NCF Nation: Cyrus Kouandjio

With such a talented group of players on one list, the Ultimate ESPN 300, it was difficult to narrow things to three favorites. After all, these are some of the best ever to play college football. With that being said, here are three of my favorites:

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesFew players have come off the edge like Jadeveon Clowney in his South Carolina heyday.
1. I've covered recruiting for several years, but watching defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (No. 1) go up against offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio at the 2011 Under Armour All-America game and practices was something I'll never forget. Clowney is the best athlete I have seen, and watching him go up against another five-star prospect was incredible.

Kouandjio more than held his own that week against the top player in the country, but there was no doubt Clowney was on another level. Clowney went on to have an incredible career at South Carolina, and who could forget the devastating hit he laid on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl?

2. Quarterback Tim Tebow (No. 2), with his unusual throwing mechanics and bruising style of play, had his doubters coming out of high school. Tebow, however, went on to have one of the most prolific careers in the history of college football by winning two national championships, two SEC championships and a Heisman Trophy.

To sum up Tebow's leadership ability and team-first mentality, I recall watching Tebow's high school team, Nease, play in the Florida state championship game against Armwood High School. Armwood had the ball and was driving for what would have been the go-ahead touchdown and a defensive lineman for Nease had to leave the game because of an injury. Tebow races out to the field and lines up at nose tackle. Though he didn't make the play, Nease won, and it displayed what kind of person he was. He was willing to do whatever it took to help his team win, and that's how he played throughout his college career.

3. Running back Derrick Henry's (No. 202) high school team, Yulee, didn't play in a very strong division in Florida, so the ridiculous stats (11,182 rushing yards and 153 rushing TDs) Henry put up in his high school career seemed to be somewhat inflated.

Henry's senior season, I had a chance to watch Yulee take on Belle Glade Glades Day School, which had Kelvin Taylor (No. 174), another five-star running back. I assumed that because of Henry's size (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) he would likely move to another position on the next level. But after watching him play in person and seeing how athletic and nimble he was, Henry convinced me he had the tools to be a top running back. Watching both running backs rush for more than 200 yards on the night and seeing two future stars at their brightest was one of the most memorable games I've ever had a chance to cover.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama coach Nick Saban had plenty to be proud about with the signing class he assembled last Wednesday. It was talented, deep and met every need the Crimson Tide had heading into the 2014 season. It was, according to ESPN and every other major recruiting outlet, the No. 1 class in the country by a wide margin.

[+] EnlargeDa'Shawn Hand
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIDE Da'Shawn Hand could make an immediate impact for Alabama in 2014.
But for Alabama, top recruiting classes are nothing new. It was the third consecutive year the Tide finished No. 1 in ESPN’s class rankings. In fact, no class assembled by Saban with the benefit of a full calendar year to recruit (since 2008) has finished lower than No. 3 overall.

There was something special about this class, apart from the record five five-star athletes and 19 ESPN 300 signees. This class of offensive linemen might be the most decorated in the program’s history. It is, at the very least, the best Saban has ever put together since arriving in Tuscaloosa.

According to Saban, solidifying the trenches was the goal.

“I think that was a point of emphasis early on when we started this, is that we needed to get quality people up front on both sides of the ball,” he told reporters at his annual signing day news conference. “We got six offensive linemen, and I think six defensive linemen. Even though three of those guys are junior college guys, we felt that it was important that we get some guys that had a little more maturity about them, a little more veteran experience.”

The defensive linemen could turn out to be just as special. Da’Shawn Hand, a dynamic athlete out of Virginia, was the second-best defensive end in the country, according to ESPN. Jarran Reed, a former Florida commitment, could make an instant impact after transferring from junior college, as could former freshman All-SEC choice D.J. Pettway. Johnny Dwight and Joshua Frazier could develop into solid contributors as well.

But make no mistake, the most impressive group of the class was the O-line, led by No. 1-rated offensive tackle Cameron Robinson of Monroe, La. The 6-foot-6, 325-pound athlete brings back visions of Cyrus Kouandjio, who was the No. 1 offensive tackle recruit when he came to Alabama only a few years ago. With a similar build and similar attributes to Robinson, Kouandjio started eight games as a true freshman before a knee injury caused him to miss the rest of the season.

