Alabama Crimson Tide: O.J. Howard

We continue our "Most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold a special meaning for one of the teams involved.

Today, we take a look at Alabama.

Most important game: Nov. 8 at LSU

Key players: As always, it's going to come down to who wins the line of scrimmage. And after looking over both teams' personnel, it's a bit of a toss-up.

On the one hand, Alabama is loaded on the defensive line with depth at nose guard and capable pass rushers like A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and D.J. Pettway at the ready. But the offensive line is something of a question mark with two new starters, one of whom could be true freshman Cam Robinson at left tackle.

LSU is looking at the opposite situation with four starters back on its offensive line, including La'el Collins, who passed on the NFL draft this offseason. But the defensive line isn't on its usual solid footing without a pair of tackles you know can anchor the defense. The good news is that the pass rush shouldn't suffer with Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco in place, and Tashawn Bower poised to come into his own.

Where Alabama does have the edge is at the offensive skill positions. While LSU has plenty of pieces in place with Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, they all have either limited or no experience. Alabama, meanwhile, has a bevy of talent and experience with Amari Cooper at receiver, O.J. Howard at tight end and T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry at running back.

The major question mark for both teams is at quarterback. Jacob Coker could be the next great Alabama quarterback, but until we see results we don't really know. LSU has not one but two quarterbacks to choose from in sophomores Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings, but who holds the upper hand is still to be determined.

Why it matters: Oh, you know, there's just a little history with this series as five of the last seven seasons have seen either Alabama or LSU win the West. Despite significant changes to both teams' rosters, this season looks to be no different as both programs harbor hopes of reaching Atlanta.

The road to Week 11 of the season is much kinder to Alabama, as the Tigers must first go through Wisconsin, Mississippi State, Auburn, Florida and Ole Miss, while the Crimson Tide face only two teams that finished last season above .500 (Ole Miss, Texas A&M).

Because of that, you can look at this as a "prove it" game for Alabama. Sure, traveling to Ole Miss presents its challenges, but the last time Alabama lost there was in 2003. And Texas A&M, while talented, likely won't be the same team without Johnny Manziel leading them into Tuscaloosa. Meanwhile, LSU won't be a "young" football team by November, and it will also have Tiger Stadium on its side.

If Alabama can survive LSU, it should be favored in its remaining three games, all of which are at home: Mississippi State, Western Carolina and Auburn.

Now you can jump up and down and say Auburn is the most important game for Alabama, and you'd have a solid argument. There's the fact that it's the best rivalry in college football, that both teams will likely be ranked when they meet Nov. 29 and the most basic issue of revenge to attend to. But it comes down to this for me: If Alabama loses to LSU, how far will the Tide drop in the playoff hunt and will a win over Auburn be enough to put them back in the conversation? Of that I'm not so sure.
The Opening has become a breeding ground for future SEC players over the years. It started in 2011 as a football camp for the nation’s top recruits and has grown every year since. For those who haven’t heard of it or know little about it, here’s a fan’s guide to the event.

This year is no different in terms of SEC participation as 37 of the 162 invitees have already committed to SEC schools.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Ryan A. Miller/Icon SMILandon Collins starred at The Opening before becoming a star for Alabama at safety.
SEC commitments by school

Alabama: 10
Texas A&M: 7
Georgia: 5
Florida: 4
LSU: 3
Mississippi State: 2
South Carolina: 2
Tennessee: 2
Kentucky: 1
Missouri: 1

The event will be broadcast on ESPN’s family of networks and gives you a chance to see the future of your school. Don’t believe me? Just look at some of the past participants to come through who are now making noise on Saturdays in the SEC.

Vadal Alexander (2011): If there were any doubts about Alexander before The Opening, he answered them with his performance. He rarely got beat in the one-on-one drills and used his strength to overpower opposing defensive linemen. It was that same strength that helped him early at LSU, and he’s expected to start up front for the third straight season. He and left tackle La'El Collins form a menacing tandem on the left side for the Tigers.

Landon Collins (2011): Collins stole the show at the inaugural camp. He won the SPARQ national championship with a high score of 143.76 and was a beast all week in the 7-on-7 competition. He didn’t make the type of impact he was hoping for as a freshman at Alabama, but he emerged last season with 69 tackles, two interceptions and two fumbles forced. He’s one of the top safeties in the country and projected to be a first-round draft pick.

Vernon Hargreaves III (2012): The week didn’t last long for Hargreaves, who injured his ankle on the first day, but he did run a 4.42 40-yard dash and a 4.1 shuttle before bowing out. That speed and athleticism was evident this past season, as the Florida freshman emerged as one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC. He finished with 38 tackles, three interceptions, and was among the league leaders in passes defended with 14.

O.J. Howard (2012): Tight ends don’t typically stand out at The Opening, but Howard isn’t your typical tight end. He measured in at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, ran a 4.49 40-yard dash and dominated 7-on-7 play with his combination of size and speed. Unlike teammate and fellow Opening alum Derrick Henry, Howard endured a slow start to his Alabama career, but the expectations are high heading into this season.

Laquon Treadwell (2012): Treadwell might not have tested as well as some of his peers, but once he got on the field, he caught everything thrown his way. He showed the ability to make a catch under duress in traffic, and if the ball was in his vicinity, he was coming down with it. That held true at Ole Miss, where he led all SEC freshman with 72 receptions and finished with 608 yards and five touchdowns.
Every four years, we all have soccer fever. I have it 24/7, 365, but the World Cup helps bring out the inner futboler in all of us.

The United States is still trying to catch up to the rest of the world when it comes to the beautiful game, but fans have come out in full force this year to support arguably our most talented World Cup team. And I've even seen it from SEC football players this summer.

Tweets from football players concerning the World Cup have littered my news feed the past couple of weeks. It might be because of the enormous popularity of the "FIFA" video game series, but it's still great to see.

