Alabama Crimson Tide: Raheem Falkins

Tide players to watch: Chris Black

March, 5, 2014
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With the start of spring practice only a few weeks away, we’re spending this week discussing five players to keep an eye on when Alabama opens camp on March 15.

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

On Monday, we wrote about running back Derrick Henry jumping onto the national stage in the Sugar Bowl. On Tuesday, we covered Jonathan Allen's room for growth at defensive end. And today we're looking at a player with a few years in the program and plenty of untapped potential.

[+] EnlargeChris Black
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Black finds plenty of competition for playing time.
WR Chris Black
Redshirt sophomore
5-foot-11, 182 pounds

Credentials: The 2012 season was over for him before it ever began. Alabama fans will remember that it was Black -- not Amari Cooper -- who entered fall camp with all the buzz. He was ranked higher by ESPN and other recruiting services out of high school, and the way he looked in practice at Alabama did nothing to quell the excitement over his potential early impact at receiver. But a shoulder injury he sustained in mid-August robbed the speedy Florida native of his first year on campus, forcing him to take a redshirt. And when he came back in 2013, Cooper was coming off a freshman All-American season and the rest of the receiving corps was stuffed with veterans like Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell and DeAndrew White. Black appeared in eight games and caught eight passes for 79 yards and two touchdowns -- all from backup quarterback Blake Sims in what amounted to garbage time.

How he fits: He may not have a stunning résumé, but to see Black run routes in practice makes you forget all that. The shifty receiver is silky smooth and hits a high gear with seemingly little effort. Now that Norwood and Bell are gone and the depth chart has loosened some, it's Black's time to show whether he'll sink or swim at Alabama. He clearly has the tools, but he'll have to beat out plenty of other talented pass-catchers before he can see the field. Cooper won't be moved, White has a bevy of experience and junior Christion Jones has been a fixture as slot receiver the past two seasons. It's realistic that Black could become the fourth receiver and catch 30 or so balls, but he'll have to fend off a slew of other youngsters: the physically imposing Raheem Falkins, the No. 2-ranked receiver prospect in 2013 Robert Foster and the No. 8-ranked receiver prospect in 2014 Cameron Sims.

Best case/worst case: A repeat of 2013 would be a major setback for Black, especially considering all the youth suddenly behind him at receiver. If he has another year of single-digit receptions, there's a chance he could be passed by. But the good news for Black is that he has what amounts to the freshest of starts college football can offer. He'll not only have a new quarterback throwing him the football (AJ McCarron seemed to prefer veterans he knew better), but he'll also have the benefit of a brand new offensive coordinator who comes to Tuscaloosa with an eye on adding more explosive elements to the offense. Lane Kiffin's arrival could mean a shuffling of personnel at every position, and the receiver corps is especially ripe for an overhaul. If Black can use the spring to establish a rapport with the new quarterbacks and provide Kiffin a good first impression, he could ready himself to compete for a starting job come fall.

Room to improve: WR

February, 18, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is Part II in a weeklong series looking at Alabama’s top five position groups with room to improve.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- They never caught much flack, which is understandable. Considering the numbers AJ McCarron put up at quarterback this past season (3,063 yards, 28 touchdowns passing), why pick on Alabama’s wide receivers? Their overall production wasn’t bad at all.

But considering all the talent Alabama has amassed at the position, shouldn’t they have been better? Shouldn't they have been more explosive? Alabama had 45 passing plays that went for 20 yards or more, which was squarely in the middle of the pack of the SEC, trailing the likes of Ole Miss, South Carolina, Missouri, LSU, Georgia and Texas A&M.

Granted, it’s hard to supplant entrenched veterans like DeAndrew White, Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell, but the way Nick Saban and his coaching staff have recruited the top talent at receiver in recent years, you’d think someone would have emerged who could stretch the field more vertically. In fact, not a single freshman -- redshirt or otherwise -- made a significant impact at the position in 2013.

Now we all know how talented and how explosive Amari Cooper has been in his first two seasons on campus. He’s been nothing if not an immediate success. But he can’t be the only youngster to stand out at the position. Not in 2014 when a new quarterback is under center and Norwood and Bell are off to professional careers. More will have to come from those further down the depth chart.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper is one of the best wideouts in the country and anchors the wide receiving corps.
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAmari Cooper is one of the best wideouts in the country and anchors the Bama wide receiving corps.
Battling for No. 1: No one is supplanting Cooper in the starting lineup. A healthy Cooper is among the best wideouts in the country. We saw as much late in the season when he began to look like himself against Auburn and Oklahoma. And chances are that White and Christion Jones, both seniors, will start alongside him once again. But with new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin at the helm and some of the logjam at receiver erased with Norwood and Bell gone, there’s a chance we see some competition for the top few reserves off the bench.

