Alabama Crimson Tide: Ryan Kelly

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.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Like a lot of position battles going on during spring practice in Tuscaloosa, Ala., -- hello, quarterbacks -- the starting five up front for the Crimson Tide likely won’t be decided anytime soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The depth chart means nothing right now,” Shepherd said. “The depth chart won't mean anything until we play West Virginia.”

Room to improve: Offensive line

February, 19, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is Part III in a weeklong series looking at Alabama’s top five position groups with room to improve.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It wasn’t all bad. It’s sometimes important to remember that. Despite a very sour finish against Oklahoma, Alabama’s offensive line wasn’t a complete disaster. In fact, it was far from that. The Tide actually allowed six fewer sacks this past season than they did the season before when the line was hailed as the best in the country and one of the best of all-time.

But, yes, there’s room for the line to improve. The running game wasn’t as dominant as in years past, and the line is somewhat to blame for that. The pocket wasn’t as wide open as quarterback AJ McCarron would have like it, and that came from up front.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesCenter Ryan Kelly will help anchor Alabama's offensive line in 2014.
With Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama’s franchise left tackle, and Anthony Steen, a three-year starter at left guard, off to the NFL, there’s plenty of work to do for offensive line coach Mario Cristobal. He wasn’t there to coach the 2012 offensive line, and now all that Steen and Kouandjio are gone, neither are any of its former five starters.

Battling for No. 1: The good news for Cristobal is that because of the injuries throughout last season, he already has a good idea of who his candidates are to start. Ryan Kelly should remain the starter at center, as should Arie Kouandjio at left guard. Austin Shepherd has done nothing to lost his job at right tackle. And thanks to opportunities throughout the season, we know that Leon Brown is good candidate to start in Steen’s place at guard. And Grant Hill could play either guard or tackle, if need be. Hill, the former No. 1-rated offensive guard coming out of high school, is a more natural fit inside at guard, though.

Strength in numbers: Brandon Hill might be the most intriguing returning player on the offensive line. The massive tackle/guard prospect came to campus last year hugely overweight and has since trimmed down to a more manageable 385 pounds. If he sheds a few more belt sizes, he could be push for time at either position. While you’re at it, don’t count out Alphonse Taylor, either. The rising sophomore is no slouch at 335 pounds and was listed as the backup to Steen throughout the regular season. Meanwhile, look for Chad Lindsay, who started four games, to provide quality depth behind Kelly at center.

New on the scene: The wildcard in the competition to replace Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle is Cameron Robinson. In fact, the two are very similar in that they were both the No. 1-ranked offensive tackle prospects coming out of high school, and they both had the look of an NFL All-Pro from the minute they stepped foot on campus. Robinson, the No. 3 overall prospect in the country, is a massive 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds already. Should he get a firm grasp on the playbook early on -- he’s already enrolled and will compete in the spring, which helps -- he could become a part of the equation by fall camp. Left tackle is one of the most difficult positions on the line to learn, but you’ll recall that Kouandjio played in eight games as a true freshman before suffering a season-ending injury. In addition to Robinson, Alabama will welcome in the No. 1 and No. 2-ranked centers in the country, Josh Casher and J.C. Hassenauer, as well as the No. 28-ranked offensive guard, Montel McBride.
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.

Five things: Alabama-Auburn

November, 30, 2013
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Here are five things to watch as No. 1 Alabama takes on No. 4 Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium for one of the South's biggest rivalries: The Iron Bowl.

Big-game jitters: Alabama has been through this drill before. Big games are nothing new to the veteran Crimson Tide. AJ McCarron doesn't buy into the hype and neither does C.J. Mosley. For them, it's just another game. But for Auburn, this isn't just another game. Gus Malzahn has said all the right things, but there's no denying that this is the biggest game of his tenure as the Tigers' head coach. It's a moment for Auburn to prove it's more than lucky. It's a chance to earn a reputation as a championship contender. And frankly, Auburn's players have never had to deal with that kind of pressure. How will they respond? When Nova flies around Jordan-Hare Stadium and the buzz reaches a fever pitch, will Auburn keep its emotions in check or allow them to run wild?

