Alabama Crimson Tide: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

MARIETTA, Ga. -- The Nike SPARQ combines have grown with each passing year, and on Saturday there was a record turnout. If the 1,993 prospects who attended weren't impressive enough, the performances by several top prospects who came to compete certainly left spectators turning heads.

Here is a rundown of some of the event's top performers.
  • ESPN Junior 300 running back Taj Griffin posted one of the top SPARQ scores of the day. Griffin checked in at 5-foot-10, 174-pounds, ran a 4.41 40-yard dash and a 4.35 shuttle, had a 46-inch vertical leap and a 36-foot power ball toss for a combined score of 124.29. On the recruiting front, Oregon, Clemson, Florida State, Ohio State and Tennessee continue to stand out the most.

  • No. 3 junior offensive tackle Chuma Edoga posted an impressive score of 94.65. After measuring at 6-4 and weighing 276 pounds, Edoga ripped off a 5.01 40-yard dash, a terrific 4.69 shuttle and had a 33.8-inch vertical jump and 37-foot power ball throw. Following his impressive effort, he said his top four schools in order are Tennessee, Southern California, Georgia and Stanford with a decision likely on May 25, his birthday. The big news might have been that he currently prefers the Volunteers, but his mother is in the corner of the Bulldogs and Cardinal.
  • No. 252 prospect C.J. Sanders made the trip and did not disappoint. He checked in at 5-9 and 176 pounds, ran a 4.57 40-yard dash, had a blazing 4.09 shuttle run, leaped 36.5 inches and tossed the power ball 41 feet. On the recruiting front, USC, Notre Dame and Georgia are the latest to offer, joining Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. He visited USC last week, and lists Reggie Bush as his childhood idol. Sanders is the son of former Ohio State and NFL wide receiver Chris Sanders. His mom played basketball at Michigan. He reports his family favors Duke and USC early on with a decision slated for the summer.
  • Class of 2016 prospect Ben Cleveland is already considered one of the top offensive line prospects in the country, and the 6-7, 317-pounder showed why Saturday. He clocked a very impressive 5.22 40-yard dash and 4.87 shuttle, and had a 25.8-inch vertical leap and 41.5-foot power ball throw for a score of 99.78. He has offers from Georgia, Clemson, Florida, South Carolina and Texas with Alabama expected in the near future. He made an unofficial visit to Clemson two weeks ago.
  • Class of 2015 running back Jaylen Burgess posted a 118.44. The 5-10, 214-pounder ran a 4.66 40-yard dash and a 4.38 shuttle, and had a 36.7-inch vertical leap and 42.5 power ball throw. He is receiving interest from Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Clemson, Duke and a number of other ACC schools. Duke and Tennessee are the coaching staffs Burgess talks to the most. He posted more than 1,500 all-purpose yards as a junior.
  • Class of 2016 linebacker and defensive end Charles Wiley checked in at 6-3, 203 pounds. He clocked a 4.68 40-yard dash and 4.45 shuttle, and also leaped 35 inches and threw the power ball 34.5 feet. He has an early offer from Virginia Tech.
  • Class of 2015 athlete Jeremiah Mercer is flying completely under the recruiting radar. While he had to sit out the 2013 season due to transfer rules, he made his mark Saturday posting a score of 97.47. The 5-11, 163-pound running back and wide receiver ripped off a 4.48 40-yard dash and 4.18 shuttle, and added a 36.2-vertical leap and 31-foot power ball toss. He is receiving interest from Vanderbilt and Mississippi State and lists Florida State as his dream school.
  • Class of 2016 inside linebacker Tyler Reed posted a very impressive score of 104.91. After measuring 6-2, 234 pounds, Reed ran a 4.96 40-yard dash and 4.59 shuttle, and had a 35.5-inch vertical leap and 41-foot power ball throw. He recorded 130 tackles as a sophomore.
  • Class of 2015 running back Eric Montgomery posted a 115.47, one of the day’s top scores. The tailback checked in at 5-11, 185 pounds, ran a 4.46 40-yard dash and a 4.19 shuttle, and jumped 36 inches and threw the power ball 38 feet. On the recruiting front, Kentucky, Cincinnati, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, among others, are showing interest.
1. The American Football Coaches Association named David Cutcliffe of Duke its FBS coach of the year, and I hope a little part of him is seething. Yes, the Blue Devils had never won 10 games before this year. But Duke went to a bowl game in 2012. It’s not as if this season came entirely came out of the blue. Coaching awards are mostly about expectations. The AFCA voted that Duke winning 10 games is more outlandish than Gus Malzahn taking Auburn from 3-9, 0-8 in the SEC, to within nine seconds of being No. 1. That makes no sense.

