Alabama Crimson Tide: T.J. Yeldon

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

Today, we take a look at Alabama.

Most important game: Nov. 8 at LSU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now you can jump up and down and say Auburn is the most important game for Alabama, and you'd have a solid argument. There's the fact that it's the best rivalry in college football, that both teams will likely be ranked when they meet Nov. 29 and the most basic issue of revenge to attend to. But it comes down to this for me: If Alabama loses to LSU, how far will the Tide drop in the playoff hunt and will a win over Auburn be enough to put them back in the conversation? Of that I'm not so sure.
Can you believe it? We’ve already reached the halfway point in our journey through the SEC regular-season schedule.

So far we’ve been to Athens, Auburn, College Station, Tuscaloosa, Houston and Norman, Oklahoma, to name a few. With seven weeks down and seven more to go, there’s no more time to waste. We have to get to the best games before it’s too late.

If you’re just now jumping on board our little road trip, we at the SEC blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations for each week of the season.

Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 8:

Oct. 18
Texas A&M at Alabama
Georgia at Arkansas (Little Rock)
Missouri at Florida
Kentucky at LSU
Tennessee at Ole Miss
Furman at South Carolina

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Tennessee at Ole Miss

Sam can have the clear Game of the Week in Texas A&M-Alabama. He’s never been to Bryant-Denny Stadium, so I wouldn’t want to deprive him of that experience.

Instead, I’m going outside of the box and inside The Grove. It’s time to get to Ole Miss. And if you’re like me and watched a certain TexAgs video that went viral last year, the chords of “Mississippi Queen” should come racing to mind right about now.

If you haven’t been to Oxford, you need to go. The game is great and all, but the real fun is in the game-day festivities. The tailgating there might be the best in college football. As they’re oft to say, “Ole Miss never lost a party.” They get there early, they stay late and they even dress up for the occasion. Sure, some commercial aspects of the pregame experience have creeped in over the years, but tailgating in The Grove is as quintessential a Southern football experience as you’ll find.

On a more analytical note, the actual game itself should favor the home team. Ole Miss is better on both sides of the ball with a veteran quarterback, a talented group of skill players on offense and a defense packed with playmakers. Nonetheless, I’m interested in seeing Tennessee at the midway point of the season. Year 2 won’t be easy for Butch Jones, but if he can develop a quarterback or the future and get the defense going in the right direction, it should be a good sign for the hopes of the program in Year 3 of his tenure and beyond.

Sam Khan’s pick: Texas A&M at Alabama

No doubt this is the choice. The Grove is fun, and Mizzou-Florida looks like it might have potential, but the Aggies and Crimson Tide have provided us with highly entertaining games the last two times they met. In 2012, Texas A&M went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and pulled off a stunning upset and last season, Alabama’s offense put on a clinic, running all over the A&M defense and outlasting Johnny Manziel & Co. to exact a little revenge at Kyle Field.

Now, the Aggies make their first trip to Bryant-Denny since that fateful November night in 2012 and there’s no Johnny Football this time around. The Aggies probably will have their quarterback situation established firmly at this point (whether it’s Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen) and the Aggies' offense should still be humming. The question is, will the defense be improved enough to put up a fight against the Crimson Tide?

It had better be, because while Alabama will be working in a first-year starting quarterback of its own, the Crimson Tide have plenty of running backs to throw at the Aggies again, led by T.J. Yeldon, junior Kenyan Drake, the bruising, cruising sophomore Derrick Henry and bowling ball Jalston Fowler. The Crimson Tide should be strong defensively again, so it will be a stiff test for what is still a young Aggies squad. It stands to reason that, at least at this point, Alabama will be favored going into this one.

So far, the first two times Nick Saban and Kevin Sumlin have squared off, it’s turned out to be pretty fun. Here’s betting it is again when they square off in Week 8.
We've already ranked all 14 running back groups in the SEC. Now it's time to check out who we think will be the 10 best running backs in the league this fall when it comes to production and team value:

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley has been slowed by injuries but still projects to be the best back in the SEC in 2014.
1. Todd Gurley, Jr., Georgia: Nagging injuries have slowed Gurley, but he still has more than 2,300 career rushing yards and almost 30 touchdowns. The Heisman Trophy candidate is built to pound but can break big runs in an instant. He has averaged 6.1 yards per carry, has 13 100-yard rushing games in his career and is also extremely active in the passing game, where he has 558 career receiving yards. Gurley wants to run tougher and harder this year, which is just plain scary.

2. T.J. Yeldon, Jr., Alabama: After registering 1,235 yards last year, Yeldon became the first back in school history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in his first two seasons. Yeldon has had his fumbling issues, but when he’s in control he’s extremely tough to stop with the strength he has to grind out yards. Add on his speed and elusiveness, and Yeldon has no problem making defenders look silly.

3. Derrick Henry, So., Alabama: OK, so all the excitement around him stems from an incredible high school career and a superb bowl performance. But we saw so much power and finesse in all 161 yards of total offense he had in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Henry is the total package and an every-down back who can push his way through the line of scrimmage like a tank but is also deadly in space. Don’t be shocked if he eats up a big chunk of Yeldon’s carries.