McCarron for Heisman: The momentum is gaining quickly. But is it too late for McCarron to become a serious contender to win the Heisman Trophy? Given Jameis Winston's off-the-field entanglements and Johnny Manziel's three losses this season, the chips are starting to fall McCarron's way. His numbers are impressive (2,399 yards, 23 touchdowns, five interceptions), but has he had the kind of "Heisman Moment" that can catapult him to victory? You could argue his performance against Texas A&M was up to that billing, but that was so long ago and his game against LSU didn't exactly intrigue would be voters. If McCarron is going to win the Heisman, he'll have to do it on Saturday afternoon against Auburn. A big game on the biggest stage might be the final push to send him into the forefront of the Heisman race.

Protecting the quarterback: As Auburn defensive end Dee Ford told reporters this week, "You change the game when you get to the quarterback." Make no mistake, the Tigers defense plans on pinning back their ears and getting after McCarron on Saturday. And with Ford, Nosa Eguae and Carl Lawson at defensive end, they have the tools to do it. Alabama has faced good defensive lines this season (Virginia Tech, LSU, etc.) but none had the type of edge rushers Auburn possesses. As Ford said, "[McCarron] hasn't been hit all year, so we want to see what he can do after being hit a few times."

Who starts at center?: A sprained knee has Alabama starting center Ryan Kelly as a game-time decision, according to coach Nick Saban. He hurt the knee early this week and was limited in practice since then. Saban stopped short of saying that backup Chad Lindsay would start, but you've got to believe the staff has confidence in him after already starting three games this season. “Chad Lindsay did great when he played and we did great on the offensive line,” Saban told reporters on Wednesday. “We have every confidence in him, we view him as a starter.”

Perimeter tackling: This isn't a game where the front seven will do all the work. Alabama's secondary will have to put a hat on a hat to be successful against Auburn's vaunted running game. Nick Marshall and Tre Mason aren't the only two guys that can hurt you. As one SEC head coach told me, the trouble with defending Auburn is that there are five or six guys who can run the ball from anywhere in the formation. Defending the end-arounds, fly-sweeps and other perimeter runs will be vital for Alabama. Because of that, look for safety Landon Collins to have a big day. He's one of the best on Alabama's defense in terms of reading the play and closing speed.
Iron BowlCredit: ESPN Stats & InfoThe Iron Bowl winner has also gone on to win the BCS national title in each of the past four seasons.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Saturday's epic Iron Bowl on the Plains is what all rivalry games should look like.

When No. 1 Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC) travels to see fourth-ranked Auburn (10-1, 6-1), it will be the first time these two get together with the SEC Western Division title and a shot at the BCS title game on the line. A year removed from these programs going in opposite directions -- Auburn was 3-8 at this point last season -- the Iron Bowl has real life and really high stakes.

"This is why you play the game -- to play in a game like we're going to play at the end of the year where all of the marbles are on the line, and here we go," Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said. "That's why you play; that's why you're a competitor.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsTre Mason and Auburn are looking forward to the team's biggest home game in years.
"This is what makes your blood boil. This is what makes you tick. This is what makes you get up early."

And became of the stakes, the Iron Bowl is the king of the rivalries this season. Michigan and Ohio State should always be playing for the Big Ten title and a shot in the bigger game in January. Florida-Florida State, Oklahoma-Texas and Notre Dame-USC should have the same big-time, high-stakes feel year in and year out. In a sport that always seems to battle its own cyclical nature, the best of the best among rivalries should always look and feel this big.

It's what the college football gods intended. Sure, we like surprises. When underdogs succeed, we're all pretty stoked. But these historic rivalries should consistently be front and center.

What Alabama-LSU has had in the last few years is what traditional, historical rivalries like this one should never lack.

Remember when No. 1 Ohio State's thrilling 42-39 victory over No. 2 Michigan to end the 2006 regular season served as a de facto semifinal for the BCS title game? Everyone was watching that one because it meant so much and had two storied programs essentially playing for it all.

Remember the "Bush Push" that featured No. 1 USC and No. 9 Notre Dame? It ended in thrilling fashion in front of the entire country when Reggie Bush nudged Matt Leinart over the goal line with three seconds left for a 34-31 win.

Who can forget the end-of-the-year bouts between Florida and Florida State during the 1990s?

