TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch when Alabama takes to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday for A-Day, the finale of spring practice.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherQB Blake Sims has had a good spring and hopes to finish with a strong effort in Alabama's spring game on Saturday.
1. The quarterbacks: No, unfortunately the missing piece in the quarterback puzzle, transfer Jacob Coker, won’t be on the field Saturday. Instead, he’ll be in the stands watching his competition get a head start. And so far the clear leader has been veteran Blake Sims, who has put up some monster numbers in earlier scrimmages. He and Cooper Bateman have separated themselves, but Alec Morris and Parker McLeod will have an opportunity, however limited it may be, to make one final push before the offseason.

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?
video

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."


(Read full post)


Kentucky and Texas A&M both lost quarterbacks Wednesday, which means the race for their starting jobs is down to two.

SportsNation

Which team in the SEC has the most precarious quarterback situation in terms of talent, depth and experience heading into 2014?

  •  
    24%
  •  
    13%
  •  
    11%
  •  
    17%
  •  
    35%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,193)

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.

SEC's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
1:00
PM ET
Let them eat a late lunch!
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.”

Jacob CokerCourtesy of David MorrisBetween playing for Florida State and Alabama, Jacob Coker practices on a muddy field in Mobile.

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.


(Read full post)


Charlie StrongErich Schlegel/Getty ImagesCharlie Strong has said he will reinforce an up-tempo offense with the Longhorns.
If you are unaware, Charlie Strong has the reputation of being someone who does not exactly like to show his cards. It’s why some coaches I know wondered how the guarded, introverted coach would fare with a spotlight as bright as the one at the University of Texas.

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.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

video

National recruiting analyst Craig Haubert breaks down the Crimson Tide's quest for a four-peat atop the ESPN Class Rankings.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At first, Nick Saban scoffed at the idea of his defensive line having good depth. After a lecture on the merits of perception, he said he wasn’t at all happy with the group. Alabama might appear loaded, but the veteran head coach wasn’t interested in how his defensive line appeared.

“I’m not satisfied with the way any of them are playing, if you want to know the truth about it,” he told reporters on March 31.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Ivory, Jonathan Allen
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith a new coach, Brandon Ivory (left), Jonathan Allen and the rest of Alabama's defensive line are focused on improving their pass-rushing abilities.
And then people actually listened.

“I’ve been getting asked that everywhere I go, like we’ve got a bad defensive line,” he said a week and a half later. “We don’t have a bad defensive line. They’re doing fine.”

So which is it? The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

“They're improving,” Saban said following Saturday’s scrimmage. “But we're still not striking up front, playing as physical, converting pass rush, getting the kind of execution that we need, doing the little things right, especially when we're doing stunts and pressures.

“So I like the way they're working and they made improvement, but I think there's certainly a lot more that we can look for.”

While Saban’s feelings toward the defensive line have wavered throughout the spring, the players themselves appear largely pleased with their progress. They have a new coach (Bo Davis), new teammates (D.J. Pettway, Jarran Reed) and a new mandate (rush the passer).

Losing former defensive line coach Chris Rumph to Texas hurt initially, said sophomore defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson. “It was a shock to hear,” he said. But then he got to experience the energy and enthusiasm Davis brings.

“He’s a pretty fired-up guy on the field,” Tomlinson said, describing Davis as being more hands on as well. “He makes us be aggressive out there.”

Veteran nose guard Brandon Ivory agreed: “Davis is pushing us to the limit. ... He brings a lot of energy. He’s always fired up, hyped. I say that’s a good thing to have.”

The hope for Davis is that a renewed sense of energy translates into production. Last season Alabama ranked a paltry 81st nationally in sacks (22) and tied for 94th in tackles for loss per game (5.3). This season Davis is asking his players to read less and react more. In other words, he wants them to play fast.

“Last year we didn’t get enough sacks across the defensive line, we didn’t feel like,” Tomlinson said. “So this year our main focus is getting to the quarterback. So we’re trying to be more aggressive off the ball and more explosive.”

Ivory isn’t the pass-rushing prototype at 300-plus pounds, but he’s seen the linemen around him change into a group that’s better equipped to chase down the quarterback.

“We’ve got guys that are pretty good at rushing the passer like D.J. Pettway, Jonathan Allen, more smaller guys and quicker who can get after the quarterback more,” Ivory explained.

Maybe more so than in years past, Alabama has the “quick-twitch” defensive linemen Saban covets. Pettway and Allen certainly fit that mold. So do Tomlinson, Dee Liner and incoming freshman Da'Shawn Hand, a five-star prospect from Virginia. Even 320-pounder A'Shawn Robinson will be an asset in the pass-rushing department. He finished first on the team in sacks (5.5) as a true freshman last season.

But don’t run down the roster with Saban. Don’t tell him what the defensive line looks like on paper.

Maybe listen to the players themselves, however.

“We’ve been having our ups and downs,” Tomlinson said, “but throughout the spring I think we’re going to come together as a defensive line and be a great defensive line all the way across the front.”

SEC lunchtime links

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
12:00
PM ET
Finish your taxes on time? Then sit back and enjoy Wednesday’s lunch links.

ESPN 300: Top SEC targets 

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
11:45
AM ET
video
With Wednesday’s release of the 2015 ESPN 300, here is a look at five top targets for the top conference in college football.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

video Kerryon Johnson, the No. 26 player in the ESPN Junior 300, committed to the Auburn Tigers on Tuesday over Florida State and Alabama. Here’s what his pledge means:


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Kerryon Johnson picks Auburn

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
3:59
PM ET
video

ESPN 300 athlete Kerryon Johnson (Madison, Ala./Madison Academy) grew up a Florida State fan. His first offer came from the Seminoles more than a year ago, and he watched as fellow Alabama native Jameis Winston led them to a BCS national championship this past season.

But when it came time to make his college decision Tuesday, Johnson opted to stay in-state and gave his verbal commitment to Auburn, the runner-up in that BCS title game.

"Auburn is a great program," Johnson told ESPN.com. "It's really on its way back from where it was a few years ago. Honestly, they got to the national championship last year, so they really are on their way to the top quickly."

Johnson, Auburn's sixth commitment for 2015 and No. 26 overall in the ESPN 300, chose the Tigers over Alabama and Florida State. He said he made his decision three weeks ago after a visit to the Plains.

"I've been to Auburn a couple times, and every time I've been there, there's just a feel to Auburn that it felt like in my household," Johnson said. "It's just the whole community. You're meeting people's parents, grandparents, daughters, children. You're meeting everyone. You just feel that family culture, and you know you can trust that.

"All three programs -- great programs, great academic schools, great weight rooms, all of that -- but that feeling right there is what separated them."


(Read full post)


SEC lunchtime links

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
12:00
PM ET
The tax man cometh ...

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Saban: Peyton's Visit: 'Mutually Beneficial'
Alex Scarborough discusses Peyton Manning's visit to Alabama and what coach Nick Saban may have been hoping to gain.Tags: Alabama Crimson Tide, Denver Broncos, Peyton Manning, Nick Saban, Alex Scarborough
VIDEO PLAYLIST video