Alabama Crimson Tide: Nick Saban

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At first, Nick Saban scoffed at the idea of his defensive line having good depth. After a lecture on the merits of perception, he said he wasn’t at all happy with the group. Alabama might appear loaded, but the veteran head coach wasn’t interested in how his defensive line appeared.

“I’m not satisfied with the way any of them are playing, if you want to know the truth about it,” he told reporters on March 31.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Ivory, Jonathan Allen
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith a new coach, Brandon Ivory (left), Jonathan Allen and the rest of Alabama's defensive line are focused on improving their pass-rushing abilities.
And then people actually listened.

“I’ve been getting asked that everywhere I go, like we’ve got a bad defensive line,” he said a week and a half later. “We don’t have a bad defensive line. They’re doing fine.”

So which is it? The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

“They're improving,” Saban said following Saturday’s scrimmage. “But we're still not striking up front, playing as physical, converting pass rush, getting the kind of execution that we need, doing the little things right, especially when we're doing stunts and pressures.

“So I like the way they're working and they made improvement, but I think there's certainly a lot more that we can look for.”

While Saban’s feelings toward the defensive line have wavered throughout the spring, the players themselves appear largely pleased with their progress. They have a new coach (Bo Davis), new teammates (D.J. Pettway, Jarran Reed) and a new mandate (rush the passer).

Losing former defensive line coach Chris Rumph to Texas hurt initially, said sophomore defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson. “It was a shock to hear,” he said. But then he got to experience the energy and enthusiasm Davis brings.

“He’s a pretty fired-up guy on the field,” Tomlinson said, describing Davis as being more hands on as well. “He makes us be aggressive out there.”

Veteran nose guard Brandon Ivory agreed: “Davis is pushing us to the limit. ... He brings a lot of energy. He’s always fired up, hyped. I say that’s a good thing to have.”

The hope for Davis is that a renewed sense of energy translates into production. Last season Alabama ranked a paltry 81st nationally in sacks (22) and tied for 94th in tackles for loss per game (5.3). This season Davis is asking his players to read less and react more. In other words, he wants them to play fast.

“Last year we didn’t get enough sacks across the defensive line, we didn’t feel like,” Tomlinson said. “So this year our main focus is getting to the quarterback. So we’re trying to be more aggressive off the ball and more explosive.”

Ivory isn’t the pass-rushing prototype at 300-plus pounds, but he’s seen the linemen around him change into a group that’s better equipped to chase down the quarterback.

“We’ve got guys that are pretty good at rushing the passer like D.J. Pettway, Jonathan Allen, more smaller guys and quicker who can get after the quarterback more,” Ivory explained.

Maybe more so than in years past, Alabama has the “quick-twitch” defensive linemen Saban covets. Pettway and Allen certainly fit that mold. So do Tomlinson, Dee Liner and incoming freshman Da'Shawn Hand, a five-star prospect from Virginia. Even 320-pounder A'Shawn Robinson will be an asset in the pass-rushing department. He finished first on the team in sacks (5.5) as a true freshman last season.

But don’t run down the roster with Saban. Don’t tell him what the defensive line looks like on paper.

Maybe listen to the players themselves, however.

“We’ve been having our ups and downs,” Tomlinson said, “but throughout the spring I think we’re going to come together as a defensive line and be a great defensive line all the way across the front.”

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April, 15, 2014
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The tax man cometh ...
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Down 7-3 early in the second quarter against LSU, Alabama’s offense needed a spark. The No. 1 team in the nation was in need of a big play, and it was seldom-used but talented freshman O.J. Howard who delivered.

The 6-foot-6 tight end split out wide before the snap. He ran a deep slant, caught the pass over the middle and outran the entire defense en route to a 52-yard touchdown.

“I saw a seam, so I was like I’m running full speed no matter what,” Howard said, recalling the play from last fall. “Those guys didn’t think I was going to be that fast because I was a tight end, so they were jogging. When they tried to speed up, it was too late.”

[+] EnlargeOJ Howard
RVR Photos/USA TODAY SportsO.J. Howard showed flashes of his immense talent last season. He plans on making even more of an impact this season.
It was the play that highlighted Howard’s freshman year, and if only for a moment, it showed the potential that everybody raved about when the former ESPN 300 star signed with the Crimson Tide in February 2013. That potential was held in check for the most part, though, as he finished the year with just 14 catches for 269 yards and two touchdowns.

Fans blamed the former offensive coordinator for not getting Howard more involved. They pointed fingers at quarterback AJ McCarron who tended to favor the veteran wide receivers on the team. But in the end, it falls back on the freshman.

“Maybe there was some things he didn’t do right,” said O.J.’s father, Kareem Howard. “Maybe he didn’t get open in time. Maybe he was a step off. Maybe he took a step that away and he should’ve went right. That all comes with time and experience, though.”

As Howard enters his second spring with Alabama, there’s a new sense of confidence. He’s no longer scared to make a mistake. He knows what he’s supposed to do, and he knows the expectations that the staff has for him. The stats from the first two scrimmages haven’t been a good reflection, but he believes he’s playing faster this spring.

“Last spring, I came in early,” Howard said. “I was a new guy. I wasn’t playing fast because I didn’t really know what to do yet. Now I know what to do, and when you know what to do, you’re going to play really fast. It makes the game a lot easier.”

