Alabama Crimson Tide: Trey DePriest

Ranking the SEC linebackers

June, 18, 2014
Jun 18
3:30
PM ET
Who are the SEC's top 10 linebackers (inside or outside) for the 2014 season?

Here's the way we see them stacking up:

[+] EnlargeBenardrick McKinney
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesBenardrick McKinney is ready to take the leap to stardom for Mississippi State.
1. Benardrick McKinney, RJr., Mississippi State: At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, McKinney is an imposing figure. He returns as the Bulldogs' middle linebacker, but he's fast enough and athletic enough to also play on the outside. He has recorded 173 total tackles over the last two seasons and is ready to take that next step as one of the SEC's elite defenders.

2. Leonard Floyd, So., Georgia: It's a deep and experienced group of linebackers that Georgia will put on the field this season, and the 6-4, 230-pound Floyd is the most talented of the group. He's a blur coming off the edge from his outside linebacker position in the Dawgs' 3-4 defense. He had a team-high 6.5 sacks last season and will be even better as a sophomore.

3. Curt Maggitt, RJr., Tennessee: There are a couple caveats with the 6-3, 240-pound Maggitt. He missed all of last season after recovering from a knee injury, and he's also likely to line up more at end than outside linebacker. Either way, he's a dynamic playmaker and primed for a big season. If Maggitt stays healthy, he's a good bet to be the Comeback Player of the Year in the league.

4. Trey DePriest, Sr., Alabama: The 6-2, 245-pound DePriest is a two-year starter at middle linebacker. He's not the fastest linebacker Alabama has produced and certainly not in C.J. Mosley's class, but he's a big hitter and loves the physical part of the game. He had 7.5 tackles for loss last season and will take on even more of a leadership role this season.

5. A.J. Johnson, Sr., Tennessee: A starter since his freshman season, the 6-2, 242-pound Johnson has racked up more than 100 tackles each of the last two seasons. His efforts have been overshadowed somewhat because the Volunteers have struggled on defense, but he has been a tackling machine on Rocky Top.

6. Serderius Bryant, Sr., Ole Miss: He might not have the prototypical size for an SEC linebacker, but the 5-9, 218-pound Bryant emerged last season as one of the league's top big-play performers on defense. He led Ole Miss with 12.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. His speed is what sets him apart.

7. Kwon Alexander, Jr., LSU: Making the move to weakside linebacker in LSU's defense, the 6-2, 218-pound Alexander should make even more big plays in 2014. He has tremendous speed and the versatility to play all three linebacker spots. But with Lamin Barrow departing, the Tigers need him most on the weak side.

8. Denzel Devall, Jr., Alabama: After recording three sacks last season in a part-time role, the 6-2, 250-pound Devall is poised to take off and have a breakout season in 2014. He's a natural as an outside linebacker in the Tide's 3-4 scheme and is a good bet to lead Alabama in sacks this season.

9. Jordan Jenkins, Jr., Georgia: The 6-3, 246-pound Jenkins has 10 sacks in his first two seasons and led the Bulldogs last season with 12 tackles for loss. With Jeremy Pruitt taking over as defensive coordinator, the Dawgs will look for more ways to free Jenkins up so he can do what he does best -- rush the passer. That could mean lining up at end in certain situations.

10. Ramik Wilson, Sr., Georgia: In his first season as a starter a year ago, the 6-2, 232-pound Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles from his inside linebacker position and garnered first-team All-SEC honors. He brings experience, instincts and leadership to a Georgia linebacker corps that returns everybody.
The linebackers are up next in our SEC position rankings.

These are the guys who put up the big numbers and have the versatility to chase sideline to sideline, drop back into pass coverage, and rush the passer.

Here’s what we came up with as a group. Check back later today and we’ll rank the top 10 linebackers in the league.

[+] EnlargeTrey DePriest
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesTrey DePriest will fill the big shoes vacated by C.J. Mosley.
1. Alabama: It’s unfair to expect anybody to replace all of the things that C.J. Mosley provided for the Crimson Tide, but senior Trey DePriest is ready to step up as the leader of that defense after starting 12 games at middle linebacker last season. The Tide are never hurting for talent, so look for some new stars to emerge. Among them: Reggie Ragland, Denzel Devall, Dillon Lee and Reuben Foster, and look for heralded true freshmen Rashaan Evans and Da'Shawn Hand to play early at outside linebacker and in pass-rushing situations. Both should help the Tide immensely in that area.

2. LSU: Even with the loss of leading tackler Lamin Barrow, LSU is still brimming with talent at the linebacker. Senior D.J. Welter returns in the middle, but will be pushed by sophomore Kendell Beckwith. Defensive coordinator John Chavis is always going to give up size for speed at linebacker, and Kwon Alexander and Deion “Debo” Jones can fly. Alexander is moving from the strong side to the weak side to take Barrow’s spot. Look for him to make more plays there. Juniors Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist also return and will be in the rotation. The Tigers won’t lack for depth.

3. Georgia: First-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt takes over a Georgia defense that returns everybody at linebacker. The Bulldogs might not be as talented as some around the league at linebacker, but are long on experience. Seniors Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera both return inside after each collecting more than 100 total tackles last season. The difference-maker of the group is sophomore outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks as a freshman. On the other side, junior Jordan Jenkins is back after racking up 12 tackles for loss a year ago. Nobody in the league returns more production at linebacker, but the Dawgs did finish tied for 10th in the league a year ago in scoring defense and were eighth in total defense.

4. Mississippi State: There’s a lot to be excited about in Starkville this fall, especially with nine starters returning on defense. Redshirt junior middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney thought about turning pro, but returns as one of the top defenders in the league. Senior Matthew Wells is one of the most versatile linebackers in the SEC, while sophomores Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown will both see their roles expand. This should be as good a linebacker corps as Dan Mullen has had at Mississippi State, and he’s had some good ones.