Strength in numbers: Chris Black is no longer a young pup. Fans will remember that he was actually ranked higher than Cooper by most recruiting services coming out of high school. He was injured and redshirted his first year on campus, and last season he caught just eight passes. A speedy target with good hands, he’ll be among the leading contenders off the bench. He’ll be joined by a few others, though, as Robert Foster, the former No. 2-ranked receiver in his class, and Raheem Falkins, an impressive target at 6-foot-4, enter their second year in the program.

New on the scene: Cameron Sims will only add to the deep supply of young talent at receiver when he arrives on campus. The four-star athlete and No. 8-ranked wideout in the ESPN 300 has the height (6-4) and speed (roughly a 4.52 second 40-yard dash) to make an immediate impact. He’ll have to add some weight to his 190-pound frame, but strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran is well versed in tackling that challenge. Joining Sims in the 2014 signing class is Ohio native Derek Kief. The No. 26-ranked receiver is another big target at 6-5 and 198 pounds.

Planning for success: Alabama

September, 26, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's time to turn the page, if you haven't done so already. No. 1 Alabama had its cupcake game against Colorado State last weekend, but now comes the main course with No. 21 Ole Miss coming to Tuscaloosa on Saturday.

The Crimson Tide will win if …

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron and Alabama knows they have to play better against Ole Miss on Saturday than they did against Colorado State last week.
After the way Alabama played against Colorado State, this team needed a talking to. The defense had too many missed assignments and the offensive line did a poor job of communicating. All around, it wasn't a pretty effort. And veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley recognized that, stepping up to talk to his teammates after the game in an effort to make sure the Tide's championship aspirations don't fall by the wayside. The little things that Alabama did so poorly against Colorado State, Mosley told his team, will get them beat, and beat badly by a team like Ole Miss.

Should Alabama play its game -- sound, fundamental football -- it should win. But there are serious questions about the play of the offensive line and the secondary. If either of those two areas do doesn't get turned around, Ole Miss could expose Alabama, whether it’s by forcing turnovers on defense or throwing the ball deep for big gains.

The Rebels will win if …

Meanwhile, Ole Miss comes into this game riding high, undefeated with something to prove. Year 2 of the Hugh Freeze experiment has been better than advertised with big wins over Vanderbilt and Texas. The Rebels have had immediate dividends on its spectacular 2013 signing class. True freshmen Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Tony Conner are all contributing.

But this team has yet to face anyone like Alabama. Going on the road in a tough environment in Tuscaloosa could either make or break Freeze's young squad. That said, Ole Miss does have some veterans to rely on in quarterback Bo Wallace, running back Jeff Scott and wideout Donte Moncrief. And that's just on the offensive side of the football. Much of the same nucleus that gave UA trouble at home a year ago returns to see if it can't learn its lesson and pull off the upset this time.

Ole Miss players to watch

QB Bo Wallace: Much of the talk about his offseason shoulder injury has been put to bed. Wallace, the orchestrator of Ole Miss' up-tempo attack, has looked good throwing the football, spreading it out to all of his receivers, especially his freshman tight end Evan Ingram, who is a nightmare matchup when he's split out.

S Tony Conner: Ole Miss has one glaring deficiency, and that's at cornerback where its starters come in at 5-foot-8 and 5-9, respectively. Alabama's wide receivers aren't giants, but they're bigger than that. Amari Cooper is much taller at 6-1 and true freshman Raheem Falkins would tower over them at 6-4. Instead, look for Ole Miss to pull down the 6-1 Conner from his safety position to get a better size matchup.

LB Denzel Nkemdiche: He says he'll play but his coach isn't committing to anything. Denzel Nkemdiche, older brother of Robert, injured his knee in the season opener and has been pushing to see the field against Alabama. Freeze, though, is taking it day by day. But you have believe Nkemdiche, who was the heart of Ole Miss' defense a year ago with a team-leading 82 tackles. He had a big game against the Tide a year ago, making 11 tackles, a sack and two stops behind the line of scrimmage.

Alabama players to watch

CB Deion Belue: It seems as if Alabama's best on-ball defender will be ready to go, but after sitting out last week's game with a nagging injury, you never know. Should he be sidelined, the secondary will be in big trouble. And even if he isn't, either John Fulton, Cyrus Jones or some other defensive back must step up to match Ole Miss' ability to spread the field, especially in the slot with Treadwell, who leads the Rebels in catches and receiving yards.

OLB Adrian Hubbard: Alabama's leading sack getter a season ago has been conspicuously quiet since skipping the NFL to return to school. Adrian Hubbard, the lanky pass rusher at Sam linebacker, has no sacks and just two tackles for loss this season. Against Ole Miss' spread, his ability to hold the edge and pressure the pocket will be huge.