Howard recorded three catches for 38 yards in Saturday’s scrimmage, but the key to an expanded role on the team won’t be tracked by how many how catches or yards he has this spring. It’s more about how he improves as a blocker in Alabama’s run-first offense.

“O.J. is a very talented guy,” head coach Nick Saban said. “I think he needs to continue to improve in some areas because he’s a great pass receiver, but we continue to work on trying to improve him as a blocker and get him to pay attention to detail and the importance of that part of the game as well.”

It’s a part of his game that Howard has worked tirelessly at since arriving in Tuscaloosa. In high school, he was typically the one with the ball in his hands, so blocking was foreign to him. It was something he had to learn on the fly once he got to Alabama.

“I knew when I got here I was going to learn to block,” Howard said. “We were a run-first team, so blocking is a big thing here. I knew I was going to block.

“We work on it every day with Coach [Bobby] Williams, so every day I’m getting better at blocking. Brian [Vogler], he’s a really good blocker, so I learn things from him also. He’s teaching me some things, and I’m taking it and running with it.”

With Howard, the potential is there. The whole country saw it last November against LSU. Now it’s about putting it together for a full season.

“He knows he belongs now,” Howard’s father said. “He knows he can compete at that level.”
The injury to Eddie Jackson is still reverberating through Alabama’s roster. The promising young cornerback, who was in position to start as a sophomore, tore his ACL during last weekend’s scrimmage, forcing him to miss the remainder of spring camp. On Tuesday, he was seen in crutches awkwardly stepping into a crimson SUV that carried him away from the football facilities where his teammates were practicing.

With Jackson gone, others have had to step up.

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

So where does that leave the Crimson Tide?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Jackson gone, the time is now. Smith will be back at practice soon, but there’s no telling who will be next to go down during this final week of spring practice. If someone is sidelined, it might hurt the depth chart as a whole, but it will help certain players in particular.

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April, 11, 2014
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Spring games galore this weekend! Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt will be in action on Saturday. But news isn't just on the field; there's plenty off the field, too:
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- “Man, your boy looked good in the Sugar Bowl,” they tell Bobby Ramsay.

Ramsay has heard that phrase, he said, about 150 times since January. He’s heard it from fans around town in Yulee, Fla. He’s heard it from fellow high school coaches at clinics. He’s heard it from college coaches who have stopped through scouting talent.

If Ramsay turned on the radio, flipped on the TV or simply walked the streets here in Tuscaloosa, he’d hear about his former running back even more. In fact, he might be overwhelmed by the number of people saying how good Derrick Henry looked for Alabama in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma: 161 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. When Henry broke his 43-yard touchdown run the fourth quarter, Ramsay said he received something like 18 text messages in under 30 seconds.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Henry's breakout performance in the Sugar Bowl changed everything for the Alabama running back, but Henry is just focused on getting better.
It’s easy to see why people got excited. The run had the look of a seminal moment for the former five-star athlete who set the national career rushing yards record at Yulee High. The 6-foot-3, 243-pound talent finally showed on a national stage why he was so highly sought after. After carrying the ball minimally throughout the regular season, he blew people away in the bowl game.

All told, Henry ran for 382 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman. And now? Despite being the backup to T.J. Yeldon, he's listed on the sports betting website Bovada as 28-to-1 to win the Heisman Trophy, ahead of Dak Prescott, Duke Johnson and Myles Jack.

Too big? Please

It’s almost laughable to think about it now, but for a long time people questioned whether Henry was cut out to be a running back. He was too big, they thought, too bulky to fit through running lanes. He was too tall to have the proper pad level.

And then there was the Sugar Bowl.

Somewhere in Yulee, Ramsay smiled. What he’d seen in high school and what he saw in bits and pieces throughout the season was showing up on a much larger, unavoidable scale: Henry was meant to play running back.

“I told some people, ‘Man, that looked just like high school. Those DBs didn’t want to tackle him any more than the DBs who played here,’” Ramsay said. “The first touchdown he scored, I was joking, ‘That kid from Oklahoma, he’s running with Derrick so he won’t get yelled at when he goes back to the bench.’ He wasn’t going to try and get him on the ground.”

No one wants to tackle Henry, not even his teammates.

Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland, no slouch at 6-2 and 259 pounds, described his meetings with Henry during practice as both “mean” and “peaceful” because they can’t take one another to the ground.

“He's a big guy,” he said of Henry. “A lot of people are scared to tackle him.”

Said Henry: “During the Oklahoma game, I could tell that they didn't want to tackle me. I just kept the mindset of being physical and keep running hard so everything will open up.”

Growing pains

Henry says one of his goals is to be a starter, but for now he’s “focused on getting better and becoming a complete player.”

Dobbs Not getting that much playing time really taught me a lot. It humbled me. Everything isn't just going to come to you. You have to work for it.

-- Alabama RB Derrick Henry
A year ago that might not have been the case.

Like most blue-chip recruits, Henry first had to deal with reality. Though his talent was undeniable, there were things he hadn’t yet mastered. At Yulee High, he didn’t have to block, pass protect or catch passes out of the backfield. Ramsay only needed him to run the ball. But at Alabama, he wouldn’t see the field until he could do it all.