Saturday marks the first time both Alabama and Auburn have been ranked in the BCS standings heading into the Iron Bowl since 2010. Auburn's 28-27 victory helped send the Tigers to the national championship that season. Before that, both teams hadn't been ranked in the game since 2005, and the game wasn't nearly as important in the national scheme of things the way this one is.

"It should always be like that," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said.

"We said that also. We wanted to give our fans what they deserve, and they deserve to be a part of an Iron Bowl that hasn't been like this for years. It's a great feeling."

It's great for the game. The Iron Bowl is the biggest event in the state of Alabama each year, but it's also a major deal nationally. Do I even need to bring up Harvey Updyke?

"I think the roots, they run a little bit deeper down here," Alabama center Ryan Kelly told reporters after Saturday's 49-0 victory over Chattanooga. "It's always a big game, especially this year. We're two top-10 teams and on the road at Auburn. It's going to be a big game. It's really critical this week that we have a good week at practice in preparation for it."

For both teams, Atlanta and Pasadena are on the line. Alabama is in the driver's seat for the latter destination, while Auburn still needs some help. But imagine how much the Tigers would help themselves with a win over the nation's top-ranked team.

The Tigers own the SEC's best running game (320.3 yards per game), and Alabama has the league's best rush defense (91.3). Just call it an unstoppable force vs an immovable object.

Nick Saban worked from the ground up to get Alabama here. Gus Malzahn has needed just a season.

Alabama grinds on offense and smothers on defense. Auburn spreads you out and is allowing 406 yards a game and has given up 23 points or more five times.

Something will have to give in this historic matchup.

"To be in this situation in probably the biggest rivalry in college football, it's unreal," Auburn running back Tre Mason said. "It's pretty much like the national championship before the national championship to me.

"A lot of people around the country are going to be tuned in, so we have to put on a show."

SEC lunchtime links

November, 19, 2013
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Plenty of goings-on in the SEC today. Let's dive right into it:
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama's offensive line represents the ultimate failure to manage expectations, to live in the world as it is as opposed to the world as it might become.

This season's line wasn't the same as its predecessor, but it was expected to have the same type of production. Just look at Ryan Kelly. He was no Barrett Jones, yet he was hyped as a possible improvement over a player with more accolades than any in Alabama history. How crazy was that?

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsRyan Kelly and Alabama's offensive line have gotten better with each game.
Looking back, it's easy to spot the lunacy. That's no knock on Kelly, who could very well end up being a more talented center than Jones by the time his career is over. But come on. You don't replace Jones' Outland and Rimington trophies overnight. You can't quantify what his experience and leadership meant over four years as a starter at guard, tackle and center for the Crimson Tide.

At the same time, you don't sneak Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker out the back door and expect no one to notice. Those were two first-round NFL draft picks. You could have run a rusty wheelchair behind them and picked up first downs. Granted, Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd were talented replacements, but they hadn't started a game in their careers. We didn't even know if Kouandjio could stay healthy for an entire season, for goodness sake.

In other words, we should have seen Alabama's early-season struggles on the offensive line coming. We should have expected the performances vs. Virginia Tech and Colorado State when the line didn't get push, AJ McCarron was pressured, and the running game never materialized. We shouldn't have thought the success of 2012 would transition into 2013 without so much as a blip in the radar. It doesn't work that way.

All they really needed was time and more realistic expectations.

So it's no wonder we've seen such a dramatic improvement from Alabama's offensive line over the past few weeks. The line hasn't allowed a single sack since the third quarter of the Ole Miss game on Sept. 28 -- that's a streak of 17 quarters for those keeping score at home -- and the running game is suddenly potent again. The offense has begun to click on all cylinders, jumping up to No. 35 nationally with 462.8 yards per game.

Coach Nick Saban touted their improved chemistry and trust with one another, saying how important experience has been to their development.

"They have played well," he said. "They've run blocked well these last few weeks. The last four weeks we thought played well on the offensive line. I think that's important to us, especially with AJ. If he doesn't get pressured in the pocket and we get people open, he's pretty accurate throwing the ball and makes good choices and decisions.

"I think it's a key to us being successful that they continue to improve and play well up front. We'll play against some good defensive linemen and some good defensive teams down the road."

By "down the road" Saban meant this Saturday's game against LSU. Though the 13th-ranked Tigers' defense has been up-and-down this season, they still possess some of the country's best talent on the defensive line. Tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson are monsters at 309 and 294 pounds, respectively.

