How he fits: The Tide like big corners with speed and they landed one in Fitzpatrick. Saban and Co. also value perimeter defenders who know the nuances of the position and are proficient in varied alignments and coverages, and Fitzpatrick excels with the mental aspect of the game.
Prediction for performance: It's not easy to step right in and play for the Tide at corner with their sophisticated coverage system, but we expect Fitzpatrick to play sooner than later as he is entering Tuscaloosa ahead of the curve when it comes to an understanding of coverages. Physically he should be ready as well.
Who he reminds us off: Champ Bailey, New Orleans Saints. Bailey is a future Hall of Famer due to great physical tools but also with what he brings to game above the shoulders. Fitzpatrick has size, speed and range to match up with prototypical receivers one-on-one but also a savvy understanding of where to position himself on the field to make plays.
How the class is shaping up: The Tide have controlled the class rankings since Saban’s arrival and it looks like 2015 will be no different. Alabama is looking to capture its fourth straight top national ranking with a great start to this class. The Tide claimed the top class in our first rankings release last week and solidified it with a big day that saw commitments from two top 50 overall defensive players in linebacker Leo Lewis and Fitzpatrick.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alec Morris may have had the biggest impact of any Alabama quarterback during the Crimson Tide's spring game Saturday. The problem, however, is that he stood out most as a punter, booming 15 kicks for an average of 38.4 yards.
In a game that was built up as a quarterback showcase, the defense ultimately stole the show while the passing game went missing in action.
AJ McCarron was on hand for A-Day in Tuscaloosa, but only to be inducted into the Walk of Fame. His potential replacements under center, meanwhile, looked far away from fulfilling his legacy as a starter.
Blake Sims, McCarron's backup a year ago and the early leader in the quarterback race this spring, threw for an underwhelming 178 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions on 13-of-30 passing. A 55-yard touchdown pass to Chris Black late in the fourth quarter helped salvage some of his day as the "Crimson" team starter, but it was a far cry from his reported 515 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in two earlier scrimmages this spring, both of which were closed to the media.
"Blake had a really good spring and did a really good job in the scrimmages," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "I thought ... the game speeded up today and he tried to speed up with it, rather than just staying in his rhythm."
Nick Saban visited with Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning at the Alabama football offices early last week. Saban also spent time with Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase -- on the same day and in the same location.
But don't connect the dots any further than that, Saban insists.
"I never said we sat down together," Saban said in an interview with The Denver Post on Friday night.
The Alabama coach made headlines Thursday when he told reporters of the visit with Manning and Gase.
The meeting, as Saban described it, was a mutually beneficial experience in which Manning sought out ways to improve his game, Gase was able to talk shop, and Saban and his staff were able to learn a thing or two about the no-huddle offense.
But had the visit of Manning and Gase occurred simultaneously, it might constitute a violation of the NFL collective-bargaining agreement that forbids players from having meetings with coaches before teams begin their offseason workout programs.
Saban's vague language Thursday -- "The two of them were just making some visits" -- seemed to indicate it was a collaborative effort, prompting an NFL review of the matter. Saban's collective use of the word "them" seemed to tie the coach and coordinator together.
Whether it is a punishable violation by the NFL is still to be determined, the league has said.
As Saban told reporters Thursday night: "Since they're a no-huddle team, we had a lot of questions for them, in terms of what gives them problems and what defensive teams do that gives them problems. That was kind of a mutual, hopefully beneficial.
"I know it was a benefit to us. I hope it was a benefit to them as well."
Teams that turn it over consistently don't win very often, and teams that force turnovers typically find ways to win.
Looking back at the SEC in the last three seasons, it's not surprising that Alabama and LSU lead the way in turnover margin. The Tigers are plus-36 and the Crimson Tide are plus-24 during that span. They've combined to win two of the last three SEC titles and played each other for the national championship in 2011.
