Alabama Crimson Tide: Parker McLeod

Parker McLeod knew this was a possibility. When the former three-star quarterback prospect enrolled at Alabama in 2013, he understood that he would be fighting tooth and nail for playing time.

He said he was confident. He said he was a competitor. He said he would work his hardest and hope for the best.

[+] EnlargeParker McLeod
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsParker McLeod redshirted last season at Alabama.
But after redshirting his first season on campus and then watching as three other quarterbacks on the roster separated themselves this spring, he had to know what the future held: He would not become AJ McCarron’s successor under center in 2014.

On Tuesday, Alabama coach Nick Saban told reporters at the SEC meetings in Destin, Florida, that McLeod had been given clearance to look around for another school to transfer to this offseason. And with that, Alabama’s quarterback competition became the slightest bit clearer. With Luke Del Rio long gone (to Oregon State) and McLeod having one foot out the door, as many as four players will vie to become Alabama’s next starting quarterback when fall camp begins.

The presumptive leader in the clubhouse, of course, is Florida State transfer Jacob Coker. The redshirt junior was the backup to Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston last season and first-round NFL draft pick EJ Manuel the season before that. He enrolled at Alabama earlier this month and should be fully recovered from knee surgery when practice begins later this summer.

Coker is considered the front-runner due in large part to poor performances by the other quarterbacks already in Tuscaloosa. Blake Sims, a senior with dual-threat capabilities, threw the ball poorly on A-Day, completing 13 of 30 passes for 178 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

Cooper Bateman, a former four-star prospect who redshirted last season, and Alec Morris, a sophomore who didn’t attempt a pass last season, didn’t fare much better as the two combined to complete 14 of 31 passes for 165 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Coker, who attended Alabama’s spring game but was unable to participate because he hadn’t yet graduated from Florida State, looked the best out of anyone, and he was in a simple T-shirt and a camouflage hat.

But Saban, forever the pragmatist, has urged caution when trying to predict the quarterback race. Coker won’t be handed anything. Even with news of McLeod’s departure, there are still too many horses who can win this race, he insists.

“There's a lot of competition at the position,” Saban told reporters earlier this month. "I think this is something that our team has to embrace and try to help each and every one of these guys play winning football for us at this position."

With McLeod on his way out of town, there will be more snaps for everyone when practice begins. But even with one fewer quarterback in the huddle, Alabama is still a long way from determining who will win the job.
Not every prediction we made about Alabama heading into the spring panned out, but we got awfully close. Let’s take a look back:

Prediction No. 1: Kiffin provides a jolt

This one appears to be a work in progress as A-Day was not the most impressive performance for the offense. Outside of a failed flea-flicker attempt, there wasn’t any play or formation called by new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin that really wowed you. But, as one player told reporters after the game, only about 10 percent of the playbook was available. With that said, the reviews on Kiffin have been overwhelmingly positive. Nick Saban said he expects Kiffin to get the ball into his playmakers’ hands more often this season, specifically to players such as Amari Cooper. That should be music to fans’ ears. And as far as the players themselves, they’ve noticed a difference in Kiffin’s demeanor and play-calling. They’ve said his offense is much more simple and “player-friendly.” So while we never saw major schematic changes or a change in the tempo of the offense publicly, rest assured that Kiffin is working his magic behind the scenes.

Prediction No. 2: Sophomores emerge

[+] EnlargeTony Brown
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsRobert Foster, who dueled Tony Brown for this pass on A-Day, showed big-play potential this spring.
OK, so this wasn’t exactly an earth-shattering prediction. But we did name names. Reuben Foster, Robert Foster and Maurice Smith were spotlighted as players who missed spring practice last season but would benefit from it as sophomores. And with at least two out of the three, there was some measure of success. Reuben Foster, despite a series of stinger injuries, continued to draw positive praise and should be in the mix for significant reps at middle linebacker this fall. Robert Foster, on the other hand, made some spectacular catches at practice this spring, vaulting himself up the depth chart where he could be one of the first receivers off the bench. Smith, however, remained mostly quiet. Right after Eddie Jackson went down with a torn ACL, Smith missed a scrimmage with a concussion. Tony Brown, a five-star early enrollee, took full advantage of the reps and played well at A-Day, making an impressive interception despite playing in a no-contact jersey.

Prediction No. 3: Frosh challenges at LT

It took some time, but maybe not as much as some might have expected. Cam Robinson skipped his high school graduation and bypassed his prom to enroll at Alabama in January and compete in spring practice. With Cyrus Kouandjio gone at left tackle, he saw an opportunity. And after a few weeks of getting a handle on the offense, Robinson took a step forward, earning reps with the first team at left tackle, where he started A-Day. Robinson still has some growing pains to work out, but given his size, talent and early improvement, he'll be in serious contention to start at left tackle from Day 1. Though Saban called the five-star signee a “work in progress,” he also cautioned that, “You get experience by making mistakes. ... He did some good things, and he’s done some really good things all spring long.”

Prediction No. 4: DePriest steps up game

By the sounds of it, Trey DePriest is doing everything coaches are asking of him this spring. With C.J. Mosley off to the NFL, he has responded by becoming a more vocal presence on the defense, leading a group that’s as young in spots as it is talented. As DePriest put it, “I’m just trying to help out where I can.” And that means calling the majority of plays on defense, getting his front seven in line and the secondary in tune. Saban praised DePriest’s knowledge of the defense as well as his maturity, saying he has the ability to “affect other players in a positive way.” Judging by the small window of A-Day, he has done just that as the defense didn’t allow a point in the first half.

