“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.
“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.”
- Well and ready, Alabama wide receiver Chris Black has another opportunity to compete for playing time this spring.
- Auburn running back Peyton Barber was recently diagnosed with dyslexia, but he’s not letting that or his ADHD slow him down.
- The Bowden Triangle (Tuscaloosa to Auburn to Tallahassee) owns college football.
- Former Arkansas quarterback A.J. Derby has adjusted well to his new position with the Razorbacks this spring, catching a touchdown in Saturday’s scrimmage.
- Now that the spring game is over, the real offseason begins for Florida.
- With more and more up-tempo offenses in college football, new Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt wants a leaner, faster defense.
- The quarterback competition at Kentucky is beginning to take shape after the school announced Wednesday that former starter Jalen Whitlow is planning to transfer.
- The new NCAA rule allowing unlimited meals and snacks for college athletes was given a thumbs up by Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who called it common sense.
- Dan Mullen’s job was safe regardless of the outcome against Ole Miss, but a last-second win over an in-state rival certainly made life easier in Starkville.
- Fresh off winning a Super Bowl, former Texas A&M running back Christine Michael recently attended prom with an autistic teen.
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."
- Missouri coach Gary Pinkel says the dismissal of wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham was about more than football.
- Success runs in the family for Mizzou linebacker Michael Scherer.
- Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray says he's "ready to go" as he prepares for Georgia's pro day.
- Auburn is having "ups and downs" at the H-back position this spring.
- Former LSU linebacker Tahj Jones' condition improves after he was shot in the abdomen last Friday.
- LSU quarterback Brandon Harris will head to California in May to train with former LSU quarterback Craig Nall and quarterback guru George Whitfield.
- Kentucky's defensive line gets some positive feedback.
- Florida safety Marcell Harris left his mark on the Gators this spring.
- Here are five young Texas A&M players who could make an impact for the Aggies in 2014.
- "Freaky talented" Tennessee wide receivers end spring on a high note.
- After early-spring criticism, Alabama coach Nick Saban assesses his defensive line entering the final week of spring practice.
The 6-foot-6 tight end split out wide before the snap. He ran a deep slant, caught the pass over the middle and outran the entire defense en route to a 52-yard touchdown.
“I saw a seam, so I was like I’m running full speed no matter what,” Howard said, recalling the play from last fall. “Those guys didn’t think I was going to be that fast because I was a tight end, so they were jogging. When they tried to speed up, it was too late.”
Fans blamed the former offensive coordinator for not getting Howard more involved. They pointed fingers at quarterback AJ McCarron who tended to favor the veteran wide receivers on the team. But in the end, it falls back on the freshman.
“Maybe there was some things he didn’t do right,” said O.J.’s father, Kareem Howard. “Maybe he didn’t get open in time. Maybe he was a step off. Maybe he took a step that away and he should’ve went right. That all comes with time and experience, though.”
As Howard enters his second spring with Alabama, there’s a new sense of confidence. He’s no longer scared to make a mistake. He knows what he’s supposed to do, and he knows the expectations that the staff has for him. The stats from the first two scrimmages haven’t been a good reflection, but he believes he’s playing faster this spring.
“Last spring, I came in early,” Howard said. “I was a new guy. I wasn’t playing fast because I didn’t really know what to do yet. Now I know what to do, and when you know what to do, you’re going to play really fast. It makes the game a lot easier.”
Howard recorded three catches for 38 yards in Saturday’s scrimmage, but the key to an expanded role on the team won’t be tracked by how many how catches or yards he has this spring. It’s more about how he improves as a blocker in Alabama’s run-first offense.
“O.J. is a very talented guy,” head coach Nick Saban said. “I think he needs to continue to improve in some areas because he’s a great pass receiver, but we continue to work on trying to improve him as a blocker and get him to pay attention to detail and the importance of that part of the game as well.”
It’s a part of his game that Howard has worked tirelessly at since arriving in Tuscaloosa. In high school, he was typically the one with the ball in his hands, so blocking was foreign to him. It was something he had to learn on the fly once he got to Alabama.
“I knew when I got here I was going to learn to block,” Howard said. “We were a run-first team, so blocking is a big thing here. I knew I was going to block.