Robinson isn’t the only impressive tackle, though. Dominick Jackson, the No. 1 junior college offensive tackle in the country, is ready to make a good first impression. At 6-foot-7 and 310 pounds, no one is going to miss the towering product from College of San Mateo in California.

[+] EnlargeCameron Robinson
Miller Safrit/ESPNCameron Robinson, the nation's No. 1 offensive tackle, leads an impressive group of offensive line recruits for Alabama.
Josh Casher and J.C. Hassenauer offer a similar two-deep at the center position. Casher, from nearby Mobile, Ala., and Hassenauer, of Minnesota, were ranked the No. 1 and No. 2 centers in the ESPN 300, respectively.

Throw in Montel McBride, the No. 28-ranked offensive guard in the country, and Ross Pierschbacher, the No. 3 offensive guard in 2014, and you’ve got an offensive line class with both quality and depth.

In fact, both areas are unmatched in Saban’s tenure with Alabama. The six prospects averaged a scout’s grade of 84.17. Compare that to the previous high of 81.67 in 2011 when Kouandjio and three other offensive linemen signed with Alabama. Four O-line classes (2007-10, 12) had an average scout’s grade of 80 or lower.

At this point it’s important to remember that rankings aren’t everything. As coaches were quick to point out throughout the last week, whatever stars a recruit “earned” in high school vanish upon enrollment. It’s no longer about who you are as much as what you can do.

Case in point: Alabama’s offensive line, circa 2012. That line, featuring All-Americans Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack, was hailed as the best in the country and arguably the best in the history of the program, clearing ground for an offense that took to Tide to the BCS National Championship.

But if you judged that line based on each player’s recruiting rankings, it would have been considered middle-of-the-road at best. Jones was a C+ tackle prospect out of Tennessee (scout’s grade: 78) and Warmack was thought of in much the same way (scout’s grade: 79). Right guard Anthony Steen was a three-star prospect who wound up starting three years at Alabama. Big D.J. Fluker (6-7, 325 pounds) was the most highly regarded recruit of the bunch, the No. 1 tackle prospect in the 2009 class and the No. 12 player overall, according to ESPN.

Saban, for his part, wouldn’t be sad to see recruiting rankings fall off a steep cliff. We can talk about how great Alabama’s O-line class is today, but he’d like to see it judged three years from now when players have developed and have an opportunity to move on to the NFL.

“The challenge for all these young men [who] got recruited [on Wednesday], wherever they're going, is to be able to stay focused on what they need to do to improve as players and do the things that they need to do to become very effective college football players,” Saban said. “Maybe the biggest challenge of all, maybe even more so going from college to the NFL, I think is having the maturity to be able to stay focused on the things they need to do to develop as players and keep a positive attitude toward the goal they have, understand what it takes to accomplish the goals they have and then have the discipline they have to execute it every day.”
NEW ORLEANS -- As Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron slowly trotted off a confetti-covered field inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome following the Crimson Tide's shocking 45-31 loss to Oklahoma, he took with him more than just a right arm that had guided Alabama to a 36-4 record with him under center.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAfter a breakout game in the Sugar Bowl, Derrick Henry could step into a much larger role with the Tide in 2014.
Gone with McCarron is also a ton of leadership and experience that will be extremely difficult to replace. And unfortunately for the Crimson Tide, he isn't the only one leaving.

Guys like seasoned linebacker C.J. Mosley and wide receiver Kevin Norwood are graduating, while junior left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and junior safety Ha Ha Clinton-dix could be headed to the NFL early with their first-round projections.

The sting from Thursday night's loss will stay for a while, but it's important for a new set of leaders to help heal that wound soon.

"There are a lot of guys out there that can be leaders," Norwood said, "if they can just get in their minds that this program is fit to win and you have to do everything that the coaches ask you to do to win."

One of the veterans on a team that fell well short of its goals in 2013, Norwood admitted that the leadership on this team suffered down the stretch. Making sure players, especially younger ones, were properly prepared and focused on a day-to-day basis wasn't always there, he said. A more lax approach helped trigger some of Alabama's deficiencies late in the season, as Norwood said players started believing that things would come more easily to them.

"It was a hard time getting them guys to focus at times,” he said. “Then again, it was up to the leadership team to get them focused and get them right, and that's one thing I guess we kind of slacked at going into the end of the season. I can't put everything on them. At the same time, seniors, we didn't do a good job, too.