2. The run of assistant coach hirings over the last few days serves as a reminder that coaches change jobs but relationships endure. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly hired Brian VanGorder as his defensive coordinator. VanGorder, the Jets’ linebacker coach, worked for Kelly at Division II Grand Valley State in the ‘90s. Bo Davis, who is returning to Alabama as defensive line coach, is the fourth of the Crimson Tide’s nine assistants whom Nick Saban has rehired. He might be hard to work for, but they keep coming back.

3. Longtime Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker died Monday, at age 72, only three seasons after retiring because of complications from diabetes. Parker was a coach’s coach. He didn’t look for the spotlight. He just delighted in coaching his players, teaching them the fundamentals of the basic, solid defense that has been a hallmark of Kirk Ferentz’s teams in his 14 seasons in Iowa City.
The eligibility dispute of No. 1-rated pocket-passer quarterback David Cornwell (Norman, Okla./North) goes before the board of directors of the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association on Tuesday.

And according to Ed Sheakley, executive director of the OHSAA, it boils down to a decision made by the Cornwells to keep David out of school in 2011 when the family lived near Jacksonville, Fla.

“They made a choice to leave school,” Sheakley said in this article. “They also made a choice not to play football that year.”

OT Damian Prince slims down, speeds up 

April, 23, 2013
ASHBURN, Va. -- At an event that featured three of the top 11 defensive prospects in the ESPN 150, third-rated offensive tackle Damian Prince of Forestville (Md.) Bishop McNamara impressed every bit as much as any of them Sunday at the Nike Football Training Camp outside of Washington, D.C.

Prince showed off a slimmed down frame -- he’s lost more than 30 pounds, he said, to reach about 285 -- and dominated in blocking drills against a stout group of defensive linemen.

Prince, No. 33 in the ESPN 150, put himself in position to rise over the upcoming months.

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Numbers to know from signing day

February, 7, 2013
1 – Alabama’s class rank. Every year that head coach Nick Saban has had a full season to recruit (since 2008), the Crimson Tide have had a top-three class. No other school has even had a top-10 class each of the past six years. Alabama received commitments from three of the top-10 running backs, plus Derrick Henry (No. 9 in ESPN 300, No. 1 Athlete), the leading rusher in high school football history.

3 – Number of Ole Miss’s recruits ranked in the top 20 of the ESPN 300. Since ESPN recruiting rankings were introduced in 2006, Ole Miss had never had a single top-20 recruit. Head coach Hugh Freeze received letters of intent from two of the top five recruits, including the top ranked player in the ESPN 300, DE Robert Nkemdiche.

7 – Number of players since November who have decommitted from USC, and all were in the ESPN 300. USC’s class was ranked No. 1 for more than three months between July and November, but now it's ranked 14th. Two of those decommits, Eldridge Massington (No. 172 in ESPN 300, No. 21 WR) and Kylie Fitts (No. 86 in ESPN 300, No. 8 DE) flipped their commitments to rival UCLA. The Bruins finished the day with the 12th-ranked class, the first time since 2006 they finished ahead of their crosstown rival.

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The final game of the 2012-13 college football season is almost upon us. After more than five weeks of preparation, Alabama and Notre Dame will meet at Sun Life Field in Miami Gardens to battle for the BCS National Championship.

In advance of the game, let's look at five key storylines for the Crimson Tide:

1. The long layoff: UA coach Nick Saban thrives under these types of game situations. When everything is on the line and he has time for extra preparation, he's nearly unbeatable. In fact, he's 7-1 in championship games and he has never lost a national title game. But the layoff was interesting in another respect, too. The time away from the football field was invaluable for three players nursing injuries. Had Barrett Jones not had a full five weeks, who knows if he'd be playing. Linebacker Denzel Devall would not have been able to participate after hurting his knee. And what about wide receiver Kenny Bell? It's a surprise the junior is even on a football field right now after breaking his leg in the Iron Bowl.