O-line: Week 1 meant panic. Week 2 was relief. And Week 3 was a giant step back. It looked as if Alabama's offensive line has solved its problems against Texas A&M two weeks ago, moving the line of scrimmage almost at will, but against CSU this past weekend the sloppy play returned. Poor communication and bad technique are to blame, so say players, but however you define it 66 yards rushing, the number Alabama got against the lowly Rams, will not be enough against an SEC foe like Ole Miss.

Key Stats

3: Sometimes we go really in depth in the stats department, but we'll keep this number simple. Ole Miss shot itself in the foot last year with three turnovers, two from Wallace. The veteran quarterback led the league in interceptions last season (17) but he seems to have turned it around this year with zero picks through three games.

33.3: A year ago, Alabama had little trouble moving the football and converting on third downs. Not so this season as the Tide has slipped to 98th nationally and next to last in the SEC in third-down conversion percentage, moving the sticks one every three attempts, on average.

8: Alabama has owned the first half of games, outscoring teams 73-24. Those leads, though, have been harder to come by in the second half where that scoring differential slips to just eight points.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's so close you can taste it. The smell of barbecue is set to saturate the air in Atlanta as hoards of tailgaters prepare for Saturday's kickoff between No. 1 Alabama and historic ACC powerhouse Virginia Tech.

To get you ready for the game, here are some things to look for when the two schools take to the turf inside the Georgia Dome:

Alabama will win if …
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban didn't like the idea of doing it, but he did his duties and released a depth chart.

"If I were you, I wouldn't make to much of the depth chart we released," Alabama's head coach warned during Monday's news conference. "It's a chore for me to do that, it really is. I know it's important to you so we wanted to provide you with something. But don't ask me questions cause I'm telling you now, it's for you. The depth chart isn't for our team, it's for you so you can have it, write about it and talk about it. You made me do a depth chart when I didn't want to do one. So that's how I'm going to answer you."

[+] EnlargeKenyan Drake
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireKenyan Drake, Alabama's third-leading rusher in 2012, wasn't included in the 2013 depth chart released on Monday.
Try all he like, Alabama's depth chart did mean something.

Kenyan Drake, the team's third-leading rusher and a top candidate to back up starting tailback T.J. Yeldon this fall, wasn't even on it. Instead, Jalston Fowler was listed as the No. 2 back with Dee Hart, Derrick Henry and Altee Tenpenny listed as co-No. 3 at the position. Why Drake was missing is anyone's guess. Saban hasn't said a word on the subject and because the depth chart was handed out after his regular Monday press conference, no one could ask.

"T.J. certainly is a guy that has played a lot and has experience," Saban said. "I think Jalston Fowler is another guy who's played a lot and had experience. He's going to play a dual role in this game. He'll play some running back, some H-back. Dee Hart is a guy that's played some who will have some situational playing opportunities in this game as well.

"I think that there's probably two of the freshmen that have sort of -- I think they're all good. Kamara had an injury, so he missed a while. He'll be back practicing today, but it's hard to get him ready to play this game right now. Tyren Jones did a good job in the last scrimmage, but really Altee and Derrick Henry have gotten the most reps and are probably the most prepared to be able to play right now."

The offensive line came in as expected with Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle, Arie Kouandjio alongside him at left guard, Ryan Kelly at center and Anthony Steen and Austin Shepherd at right guard and right tackle, respectively.

AJ McCarron was the obvious first-team quarterback and Blake Sims his assumed second in line, but it was curious that Alec Morris was not listed as the third option off the bench.

Former starter Xzavier Dickson will share his starting duties with true sophomore Denzel Devall at Jack linebacker, but that move was expected with Dickson spending some time at defensive end this fall.

The rest of the starting linebackers remained the same with C.J. Mosley at Will, Trey DePriest at Mike and Adrian Hubbard at Sam.

Vinnie Sunseri ultimately won the starting job at strong safety opposite Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on paper, but the move was mostly superficial as both Landon Collins and Jarrick Williams will spend time there as well. Nick Perry, one of two seniors in the secondary, is slated to back up Clinton-Dix at free safety.

All told, 11 true freshmen made the two-deep, though none are projected to start: nose guard A'Shawn Robinson, defensive end Jonathan Allen, linebacker Reuben Foster, cornerback Maurice Smith, offensive tackle Grant Hill, tight end O.J. Howard, receivers Raheem Falkins and Robert Foster, long snapper Cole Mazza and tailbacks Henry and Tenpenny.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- They all look the part: long, lean, athletic. It's easy to see why they arrived in on campus with four or five stars assigned to their names.

On the practice field, Alabama's freshmen hardly look green. The country's No. 1-ranked class hasn't disappointed the eye test. Throughout fall camp, you could see their potential.

More importantly, though, you could begin to see where they might fit into the defending champion Crimson Tide's plans.