“Not getting that much playing time really taught me a lot,” Henry said. There wasn’t a game during the regular season where he carried the ball more than six times. “It humbled me. Everything isn't just going to come to you. You have to work for it. You have to take time. This is college football so it's more technique. You have to put more effort into by watching film and really paying attention to the little things”

Saban said the light came on for Henry in the lead up to the Sugar Bowl. Like a lot of freshman, the chance for extra practice time paid off.

Now he’s taking that momentum and running with it.

"Derrick Henry has had a fabulous spring," Saban said on Wednesday. "He picked up right where he left off at bowl practice last year. He works really hard. He runs really hard. He plays with a lot of toughness. He gets it."

Everything has changed, nothing has changed

In a way, Henry is built to be the center of attention. At Yulee High, he was the biggest thing going. As early as the ninth grade, Ramsay said, “They could play football for 500 years in our county and there’s going to be no one better than him.”

“I think it’s helping him now,” Ramsay said. “They protected him from that as a freshman. Now he’s going to have a little more on his plate. … It’s crazy because he hasn’t played a ton but I’ve got people from Alabama, and these are people who have been around the program for years, who have said they haven’t ever seen a guy with this much popularity.

“In a town where every other street is named after Paul Bryant, for someone to say that is big.”

Has Henry changed? Not according to Ramsay: “Nothing. Same guy. Nothing different.”

“Offseason has been good,” Henry said in the most understated way possible. “Coming back from the Sugar Bowl and getting back to lifting weights and doing 4th Quarter [Program], it's been going well. Just trying to get better.”

That simple, singular focus will suit him well. As spring practice wraps up and the march toward the regular season intensifies, so will the scrutiny.

What will aid him most will be his work ethic, the same determination that helped him get through the lows of last season and reach the high of the Sugar Bowl.

“Right now he’s in a very comfortable place,” Ramsay said. “Initially all freshmen go through the process of being in a new place and having a new way of doing things. One thing with Derrick is he’s never let it affect his effort level. ... Every time I talked to [running backs coach Burton Burns] about it, he’d say, ‘Oh man, We want all the guys to be like Derrick. He’s pulling G.A.’s aside to work on things extra after practice, he’s getting extra film work.’”

A moment later, Ramsay put an exclamation point on the subject.

“He’s not expecting to have rose pedals thrown at his feet,” he said of Henry.

Ramsay’s boy looked awfully good in one game, but both he and Henry understand that last season was only the first step. What comes next is a whole different set of challenges.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Perry isn’t doing anything to temper expectations for the Alabama secondary. The senior safety missed all but the first two games last season, and what he saw from the sidelines clearly didn’t suit him. Back from injury, he’s looking for a marked improvement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perry is one of the few familiar faces still around. It’s up to this season’s crop of players to re-establish the standard.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Score scrimmage No. 1 in favor of Blake Sims.

Yes, he’s something of a work in progress at quarterback. And, yes, it’s fair to say that his skill set doesn’t quite fit what Alabama and coach Nick Saban typically do on offense. But when it came down to proving it on the football field Saturday, Sims did exactly that, completing a team-high 16 of 23 passes for 227 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims has accounted for just 244 passing yards in his Alabama career.
Considering only two touchdowns were thrown during the two-hour scrimmage, that’s saying something. His 70 percent completion percentage, no matter how you slice it, is promising, considering his career average is less than 59 percent.

So maybe, just maybe, we’re seeing Sims mature as a quarterback. He’s still a 6-foot former running back and wide receiver with a sometimes awkward throwing motion, but until he’s officially out of the race to replace AJ McCarron, there’s no counting him out. He’s easily the most experienced option and the most dangerous with the football in his hands.

“There are two plays with Blake: the one they call on offense and then when that one doesn't go right, it's the one he makes with his feet,” senior safety Nick Perry said. “We've seen that in college football and even in the NFL with players like Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel. He's a dangerous player.”

RG3 and Johnny Football, Sims is not. Put simply, he’s a senior hoping that opportunity and maturity converge at the perfect moment.

Alabama coaches know what Sims can do running the football. All told, he’s carried the ball 67 times for 355 yards and two touchdowns in his career. The real question, though, is whether he can stay in the pocket, set his feet and read a defense. He has a history of being erratic throwing the football, but has that improved with time and the added motivation of competition? Saturday’s scrimmage seemed to indicate a move in a positive direction.

Saban didn’t say much about the play of each quarterback, but he did note that Sims has had a “really good spring” and has “taken some command.”

But the job isn’t guaranteed to anyone. Along with Sims, Alec Morris and Cooper Bateman are in the mix.

“Those three guys have sort of emerged as the three guys that look like they’re most ready to play,” Saban said. “Nobody’s disappointed in anybody else. We actually feel like our freshman (David Cornwell), who is coming off of an injury, has a lot of potential. He’s just not 100 percent healthy yet.

“So we’re pleased with the progress those guys have made.”

Sims is clearly doing everything he can to separate himself. Instead of going to the beach and relaxing during spring break last week, he went to Florida and trained with quarterback coach Ken Mastrole.

The two worked on technical aspects like footwork, being on time with the football and reading coverages, Sims said, but it went beyond that. As much as he wants to improve as a passer, he’s hoping to become more of a leader as well.

“[Mastrole] was a quarterback, so he gave me the knowledge of how to pick up your teammates and go at them so you’re not a nagging quarterback,” Sims said. “You’re supposed to be a motivation and keep them positive and keep a great mindset with them.”