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How they measure up: Coaches

January, 6, 2013
Editor's note: Every day from now until kickoff in Miami, TideNation will break down the match-ups position-by-position. Today we'll look at the battle of the coaches.

Alabama: Coach Nick Saban has been here before. So has defensive coordinator and AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year Kirby Smart, linebackers coach Lance Thompson, defensive line coach Chris Rumph and offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland. Simply put, Alabama's coaching staff does not lack for championship experience heading into the Jan. 7 showdown with Notre Dame.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban has more than just championship experience working for him.
Saban is familiar with the BCS terrain having taken Alabama to the title game in two of the last three seasons. He's won all three of these games he's played, dating back to LSU's win over Oklahoma in 2003. He knows how to handle the time off and how to manage the pressure facing his players. He also knows better than most that the championship game is not a place to try out new tricks.

"Why do you have to come up with something new?" Saban said of incorporating new wrinkles against Notre Dame with so much time off. "Lots of people do. They think they have a lot of time to practice, so we can come up with a lot of tricks and different things like that. I don't necessarily think that's the way we've done it in the past. I think you technically do what you think you need to do to be able to attack the other team, doing things your players know how to do. If you try to do too many things they don't know how to do, they have a better chance of messing them up."

Notre Dame: What Brian Kelly has done in three short years at Notre Dame is nothing short of remarkable. It wasn't that long ago that the Fighting Irish were agonizing over a pair of failed coaches in Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis. It was starting to look like the problems in South Bend were systematic, that the winning ways of Touchdown Jesus and the Golden Domers had run their course.

That, of course, was proven untrue. Kelly built his brand steadily, winning eight games in his first year and eight games the next. It all came together this season as Kelly brought what SEC fans recognize as a thoroughly Southern flair to his team. In other words, he brought smash-mouth, defensive football to another part of the country.

"I think it's very, very comparable," UA offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. "This is as good a front seven as we've seen. They do a great job jumping in and out of their odd defense and going from an odd to a four-down front, and they've got big, physical, fast players. They run well on the back end, very well coached. They're just a really, really good defense."

Final Verdict: For all that Kelly has done, he hasn't reached the promised land yet. This is his first time on the big stage and how he handles it is still to be determined. For Saban, that question doesn't exist. He has a track record and is working on the D-word at Alabama -- a dynasty. One could go on and on about Saban, but the quality of the UA coaching staff goes beyond the head coach. Smart is one of the hottest commodities in the profession and Nussmeier is making a name for himself after helping quarterback AJ McCarron to a school-record 26 passing touchdowns this season and producing the school's first tandem of 1,000-yard tailbacks.

Video: Alabama's Doug Nussmeier

January, 5, 2013

Mark Schlabach discusses the BCS title game with Alabama's offensive coordinator.

Video: Alabama's Kirby Smart

January, 5, 2013

Mark Schlabach discusses the BCS title game with Alabama's defensive coordinator.

Notre Dame goal-line defense nearly perfect

January, 5, 2013

Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsThe Notre Dame defense stopped its opponents in almost every goal-to-go situation this season.
Flash back to Nov. 24: USC trailed Notre Dame by nine points and had just four minutes remaining to erase the deficit. USC needed a touchdown.

The Trojans had the ball at Notre Dame's 1 and had just received a new set of downs after Marqise Lee drew a second consecutive pass interference penalty in the end zone.

On first and second down, USC lined up with two tight ends and tried a quarterback sneak with Max Wittek. Notre Dame denied both attempts. On third down, the Trojans went with a handoff to Curtis McNeal. He never made it back to the line of scrimmage. On fourth down they tried play-action, but the pass fell harmlessly to the ground.

It was second time USC had failed to score a touchdown in a goal-to-go situation in the quarter and the 10th time for a Notre Dame opponent this season.