“We work on it every day with Coach [Bobby] Williams, so every day I’m getting better at blocking. Brian [Vogler], he’s a really good blocker, so I learn things from him also. He’s teaching me some things, and I’m taking it and running with it.”
With Howard, the potential is there. The whole country saw it last November against LSU. Now it’s about putting it together for a full season.
“He knows he belongs now,” Howard’s father said. “He knows he can compete at that level.”
With Jackson gone, others have had to step up.
So where does that leave the Crimson Tide?
If it were close to the start of the regular season, it would be called a nightmare. But since it’s the spring, it’s more of a sense of opportunity than apprehension. Thanks to a loosened depth chart, coaches will get a sneak peek at some even younger players.
Sylve, Jones and Washington will undoubtably get more reps, and so will players such as Anthony Averett, who redshirted last season, and Tony Brown, who enrolled early in January with the clear purpose of getting a head start during the spring.
According to Saban, Brown has gotten “a ton of reps.” And when you’re talking about a five-star athlete whom ESPN ranked as the No. 2 cornerback in the 2014 class, it’s easy to imagine the possibilities. His talent isn’t in question -- the two-sport star runs track and is one of the more physically impressive corners on the football field -- but his experience has been the biggest hurdle. With more reps, he can close the gap between himself and the more veteran players at his position, clearing the way for a possible run at a starting job this fall.
Landon Collins, who was voted second-team All-SEC at safety last season, said he has seen Brown work hard this spring, “getting it quicker than most people get it.”
Nick Perry agreed. The senior safety was effusive in his praise of Brown earlier this spring, saying that he and fellow freshman safety Laurence 'Hootie' Jones were learning the defense “faster than I’ve seen any freshmen pick it up.”
“Tony is a great competitor,” Perry said. “He’s fast. He’s everything you want in a corner.”
According to Perry, expect to see Brown make a couple of plays this season.
Saturday’s scrimmage was a start for those such as Brown who might not have expected so many reps this spring. There will be ups and downs, Saban said, but overall “it’ll be a good learning experience for them.”
With Jackson gone, the time is now. Smith will be back at practice soon, but there’s no telling who will be next to go down during this final week of spring practice. If someone is sidelined, it might hurt the depth chart as a whole, but it will help certain players in particular.
- No arrests will be made in the burglary investigation that involved Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham but that doesn't necessarily mean he will escape further discipline (he already is suspended indefinitely by Gary Pinkel) based on the details that have emerged.
- Meet the Bag Man: Stories from someone who claims to deliver cash to football recruits.
- Alabama linebacker Dillon Lee was arrested Thursday on a DUI charge and running back Altee Tenpenny could get a marijuana possession charge dropped if he can stay out of trouble for a year.
- Vanderbilt's spring football game may determine the leader in the quarterback battle between sophomore Patton Robinette and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary.
- Sophomore Brandon Greene and freshman Cameron Robinson are the two players battling for the right to replace Cyrus Kouandijo as Alabama's left tackle.
- Jay Prosch was a key member of Auburn's offense, so the Tigers are searching high and low for replacement candidates at H-back.
- Mississippi State unveiled new uniforms that it will wear for its season opener against Southern Miss on Aug. 30.
- Arkansas' receivers are making progress this spring, particularly Drew Morgan.
- There's a report that former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel scored highest among quarterbacks on his Wonderlic test.
- Some notes from Tennessee's final fully padded practice before its spring game on Saturday.
- Florida receiver Andre Debose is ready to show he has NFL potential in his sixth and final season.
- Steve Spurrier took in the Masters for a few hours before South Carolina's Thursday practice.
- A ranking of all 128 FBS coaches (spoiler: Nick Saban tops the list).
Lee played in all 13 games last season, racking up 16 tackles and two pass break-ups. He is expected to compete for a starting position after C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard's departure for the NFL.
"I don't have all of the details at this point and will handle it appropriately once I've had a chance to review all of the information," Alabama coach Nick Saban said in a statement.
Lee was one of two players sent home prior to the 2013 Vizio BCS National Championship in South Florida for violating curfew. He had appeared to have successfully turned the corner before news of his arrest.