You know what else would be great to see? Athletes like the ones that amaze us every Saturday in the SEC playing some footy. Now, I realize that a lot of these guys might not be the agile athletes that glide all over the pitch with their size, but let's put that aside for a second. Let's expand our minds and have a little fun here. Let's imagine some of the SEC's best current athletes suiting up to make a squad of 11 to play the original football.

We're going with a 4-3-2-1 look, meaning we have four fullbacks and a striker up top. And remember: Please, no biting.

Note: Only one kicker made the cut because most of them played soccer growing up. We wanted to use our imaginations a little more here.

STRIKER
  • Marcus Murphy, RB, Missouri: He looks like a cannonball when he shoots through the line of scrimmage. He's incredibly agile and elusive and would give a healthy Jozy Altidore a run for his money. He makes the most of his opportunities and would be a ball specialist up top.
WINGERS
  • Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: Yes, he's the SEC's best cornerback, but imagine that speed and athleticism up front. He played soccer growing up, and he's just too agile and quick to keep in the back. Plus, it's a major advantage to have a legitimate ballhawk at forward talk about takeaways at midfield!
  • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: He was my first choice for goalkeeper because of that wingspan and those hands. But the more I thought about it, I want that speed, strength and athleticism leading the charge up front. He also has tremendous control. Wherever Treadwell is, he's the best pure athlete around.
MIDFIELDERS
  • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Think Jermaine Jones: Big, fast and powerful. It's going to be tough to get past his intimidating frame, and he has the speed to track the long ball and create a lane for himself when he takes off. He'd be great on set pieces in both boxes with his size, and having him run up and down the field sounds frightening.
  • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: Just try to send the long ball over his head. He's the perfect player to have at center mid. He's your field general/ballhawk, who can take a lot of pressure off the defense. No one is getting behind him and he isn't afraid to challenge opponents. Just call him our enforcer.
  • Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: Another big body in the middle who has great explosion. I need my midfield well conditioned, but I also need guys who are going to be able to attack and defend. With Gurley's strength, he won't get out-muscled for balls, and once he gains possession, he's gone. He also has superb field vision to own midfield.
FULLBACKS
  • Corey Grant, RB, Auburn: Like fellow SEC reporter Greg Ostendorf told me, "Think Fabian Johnson." Grant has a ton of speed to carry the ball up and be a threat to score, but he's also incredibly strong, so sitting back and playing defense would be something he'd thrive in on the pitch.
  • Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State: You want a captain and a brick wall heading up the middle of your defense? Well, just look at the thick, rock of a man that is McKinney. He definitely isn't afraid to get physical and with his drop back speed, getting behind him would be terribly tough. Challenge him!
  • Dalvin Tomlinson, DE, Alabama: Who? Yeah, you probably haven't heard of him, but we'll just call him the bowling ball in the back. Somehow, this big bruiser played varsity soccer in high school, so he'd bring good experience to the group. Plus, having an athletic 6-2, 287-pound presence in the middle is scary.
  • Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: Like Grant, I love his speed on the back wing. He can carry the ball up and create plays for himself and his teammates, plus he can hustle back if a deep ball is sent. Oh, and that tank-like build will make him tough to beat outside the box.
GOALKEEPER
  • Josh Lambo, K, Texas A&M: As a keeper myself, this was the position I had to make sure was perfect. The only kicker on the team, Lambo started playing soccer at age four and eventually played for the U.S. men's under-20 team. He was also drafted eighth overall by the MLS' FC Dallas in 2008 before making it to A&M. No-brainer, really.

Ranking the SEC tight ends

June, 11, 2014
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We started the day by ranking all 14 teams based on their receivers and tight ends. Next, we looked at the top 10 wide receivers in the SEC. Now it’s time to look at the top 10 tight ends.

[+] EnlargeO.J. Howard
AP Photo/Butch DillO.J. Howard figures to play a bigger role in Alabama's offense in 2014.
1. O.J. Howard, So., Alabama: He’s big, he’s strong and boy is he athletic. There were times last season when Howard looked unstoppable. Linebackers were too slow to keep up with him and cornerbacks were too small to cover him one on one. But he was underutilized as a freshman, failing to catch a pass in five games. With Lane Kiffin now running the offense and a new quarterback under center, Howard won’t go unnoticed as a sophomore.

2. Hunter Henry, So., Arkansas: Even without any consistency at quarterback, Henry emerged as one of the most promising young tight ends in the country as a true freshman last year, a pass-catcher who wasn't afraid to go over the middle. He finished with 28 catches for 409 yards and four touchdowns, and this year coaches are expecting even more.

3. Evan Engram, So., Ole Miss: Injuries clouded an otherwise eye-opening rookie campaign. He started last season on a tear with 20 catches and four touchdowns through seven games and then missed the final five games of the regular season. If he has a clean bill of health, he’s the type of hybrid receiver-tight end who can flourish in Hugh Freeze’s offense and complement Laquon Treadwell on the outside.

4. Jake McGee, Sr., Florida: The Gators' outlook at tight end went from bleak to rosy in one stroke when McGee transferred from Virginia, where he was the Cavs' leading receiver last season. At 6-6, 255, he gives quarterback Jeff Driskel a veteran safety net he can turn to in a pinch. Last season at UVA, McGee got a first down or touchdown on 26 of his 43 receptions.

5. Malcolm Johnson, Sr., Mississippi State: When he arrived in Starkville, Johnson was a three-star wide receiver who weighed only 200 pounds. Now, four years later, he’s 231 pounds and considered one of the better tight ends in the conference. He not only has evolved into a tight end, he ha become more productive every year. He had his best season yet last year with 30 catches for 391 yards and two touchdowns.

6. Rory Anderson, Sr., South Carolina: The only question with Anderson is his health. He tore his triceps during spring practice, but the Gamecocks are optimistic that he will be ready for the season. He's a big-play target at tight end who has averaged 17.8 yards per catch during his career and had five touchdowns as a sophomore.