5. Florida: With so many players injured this spring, getting a read on Florida at linebacker was difficult. The key contributors from last season return, and there’s no shortage of talent. Antonio Morrison was up and down at middle linebacker before getting hurt. The Florida coaches expect him to come back strong. Michael Taylor is also back in the middle after leading the team in tackles last season. Jarrad Davis was forced into action last season as a freshman and was one of the most pleasant surprises on the team. If Alex Anzalone, Neiron Ball and Matt Rolin can all stay healthy, this has a chance to be one of the better linebacker groups in the league.

6. South Carolina: One of the reasons the Gamecocks are thinking about tinkering with a 3-4 is that they like this group of linebackers and want to get their best players on the field. Sophomore Skai Moore was outstanding as a freshman last season and is only going to get better. The best news for South Carolina is that there’s competition at all of the linebacker spots among players with experience. Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman are both back in the middle, and sophomore Jonathan Walton could be a dark horse. Sharrod Golightly was one of the team’s most improved players last season and is back at the hybrid “spur” position.

[+] EnlargeCurt Maggitt
Skip Williams/Icon SMICurt Maggitt will return for Tennessee after missing the 2013 season with a knee injury.
7. Tennessee: Senior A.J. Johnson has been a tackling machine for the Volunteers, but the challenge for him is to make more big plays. Redshirt junior Curt Maggitt is back at outside linebacker after missing all of last season while recovering from a knee injury. Butch Jones says Maggitt will be the key for the Vols defensively. They want to use him in several different spots and turn him loose on the opposing quarterback, meaning he could spend more time at end than outside linebacker. Several younger players also could factor into the mix. But if the Vols are going to improve defensively from last season, Johnson and Maggitt both need to have big years.

8. Ole Miss: The Rebels will be without junior linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche in the opener against Boise State following his offseason arrest. But once Nkemdiche returns, he and senior Serderius Bryant form one of the best one-two punches in the league at linebacker. Ole Miss should also be faster across the board at linebacker with the addition of junior college newcomer Christian Russell in the middle. Don’t forget about sixth-year senior Deterrian Shackelford, who’s weathered injuries and looked a lot faster this spring after two knee surgeries.

9. Auburn: Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson would like to see more consistency from his linebackers this season. Juniors Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost are both back, and McKinzy is moving to middle linebacker. The Tigers would love to see junior Justin Garrett stay healthy after an injury-plagued 2013 season. He could help at weakside linebacker or the hybrid “star” position. True freshman Tre Williams, ranked by ESPN as the No. 4 inside linebacker prospect, has the size and speed to play right away.

10. Vanderbilt: With the Commodores moving to a base 3-4 scheme, that means Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann will shift from end to outside linebacker. Both are outstanding and combined for 16.5 tackles for loss last season. Junior Darreon Herring had a breakout season in 2013 and finished second on the team with 84 tackles. He will move from outside to inside linebacker. Redshirt freshman Nigel Bowden also has a big upside and is a prime candidate to be a breakout player this season.

11. Missouri: The Tigers have to replace two starters, including middle linebacker Andrew Wilson, who led the team in tackles in each of the past three seasons. Redshirt sophomore Michael Scherer’s development will be key. He started the spring at strongside linebacker but moved to middle linebacker after redshirt junior Kentrell Brothers underwent surgery for a torn labrum. The Tigers will need a healthy Brothers come fall.

12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks weren’t very healthy or productive a year ago at linebacker, but they’ve got just about everybody back. Sophomore Brooks Ellis has a chance to be really good in the middle, and junior Otha Peters looks like he’s finally healthy. A year after coming over from junior college, Martrell Spaight should be a much bigger factor his second time through the league. Seniors Braylon Mitchell and Daunte Carr also are back.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats have had a stream of quality linebackers to come through Lexington the last few years. The latest was middle linebacker Avery Williamson, who was taken in the fifth round of the NFL draft. Heading into this season, it’s difficult to pinpoint who will follow in Williamson’s footsteps. Junior Khalid Henderson has a chance, and it’s likely that junior college newcomer Ryan Flannigan will have to step in and play immediately. Early enrollee true freshman Dorian Hendrix had a big spring.

14. Texas A&M: Sophomore Darian Claiborne was one of the few proven playmakers returning on Texas A&M’s defense, and now he’s gone after being dismissed from the team earlier this month. Sophomore Jordan Mastrogiovanni and senior Donnie Baggs are the only returnees with any experience. The Aggies are hopeful that TCU transfer A.J. Hilliard can provide immediate help. Either way, there are a lot more questions than answers at a position that didn’t need any casualties.
Not every prediction we made about Alabama heading into the spring panned out, but we got awfully close. Let’s take a look back:

Prediction No. 1: Kiffin provides a jolt

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

Prediction No. 2: Sophomores emerge

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

Prediction No. 3: Frosh challenges at LT

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

Prediction No. 4: DePriest steps up game

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

Prediction No. 5: Ranking Alabama’s QBs

Maybe we were too hard on Blake Sims, ranking him fourth out of five. By Saban’s estimation, he had a great spring, exhibiting control of the offense, improvement as a pocket passer and good production through two scrimmages, reportedly throwing for 515 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. But a sour A-Day performance kept him from being our post-A-Day leader in the clubhouse. Whatever momentum he’d gained before Saturday was lost when he threw one touchdown and two interceptions with a 43 percent completion percentage (13 for 30). Cooper Bateman, whom we previously ranked No. 1, looked the part at A-Day, showing the most poise and control of the quarterbacks. Alec Morris, meanwhile, was somewhat of a disappointment with just seven passing attempts and one interception. Parker McLeod and David Cornwell turned out to be the fourth and fifth quarterbacks in the race, attempting only two passes, completing none and throwing one interception. The one quarterback who did look good at A-Day was incoming transfer Jacob Coker, who looked on from the sideline as a spectator.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- A-Day might not have featured the finest quarterback play. It might not have been the introductory moment offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was hoping for, either.