This year, not the next or the year after that, some Alabama's 25 scholarship freshmen will be called on to contribute, whether it's on special teams or in a more meaningful way on offense or defense.

Last season, 10 true freshmen played for Alabama. Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon headlined the group, but players such as Denzel Devall, Darren Lake and Geno Smith made a difference as well. Kenyan Drake carried the ball 42 times at tailback and Cyrus Jones totaled 364 all-purpose yards between playing wide receiver and returning punts.

Starting Saturday, we'll begin to see how many members of Alabama's 2013 signing class make a similar impact. After watching them develop over the past few months, here's our best guess.

Ready now

[+] EnlargeReuben Foster
Miller Safrit/ESPNFreshman linebacker Reuben Foster is getting more reps in practice.
WR Raheem Falkins: He's more than just the tallest wideout on the roster at 6-foot-4. The former three-star prospect from Louisiana has been a vacuum catching the football, impressing coaches and players alike. AJ McCarron said he's liked what he's seen. With his size, he could become a favorite target in short-yardage and red-zone situations.

ILB Reuben Foster: Saban has lauded the blue-chipper's progress throughout camp, noting a "tremendous amount of progress." He's been rewarded with increased reps to help cut down on the learning curve, and it looks as if he's made the most of it. Though he'll likely start out on special teams, don't be surprised if he makes his way into the rotation at inside linebacker early on.

TE/H O.J. Howard: He's shown signs of promise in the passing game, but the staff wants to see more. The 6-6, 237-pound Howard has all the gifts athletically to terrify defenses with his wide receiver speed and a power forward size. Even if he's a ways off in terms of his comfort level with the playbook, as Saban has indicated, it's hard to see the staff keeping him off the field.

OG Grant Hill: His name has consistently come up among those who have made an impression on his teammates. And he hasn't disappointed on the field, either. The former No. 1 offensive guard in the country has played some tackle, backing up Cyrus Kouandjio on the left side. Though he won't start, you have to expect injuries will happen in the SEC. Should Kouandjio or another lineman go down, the staff could be tempted to put Hill in.

LS Cole Mazza: With long-time snapper Carson Tinker gone, the specialist role is all Mazza's. On field goal attempts and punts, he'll be the one delivering the football.

Freshmen tailbacks: Not one or two, but all four of Alabama's coveted freshmen tailbacks are expected to play as rookies. Derrick Henry is likely the group's ringleader and is the most ready to contribute, but Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones have impressed as well. When Alvin Kamara returns from injury, he could be an added dimension to the offense, a scat-back type who can catch the ball out of the backfield or split out at wide receiver.

Coming soon

WR Robert Foster: He could be the best player to not see the field for Alabama this season. The former top-five wide receiver prospect came to camp at the last moment but never looked like he missed a beat, showing off tremendous athleticism and good hands. Because of the Tide's depth at the position, he shouldn't be needed this season. But if injuries occur, he could be called on.

OL Brandon Hill: No player made better progress physically from the spring to the fall than Hill, who is listed at 6-6 and 385 pounds and shed somewhere around 50 pounds during the course of the offseason. Though he's still not the ideal weight for a tackle, you can see now why the staff was so high on him. He's big, obviously, but he's got good quickness and strength, too. Like so many of this year's starters, he could come off the bench late in games as part of the second-team offensive line.

S Jai Miller: He's no rookie at nearly 30 years old, not to mention he's 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds. Miller, who spent a decade playing professional baseball, has experienced something of a learning curve since walking on at Alabama and only recently have we started to see where he might establish a role for himself. He's shadowed Landon Collins at money (dime) defensive back of late and could be a real spark for the Tide on special teams.

DLs Jonathan Allen, Dee Liner and A'Shawn Robinson: Senior defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan called the Tide's group of rookies the smartest he'd ever seen. Saban followed up that comment by saying all three have the ability to contribute this coming season. In need of pass-rushers, Allen and Liner could come off the bench to provide that spark. And Robinson, a mammoth of a freshman at 320 pounds, could give depth at nose guard, where Brandon Ivory is coming off an injury.

CBs Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson: The battle for a rookie to play cornerback at Alabama is so steep, most don't make it. Geno Smith's late ascent to the starting lineup last season was rare. Though Smith and Jackson fit the bill physically as 6-footers with good size, the learning curve will be difficult with Saban handling the position himself. With the Tide thin at corner, they could make an impact late in the season if they play their cards right.

A ways off

CBs Jonathan Cook and Anthony Averett: There's time left to jockey for position, but it looks like Smith and Jackson have passed fellow rookies Cook and Averett on the fast track to playing time.

LBs Tim Williams and Walker Jones: It's hard to see either Williams or Jones playing much as rookies. Jones has too much ahead of him and Williams, who has made strides during camp and looks like a young Adrian Hubbard, isn't there physically yet.