Prediction No. 5: Ranking Alabama’s QBs

Maybe we were too hard on Blake Sims, ranking him fourth out of five. By Saban’s estimation, he had a great spring, exhibiting control of the offense, improvement as a pocket passer and good production through two scrimmages, reportedly throwing for 515 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. But a sour A-Day performance kept him from being our post-A-Day leader in the clubhouse. Whatever momentum he’d gained before Saturday was lost when he threw one touchdown and two interceptions with a 43 percent completion percentage (13 for 30). Cooper Bateman, whom we previously ranked No. 1, looked the part at A-Day, showing the most poise and control of the quarterbacks. Alec Morris, meanwhile, was somewhat of a disappointment with just seven passing attempts and one interception. Parker McLeod and David Cornwell turned out to be the fourth and fifth quarterbacks in the race, attempting only two passes, completing none and throwing one interception. The one quarterback who did look good at A-Day was incoming transfer Jacob Coker, who looked on from the sideline as a spectator.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It made sense for Nick Saban to begin his post A-Day spring game news conference with a caveat. After what everyone had seen that Saturday afternoon, a reasoned voice was needed, and Saban stepped to the podium to deliver his own sense of perspective.

“Nobody ever has a bad spring game,” Alabama’s head coach told reporters. “Let’s start with that.”

Fourteen practices behind closed doors led to a great deal of expectation surrounding A-Day, where the biggest question was, of course, at quarterback. Everything uttered about Blake Sims had been positive heading into the weekend. He’d improved his mechanics, they said. He’d made progress at becoming a better pocket passer, they added. Saban praised Sims for his command of the offense, his accuracy and his consistency. Throw in some pretty remarkable statistics provided by the school -- 515 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in two scrimmages -- and it amounted to the kind of credentials that would lead anyone to believe that Sims had really turned the corner, that he was indeed the front-runner to replace AJ McCarron.

[+] EnlargeJacob Coker
Jeff Gammons/Getty ImagesAs Alabama's quarterbacks struggled in the spring game, the spotlight on incoming transfer Jacob Coker becomes even brighter.
Then practice No. 15 arrived.

Much of the controlled environment from earlier practices and scrimmages was removed on Saturday. Saban, for instance, wore a tan suit and played the role of commissioner. A television audience and more than 73,000 fans looked on. Sure, it was a far cry from the usual 100,000-plus fans and the buzz that accompanies a regular-season game, but A-Day offers its own brand of pressure. If you mess up on that stage, not only is it a very public experience, but you’ll also have to dwell on for the months to come.

And given the way Sims and the rest of the quarterbacks closed out the spring, they enter the offseason with a sour taste in their mouths.

Sims was a shell of himself, completing 13 of 30 passes for 178 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. A first-half pass over the middle should have been turnover No. 3, if Landon Collins hadn’t dropped it. And the other quarterbacks? Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and David Cornwell went 14-for-33 for 165 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Alabama’s combined effort equaled an 86.37 passing efficiency rating -- lower than any of the top 104 quarterbacks in the FBS last season.

Saban did his best to downplay the significance of A-Day after the game ended, but it did little to erase what everyone saw. In fact, when put up against his comments only a few days earlier, his plea for reason came off as hollow.

“It’s an opportunity for them to go out and play a game-like circumstance, a game-like situation,” Saban said Thursday about the A-Day game. “It’s really your first opportunity as an individual, as a unit or as a team, to really create an identity for who you are and how you play.”

By that standard, his quarterbacks failed miserably.

“Blake had a really good spring, and he did a really good job in the scrimmages,” Saban said when asked to measure the performance of his quarterbacks, again attempting to weigh a poor spring game against a previously solid spring. “I thought in the game he was trying to speed everything up a bit. ... It’s like when a baseball pitcher tries to throw the ball a little harder and all of a sudden he can’t throw a strike.”

In other words, the pressure got to Sims. Though Saban would raise some valid points about how the setup of A-Day robbed Sims of some of what made him an effective quarterback, the bottom line was unavoidable. Sure, wearing a no-contact jersey kept Sims from taking full advantage of his athleticism to escape the pocket and buy time. But, to be fair, it also removed the pressure of facing a threatening pass rush.

“There’s a lot of things [Sims] could do to be an effective quarterback that he didn’t do in this game today,” Saban explained before changing directions. “We recruited a guy. Blake knows this and Blake embraced the guy before the game. They're going to compete through the summer and through fall camp.”

Ah, Jacob Coker.

If there was a bright spot amid the sloppy offense Saturday, it was the 6-foot-5 quarterback on the sideline wearing a crimson polo and camouflage hat. Coker, who backed up Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at Florida State, is due to graduate from FSU and enroll at Alabama later this spring, when he’ll immediately join the race to earn the starting job.

"It was awesome," Coker said of his visit to Tuscaloosa. "Excited about getting there."

In a way, Coker went to A-Day with the possibility of seeing just how far the other quarterbacks had come. He might have been worried that if someone stood out, they could carry a lead into the offseason that would be hard for him to overcome.

But Coker had to leave A-Day feeling good about his chances. Nothing he saw there should have scared him. Hearing Saban mention him afterward in regard to the quarterback competition should have only reaffirmed his standing as a favorite to replace McCarron.