"When you have freshmen coming in and they're All-Americans and stuff like that, they have to get off their high pedestals when they come in because you have to work for everything and it's going to be tough, man."

Alabama’s new band of leaders will have to kick out that complacency and reestablish the toughness to get back to a championship level. The good news is that immediately after Thursday night's loss, players seemed confident that new leaders will emerge, eager to motivate.

"The cream always rises to the top," said Kouandjio, who has yet to make a decision about the NFL draft. "A lot of these guys get recruited just because they're natural leaders and they're going to come out sooner or later. It's going to manifest itself."

And knowing Nick Saban's mentality, he's going to want it to manifest quickly. He's been down this road before and adjusted. He certainly has the bodies with guys like T.J. Yeldon, Landon Collins, Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, Vinnie Sunseri, Jeoffrey Pagan and possibly Derrick Henry, who had a coming out party against the Sooners. But there has to be a will and want from players.

As freshman tight end O.J. Howard pointed out after Thursday's game, the last time Alabama lost in the Sugar Bowl, it rebounded the next year to win Saban's first national championship in Tuscaloosa with a new quarterback and identity.

No one would be shocked if the Tide did it again.

"Guys are just going to step up and become leaders and we're going to take their place and see how everything goes next year," Howard said.

"It's not over yet. We still have a couple of years around here. We have a chance. We can still win a championship. We just had a down year, but next year, hopefully we can get one.

"You just have to make this momentum and build on it and every time you want to take a day off, just remember how we lost back-to-back games and it'll motivate everybody on the team, I think."
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NEW ORLEANS -- The focus was there. So was the determination and the motivation.

But as the final seconds of the Allstate Sugar Bowl dripped off the clock inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Alabama once again had to watch someone else celebrate a wild finish. For the first time since 2008, No. 3 Alabama (11-2, 7-1 SEC) lost back-to-back games after falling 45-31 in stunning fashion to 11th-ranked Oklahoma (11-2, 7-2 Big 12).

The team overwhelmingly pegged to win it all from the beginning of the season to just before Chris Davis' miracle return on the Plains on Nov. 30, was once again dragged down to earth with a head-scratching loss.

"We were more focused than we needed to be. We were ready to play, we just came out slow," safety Landon Collins said. "We came out very slow, very sluggish -- not to the Alabama standard."

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAJ McCarron, playing his final game for the Crimson Tide, was sacked seven times as Alabama lost back-to-back games for the first time since 2008.
While the talk all week leading up to the game was about Alabama being prepared and motivated to play the Sooners, the Tide were out-muscled at their own game. This team looked fired up from the jump, but so did Oklahoma. The Sooners didn't have near the talent that Alabama did, but it was the tougher team on the field.

So it begs a couple of questions: Was Alabama as great as we thought it was? And where does it go from here?

For all the talk about Alabama being favored against national championship opponents Auburn and Florida State, the Crimson Tide looked nothing like the best team in the country Thursday night. A fluke play ended their BCS title hopes, but this Sugar Bowl debacle ended any sort of "best team" talk.

Alabama was repeatedly pushed around, run by and slammed to the ground against an Oklahoma team that struggled to find its identity until late in the season.

The team so used to mistake-free football saw all of the demons that plagued it in some form or fashion this season attack all at once. The secondary couldn't keep up, the offensive line broke down, T.J. Yeldon fumbled and AJ McCarron had two uncharacteristic interceptions.

Oklahoma's makeshift offensive line stuffed the biggest line it had seen all season. Alabama struggled to put consistent pressure on quarterback Trevor Knight, who picked the Tide apart for 348 yards and four touchdowns, after being the on-again, off-again guy at the position all year.

In Saban's first six seasons at Alabama, no quarterback threw four touchdowns against Alabama in game. Now, two have in this season (Johnny Manziel’s five being the other one).

"We had it in our minds that we could beat these guys, that we could move them off the ball," Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard said.

"In our opinion, they're the best team in the country, but we out-executed them."

When Alabama swung back with a pair of Derrick Henry TDs -- one a 43-yard run and the other a 61-yard reception -- to pull within a score in the second half, the Sooners fought back, exploiting Alabama's defense, especially its secondary. Collins admitted that the uptempo offense tired guys out, helping Knight & Co. find space.