Notre Dame's defense has been great all season when it had its back to the wall. Of the nine offensive touchdowns that its defensive conceded, only five were in goal-to-go situations, the fewest among FBS teams.

The Irish did bend a few times on defense but rarely broke.

They allowed 33 percent of opponents' goal-to-go drives to end with a touchdown, tied with the 2010 Miami Hurricanes for the lowest touchdown percentage for any defense in the past eight seasons. BYU was the only opponent that scored a touchdown on all of its goal-to-go possessions against the Irish this season.

Run defense has been the key. The Irish allowed minus-5 total yards on 39 goal-to-go plays this season, the fewest yards and lowest average in the nation. Against the run, their opponents had minus-28 yards on 24 carries.

Opposing offenses were unable to gain any yards on 14 of those 24 carries (58.3 percent), the highest percentage for any FBS defense this season. Even more impressive, the Irish allowed only one rushing touchdown on a goal-to-go run. Every other team gave up at least three such touchdowns.

Notre Dame’s defense will be challenged by an Alabama offense that leads the SEC with 124 yards rushing and 24 touchdowns in goal-to-go situations.

The Tide have scored at least two goal-to-go rush touchdowns in four straight games, the second-longest active streak in the nation.

They also have had success throwing the ball in these situations: six touchdowns in 13 attempts. Yet two of AJ McCarron’s three interceptions this season were at their opponents' goal line.

(For a visual explanation of Notre Dame's red zone defense, click here.)

Video: Nix and Tuitt the keys for Irish?

January, 5, 2013

Mark Schlabach and Matt Fortuna look at the Notre Dame defense and how Stephon Tuitt is the key to beating Alabama.
Editor's note: Every day from now until kickoff in Miami, TideNation will break down the match-ups position-by-position. Today we'll look at the battle of the special teams.

Cade Foster
Patrick Green/Icon SMICade Foster has been more accruate on his long field-goal attempts this season, but Notre Dame seems to have the placekicking advantage.
Alabama: If there's an area Alabama improved the most dramatically from a season ago, it was on special teams in the kicking game. Cade Foster, who was maligned for much of last season for missing three field goals against LSU, showed off a much stronger leg his junior year. He made four of nine field goal attempts, including three of five from 50 or more yards. That confidence bled over to kickoffs, where he had 37 more touchbacks than a season ago. He and short-range specialist Jeremy Shelley, who made all 11 of his field goal attempts, gave Alabama a piece it had previously been missing -- a safety net when the offense couldn't punch the ball in from scoring range.

Punter Cody Mandell experienced a renaissance as well. The junior from Texas increased his yards per punt and went from two punts of 50 or more yards in 2011 to 12 this season. More importantly, he landed six more punts inside the 20-yard line.

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Turning over the Tide

January, 4, 2013
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It’s not exactly a revelation that taking care of the ball is critical to winning any football game.

But when it comes to beating Alabama, taking it away from the Crimson Tide is a must.

Over the past four years, Alabama is a combined 48-5. In those five losses, the Crimson Tide are minus-6 in turnover margin and turned the ball over 10 times.

They had three turnovers in their only loss this season, a 29-24 setback to Texas A&M. In fact, the only one of their five losses over the last four years in which they didn’t turn it over at least two times was the 35-21 loss to South Carolina in 2010.

“It’s why we concentrate on us and playing the way we’re supposed to play,” Alabama senior center Barrett Jones said. “If we do that, then everything usually takes care of itself.”

The Crimson Tide are tied for 13th nationally in turnover margin this season. They’ve forced 28 and lost 15 (plus-13). Notre Dame is tied for 21st. The Irish have forced 23 and lost 14 (plus-9).

During the SEC’s streak of six straight national championships, the lowest any of those teams has finished in turnover margin was Florida in 2006. The Gators were 37th nationally with 29 forced turnovers and 24 lost.