WR ArDarius Stewart: He came in as an athlete who could have played on either offense or defense. Ultimately the staff put him at wide receiver, where he's looked good, but he'll need time to adjust to playing there full time.

QBs Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod and Luke Del Rio: Ideally, all three will redshirt the season and retain full eligibility heading into next season, when the Tide will figure out who AJ McCarron's successor will be. With Blake Sims and Alec Morris dueling it out for No. 2 now, expect the rookies to ride the bench and learn the ropes in 2013.
Alabama starting linebacker Trey DePriest has been suspended for violation of team rules, according to Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, who stressed that the team's second-leading tackler from a season ago would be able to return to the field shortly if he fulfills his obligations.

DePriest, a junior with NFL potential at 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, missed Tuesday's practice in Tuscaloosa. He's part of a linebacking corps that returns all four of its starters from a season ago, including All-American inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and top pass-rusher Adrian Hubbard on the outside.

[+] EnlargeTrey DePriest
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsTrey DePriest has been suspended by Alabama for a violation of team rules.
"[DePriest] played very well for us," Saban told reporters. "He made a mistake. He didn’t do the right thing. It wasn’t a very smart thing to do, and there has to be consequences sometimes when you don’t do the right things. Hopefully, he’ll learn from it, it will make him better and he’ll have a better chance to be successful in life."

Saban also announced that star wide receiver Amari Cooper would miss the next few practices with a strained foot. The Pre-Season All-SEC selection led the team with 59 catches, 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, setting nearly every Alabama rookie receiving record in the process.

Cooper wore a black no-contact jersey during practice on Tuesday.

"He’s going to be out for a few days," Saban explained, "and then he will be day-to-day. I don’t think he’s going to be hurt for a long time."

Luckily for Saban, Alabama is loaded at wide receiver. Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones, DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell all have starting experience and freshmen such as Chris Black, Robert Foster and Raheem Falkins are pushing for playing time as well.

"The receiver group has progressed very, very well from where we were at this point last year," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said at UA's media day on August 4. "We have a couple of new players, a lot of returning guys, a lot of guys who've played a lot of games. Obviously we had some injury issues last year that helped us develop some younger players."

Alabama was able to welcome back tight end Malcolm Faciane on Tuesday after he finished a 30-day suspension for violation of team rules. The 6-foot-5, 267-pound redshirt sophomore was in line for more reps this season after the departure of Michael Williams, but will have an uphill battle now that backups such as Harrison Jones and O.J. Howard have begun making their case for playing time.

"I don’t like suspending players," Saban said. "If we’re going to punish any players or suspend any players, it’s going to be in their best interest to change their behavior so they have a better opportunity to be successful. If it’s not going to do that, I don’t see any reason to do it.

"It’s almost like raising your kids. If you’re going to spank them and it doesn’t change their behavior, why spank them? If you take their computer or their cell phone away from them and it changes their behavior, I’d say that’s the thing to do. We would only do it in the best interest of the player."
Landon CollinsMarvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsFreshman O.J. Howard is already a load for Alabama, as the four-star tight end will most certainly see quite a bit of playing time for the Crimson Tide this season.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- They haven't taken their first college class, but Alabama's freshmen have begun their education in Tuscaloosa. Fall camp, with all the difficulties and challenges it presents, is in full swing for the defending champion Crimson Tide and rookies such as Reuben Foster and Grant Hill are getting their first taste of what it means to compete in the SEC.

With a full week of practice already in the books, Alabama's No. 1-ranked signing class has been met with overwhelmingly positive reviews. Veteran defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan said there are some potential impact players in the class, saying of the group: "They're really smart, they're fast, they're big."

Ed Stinson, another established player on the defensive line, said the newcomers don't even look like freshmen.

"They're some big boys," he said. "They're strong."

Nick Saban, meanwhile, wasn't nearly as complimentary. That's to be expected, as the seventh-year head coach has had impressive looking players before. What he cares about is how they put those talents to use.

"You can look at that glass as half empty or half full," Saban said earlier in the week. "You see some players who can do it and you see some players who struggle to do it. I'm not disappointed. You make players aware of it. You point it out to them. 'Are you giving the kind of effort that you need? Are you having the kind of focus to execute the technique we need to have you execute?' I don't think there's any player who doesn't want to do it. It's just building the maturity and mental toughness to sustain it. That's part of the development of every player. The older players can do it because they've been through it before and can understand it. It's a process that the younger players have to go through so that they can develop those qualities and characteristics."

Saban wouldn't say who has disappointed and who has impressed. That's not his way. But this reporter has no such qualms. In this week's edition of Alabama Intel, we look at which freshmen have stood out so far.