"I think Dillon Lee will be a really good player for us," Saban told reporters last month. "I think he has a good understanding of what we want him to do. He runs well. He's got good size and plays good block protection, especially at the line of scrimmage.
"We feel like he can be a very good player and competing for a starting job right now. We're confident that if he wins that job, he'll be able to do an outstanding job for us."
- LSU hosted its pro day on Wednesday and one of the focal points was Zach Mettenberger, who is coming off a knee injury and was donning pads and a helmet for his pro day, a la Johnny Manziel. Jarvis Landry also performed, Jeremy Hill tried to move on from the past and though he did no drills, Odell Beckham Jr. also impressed.
- Former Alabama quarterback and NFL draft hopeful AJ McCarron got engaged to his girlfriend, Katherine Webb, last week. Now it appears their nuptials will be part of a reality TV show.
- Auburn product Greg Robinson, one of the highest-rated players in the upcoming NFL draft, has visited only three teams but is still garnering positive buzz about his stock.
- Auburn's Brandon King has moved to boundary safety this spring and has found himself much more comfortable than a season ago.
- Bear Bryant's original employment contract with Texas A&M was recently discovered and put on display at a ceremony this week. His salary was $15,000 per year plus 1 percent of ticket sales.
- Arkansas hired E.K. Franks as its director of recruiting. He was previously the associate head coach and running backs coach at Southeastern Louisiana.
- Georgia is getting used to a different coaching arrangement for special teams than Mark Richt previously had, operating this spring with co-coordinators Mike Ekeler and John Lilly.
- Josh Harvey-Clemons, who was dismissed from the Georgia squad, plans to transfer to Louisville.
- Missouri scored a commitment from quarterback Drew Lock, the highest-ranked passer out of the state of Missouri since Blaine Gabbert.
- Kentucky freshman receiver T.V. Williams may be small in stature, but one teammate says "Don't let the size fool you," about his big-play ability.
- Tennessee running back Marlin Lane continues to work through an injured hand and has showed the maturity and consistency that coaches wanted to see from the senior.
- Ole Miss is feeling confident coming out of spring.
- The move to free safety for Mississippi State's Justin Cox has been a welcome one so far.
Ramsay has heard that phrase, he said, about 150 times since January. He’s heard it from fans around town in Yulee, Fla. He’s heard it from fellow high school coaches at clinics. He’s heard it from college coaches who have stopped through scouting talent.
If Ramsay turned on the radio, flipped on the TV or simply walked the streets here in Tuscaloosa, he’d hear about his former running back even more. In fact, he might be overwhelmed by the number of people saying how good Derrick Henry looked for Alabama in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma: 161 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. When Henry broke his 43-yard touchdown run the fourth quarter, Ramsay said he received something like 18 text messages in under 30 seconds.
All told, Henry ran for 382 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman. And now? Despite being the backup to T.J. Yeldon, he's listed on the sports betting website Bovada as 28-to-1 to win the Heisman Trophy, ahead of Dak Prescott, Duke Johnson and Myles Jack.
Too big? Please
It’s almost laughable to think about it now, but for a long time people questioned whether Henry was cut out to be a running back. He was too big, they thought, too bulky to fit through running lanes. He was too tall to have the proper pad level.
And then there was the Sugar Bowl.
Somewhere in Yulee, Ramsay smiled. What he’d seen in high school and what he saw in bits and pieces throughout the season was showing up on a much larger, unavoidable scale: Henry was meant to play running back.
“I told some people, ‘Man, that looked just like high school. Those DBs didn’t want to tackle him any more than the DBs who played here,’” Ramsay said. “The first touchdown he scored, I was joking, ‘That kid from Oklahoma, he’s running with Derrick so he won’t get yelled at when he goes back to the bench.’ He wasn’t going to try and get him on the ground.”
No one wants to tackle Henry, not even his teammates.
Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland, no slouch at 6-2 and 259 pounds, described his meetings with Henry during practice as both “mean” and “peaceful” because they can’t take one another to the ground.
“He's a big guy,” he said of Henry. “A lot of people are scared to tackle him.”
Said Henry: “During the Oklahoma game, I could tell that they didn't want to tackle me. I just kept the mindset of being physical and keep running hard so everything will open up.”