One thing did, however, go over incredibly well for Alabama on Saturday. The defensive line answered this spring’s most hard-to-pin-down question with a resounding yes.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Pettway
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsD.J. Pettway was a big part of Alabama's resurgent pass rush this spring.
Yes, Alabama has excellent depth up front on defense. And, yes, the line seems ready to get after the quarterback more than it has in seasons past. All you had to do was watch Kiffin’s passing game fold under pressure time and time again to see that.

The ultimate point of pride for defensive line coach Bo Davis and his players had to be the first touchdown of the game: Defensive end D.J. Pettway snags a screen pass from Blake Sims, finds the open field and races 29 yards to pay dirt. After holding the offenses scoreless for 45 minutes, it was the defense that found a way to score.

But as much fun as it was to watch a big man rumble into the end zone, what really had the faithful at Bryant-Denny Stadium giddy was Alabama’s resurgent pass rush. We’d heard all spring how Davis had infused enthusiasm and energy into the defensive line. How he was full of energy. How he was asking his players to read less, react more and get after the quarterback. And unlike the unfulfilled promise of Alabama’s quarterbacks, its defensive linemen delivered, to the tune of seven sacks and 19 tackles for loss.

(For comparison sake, Alabama totaled two sacks and five tackles for loss at last year’s spring game.)

Even coach Nick Saban, who fought speculation about the quality of the defensive line early on this spring, had to concede that he had a talented group of players to work with. In fact, he had to widen his praise to most of the defensive front seven.

“We have a lot of experienced players,” Saban said after the White beat Crimson, 17-13, in a game where the score is meaningless, though White was led by the first-team defense. “[D.J.] Pettway and [Jarran] Reed add a lot of depth and athleticism to that group. A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen were both freshman last year, and I always say that you make the most improvement between your freshman and sophomore year. Those guys got to play a lot last year; they’ve both had great springs.

“We had three inside linebackers that I thought played really well. Trey DePriest had a really good spring. Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster [did] as well. We also had three guys that played really well at outside linebacker. Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson, and Dillon Lee, those guys all had really good springs. Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson both contributed and improved.”

Pettway and Williams played so well on A-Day that they were named co-winners of the Dwight Stephenson Lineman of the Game award. Allen, who had six tackles and two sacks, also blocked a field goal.

“From the front seven stand point, I feel a lot further along,” Saban said.

Trey DePriest, Alabama’s leader on defense at middle linebacker, said the defensive line showed at A-Day what it was capable of.

“My defensive line is great,” he said. “They put their hands on guys, they strike them, they push them back and let me and Reggie hit the holes and run.”

Ragland, for his part, agreed -- though it came with a caveat. How good is the defensive line? “You’ll see coming up," he said.

“We still have a lot more to prove. We didn’t get to do half the stunts we wanted to.”
video
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It didn’t take long for the sickening feeling to seep out of Landon Collins’ stomach and circulate through his body.

On the way back to Tuscaloosa after Alabama’s humbling 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the junior safety replayed the nauseating moments from a game in which the Crimson Tide, which entered the contest with the SEC’s top-ranked defense, surrendered 429 yards of offense, nearly 6 yards per play, 348 passing yards and four passing touchdowns.

Collins called the performance by the defense “disgraceful” to Alabama football.

“We weren’t the defense that we always used to be,” Collins told ESPN.com in early April. “That’s what we’re working on this spring.”

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAfter a less-than-stellar performance in its bowl loss to Oklahoma, Landon Collins expects Alabama's defense to play with a chip on its shoulder in 2014.
If Alabama is going to make it back to the national championship, Collins said the defense has to improve. During Alabama’s two-year BCS title run (2011-12), the Tide finished first nationally in total and scoring defense in both seasons. Last season, Alabama finished in the top five in both categories, but that final game serves as a harsh reminder of the defense's flaws.

Associating Alabama’s defense with anything less than elite feels awkward, but that’s all you can say about Bama’s bowl performance. Players were tired and run down against Oklahoma’s hurry-up offense. This spring, Tide defenders saw red, as coaches constantly reminded them of that bowl performance. That led to tougher conditioning routines and more intense player interaction on and off the field, Collins said.

Looking back at the bowl game has been tough for players, but they know that it’s a performance they never want to see again.

“It wasn’t the way we play,” linebacker Trey DePriest said. “We don’t get that many points put up on us. That’s way more than what our goal is -- 13 points or less. It didn’t seem like us. We were ready, we just didn’t go out and leave it on the field like it was our last game. It’s definitely been a driving force.”

But things won’t be easier in 2014, not with a younger defensive look and the loss of leaders -- and producers -- like C.J. Mosley and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Collins and DePriest, picked to replace those two, now head a defense that will be playing angry in 2014 after losing five starters from last season's team.

Can guys like Nick Perry, Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson, A'Shawn Robinson and Jarrick Williams expand their roles? Can some of the youngsters like Tony Brown and Laurence "Hootie" Jones step up? And don't forget about the much-anticipated arrival of defensive end Da'Shawn Hand.

There's no shortage of talent, and this defense might even have a little more athleticism sprinkled around, but we all know talent can only go so far, even with the best teams.

For now, attitudes seem to be flowing in the right direction, DePriest said, but there’s no getting around the fact that this entire defense has to grow up in the coming months to replace some valuable leaders.

“It’s some big shoes to fill, definitely,” Collins said. “A lot of us looked up to those guys. Without that leadership, we have to just step in and take over because we need that on the field constantly, and [we need it] off the field because without that, this program could go in a different direction that it doesn’t need to.”

There’s a certain pride that this defense holds that it lost in that bowl game.

Or was it something that slowly trickled out before the Tide even got to Bourbon Street?

Alabama had holes in its defense all last fall, but found ways of patching them as the season went on. Alabama surrendered a school-record 628 yards in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M, allowed Zach Mettenberger to throw for 241 yards in the win over LSU and watched Auburn rush for 296 yards in that heartbreaking loss on the Plains.