LSU currently ranks fifth in the league in scoring defense (24.8 ppg), sixth in passing efficiency defense (131.9) and have accounted for the fifth-most sacks (20) in the league.

Had Saturday's game come earlier in the season for Alabama, there might be a full-blown crisis among Tide fans over the state of the offensive line. We'd be hearing questions about whether they could handle the pass rush and if that would mean the offense as a whole wouldn't score enough points to win.

But instead, we're hearing next to nothing. Luckily for Alabama, the offensive line has found its stride in the nick of time. It's almost as if the early struggles never happened. The names of Jones, Warmack and Fluker aren't forgotten in Tuscaloosa, but they're not as agonized over as they were in the first few weeks of the season.

"The past three or four games we were clicking on all levels of the run game and pass game," said right guard Anthony Steen, "and right now we’re just trying not to lose the beat and stay on top of things.”

Steen, a veteran presence with more than 30 starts under his belt, didn't know about the line's streak without allowing a sack until a reporter told him. He wasn't focused on that, he said, and neither were his teammates. Rather than getting to up or too down, he's tried to keep everyone even-keeled.

What's been said and what's happened this season won't matter when LSU comes to town this weekend, and Steen knows that. He said the Tigers' defensive line "will be the most physical line we'll see all season" and that's the only challenge he's worried about.

"We know it’s going to be a tough game," he said. "We know it’s probably going to come down to two or three plays. If they have two good plays and an 80-yard pass and an 80-yard run, then we might lose. But if we have two or three good plays then we might win.

"It’s going to be that type of game. We know that, and we know it’s going to come down to the end."

Five things: Alabama-Tennessee

October, 26, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch as top-ranked Alabama (7-0, 4-0) hosts upstart Tennessee (4-3, 1-2) on Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa:

Start of life without Sunseri: Vinnie Sunseri, Alabama's junior starting safety, has a brace on his knee after undergoing season-ending surgery earlier in the week. Saturday might be even more difficult as he'll have to watch from afar as Landon Collins starts in his place. Collins is talented, but young. The good news is he's played well of late, filling in for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at free safety, and now he'll be back in his natural position at strong safety. Look for Jarrick Williams and Geno Smith to play there as well.

Penalty-free play: First, do yourself a favor and check out Holly Rowe's video feature on long-time Alabama referee Ed Conyers. Then take a minute to reflect on the Crimson Tide's historic performance last weekend when it failed to commit a single penalty against Arkansas. Alabama hadn't gone penalty free since Sept. 1982.

Offensive line humming: Will Ryan Kelly play or not? The sophomore hasn't started at center since injuring himself against Ole Miss, and Chad Linsday has played well in his place. Alabama coach Nick Saban said Kelly has been "full go" this week, so he's likely to see the field in some form or fashion. If he does, he'll have to help continue another impressive streak Alabama has going: The Tide hasn't surrendered a sack since the third quarter against Ole Miss on Sept. 28.

Is it now or never for Cooper?: It's tough to make that statement for a player like Amari Cooper, who has battled some nagging injuries. But sooner or later you have to wonder if he'll ever get back to the form that made him a consensus Freshman All-America a year ago. Cooper's played better of late, catching three passes in each of the last two games. He blew up against Tennessee last season with 162 yards and two touchdowns. Maybe a familiar foe will help jump start his sophomore campaign.

Cornerback carousel: First it was John Fulton. Then it was Cyrus Jones. Then it was Eddie Jackson. Then it was Bradley Sylve. And then it came back to Fulton. But his stint opposite Deion Belue at cornerback appears to be short-lived, as Saban said on his weekly radio show that Jones will likely start in place of Sylve, who is out with a high ankle sprain. Saban said Jones, who switched from receiver to defensive back this spring, is "probably played the best of all those guys right now." As far as Jackson and fellow freshman Maurice Smith, "It's still a little bit of a work in progress," Saban said.

Planning for success: Alabama

October, 24, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Ready for a good old-fashioned rivalry? We've got one when the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (7-0, 4-0) hosts the Tennessee Volunteers (4-3, 1-2) on Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.

Can lightning strike twice for Tennessee? Riding an upset victory over South Carolina this past weekend, the hope for Butch Jones' squad is that the answer is yes.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban is building respect for this week's opponent.
And, as always, Nick Saban is guarding against that possibility.