In other words, Sims isn’t letting the heat of competition get to him. When asked about soon-to-be Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, Sims said he loved his personality and looked forward to welcoming him "with open arms."

“We're not thinking about the battle against each other,” Sims said. “We're just trying to think of how we can make Bama the best way they can be, and how can we have good communication with the players if we're with the ones or we're with the twos or with the threes. We're just trying to play harder and make each group better.”

Of course, Sims isn’t getting ahead of himself, but admitted, “It’s very fun to see where your ability can take you in life.”

“It would be nice,” said Sims of potentially being named the starter. “It would be nice for me and I think I would like it. Watching AJ do the great thing that he did at the University of Alabama -- if I am the one that’s chosen to be the quarterback at Alabama, I’d like to keep it going.”

He might be the more unorthodox option, but if Sims keeps playing like he did Saturday and continues improving as a passer, he'll have a shot to do just that. The competition won't be decided until the fall, but Sims is off to the right start.
Brandon Allen. Nick Marshall. Bo Wallace.

That’s it. That’s the list.

Only three quarterbacks who started double-digit games last season return to the SEC this fall, and one of them isn’t even guaranteed to be a starter.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLes Miles and Nick Saban are in no hurry to name their starting QBs for the fall.
Everywhere you turn in this league, there’s a quarterback competition underway, from Alabama to Georgia, Arkansas to Kentucky, LSU to Texas A&M. Maty Mauk is surely the presumptive starter at Missouri, but even he's not a sure thing. Gary Pinkel says he wants competition, never mind that there were times when Mauk looked better than former starter James Franklin.

But not every coach in the SEC approaches the quarterback position the same way. A quick glance across the league shows a variety of opinions about how to pick a starter.

Mark Stoops is the most urgent-minded coach of the bunch, and given the inconsistency Kentucky had at quarterback last season, it’s easy to understand why. Entering his second season, Stoops said: “I’d love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means everyone is in the mix. Maxwell Smith can’t practice while he recovers from shoulder surgery, but Jalen Whitlow, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and even true freshman Drew Barker are in the hunt.

Barker, a four-star prospect according to ESPN, “has a very good opportunity to take control of it,” Stoops said, praising his maturity for such a young quarterback.

“He’s a guy [who] has high expectations [for] himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position,” Stoops said. “He’s excited about the opportunity, and I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Bret Bielema isn’t outwardly putting a timetable on anything at Arkansas, but he’s encouraging everyone to compete. Allen started 11 games last season but was up and down, with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Bielema was about as no-nonsense as any coach gets about the situation.

“In theory, the first time we yell out for the [first string, Allen is] going to step out there,” Bielema said before the start of spring practice. “But really, in our program, the competition brings the best out of people.

“So B.A. is going to be the first guy in with the ones, but there will be other guys who get opportunity,” he continued. “Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.”

Similar to the case at Kentucky, Bielema isn’t counting out his true freshman. Rafe Peavey, another highly-regarded four-star prospect, is going to be allowed to sink or swim. Bielema loves his talent and praised him as a “football junkie.” But he’s not pampering the rookie.

“It’s no different between the right tackle or the quarterback or the safety,” Bielema said. “It’s all about what a freshman can handle, how they adjust to adversity and how they enjoy success.

“The quarterback gets a lot of attention. They’re usually really pretty, really smart, and everybody likes them. But in reality, they’re like everybody else. Those that play well will play and those that don’t will sit.”

While Bielema and Stoops are anxious for a battle, other coaches around the league are more inclined to sit back and wait.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWho will replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's QB? Kevin Sumlin isn't saying anything right now.
LSU coach Les Miles said he has a good sense of the competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. “But it always plays out,” he said, harkening back to when Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell duked it out eight years ago. It looked like Flynn had the job in hand after winning a bowl game and watching Russell come into camp out of shape in 2006. But Flynn's body faltered down the stretch and Russell kept going, eventually winning the job.

"I want all the quarterbacks to know that it’s going to be given to no one,” Miles said. “[It’s] earned by the one that plays."

Texas A&M and Alabama are taking similar approaches to replacing Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron. In fact, both Kevin Sumlin and Nick Saban are somewhat defiant about holding the cards close to the vest.

Sumlin has gloated before that when people assumed Jameill Showers would beat out Manziel in 2013, "I didn't name a starter [after spring]; y'all did."

So while we watch Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen jockey for position, don’t expect a starter to be named until close to the season.

Saban, for his part, doesn’t want to hear anything about it. His quarterback competition is essentially on hold until the fall, when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Before the start of spring practice, Saban laid out his plan, saying, “Let me be very clear about this: We’re not going to be in a hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”

“You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback,” he added, “and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.’ ”

The only place in the SEC that doesn’t have to be patient in the matter is South Carolina. Coach Steve Spurrier named Dylan Thompson the starter well before spring practice ever began.

Replacing Connor Shaw won’t be easy, but Spurrier said that Thompson was the guy for the job, no question. A fifth-year senior with plenty of in-game experience, Spurrier didn’t have a doubt in his mind.

“I didn’t know there was any question about it,” he said. “Someone said, ‘You’re just naming him the starting quarterback?’ Well, I just said, ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t we?’ ”

Spurrier did it his way. Saban and Sumlin are doing it theirs. Stoops is anxious, and Bielema and Pinkel are only interested in the competition.