While it’s true that you can’t win or lose anything during a spring game, you can take a step back. There's always ground to lose. And Sims & Co. did just that on Saturday, yielding momentum to Coker. Whatever standing they built through 14 practices seemed to vanish with each errant pass and interception.

The perspective Saban pushed so hard for in his postgame news conference was hard to swallow considering the sour taste the passing game left behind. A-Day isn't everything, but it was the last thing this spring, and it wasn't the note any quarterback would have wanted to go out on.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch when Alabama takes to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday for A-Day, the finale of spring practice.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherQB Blake Sims has had a good spring and hopes to finish with a strong effort in Alabama's spring game on Saturday.
1. The quarterbacks: No, unfortunately the missing piece in the quarterback puzzle, transfer Jacob Coker, won’t be on the field Saturday. Instead, he’ll be in the stands watching his competition get a head start. And so far the clear leader has been veteran Blake Sims, who has put up some monster numbers in earlier scrimmages. He and Cooper Bateman have separated themselves, but Alec Morris and Parker McLeod will have an opportunity, however limited it may be, to make one final push before the offseason.

2. The Lane Train: We’ve heard that he’s more “player-friendly” and has “simplified” the offense since coming to Tuscaloosa. But the specifics of Lane Kiffin’s transformation of Alabama’s offense still remain to be seen. So while fans shouldn’t expect much more than a vanilla playbook, do pay attention to the formations and how the ball is distributed.

3. A young secondary: The focus of the spring has been primarily on Kiffin and the quarterbacks, and maybe that’s rightfully so. But no one should forget Alabama’s secondary, which faces a large rebuilding task. Starting safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri are gone. So is former starting cornerback Deion Belue and top reserve John Fulton. With the exception of Landon Collins at strong safety, every position in the secondary is up for grabs.

4. Rushing the passer: Defensive line coach Bo Davis has brought energy and a renewed focus on rushing the passer to Alabama this offseason. And with the depth he inherited at the position, he has the tools to get after the quarterback. Promising freshmen A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen are a year wiser, Dalvin Tomlinson is back from injury and D.J. Pettway returns after a year of exile. That’s a good nucleus of pass-rushers, but don’t forget Dee Liner and Tim Williams. Though the quarterbacks will essentially be playing two-hand touch, pay attention to how the down-linemen fire off the snap and get into the backfield.

5. The up-and-comers:

  • Derrick Henry: We all know by now what the former five-star athlete did in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma. But can he follow it up?
  • Tony Brown: With Eddie Jackson out and other injuries at the position, the top-five corner and early enrollee has gotten plenty of repetitions. With a strong close to the spring, he could put himself in position to vie for a starting job in the fall.
  • Cam Robinson: The former No. 1 offensive tackle in the ESPN 300 has come on as of late, challenging for the role of left tackle vacated by Cyrus Kouandjio. There’s no question Robinson fits the build from a physical and talent standpoint. The real question is how he acclimates to college and learns the playbook.
  • Reuben Foster: With C.J. Mosley gone, there’s a vacancy at middle linebacker. Foster, a former four-star recruit, has impressed with his athleticism and ability to deliver the big hits. But can he bring the complete package to the table?
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama isn't in a rush to find its starting quarterback for the 2014 season.

That might sound a little crazy when you consider the high expectations the Crimson Tide will undoubtedly face yet again this fall, but it really isn't the biggest concern for a team that was an improbable play away from repeating as SEC West champs and possibly playing in its third straight BCS title game last season.

[+] EnlargeMorris/Bateman
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlec Morris (left) and Cooper Bateman (right), along with Blake Sims, have separated themselves a bit in Alabama's QB derby.
While the team can wait it out on finding a starter -- especially with former Florida State quarterback Jacob Coker enrolling after spring -- Saturday's scrimmage could go a long way to finding a little separation with the five guys currently vying for the position.

“Obviously, the first scrimmage kind of shows you who wants to really work for the spot and who doesn’t," Crimson Tide center Ryan Kelly said about the quarterback competition.

With Coker not on campus, Alabama has turned to Blake Sims, Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris, David Cornwell and Parker McLeod to share reps under center this spring. Sims, a redshirt senior, is the only one with any experience, but he changes the offense some with his mobility. While all five bring something different to the table, the plan for Alabama will be to run more of a pro-style offense. Sims might be the odd one of the bunch when it comes to that, but new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's arrival shouldn't change the basic structure of an offense Sims is very familiar with.

Alabama has only had a handful of scrimmages, but players have been at it since pre-spring 7-on-7s began. For wide receiver Christion Jones, each QB has taken advantage of every rep afforded to him since last season ended. For now, Jones said Sims, Bateman and Morris have stood out from the bunch.

“Everyone has their time where they struggle a little bit, but those three guys are the ones who overcome," Jones said. "Even when they mess up it’s not really a letdown or they get frustrated. Those three take the coaching better. The other guys still have to learn to take the coaching and take the criticism and make yourself better out of it.”

We'll be able to see a little more of that Saturday. The guys who have prepared the most and bought in more will stand out. They won't have to be perfect, but they'll have to show that they've learned something in the last few weeks.

In a perfect world for the Tide, a starter would be in place and this team could worry more about developing, but trying to find a new signal-caller means that players around them are having to do more. Linemen are having to adjust to five different patterns and cadences from each quarterback, while receivers are dealing with five different releases, five different throwing styles and five different versions of in-huddle terminology.