Alabama has been especially good at not turning the ball over. The Crimson Tide haven’t turned it over 20 or more times in a season since 2007, Nick Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa. Alabama and LSU are the only teams in the league that haven’t had a 20-turnover season at least once over the last three years. During that three-year span, Alabama has turned it over just 44 times.
By contrast, Ole Miss has turned it over 75 times during the last three seasons, which is the most in the league. Arkansas is right behind the Rebels with 74 turnovers, and the Hogs have forced the fewest turnovers in the SEC since 2011 (47). Ole Miss and Texas A&M are the only SEC teams to turn it over more than 20 times in each of the last three seasons, although Texas A&M was a member of the Big 12 in 2011.
In the last three seasons, South Carolina's defense has led the way when it comes to creating turnovers. The Gamecocks have forced 86 turnovers. LSU is second with 82. The Gamecocks have intercepted an SEC-high 52 passes in the last three seasons. Vanderbilt is second with 48 picks during that span.
Ole Miss has thrown the most interceptions (44) in the last three seasons, just one more than Tennessee (43). Alabama has thrown the fewest picks (18).
Below is the turnover margin for all 14 SEC schools in the last three seasons. Missouri and Texas A&M were in the Big 12 in 2011.
1. LSU: 82 gained, 46 lost -- plus-36
2. Alabama: 68 gained, 44 lost -- plus-24
3. Mississippi State: 78 gained, 55 lost -- plus-23
4. South Carolina: 86 gained, 64 lost -- plus-22
5. Missouri: 77 gained, 57 lost -- plus-20
6. Georgia: 77 gained, 66 lost -- plus-11
7. Vanderbilt: 77 gained, 69 lost -- plus-8
8. Florida: 62 gained, 61 lost -- plus-1
9. Kentucky: 52 gained, 55 lost -- minus-3
10. Tennessee: 60 gained, 64 lost -- minus-4
11. Ole Miss: 67 gained, 75 lost -- minus-8
12. Auburn: 55 gained, 65 lost -- minus-10
13. Texas A&M: 53 gained, 66 lost -- minus-13
14. Arkansas: 47 gained, 74 lost -- minus-27
- Ranking the SEC quarterbacks for 2014: Auburn’s Nick Marshall takes the No. 1 spot.
- Alabama running backs Kenyan Drake and Altee Tenpenny spent Thursday’s practice at the study table, a requirement if either wants to participate in the spring game.
- True freshman quarterback Rafe Peavey is climbing the depth chart at Arkansas in his first spring.
- After Thursday’s practice, the Auburn football team hosted a group of pediatric cancer patients and their families.
- Will Muschamp’s post-spring speaking tour has been part apology for last season and part promise that things will be better for his Florida team in 2014.
- Georgia wrapped up spring practice on Thursday, and the question marks on defense are as abundant as when the Bulldogs started.
- Former Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow opted to transfer earlier this week. His father knows just how painful the decision was to make.
- Missouri spring game storylines: What to watch when the Tigers take the field on Saturday.
- A day after his transfer from Texas A&M was confirmed, former Aggies quarterback Matt Joeckel found a new home at TCU.
- At Tennessee, did any of the quarterbacks emerge from the pack this spring? What impact would the newcomers make? These questions answered and more.
2. The Lane Train: We’ve heard that he’s more “player-friendly” and has “simplified” the offense since coming to Tuscaloosa. But the specifics of Lane Kiffin’s transformation of Alabama’s offense still remain to be seen. So while fans shouldn’t expect much more than a vanilla playbook, do pay attention to the formations and how the ball is distributed.
3. A young secondary: The focus of the spring has been primarily on Kiffin and the quarterbacks, and maybe that’s rightfully so. But no one should forget Alabama’s secondary, which faces a large rebuilding task. Starting safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri are gone. So is former starting cornerback Deion Belue and top reserve John Fulton. With the exception of Landon Collins at strong safety, every position in the secondary is up for grabs.