"We have a tremendous amount of respect for Tennessee and the job that they've done this year," he said. "They've really played well the last two weeks. I think it's really going to be important for us to focus on the things we need to improve on.

"Certainly a big game for us."

So who are some players to watch and some stats to chew on? We've got that for you right here:

Tennessee players to watch

RB Rajion Neal: The 5-foot-11 senior has quietly been one of the best running backs in the SEC this season. He's currently tied for fourth on in the league in rushing with 693 yards and eight touchdowns.

OT Antonio Richardson: Really, it's not just Richardson. As Saban pointed out Wednesday, "They've got two really good tackles, probably both NFL type guys who will be high draft picks." If you're looking for the key to Tennessee's success this season just look up front. Richardson leads what's arguably the best offensive line in the SEC.

DL Daniel McCullers: It may not be the best defensive line in the country, but Tennessee's got some heft on that side of the ball, too. McCullers is the Vols’ version of Terrence Cody, a mammoth run stuffer at 6-foot-8 and 351 pounds. Alabama's interior offensive linemen will be tested by his size and strength Saturday.

Alabama players to watch

C Ryan Kelly: Will he play or won't he? Kelly has missed the last three games recovering from an injury, but was "full go this week," according to Saban. Odds are Chad Linsday will continue to start, but look for Kelly to work his way back into the mix.

WR Amari Cooper: After starting the season slowly, Cooper has shown signs of resurgence in recent games. With some nagging injuries behind him, he's playing faster and producing more with six receptions in his last two games. Cooper's coming-out party last season was against Tennessee. Maybe familiarity will be the jump-start he needs.

RB Derrick Henry: He flew down the sideline like a blur. Henry, Alabama's larger than life tailback, sprinted past Arkansas' defense for an 80-yard touchdown run last Saturday, the first score of his career. Saban said Wednesday that there's no question he has the ability. How he picks up the little things like blocking -- things he wasn't asked to do in high school -- will determine how much he contributes down the stretch as a freshman.

Key stats

15: Alabama's pass protection has been stout of late, failing to give up a sack since the third quarter against Ole Miss. The Tide ranks 15th nationally and third in the SEC with 1.00 sacks allowed per game.

16: Alabama's defense is on a historic run of late, surrendering just 16 points in its last five games.

17: Just how explosive is Alabama sophomore running back Kenyan Drake? He and Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota are the only two players in the country with 17 rushes of 10-plus yards in fewer than 70 carries.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Dad read about it first before calling his son Monday morning to break the good news. Anthony Steen had been named the SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week, and the Alabama veteran right guard was one of the last people to find out.

Steen, according to the release, had the top grade on the line against Kentucky with no missed assignments, no sacks, no pressures and no penalties. Over the phone, his dad told him he finally had the award he'd been waiting for.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Steen
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesAnthony Steen was a quiet member of Alabama's star-studded offensive line in 2012. One year later, he's one of the Tide's veteran leaders.
"I was telling my dad I've been working, trying to get that for three years now and I'm glad I finally got it," Steen told reporters in a rare moment of self reflection, one that ended as quickly as it began. "As I told him, I'm not going to sit here and celebrate like he was trying to celebrate for me. I've got another SEC game this week to focus on."

Steen's focus has never wavered since signing with Alabama in 2009. The 6-foot-3, 309-pound senior will joke about being the forgotten man, but he doesn't dwell on it. Like most members of the top-ranked Crimson Tide, his attention is always on what's next. Frankly, it's what coach Nick Saban demands.

What's next for Alabama (6-0, 3-0) this week is Arkansas (3-4, 0-3), a team many wonder if the Tide will overlook. But not Steen. He's started some 30 games in his career at Alabama and in that time he's learned how to mimic his head coach's personality.

"For me, I know that they're an SEC team," Steen said. "If we want to beat them that bad we have to go out in the beginning and play our 'A' game. That's the bottom line. Because if we go out there and don't play our 'A' game then they're going to get it in their head that they have a chance. So we've got to go out there and be on top of things."