Jones said it isn't exactly ideal, but it is making receivers better, as they are having to concentrate even more on what they are doing in practices to accommodate for each passer.

“This spring, it’s more of focus level because we don’t know who the starting quarterback is," he said. "Either one of those five guys could be it. We have to be on our Ps and Qs and we have to be at that right spot at that right time. We don’t know what these guys are thinking right now. It makes you always be ball-ready because you never know what can happen.”

Saturday will be a good stepping stone for each quarterback, but it won't necessarily decide anything. To Kelly, it doesn't matter who is under center, he's going to be expected to excel. That's how elite programs roll, and Kelly wants each quarterback he's working with to understand that.

“It doesn’t matter who’s in that position, you’re going to be held to the standard that you’re going to do your job the best you can," Kelly said. "Otherwise, if all five guys aren’t on the same page then something bad is going to happen.”
Editor’s note: This is final part in a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Alabama this spring.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There’s a lot that stands to happen during spring practice at Alabama, but naming a starting quarterback isn’t one of them. Nick Saban has made it clear he and his staff are in no rush to find AJ McCarron’s replacement under center, adding that it would only be fair to give every quarterback a shot at winning the job. That, of course, comes as a nod to the only quarterback not yet on campus, soon-to-be Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, who should finish his degree and get to campus in May.

[+] EnlargeJacob Coker
Jeff Gammons/Getty ImagesJacob Coker, despite the fact he won't be on campus in time for spring practice, looks like the favorite in the race to replace AJ McCarron.
“We're not going to be in any hurry to decide who the quarterback is,” Saban told reporters last week. “We're going to give everybody a lot of opportunity to compete. You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback, and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and sees.’ "

If Coker wasn’t the frontrunner to land the job, why wait? Why not have the quarterback competition begin in earnest now and let the chips fall where they may? Is it really fair to make those already on campus wait? If one of them looks like the starter this spring, would it be right to hold off on making that decision? Wouldn't some continuity benefit everyone involved?

The inevitable answer to nearly every question surrounding Alabama’s quarterback competition is that Coker -- barring someone coming out of nowhere -- will remain the favorite through spring practice and on into fall camp. From everything that’s been reported, he might be the most talented option on the roster. And after three years at a very similar offensive system at Florida State, he might be the most experienced option on the roster, too.

But all that is not to say that someone can’t make a name for himself this spring. The quarterbacks currently in camp aren’t chopped liver, remember. They are all talented and eager and have the benefit of a head start. Should someone perform well and catch the eye of the coaching staff during these next 15 practices, he very well could get a leg up on Coker and the rest of the competition heading into the fall.

So who is best equipped to do that? Let’s handicap the race, ranking the quarterbacks from most likely to succeed to least.

1. Cooper Bateman: Long time, no see. You came to Alabama early in 2013 as a highly regarded prospect, the No. 3 pocket passer in the ESPN 300. Since then, we haven’t heard much from you. Of the two guys ESPN ranked above you -- USC’s Max Browne and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg -- one has already won a starting job and the other is competing for one this spring. Can you do the same? You redshirted last season, which is normal for first-year quarterbacks, but what did you learn in that time? Did it mean anything to you when Alabama went and signed another blue-chip quarterback, David Cornwell? Did you think anything of Alabama then going out and getting Coker from Florida State? There has already been one highly thought of quarterback like you come to Tuscaloosa, fall behind and transfer (former No. 1 QB prospect Phillip Sims). Will you do the same? Or will you show us what made you a top recruit only a year ago?

2. Alec Morris: What are we to think of you, Alec? On the one hand, you look the part. You’re a big dude at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, bigger than any Alabama quarterback on campus last year. And when you rear back to throw the football, it has some zip on it. Redshirting your first year on campus didn’t hurt you, but your lack of pass attempts last season -- as in, zero -- doesn’t bode well. If Blake Sims really isn’t the guy for the job this season, why didn’t you play ahead of him? You got into one game all season, while he got into eight and threw the ball 29 times. None of those passes was meaningful, the game always being well in hand by the time he stepped on the field, so why not give those valuable reps to you and get you ready for 2014? The hope for you is that last year was no indication of future success, but that’s a tough thesis to subscribe to.

3. Parker McLeod: We don’t know much about you, Parker, except that you’re supposedly very smart, very tall and have red hair. None of that’s going to hurt you. Heck, Greg McElroy had the same hue of hair. But on a more serious note, you weren’t as highly regarded as your fellow Class of 2013 quarterback. You were a three-star prospect and the fifth-best quarterback in the state of Georgia, according to ESPN. Still, you’re a wild card after redshirting your first year on campus. We didn’t see much of you. You have good size (6-3, 193 pounds) and you do have that red hair going for you. Now build on that.

4. Blake Sims: Sorry, Blake. It’s understood that you’re the most experienced man for the job. With 18 games under your belt at quarterback and all of last season as McCarron’s top backup, you probably understand the offense better than most. You’re definitely the most athletic.You’re dangerous when you run the read-option and get the ball into open space. The problem is we don’t know what you can do throwing the football, especially from the confines of the pocket. Until we see that, it’s hard to say you’re the man for the job -- not for a coaching staff that values balance on offense.