Recruiting a quarterback is the furthest thing from an exact science. Finding out who’s ready to start is even more inexact.

This might be the season of new quarterbacks in the SEC, but everywhere there’s a different sense of which way the wind blows.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It started out innocently enough as Alabama coach Nick Saban ribbed the media on Monday about returning from spring break. He acted surprised when one reporter said she didn't take the time off, noting sarcastically how, "You really appreciate them when you work hard."

The jab was obvious as he gave a sly look around the room as if to say that hard work was a foreign concept to the press. One writer quipped, "Why are you looking down here?"

A smirk from Saban: "I don't know. I'm wondering."

The playful mood lasted a hiccup longer and then it was back to business as Saban said how his players were starting to worry too much about the depth chart, followed by a news flash: “We really don’t have a depth chart.”

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsFighting expectations and speculation during spring practice is nothing new to Nick Saban.
Later on came the question that really set him off.

Saban can talk about X’s and O's all day. The problem is there’s hardly anything concrete about spring practice. There’s no game film, no stat book, no players of the week. Without a depth chart, there’s only who’s getting better and who’s getting worse. And without results, that’s a matter of opinion.

But Saban isn’t fond of conjecture. He’s even less fond of appearances, apparently.

“What does appear mean?” Saban said, responding to a question about the perceived depth of his defensive line. “It just means you’ve dreamed about it and it’s there?”

A quick clarification before he fired back: “What it looks like on paper? We’ve never seen these guys play or seen them take on an SEC lineman. But it appears.”

He continued, putting a point on the matter: “That’s how we form public opinion because something appears to be that way and everyone believes it.”

Such was a sneak peek into the mind of Saban. There’s no room in there for what could be. There’s a standard he’s trying to uphold and anything that takes him away from that -- say, speculation -- isn’t tolerated.

It’s an odd conundrum to have a program that loathes appearances while at the same time being such an object of speculation. It’s like a celebrity shunning the paparazzi. You want to avoid them but they’re always there.

Alabama is nonetheless wrought with pressure from the outside. Inside the bubble of the football offices it’s all business, but everywhere around there’s immense expectations and boundless conjecture about wins, losses, championships and future stars.

Saban might claim to not have a depth chart, but every day is a constant battle for fans to determine who the starters will be on a team that loses two starting offensive linemen, two veteran receivers, two high-profile linebackers and three key contributors in the secondary. Oh, and there’s also the small matter of AJ McCarron leaving a vacancy at starting quarterback -- just don’t ask Saban about that race because he’ll tell you to hold your horses and be patient.

Take for instance the question about the defensive line. Saban might not see his group in a good light today, but when you look at the depth Alabama has up front on defense, it’s scary. A’Shawn Robinson was one of the most impressive rookies in the SEC last season. He’s joined by Jonathan Allen, another true freshman who was promising off the bench. Brandon Ivory is back at nose guard, Darren Lake returns as his backup and there are a number of options to bring in the rotation around them. Dalvin Tomlinson, when healthy, has the potential to be a game changer. And we haven’t even mentioned the return of former Freshman All-SEC choice D.J. Pettway and the eventual arrival of five-star Da’Shawn Hand.

List those names all you want, just don’t expect Saban to sing their praise. It’s simply not his way to buy into the hype.

“I’m not satisfied with the way any of them are playing, if you want to know the truth about it," Saban said of his D-line. "They’ve got to be more aggressive, physical, play with better leverage, hold the point better, rush the passer better. I didn’t think that last year was one of our best years up front, and even though we have a couple new players competing and Dalvin Tomlinson back, I think all of them have a ways to go. A’Shawn Robinson has a lot of ability, but I think we need to get him in shape and he’s got to play with better focus and intensity down in and down out to be more consistent.

"So defensively we have a ways to go to improve to get back to the level and our standard of what we like to play here.”

Though sometimes it feels like Saban is constantly fighting with reporters, he’s not. The speculation extends far beyond the walls of the media room and the pages of newspapers. It’s all the talk that drives Saban nuts because it has a way of reaching his players, inflating their egos long before they’ve earned their stripes. Remember Saban’s comment about the depth chart? That came unsolicited, a direct shot at his team one floor below in the locker room.

What Saban is fighting is the standard. While others are taking time off, he’s busy worrying about the next move, not the next question about how things appear.

How it looks on paper? He’d rather see how it looks with his eyes, and then he’ll get back to you.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Like a lot of position battles going on during spring practice in Tuscaloosa, Ala., -- hello, quarterbacks -- the starting five up front for the Crimson Tide likely won’t be decided anytime soon.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesCenter Ryan Kelly is one of three returning starters for Alabama. The Tide is auditioning several youngsters at left tackle and right guard.
Sure, Ryan Kelly returns at center, Austin Shepherd is back at right tackle and Arie Kouandjio remains at left guard, but that’s only slightly more than half the equation. The second half of the Kouandjio Bros., left tackle Cyrus, is off to a carer in the NFL, as is veteran right guard Anthony Steen, who racked up more than 35 starts in his career. Replacing those two stalwarts won’t be an easy, much less quick, task.