4. Mike Davis, Jr., South Carolina: You could easily put him higher because of pure, brute strength and his speed and elusiveness. After rushing for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, Davis’ stock in this league has skyrocketed. Last season, Davis rushed for 100 or more yards seven times.

5. Alex Collins, So., Arkansas: The prize of Bret Bielema’s first recruiting class, Collins became the first freshman in SEC history to begin his career with three straight 100-yard rushing games and the first true freshman in the NCAA to record three straight 100-yard rushing games to start his career since Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson had nine in a row in 2004. Collins fell off after a great start but still finished with 1,026 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTra Carson could be primed for a breakout 2014 season in a featured-back role.
6. Tra Carson, RJr., Texas A&M: Carson wasn’t asked to do a lot last year (329 yards and seven touchdowns on 62 carries), but that will change with Ben Malena gone. Carson will no longer be viewed as just a short-yardage guy. He has a ton of power but also can explode out of the backfield and make plays in the passing game. He’s also deceptively elusive in open space.

7. Jonathan Williams, Jr., Arkansas: Like Collins, he started the 2013 season off fast with three straight 100-plus-yard games. He finished the year with 900 yards and four touchdowns but could be even better in 2014. Having Collins play better shouldn’t hurt, either, because of how well they complement each other. While Collins is capable of big plays with his speed, Williams is more of a power runner.

8. Leonard Fournette, Fr., LSU: No, he hasn’t touched the ball at the college level or gone through practice with the Tigers. But he was the nation's top-rated prospect in the 2014 class and ran for almost 1,800 yards as a senior in high school. He rushed for more than 7,600 yards in his high school career and was ready to run at the college level before his senior prom. He’s built like a truck and will run like one with the Tigers.

9. Cameron Artis-Payne, Sr., Auburn: The Tigers won’t have a problem spreading the wealth around at running back this fall, but Artis-Payne is built to carry the load. Corey Grant is used as more of a speed back in this offense, while Artis-Payne is more of an every-down back for the Tigers, and his downhill style should thrive with more touches.

10. Kelvin Taylor, So., Florida: Taylor has NFL blood coursing through his veins, and people in Gainesville hope to see more of his father, Fred Taylor, out of him this fall. He progressed as last season went on and finished with 508 yards and four touchdowns. Taylor is faster and more agile now and has the chance to be a true game-changer in a more wide-open offensive scheme.
Today, we continue our look at each position in the SEC by checking out quite the loaded group: Running backs.

SEC games are won and lost in the trenches, but the league has always poked its chest out from the running back position.

This season is no different, as the league is once again loaded here:

Alabama's TJ Yeldon
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJunior T.J. Yeldon leads an Alabama running back corps that might be the best in the nation.
1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide might have the nation’s best backfield. T.J. Yeldon enters the 2014 season with 2,343 career rushing yards and 26 touchdowns, while sophomore Derrick Henry, who might be the most talented back on the roster, excels as a bruiser and a cruiser with his pounding frame and elite speed. Junior Kenyan Drake provides a nice change-of-pace with his elusiveness, and the Tide will grind away with mammoth Jalston Fowler.

2. Georgia: When healthy, Todd Gurley is arguably the country’s best running back. He has that rare combination of size, speed and explosion that make him a terror for defenses. Even with nagging injuries, Gurley has 2,374 career rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. Fellow junior Keith Marshall proved to be a great complement to Gurley with his explosiveness, but is coming off a devastating knee injury. Expect freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to get chances, along with youngsters Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman.

3. South Carolina: Junior Mike Davis has the skill to be a Heisman Trophy candidate. He can pound away with his strength and break the big run. He has nearly 1,500 career yards and the talent to make this his last year in college. There isn’t a lot of drop off with Brandon Wilds, either. Injuries have been an issue for him, but when he’s on the field, he usually outworks opponents. He’s also a good blocker and a receiving threat. Shon Carson has shown flashes, but has to put it all together. Keep an eye on David Williams, who could be the back of the future.

4. Arkansas: The Razorbacks didn’t do a lot of good things on offense last season, but Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams presented a formidable duo for opposing defenses. Together, they rushed for 1,985 yards and eight touchdowns. The second number has to increase this season, but if the line improves, these two should produce plenty of headaches this fall. Korliss Marshall only played in eight games last year, but people around the program think he’s the biggest home run threat at running back.

5. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel is gone, but the backfield should be fine by committee. Tra Carson has what it takes to be a bellcow back with his blend of power, explosion and elusiveness. The Aggies could have a solid one-two-punch with Carson and Trey Williams, who might be the most gifted of A&M’s backs. Brandon Williams and James White should get carries too. White looks like the back of the future and is an every-down pounder, while Brandon Williams might be the fastest of the bunch.

6. Auburn: What Tre Mason did last year was nothing short of impressive, and the system he ran will only benefit the guys after him. Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant both rushed for more than 600 yards last season and each had six touchdowns. Artis-Payne could carry the load, while Grant is used as more of the speed back. Redshirt freshman Peyton Barber could get some carries, but keep an eye on true freshman Racean Thomas, who could really challenge Artis-Payne.