[+] EnlargeJay Rome
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia's Jay Rome, who was the top-ranked tight end in the Class of 2011, has 20 career catches for the Bulldogs.
7. Jay Rome, Jr., Georgia: Everybody is excited about incoming freshman Jeb Blazevich, but don’t sleep on Rome. He only had nine catches last year, but he played behind Arthur Lynch and missed the final four games with an injury. At 6-foot-6, 254 pounds, Rome will provide a big target for quarterback Hutson Mason, and be an asset in the rushing game.

8. Cameron Clear, Sr., Texas A&M: Kevin Sumlin’s wide-open up-tempo offense doesn’t have an extensive history of using tight ends but he hasn’t always had the kind of premier player at the position to utilize. Clear, a massive 6-6, 274-pounder who can move well for his size, gives the Aggies a matchup advantage at the position. He wasn’t used often in his first year on campus, but look for his role to expand this fall under new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.

9. Jerell Adams, Jr., South Carolina: With three touchdown catches in 22 career games, Adams is one of those players who could explode this season. He's got great size (6-6, 247) and more than enough speed to get open and make plays down the field.

10. C.J. Uzomah, Sr., Auburn: He might not be the most productive tight end in the SEC, but he’s one of the most clutch. Uzomah had the game-winning touchdown grab against Mississippi State, and he caught another touchdown in the Iron Bowl. As quarterback Nick Marshall evolves as a passer, Uzomah could see his stock rise.
In 2013, the freshmen of the SEC were truly fabulous.

Hunter Henry and Alex Collins were impact players at Arkansas. Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche were spectacular for Ole Miss. And who can forget the play of Vernon Hargreaves, Chris Jones and A'Shawn Robinson?

But standout rookies aren’t easy to come by. More often it takes some time to make a transition from high school to college, and in Year 2 we generally see the biggest jump in production from players.

With that in mind, we’re taking a team-by-team look at the players who didn’t quite break through as freshmen, but could see their stock skyrocket with as sophomores.

First up: Alabama.

Class recap: Nick Saban followed one top-ranked signing class with another in 2013, further extending his lead as the nation’s top recruiter. All told, Alabama signed 18 ESPN 300 prospects. A’Shawn Robinson, O.J. Howard and a handful of others developed into impact players.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Henry's breakout game in the Sugar Bowl showed he's certainly ready for prime time. But T.J. Yeldon is still ahead of him on the depth chart.
Second-year star: RB Derrick Henry (6-foot-3, 238 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Henry was one of only 11 five-star prospects in the 2013 class. He was the No. 1 athlete in the country and the No. 9 recruit overall, according to ESPN.

2013 in review: Maybe Henry needed a break. He did, after all, just set the national record for career yards rushing at Yulee High in Florida. At Alabama, he became just another freshman fighting for reps, trailing veterans T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake on the depth chart. After carrying the ball only 28 times during the regular season, Henry emerged during practice before the Sugar Bowl and earned the second-string spot in the rotation behind Yeldon against Oklahoma, where he ran for 100 yards and a touchdown on just eight carries. He also caught one pass -- his first and only as a freshman -- and took it 61 yards for another score.

2014 potential: The hype surrounding Henry’s sophomore season comes with good reason. While it might be a stretch to call him a Heisman Trophy contender, or even a threat to Yeldon to take over as the team’s top running back, there is the potential for a big breakout season as a sophomore. It takes an army to tackle him. And he’s got the wheels to back it up. But maybe most importantly, he’ll have a new offensive coordinator in Lane Kiffin who is looking to make the most of his talent, whether that means lining up as a traditional tailback or elsewhere.

Also watch out for: The rungs of the Alabama receiver corps loosened immensely with Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell exiting for the NFL, so look for Robert Foster to take advantage. The No. 2-ranked wideout in the 2013 class has all the skills to become a top-flight target. Along those same lines, keep an eye on Howard. The pass-catching tight end was vastly underutilized as a freshman and should flourish under Kiffin’s play-calling. On defense, defensive end Jonathan Allen and linebacker Reuben Foster both seem ready to step into a starting roles.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Some stocks rise during spring practice and some inevitably fall, and that wave of momentum heading into the offseason can be a valuable determinant when it comes to seeking more playing time during the season.

With that in mind, here’s a look at five players emerging on offense for Alabama. Stay tuned Wednesday as we’ll turn our attention to the defense.

QB Jacob Coker: Yeah, we’ve never seen him wear an Alabama jersey, but is there any doubt after A-Day that he’s the frontrunner to start at quarterback? He’s now officially on campus, according to his father, and doing well. We’ve heard stories about his arm strength and his athleticism, but in a few months we’ll get to witness it first-hand when camp opens.

[+] EnlargeTony Brown
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsRobert Foster, who dueled Tony Brown for this pass on A-Day, showed big-play potential this spring.
WR Robert Foster: Many might not remember that Foster was a late arrival as a true freshman, getting cleared by the NCAA and showing up at almost the last possible minute for practice in the fall. Still, he was listed as the second-string ‘Z’ receiver behind Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell. In case you were sleeping under a rock, those two have graduated and moved on. And while Foster might not start, he should make a contribution as those around the program have been impressed by his big-play ability.

RB Derrick Henry: At this point, is anyone is sleeping on Henry? After his breakout performance against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, he’s been all the rage. He’s even gotten in the Heisman Trophy discussion and caused speculation that he might replace T.J. Yeldon in the starting lineup. This writer disagrees, but another doesn’t. However, everything out of Alabama has been positive. Nick Saban has been effusive in his praise of Henry, calling his spring “fabulous” and his work ethic commendable.