"Once they got tired with that uptempo -- we knew they were big boys up front -- and we started to get them sweating and a little bit winded, we could start pounding them a bit," OU running back Brennan Clay said. "We started hitting those creases up the middle and finally they broke."

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyNick Saban admitted that maybe Bama wasn't as focused as it needed to be late in the season and it paid for that in the losses to Auburn and Oklahoma.
Then, there was the Alabama offensive line, which looked more makeshift than Oklahoma’s, yet was only down one starter -- right guard Anthony Steen. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio struggled all night to stop Eric Striker, who finished with three sacks. As the game went on, McCarron could barely stand upright, as he was sacked seven times.

"We were late off the ball, technique was all whacky a couple times," Kouandjio said. "If you're going against a normal guy, you'll get away with that type of stuff, but when you're going up against a top guy, it's not going to look good.

"It was all just being lazy on technique. They'll take advantage of that because they're good players."

To Alabama coach Nick Saban, you could sense that a performance like this didn't exactly surprise him after the way players took to preparation leading up to the Auburn game.

"I thought our team late in the season, from the LSU game on, maybe didn't have the focus we needed to have," Saban said. "We didn't pay attention to detail, didn't do little things right, didn't practice well. I think that eventually caught up with us in the Auburn game.

"I just don't think that our players realized sometimes that they won so much that they realize sometimes what it really takes to win every game and that you can never take anything for granted, and that everyone that plays us has something to prove. And they have to change the way they think, and that's difficult to do. And they've gotta stick with the process with what they have to do to do it, and it's tough."

A loss like this can do two things to a program: It can motivate, or it can drain. Right now, players are saying it will serve as motivation, but losing leaders, including seniors McCarron and C.J. Mosley, will be major blows. Finding guys who can step up and carry this team will be a top priority for Saban moving forward.

"These losses are not the Alabama standard," Collins said. "We're looking to come into next year and stepping it up. These losses, they weigh on us and we have a point to prove now. We know people are coming at us because they always have a point to prove against Alabama, and now we have a point to prove against everybody else in the nation."

Cyrus Kouandjio's long road

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
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Cyrus KouandjioAP Photo/Butch DillCyrus Kouandjio, right, is a massive protector for Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Cyrus Kouandjio hunched over in his seat, an enormous, well-built man struggling to connect the dots of his past. Where does my strength come from? he asked, his wide smile vanishing behind the dust of old memories as he sorted through his family's struggle to survive.

Unlike most 6-foot-6, 310-pound offensive linemen, Cyrus is unburdened by a heavy gut or cumbersome muscle. His feet are nimble -- something he developed kicking around a soccer ball as a child. But the most impressive thing about him is his raw power. This season he's unveiled a new move -- "The Slap," as it's been called -- where he simply takes his right hand and whacks rushing defenders to the ground like wobbly tackling dummies.

A junior left tackle at the University of Alabama, Kouandjio is still a baby to the game. He seems mostly unaware of his sizable presence, even as his grip swallows yours in a polite handshake.

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Say the words "game manager" around the University of Alabama and wait for the backlash that follows -- the shouting, the wincing, the shaking of heads. No one around here wants to hear those two words, the dishonorable distinction that's been thrust upon their quarterback.

By now, the hope is that AJ McCarron's dubious title would have gone by the wayside, put to rest by a junior campaign that saw him throw for nearly 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. A second championship ring as a starter should have been the final nail in that most unnecessary of debates: Is McCarron one of the best quarterbacks in the country, or is he a system quarterback on one of the best teams in the country?

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
AP Photo/David J. PhillipAJ McCarron threw for a career high 334 yards and four touchdowns in the win over Texas A&M.
Oh, the vitriol that question has inspired.

But the genesis of the "game manager" title begins and ends here in Tuscaloosa. And it was never meant to be a bad thing. If McCarron wasn't a good manager of the game, he never would have seen the field in the first place. If UA head coach Nick Saban couldn't implicitly trust McCarron with the playbook, then he never would have won the starting job in 2011 and we might be talking about Phillip Sims as the Tide's quarterback. There was, after all, very little distinction between the two passers after Greg McElroy -- another supposed "game manager" to lead Alabama to a national championship -- left school and was taken by the New York Jets in the final round of the NFL draft.