7. LSU: Jeremy Hill might be gone, but Terrence Magee could start for a handful of SEC squads. He rushed for 626 yards and eight touchdowns last season and stole some carries from Hill here and there throughout the season. He isn’t easy to take down and is more elusive than Hill was. But he’ll certainly be pushed by freshman Leonard Fournette, who was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class. Senior Kenny Hilliard returns with more than 1,000 career rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.

8. Florida: This might the Gators’ deepest position. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor started to get more comfortable last season and is faster and more agile right now. He’s trying to be more of an every-down back and carry the load, but will get plenty of help from Mack Brown and Matt Jones. Brown has really turned things around in the last year, while Jones should be 100 percent after knee surgery this spring. The wild card could be freshman Brandon Powell, who could be a real threat in the passing game.

[+] EnlargeRussell Hansbrough
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesRussell Hansbrough could be on the verge of a breakout season for Missouri.
9. Missouri: The Tigers might have a gem in junior Russell Hansbrough. He isn’t the biggest back, but he blends power and speed and churned out 6.0 yards per carry last season. Hansbrough is primed for a breakout year and will have a good complement in Marcus Murphy, who is an extremely explosive player at running back and in the return game. Redshirt sophomore Morgan Steward, who is bigger than Mizzou’s typical backs, but might be the fastest of the bunch.

10. Ole Miss: The Rebels have a solid duo to work with in juniors I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. Both registered more than 500 yards last season and were neck-and-neck for most of the spring. Expect an attack by committee where Walton has more of the flash and Mathers uses more power. Jordan Wilkins is a really physical back who is more of a grinder than the other two. There isn’t a workhorse, but all these guys fit what Hugh Freeze wants to do on offense.

11. Mississippi State: Another team with a potentially deadly duo headlining its backfield. Josh Robinson was third on the team last season with 459 yards, but averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He packs a punch and can break the big plays. Nick Griffin had a great spring, but has dealt with multiple ACL injuries. Having him healthy for the first time is huge. There’s excitement about Brandon Holloway moving to running back, and youngsters Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams could get chances this fall.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats have plenty of questions on offense, but there’s hope at running back. Sophomore Jojo Kemp led the team in rushing last season (482), but will battle Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard, who might be able to do a little more with his athleticism and speed. Josh Clemons is back after sitting out two seasons with injuries, and freshmen Mikel Horton and Stanley Williams will give Kentucky good depth.

13. Tennessee: Senior Marlin Lane has a ton of experience and will relied on even more with Rajion Neal gone, but inconsistency has always been something that has hurt Lane. He’s yet to hit 700 yards in a season, but he’s shown flashes his entire career. Freshman Jalen Hurd, who has great size and athleticism, is being viewed as the real deal in Knoxville and will have very opportunity to grab a good amount of carries this fall after enrolling early. Him taking the starting job wouldn't surprise anyone.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason was pleased with where his running backs were coming out of the spring. Junior Brian Kimbrow, who has a ton of wiggle and speed, is stronger, which should help him between the tackles. The Commodores could have a future star in redshirt freshman Ralph Webb and veteran Jerron Seymour, who led Vandy with 716 rushing yards, is back, giving Vandy some good depth to start the season.

SEC's lunch links

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
12:00
PM ET
Johnny Manziel will throw out the first pitch in tonight's Cleveland Indians game. It's a safe bet he won't go all 50 Cent on us.
In the past, Lane Kiffin has proven to be someone who knows how to cast aside boring, sleep-inducing coach speak for some fresh -- sometimes controversial -- dialogue when talking football. Sometimes it's gotten him in trouble, but it's always been nice to see someone not afraid to actually speak his mind.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertT.J. Yeldon, who rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 TDs in 2013, is part of a deep and talented group of Alabama running backs.
On Thursday night, Alabama's new offensive coordinator spoke loud and clearly in Mobile, Ala., about the loaded running backs stable he's working with in Tuscaloosa. While speaking at the DEX Imaging 20th annual L'Arche Football Preview, Kiffin discussed the Crimson Tide's offense and talked about how he's injected some of his own philosophies into Alabama's offensive scheme.

The one thing that won't be changing is how the running backs dictate the Tide's offense.

"As you guys know extremely well, I think the offense is led by the tailbacks," Kiffin said. "... There probably aren't three more talented tailbacks in the NFL on a roster than we're fortunate to be able to work with at Alabama."

That's pretty high praise for Alabama's trio that consists of juniors T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, and sophomore Derrick Henry. That's a cool 2,311 yards and 25 touchdowns from last season. Of course, Yeldon led the way with 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he won't have to worry about being the main workhorse this fall with Drake back and the recent emergence of Henry, who really has what it takes to grab the majority of the carries this fall.

"Finishing his true freshman year at 245 pounds, running 4.4, that was really easy to come in and see that it'd be good to give him the ball," Kiffin said of Henry, who totaled 161 total yards of offense and two touchdowns during his breakout performance against Oklahoma in Alabama's bowl game.