TE O.J. Howard: It’s only a matter of time before Howard’s skills as a pass-catcher translate to the field. As a freshman, he showed promise but was inconsistent. According to those close to him, he was frustrated at times as he caught six passes in his first three games and then eight the rest of the season. But with Lane Kiffin now installed as offensive coordinator, things should be different. Kiffin has had success with tight ends in the past and would do well to feature Howard more heavily in the offense, moving him around the field where he can exploit his size and athleticism against smaller defensive backs.

LT Cam Robinson: The true freshman certainly looks the part. At 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, he has the build scouts dream about. Early on this spring, it appeared as if his mind was elsewhere. In typically rookie fashion, he struggled to keep up as he learned everything for the first time. But he was a quick study and began rotating in with the first-team offensive line in no time. The former five-star prospect -- the No. 1-rated offensive lineman in the ESPN 300 -- wound up starting with the ones at A-Day, further solidifying his chances to start from Week 1.
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.”
Now that we've taken a look at five potential breakout players this spring from the SEC Eastern Division, it's time to check out the West (again in alphabetical order):

  • Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn: With Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae gone, the Tigers are looking for help along the defensive line. Senior Gabe Wright could be a threat for them inside, and so could Adams, who is coming off a solid freshman season. He had 20 tackles and a sack last season and could be in for a solid spring on the Plains. Adams can clog the middle with his 6-foot-4, 304-pound frame, but he's also a good pass rusher from the middle. Adams has a chance to take a huge step this spring and appears to be on the right track already.
  • [+] EnlargeDural
    AP Photo/Bill HaberLSU receiver Travin Dural's touchdown catch against Arkansas last season could be a sign of things to come in 2014.
    Travin Dural, WR, LSU: The Tigers are trying to replace two future NFL receivers and are breaking in a new, young quarterback. That means they need a new go-to guy to feed this spring. Keep an eye on Dural, who caught that game-winning touchdown pass against Arkansas last fall from Anthony Jennings. LSU is hoping Jennings and Dural have increased chemistry this spring. Dural is a speed demon on the field and should be an immediate deep threat for the Tigers. With the position so wide open, Dural has a shot to secure one of the starting jobs this spring.
  • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: He showed flashes of greatness last year but should get an even bigger role in the offense this spring as his game matures. The thing about Howard is that he's a mismatch whenever he steps on the field. He's too fast for linebackers to cover one-on-one and too big for defensive backs to consistently stay with. He needs to get the playbook down and get more comfortable on the field, but having a year under his belt should help him in both areas. Howard has a chance to be a big-time player in the SEC, and this spring should go a long way toward that.
  • Derrick Jones, CB, Ole Miss: The sophomore-to-be played in nine games last year and made three starts. He's in a fight for one of the Rebels' cornerback spots this spring, but has a chance to be a special player for Ole Miss. Senquez Golson will likely get most of the attention at corner this spring, but Jones is a player the coaches really like and he has a lot of upside after playing as a true freshman. Making Jones into a legitimate cover corner in this league is the goal coming out of spring.
  • Ricky Seals-Jones, WR, Texas A&M: We thought he'd be a breakout player last year, but a knee injury cut his season short early on. Seals-Jones has all the athleticism, talent, speed and upside to be an All-SEC player this fall. Sure, the Aggies are throwing out a new quarterback this year, but their offense is very generous to receivers and Seals-Jones is the perfect weapon for A&M to have. He has the size to be a top-flight deep threat on the outside, but he's also very capable of playing inside, which just makes him that much more versatile for the Aggies.

SEC's next wave of star players

March, 18, 2014
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For the most part, we have an idea who the top returning players are in the SEC for next season.

There are 11 players back who earned first- or second-team All-SEC honors last season from the coaches, including six first-team selections: Auburn center Reese Dismukes, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon, Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt. The second-team selections returning are Mississippi State tight end Malcolm Johnson, LSU offensive tackle La'el Collins, South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers and Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins.

Picking the next wave of All-SEC players can be tricky, and it's certainly not a given that all these players returning will be repeat selections.

So what we've done is go through and pick the 10 players most likely to emerge as All-SEC players next season, and the caveat is that they can't have previously earned postseason all-conference honors from either the coaches or Associated Press (first or second team). That rules out a few other players not listed above such as Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., Kentucky defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Alabama safety Landon Collins.

Here's our next wave of SEC stars, listed alphabetically:

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner / Icon SMIChris Jones showed his big-play potential as a freshman at Mississippi State.
Caleb Azubike, OLB, Vanderbilt, Jr.: Look out for the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Azubike coming off the edge in Derek Mason's new 3-4 defense. Azubike tied for the team lead last season with 9.5 tackles for loss.

A.J. Cann, OG, South Carolina, Sr.: The anchor of what should be the best offensive line in the SEC, Cann enters the 2014 season as perhaps the top guard in the league.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama, So.: Just go back and turn on the tape from the Sugar Bowl. Henry is going to be a beast and is in great shape after what's been a terrific offseason for him thus far.

Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State, So.: The league is full of good, young defensive linemen, and the 6-5, 300-pound Jones is right there near the top. He's a force at both tackle and end.

Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn, So.: The Tigers will miss Dee Ford and his pressure off the edge, but the 6-2, 261-pound Lawson is the next star in the making on the Plains.

Curt Maggitt, OLB, Tennessee, Jr.: You might have forgotten about Maggitt after he missed last season because of injuries, but he's healthy again and will be used in several different roles for the Vols.

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia, Jr.: Injuries are the only thing that have kept Mitchell from being one of the top playmakers in this league. If he can stay healthy, he'll put up huge numbers in 2014.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss, So.: The top high school player in the country a year ago, Nkemdiche will move inside and has the size, power and athleticism to be dominant.

Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: He started his career at guard, moved to right tackle last season and is now in line to be the Aggies' third straight star left tackle as he takes over for Jake Matthews.

A'Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama, So.: The team leader with 5.5 sacks last season as a freshman, Robinson has a chance to be the best defensive lineman the Tide have produced under Nick Saban.