Today, McCarron is trusted completely by the coaching staff, Saban included. That much was evident against Texas A&M on Saturday when McCarron was allowed to opt out of basically any play that was called in from the sidelines, run or pass. McCarron called it a "check-with-me" game in which he was asked to read the defense at the line of scrimmage and go one of two routes.

"[Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier] would send me the formation and a certain play and if I felt like they were playing one defense, I checked into a pass," McCarron said on Monday. "I did that numerous times. Sometimes they didn't give me a check to a pass, so I felt like we could run it and I check to either side running the ball. Everything in the last game was based off of what I felt like would help us."

In other words, McCarron managed the game under center. He was, as no one wants to hear around these parts, a "game manager." He just so happens to have developed into one of the best at it in all of college football, culminated by a nearly flawless performance against Texas A&M on Saturday that put him squarely back into the Heisman Trophy conversation.

McCarron threw for a career high 334 yards and four touchdowns in the win over the sixth-ranked Aggies, passing Brodie Croyle for second all-time in passing yards (6,400) and John Parker Wilson for second all-time in completions (490). It was the first time in his career that McCarron threw touchdown passes to four different receivers, the final throw coming on a series in which he audibled to play action and found a wide open Jalston Fowler in the flat for the game-clinching touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

It was arguably the best performance in McCarron's already illustrious career. All four of his touchdown passes came against a rush of five or more defenders, as he out-dueled a prolific Texas A&M offense. Alabama's +28.8 offensive expected points added -- the number of net points contributed by the offense, taking into account their performance on every since play they were on the field -- was one of the highest of any team versus a BCS automatic qualifier this season, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

But on Monday, McCarron awoke to more talk of him being a "game manager." Why? Well, it certainly didn't help boost his reputation when his coach's first comments about him after the game were encouraging only in the sense that they weren't critical. "AJ did a great job of implementing the plan," a professorial Saban said, grasping for his reading glasses later in the post-game news conference to read the final stat sheet. Columns in publications around the country instead clung to the heroics of Johnny Manziel and the resurgence of Alabama's offensive line, while very few pitched the idea of McCarron making a name for himself on the national stage.

"You don't don't want to be viewed as a game manager, AJ ..." a radio host said to McCarron on his way to class Monday, a question implicit in his trailing voice.

"I really don't care what people view me as" McCarron responded before being cut off.

The host interjected: "You're OK with that label? It sounds like a negative with what you do with that offense."

"If that's the way other people view me, it's fine," McCarron said. "I know the way my teammates view me, and I think my teammates feel like I'm an important player on the field for us at all times."

Cyrus Kouandjio, the man charged with protecting McCarron's blind side at left tackle, knows his quarterback's worth. He saw the type of leader McCarron is, watching him work the huddle and get in and out of plays on Saturday.

"We had to have that type of focus in that type of environment," Kouandjio said. "We practiced for two weeks. Everything just clicked. He’s been here for so long and he’s done so much for this program, you know, he has that trust factor. He knows what he’s doing."

Said tight end Brian Vogler: "The style of offense we run, you put a lot of confidence in the quarterback to make the right decisions, make the right calls, audible if he needs to. I really think that last job, he really took over the offense. He honestly said in the huddle, ‘Put the ball in my hands.’ So I think his confidence and his leadership really help out this offense. When we were down 14-0, he said, ‘Look guys, we’re only hurting ourselves. When we’re all on the same page and we’re all working together, we do really good things. We’re getting a lot of push on the ball, we’re getting the ball downfield … in the passing game.’ Just his leadership and the confidence the coaches have in him really helps out our offense."

Everything McCarron does, for better or worse, is viewed in the context of Alabama's offense, unlike, say, Manziel, who is viewed as the proprietor of Texas A&M's offense, the narrative wrapped around his ability to improvise and make plays out of thin air. In other words, Manziel makes things happen while McCarron has things happen for him.

For McCarron, though, the "game manager" title may linger until he leaves for the NFL, but coaches and players around the game understand his worth.

On Saturday, the Aggies dared McCarron to put the ball in the air, and he did. "We said going in AJ was going to have to beat us," Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. And what did McCarron do? "He caught fire," Snyder said after the game, lamenting how his secondary was torched for big play after big play.

Maybe if McCarron catches fire a few more times, he'll be able to finally break free of his dubious reputation as a game manager. But for now, the title still holds some traction.