While Yeldon and Henry have captured most of the headlines this spring, Drake is still around, and he still has the kind of skill that could frustrate defenses next season. He rushed for 694 yards and eight touchdowns last fall, while averaging 7.5 yards per carry along the way. He's the most elusive of one in the trio and adds a totally different element to Alabama's attack.

What he has to do is make sure he doesn't get in his own way when it comes to earning carries this fall. His focus has to improve going forward.

Earlier this week at the SEC spring meetings, Saban was asked if he found his best running back coming out of the spring. To him, he felt like he found three.

"I'd rather look at it like we have three really good running backs; I think all a little bit different in style," Saban said. "They've all been pretty productive at some point in a game and I don't think it's necessary to compare them at all. They all work hard, do a good job, want to do what's best for the team, and I think they can all contribute in a very positive way to our team."
It’s never too early to look ahead.

The 2014 NFL draft is over. It’s dead to us already. On to 2015.

The SEC had the first pick (Jadeveon Clowney), the most intriguing pick (Johnny Manziel), the most talked-about pick (AJ McCarron) and the most historically significant pick (Michael Sam) in the entire draft this year. The league even had the most overall picks with 49.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAmari Cooper could be a coveted WR for the 2015 NFL draft.
What will it do for an encore in 2015? While it’s hard to imagine SEC players dominating headlines in quite the same way, the league will undoubtably have a strong contingent of players drafted.

With that in mind, the SEC Blog decided to project next year’s top 20 NFL draft prospects. Edward Aschoff picked his 10 from the East earlier. Now it’s time for 10 from the West to keep an eye on, in alphabetical order:

  • La’el Collins, OL, LSU: Collins very well could have skipped school, entered the draft and been taken anywhere from the second to fourth round. But he chose to return to school, which could pay huge dividends if he improves his pass blocking. Already a known road-grader in the running game, he’ll benefit from the versatility to play either guard or tackle.
  • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: He’ll make plays in the passing game. He’ll make plays at the line of scrimmage. And just in case you want an immediate return, he’ll make plays in special teams. The former five-star prospect showed his all-around game this past season with 70 tackles, eight passes defended, four tackles for loss and two interceptions. With a big junior season, his stock could soar.
  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: He is silky smooth on the football field. But don’t let that fool you; he’s got all the moves. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he can run in the 4.3-second range. He can go get the ball in traffic and has come up big in clutch situations. With his nifty footwork, he’ll remind some of Colts wideout Reggie Wayne.
  • Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas: A third-round grade from the NFL draft board wasn’t enough to get Flowers to leave school early. After racking up 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks last season, he returns to Fayetteville with the opportunity to improve upon those numbers. Strong, quick and well-built at 6-foot-4 and 244 pounds, he could turn heads in 2014.
  • C.J. Johnson, DE, Ole Miss: This one might come as a bit of a surprise after he missed more than half of last season to an injury. But the NFL clearly loves pass rushers (23 defensive ends were drafted this year), and Johnson is one of the best in the SEC. He has that quick first step scouts covet. If he can show he’s athletic enough to play both defensive end and outside linebacker, he could make himself attractive to several NFL teams.
  • Bernardrick McKinney, ILB, Mississippi State: The tape doesn't lie. McKinney has been a tackling machine for two years now. He could have entered this year’s draft, but stayed. If Mississippi State makes a run this year, he’ll get noticed. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, he can run in the 4.6 range, which will catch scouts’ eyes.
  • Jalen Mills, DB, LSU: You just know the Tigers are going to produce an NFL defensive back, and Mills has all the tools to develop into that guy. The former Freshman All-American has played both cornerback and safety, which will help him at the next level.
  • Cedric Ogbuehi, OL, Texas A&M: It will look familiar -- another Aggies offensive lineman going in the first round of the NFL draft, and Ogbuehi has all the tools to do it. He has played guard and right tackle already, but this year will star at the big-money position of left tackle.
  • Gabe Wright, DL, Auburn: It’s easy to forget that Wright was once a top-30 prospect in the country. Playing in the interior of the defensive line can get you lost. But with a big season, we could see Wright catch the attention of scouts and make a Dee Ford-like rise up draft boards.
  • T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: It’s not a good time to be a running back coming out of college. And leaving early seems strange, but after all the carries Yeldon has racked up and the pressure behind him on the depth chart, it might be time to leave. He might not have great top-end speed, but scouts will love his vision, blocking and general all-around game.
With all due respect to my esteemed colleague Alex Scarborough, Derrick Henry will eventually end up being the guy at running back for Alabama.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
AP Photo/Butch DillAs a freshman, Alabama tailback Derrick Henry had just 36 rushing attempts. Expect many more in 2014.
And by “eventually,” I mean this fall.

T.J. Yeldon has had a tremendous two-year career with Alabama. He has the stats to back it up, as Alex so thoroughly laid out in his column earlier today, and he was a high-prized recruit coming out of high school. I think he's an excellent player. I even picked him to lead the Crimson Tide in total offense in 2012.