The good news for Alabama is that this isn’t the first time coach Nick Saban and his staff have been through this. Just last season offensive line coach Mario Cristobal had the unenviable job of replacing three All-SEC caliber linemen: Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. And do you remember what happened? The 2013 line actually one-upped the previous season's line in some respects. The line allowed six fewer sacks and also saw its rushes for zero or negative yards -- a good indicator of the push a line generates -- fall from 91 to 79, vaulting the Tide to fourth nationally in that category.

But, of course, there’s room to improve. Just ask Kelly.

“Communication is the most important thing,” he explained. “All 11 guys have to be on the same page. ... It starts with the offensive line. One of the things we’re trying to emphasize is get up to the ball, get down, get set. Last year, look at it, we were running the clock down to five, four seconds every time. The faster that we can get to the line, get set, let the quarterback look at what he’s got to look at, the more time we can have and we’re not rushing to make calls last-minute.”

Does that mean Alabama is turning to a more up-tempo offense under new coordinator Lane Kiffin? It depends whom you ask.

Brian Vogler, a senior tight end, said that he thought the offense would stay similar to years past, relying on the “mauler” style it was founded on. Kelly, however, asked the question: “Anytime we can run more plays it’s good for an offense, right?” He said he anticipates “a lot” of change this season, including new plays and new formations.

“Obviously, we want to practice faster every day,” Kelly continued. “As as the spread offense, stuff like that, it’s still the same. We’ve just been wanting to get more reps in practice. Obviously, reps make us better.”

More repetitions will be key for the newcomers on the offensive line, not to mention the communication among all five potential starters.

Through the first four practices, the first-team line features Kelly, Shepherd and Kouandjio at their usual positions, with Alphonse Taylor added at right guard and Leon Brown at left tackle. The two combined for 17 appearances and one start last season, the lone start coming from Brown when Shepherd was lost for the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.

Though he can play inside, Brown might be better suited at tackle given his length (6-foot-6, 313 pounds).

Taylor, however, has all the earmarks of a punishing guard. At 6-5, 335 pounds and a low center of gravity, he looks vaguely like Warmack when he shuffles upfield in running situations.

“If you look at how big he is, he’s actually really athletic, can bend really well and he’s got a lot of power,” Kelly said. “Another young guy, doesn’t have a whole lot of experience, obviously, playing games. But I think this spring’s going to be really big for him.”

But the most intriguing prospect of all has to be Cameron Robinson, a five-star prospect and the No. 1 offensive lineman in the 2014 class. He has everything you look for in an offensive tackle: size, strength, athleticism. The 6-6, 325-pound freshman from Louisiana has shown some growing pains since enrolling in January, but he has also shown flashes of the talent that made him such a coveted recruit.

With a spring to learn, an offseason to prepare and an open position at left tackle to compete for come fall, don’t sleep on Robinson.

“He’s got a lot of ability,” Kelly said of Robinson. “He’s a big guy, can bend really well, long arms. Obviously he came into an offense where we kind of transitioning into a new style or new plays, stuff like that. So he never really learned the old one. Anytime you’re coming from high school to college it’s going to take a while to kind of get acclimated to it. Older guys have been helping him along the way, kind of showing him the ropes, because it can be eye-opening at times, coming from high school to college.”

Saban called Robinson “a young guy that’s learning and getting better every day.” But along the same line, Saban said of the entire line that he wasn’t “satisfied with where they are, but pleased with the progress they’re making.”

In other words, the line is very much an ongoing process.

“The depth chart means nothing right now,” Shepherd said. “The depth chart won't mean anything until we play West Virginia.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Maybe Dillon Lee wasn’t ready for the moment so soon. As a still green-under-the-collar rookie, he played in Alabama’s season-opener against Michigan two years ago. The former four-star recruit wasted no time making his presence felt, making his first career tackle and then intercepting a pass in the final two minutes of a blowout win that eventually propelled the Crimson Tide to another national championship.

At the time it looked as if Lee was destined to make an impact as a freshman, mixing in some sneaky athleticism into a group of linebackers that already featured veterans C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson. But time was playing tricks on us. Lee didn't make another tackle all season. He played in the first four games and showed up on the participation chart only four more times over the final 10 games.

[+] EnlargeDillon Lee
AP Photo/Butch DillDillon Lee appears ready to be a starter on Alabama's defense.
To make matters worse, his immaturity showed when he and fellow freshman Ryan Anderson were sent home before the BCS National Championship game for missing curfew. Both players would have to work their way out of the doghouse.

Lee, by all accounts, did just that this past season, playing in all 13 games while earning the respect of his teammates and coaches. He was named special teams player of the week by the coaching staff following a victory over Ole Miss. Shortly after, Mosley praised him for being a “diverse player” who can play inside linebacker as well as on the edge. He called Lee “physical” and able to “hold the point of attack.”

Defensive end Ed Stinson called the 6-foot-4, 242-pound Lee “crazy.”

“In a good way,” he explained. “He works hard. He doesn’t ever hold back. He goes hard every time he gets in.”

Fellow linebacker Denzel Devall, who came in with Lee and started all 13 games at outside linebacker as a sophomore last season, echoed his former teammate's sentiments, noting Lee’s talent as well as his attitude.

“Dillon is very versatile,” Devall said. “Great guy. Very physical. Just an athlete. He's smart, and I believe he'll come in and do a great job for us.”