His coaches are fine with it, his teammates are fine with it and maybe everyone else should be, too. The numbers, the wins, the championship rings; at the end of the day, those will speak for themselves. Saturday's win may not have extinguished talk of his being a game manager, but it certainly helped cement his legacy as one of the best quarterbacks in the school's history.

ATLANTA -- Anthony Steen, Ryan Kelly and a few of their fellow offensive linemen huddled near the makeshift stage at the 50-yard line, outside a yellow rope that separated players from the media on the field of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Alabama was being presented a leather helmet for beating Virginia Tech 35-10 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, but this group of disgruntled players weren't interested in watching the celebration.

AJ McCarron, Christion Jones and the rest of the stars of the game smiled for the cameras while Kelly and Steen had their backs to the action. Turning toward one another, they did their best to figure out what just went wrong. A year after having the best offensive line in college football, the Crimson Tide's front five looked underwhelming. It was a foreign site for the mass of Alabama fans that packed the domed stadium hoping to see what three new starters could do against a Virginia Tech defense decimated by injuries and attrition. In an unusual sight, the line of scrimmage wasn't awkwardly disjointed.

Steen, a third-year starter at right guard, wasn't expecting the amount of movement Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster threw at them. The defensive line went east and west where the Tide expected it to go north and south. Alabama wants to go straight at you on offense, and against Virginia Tech it couldn't get the correct angles to do that. The result: 12 tackles for loss, four sacks and a running game that could never really get going. Even AJ McCarron struggled to set his feet and deliver the ball downfield. Alabama's 96 rushing yards and 110 passing yards would have both been the worst production of any game last season.

"We celebrated a little bit, but it was just a little quiet," he said. "We expected to go out there and win by 50."

NFL scouts on hand for the game put it in more striking terms.

"The O-line got their a-- kicked," one scout said.

Cyrus Kouandjio
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsLeft tackle Cyrus Kouandjio said "all the little things" stacked up against the Alabama offensive line against Virginia Tech.
The general consensus among professional evaluators was that if Alabama doesn't get better up front and runs the ball effectively, it won't be able to win a third national championship.

It wasn't the newcomers on the line that stood out the most, though. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, the anchor of the group and a presumptive early first-round pick in the coming draft, was a turnstile at times, slow of foot as Virginia Tech's defensive ends cut around him to reach the quarterback. Alabama tried running behind Steen to start the game, having T.J. Yeldon carry the ball in his direction for the first three carries, but the results were gains of 2, 4 and 4 yards.

"We had good plays and we had bad plays," Kouandjio said. "It's a good thing this is the first game and we have a bye week to iron out the kinks and go back at it.

"They moved around a lot. It's all the little things that kind of got to us tonight."

Alabama coach Nick Saban put it more succinctly: "They outplayed us up front, if you want to know the truth."

"We were soft," he added. "Didn't have a solid pocket. Quarterback didn't feel comfortable. Timing in the passing game wasn't what it needed to be in terms of how much time we had to throw it, how much time we had to get open. Those are the kind of things I think we really need to improve on."

Saban replaced left guard Arie Kouandjio, a first-time starter after back-to-back knee injuries early in his career, for backup Kellen Williams, who performed ably but not spectacularly in the second half. The other new addition to the line, right tackle Austin Shepherd, couldn't do much to get the running game going on his side.

The result was obvious: This is not the Alabama offensive line that dominated offenses with the likes of Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. This line had trouble with an unranked Virginia Tech team that, while enthusiastic, doesn't have the depth of many SEC defenses Alabama will face this season.

The good news is Alabama gets the benefit of the bye week and will have a full two weeks to prepare for No. 7 Texas A&M, which had nine tackles for loss in a season-opening win over Rice. The matchup in College Station, Texas, is arguably the biggest game of the season for the Tide, who lost to Johnny Manziel and the Aggies last season.

"We had a lot of guys out there that were ready to get out there and play," Steen said. "Some of us were nervous. Heck, I was nervous a little bit in the beginning -- first game of the season, who's not? As the season goes on, we'll be able to tell how good we'll be."
ATLANTA -- The scoreboard read the way everyone pretty much expected it to. It showed an SEC team trouncing another almost helpless victim from the ACC.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsAJ McCarron threw for just 110 yards in Alabama's win over Virginia Tech.
But Alabama's 35-10 win didn't feel like the blow out that the scoreboards inside the Georgia Dome indicated. For a team picked by the masses to win its third straight national championship -- and fourth in five years -- Alabama wasn't the well-oiled machine we're accustomed to seeing, but the Crimson Tide still won by 25 points.