Henry says one of his goals is to be a starter, but for now he’s “focused on getting better and becoming a complete player.”
“A year ago that might not have been the case.
Not getting that much playing time really taught me a lot. It humbled me. Everything isn't just going to come to you. You have to work for it.” -- Alabama RB Derrick Henry
Like most blue-chip recruits, Henry first had to deal with reality. Though his talent was undeniable, there were things he hadn’t yet mastered. At Yulee High, he didn’t have to block, pass protect or catch passes out of the backfield. Ramsay only needed him to run the ball. But at Alabama, he wouldn’t see the field until he could do it all.
“Not getting that much playing time really taught me a lot,” Henry said. There wasn’t a game during the regular season where he carried the ball more than six times. “It humbled me. Everything isn't just going to come to you. You have to work for it. You have to take time. This is college football so it's more technique. You have to put more effort into by watching film and really paying attention to the little things”
Saban said the light came on for Henry in the lead up to the Sugar Bowl. Like a lot of freshman, the chance for extra practice time paid off.
Now he’s taking that momentum and running with it.
"Derrick Henry has had a fabulous spring," Saban said on Wednesday. "He picked up right where he left off at bowl practice last year. He works really hard. He runs really hard. He plays with a lot of toughness. He gets it."
Everything has changed, nothing has changed
In a way, Henry is built to be the center of attention. At Yulee High, he was the biggest thing going. As early as the ninth grade, Ramsay said, “They could play football for 500 years in our county and there’s going to be no one better than him.”
“I think it’s helping him now,” Ramsay said. “They protected him from that as a freshman. Now he’s going to have a little more on his plate. … It’s crazy because he hasn’t played a ton but I’ve got people from Alabama, and these are people who have been around the program for years, who have said they haven’t ever seen a guy with this much popularity.
“In a town where every other street is named after Paul Bryant, for someone to say that is big.”
Has Henry changed? Not according to Ramsay: “Nothing. Same guy. Nothing different.”
“Offseason has been good,” Henry said in the most understated way possible. “Coming back from the Sugar Bowl and getting back to lifting weights and doing 4th Quarter [Program], it's been going well. Just trying to get better.”
That simple, singular focus will suit him well. As spring practice wraps up and the march toward the regular season intensifies, so will the scrutiny.
What will aid him most will be his work ethic, the same determination that helped him get through the lows of last season and reach the high of the Sugar Bowl.
“Right now he’s in a very comfortable place,” Ramsay said. “Initially all freshmen go through the process of being in a new place and having a new way of doing things. One thing with Derrick is he’s never let it affect his effort level. ... Every time I talked to [running backs coach Burton Burns] about it, he’d say, ‘Oh man, We want all the guys to be like Derrick. He’s pulling G.A.’s aside to work on things extra after practice, he’s getting extra film work.’”
A moment later, Ramsay put an exclamation point on the subject.
“He’s not expecting to have rose pedals thrown at his feet,” he said of Henry.
Ramsay’s boy looked awfully good in one game, but both he and Henry understand that last season was only the first step. What comes next is a whole different set of challenges.
Former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron isn’t shedding the limelight, he’s running toward it as he and Katherine Webb will be the focus of a reality show documenting their impending nuptials, according to The Auburn Plainsman.
Don’t worry, football fans. It won’t be all dresses and bouquets. The show will also follow McCarron’s path to the NFL.
According to the report, Alan Webb, Katherine’s father, said he didn’t know that the show was happening until recently. However, he promised that it would be “a wholesome one for sure.”
The wedding is set for July 11, so set your DVRs.
“From what I understood, it came from someone else,” Laurie Webb, Katherine’s sister, told The Auburn Plainsman. “I don’t think they were trying to get into a reality show, I think they just had the opportunity and decided to take it.”
McCarron, for his part, took to Twitter to explain his role in the future show, which is to say he doesn't appear to want one.
I think it's funny how people think I am doing a tv show. I play football that's it! What my future wife does is her business #worryaboutyou
— AJ McCarron (@10AJMcCarron) April 9, 2014
Alabama In Line For No. 1 Class ... Again
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