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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Ask coaches around college football and they'll tell you how underrated Alabama's offense has been. One SEC defensive coordinator told me this summer that AJ McCarron still doesn't get enough credit for what he's accomplished as a passer. He said the word "steady" comes to mind when he looks at the tape, but that it shouldn't fool you into thinking the Tide's offense lacks punch: McCarron and Co. were consistently successful at getting the better of defenses in 2012.

While Nick Saban's defense has gotten the bulk of credit in the past -- and rightly so, considering it has finished in the top five nationally in points allowed every year since 2008 -- it shouldn't go unnoticed what he's quietly constructed on the other side of the ball thanks to back-to-back No. 1 recruiting classes and a change in philosophy. He's claimed all along that he was willing to throw more and that he wanted more big plays, but for the longest time his offense has been characterized as conservative, leaning on the defense and running game while asking its quarterbacks to simply manage the proceedings.

But when Saban hired Doug Nussmeier as offensive coordinator following the 2011 season, everything changed.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
AP Photo/David J. PhillipAJ McCarron will have a deep and talented wide receiver corps to throw to this fall.
Having arguably the best offensive line in the country and a stable NFL-caliber tailbacks gave the Tide balance -- the difference in rushing and passing yards a razor thin 2.1 percent compared to, say, Oregon which had a differential of 17.3 percent. That opened things up for the passing game, as McCarron finished No. 1 nationally in passing efficiency and fell 67 yards shy of becoming the school's first 3,000-yard passer. There's no telling how many more yards he would have thrown for had Alabama not jumped out to so many big leads, pulling ahead by two touchdowns or more by halftime in 10 games.

With a fresh slate, a veteran quarterback and the deepest group of receivers in recent memory, Alabama's offense has a chance to do even more in 2013. It could, much to the chagrin of opposing coaches, become one of the most explosive attacks in the country.

"Very, very excited for Year 2," Nussmeier said on Sunday. "We've got a long way to go, but I'm really impressed by the job that [strength coach Scott Cochran] and his guys have done in the weight room preparing these guys coming into camp. The focus, the improvements that we've made over the summer are there. Really looking forward to progressing each day as we look forward to playing a very, very good Virginia Tech game in the opener."

Nussmeier kept to the cliches in what will be his only time speaking with the media this season, stressing the need to maintain balance and stick to the program's core philosophies. But it's difficult to imagine him not giving into his roots as a record-setting college quarterback given what he'll have to work with this season. McCarron is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender under center and an already talented receiving corps welcomes back former starters DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell after missing time last season with injuries. Former top-25 prospect Chris Black has shed his redshirt and is eager to prove himself, as are true freshmen Raheem Falkins and Robert Foster.

"The receiver group has progressed very, very well from where we were at this point last year," Nussmeier explained. "We have a couple of new players, a lot of returning guys, a lot of guys who've played a lot of games."

The headliner of the group, Amari Cooper, set nearly every rookie receiving record Alabama had in 2012, passing Julio Jones on his way to double-digit touchdowns and 1,000 yards. And like the former SEC Freshman of the Year and first-round draft pick, Cooper should only improve with age. As Nussmeier pointed out, Cooper took time to develop into a go-to target last season, starting his first career game in Week 6.

"Towards the end of the season, he was playing as good as anybody in the country at that position," Nussmeier said. "He continues to develop, and I can talk about the little intricacies, he's still learning. He's really starting to focus on the little things that are going to take his game to the next level."

Christion Jones agreed with his coordinator, calling Cooper an impact player since the first time he set foot on the field in Tuscaloosa.

Jones was one of two receivers to start 10 games last season, frustrating defenses with his ability to run after the catch, averaging 13.6 yards every time he touched the ball. Despite that, he said he and Cooper are fighting for reps.

"At Alabama, everything we do is competitive," he said. "You have to bring your 'A' game to practice, not just the game."

Bell is one such player pushing for a return to the starting lineup. His 25.4 yards per catch in 2012 was the best in the country among receivers with at least 15 receptions. Now that his broken leg is healed, he's the type of home run threat McCarron can turn to when a big play is needed.

But it's not just Bell who will keep defensive coordinator's up at night. The speedy senior agreed: the offense's potential is sky high.

"Especially since we have the people we have," he said. "We have a great quarterback, a great running back, great receiver, a great offensive line. I think we can be one of the most stellar offenses in the country."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- In a lot of ways, summer camp is the great equalizer. For college football programs like Alabama, it's a time where there are so many prospects in one place that the names on the back of the jerseys begin to mean nothing and all that matters is the performance. Who they are and what they're ranked as goes out the window. Sometimes there aren't names on the players jerseys at all, just numbers by which to objectively evaluate and grade on a sheet of paper.