The offensive line looked shaky and overmatched at times, and Alabama rushed for just 96 yards (averaging 2.5 yards in the process), but the game never seemed in doubt for the defending champs.

The offense had less than 120 total yards with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, but Alabama's victory appeared sealed before the teams took off for halftime.

Amari Cooper dropped a couple of passes and AJ McCarron's timing was far from great. Yet, Alabama will still be ranked No. 1 in the polls on Monday.

Alabama could still be the nation's best team, but even the Tide showed that it has issues that have to be corrected before this team can make history by being the first team to win three straight national championships since Minnesota from 1934-36.

"I don't know how good we need to be, I just know we need to get better," said McCarron, whose 110 passing yard marked his lowest amount as a starter.

"We just have to get better all the way around."

The first place people will look is the rebuilt offensive line. With three NFL draft picks gone from last year's unit, Alabama started three new players in Ryan Kelly, Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd.

Communication issues, first-game jitters, blown assignments and an aggressive Virginia Tech front seven caused Alabama's line to look dazed for most of the night. McCarron was only sacked once, but he spent a lot of his time running around to avoid pressure. He only completed 10 of his 23 pass attempts and found himself late on a few easy throws.

To McCarron, he was the reason for an ugly passing game.

"To me, unbelievable job (by the offensive line) tonight," the senior QB said. "You can put the blame on me and say that I gotta get rid of the ball a lot faster. I thought they played excellent. I'm proud of those guys. Unbelievable jobs in the first game, especially against a tough Virginia Tech defense. I thought they played their butts off. I'm proud of them."

But when it came to blocking the run, McCarron wasn't to blame. The line just didn't get enough push, as Alabama failed to cross the century mark on the ground for the first time since gaining just 96 yards in its 9-6 overtime loss to LSU in 2011.

Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio said the communication issues from Saturday night weren't problems in practice, but guys didn't seem ready for the actually game speed and the Hokies' defense ran plays the line wasn't prepared to see.

With two weeks until Alabama’s next game, Kouandjio isn't worried about a repeat performance.

"It's great that it's the first game and it kind of tests us to see where we're at," Kouandjio said. "It's perfect because we have the bye week to iron out the kinks and get back at it."

Look, it's way too early to start jumping on the "Alabama is overrated" train, or thinking about a new BCS title favorite. Alabama was sloppy, but it was still the much more talented team. Alabama showed that even though it currently has some glaring issues along its offensive line, its problems are some that teams around the country would love to have.

When the offense shrank and was mauled by a very impressive Virginia Tech defense and was held to just 206 yards of offense -- the lowest by Alabama since it gained just 172 against Tulane in September of 2008 -- special teams stepped up with two touchdown returns by Christion Jones.

Then there was the defense that dazzled for most of the night and limited the Hokies to just 212 yards, including 59 passing yards from future NFL draft pick Logan Thomas.

Take away Trey Edmunds’ 77-yard touchdown run, and the Hokies might not have even sniffed the end zone.

It wasn't a pretty victory, but Alabama looked like the better team all night and is 1-0. It now gets two weeks to prepare for Johnny Manziel and his Texas A&M Aggies.

There's no question that this team has to get better soon, but with Nick Saban's obsession with detail and preparedness, it's hard to imagine another sloppy performance.

"We got a week off to prepare for Texas A&M and we're going to work on our fundamentals, get back right and we'll see them in Texas," defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan said.

Video: McShay's top 5 underclassmen

August, 7, 2013
8/07/13
7:00
PM ET

Todd McShay breaks down his top 5 college football underclassmen entering the season.

Chase of Alabama resumes this spring

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
9:00
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SabanAP Photo/Chris O'MearaAlabama coach Nick Saban hoisting a national title trophy has become an extremely familiar sight.
Change is inevitable in the world of SEC football.

It’s as much a part of the league as fierce rivalries that divide families, championship teams that rise to legendary status and tradition-soaked Saturdays at such iconic venues as Tiger Stadium, Bryant-Denny Stadium and most recently, Kyle Field.

