Alabama Crimson Tide: Jarrick Williams

Alabama spring wrap

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

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

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

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

Three questions for the fall:

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

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

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

One way-too-early prediction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what was the hurry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five things: Alabama-Tennessee

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alabama loses leader in secondary

October, 21, 2013
10/21/13
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Vinnie Sunseri sat on the far sideline Saturday night watching the game in track pants, his hands stuffed in his pockets. Only moments earlier Alabama's starting safety was huddled around his teammates, counting off something on his fingers. He shook his head, started back from zero and counted again.

Today we know what he was likely counting: weeks or maybe months. Sunseri will miss the remainder of the season with a torn knee ligament.

Alabama coach Nick Saban announced the diagnosis Monday. Sunseri's loss cannot be understated. His leadership and big-play ability have been a boon to a secondary that's dealt with a lot of turnover this season.

Though his replacement, sophomore Landon Collis, is arguably more talented in terms of sheer measurables, he's not yet the same type of leader and playmaker. When Alabama needed a play against Texas A&M earlier in the season, Sunseri made it, intercepting a pass and juking Johnny Manziel before going the distance for the touchdown. Sunseri's nose for the football will be missed.

Alabama has Saturday's game against Tennessee and a bye week to work out the kinks in the back end of the defense. Then comes Nov. 9 and the 13th-ranked LSU Tigers for a game with championship implications. Zach Mettenberger and his duo of talented receivers -- Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. -- have had tremendous success this season, helping LSU to the fourth-most passing yards in the SEC.

What we learned: Week 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot and Not in the SEC: Week 7

October, 14, 2013
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We've reached the midway point of the season. And, well, some teams are hot while others are certainly not. Let's take a look.

GLOWING EMBERS

Missouri: Who knew? Prognosticators, both professional and amateur, are surely coming out of the woodwork by now, telling anyone who will listen how they had Missouri atop the SEC East before the start of the season. But tell those people to politely remove their tinfoil hats and drift slowly back to earth. No one had Missouri competing for a chance at the SEC championship. James Franklin hadn't even won the starting quarterback job entering fall camp. And the defense, without its best player in Sheldon Richardson, looked like a significant question mark. Sure, Gary Pinkel's bunch had to get better after all the injuries a year ago, but this? Pinkel's bunch is playing great football and we're only now starting to take notice after the way the Tigers throttled Georgia on the road 41-26. Missouri is in the top three in the SEC in scoring, passing and rushing offense, and most importantly the Tigers are leading the league in turnover margin.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMissouri is riding high after beating Georgia to remain unbeaten and climb to No. 14 in the AP poll.
HOT

SEC in the polls: The SEC set a record on Sunday for the most schools (eight) in The Associated Press college football poll. Though just Alabama remains in the top five, having so many teams scattered throughout the poll says something about the depth of the league. LSU and Texas A&M are both title contenders despite having one loss, and South Carolina isn't far behind at all. Florida, despite losing its starting quarterback, has maintained course, and Georgia, while seriously decimated by injuries, should remain in the top 25 this season. The surprises, though, are what make the league so special. No one had Missouri in the top 15 and very few thought Gus Malzahn could turn around Auburn so quickly, getting it back into the top 25 for the first time since November 2011.

NOT

Ole Miss: One team that would have made nine SEC schools in the AP Top 25, Ole Miss, dropped from the rankings two weeks ago when it lost to Auburn on the road. That defeat was bad enough. Losing at home to Texas A&M on a last-minute field Saturday night made it even worse. Sure, Ole Miss wasn't favored to win the game, but that didn't dull the sting of seeing another win slip away. Hugh Freeze told anyone who'd listen this offseason to expect some bumps in the road, that his team couldn't live up to the sky-high expectations being forced upon it. But Freeze couldn't help going 3-0 and beating Vanderbilt and Texas on the road. Now his team has come down from its early-season high and the holes we all expected -- offensive line, depth on defense, etc. -- are once again glaring. And with No. 6 LSU up next, things aren't getting any easier for the Rebels.

HOT

The Mad Hatter: Was Florida's defense that good? Was LSU's offense that bad? Did any of that matter? Nitpick all you want at LSU's 17-6 win at home over Florida, but the fact remains Les Miles' bunch won the game, improved to 6-1 on the season and remains right in the thick of the championship race. Yes, we all expected Zach Mettenberger, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry to do more through the air, but like a pitcher on the mound without his best stuff, LSU found a way to survive the day with a W. Jeremy Hill proved once again why he's one of the best running backs in the country, and we may have seen LSU's embattled young defense take an important step forward.