Last year we didn't hear much from Steen. Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker garnered the lion's share of attention while Steen went to work with the same blue-collar attitude you'd expect of a lineman from rural Mississippi. He pitched the equivalent of 14 perfect games, according to left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, who said that Steen had no penalties and no sacks allowed all season. But he was never an All-SEC selection, an All-American candidate or even an SEC player of the week. Alabama's staff voted him player of the week just once.

To his teammates, though, his worth has always been evident. We're only now starting to see it play out on a larger stage.

Steen had to step up since last season, both as a leader as well as the face of the offense. Now that Jones, Warmack and Fluker are gone, Steen is the most experienced lineman on the roster. He and Kouandjio were the only two returning starters at the beginning of the season.

But in spite of the turnover, Alabama's line has steadily improved, shaking off the rust after so-so performances against Virginia Tech and Colorado State early in the season. Steen and Co. gave up just one tackle for loss and didn't allow a sack against Kentucky this past weekend. In the two games prior, the line surrendered only one sack of AJ McCarron.

"Unbelievable player," McCarron said of Steen. "Comes to work every day. You never see Steen in a negative mood, never bringing down on the practice field, which helps tremendously because your offensive line takes you as far as you want to go as an offense and a team. You can’t say enough about him. He does everything for us. He’s practiced at center for us with [Ryan] Kelly being out, and he’s done an excellent job of that, too. He really is a great teammate and an a great person to have on the field."

Saban, for his part, called Steen "the most consistent performer that we’ve had, probably, in the offensive line." How he anchors the group in the coming weeks will be vital to Alabama's success over the long haul.

Arkansas and its leading pass-rusher Chris Smith will challenge Alabama's line this Saturday. Then comes the biggest test of the them all on Nov. 9 when sixth-ranked LSU comes to Tuscaloosa.

"Anthony’s got a lot of experience," Saban said. "I think his leadership and his affect on the other people has been critical in the development of the offensive line. He’s tough, he’s physical, he’s very confident in what he does. He’s played extremely well for us. I’m pleased and hopeful that he’ll continue to be able to stay healthy and do those things in the future."

Collision course: SEC

October, 8, 2013
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Sometimes you can see the matchups coming. In college football, every so often you know when the big games, the ones that will determine conference and national championships, will be. In the SEC, we're only halfway through the season and already we can look ahead to two key games that should determine who travels to Atlanta to compete for the conference championship:

Games: Florida-Georgia and LSU-Alabama.

What’s at stake: In a word, "everything," seeing as the winner of these two games will likely represent their divisions in the SEC title game. Whether it's Florida or Georgia from the East or LSU or Alabama out of the West, the two teams that make it to Atlanta will be playing for not just a conference title come December, but likely a shot at the BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena, Calif., as well. All four teams are currently ranked in the Top 25, with only top-ranked Alabama remaining undefeated. But one loss (so long as it doesn't come in the Georgia Dome) won't keep an SEC team out of the national title picture, as seven consecutive seasons with an SEC team hoisting the crystal football can attest.

Roadblocks/derailment opportunities: Alabama needs only to avoid the proverbial banana peel in the road with three more games against unranked opponents (Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee) and a bye week before it hosts LSU. Star safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and starting center Ryan Kelly should be back with the Tide by then, and an extra week to rest and prepare always helps. But for LSU, the road to Tuscaloosa, Ala., is not so simple, as it must first deal with No. 6 Florida at home on Saturday and then a trip to Ole Miss the following week. The way LSU's defense has played of late, neither game seems like a cinch victory.

Obviously, Florida's biggest obstacle is this weekend as well. The Gators are still breaking in a young, inexperienced quarterback in Tyler Murphy, and while the defense has played well, it has not faced an offense like LSU's yet. Past LSU, Florida will go on the road to face a surprisingly unbeaten Missouri team that has momentum squarely on its side. Georgia, though, will get Missouri first this weekend. And after the litany of injuries the Bulldogs have experienced in recent weeks, it will be a wonder if Mark Richt's team can hobble its way to Jacksonville without another loss.

How it unfolds: There's no easy way to determine how the Georgia-Florida game will go, as both teams have serious concerns to address in the short term before they make it to Week 9. The Bulldogs aren't getting many of their injured stars back until next season, and the Gators are stuck with Murphy and an inconsistent offense for the foreseeable future. On the one hand, Florida seems like a precarious contender after losing to Miami, but at the same time those Gators beat Tennessee by two touchdowns. Georgia, meanwhile, needed overtime to edge out the Vols by 3 points.