A few others to watch:

Opening spring camp: Alabama

March, 14, 2014
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Schedule: The Crimson Tide will open spring practice on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. All practices are closed and only the A-Day scrimmage at 2 p.m. ET on April 19 will be open to the public.

What’s new: The coaching staff has gone under some serious reconstruction. In fact, it looks a lot like Nick Saban’s staffs of old with Kevin Steele as the linebackers coach and Bo Davis as the defensive line coach. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart moved back to coaching the secondary to allow for Steele’s return. And let’s not forget the one new face on the staff, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. You might have heard of him.

On the move: When Saban last spoke to the media a week ago, he said there was “no news on who’s playing what position and who the quarterback is.” But there will be movement. Look for some tweaking in the defensive backfield this spring. Much like last year,when Saban asked offensive players Dee Hart, Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones to try their hand at cornerback, he might ask someone like ArDarius Stewart to see if a return to defense is in order. Considering the lack of depth at cornerback and the departure of safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri, the coaching staff might need to plug some holes in the secondary with some surprise players.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Pettway
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsD.J. Pettway is back and will attempt to earn a shot at playing time at Alabama.
On the mend: One of those defensive backs coming back is Nick Perry. The safety started four games in 2012 and appeared in two more games in 2013 before suffering a season-ending injury. Though he might not be the most talented option at the position, he’s clearly the most experienced, with 30 games under his belt. And that counts for something with Saban, who needs to trust whoever starts opposite Landon Collins.

New faces: Aside from the handful of early enrollees fresh out of high school, there are four junior college transfers to watch, including the return of former Alabama defensive end D.J. Pettway. There’s also tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith, who was at Georgia once upon a time and could add to the passing game behind O.J. Howard; defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who could help plug the middle at 315 pounds; and offensive tackle Dominick Jackson, who was ranked as the No. 1 player at his position and could challenge to replace Cyrus Kouandjio.

Question marks: We’ve detailed the problems in the secondary and hinted at the battle at left tackle, leaving a major unanswered question as to who replaces C.J. Mosley on defense. The former All-American linebacker was the heart and soul of the unit. We know Trey DePriest wants to take on the role, but is he ready? And who will play alongside him at inside linebacker? Reuben Foster was an immensely talented linebacker coming out of high school -- with a dramatic recruitment, no less -- but he played mostly on special teams as a freshman. He’ll have a lot of competition for playing time, with Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland hoping to emerge.

Key battle: Unfortunately, this one won’t be solved until the fall. But that makes the battle no less important. Alabama needs to find a starting quarterback to replace AJ McCarron, and until that’s resolved, it’s priority No. 1. Jacob Coker, the Florida State transfer, won’t arrive on campus until May. So that leaves a bevy of unproven options under center. Blake Sims will get his shot after backing up McCarron last year, but it remains to be seen how the run-first athlete will do as a pocket passer. Beyond Sims, there’s rising sophomore Alec Morris and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod. If one stands out this spring, he’ll surely have the upper hand come fall and could challenge the presumed frontrunner, Coker.

Breaking out: It was a process started at the Sugar Bowl that many Alabama fans hope will continue right on into his sophomore season. Derrick Henry didn’t do much during the regular season, carrying the ball a total of 28 times. But all you’ll remember is the bowl game and his eight carries and one reception against Oklahoma, accounting for 161 yards and two touchdowns. He’s big (try 6-3 and 238 pounds) and he’s deceptively fast. With dreadlocks that stick out from under his helmet, picture a stretched out Trent Richardson. After losing a large chunk of practice last spring to a broken leg, he’ll have the benefit of a full offseason to climb the depth chart and nip at the heels of incumbent starter T.J. Yeldon.

Don’t forget about: Don’t sleep on Yeldon. He’s pretty darn good, with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons to start his career. But don’t forget Alabama’s depth at wide receiver. Whoever starts at quarterback will have plenty of receivers to throw to. Amari Cooper, who is among the best in the SEC when healthy, is just the tip of the iceberg. DeAndrew White and Christion Jones are two veteran pieces, and tight end O.J. Howard has the potential to be one of the disruptive offensive weapons in the league if he reaches his potential. Given the way Alabama has recruited of late, look for one or two blue-chip prospects to emerge. Chris Black has been waiting patiently, and Robert Foster seems poised to step up with a year of experience under his belt.

All eyes on: There’s going to be a quarterback competition, position battles and several new players will emerge. But keep an eye on Alabama’s attitude. Saban’s dynasty in Tuscaloosa was shaken but not entirely derailed last season. Losing the final two games, to Auburn and Oklahoma, in such unspectacular fashion hurts. The question is how Alabama will respond. It worked out well after the 2010 season, but this isn’t the same team. There are quite a few leaders in need of replacing, and there might be something to McCarron’s criticism that a five-star sense of entitlement crept into the program. Righting the ship won’t be easy for Saban and his staff, but he will have the luxury of putting a gigantic chip on his players’ shoulders this offseason. How they respond is up to them.
Editor’s note: This is Part I of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Alabama this spring.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was a long and winding quote that really ended nowhere and didn’t reveal much at all. Alabama coach Nick Saban was asked what impact Lane Kiffin might have on the offense in 2014, and he didn’t bite. So far removed from the start of the season, he chose to play it close to the vest, answering the question in a way that gave away nothing.

“Every coach wants to create as much improvement as possible as he can with the players he coaches and the unit he's responsible for. I think Lane certainly has the knowledge and experience to do that," Saban said of his new offensive coordinator, the former USC and Tennessee head coach. "I think players sort of respect him and, from what I've seen so far, [they] have a good relationship. You're talking about offseason program and off-the-field kind of stuff, but I think from an accountability standpoint, coaches and players, that because of his knowledge and experience that would be something that he can contribute to our team in a positive way with.”