4. Rushing the passer: Defensive line coach Bo Davis has brought energy and a renewed focus on rushing the passer to Alabama this offseason. And with the depth he inherited at the position, he has the tools to get after the quarterback. Promising freshmen A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen are a year wiser, Dalvin Tomlinson is back from injury and D.J. Pettway returns after a year of exile. That’s a good nucleus of pass-rushers, but don’t forget Dee Liner and Tim Williams. Though the quarterbacks will essentially be playing two-hand touch, pay attention to how the down-linemen fire off the snap and get into the backfield.
5. The up-and-comers:
- Derrick Henry: We all know by now what the former five-star athlete did in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma. But can he follow it up?
- Tony Brown: With Eddie Jackson out and other injuries at the position, the top-five corner and early enrollee has gotten plenty of repetitions. With a strong close to the spring, he could put himself in position to vie for a starting job in the fall.
- Cam Robinson: The former No. 1 offensive tackle in the ESPN 300 has come on as of late, challenging for the role of left tackle vacated by Cyrus Kouandjio. There’s no question Robinson fits the build from a physical and talent standpoint. The real question is how he acclimates to college and learns the playbook.
- Reuben Foster: With C.J. Mosley gone, there’s a vacancy at middle linebacker. Foster, a former four-star recruit, has impressed with his athleticism and ability to deliver the big hits. But can he bring the complete package to the table?
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban hosted Peyton Manning and Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase last week for two days during a visit the Alabama Crimson Tide coach called mutually beneficial.
The presence of Manning struck a chord in Saban, who also said the quarterback was a good example of how athletes at all levels should approach their crafts.
The details of how the meeting came about weren't clear, but Saban said Manning and Gase were "making some visits" and wanted to stop by Tuscaloosa.
"A lot of people would say, 'Wow, the guy is one of the best, if not the best, from a career standpoint and about as good as anyone has been in the history of the league,' " Saban said. "After all the experience and knowledge that he has, he's going out to try and seek more knowledge and understudying of the game of football so he can play better."
The benefit, however, wasn't entirely one-sided.
Denver likely runs as efficient a no-huddle offense as any in the NFL. Manning, the orchestrator of the Broncos attack, threw for a league-record 55 touchdowns this past season.
Saban, for his part, has struggled some recently against no-huddle offenses. Alabama gave up a record 628 yards of offense in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M last season, and then lost in the final second to Auburn in a game that featured the Tigers running an uptempo attack that yielded 296 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
"Since they're a no-huddle team, we had a lot of questions for them, in terms of what gives them problems and what defensive teams do that give them problems," Saban said. "That was a mutual benefit. I know it was a benefit to us. I hope it was a benefit to them as well."
Jalen Whitlow is leaving Kentucky, and Matt Joeckel is leaving Texas A&M. Now, the reality might be that neither one of those guys was going to win the job. But in both cases, the Wildcats and Aggies are going to put a quarterback on the field in the fall who has very little experience.
They're hardly the only ones in that boat in the SEC.
Only three teams in the league are bringing back an established quarterback who started all or most of the season a year ago. Auburn returns Nick Marshall, while Dak Prescott is back at Mississippi State and Bo Wallace at Ole Miss. Fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson returns at South Carolina, but most of his work to this point has been coming off the bench in relief, although he did have the memorable performance against Clemson two years ago in a start when Connor Shaw was injured and couldn't play.
The bottom line: There aren't a ton of rock-solid quarterback situations in the SEC as we exit the spring.
Your homework assignment (the fans) is telling us who has the most precarious quarterback situation heading into the 2014 season. So go vote in our SportsNation poll, and we'll unveil the results in the next few days.
Obviously, the landscape can change pretty dramatically. Did anybody really know what Texas A&M had at quarterback with Johnny Manziel entering the 2012 season?
The five schools we've come up with as candidates all have some major question marks.
At Kentucky, sophomore Patrick Towles and true freshman Drew Barker are now battling it out. And at Texas A&M, it's down to a redshirt freshman (Kenny Hill) and a true freshman (Kyle Allen). Hill has already been in trouble this offseason, too.