Hundreds of other teams would kill for Alabama’s 2013 defense, but it didn’t live up to the standards this program holds so dear.

For Collins, the secondary is key. While Alabama ranked near the top nationally against the pass, there were times when the secondary surrendered too many big plays. Injuries contributed to some of the secondary’s issues, but the last line of defense never truly looked settled last season.

Collins said the secondary put too much pressure on itself to live up to the enormous preseason hype after back-to-back BCS titles and wasn’t always prepared for games.

“Our downfall was our secondary last year,” Collins said. “We got picked apart because of that.”

“If you watch our film of practice, you can see how hard we work every day. You can tell how hard we’re working to establish our secondary to be dominant again.”

Spring practice can only take a team so far, and Alabama defenders know that. They have that chip, they have that anger, but it’s about carrying that feeling over to the season and performing.

The good thing for the defense is that it has a constant reminder in the bowl game that still fuels this unit.

“That just fires it up, because we know what type of defense we are,” Collins said. “We already know what we are capable of. Just to hear that we got picked apart by an offense that shouldn’t have been on the field with us, that’s a disgrace to Alabama defense. We need to pick it up from that standpoint.”

Video: Alabama LB Trey DePriest

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
2:00
PM ET

Edward Aschoff talks with Alabama linebacker Trey DePriest about taking on more responsibility within Alabama's defense this spring.

SEC's lunch links

March, 19, 2014
Mar 19
12:00
PM ET
Is basketball taking over the SEC? Auburn hired Bruce Pearl. Tennessee is about to open NCAA tournament play. Not so fast. The majority of the conference is still being consumed by spring football, and for further evidence of that, check out today’s lunch links.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban said his team “lost respect for winning” last season.

Trey DePriest said players “lost sight of the small things.”

Amari Cooper, agreed, adding that his teammates “didn’t connect with each other” like they needed to.

There are plenty of reasons why Alabama went from unquestioned No. 1 in the polls to a two-loss disappointment last season. Everyone remembers the last-second loss at Auburn and the backbreaking defeat against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, but do they remember the fumbles, missed opportunities and general malaise that came before it? Do they recall how poor the offense was against Virginia Tech, how terrible the defense was against Texas A&M? What about the goal-line fumble that kept LSU from going up 4 points at halftime or how a sub-.500 Mississippi State team played Alabama close for the better part of four quarters?

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsBama LB Trey DePriest says complacency won't be an issue for the Crimson Tide this season.
Whatever plagued Alabama can be best summed up in one catch-all word: complacency.

We hadn’t heard that one around Tuscaloosa in a while before the new year. For weeks and weeks heading into the Sugar Bowl the narrative was how complacency wasn’t an issue. Alabama wasn’t taking Oklahoma lightly, Saban and his players explained. It wasn't the national championship, but they were eager to show they were championship-caliber still, they insisted. Then came the two-touchdown loss in which Alabama gave up 45 points and 429 yards of offense.

And, then, talk of complacency.

It became the narrative of the offseason. It wasn’t that Alabama wasn’t good enough last season -- looking at the stacked roster, it’s hard to argue it wasn’t -- it’s that the players were somehow not focused enough. They didn’t want to win as much as they should have. They weren’t ready to fight for it like they had in years past.

Back-to-back national championships led Saban to say that, “I think sometimes players can get a little complacent and lose their respect for winning, and what it takes to be their best. … Sometimes you need a few setbacks to straighten you out.”

Sound familiar? It should. It’s a similar story to what we heard following the 2010 season when Alabama lost three games after being ranked preseason No. 1. With a chip planted firmly on its shoulder and complacency solidly in its past, the Crimson Tide went out and won a national championship in 2011.

DePriest was a true freshman playing primarily on special teams that season. Now he’s the most veteran player on defense, a senior taking over C.J. Mosley's role as the vocal leader at inside linebacker. He’s someone that everyone should “look up to,” according to Saban.

Complacency, DePriest said, won’t be an excuse this spring. Not from what he’s seen.

Usually when Alabama players gathers for the Fourth Quarter Program, strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran’s grueling series of workouts, there are more than a few who aren’t altogether excited for the challenge. Going from the couch to the weight room isn’t an easy transition, especially when it comes only weeks after the season ends.

But this year was different.

“Stepping into that Fourth Quarter Program, it’s usually like, ‘Aww, man, it’s the Fourth Quarter and we’ve got to run,’” DePriest said prior to practice on Monday. “But guys were actually excited to go out there and run and see if they can push themselves to the limit.

“That’s another thing I’ve seen, that guys are pushing themselves to the limit and not just letting their mind control their body. They were pushing and actually telling themselves that they can do it.”

If players weren’t complacent in the face of a screaming Scott Cochran, that’s a good sign. But it’s only the first sign. Monday marked practice No. 2 of 15 this spring, and then after A-Day there’s three more months of downtime to deal with. If players don’t motivate themselves then, look for it to show up late in the summer when preseason camp begins. And then the competition really begins and players either step up and separate themselves or fall behind.

After losing two games and falling into bad habits last season, Alabama can’t afford to lose a step. Defending SEC champ Auburn isn’t going anywhere, LSU is loaded with talented players, and Texas A&M promises to continue its upward trajectory without Johnny Manziel. And that’s just half of the SEC West.

Whether or not this spring’s attitude holds, one thing is certain: Complacency is not an option in 2014. Everyone is saying that right things so far, but only time will tell if words translate into action.


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Whether he’s beginning the process of defending a national championship or rebounding from a disappointing season, Nick Saban remains the same.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban and the Crimson Tide
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDespite some new faces at Alabama, Nick Saban is a creature of habit whose goals remain the same.
After five decades coaching college football, he’s become a creature of habit. Every time he opens practice at the University of Alabama, it looks the same. There’s an order to it. Each position group is where it's supposed to be. Every player's actions are accounted for. It’s like clockwork. There are no wasted movements. Every moment goes according to his plan.