NOT

Clowney the villain: I'm reminded of the Jay-Z song "Can I Live," and no, it's not because of the rumor that the rap mogul tried to sign Jadeveon Clowney before the start of the season. Instead, you have to look at South Carolina's embattled defensive end as a point of over-speculation. Let's just let the man live. No, he's not having the Heisman Trophy campaign many hoped for, but so what? How many defensive players win the trophy, anyway? Forget the missed snaps and missed practices and all of the talk that surrounds Clowney and just appreciate his talent. Remember, he'll be gone to the NFL soon. Maybe after weeks and weeks of harping on the negative with very little to show for it, we can just let him play the game and watch him like we would any other player.

[+] EnlargeAlabama Defense
AP Photo/Garry JonesThe Alabama defense had a streak of 14 quarters without yielding a touchdown snapped at Kentucky.
HOT

Alabama's defense: It took two defenders literally running into each other for Alabama to finally surrender an offensive touchdown. Against Kentucky, cornerbacks John Fulton and Jarrick Williams collided in coverage and both fell to the turf. UK wideout Javess Blue gladly caught the wide-open pass and trotted untouched into the end zone. And thus ended Alabama's streak of 14 quarters without allowing a single offensive touchdown. Alabama's defense, which garnered its fair share of criticism after being lit up by Texas A&M -- what defense hasn't? -- has played lights out since.

NOT

Kentucky's offense: The Air Raid 2.0 didn't get an inch off the ground Saturday in Lexington. Kentucky's young offense was dominated by Alabama, held to under 200 yards. It took a fluke play for the Wildcats to even score (see above). Converting on 2 of 12 third downs is bad no matter how you slice it. And to make matters worse, UK starting quarterback Jalen Whitlow looks like he'll miss some time after injuring his ankle. The good news is nothing was broken, but for a player who relies heavily on his mobility, coming back early isn't an option. Give Mark Stoops credit for what he has done on defense, but he has some work to do on the other side of the ball. You're not going to score many points in this league when you're starting a walk-on at wide receiver as UK did on Saturday night.

FREEZER BURN

Homecoming disaster: Steve Spurrier's words after the game said it all. "I do feel badly for Arkansas," the South Carolina coach explained. "That's not fun getting your butt beat at home, homecoming and all." Why Arkansas scheduled the Gamecocks for its homecoming game is anyone's guess. But whoever did it should be second-guessing himself or herself today. In front of alumni and fans, the Hogs jumped out to a 7-0 lead, only to see South Carolina score 52 unanswered points and win going away. The Gamecocks threw for 260 yards to Arkansas' 30 and held the football 43:25 to Arkansas' 16:35. Watching, it felt like there was barely enough time to throw a parade, let alone name a homecoming queen.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Deion Belue, Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry walked onto the field Saturday dressed in sweatpants, you knew the game would be different. Those were three of the most experienced members of Alabama's secondary on the sideline, unable to play against Colorado State because of lingering injuries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Alabama doesn't get Belue back, it could be in trouble. Another game like the one against CSU could blow a hole in the Tide's championship hopes.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- University of Alabama starting nickel back Geno Smith and backup running back Kenyan Drake are back in good standing and ready to go against No. 7 Texas A&M, according to coach Nick Saban. The No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide is currently on a bye week before the highly anticipated Sept. 14 trip to College Station, Texas, to face the Aggies.

But whether the pair of sophomores will play is anyone's guess. Smith was reinstated this week after being suspended for Week 1 after his arrest for a DUI, had Jarrick Williams play well in his absence against Virginia Tech this past weekend, helping limit Logan Thomas to 59 yards passing in the season opener. And though Alabama struggled to move the ball on the ground against Bud Foster's defense, the rotation of tailbacks didn't appear to be left wanting with T.J. Yeldon leading the way, followed by Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart and Altee Tenpenny.

"We have other players that played in the game in their place," Saban said, "So it's up to them to sort of prove that they're better than those players and can do a better job."

For Smith, his seeing the field next Saturday could end up being a result of the numbers game going in his favor. The former four-star prospect is one of only a few experienced cornerbacks on the roster, and against Texas A&M, the Tide will need all the help it can get as Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin likes to spread out on offense with multiple receivers. Johnny Manziel picked apart the Alabama secondary early in last year's game, scoring two touchdowns through the air in the Tide's lone loss of the season.
Drake's status, though, is still uncertain. Many have wondered how someone who was expected to be the No. 2 tailback entering fall camp would suddenly drop to scout team and not travel for the season opener, but sources inside the program indicate the move was the result of a deeper pool of running backs with the addition of four talented backs in the 2013 recruiting class.

"I think all the running backs are really good, the freshmen, and I think they'll all be able to contribute," Saban said on Aug. 13. "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."

Tenpenny and Henry both took snaps in the season opener. Tenpenny ran the ball six times for 31 yards, while Henry, the No. 1 athlete in his class, carried it just once for 3 yards.