But there's something special about Henry, who broke Ken Hall's 51-year-old national high school rushing record with 12,124 yards, after rushing for 4,261 yards as a senior at Yulee High in Florida in 2012. He somehow finds time to fit size, power, speed and elusiveness in his 6-foot-3, 238-pound frame.

Alex is right when he talks about Yeldon's body of work compared to Henry's. As a freshman last season, Henry only ran for 382 yards (10.6 yards per carry, though) and three touchdowns. He wasn't much of a factor in the running game for most of the season. But remember, he was the team's third-leading rusher during last spring's scrimmages before fracturing his leg in mid-April. He didn't make it back until fall camp, so just imagine if he had more time to work with guys over the summer and more time to adjust his body to the college game.

I'm not saying he would have started last season, but we would have seen more production from him.

And we will this fall. Henry is just too good to keep off of the field, and we saw that during the Tide's loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. He might not have pushed Alabama to a victory inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, but he was easily the best offensive player on the field for Alabama that night. He showed off his sick moves and had 161 total yards of offense and two touchdowns on just nine touches.

He showed off his agility and speed on a smooth, 43-yard touchdown run in third quarter in which he powered his way through both his own and Oklahoma's line and sprinted to the end zone with relative ease. A quarter later, he was at it again with a nifty, 61-yard catch-and-run for another touchdown that put Alabama right back in the game late.

Feel free to watch those videos again because they were pure poetry in motion.

We've barely even scratched the surface with Henry, who is built to grind. I don't want to say he has Godzilla-like strength, but it might not be a stretch. He won't have an issue driving through the trenches before showing off his leg strength and shiftiness to grab even more yards. He's an every-down back who will push his way to more and more carries this fall.

And while I really like what Yeldon can do, he has an almost chronic fumbling issue that actually led to more of Henry in the Sugar Bowl. Do you think Nick Saban is going to allow his bell cow running back be a liability with the football again? Not with a guy like Henry breathing down Yeldon's neck.

This competition is only going to heat up during fall camp, and it's going to make both of them even better. Yeldon is the running back of the present, but Henry is the future, and the future could come sooner than later in Tuscaloosa.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Four touchdowns versus 14.

Three hundred and eighty-two yards versus 1,235.

Thirty-five carries versus 207.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsAlabama tailback T.J. Yeldon wants to improve his acceleration this offseason.
Two 100-yard games versus six.

If it weren’t Derrick Henry, we wouldn’t be making the comparison. His freshman season was promising with 382 rushing yards and four total touchdowns. But if he weren’t Derrick Henry and this wasn’t Alabama, how important would he really be?

It’s not Henry’s fault. He didn’t fuel the hype of his arrival in Tuscaloosa. He never once compared himself to T.J. Yeldon. The fans and the media did that for him.

Thanks to his potential and one breakout game -- not two or three or four to create, you know, a trend -- he went from a project at running back into a contender not only to beat out Yeldon for the starting job, but someone to watch in the Heisman Trophy race. Or so that’s how the story goes. Bovada, a sports gambling website, bought in, giving Henry 28-to-1 odds to hoist the bronze award.

Talk about a runaway hype train. Check your sense of reality at the gate.

Well, consider this your derailment. Or, on a slightly more positive note, consider this an appreciation of all that T.J. Yeldon is as a running back.

Those numbers listed earlier -- 1,235 yards, 14 touchdowns, 207 carries -- they were all Yeldon’s in 2013. In what has become a symptom of the greater Alabama fan, overlooking established starters for the next big thing, Yeldon’s accomplishments were lost in the shuffle. Never mind that he was named first-team All-SEC by the league’s coaches. Never mind that he followed up the best season of a freshman running back in school history by improving his production in every important category. Never mind that he’s only now a junior and could very well make the leap to the NFL after this coming season.

Henry will be around for a while longer. His turn will come. Yeldon’s time is now.

Yeldon’s sophomore campaign was viewed as underwhelming by some ridiculous accounts, even though his 102.9 yards per game trailed only Tre Mason and Jeremy Hill in the SEC. Yeldon was said to be not enough of an explosive tailback, even though his 34 rushes for 10 or more yards ranked 30th nationally, ahead of the likes of Todd Gurley, Devonta Freeman and Duke Johnson.

You think Yeldon didn’t hear all the chatter? He certainly played like he did on Saturday, doing his part to remind fans how only three other running backs in the country will enter the 2014 season with more career rushing yards than his 2,343.

For the second A-Day in his career, Yeldon won the Dixie Howell Award for the game’s most valuable player. In a scrimmage in which he touched the ball just 12 times, he totaled 104 all-purpose yards. He had one touchdown and the longest run of the day -- 36 yards. Meanwhile, Henry accounted for 22 yards rushing on eight carries and -2 yards on one reception. The 73,000-plus fans who came to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday to see Henry cash in on the hype instead saw Yeldon show once again why he’s the starting tailback at Alabama.

