of progress, Vogler said he thought he'd be a viable part of the offense.

On Tuesday, Vogler revisited the subject, praising the way the former blue-chip prospect has come into camp eager to do all the little things right.

"He's working really hard," Vogler said. "He asks me questions if he has any problems or wants to know how to do things. He's one of those guys that comes into work everyday with a really good work ethic and tries to learn."
T.J. YeldonAP Photo/Chris O'MearaAlabama running back T.J. Yeldon is a man of few words and many yards.
"Produced the best season by a freshman running back in the history of Alabama football … the heir apparent to Eddie Lacy in a long line of elite running backs for the Crimson Tide … set Alabama freshman records for rushing yards (1,108) and equaled Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram's freshman record of 12 rushing touchdowns … named the Dixie Howell Memorial Most Valuable Player of the 2012 A-Day Game, after arriving on campus in January of 2012." -- 2013 Alabama Football Media Guide

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- His biography says more than he ever will. Quiet to the point of discomfort, T.J. Yeldon is a reluctant young superstar at the University of Alabama.

Reading about himself mentioned in historic tones might cause him to blush. Eddie Lacy wasn't the "heir apparent" to Trent Richardson in 2012. Instead, the media guide called him simply "the next player up." Mark Ingram ended up an Alabama legend, but he wasn't compared to school greats such as Shaun Alexander or Bobby Humphrey immediately after his first season. Rather, the 2009 prospectus said Ingram's skills were "simply too much to keep off the field."

Expectations are everywhere around Yeldon, who burst onto the scene last season by rushing for 111 yards and a touchdown in the nationally televised opener against Michigan. Those 11 carries in Cowboys Stadium were enough to set the first of many school records -- the first UA player to break the rushing century mark in his debut. From then on, everyone knew who No. 4 was in the Alabama backfield. He didn't talk to the media because of the school's policy regarding freshmen, but the way he ran with power and speed was enough to speak volumes about the player he'd become.

When the preseason All-SEC team was announced at SEC Media Days in July, Yeldon was the top vote-getter on offense. He beat out Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel by a whopping 102 votes even though his level of celebrity is dwarfed by that of the Heisman Trophy winner. In fact, Yeldon didn't even come to media days. The shy sophomore stayed behind in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and relished the anonymity that's soon to vanish. For now, he can get away with walking to class and going to the grocery store without being interrupted.

"Many people don't know my face yet," he said.

Pick up any poster or media guide and you'll see his face, though. Yeldon was able to hide behind Lacy a year ago, but that's not the case anymore. He couldn't duck reporters on Sunday, fidgeting and swaying side to side in his first time speaking with the local media since signing with the Tide more than a year ago. He kept his answers concise and to the point. When asked what he'd do when people did recognize him and want to speak, he said matter-of-factly that he'd "talk to them, I guess."

There's not much the Daphne, Ala., native wants to say. He admits he's not a people person. His high school coach, Glenn Vickery, called him a "man of who few words" who "doesn't open up and talk to many people."

"I don't like talking, for real, but I can't run from it, so I just get used to it," Yeldon said.

He might not enjoy the limelight on a personal level, but there's no doubt that changes when he puts on a helmet and shoulder pads. With Lacy now in training camp with the Green Bay Packers, it's Yeldon's turn as the Tide's featured tailback. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a backup in 2012. What will he do when he's asked to carry the ball 15-20 times a game?

"He's a great player," said Alabama utility back Jalston Fowler. "I'm looking for big things for him this year. With me in front of him, I'm going to try to help him improve his stock."

Yeldon said he spent the offseason honing the technical parts of his game, especially his ability to pick up the blocking scheme. And while he doesn't have any personal goals for the year, he knows there's a lot more he can accomplish with a season under his belt.

"Be more of a leader, help the younger guys, do what I have to do on the field to make myself and the team better and make us win games," he said. "Everyone can be better; just improve what you didn't improve on last year."

Rooming with Lacy before games helped Yeldon learn how to handle the spotlight, but don't expect him to change who he is. He's not going to suddenly incorporate a spin move into his repertoire on the field and he's not about to make any flashy moves away from the field, either.

"I just hang out with my friends, play video games, chit-chat, go out to eat," he said. "It's what I always do. Low key."

SEC lunchtime links

August, 6, 2013
8/06/13
11:45
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Now that he has fully recovered from a knee injury that wiped out most of last season, Alabama running back Jalston Fowler is ready to pick up where he left off last season.

Crimson Tide kicker Cade Foster talks about spending some time in the offseason with former NFL kicker Morten Andersen, the league's all-time leading scorer.

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee says the next four to five days are critical in the Tigers' quarterback battle.

Mammoth Mississippi State defensive tackle Nick James is learning how important technique is to having success in the SEC.

In the wake of Johnny Manziel's latest controversy, Ole Miss players and coach Hugh Freeze have mixed views on whether players should receive stipends.

Robert Nkemdiche is already practicing with the Rebels' first-team defense.

Georgia defensive line coach Chris Wilson has little patience for players who aren't getting the job done correctly.

LSU players voted to allow running back Jeremy Hill to re-join the team shortly after a judge decided not to send Hill to jail for violating his probation.

Texas A&M's hiring of the law firm that helped defend Auburn and Cam Newton in 2010 speaks volumes about the Aggies' game plan in dealing with the Manziel autograph situation.

Here's an Aggies season preview from GigEmNation.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones is making sure his players don't get bored or comfortable at practice.

Members of the Vols' secondary are tired of the critics and are ready to prove them wrong.

Florida coach Will Muschamp said the Gators' tight ends, who struggled in the spring, are making progress.

The Gators are also trying to develop depth at safety, which is why Muschamp isn't taking the easy way out and sticking Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins into the starting lineup.

South Carolina's former defensive coordinator first saw the potential in linebacker Cedrick Cooper. The Gamecocks' current defensive coordinator is just as enamored with him.

Arkansas began camp on Monday. The Razorbacks will have a new quarterback, and Brandon Allen says he's ready to take over for Tyler Wilson.

Crimson Countdown: Harrison Jones 

July, 23, 2013
7/23/13
11:00
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During the summer, TideNation will analyze each of the scholarship players on the Alabama roster -- excluding the Tide's 2013 recruiting class -- in our Crimson Countdown series. Starting with No. 1 Dee Hart, we will go through the roster numerically, finishing with No. 99 Brandon Ivory.

No. 82 Harrison Jones
Redshirt junior tight end/H-back


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Crimson Countdown: Jalston Fowler 

June, 28, 2013
6/28/13
11:00
AM ET
During the summer, TideNation will analyze each of the scholarship players on the Alabama roster -- excluding the Tide's 2013 recruiting class -- in our Crimson Countdown series. Starting with No. 1 Dee Hart, we will go through the roster numerically, finishing with No. 99 Brandon Ivory.

No. 45 Jalston Fowler
Redshirt junior running back

Expectations for 2013: It's hard to know just what to expect of Fowler, who missed most of last season recovering from a major knee injury and was not available to participate fully in spring practice. All indications are that he'll be ready to go by fall camp, but his absence from A-Day was nonetheless notable. If healthy, Fowler provides an added dimension to the Alabama backfield as the biggest back on the roster at a whopping 250 pounds. His athleticism, though, is what makes him a dangerous weapon for offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.


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