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesExpect Lane Kiffin to find new and unique ways to utilize players such as sophomore RB Derrick Henry.
If you were looking for more in the way of specifics, you were left disappointed. But it wasn't altogether unexpected. Kiffin should enact significant changes on the offense in 2014 -- just don’t expect to know what they’ll be ahead of time. Neither he nor Saban are ones to tip their hand early.

Overall, Kiffin is expected to bring more punch to Alabama’s attack. First, he’ll have to settle on a starting quarterback, of course, but beyond that he’ll bring a new flavor to Tuscaloosa, Ala., starting with a more up-tempo feel. Saban hinted at such a change last season when he told ESPN in September that, “It’s something we’re going to look at. I think we’ll have to.

“I think we need to play faster and will have to do more of that going forward,” he said at the time. “The only reason we haven't done more of it to this point is that our guys seem to play better when we don't [go fast] just because it's been our style and we've had reasonably good success moving the ball and running the ball.”

But that will change this spring. AJ McCarron is gone from under center. Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell are no longer out wide at receiver. The conservative tendencies of Doug Nussmeier and Jim McElwain before him have been replaced by the more forward-thinking Kiffin.

Along with a quicker tempo, expect more playmakers to emerge under Kiffin’s rule.

Alabama has too much talent at running back to continue rotating backs on the field one at a time. With versatile weapons such as Derrick Henry and Bo Scarbrough available, Kiffin could easily split them out at receiver or shift them on the line at H-back. Just the threat of a quick pass out to a player with breakaway speed like theirs should be enough to make opponents commit a defender, freeing up a teammate in the process.

Speaking of stretching the defense thin, look for O.J. Howard to do much more in the passing game as a sophomore. The former No. 2-rated tight end in the ESPN 300 showed flashes of promise as a true freshman in 2013 but went missing at times. Whether that was the fault of his own inexperience or poor coaching is up for interpretation.

Whatever the answer, though, it won’t be an excuse in 2014. There’s no greater threat to the defense than an athletic tight end who can split the middle of the defense. Howard, at 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds with receiver-like speed, fits that mold perfectly. Kiffin had great success with Fred Davis at USC and Luke Stocker at Tennessee and could find a similar payout with Howard at Alabama.

Finally, don’t forget the wealth of talent Kiffin inherits at receiver. Despite Norwood and Bell departing, there’s plenty left in the cupboard in Tuscaloosa. Amari Cooper, when healthy, is among the best receivers in the SEC. Given Kiffin’s work with Marqise Lee, Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett at USC, Cooper should be licking his chops to work with his new offensive coordinator.

Throw in DeAndrew White, Christion Jones and a slew of other young, talented receivers behind them and Kiffin has more than enough weapons to work with.

The 38-year-old's reputation as a play caller and developer of talent precedes him, according to David Cornwell, who committed to Alabama prior to Kiffin's arrival and enrolled early in January just days before the hire was announced.

"Coach Kiffin, man, he’s the guy," the No. 4-rated pocket passer in the 2014 ESPN 300 explained. "I really look forward to getting to know him. I think you all know what he can do. You look at him offensively, I think he’s going to do great things for Alabama.”

But what in particular?

“His explosiveness," Cornwell said, with a smirk. "I know he’ll bring a different kind of feel to Alabama. From what I hear, it could be a whole different offense."

While some of Alabama’s offensive inefficiencies in the recent past have been greatly exaggerated, there’s still more than enough room for Kiffin to improve upon. By upping the tempo and developing more playmakers, he stands to breathe some much-needed life into the Tide in 2014. Whether it's a David Cornwell, a Jacob Coker or an Alec Morris under center at quarterback, he'll have the keys to a potentially speedy ride.

Granted, we won’t know specifically what the offense is capable of until we see it in action. But from the outside looking in, the possibilities are great.

Hopefully we'll get a sneak peek when spring practice starts later this week, but don't count on it.
Today we turn our attention to a player who played plenty as a true freshman in 2013, but didn't break out in the way many thought was possible.

TE O.J. Howard
Sophomore
6-foot-6, 237 pounds

[+] EnlargeO.J. Howard
AP Photo/Butch DillO.J. Howard caught 14 passes as a freshman, two for touchdowns.
Credentials: Decorated left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio said it best when he told reporters late last year that Howard was "something special." Kouandjio added, "He’s showing flashes of things that guys who have been here five years can’t do." Howard, who was the No. 2 tight end in the ESPN 300 in 2013, was billed as a player who could do it all. He's big, as a tight end is supposed to be, but he could run and jump like a wide receiver. In his second career game and on the national stage against Texas A&M, he caught three passes for 68 yards. While he technically only started in five games, he made an impact in most all of them, catching 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns on the season. His average yards per catch (19.2) ranked 25th in the country among receivers who made 10 receptions.

How he fits: For all Howard did as a freshman, there's an argument to be made that he was wildly underutilized by former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Granted, he was still learning the offense and figuring out how to block SEC-sized defenders, but Howard was nonetheless a headache for even the best defenses given his size and speed. The typical linebacker is too slow to keep up with him, and the typical defensive back is too small to fight for space. Enter new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who has a history of putting his best weapons on the field at any position. He could easily maneuver Howard from tight end to receiver to H-back, similar to what we've seen in the NFL with players such as the Saints' Jimmy Graham.

Best case/worst case: This is a big year for Howard, and not just because of the opportunities Kiffin might give him. Howard will also have the benefit of breaking in a new quarterback. AJ McCarron was about as good as they come under center, but you know how the saying generally goes: A tight end is an inexperienced quarterback's best friend. Howard has a chance to be that safety blanket and catch a lot of passes from whoever Alabama's next quarterback might be. That said, if Howard doesn't continue progressing as a blocker, he could be seen as a liability and struggle to stay on the field as an every-down player. Don't forget that Brian Vogler is the most established, savvy tight end on the roster. As a rising senior, he'll be hard to keep off the field.