Alec Morris was a name no one knew before he came to Alabama's camp two years ago. Plenty of college coaches had seen the strong-armed Texas quarterback throw but very few had offered him a scholarship. Because of that, he was viewed as a marginal prospect. Why? Well, that was a mystery even to those intimately involved in the process.

Alec Morris
Jeff Andrews/ESPNDallas.com Alec Morris might be the favorite to take over for AJ McCarron as Alabama's quarterback in 2014.
"They'd all said they liked what they saw, that he had a live arm and good zip on his passes," said Jeff Fleener, Morris' former offensive coordinator at Allen High just outside of Dallas. "We'd ask the guys that why they didn't offer and what it came down to every time was because the head coach doesn't understand why he doesn't have more offers in the first place."

He explained the phenomena as such: "Once a player gets one or two offers, he'll get one hundred."

Alabama, Fleener said, didn't bother with whether other schools thought enough of Morris to offer a scholarship.

"Luckily for Alabama they trust their evaluation process," he said. "They don't get caught up in stars or offers."

What made the difference for Morris was camp and a throwing session the Allen High staff called to request of Alabama. Morris, who was already committed to Wake Forrest and whose only other offer was from North Texas, was in the state visiting family and wanted the chance to have at least one day to show UA head coach Nick Saban and then-offensive coordinator Jim McElwain what he could do.

By the time he left a session with McElwain and Saban, Morris had made an indelible impression, earning a scholarship offer that would become committable if neither of the two previously offered quarterbacks -- Jameis Winston and Gunner Kiel -- chose to come to Alabama.

Soon after camp, Winston committed to Florida State, Kiel went with Indiana and Morris flipped his commitment from Wake Forest to Alabama. Today, Morris is in the running to back up AJ McCarron under center and could very well wind up the starting quarterback in 2014.

But Morris' story isn't the only one of a no-name player making waves at camp. Offensive lineman Brandon Hill came out of nowhere to land an offer two years ago. Wide receiver Raheem Falkins' performance at camp sewed up his position with Alabama a year ago. Amari Cooper, who would go on to set nearly every rookie receiving record at Alabama this past season, was on no one's radar before he camped in Tuscaloosa.

Camp, with its one-on-one sessions and top competition, separates the wheat from the chaff for college coaches. With a player on campus, they get to answer the most important question of all: Can this kid play for me?

Fleener said that it's a running joke that as a staff they can make nearly any player look good on tape. What they do when they get to camp and actually have to perform is something different altogether.

"If you cut it down to 10-11 clips, we can make them look like an All American," Fleener said. "They want to know, is this kid a highlight video?

"Camp is definitely an opportunity for them to see what kind of football player they're recruiting."
It’s Rankings Week at TideNation. Every day we’ll rank some aspect of the Alabama football program heading into the 2013 season. Today we’re ranking the top 10 UA rookies with the chance of making the biggest impact in the fall. On Friday we’ll rank the Tide’s top needs in recruiting for the Class of 2014, as well as give you the top players the staff are pursuing at those positions.

Rookies with the best chance of making an impact

[+] EnlargeO.J. Howard
Miller Safrit/ESPNO.J. Howard is expected to make an immediate impact at tight end.
1. TE/H-back O.J. Howard: He's big, he's tall and he's fast. Really, he's unlike any tight end Alabama has had in the Nick Saban era in that he can make plays on his own because of his athleticism. Howard, the former No. 2 tight end prospect in the country, enrolled early and showed why he's viewed as a game-changer at the position. As teammate Brian Vogler put it, "He's a whole new dimension to the offense."

2. RB Derrick Henry: He'll play running back. Let's get that out of the way right now. At 6-foot-3 and some 240 pounds, Henry doesn't look like your prototypical ball-carrier, but that's what he'll be as a freshman. And watch out. Teammates marveled at his strength, saying he looked like a taller version of Trent Richardson on the practice fields. A broken leg caused him to miss A-Day, but he's expected to be back to 100 percent before the start of fall camp.

3. WR Raheem Falkins: As the No. 41-ranked receiver in a signing class that featured No. 2-ranked Robert Foster, it's understandable why Falkins wasn't on many people's radar coming into spring camp. But the tall, rangy wideout from Louisiana enrolled early and showed he's more than just a project. He was quick, smooth and graceful with the football, belying his size. But it's his size that gives him an edge. At 6-foot-4, he'll be the tallest receiver on the roster and thus a good option in the red zone.

4. OT Leon Brown: Don't count Brown out of the race at right tackle just yet. Veteran Austin Shepherd has the lead, but Brown isn't so far behind that he can't catch up. The former No. 2-ranked juco offensive tackle enrolled early this spring and transitioned well to the college game under new position coach Mario Cristobal. He could hit his stride this fall after a full offseason in the weight and film rooms.