Though it’s still early in the spring, it looks as if Lee will play much more as a junior. While there’s no depth chart -- don’t even ask coach Nick Saban about one -- there is a big vacancy at linebacker where starting jobs at inside and outside linebacker are up for grabs. Lee figures to be best suited to play strong-side linebacker (Sam), where he was No. 2 on last season's depth chart behind Adrian Hubbard, who has since moved on to the NFL.

Lee, who has shown he can handle both positions on the field as well as his responsibilities away from it, could very well end up coming fill circle and start Alabama’s season-opener against West Virginia on Aug. 30 in Atlanta.

“I think Dillon Lee will be a really good player for us,” Saban said. “I think he has a good understanding of what we want him to do. He runs well. He's got good size and plays good block protection, especially at the line of scrimmage.

“We feel like he can be a very good player and competing for a starting job right now. We're confident that if he wins that job, he'll be able to do an outstanding job for us.”
The Madness is all around us, and while basketball is having all the fun, we thought we’d give football a go at the craziness that this month embodies.

While we’ll have to wait a few months until a playoff takes over college football, we thought we’d have a little fun with our own SEC tournament now that the first weekend of games have concluded in this year’s NCAA tournament.

As a tribute to the Big Dance, Chris Low and I have seeded all 14 SEC teams in a tournament of our own to crown our rightful spring SEC champion(s). We’ll spice things up by having different seedings for all 14 teams in our individual tournaments. We have different sites, the top two seeds will receive an opening-round bye and we’ll have an upset or two.

Our first round will feature the No. 3 seed facing the No. 14 seed and the No. 4 seed playing the No. 13 seed, etc.

I’ll debut my bracket first, while Chris will have his prepared later Monday.

After countless hours of deliberation with the selection committee, namely my cat Meeko, here’s what my seedings look like:
1. Auburn
2. Alabama
3. Georgia
4. Ole Miss
5. Missouri
6. South Carolina
7. Mississippi State
8. Texas A&M
9. LSU
10. Florida
11. Tennessee
12. Vanderbilt
13. Arkansas
14. Kentucky
FIRST ROUND

In Nashville, Tenn.

No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 14 Kentucky: The Bulldogs might be without Aaron Murray for the first time in a long time, but Hutson Mason has plenty of offensive options to pick from. Not having Todd Gurley as an option hurts, but Georgia has enough to get past the Cats in Nashville. Winner: Georgia

No. 6 South Carolina vs. No. 11 Tennessee: You'd better believe the Gamecocks are still fuming after that loss to the Vols that eventually cost them a chance to go to Atlanta for the SEC title game last fall. A lot is different for the Gamecocks, but Dylan Thompson works some magic late to avoid the first upset of the tournament. Winner: South Carolina

In Kansas City, Mo.

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Arkansas: The Rebels could be a dark horse to win the SEC this fall, and with so much talent coming back on both sides, Ole Miss could make a nice run in this tournament. Arkansas just has way too many questions on both sides to pull the shocker. Winner: Ole Miss

No. 5 Missouri vs. No. 12 Vanderbilt: Ah, the classic 12-5 upset. There's always one. But the Tigers still have a lot of firepower returning on offense, a stout defensive line and are playing in front of what should be a home crowd. Also, James Franklin and Jordan Matthews are both gone. Winner: Missouri

In Tampa, Fla.

No. 7 Mississippi State vs. No. 10 Florida: The Bulldogs are a team on the rise after winning their last three to close the 2013 season. They return a lot from their two-deep and could have a special player in quarterback Dak Prescott. The Gators suffered a rash of injuries, but have quarterback Jeff Driskel back with an offense that fits his skills more. Playing close to home will give the Gators an advantage and the defense will make a stop late to pull our first upset. Winner: Florida

No. 8 Texas A&M vs. No. 9 LSU: Both teams are breaking in new quarterbacks and playmakers at receiver. LSU's defense is getting revamped again, but there's still a lot of athleticism across the board. This one is coming down to the wire, but LSU's young, yet stealthy corners will be the difference in another upset. Winner: LSU

SECOND ROUND

In Orlando, Fla.

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 9 LSU: Last fall, this was the game the served as the emotional turning point for Auburn, even though it was a loss. Auburn has a lot to work with once again on the Plains, and while the defense still has its questions, these Tigers will get revenge in a fun one in the Sunshine State. Winner: Auburn

In New Orleans

No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 10 Florida: The Gators will be more consistent on offense in this one. Alabama is still looking to find its defensive playmakers, but will have the advantage in the running game. This one is coming down to the fourth quarter, where corner Vernon Hargreaves III seals it for the Gators with a pick in the end zone on a Cooper Bateman pass intended for Amari Cooper. Winner: Florida

In Houston

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 5 Missouri: Two fast offenses take the field, and the Rebels would love to get back at the Tigers after last season's loss. Maty Mauk has what it takes to direct this Missouri team to a deep run, but Ole Miss' defense is the difference in this one. Keep an eye on that defensive line, which gets a major upgrade in the return of end C.J. Johnson. Winner: Ole Miss

In Charlotte, N.C.