“You’ve seen T.J. get the MVP, so you can’t overlook him,” linebacker Reggie Ragland said after the game. “He’s going to do what he needs to do on the field and make plays.”

Yeldon, meanwhile, was his usual understated self. Shy when it comes to speaking with the media, it was his first turn in front of the cameras all spring. And in typical Yeldon fashion, he’d rather let his play do the talking.

When asked whether it was a big deal to win the A-Day MVP, he said, “Not really,” adding that he believed a defensive player would take home the award. When asked about the competition among the running backs, he said it fueled him.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama's Derrick Henry had a breakout game in the Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma with 161 yards and two touchdowns on just nine touches.
“It’s really competitive,” he said. “We’ve got Altee [Tenpenny], Tyren [Jones]. We can all play. We’re all helping each other get better, I think.”

Entering the spring, Yeldon said his mindset was “like trying to take over a game” and despite the incessant talk of his backups, he did just that.

Now, as spring gives way to the offseason, Yeldon’s focus is on getting himself better. He said he wants to get stronger and faster, spending more time in the weight room. One specific area he said he’d like to improve is his acceleration.

A bigger, quicker Yeldon might be the last thing SEC defenses are hoping for. And with Henry coming up the rear, Alabama could have a formidable one-two punch.

But make no mistake who’s first in that scenario.

Henry is surely coming into his own. After simply taking the handoff and running in high school, he’s learning how to do the little things, like pass protection and pass catching.

Just remember that Yeldon already knows how to do all those things and more. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, he could become even more dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield.

Henry will be special in time, but Yeldon is special right now. He might not have the following or the hype of Henry, but he has the thing that matters most of all: production. And until the numbers change, it’s Yeldon first and Henry second.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- “Man, your boy looked good in the Sugar Bowl,” they tell Bobby Ramsay.

Ramsay has heard that phrase, he said, about 150 times since January. He’s heard it from fans around town in Yulee, Fla. He’s heard it from fellow high school coaches at clinics. He’s heard it from college coaches who have stopped through scouting talent.

If Ramsay turned on the radio, flipped on the TV or simply walked the streets here in Tuscaloosa, he’d hear about his former running back even more. In fact, he might be overwhelmed by the number of people saying how good Derrick Henry looked for Alabama in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma: 161 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. When Henry broke his 43-yard touchdown run the fourth quarter, Ramsay said he received something like 18 text messages in under 30 seconds.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Henry's breakout performance in the Sugar Bowl changed everything for the Alabama running back, but Henry is just focused on getting better.
It’s easy to see why people got excited. The run had the look of a seminal moment for the former five-star athlete who set the national career rushing yards record at Yulee High. The 6-foot-3, 243-pound talent finally showed on a national stage why he was so highly sought after. After carrying the ball minimally throughout the regular season, he blew people away in the bowl game.

All told, Henry ran for 382 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman. And now? Despite being the backup to T.J. Yeldon, he's listed on the sports betting website Bovada as 28-to-1 to win the Heisman Trophy, ahead of Dak Prescott, Duke Johnson and Myles Jack.

Too big? Please

It’s almost laughable to think about it now, but for a long time people questioned whether Henry was cut out to be a running back. He was too big, they thought, too bulky to fit through running lanes. He was too tall to have the proper pad level.

And then there was the Sugar Bowl.

Somewhere in Yulee, Ramsay smiled. What he’d seen in high school and what he saw in bits and pieces throughout the season was showing up on a much larger, unavoidable scale: Henry was meant to play running back.

“I told some people, ‘Man, that looked just like high school. Those DBs didn’t want to tackle him any more than the DBs who played here,’” Ramsay said. “The first touchdown he scored, I was joking, ‘That kid from Oklahoma, he’s running with Derrick so he won’t get yelled at when he goes back to the bench.’ He wasn’t going to try and get him on the ground.”

No one wants to tackle Henry, not even his teammates.

Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland, no slouch at 6-2 and 259 pounds, described his meetings with Henry during practice as both “mean” and “peaceful” because they can’t take one another to the ground.

“He's a big guy,” he said of Henry. “A lot of people are scared to tackle him.”

Said Henry: “During the Oklahoma game, I could tell that they didn't want to tackle me. I just kept the mindset of being physical and keep running hard so everything will open up.”

Growing pains

Henry says one of his goals is to be a starter, but for now he’s “focused on getting better and becoming a complete player.”

Dobbs Not getting that much playing time really taught me a lot. It humbled me. Everything isn't just going to come to you. You have to work for it.

-- Alabama RB Derrick Henry
A year ago that might not have been the case.

Like most blue-chip recruits, Henry first had to deal with reality. Though his talent was undeniable, there were things he hadn’t yet mastered. At Yulee High, he didn’t have to block, pass protect or catch passes out of the backfield. Ramsay only needed him to run the ball. But at Alabama, he wouldn’t see the field until he could do it all.