For all the series installments, click here.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- As impressive as Alabama’s 2014 recruiting class was, the fact remains that most of the Tide’s 27 signees will not make significant contributions Year 1 in the program. It never fails. Landon Collins, a former No. 1 safety in his class, spent his entire rookie season playing special teams and learning the system. Adrian Hubbard, a former top-five defensive end in his class, had to physically mature and add weight before he could play on Saturdays.

This past year’s signing class had 20 four- or five-star prospects, and only a handful of them saw the field in any meaningful capacity as true freshmen.

It’s not an easy transition from high school senior to college freshman. Doing so while studying a playbook and earning the trust of a coaching staff is an even more difficult mountain to climb.

Still, as true as it is that most will fail in their goal to play right away, there are always a few who do meet that lofty ambition. Reuben Foster, Robert Foster and Dee Liner never made much of an impact as true freshmen in 2013, but their counterparts A’Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and O.J. Howard did. Derrick Henry took some time to develop, but eventually he emerged as one of the most talented young running backs in the SEC.


So who will be the ones from the 2014 signing class to step up and make an impact as rookies? Not counting the four transfers, let’s take a look at five possible candidates:

CB Tony Brown: The five-star prospect and two-sport star didn’t start his college career the way you’d like with an early arrest for failure to obey. But the hope for Nick Saban and his staff is that Brown has learned his lesson and will be better off for it. If he has, he could develop into a starter at cornerback. Deion Belue is gone and the carousel of starters opposite him isn’t the most inspiring bunch. Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith could still develop as sophomores, but they’re not a sure thing. Enter Brown, who has the size (6-0, 196 pounds) and athleticism (4.35 second 40-yard dash) to play right away. Match that with a muscular frame and some of the best feet in the country, and no one should be counting him out of the race this spring.

[+] EnlargeDa'Shawn Hand
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIDa'Shawn Hand could specialize in rushing the passer as a freshman.
DE/LB Da’Shawn Hand: Saban has said it over and over again the past few months: He needs more athletic pass-rushers -- “quick-twitch,” he calls them -- to combat the rising tide of mobile quarterbacks and hurry-up no-huddle offenses in college football. Hand, who is something of a tweener prospect as a defensive end/linebacker, perfectly fits that bill. He’s got the size (6-4, 262 pounds) to put his hand in the dirt and take on offensive linemen, but he also has the speed and quickness (4.95 second 40-yard dash) to get off the edge and track down the quarterback. Alabama could easily ask him to come on the field for third downs and do nothing but rush the passer as a freshman. And with his raw skill and natural instincts, he might be able to make it work.

CB Marlon Humphrey: The fact that Humphrey isn’t an early enrollee, was beaten to campus by Brown and still has a legitimate chance to work his way into the cornerback rotation speaks to the limited amount of depth Alabama has at the position. Humphrey is as athletic as they come, sporting the same two-sport credentials as Brown. But the five-star corner from nearby Hoover is also one of the most sound athletes in terms of technique in the country. That will help him when he makes it to campus and comes under the watchful eye of Saban, who is the defacto cornerbacks coach in addition to being the head coach. For Humphrey and Brown, the biggest obstacle will be picking up the playbook in a timely fashion.

OT Cameron Robinson: There are so many similarities between Robinson and former Alabama left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio: both were the No. 1 prospects at their position, both were five-star athletes, both came to Alabama from out of state. And last but not least: Both signed on with expectations to start from Day 1. It’s not easy to play as a true freshman on the offensive line, but Kouandjio showed you could do it, starting eight games in 2011 before injuring his knee. Robinson has those same traits to challenge for playing time as a true freshman. At 6-5 and 330 pounds with plenty of athleticism, he’s the complete package.

K J.K. Scott: Didn’t expect to see a specialist on this list, did you? Scott may not jump off the page as a prospect, but he nonetheless has an opportunity to come in and play right away. With senior Cody Mandell gone, the door is open for the Colorado native to take his place as the team’s punter.
We at the SEC Blog have spent the last two weeks ranking the top 25 players in the conference, beginning with Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines and wrapping up with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

There were a few Alabama players among the countdown -- four to be exact -- but that wasn’t enough. Here’s a look at the top 10 performers on the Crimson Tide this past season.

[+] Enlarge T.J. Yeldon
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY T.J. Yeldon was the top tailback on an Alabama roster full of talented backs.
1. C.J. Mosley, LB: He was arguably the most talented player on the team, the complete package. He was fast, strong and as sure a tackler as they come. In fact, he was the first player in the Nick Saban era at Alabama to register 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. And on top of that, he became a leader, transforming from a soft-spoken linebacker to the vocal center of the defense.

2. AJ McCarron, QB: What more can you say about McCarron’s career in crimson? Sure, he didn’t look so hot at the Sugar Bowl, but don’t let that cloud his accomplishments. He became the first Alabama quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards, and in the process he set more school records for career passing yards, career completion percentage and career wins. Even with a poor close to his senior season (see: Auburn, Oklahoma and even Mississippi State), McCarron finished 11th nationally in Adjusted QBR.

3. T.J. Yeldon, RB: Like McCarron, don’t judge Yeldon on one bad game. His fumble against Oklahoma sure stands out, but don’t forget his accomplishments throughout the course of the regular season. There’s not much more you could have asked him to do. His 1,279 yards and 14 touchdowns on 207 carries were both improvements over his stellar freshman campaign. Yes, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry appeared to be the more explosive tailbacks on the roster, but Yeldon was no slouch as his 34 rushes of 10 yards or longer ranked 30th nationally.

4. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S: The secondary was not a shining light of achievement for Alabama this past season. The cornerback situation was murky at best, and when Vinnie Sunseri was injured at safety, some air went out of the balloon. But Clinton-Dix, despite missing two games himself, had no such letdown. He was one of the most talented defensive backs in the country with the kind of football instincts to match his exceptional athleticism.