5. LB Jonathan Allen: It's no secret that Alabama needs help rushing the passer, and Allen is a talent in that respect. The former No. 3-ranked defensive end in the country got after the quarterback well in high school, and the native Virginian will be asked to do the same in Tuscaloosa, albeit from a hybrid linebacker position. He already has the size at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, it's just a matter of taking to a new position.

6. DL Dee Liner: Nabbing Liner away from the Auburn Tigers late in the recruiting season was a home run for the Alabama staff. The No. 4-ranked defensive tackle in the ESPN 150 has the quickness Alabama is looking for in its defensive linemen, as well as the versatility to play multiple spots on the field.

7. RB Alvin Kamara: Like Falkins, Kamara will have an edge on his competition in that he'll have a niche role. Unlike all the other Alabama tailbacks that are generally one-cut power runners, Kamara is a guy with the shiftiness to get outside the tackles, make multiple cuts and run away from the defense. He's got good hands, too, meaning he could be a weapon on third down and in passing situations if he shows he can block effectively.

8. CB Maurice Smith: Alabama needs depth at cornerback, and Smith is the highest-rated defensive back in the Tide's 2013 signing class. More importantly he's a physical corner which Bama coach Nick Saban will like, and he's a guy who is used to competition having come up through the Texas high school football ranks. But be warned, his transition to college will take time. It's no easy task for a freshman to learn Saban's way of playing corner. It took Geno Smith until nearly the end of his first season to figure it out.

9. LB Reuben Foster: The tattoos and backstory now fully behind him, it will be interesting to see what Foster does with a fresh start. Say what you will about his personality, but his talent is undeniable. As the No. 1-rated inside linebacker in the ESPN 150, he has the strength, size and speed to be a force at the next level.

10. LS Cole Mazza: In all honesty, Mazza could be at the top of this list if it were "Who is the most likely to play as a freshman?" Instead it was a question of impact, and measuring the potential for impact is debatable given the position he'll play. We could see the long-snapper playing from Day 1 seeing as he's the only player Saban has ever awarded a scholarship at his position. He's the heir to Carson Tinker, who played in 38 career games.
Editor's note: TideNation will use this week to look at the four major positions on the football field and how their outlook has changed post-spring practice. Today we examine the threats in the passing game:

Who's leading?

AJ McCarron is a happy man these days, and not just because he gets to drive the pace car at Talladega. The senior quarterback is smiling, in part, because of the number of weapons he'll have to work with this coming season.

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- AJ McCarron was almost giddy when he spoke with ESPN's Tom Rinaldi on the morning of national signing day. Alabama's junior quarterback has won two national championships as a starter, and he broke all kinds of passing records this past season. And despite all he has accomplished, the steely, strong-armed veteran had something to get worked up about, something to look forward to next season.

McCarron wasn't smiling because of the big board of recruits being filled up in the Alabama football offices. He checked out of the recruiting game the minute he signed his own national letter of intent. The quarterback instead went flush when Rinaldi asked what excited him most about the upcoming season.

[+] EnlargeHoward
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackNewcomer O.J. Howard, an H-back, will bolster an already multitalented group catching rockets from AJ McCarron in 2013.
"My receivers," McCarron answered, laughing nervously. "I look out there and see the explosive guys out wide that can make plays."

McCarron won't lack for options in the passing game in 2013. All of his starters return, including fab freshman Amari Cooper. Cooper, Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones will be joined by a talented group of backups: DeAndrew White, Kenny Bell, Chris Black, Marvin Shinn and Cyrus Jones. Throw in the two wideout prospects and one tight end signed on Wednesday and the list of targets goes up. Robert Foster, the No. 2 receiver in the ESPN 150, and O.J. Howard, the second-ranked tight end/H-back in the country, will make an impact sooner or later.

"We have different types of receivers -- bigger guys, smaller guys that are fast," McCarron told Rinaldi. "It's going to be a fun year for our offense."

(Read full post)

Editor’s note: Every Tuesday and Thursday until national signing day, TideNation will review each position and look at who figures to start, who could rise up the depth chart and who might be on the way. Today we’ll look at the wide receivers.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Even with a national championship in hand, the Alabama coaching staff must look back at the passing game and wonder, "What if?"

What if DeAndrew White hadn't torn up his knee against Ole Miss? Would Amari Cooper have won the starting job and become AJ McCarron's go-to target if he had?


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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s one thing to go into Death Valley and steal a win away from LSU in the fourth quarter, but it’s another to go into Baton Rouge and steal a top 50 recruit right out of the Tigers’ backyard.

That’s exactly what Nick Saban and the University of Alabama did on Monday.

ESPN 150 defensive end Tim Williams, who projects as an outside linebacker at Alabama, committed to the Crimson Tide over offers from nearly every major program in the country, including LSU.

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