And, as it turns out, Saban’s process boils all the way down to what he puts on in the morning. Whether it’s been by design or not, the notoriously meticulous head coach has worn the same exact outfit for the first day of spring practice ever since 2008. This year was no different.

A new group of players and coaches walked onto the Thomas-Drew Practice Field for the first time on Saturday afternoon. AJ McCarron was gone from under center, C.J. Mosley was no longer captaining the defense and a number of other familiar faces were noticeably absent. But Saban remained. He put on the same red sweater, khaki pants and nondescript sneakers he’s worn for the first day of spring practice the past seven years. He donned the same straw hat he’s used every year since then, too, with the exception of a rainy day in 2009 that forced his team indoors.

Anyone looking for Alabama to change after ending last season with two losses will be disappointed. Saban may have a new roster, a new coaching staff and a new set of challenges, but his demeanor is exactly the same. His goals haven’t fluctuated: create incremental improvement and focus on what he calls “consistency in performance," which is his process, in a nutshell.

“The first practice is always a sort of work in progress for everybody. [It's] new players learning where to go, old players trying to get back into the swing of things," Saban said.

He used the phrase “work in progress” three times during a hurried seven-minute news conference. He was in a rush, one of his staffers said, because there were a number of recruits he needed to visit with. He went through the motions, answered three questions and was off. With the exception of one position change (ArDarius Stewart at safety) and a few roster moves (Harrison Jones, Chad Lindsay and Jai Miller are gone), it was business as usual.

Saban said he was pleased with the way his team responded to the offseason conditioning program and was eager to see how spring practice would play out. Re-establishing the fundamentals will be the focus for the first few days, he explained, and then they’ll get into the playbook. He made no mention of last season, the last-second loss at Auburn or the poor showing against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It has weighed heavily into the national conversation, but it’s clear Saban has moved on.

“Players have to develop the discipline to sustain so we finish practice, finish games, finish quarters, finish halves like we really want to,” he said.

Trey DePriest, however, is using last season as inspiration. He was on the field when the Sooners embarrassed his defense in New Orleans, racking up 45 points and 429 yards. He was on the sidelines a month earlier when Chris Davis went 109 yards to steal an Iron Bowl win and an undefeated season away from the Tide. The last time Auburn dealt Alabama such a blow, a motivational poster was made as a reminder. “Never Again,” it read, along with a grinning picture of Cam Newton. The next year Alabama destroyed Auburn, went 12-1 and won a national championship.

“Guys are just a lot more hungry,” DePriest said. “We didn’t finish the season like we wanted to. Guys knew that and they just took a different approach to it, and [we] are trying to get back to the standard to how we do stuff.”

Amari Cooper wasn’t around when Alabama was dealt a similar setback in 2010, losing three games after being ranked preseason No. 1. But the standout junior receiver has noticed a different motivation from his teammates this spring. The leaders are stepping up more, he said. What Saban is asking them to do -- “stay focused and finish” -- isn’t different from years past, but Cooper has seen a better focus from everyone.

[+] EnlargeJacob Coker
Jeff Gammons/Getty ImagesExpect the Crimson Tide's QB competition to heat up in May when Jacob Coker arrives.
What remains to be seen is how that sustains itself and translates into results. Cooper doesn’t have McCarron throwing him the football anymore. Doug Nussmeier is no longer his offensive coordinator. He now has five unknown candidates at quarterback, a sixth on the way and a coordinator with a somewhat checkered past. So far, Cooper said, he’s enjoyed the change, noting how Lane Kiffin has simplified the offense and made it more “player-friendly.”

As far as the quarterback battle, he thinks that will be fine, too.

“It’s not weird,” he said. “It’s just a quarterback competition. I think schools have that every year.”

But Alabama isn’t any school. Not when you win three of the past five national championships. Not when your head coach is Nick Saban and losing two games is a disappointment.

The quarterback competition may be simmering on the back burner now, but it’s going to heat up when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives in May. As far as Saban is concerned, he’d like to keep that on the periphery. He’s going to be asked 1,000 times about it, and 1,000 times he’s going to give the same answer: “We’re going to wait and see.”

If you’re looking for Saban to give into the pressure of naming a starter before he’s ready, you’ll be disappointed. As with everything else he’s done as a head coach, he’s doing this on his own terms. His process is set, his plan is laid out, and after five decades of coaching, there’s no changing it. When a man wears the same thing for seven years in a row, you have to expect some consistency from him.

Opening spring camp: Alabama

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
9:00
AM ET
Schedule: The Crimson Tide will open spring practice on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. All practices are closed and only the A-Day scrimmage at 2 p.m. ET on April 19 will be open to the public.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If you’ve watched Alabama football these past few years, then you know what Trey DePriest looks like in uniform. The No. 33 emblazoned on his chest, he’s a thickly built linebacker with a low center of gravity. He’s a complete player; good in tight quarters against the run and solid in space against the pass. He doesn’t shy away from contact, but he hasn’t always been at the center of it either since signing with Alabama in 2011. Instead, that honor belongs to All-American C.J. Mosley, who racked up 100 or more tackles in each of the past two seasons.

But with Mosley off to a career in the NFL, expect to see a new Trey DePriest on the field this spring. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound senior doesn’t figure to change much physically; he doesn’t need to. Between the ears, however, he should make significant strides. A vacuum in leadership has moved him to the forefront of Nick Saban’s defense, demanding that he be both productive and vocal in 2014. Looking good in uniform and showing flashes of promise won’t cut it anymore. DePriest must transform himself these next few weeks and months if Alabama’s defense is to live up to the lofty standards of seasons past.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsTrey DePriest says he's ready to assume the leadership role on the field and in the locker room left open by the departure of C.J. Mosley.
The good news for Alabama fans is that DePriest does have all the tools to succeed. His size and speed are ideal. He isn’t quite as fast as Mosley, but then again few in the college game have ever been.