5. David Cornwell: You’re talented, sure. Big, strong, a cannon for an arm; you have the look of an SEC quarterback down the road. But right now you’re too young. You just got on campus in January and, on top of that, you missed much of your senior season in high school with a knee injury. You say your rehab has gone well and you’re ready to compete, but that’s asking a lot. The good news for you is that everyone will be starting from scratch under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. The question is whether you can pick up your first college playbook faster than those that have been doing it longer than you.

Opening spring camp: Alabama

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
9:00
AM ET
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.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban has hosted enough quarterback competitions to know how this oncoming saga will play out. From now until the moment he names a starter under center, the entire state of Alabama will be in a panic over who will become AJ McCarron's successor. The rest of the country will be watching, too.

Is Cooper Bateman really ready to take a step forward after redshirting last season? What about Parker McLeod and Alec Morris? Would Saban dare gamble on the run-oriented Blake Sims? Is it possible that true freshman David Cornwell could get a look? My goodness, what about Jacob Coker?! Isn’t the job really his anyways?!

As Saban sat down with a group of reporters on Wednesday to discuss the start of spring practice and a number of other issues facing his Crimson Tide, he seemed resigned to the oncoming quarterback drama. Asked what he was looking for in the next starter, he listed a number of qualities: the ability to process information quickly, to make good decisions, to throw the ball accurately, to manage the game and make the correct calls.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesIf you think Nick Saban is just going to open up daily about the QB competition, think again.
“Whoever can do that on the most consistent basis and have the kind of leadership to affect the people on offense around them is the guy that will probably have the best possibility to win the job,” Saban explained.

And then came the disclaimer.

“But let me be very clear about this,” he said. “We're not going to be in any hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”

That’s right, folks. Saban and his staff plan on taking their time with this decision. So hold your questions, please. Whatever opinions you have on who should start and why, keep them to yourselves until this is over.

“We're not going to be in any hurry to decide who the quarterback is,” Saban said. “We're going to give everybody a lot of opportunity to compete. You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback, and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 ‘We're going to wait and see.’”

Saban’s been through this before. If you count John Parker Wilson, he’s been a part of naming three starting quarterbacks at Alabama. He did the same at LSU and Michigan State plenty of times before that. And each and every time he’s been content to employ the wait-and-see approach.

When the temperature rises and the competition heats up in the coming months, Tide fans will do well to remember that Saban didn't rush naming McCarron the starter in 2011, and that worked out to the tune of two national championships and a slew of new school passing records.

“When AJ became quarterback him and Phillip Sims actually alternated quarters in the first two games, I think, to see who played the best,” Saban said, drilling the point home now. “And it really was hard on all you guys.

“I think it's important to get it right. ... And we have one candidate in this horse race who's not even going to be here until May, till he graduates where he is now. He's certainly a guy that's going to compete for the position too.”

Ah, Jacob Coker.

Whatever we think we're able to learn this spring will come with the caveat that the primary competition hasn’t even arrived yet. Coker, who will make his transfer from Florida State complete in May if he passes all his remaining classes, is the presumed frontrunner to win the job. He’s not bowing to the pressure that comes with that, but it won’t change the perception around camp this fall that he's the man to beat.

Saban would cringe at such assumptions. But his desire for less talk and more patience will do nothing to change what's sure to develop into a circus-type atmosphere as we inch closer to the start of the season. Between Coker's hype, the other quarterbacks competing and the arrival of Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator, all eyes will be squarely on who's under center in Alabama. Every day a starter isn't named will be a day someone somewhere will talk about who it should be rather than who it actually is.

Just don't look for the competition itself to play itself out publicly. Scrimmages at Alabama are closed to the general public and media. Reporters only see the first few minutes of practice each day, and it's never enough to glean any real information. Getting insight from coaches and players will be next to impossible. None of the quarterbacks are likely to be made available to reporters while the competition is ongoing, and teammates who do speak won't stray from the company line. If you're looking for Kiffin to talk, he'll have his one and only media obligation of the year in early August, and even then he's never been one to show his cards. Which leaves Saban, who won't deviate from his steadfast policy to divulge nothing and speculate on even less.

So trade predictions at the water cooler, shout at the talking heads on television and scream at talk radio all you want. Whatever you do, though, have a little patience. Because whatever soap opera you were hoping for just isn't going to happen. This is The Nick Saban Show and it has very little in the way of drama.
Setting up the spring in the SEC West:

ALABAMA

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
  • What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
  • Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.
ARKANSAS

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
  • A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
  • Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.
AUBURN

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
  • Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
  • Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.
LSU

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
MISSISSIPPI STATE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
  • Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
  • Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.
OLE MISS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
  • Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
  • Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
  • A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.
TEXAS A&M

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)

What to watch:
  • Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
  • Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
  • New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.

Over the span of their careers they threw for 48,824 passing yards. There were a total 403 touchdown passes among them, and they won 184 games in which they appeared, including 11 bowls and two national championships. They were, arguably, the most talented and productive class of quarterbacks ever to play in the SEC at one time. And now they’re all gone.

[+] EnlargeDylan Thompson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDylan Thompson saw a lot of playing time last season when Connor Shaw went out.
The SEC had to say goodbye to James Franklin, Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray and Connor Shaw in January. The void they leave behind is enormous, and while some programs already have an idea of who will take their place next season, not all are so lucky.

We’re counting down the five most pressing questions facing the SEC this spring, in no particular order of importance. First, how do you replace all the veteran quarterbacks the league enjoyed in 2013?