On Tuesday, Saban scoffed at a reporter's question about the young running backs getting playing time against Virginia Tech, saying that he didn't see enough to take Yeldon, Fowler or Hart out of the game.

"I saw that they have ability and potential and they need time to develop so that they're comfortable and confident in doing what they're supposed to do and they can do it fast," he said. "They did make good contributions on special teams, both of them. And we need guys to be able to do that, and running backs are great guys to do that because they have size and speed and they're athletic."

How that translates to Drake getting carries is up for debate, though him playing on special teams is a strong possibility. Should Alabama stick with a three-man rotation at running back, it could prove difficult for Drake to break through considering how far he's dropped.
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.

Alabama Intel: Wrapping up camp 

August, 23, 2013
8/23/13
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Camp formally ended for the Crimson Tide on Monday when the fall semester began on the University of Alabama campus. And while studies have gotten in the way of the early morning practices and two-a-days players had become accustomed to, the mood of preseason camp lingered for much of the week, as players fought to climb the depth chart and position changes remained in effect.

Preparation for Virginia Tech didn't begin until Thursday afternoon, when the second half of the brief media viewing portion of practice came with the condition that cameras not film the proceedings. For the first time, there was something coaches weren't willing to show the outside world.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsComing out of preseason practice, Blake Sims is the clear cut No. 2 quarterback for the Crimson Tide.
But even so, there was plenty to report, and in the final edition of Alabama Intel we'll try to do just that.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Every few snaps there's a different alignment and a different personnel package is shuffled onto the practice field. Nick Saban looks on in silence, straw hat atop his head, eyes narrowed as he looks over his defensive layout. The ball is snapped and the pieces shift like marble on a chessboard. The 61-year-old head coach of the Crimson Tide makes his hand into a fist, resting it on his chin as he thinks.

The season opener against Virginia Tech is less than two weeks away and Alabama's first-team defense is coming into view. The combinations Saban will employ are numerous, mixing and matching his way to the best group of 11 on the field in any given situation. There are a few common denominators: All-American C.J. Mosley rarely leaves the field at inside linebacker, Deion Belue and John Fulton have been regulars at cornerback, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has played the vast majority of reps at free safety, falling back like a center fielder would in baseball.

[+] EnlargeDeAndrew White
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesSophomore Landon Collins (26) is making a strong case for playing time at strong safety.
Who will start opposite him at strong safety, however, is in question. Nick Perry is the most veteran option, a senior who started four games last year and played in all 14 contests. Junior Vinnie Sunseri is making a run at the job, too. He has made big plays ever since he was a freshman in 2011. And don't forget about Landon Collins. The true sophomore and former No. 1-rated safety in his class looks to be worth every one of his five stars.

"Landon's at the top of the peak right now," Clinton-Dix said of the burgeoning youngster he has helped develop under Saban. "He's doing very well, run conflict, pass conflict, he can cover it. He's very physical. So he's doing a great job for us right now."

Collins might not begin the season a starter, but by year's end he could be right on Sunseri and Perry's heels. As Clint0n-Dix said early in fall camp, the competition has been anything but cordial.

"It's nothing friendly," he said. "It's camp. It's everybody by themselves, just trying to compete for a job. All of us are great. You just gotta find that one inch you can to pull ahead of someone else."

After three weeks of trying, there hasn't been much separation. All three have seen the field, albeit in a variety of ways. Sunseri has played the most strong safety of the bunch, but he has dropped down and played nickel, or "star" as Saban describes it, allowing either Perry or Collins to play alongside Clinton-Dix on the back end of the defense.

Depending on the situation, all four safeties can be on the field at the same time.

"The way the defense is set up we have a lot of DBs who play at one time," Clinton-Dix said. "We have seven on the field at one time, six, five, you can play with them a lot, so you just find your role on this team."

Jarrick Williams, often a forgotten man at safety thanks to a season-ending knee injury last year, has joined in on the action as well. With Geno Smith suspended, Williams has been playing with the first team some at star.

As Mosley put it, Williams has his "chance to shine."

"Jarrick Williams has had a fantastic camp so far and is going to get some opportunity to play this year," Saban said. "We’re excited about it. He really feels comfortable and confident in what he’s doing. He’s playing in nickel and dime and also in safety, so he’s got a lot of multiple roles on the team and he’s really done a good job."

If Williams becomes a regular with the first team, there's no telling how many safeties will play on defense for the Tide this season. The cornerbacks might get jealous.

But if one thing is certain, it's this: Saban will devise a way to make the most of what he has. Pawn or knight, rook or bishop, he doesn't care. If he has the pieces, he's going to play the game the way he sees fit.

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Bama DB Landon Collins in the Film Room
Alabama DB Landon Collins joined David Greene in the SEC Film Room to review plays.
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