Like their counterparts in the East, neither Alabama nor LSU are without their fair share of flaws. The Tide has been inconsistent thus far, failing to put together a truly complete game until this past weekend against lowly Georgia State. The passing game has shown flashes, but the rebuilt offensive line has been disappointing at times. And LSU, which struggled to score points in recent years, is suddenly an offensive powerhouse. But an up-and-down defense, one that allowed nearly 500 total yards to Mississippi State this past weekend, needs work. With the game at home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama likely will be favored, but the way this series has unfolded in recent years we're likely looking at a toss-up.

SEC lunchtime links

October, 2, 2013
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It's Wednesday which means the SEC coaches and players have turned their attention to Saturday's opponent. See what's being said, who's going to play or not play and how teams are preparing in a sampling of news across the league.
  • Alabama center Ryan Kelly is expected to a miss a couple of weeks with a “stretched” MCL. That means more playing time for Chad Lindsay, who is making the most of his opportunity.
  • Coming off a huge win over LSU, Georgia is still on high alert as it heads to Knoxville this weekend for a matchup with SEC East foe Tennessee.
  • Since Lane Kiffin was fired, there have been rumors linking Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin with the open USC position. He says the rumors are just part of the job as the Aggies head into an open week.
  • LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. muffed a punt against Georgia on Saturday that led to a touchdown. It’s not the first miscue for the dynamic return specialist, but he knows how to respond from a mistake like that.
  • Connor Shaw was expected to miss at least a couple of weeks with a shoulder sprain, but the South Carolina quarterback could play against Kentucky on Saturday.
  • Florida boasts one of the top defenses in college football, so the Gators’ offense has resorted to an old-school approach -- a simple, keep-away philosophy.
  • Ole Miss was shutout last Saturday at Alabama. Head coach Hugh Freeze says it starts with the offensive line, and they will need to play better this weekend against Auburn.
  • Missouri has yet to start SEC play, but through four games, the Tigers’ offense has passed the test under new coordinator Josh Henson.
  • Auburn cornerback Chris Davis has missed the last two games due to injury, but the Tigers are eager to get their “extra spark” back on defense this week against No. 24 Ole Miss.
  • The trash talk has already started between Arkansas and Florida this week. Florida defensive lineman Damien Jacobs called out the Razorbacks’ offensive line, saying they play a little dirty. He singled out Hogs’ center Travis Swanson.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There was no dipping a toe in the water for preseason No. 1 Alabama. The Crimson Tide instead had to jump right in, battling sharks every week in the first month of the season.

The early stretch was brutal at times. Sure, Alabama looked like the best team in the country and got through the first four games undefeated, but there were certainly some blemishes revealed along the way. Each week and each win was a struggle.

Virginia Tech opened the season by stifling Alabama's offense in Atlanta, getting into the face of quarterback AJ McCarron by applying constant pressure on the backfield. The offensive line, a group that featured three new starters, looked nothing if not inexperienced.

[+] EnlargeScott
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Crimson Tide defense had its most complete effort of the season on Saturday.
Ninth-ranked Texas A&M then lit up Alabama two weeks later. Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans tore apart the secondary, abusing the Tide with the deep pass. UA set a kind of record you don't want to see, allowing the most yards in school history.

Even Colorado State, the $1.5 million cupcake courtesy of the Mountain West Conference, gave Alabama trouble. The Tide defense made too many mistakes and the offense was terribly inconsistent, failing to convert on a single third-down attempt in the first three quarters.

Then came No. 24 Ole Miss, an undefeated team playing with house money against Alabama. But this time, mercifully, the Tide put together a complete game and won, ending a four-game streak that tested the mettle of the championship contenders.

Now it's time to exhale. Alabama survived the early onslaught and can now take a breath to regroup with Georgia State, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee up next. None of the four is ranked, and only the Razorbacks and the Vols are above .500, albeit at just one game over each. The four teams' combined record (7-11) is noticeably worse than the combined record of the first four teams Alabama faced (13-6) and the last four teams Alabama will face to end the season (11-6).

To make matters even more favorable for the Tide, Alabama will get a bye to start the month of November before hosting LSU on Nov. 9.