5. Kevin Norwood, WR: Norwood wasn’t there all the time, but he was there every time he was needed. The self-described “possession receiver” didn’t wow anyone with his athleticism or home-run ability, racking up just 38 receptions for 568 yards in 2013, but he made the most of every catch. If it was a critical moment in a critical game (see: Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi State or Auburn), Norwood came through.

6. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT: The junior left tackle endured his fair share of ups and downs this past season, but regardless of the low points (again, the Sugar Bowl) he was one of the most talented offensive linemen in the country. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound former five-star recruit was the anchor of the Alabama offensive line in 2013, protecting McCarron’s blind side to the tune of only 17 sacks, down from 23 the season before.

7. Christion Jones, WR/PR/KR: When Jones went back to field a punt, you didn’t know what was going to happen; you just knew it would be interesting. Though he did make some questionable decisions with the ball at times, he also hit a few shots, most notably against Virginia Tech, when he returned both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. All told, he returned three kicks for touchdowns and was named SEC Player of the Year on special teams, in addition to finishing third on the team with 27 receptions for 368 yards and four touchdowns.

8. Landon Collins, S: He came on late when Clinton-Dix missed time, filling in at free safety. Then Sunseri went down and he started at strong safety. In both spots, Collins flourished. The talented sophomore finished second on the team in tackless (70), first in passes defended (8) and tied for first in interceptions (2).

9. Anthony Steen, RG: No player was more consistent on the offensive line than Steen, who wound up starting in his final three seasons on campus. He was a candidate for the Outland Trophy. He blocked for a 100-yard rusher more than 25 times in his Alabama career.

10. A’Shawn Robinson, DL: Rarely do freshmen start on the defensive line, but Robinson is a rarity. He doesn’t even look like a freshman. If his 6-4, 320-pound frame doesn’t make you question his age, his jet black beard might lead you to believe he’s closer to 30 years old. But Robinson was more than big and scary; he was productive. He wound up leading the Tide with 5.5 sacks and finished second with eight tackles for loss.

The next five: wide receiver Amari Cooper, punter Cody Mandell, linebacker Adrian Hubbard, tight end O.J. Howard and cornerback Deion Belue.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Because he’s a signed prospect, Nick Saban will have to address the addition of Jacob Coker during spring practice.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims will be one of five QBs who will be competing in Alabama's spring practice.
He’ll have to, at some point, answer questions about the quarterback transferring from Florida State, the strong-armed former backup to a Heisman Trophy winner whom Alabama fans hope will develop into something of an award-winning quarterback himself in Tuscaloosa.

But there will be so much more to spring practice than Coker, mostly because he won’t even be there. If you think Alabama’s offense is simply waiting on his arrival, you’re wrong. While Coker finishes his degree in Tallahassee, new Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will have more than enough work to do.

So while spring practice may still be several weeks away, here’s a look at three things Kiffin must accomplish during camp. You’ll notice Coker’s name is nowhere to be found.

The Forgotten
Oh, the other guys? Yeah, Alabama has quite a few quarterbacks already on the roster. Blake Sims, AJ McCarron’s backup, is still around. So is Alec Morris, who traveled with the team as a redshirt freshman last season. Luke Del Rio’s transfer makes last year's trio of true freshmen one less, but Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod are both back. And David Cornwell, No. 4 in the ESPN 300, enrolled early and will compete during spring practice as well.

Kiffin, who is also the quarterbacks coach, has five guys who want to win the starting job now. They're not going to wait around until someone else -- we won’t say his name again, remember? -- arrives in the summer.

Getting Sims more comfortable taking snaps under center and throwing from the pocket will be a big challenge for Kiffin, as will developing confidence in the younger quarterbacks. Having them all in tune with the new playbook will be a big goal of the spring, giving them the leg up they'll need to enter fall camp ready to compete from Day 1.

Developing young weapons
Former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has been blamed by some for limiting the explosiveness of Alabama’s offense in 2013. Further analysis disputes that fact, though, as Alabama had the fifth-highest percentage of plays of 10 or more yards in the country last season. The more appropriate critique might have been who was making big plays rather than how many as Nussmeier struggled to incorporate new offensive weapons like O.J. Howard and Derrick Henry.

Howard, despite being the most athletic tight end on the roster and one of the best playmakers on offense, caught just 14 passes. In nine games he caught one or no passes. Meanwhile, Brian Vogler, the starter, had all of eight receptions in 2013 and caught no passes in the final three games.

How Henry, the clear winner of the Allstate Sugar Bowl with 161 total yards and two touchdowns, took so long to develop is anyone’s guess. He didn’t carry the ball a single time in Alabama’s four closest regular-season games: Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn. His big body might have helped when Alabama faced a number of short-yardage situations in the Iron Bowl.

Kiffin, though, won’t have the excuse of youth with Howard or Henry this fall. Getting them more involved in the offense and developing underused weapons like Chris Black and Raheem Falkins will be paramount to Alabama's success in 2014.

Reestablishing the offensive line
Here’s a bit of not-so breaking news: Alabama's 2012 offensive line that so many called the best in the history of college football is gone. All of it. With Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen off to the NFL, every piece of that five-man puzzle has left campus.

Now Kiffin and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal must find new faces to build around. Three starters will return -- center Ryan Kelly, guard Arie Kouandjio and tackle Austin Shepherd -- and one or more of them will have to assume a greater leadership role with so many veterans gone. Leon Brown, who filled in admirably for Steen in the Sugar Bowl, looks ready to start, and the left tackle competition will be heated with a number of returning players and incoming freshman Cam Robinson eager to earn the spot.

Philosophically, a return to a more physical style on the line could be in order. With more inexperience up front than usual and a new quarterback under center, Kiffin might lean toward a run-heavy offense, especially early in the season. Establishing that proper mindset on the line early might be more important than finding who the starting five will be during spring practice.

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