Brandon Allen is the guy at Arkansas, but struggled through an injury-marred season a year ago. The Hogs finished last in the SEC in passing offense.
True freshman Brandon Harris outplayed sophomore Anthony Jennings in LSU's spring game, so this summer and the preseason should be quite interesting on the Bayou.
And at Alabama, the Crimson Tide's starter for the 2014 season might well be attending classes at another school. Jacob Coker is transferring from Florida State and won't be on Alabama's campus until he graduates from FSU in May. Fifth-year senior Blake Sims has taken the lead this spring in the Tide's quarterback derby as he adjusts to Lane Kiffin's pro-style offense, but will have to hold off Coker. Whoever wins the job at Alabama will have very little, if any, meaningful game experience.
- After a frustrating 2013, Alabama wide receiver Chris Black is embracing his changing role under Lane Kiffin.
- Arkansas' secondary is moving on from last fall's struggles.
- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn wraps up the Tigers' final scrimmage and previews Saturday's A-Day.
- Florida defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. is searching for consistency in 2014.
- Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was pleased with his pro day workout.
- Quarterback Jalen Whitlow decided to transfer from Kentucky after being asked if he had any interest in moving to wide receiver.
- Missouri's trip to the AT&T Cotton Bowl last season cost $1.83 million.
- Former South Carolina cornerback Victor Hampton was arrested earlier this month for an alleged dispute with his sister.
- Athlon Sports wonders how many SEC games Texas A&M will win in 2014.
- Running backs and linebackers will be key to Vanderbilt's success this fall.
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.”
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.”
MOBILE, Ala. -- Idle is not a position Jacob Coker prefers. Yet here he is, amid the constant swish of windshield wipers, sitting impatiently in the passenger seat of a silver sedan as a thunderstorm continues to pummel this swampy patch of the Gulf Coast.
It's a Friday morning in late March, and while many of Alabama's football players are laid out on sunlit beaches enjoying spring break, Coker has his mind set to working in his own slushy backyard.
The 21-year-old put aside a jam-packed final semester at Florida State to drive 250 miles home to Mobile, sit in a car and watch as rain threatened to wash away his scheduled throwing session with David Morris, his quarterback coach of more than five years.
A week earlier, Coker spent his spring vacation in Tuscaloosa watching film and working out. He missed walking in on AJ McCarron's pro day by minutes, leaving Alabama's indoor facility just as the Crimson Tide's former star quarterback began throwing for scouts.
Coker is the favorite to inherit McCarron's throne when he finishes his undergraduate degree and transfers to Alabama next month, but not before days like this -- days where you either push through less-than-ideal conditions or waste away at home. For his future teammates, if there's the slightest hint of precipitation, they move practice indoors to an air-conditioned, 97,000-square-foot facility. Meanwhile, Coker is left to create his own version of camp at empty high school stadiums and busy city parks. Wherever there's room and whenever there's time, he's training.
We’ll see, in time, but give him this: Strong was up front in saying the Longhorns will embrace an up-tempo offense, the same style that has worked, and mostly worked well, for years in the Big 12.
“I want to play fast,” Strong said earlier this month as we talked in a conference room adjacent to his plush new office, the one that belonged to Mack Brown for a decade and a half. “For me, it starts at practice. I just don’t like guys sitting round, not running on and off the field.”
As spring workouts wind down, Texas leads our discussion of scheme changes and tweaks in college football.
Brown had promised a year ago that the Longhorns would, like the majority of their conference peers, move the offense at a faster pace.
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Spring Game Wrap-Up: April 19
TBD Temple Vanderbilt TBD Texas A&M South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State Ole Miss
TBD Arkansas Auburn TBD Idaho Florida TBD Clemson Georgia TBD Tennessee-Martin Kentucky TBD South Dakota State Missouri TBD Southern Miss Mississippi State 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 9:00 PM ET LSU Wisconsin