Still, he has been consistently productive in somewhat of a lesser role. He stood out early as a playmaker on special teams with 25 tackles in 13 games as a freshman. In each of the past two seasons he’s ranked in the top three on the team in tackles: 59 as a sophomore and 65 as a junior. Mosley, by means of comparison, went from 37 tackles as a sophomore to 107 tackles as a junior. Both could have entered the NFL draft as underclassmen, but both decided to stay for their senior seasons. For Mosley, it paid off to the tune of another 100-tackle season and an even more inflated draft stock. The hope for DePriest is he does the same.

"He knows the defense just like I do," Mosley told reporters prior the Allstate Sugar Bowl. "If he comes back like I did, he'll evolve into that every-down linebacker role so people will be able to see his true talents. They'll see he can control the defense and be the only linebacker on the field and make all the calls."

When it comes to the matter of leadership, Mosley sees that capability in DePriest, too.

"If he stays, it will be him," Mosley said when asked who the leaders will be when he leaves. "He doesn't get a lot of credit, but he's a pretty good linebacker."

Said DePriest: “I’m definitely going to be ready to take on that job. Like I said earlier, I’m going to have to. Him and the other guys leaving like that, it’s going to be something that I have to do.”

The linebacker corps will be young next season. Sam linebacker Adrian Hubbard is off to the NFL and Jack linebacker Xzavier Dickson was suspended for the Sugar Bowl, though Saban said he’ll be back for spring practice. None of the three contenders to replace Mosley at inside linebacker -- Reuben Foster, Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland -- has ever started a game and together they combined for all of 45 tackles last season.

DePriest, more than ever, will be leaned on by the coaching staff. He has had the luxury of working with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart one-on-one in the past as his position coach, but now that responsibility falls to Kevin Steele, who was a defensive coordinator at Clemson (2009-12) before returning to Tuscaloosa last year as director of player personnel.

Maybe a new challenge and a new coach will be just what the doctor ordered for DePriest as he takes on the biggest test of his career at Alabama. As spring practice kicks off on campus this week, look for the senior to look the same but play like a new man.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban has had no trouble recruiting at Alabama. The number of four- and five-star prospects he and his staff have signed since 2007 is nothing short of staggering. Many of them are already enjoying careers in the NFL.

But which class was best? Which group of blue-chippers was the most impressive?

That’s a difficult question, but one we nonetheless set out to answer this week with a countdown of the top three classes at Alabama during Saban’s tenure, not counting the Tide’s most recent recruiting class.

No. 3 on our list in order of impact is the Class of 2011, which finished No. 2 in that season's ESPN class rankings.

[+] EnlargeCyrus Kouandjio
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsCyrus Kouandjio was an anchor on the Alabama offensive line for three seasons.
The stars: Cyrus Kouandjio didn’t say yes to Alabama first. On signing day, he told a national television audience he would sign with Auburn. But a change of heart and a desire to keep it in the family made Kouandjio go with the Tide, giving Saban his first five-star signee at Alabama. Kouandjio had the look of an All-SEC tackle from Day 1 at 6-foot-7 and 325 pounds, and he delivered on that promise, developing into one of the best at his position in the country. Along with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (the No. 2-ranked safety) and linebacker Trey DePriest (the No. 2-ranked outside linebacker), the class had plenty of headliners.

The contributors: It’s hard to imagine calling Vinnie Sunseri a “contributor” considering how he developed. But it’s important to remember that Sunseri, the son of then-assistant Sal Sunseri, wasn’t a highly thought-of prospect. He was a linebacker/safety tweener that ESPN ranked the No. 18 outside linebacker in the country. But the 5-foot-11, 202-pound athlete showed he had a nose for the football, developing into one of the best playmakers in the SEC, starring on special teams as a true freshman before developing into a heavy hitter at safety. Jeoffrey Pagan turned into an NFL-caliber defensive lineman, Ryan Kelly has the look of a solid center, and Christion Jones has turned into a home run threat as a receiver and kick returner.

The letdowns: There were plenty of misses in this class, though. Duron Carter, son of NFL legend Cris Carter, never played a down with the team after transferring to Alabama. Bradley Sylve, the No. 5 wideout in the class, hasn’t made a splash at cornerback, and Brent Calloway is no longer with the program after an arrest a year ago. LaMichael Fanning, who had the build scouts drool over at defensive end, never panned out, transferring to Jacksonville State after this past season. And most recently Dee Hart, a top 10 running back out of high school, left the team after the Sugar Bowl and was arrested by Tuscaloosa police on Feb. 16.

The results: The final tally is still coming in, but the 2011 class appears to be headed in the right direction. Junior college transfers Jesse Williams and Quinton Dial are already playing professional football, and there’s a solid chance both Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix will be selected in the first round of the NFL draft in May. Pagan and Sunseri will follow in the later rounds. If DePriest, Jones and Kelly develop into NFL prospects as fourth-year players in 2014, that would make nine total NFL players from the class, not counting what Xzavier Dickson or D.J. Pettway could do to impress scouts.
Editor's note: This is Part IV in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The body of evidence is compelling. Alabama, after years of defensive dominance, has a problem with the hurry-up, no-huddle offense.

Da'Shawn Hand
Scott Fink for ESPNThe addition of athletic defensive linemen like Da'Shawn Hand could be the difference for the Tide's defense against spread teams.
Nick Saban can't avoid it any longer. After an offseason spent agonizing over offenses like Texas A&M's, he and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart came up empty. Alabama gave up the most yards in school history to Texas A&M this past season and followed that up with a poor performance against Auburn in the Iron Bowl and a disastrous showing against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

It's time to change. Or at least make significant tweaks.

Alabama's defense won't be the same next season. Three-quarters of the secondary will be gone and more than half of the front seven will be out the door as well. Greg Brown won't be coaching the secondary and Chris Rumph won't be coaching the defensive line any longer. That kind of large-scale turnover can be viewed as a negative or a positive. The silver lining for Saban is that he has a chance to start fresh.