No team in the SEC has an easier next five weeks than Alabama. South Carolina is a close second and the only other school in the conference that won't face a ranked team over that time, but at least the Gamecocks don't have a cupcake like Georgia State to snack on. Instead, Steve Spurier's team will be tested somewhat by Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi State and undefeated Missouri. In fact, if one-loss South Carolina plays like it did against unranked UCF this past weekend, it might not be much of a championship contender come November.

The rest of the league's title contenders don't have it so easy. Georgia has rival Florida to contend with, LSU has Florida and Ole Miss in back-to-back weeks, and Texas A&M has to deal with the same explosive Rebels on Oct. 12.

Ole Miss is one of seven SEC schools to play two ranked opponents over the next five weeks. Only Tennessee and Missouri have it worse with three ranked opponents each in the month of October.

While Nick Saban might not be fond of focusing on records, it's hard to ignore the obvious -- if Alabama doesn't make it to November undefeated, it would be a shock. The Crimson Tide's coach isn't one to admit those things and he won't ever say an opponent is overmatched, but he and his staff do have the luxury of not stressing over serious competition the next few weeks.

Instead, they can budget their time wisely, resting banged up starters such as Ryan Kelly and T.J. Yeldon while working out the kinks with some younger guys for the stretch run, especially those on defense such as rookie cornerbacks Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith.

"I'm looking more at the standard, not the record," Saban said following his team's shutout of No. 24 Ole Miss on Saturday night. "And I think it's important that our players do the same so we can continue to improve."

Improvement, though, might be the best Saban can hope for. Making another statement like his team did by thumping Ole Miss doesn't appear to be possible against the forthcoming carousel of unranked, overmatched opponents. Rather, building up some level of consistency over the next few weeks will be the challenge as the scoreboard certainly doesn't figure to be.

"We have high expectations for the standard of how we play," Saban said. "And I think more than what the record is, I think and our team thinks, what do we need to do so we can continue to improve so we can play the the standard on a more consistent basis.

"I would say if there's any criticism of myself, our staff and our team, it would be the fact that we have not been as consistent as we'd like to be."

Saban got through a rough, inconsistent start to the season intact and in the driver's seat for another run to the national championship. For the next month, he'll be in the enviable position of fine-tuning his team's mistakes against lesser competition.

While the rest of the SEC slogs through the ghoulish month of October, Alabama will be playing trick or treat each Saturday. All that remains now is reaching LSU on Nov. 9 without slipping on the proverbial banana peel.

What we learned: Week 5

September, 29, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- No. 1 Alabama remained undefeated by shutting out No. 21 Ole Miss at home on Saturday, 25-0, but what did we really learn about the Crimson Tide in the contest?

The defense is capable: The secondary is still thin. Beyond Deion Belue, there's not much experience at cornerback. John Fulton certainly isn't the answer, hence true freshman Eddie Jackson getting the start there ahead of him. But in spite of throwing a rookie to the flames, Alabama's secondary showed the ability to play well against Ole Miss thanks to Belue's emergence as an on-ball defender and a deep group of safeties that includes Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Landon Collins. Ole Miss had the players at receiver and tight end to make Alabama's secondary look bad. But instead, the back end of Alabama's defense shined against the Rebels.

Hope of a running game: Alabama's running game is still somewhat inconsistent, and the loss of center Ryan Kelly for the next few weeks certainly won't help in that respect. But against Ole Miss, the Tide running game finally got going. The offensive line, with Chad Lindsay in at center, was able to push the line of scrimmage and help open holes for T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, both of whom rushed for 100-plus yards and a touchdown each. The ability to run the football opened up the passing game in turn, allowing AJ McCarron to work effectively off of play action.

Finally, a complete game: OK, maybe it was just one complete half when you look at the struggle to put the ball in the end zone the first two quarters, but still, Alabama finally showed how good it can be at all three phases of the game simultaneously against Ole Miss. The offense moved the ball well, the defense was dominant and special teams was above average with Cade Foster kicking three field goals and Ole Miss never getting anything going in the return game. It was a game all coaches on Alabama's sidelines could be pleased with. And more than anything, head coach Nick Saban could look at his team's effort and be proud. "Our players did a really, really good job of being relentless out there with their effort, their toughness, the way they competed," Saban said, finally not having to throw in the caveat of some missing element in some phase of the game.

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