When spring camps open over the next few weeks -- the first being Texas A&M on Friday -- that question will begin to be answered. With each snap and each team meeting, leaders will emerge. Some staffs will look for a winner heading into the summer so they can avoid a quarterback controversy come fall, while others will have to sweat it out through the offseason.

Texas A&M: Surprises will undoubtedly occur, as we saw only a few years ago when a scrappy freshman from Kerrville, Texas, beat out the presumptive favorite to land the starting job at Texas A&M. The Aggies stumbled upon Manziel, and Jameill Showers was quickly forgotten. Kenny Hill and Matt Joeckel are this year’s frontrunners, but they’ll have competition in another freshman nipping at their heels in Kyle Allen. The Arizona native is more of a pure passer than a running quarterback, but he has the tools to sling the ball around in Kevin Sumlin’s offense.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier didn’t mince words when he saidDylan Thompson is “without question going to be our quarterback.” He even asked, “Why open it up when he’s the only one who’s played?” Thompson, a rising senior, doesn’t have the athleticism to break containment quite like Shaw, but Thompson can still move the chains with his feet when necessary. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound South Carolina native doesn’t lack for arm strength and might even have more pure throwing ability than Shaw. But where Thompson must match Shaw is intangibles. There wasn’t a more dynamic leader in the SEC than Shaw last year, and the Gamecocks will miss that kind of will power under center in 2014. While the starting job is Thompson’s to lose, don’t sleep on redshirt freshman Connor Mitch. The former four-star recruit could push Thompson this spring.

Missouri: The race to replace Franklin comes down to one quarterback and one quarterback alone: Maty Mauk. The rising redshirt sophomore showed last season that he can control the offense, starting four games in which he averaged 227.5 yards, 2.5 touchdowns and 0.5 interceptions per game. More importantly, he won three of the four games with the only loss coming in double overtime against South Carolina. He’ll learn from that experience and take over a team that will be moving on from the loss of big-time playmakers Henry Josey, L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas. Having the ultra-talented Dorial Green-Beckham back will help, but an arrest on drug charges in January has clouded his future.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cornwell
Courtesy of Cornwell familyEarly enrollee and former four-star recruit David Cornwell will get his shot at Alabama's starting QB job this spring.
LSU: The Tigers faithful got a sneak peek at their next quarterback, Anthony Jennings, after Mettenberger tore his ACL and was forced to miss LSU’s bowl game. The rising sophomore didn’t drop anyone’s jaw against Iowa, but he did just enough, throwing for 82 yards on 7 of 19 passing, while letting his supporting cast do the heavy lifting. At 6-2 and 205 pounds, Jennings has the look of a starting quarterback in the SEC. The former four-star recruit played sparingly in 2013, though, attempting just 10 passes prior to the Outback Bowl. He’ll have to contend with Brandon Harris, ESPN’s No. 37 overall prospect and No. 2 dual-threat passer in the 2014 class, along with rising senior Rob Bolden and rising sophomore Hayden Rettig.

Georgia: Despite what wasn’t a great performance to end last season -- 21-of-39 for 320 yards, a touchdown and an interception against Nebraska -- Hutson Mason is still the overwhelming favorite to replace Murray. Why? Because Mark Richt and the coaching staff have essentially been grooming Mason to take over for years now, redshirting him in 2012 so he would have a year left to play in 2014. Mason was once a three-star quarterback who put up huge numbers running the spread at Lassiter High School in nearby Marietta, and with Todd Gurley behind him, he won’t be asked to do too much his first year starting. While he might be a year away, don’t write off Faton Bauta just yet. The 6-3, 216-pound redshirt sophomore has impressed the staff with his work ethic and could find his way into some playing time.

Alabama: Oddly enough, the quarterback many presume will take over for McCarron won’t actually arrive until the summer. Jacob Coker, the heralded transfer from Florida State, will be a little late finishing his degree in Tallahassee, which leaves a big opportunity for the rest of Alabama’s quarterbacks to make a first impression. New offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will instead have his focus on Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman this spring. Sims, who best fits the mold of a run-first quarterback, has a lot of work ahead of him to prove he can play from the pocket. Morris, meanwhile, didn’t get much time as a redshirt freshman last season and needs to improve his decision-making from the last time we saw him at A-Day. Bateman and McLeod are relative unknowns after redshirting last season, but Bateman, a four-star recruit, does come with a lofty pedigree. The wild card is David Cornwell, the four-star recruit who enrolled in January and will benefit from the fresh start all of the quarterbacks will get under Kiffin.

Room to improve: QB

February, 21, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is Part V in a weeklong series looking at Alabama’s top five position groups with room to improve.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s the most obvious position with room for improvement at Alabama: Quarterback. With AJ McCarron gone and no incumbent starter to step in, the race is wide open.

Throw in a new offensive coordinator -- you might have heard it’s a guy named Lane Kiffin -- and you’ve got all the ingredients for an interesting drama.

"That'll be a really good competition this spring -- really, really excited about our young players on the roster at that position," former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier told reporters before the Sugar Bowl and before leaving to take the offensive coordinator job at Michigan. "With any young quarterback there's a steep learning curve, and for those guys it's about getting snaps every day and continuing to progress, and I like the development that we've seen in those young players. They need to continue to grow. We need to have a really, really good offseason. But I'm very excited about what that competition is going to hold come spring."