“Not getting that much playing time really taught me a lot,” Henry said. There wasn’t a game during the regular season where he carried the ball more than six times. “It humbled me. Everything isn't just going to come to you. You have to work for it. You have to take time. This is college football so it's more technique. You have to put more effort into by watching film and really paying attention to the little things”

Saban said the light came on for Henry in the lead up to the Sugar Bowl. Like a lot of freshman, the chance for extra practice time paid off.

Now he’s taking that momentum and running with it.

"Derrick Henry has had a fabulous spring," Saban said on Wednesday. "He picked up right where he left off at bowl practice last year. He works really hard. He runs really hard. He plays with a lot of toughness. He gets it."

Everything has changed, nothing has changed

In a way, Henry is built to be the center of attention. At Yulee High, he was the biggest thing going. As early as the ninth grade, Ramsay said, “They could play football for 500 years in our county and there’s going to be no one better than him.”

“I think it’s helping him now,” Ramsay said. “They protected him from that as a freshman. Now he’s going to have a little more on his plate. … It’s crazy because he hasn’t played a ton but I’ve got people from Alabama, and these are people who have been around the program for years, who have said they haven’t ever seen a guy with this much popularity.

“In a town where every other street is named after Paul Bryant, for someone to say that is big.”

Has Henry changed? Not according to Ramsay: “Nothing. Same guy. Nothing different.”

“Offseason has been good,” Henry said in the most understated way possible. “Coming back from the Sugar Bowl and getting back to lifting weights and doing 4th Quarter [Program], it's been going well. Just trying to get better.”

That simple, singular focus will suit him well. As spring practice wraps up and the march toward the regular season intensifies, so will the scrutiny.

What will aid him most will be his work ethic, the same determination that helped him get through the lows of last season and reach the high of the Sugar Bowl.

“Right now he’s in a very comfortable place,” Ramsay said. “Initially all freshmen go through the process of being in a new place and having a new way of doing things. One thing with Derrick is he’s never let it affect his effort level. ... Every time I talked to [running backs coach Burton Burns] about it, he’d say, ‘Oh man, We want all the guys to be like Derrick. He’s pulling G.A.’s aside to work on things extra after practice, he’s getting extra film work.’”

A moment later, Ramsay put an exclamation point on the subject.

“He’s not expecting to have rose pedals thrown at his feet,” he said of Henry.

Ramsay’s boy looked awfully good in one game, but both he and Henry understand that last season was only the first step. What comes next is a whole different set of challenges.

Opening spring camp: Alabama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDerrick Henry showed what he could do in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries.
So instead, let’s start by taking a look at an athlete who made a splash late last season as a true freshman, creating big expectations for his sophomore campaign.

RB Derrick Henry
Sophomore
6-foot-3, 238 pounds

Credentials: Was he a running back or a linebacker? At 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds -- all muscle, we should add -- it was hard to tell. We hadn’t seen him run the football yet, so for a while he looked like a project. Did he have the necessary speed and elusiveness to get through the holes up front and hit the second level of the defense? And then came the Sugar Bowl. Yes, it took Henry some time to work his way up the food chain at running back, but when he did, he was special. He got around the Oklahoma defense just fine in New Orleans, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries in addition to taking a short pass 43 yards for another score. All told, the former five-star athlete ran for 382 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries as a freshman.

How he fits: And herein lies the rub. Henry, with what he showed against the Sooners, might be more explosive than Alabama’s incumbent starting running back T.J. Yeldon. Given Yeldon’s fumbling woes, many fans are clamoring for Henry to replace him as the lead back. But Alabama has been through this before. Both the Mark Ingram-Trent Richardson and Richardson-Eddie Lacy tandems were balancing acts, and this coming season should be no different. Except that there’s a third back, Kenyan Drake, also begging for carries. Talk about explosion and speed, and you’re talking about Drake, who can take the ball to paydirt any time it touches his hands. One thing is certain: Running backs coach Burton Burns will have a tough time sorting out the depth chart when the season rolls around.

Best case/worst case: We’ve made the mistake of assuming the depth chart order at running back before and have been burned. There’s a case to be made that Henry should start, which would be an intriguing outcome to say the least. But there’s another case, one based on seniority and experience, that could land him third or fourth on the depth chart. You know about Yeldon and Drake, but there’s also the veteran Jalston Fowler and the blue-chip newcomer Bo Scarbrough to consider. Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny are on campus too, remember? The good news for the bevy of Alabama tailbacks is that new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin shouldn’t be constrained by position titles. The former USC head coach is seen as something of an innovator on offense and could move players like Henry, Fowler and Scarbrough around to places like H-back and slot receiver to get them touches.

Dee Hart faces possession charge

February, 18, 2014
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Former Alabama running back Dee Hart was arrested Sunday for possession of marijuana and giving false information, according to reports.

Hart, who was a top recruit for Alabama in 2011, was supposed to head into the fall for his junior season on the field, but the school announced that he is no longer part of the football team. He hasn't been with the team since Alabama's 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Here's the statement from Alabama on Hart's status:
"Dee Hart has not been a part of the football team since the bowl game and has not participated in any of the offseason program. Hopefully he will learn from this mistake and continue to work toward completing his degree, which he is on track to do by the summer."