"If you continue to do what you have been doing, you will continue to get the same results," Saban told the audience at the annual American Football Coaches Association conference in Indianapolis this week.

Continuing to get outflanked by the spread, outmatched by mobile quarterbacks and outwitted by uptempo offenses can't be the answer. Saban's defense has a strong track record, but adjustments must be made for success in the long term. There's simply too much football knowledge among Alabama's coaches to not adapt and overcome.

"All you're trying to do is get lined up [on defense]," Saban said of facing uptempo offenses in late September. "You can't play specialty third-down stuff. You can't hardly scheme anything. The most important thing is to get the call so the guys can get lined up, and it's got to be a simple call. The offense kind of knows what you're doing."

Corralling new-age offenses is a big task, one that no coach in college football has really mastered. But for Alabama's dynasty to be revived in 2014, tackling those kinds of scheme must happen. Teams like Texas A&M and Auburn aren't going away. Nick Marshall will be back under center for the Tigers next season, Ole Miss will continue to push the tempo under coach Hugh Freeze and even Mississippi State will look to beat the Tide with a spread offense and an athletic quarterback in Dak Prescott. West Virginia has run the spread for years, Tennessee's Butch Jones runs a version of it and even Florida coach Will Muschamp says the Gators are going that way too.

While the spread, uptempo offenses were a unique challenge a few years ago, next season they'll be more of the norm with at least seven of Alabama's 12 scheduled opponents featuring some form of the increasingly popular scheme.

Getting more athletic up front on defense seems to be a significant part of the answer for Alabama. With true freshmen like A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen emerging as dangerous pass-rushers, that's a good place to start. The return of D.J. Pettway should help, as should the eventual arrival of five-star commitment Da'Shawn Hand.

Matching athleticism with athleticism will go a long way, but the staff will have to do more to confront its most glaring weakness. Trey DePriest will have to take on a more influential leadership role with C.J. Molsey gone, and the back end of the defense will need to improve as well.

One offseason wasn't enough to solve the hurry-up no-huddle conundrum. The hope for Alabama fans is that with one more offseason to prepare, a few more staff changes and some better personnel, the problem won't be so pronounced.
Trey DePriest cut the list of possible departures by one when he announced that he would return for his senior season. But the list was, according to Alabama coach Nick Saban, already in the double digits as Alabama's notoriously tight-lipped head coach said before the Sugar Bowl that as many as 10 players were interested in their NFL futures and would look into receiving a draft projection from the league's advisory board.

In what's become an annual rite of the new year, Alabama is staring down a future without many of its underclassman stars. The deadline to declare for the NFL draft is Jan. 15, and decisions from players could come soon now that Saban is no longer in Pasadena, Calif., for the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

How the Tide's own title aspirations look depend heavily on what happens with the draft-eligible underclassmen. As Saban said, "It will affect our team next year." There are some players who seem likely to bolt and others who could use another year of seasoning. Here's a breakdown of who they are, how they're trending and what their return or departure means for Alabama moving forward.

S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillAlabama could use Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's talents and experience next season.
Trending: On to the NFL
What his return would mean: If he returns, the narrative of Alabama's secondary being a liability could change drastically. With Landon Collins and Vinnie Sunseri, the Tide would have three very solid safeties, allowing Saban to move parts around and make the most of the nickel corner position. Clinton-Dix would be the anchor to the whole scheme at free safety.
What his departure would mean: Given how high his draft stock is right now, it's hard to imagine he comes back for his senior season as ESPN's Scouts Inc. has him as the No. 18 prospect overall, a solid first-round pick. So look for Sunseri to return at strong safety and Collins to slide back over to free safety, where he started a few games this season. Nick Perry, who missed the final 10 games of the season with an injury, will return to provide depth.

LB Trey DePriest
Trending: Staying put
What his return would mean: It's a big boost for Alabama, given the departure of senior inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. DePriest will immediately become the leader of the defense in 2014, making the calls and adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Even though his junior season wasn't what some expected in terms of production, DePriest is still an NFL talent with the size and speed to provide support in the running game and drop back in pass coverage.
What his departure would mean: Had he left, Alabama would have been in dire straits. Replacing Mosley would have been hard enough, but removing the two most experienced and talented defenders on the team would have been a huge loss for Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Underclassmen such as Dillon Lee and Ryan Anderson have shown promise, but both could use another season removed from the spotlight DePriest will inhabit.

LB Adrian Hubbard
Trending: On to the NFL
What his return would mean: We've seen plenty of flashes of talent from Hubbard. In each of the past two seasons he's turned it on late and helped provide a pass rush that had been lacking. Maybe one more year under Saban will be what it takes to establish that consistency from Week 1.
What his departure would mean: Along those same lines, Hubbard has peaked at the right time in each of the last two seasons. And don't think the NFL hasn't noticed. He had to make an announcement last year that he would come back as a junior, but will he do the same again and return for his redshirt senior season? After graduating, there's a chance he moves on, clearing the way for someone like Lee or Tim Williams.

LT Cyrus Kouandjio
Trending: Staying put
[+] EnlargeCyrus Kouandjio
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsCyrus Kouandjio had a tough Sugar Bowl, and that might affect his draft status.
What his return would mean: Dealing with one loss out of five is much easier than tending to two. Such would be the case for Alabama if Kouandjio returns. Offensive line coach Mario Cristobal would be able to focus on replacing senior guard Anthony Steen and re-establishing the chemistry the line found in the second half of the season but lost late in a poor performance against Oklahoma.
What his departure would mean: You can't play that poorly on a national stage and not get noticed. Kouandjio looked like a sure thing to bolt for the NFL draft before the Sugar Bowl. But after getting beaten badly by the Sooners -- Eric Striker beat with him a speed rush that led to three sacks -- it looks like Kouandjio might need another year of seasoning. With brother Arie returning for his senior season, that might be enough to keep Cyrus in crimson. If he does go, look for blue-chip prospect Cam Robinson to try his best to start right away.