Nussmeier, obviously, won’t be around to see it. Neither will Luke Del Rio, who transferred to Oregon State in January in what was a curious move considering he was the only true freshman to travel with the team last season.

[+] EnlargeJacob Coker
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreJacob Coker, who will transfer in from Florida State this summer, has a strong arm.
But never fear: Alabama has plenty of options at quarterback, and the most intriguing one is a few months away from enrolling.

Battling for No. 1: He isn’t yet on campus, and he won’t be until after the spring. In fact, Jacob Coker is too busy trying to graduate from Florida State to concern himself with where he ranks in Alabama’s quarterback competition. But that hasn’t stopped Tide fans from anointing him the front-runner to replace McCarron. Coker, who slipped past Nick Saban and his staff as a recruit out of high school in Mobile, Ala., committed to Alabama in January, ending the months-long drama surrounding his decision. His legend ballooned over that time, casting him as a quarterback with a cannon for an arm and a competitive streak that nearly allowed him to beat out eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. We’ll see during fall camp whether he can live up to such high expectations.

Strength in numbers: It’s been conveniently ignored that Coker isn’t in a one-man race to become Alabama’s next starting quarterback. Considering that he won’t even compete in spring practice, it’s safe to say he’s not in all that enviable a position to win the job in the first place. For Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod -- and yes, the race includes that many contestants -- making a lasting impression during the spring will be vital. Sims, despite being listed as McCarron’s backup last season, doesn’t have the skill set to fit Saban’s pro-style system. An athletic, running quarterback, he could ultimately be a change-of-pace option at the position, leaving Morris as the next most experienced quarterback. Morris, a strong-armed Texan, has two years with Saban under his belt. But considering he didn’t attempt a single pass in 2013, it’s safe to say that Bateman and McLeod are right on his heels.

New on the scene: The wild card in all this is David Cornwell, who graduated from high school in December and enrolled at Alabama in January. The No. 2-rated pocket passer in the ESPN 300, he’s got all the tools to do well in Saban’s system. The question is when. Considering his lack of experience in high school -- he missed almost all of his senior season -- and his status as a true freshman, it’s likely too much to ask for him to compete for the starting job right away. The one thing in his benefit is that Kiffin is new. He doesn’t have an impression of any of the quarterbacks and will judge the competition with fresh eyes. With a strong showing in the spring, Cornwell could make Kiffin and Saban think twice about playing a true freshman.
 
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.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Call him Jake.

The Jacob Coker era at Florida State is officially over. And with Sunday’s news, the Jake Coker era at Alabama is officially underway.

[+] EnlargeJacob Coker
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsFormer three-star quarterback Jacob Coker is transferring from Florida State to Alabama.
“We think a lot of Jake and we are excited to have him join our team,” Tide coach Nick Saban said in a news release on Sunday, confirming two things in the process: that Coker has signed an agreement to transfer to Alabama, and that we should now refer to the quarterback as Jake. “He is not only an outstanding football player, but he is also a fine young man who we feel will be a great fit with our program at Alabama.”

The legend of Jacob Coker has been building for a few months. Ever since he lost a close battle to Jameis Winston at Florida State, speculation of his transfer to Alabama has been rampant. He was, after all, a lifelong Alabama fan who even played at the same high school as former Tide quarterback AJ McCarron. To this day, the two share the same quarterback coach in their native Mobile.

Why Coker didn’t end up at Alabama in the first place is anyone’s guess. He could have followed McCarron to Tuscaloosa, and this whole transfer mess would have been avoided.

But if he had gone straight to Alabama, we wouldn’t have the story we have today. Coker would be just another three-star recruit hoping to follow McCarron under center instead of the mysterious high-profile prospect he is today. He wouldn’t be the guy who almost beat out the guy who won the Heisman Trophy. And in a game where promise trumps production, that’s a huge statement to make.

FSU quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders helped inflate the 6-foot-5, 230 pound Coker’s résumé when he told CBS Sports that he has “never had anybody with [Coker’s] size who throws it as well as he does.” Coker’s former coach at St. Paul’s High School in Mobile, Jimmy Perry, echoed Sanders’ praise when reached by ESPN last week, lauding Coker’s competitiveness and athleticism. Not only was he great at football, Perry said, he was one heck of a basketball player, too, earning All-Metro honors for his work at forward.

The consensus among those closest to Coker: He has all the talent in the world and just needs a home. That perfect location seems to be Tuscaloosa.

With McCarron off to the NFL, Saban had to have Coker. Getting him on campus this past weekend and signing him to a letter of intent was exactly what Alabama needed to have hopes of a national championship in 2014.

But therein lies the problem: expectations. As a player with zero starting experience, how will he handle everyone, assuming he’ll succeed?

For all that Coker is and all the hope he represents to Alabama, the spotlight surrounding him has some troubling blind spots to consider. Not only is he a redshirt junior with no starts under his belt, he’s also going to miss the entirety of spring practice while he finishes his bachelor's degree at FSU. He has never been under pressure to win a game, and he has never beaten out another quarterback for a starting job. He might have the strongest arm in the world, but he wasn’t more highly rated than any of Alabama’s other quarterbacks. Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman all had better ESPN scouts grades coming out of high school, and all four have been in Tuscaloosa long enough to know how Saban likes to run his program. Throw in the advantage of spring practice, and they have the upper hand by a considerable margin.

Never let facts get in the way of a good story, we're told, but this was Coker's stat line in 2013: 18-of-36 passing for 250 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. That's middle-of-the-road production by any measurement.