Here’s a turnover margin breakdown for the last six national champions:
  • 2011 Alabama -- 20 forced and 12 lost (plus-8), tied for 23rd
  • 2010 Auburn -- 22 forced and 17 lost (plus-5), 33rd
  • 2009 Alabama -- 31 forced and 12 lost (plus-19), 4th
  • 2008 Florida -- 35 forced and 13 lost (plus-22), 2nd
  • 2007 LSU -- 36 forced and 16 lost (plus-20), 2nd
  • 2006 Florida – 29 forced and 24 lost (plus-5), 37th

AJ McCarron mesmerizing in play-action

January, 4, 2013

Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsIt was appropriate that this throw was the decisive one for Alabama in its SEC-title win.
AJ McCarron and his Alabama Crimson Tide teammates broke the huddle with a fresh set of downs after T.J. Yeldon's 5-yard run on third-and-5 kept the drive alive against the Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Championship.

With 3:40 remaining and facing a 3-point deficit, Alabama lined up at Georgia's 45 with two tight ends on the line and two wide receivers set to the same side. It was the same formation the Crimson Tide had used on 20 of their 22 plays after Georgia took an 11-point lead with 6:31 remaining in the third quarter.

Twenty of those 22 plays were runs that gained 167 yards and two touchdowns, including Yeldon's drive-sustaining run.

Georgia lined up defensively with one deep safety on this play, leaving one-on-one coverage on the outside for Amari Cooper.

When McCarron took the snap, he faked a handoff to Yeldon, looked left and threw the ball 43 yards in the air to Cooper, who went untouched into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

It was McCarron’s 11th touchdown pass off play-action this season and his ninth such touchdown on first down. In 2011, McCarron had a total of five touchdowns off play-action.

Alabama's running game has set up McCarron all season. He leads FBS in pass efficiency (173.1), and play action has been the key.

McCarron completes nearly 70 percent of his passes thrown after a run fake and is averaging an SEC-best 11.9 yards per attempt. He has not thrown an interception off play-action in 130 attempts, with his last one coming in last season's loss to LSU.

McCarron's average throw after a run fake travels 11.7 yards downfield, and he completes 76 percent of his deep throws that are set up by play-action. On such passes, he has eight touchdowns and no interceptions in 21 attempts.

As he was against Georgia, Cooper has been McCarron’s favorite target on those downfield throws, catching 11 of 14 passes thrown 20 yards or longer when he was the target. Eight of those receptions were off play-action, including four touchdowns.

McCarron will face a Notre Dame Fighting Irish team in the BCS Championship Game that leads the nation in scoring defense (10.3 PPG).

The Irish have given up two touchdown passes on play-action all season, tied for third fewest against an AQ team, and one touchdown on a pass thrown 20 yards or more.

On paper, it will be the biggest test that McCarron has faced this season. A passing grade could give McCarron his second straight BCS Championship, something no quarterback has accomplished.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Discover BCS National Championship stage has a homey feel to it for Alabama’s Nick Saban.

He’s going for his fourth national title in the last 10 years, counting the ring he won at LSU in 2003.

Every year he’s been here, he’s learned a little more about preparing for this game, and in particular, managing the long layoff.

There is no magic formula.

“Trying to get the kids to focus on what they need to do to play well rather than getting soaked up in the magnitude of the consequences of the game is the biggest challenge,” Saban said.

“There’s so much hype around it. It’s so easy to kind of become caught up in the whole dynamic of the importance of the game rather than focusing on what you need to do to play well. It’s always one of the things that concerns you the most.”

Junior linebacker C.J. Mosley said what has enabled Alabama to play so well in championship games under Saban is the way the Tide prepare so meticulously, yet go about their business the same way they would for a regular-season game.

Since losing to Florida in the 2008 SEC championship game, Alabama is 4-0 in championship games -- SEC title in 2009, national title in 2009, national title in 2011 and SEC title in 2012.

“We have our system down and don’t change,” Mosley said. “Nobody makes the game bigger than it is.”

Saban’s message to his players also doesn’t change.

“I always tell them, ‘I don’t want you thinking about winning a national championship. I want you thinking about what you have to do to dominate the guy you’re playing against for 60 minutes in the game and assume that that’s the best player you’ve ever played against,’” Saban said.


Scout's Take: Atlanta Opening Regional
National recruiting analyst Gerry Hamilton joins ESPN's Phil Murphy to discuss top performers from the Nike's The Opening regional camp in Atlanta.