DE Jeoffrey Pagan
Trending: Staying put
What his return would mean: Because of his size (6-foot-4, 290 pounds) and quickness in the trenches, Pagan certainly looks like a solid NFL prospect. But is he good enough to turn pro early? It doesn't seem like it. With just two sacks and three tackles for loss this season, the production just isn't there. Should he return, he'll be someone the staff can build around, much as it did in 2012 when Damion Square was able to play both end and tackle in the 3-4.
What his departure would mean: It wouldn't be devastating to see Pagan go, but it would be a big loss in leadership. Youngsters such as A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen are blossoming on the defensive line, but Pagan is a proven commodity, especially against the run. Alabama might improve in the pass-rush department as more athletic ends emerge, but that's a short-sighted way of thinking.

Maybe the loss at Auburn was a warning shot. Or was it the narrow victory at Texas A&M? Possibly the lackluster performances against Colorado State and Mississippi State?

Whenever the signs came that Alabama wasn't all it was cracked up to be, very few, if anyone, saw it coming. But looking back, maybe it all makes sense.

Alabama wasn't the best team in the country Wednesday night. It wasn't even the best team in the Superdome.

The narrative that Alabama would come out in the Sugar Bowl and prove again that it was worthy of being thought of as No. 1 ultimately proved misguided and downright untrue. The team's every flaw was exposed. Every one of Alabama's weaknesses was exploited.

This time there was no kicker to blame. This time it couldn't be chalked up to Lady Luck.

The only championship-caliber team in New Orleans was the one that entered the game a 14-point underdog. And if the way you end a season says anything about how you'll start the next, then Oklahoma should begin next season ranked ahead of Alabama by a mile.

The Sooners' future is undeniably promising. But the Tide's future is now best described as a series of question marks.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron lost in his last two starts for Alabama and didn't look like himself in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
AJ McCarron looked nothing like himself Thursday night, throwing multiple interceptions in a game for just the third time in his career. It was a terrible way for him to leave things at Alabama -- one week a Heisman Trophy finalist, the next a scapegoat. But what's worse is that no one knows who will take over for him in the spring. Will it be the mobile quarterback Blake Sims? The soon-to-be redshirt sophomore Alec Morris? What about the three freshmen: Cooper Bateman, Luke Del Rio and Parker McLeod?

What Alabama wouldn't give to have someone with a future as bright as Oklahoma's Trevor Knight. The last quarterback to improve that much in New Orleans was McCarron in early 2012.

But the problems ahead are much deeper than who's under center. It goes even deeper than who will protect him. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio looks like he needs another year to develop, and even if he returns, Alabama will have to replace veteran right guard Anthony Steen. Leon Brown played OK in his stead, but the chemistry of the entire line was way off. Simply put, you can't give up seven sacks and expect to win many games.

Alabama's defense has to go back to the drawing board, too. All of it.

It's not just the secondary that was atrocious. The big plays speak for themselves, but two true freshmen were on the field at cornerback at one point against Oklahoma. Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson will get better with time. Maybe Cyrus Jones or Bradley Sylve will emerge. Vinnie Sunseri will return at safety to provide some needed leadership and Landon Collins will mature alongside him.

The front seven needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and find a way to help the back end of the defense. There were times where Alabama put pressure on Knight, but rarely did it finish the play. Saban might not think sacks are important, but having just one is pretty glaring. Freshmen defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen have shown promise. It's time to let them loose. If Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall aren't bringing the heat at outside linebacker, someone needs to.

Like McCarron, C.J. Mosley did everything he could to end his career on a high note. But Alabama's back-to-back All-American linebacker couldn't do it all on his own, even though there were times this season where it looked like he could. Trey DePriest, his heir apparent, will now have to shoulder that heavy burden. As Saban attempts to solve the riddle of no-huddle and spread offenses, DePriest will be his centerpiece.

In fact, the entire coaching staff has questions to answer. Yes, even Saban.

Saban and Kirby Smart have seen their defense get exposed one too many times by more developed offenses such as Oklahoma and Auburn. When the pace has picked up, Alabama has been left behind. When quarterbacks have been able to escape the pocket, Alabama has been left holding the bag. Giving up 822 yards in the final two games should be a wake-up call for the entire staff to rethink the way it answers offenses on both fronts.

And don't think that offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier isn't in the same boat. He can no longer afford to leave weapons such as Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard hanging on the shelf. He can't abandon the run and expect his quarterback to save him. Balance always has been preached at Alabama, but it's not always been practiced, and that has to change. The Tide needs an offense that can make up a double-digit deficit in a hurry because the one it's trotted out the last few years has never been capable of that.

But even with all that, don't expect Saban to abandon his process. Wholesale changes aren't likely. Multiple times after the game, Saban said how his is a proven formula. He's focusing instead on how the loss was more of a signal to recommit to it. And maybe he's right.

From afar, the Sugar Bowl has the look of an outlier in a mountain of evidence supporting Saban's way of doing things. But this season showed some of the cracks in its foundation, cracks that could grow into more devastating gaps with time and pressure.

Oklahoma wasn't the only one to expose Alabama. Auburn was the first team to beat the Tide, and Texas A&M, Mississippi State and even Colorado State delivered blows of their own, even in defeat. With each flaw they revealed, a blueprint emerged: Pressure the quarterback, try for turnovers, push the tempo.

At the end of it all, the truth was obvious: Alabama not only wasn't the best team in the country this season, it has a lot of work to do moving forward to regain that title.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Blue Chip Battles: ESPN 300 Update
National recruiting reporter Jeremy Crabtree breaks down the top three recruiting tugs-of-war for uncommitted four- and five-star recruits.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

SEC SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 8/28
Saturday, 8/30
Sunday, 8/31