Still, Coker will be the talk of campus for the next several months until preseason camp arrives. Because he won’t throw a single pass or attend a single practice until then, his legend won’t diminish. It will only grow as it has recently, speculation giving way to more fevered speculation. Enough stories will be told that he’ll be No. 1 in the depth chart of public opinion in no time.

Even if Blake, Morris, McLeod or Bateman -- aka The Forgotten -- has a strong spring, there will inevitably be someone at a bar asking his friend about the other guy coming in soon, Jake something or other. His friend will remember the name Coker, and they’ll both nod their heads in agreement: “We’re fine, we’ve got Jake.”

Being the Promised One is a lot to live up to, though.

Coker is coming to Alabama, but is he ready for the new world that awaits him? They've already picked him out a new name.


Florida State backup quarterback Jacob Coker was granted his release from his scholarship and has already met with Alabama coach Nick Saban, sources told ESPN.com.

It's expected that Coker, a redshirt sophomore, will enroll at Alabama after graduating from Florida State this spring. That means the fight for replacing AJ McCarron just got a lot more interesting.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Jacob Coker
AP Photo/Phil SearsJameis Winston and Jacob Coker had a spirited duel to become Florida State's starting quarterback last summer.
McCarron's departure seemed to mean that junior Blake Sims and underclassmen Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris and Parker McLeod, along with incoming freshman David Cornwell, would lead the charge to becoming Alabama's new starting quarterback. Throw in Coker, who received rave reviews from his coaches and teammates -- even though he backed up Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston for most of the season before suffering a knee injury in early November -- and the Crimson Tide should have an even tighter race to replace McCarron this fall.

The good news for Alabama is that with Coker pursuing a graduate degree, he would be eligible to compete for the starting job when he steps on campus. Coker threw for only 250 yards and an interception this past season, so the country hasn't seen much of him, though it's worth noting that he went step-for-step with Winston until the final week of fall camp. Remember, Winston won the Heisman last season.

While he doesn't have much of a college résumé, Coker's arrival in Tuscaloosa will add some experience to the quarterback competition. He'll be behind the rest of his competition when he arrives, which should push him even more during the offseason and fall camp. It might light an even bigger fire under the guys competing for the job this spring.

Here's what Florida State quarterback coach Randy Sanders told CBSSports.com about Coker:
"I've never had anybody with his size who throws it as well as he does. Jake has a really quick release with tremendous arm strength. Rarely does it not spiral or not go where he wants it to go."

Even with a logjam at quarterback, getting Coker is a win for the Tide. Replacing McCarron won't be easy, but this sort of addition should make it that much better for whichever quarterback wins the job.
Editor's note: This is Part V in a week-long series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Some problems are complicated. Some problems are large. This particular issue of Alabama's might seem like neither, but it is. Just because it's an obvious concern with a seemingly obvious solution doesn't mean it's not the most troubling scenario a coach can face.

Turnovers wrecked the Crimson Tide in 2013. Without the interceptions and fumbles, Alabama very well could have reached the BCS National Championship Game for an unprecedented third year in a row. Auburn wouldn't have won the Iron Bowl, and the debacle at the Sugar Bowl might never have happened.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban and the Tide were frustrated -- and their title hopes were dashed -- by the turnover bug that hit Alabama this season.
Moving forward, there's no way around the fact that if Nick Saban's dynasty is to get back on the rails in 2014, he can't afford any more costly turnovers. Saying "be patient" and "it will get better" are no longer viable options. T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake have a full-blown fumbling problem. AJ McCarron caught the interception bug late and even though he may be gone to the pros now, whoever replaces him under center can't give possessions away like he did down the stretch.

"Even though we outgained them in the game, we probably gained enough yards," Saban said after the Tide's loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. "But we had four turnovers that led to 28 points, and one turnover in the red zone and one missed field goal in the first half, and those things probably were, you know, a big difference in the game."

Said McCarron: "Put it all on me. I had two turnovers, [Oklahoma] ended up scoring 14 points, and we lost by 14."

A year after throwing just three interruptions, McCarron tossed four picks in his final four games. Yeldon and Drake combined for four fumbles in 2012, but together they wound up with nine this season.

The difference between good and great, between title contender and championship winner, is razor thin. A handful of turnovers is enough to tip the scales in either direction. Alabama averaged 13 turnovers in 2009, 2011 and 2012. In 2013, Alabama gave the ball away 17 times, the most since 2008.

Saban needs a quarterback who will take care of the football, whether that's Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman or Parker McLeod. Sims has been McCarron's backup the past two seasons, but he's shown a propensity for interceptions during scrimmages. How he'll hold up in passing situations during games is anyone's guess.

And if Yeldon and Drake can't stop from coughing up the rock, then it's up to someone else to take over at running back. That's a point running backs coach Burton Burns will surely drive home this offseason. Derrick Henry seemed more than willing to take their spot against Oklahoma. The enormous former five-star athlete was Alabama's lone bright spot in the Sugar Bowl, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown while also taking a short pass 61 yards for a score. He didn't fumble the ball once as a true freshman.

Stopping the turnovers might be a painfully obvious thing to say, but it's worth repeating. And repeating. And repeating.

Any coach will tell you: Giving the ball away is the single biggest difference between winning and losing.

Even if Alabama fixes Parts I-IV on its to-do list, without solving Part V, it will all be for naught.

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