No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 6 South Carolina: The hope in Athens is that the defense will be improved with Jeremy Pruitt running the show, but watch out for Mike Davis. South Carolina's pounding running back gets the edge in this one with Gurley on the mend. Expect a lot of points in this one, but Davis grinds this one out for the Gamecocks in the fourth quarter. Winner: South Carolina

FINAL FOUR

In Miami

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 4 Ole Miss: You want fast, fast, fast? How about these two teams playing? I mean, Ole Miss got to see tons of speed against Mizzou, and now has to take on Auburn? Expect marathon of scoring, but Bo Wallace is the hero in the end. A gritty fourth-quarter performance puts the Rebels in the title game. Winner: Ole Miss

In Arlington, Texas

No. 6 South Carolina vs. No. 10 Florida: It's been a fun run for this spring's Cinderella. Florida's offense is catching up to its defense, but the Gamecocks will find holes in the Gators defense. Thompson hits a few big plays to receiver Shaq Roland and defensive end Gerald Dixon forces a late fumble on a sack of Driskel to run out the clock. Winner: South Carolina

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP

In Atlanta

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 6 South Carolina: Steve Spurrier is back in Atlanta with a gritty team hungry for a title. The Rebels have the advantage with that high-flying offense and will get some huge catches out of Laquon Treadwell against the inexperienced secondary. Thompson and Davis will keep the Gamecocks in this one for most of the game, but true freshman safety C.J. Hampton seals it for the Rebels with a game-ending interception at midfield. Winner: Ole Miss
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Amari Cooper wasn’t himself for much of last season.

An injury to his foot robbed him of games against Colorado State and Georgia State, and even then, it needed longer to heal. He wasn’t near 100 percent until halfway through the season. And by that point, the dubious question of whether we were witnessing a sophomore slump was unavoidable. The same receiver who burst onto the scene in 2012, earning SEC All-Freshman and freshman All-American honors, was a shell of himself. He couldn’t get off the line quickly and, to make matters worse, he was dropping the passes that were thrown his way.

The former four-star prospect from South Florida who caught 59 passes for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman saw his numbers slip to 45 receptions, 736 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore. The number of times he was targeted didn’t drop off significantly -- from 77 to 74 -- but his receptions for first downs fell by 31 percent and his number of catches for 20 yards or more was cut nearly in half, down from 19 to 10.

[+] EnlargeCooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAfter a foot injury limited his productivity in 2013, Amari Cooper expects to bounce back this fall.
Cooper may not know those numbers off the top of his head, but he should remember the frustration he felt last season. “Not being able to play to your fullest potential when you know you can go out there and dominate,” as he described it, ate at him. Only over the final few games did we see the Amari Cooper we were used to seeing. During that stretch, he caught 15 passes for 299 yards, including a 99-yard breakaway touchdown against Auburn. His speed was back on full display and so were his feet. Without pain, he could be elusive once again. He could finally cut and dance away from defenders like he did as a freshman.

The hope for Alabama’s coaches and quarterbacks is that Cooper’s strong finish will serve as a springboard into a junior campaign that will help return him to the conversation of the SEC’s elite receivers.

“Amari's really played outstanding football here for us for two years,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban. “About halfway through his freshman year, he really became an outstanding player. He got very confident in what he was doing. Last year, I thought he had a very good year, especially the second half of the year. So far this spring, he's been phenomenal in the offseason program as well as in the first three practices that we've had.”

Cooper, by all accounts, is back to his old self. He said he's added five to six pounds during the offseason conditioning program and worked on his speed. At Alabama’s pro day earlier this month, he ran the 40-yard dash for scouts and came in at a jaw-dropping 4.31 seconds on one of three times he received. The other two stopwatches weren’t that far off at 4.35 and 4.38 seconds, he said.

“It’s all about technique in the 40,” he explained. “I’m trying to get faster, and I guess you guys will see whenever I decide to come out [for the NFL].”

If he has another 50-plus reception and double-digit touchdown season this fall, he could turn pro sooner than later. The crop of receivers in this year’s draft is deep, but next year’s doesn’t figure to be quite as challenging.

But for now, the focus is on putting together a strong junior season, starting with a strong spring. With a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback, there’s a lot to adjust to. What Cooper has seen from Lane Kiffin’s time at USC has him excited, though.

“We look at it for concepts we need to learn for our offense here, and we know what those guys did for him at USC at the wide receiver position,” he said, noting how Kiffin has a simpler and more player-friendly way of coaching the offense.

Said Saban: “Obviously [Cooper is] a guy [who] we want to get the ball to as many times as we can. Lane will do a really good job of getting the ball in the playmakers' hands. I think between the backs we have and the receivers we have and Coop's history of being a very consistent performer, I would think that he'll have an outstanding year.”

That said, someone will have to distribute and deliver the football. Alabama has five quarterbacks competing for the starting job now, and that crowded backfield will grow by one when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives in May.

Cooper admitted that not having AJ McCarron to throw him the football is different, but he’s not showing the slightest sign of concern.

“It’s like when I came in. AJ was a new quarterback to me,” he said. “It’s the same thing with these guys. We’ve been working on timing since before spring practice started.

“We tried to get together almost every day to work on our timing.”

If Cooper can stay healthy and return to his 2012 form, he’ll be a benefit to whomever starts under center for Alabama.

He’s already shown he can dominate with what he’s done in the past. Whether you choose to call his sophomore season a full-on slump or a minor setback, there’s plenty of room for him to get better as a junior. With those feet, those hands and that speed, he could easily rise to the top of the SEC’s best receivers, if not the entire country.

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