[+] EnlargeDee Hart
AP Photo/ Butch DillDee Hart never really got his career off the ground at Alabama.
It's unknown if Hart could return to the team beforehand, but this recent arrest certainly won't help him. Hart might have been a top recruit for the Crimson Tide a few years ago, but he was never able to really make much movement on the Tide's depth chart. Hart suffered season-ending ACL injuries in 2011 and 2012 and tried out at cornerback last year before moving back to running back.

Hart rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in 2013 and had 166 yards and a touchdown on 43 career carries with Alabama.

With the return of back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher T.J. Yeldon and backups Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry, it might have been tough for Hart to rise through the ranks at running back. Not to mention, rising sophomore Altee Tenpenny, a former ESPN 300 recruit, saw action last season and Tyren Jones, also an ESPN 300 prospect in 2012, redshirted last year. The arrival of highly touted five-star athlete Bo Scarbrough won't help either, with Scarbrough expected to start his Alabama career at running back.

Heading into the spring, it appears the top spot at running back is going to come down to Yeldon or Henry, who had a breakout performance in the Sugar Bowl. Hart might have a tremendous amount of athleticism and his work ethic was once thoroughly praised by coach Nick Saban, but the chances of him jumping those two was minimal. The chances of him pushing the others out of the way at this point in his career was going to be a mountain to climb as well.

Alabama will be fine without Hart, but here's hoping Hart lands on his feet soon.
On the eve of national signing day, it's always fun to go back and examine where the top players in the SEC from this past season were ranked coming out of high school.

Of the 23 position players who made the 2013 ESPN.com All-SEC team, seven were three-star prospects, according to the ESPN Recruiting Nation rankings. The only five-star prospects were Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Beth Hall/USA TODAY SportsJadeveon Clowney was one of only two five-star recruits on the 2013 ESPN.com All-SEC team.
Even more telling, only eight of the 23 players were ranked among the top 10 players at their respective positions.

Of note, Vanderbilt's record-setting Jordan Matthews was ranked as the No. 153 receiver, Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson was the No. 125 offensive tackle, Arkansas' Travis Swanson was the No. 91 offensive guard, Missouri's Michael Sam was the No. 75 defensive end and LSU's Lamin Barrow was the No. 82 outside linebacker.

Here's a closer look:

OFFENSE

  • QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: Three stars, No. 39 QB, Class of 2011. Grade: 78.
  • RB Tre Mason, Auburn: Four stars, No. 21 RB, Class of 2011. Grade: 79.
  • RB T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: Four stars, No. 55 overall prospect, No. 4 RB, Class of 2012. Grade: 81.
  • WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M: Three stars, No. 52 WR, Class of 2011. Grade: 79.
  • WR Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt: Three stars, No. 153 WR, Class of 2010. Grade: 74.
  • AP Odell Beckham Jr., LSU: Three stars, No. 62 athlete, Class of 2011. Grade: 78.
  • TE Arthur Lynch, Georgia: No. 7 TE, Class of 2009. Grade: 79.
  • OL Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State: No. 125 OT, Class of 2009. Grade: 74.
  • OL Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama: Five stars, No. 3 overall prospect, No. 1 OT, Class of 2011. Grade: 87.
  • OL Jake Matthews, Texas A&M: Four stars, No. 90 overall prospect. No. 7 OT, Class of 2010. Grade: 81.
  • OL Greg Robinson, Auburn: Four stars, No. 10 OG, Class of 2011. Grade: 80.
  • C Travis Swanson, Arkansas: No. 91 OG, Class of 2009. Grade: 76.
DEFENSE

  • DL Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina: Five stars, No. 1 overall prospect, No. 1 DE, Class of 2011. Grade: 95.
  • DL Dee Ford, Auburn: No. 35 DE, Class of 2009. Grade: 79.
  • DL Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina: Four stars, No. 124 overall prospect, No. 11 DT, Class of 2010. Grade: 81.
  • DL Michael Sam, Missouri: No. 75 DE, Class of 2009. Grade: 76.
  • LB Ramik Wilson, Georgia: Four stars, No. 11 ILB, Class of 2011. Grade: 79.
  • LB C.J. Mosley, Alabama: Four stars, No. 99 overall prospect, No. 7 OLB, Class of 2010. Grade: 81.
  • LB Lamin Barrow, LSU: No. 82 OLB, Class of 2009. Grade: 76.
  • DB Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama: Four stars, No. 19 overall prospect, No. 2 S, Class of 2011. Grade: 84.
  • DB E.J. Gaines, Missouri: Three stars, No. 57 CB, Class of 2010. Grade: 76.
  • DB: Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt: Three stars, No. 43 S, Class of 2010. Grade: 78.
  • DB: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: Three stars, No. 78 athlete, Class of 2011. Grade: 77.
We at the SEC Blog have spent the last two weeks ranking the top 25 players in the conference, beginning with Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines and wrapping up with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next five: wide receiver Amari Cooper, punter Cody Mandell, linebacker Adrian Hubbard, tight end O.J. Howard and cornerback Deion Belue.

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