Four new head coaches will take to the field this spring in the SEC -- Bret Bielema at Arkansas, Butch Jones at Tennessee, Gus Malzahn at Auburn and Mark Stoops at Kentucky.

Of the 14 head coaches in the SEC, eight have been in their jobs for two seasons or fewer.

They say that NFL stands for “Not For Long.” Well, the same could be said about the SEC.

The one thing that hasn’t changed, at least recently, is that Alabama keeps on winning national championships. The Crimson Tide have won two in a row and three of the past four.

Their 42-14 rout of Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship placed the Tide in rarefied air. Not since Notre Dame in the late 1940s had one team won three outright national titles in a four-year span.

The worst-kept secret in college football is that the SEC has produced the past seven national champions. That drumbeat has become all too familiar for everybody outside SEC Country.

But within the league, an equally familiar question is beginning to circulate with increasing fervor: Can anybody catch Alabama?

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsEven South Carolina's Steve Spurrier concedes that Alabama has been college football's best team in big games in recent seasons.
And probably more precisely, how wide is the gap between Alabama and everybody else in the SEC?

Back on national signing day, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier probably summed it up best.

“We’re all chasing them, everybody in college football is … but they can be beat,” Spurrier said. “I know we’re not going to out-recruit them here at South Carolina, but it doesn’t always get down to [recruiting]. Sometimes, you just have to play better than the other guy, and Alabama has been super in the big games.”

That’s the challenge for the other 13 SEC teams, figuring out a way to unseat the Crimson Tide.

It starts all over again this spring. Georgia and Texas A&M are the first to crank up workouts this Saturday. South Carolina is up next the following Tuesday.

Speaking of the Aggies, who knocked off the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa last year, they get Alabama at home the third week of the season.

Both teams face similar questions this spring, starting with retooling a pair of offensive lines that were two of the best in the country a year ago.

Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel left early for the NFL, but Jake Matthews elected to return for his senior season and will move from right to left tackle. The Aggies also have to replace underrated senior center Patrick Lewis. Cedric Ogbuehi is expected to move from guard to right tackle.

Alabama is losing three starters in its offensive line, including three-year starter Chance Warmack and four-year starter Barrett Jones. But Cyrus Kouandjio returns at left tackle. Kouandjio and Matthews will be two of the best left tackles in college football next season.

If you don’t think offensive line play is crucial in the SEC, go back and find an offensive line on any of the past seven national championship teams that wasn’t outstanding, and in most cases, didn’t feature a couple of future pros.

The quarterback crop should again be strong in the SEC, and Alabama and Texas A&M have two of the best. The Aggies' Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy in 2012 with one of the best individual seasons in college football history, while the Tide’s AJ McCarron threw 30 touchdown passes and only three interceptions and led the country in passing efficiency.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia will certainly have high hopes in 2013 with Aaron Murray returning to lead the offense.
Right behind McCarron in passing efficiency last season was Georgia’s Aaron Murray, who returns for his senior season and is on track to break virtually every SEC career passing record.

One of the other interesting storylines this spring involving quarterbacks is at South Carolina, where Dylan Thompson will get the first-team work with Connor Shaw rehabilitating his surgically repaired left foot.

Nobody in the SEC has a better one-two punch at quarterback than the Gamecocks with Shaw and Thompson.

Quarterback will be a central theme at Auburn this spring as well, as Malzahn reintroduces his hurry-up, no-huddle offense and tries to find the guy best suited to run it. Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace will get first shot until three new signees arrive in the summer.

Ole Miss and Vanderbilt both will be looking to continue their momentum. The Commodores closed the season with seven straight wins and won nine games for the first time since 1915. They have to replace a couple of key leaders, namely quarterback Jordan Rodgers, running back Zac Stacy, offensive lineman Ryan Seymour and cornerback Trey Wilson.

The Rebels, who won seven games in Hugh Freeze’s first season, have one of the top signing classes in the country arriving this summer and return most of their key personnel from last season’s 7-6 team.

If you’re looking for new faces, the practice field at LSU will feature plenty of them. The Tigers lost 10 underclassmen to the NFL draft, and six of those were starters on defense.

This spring will also be Cam Cameron’s debut as LSU’s offensive coordinator. Getting that offense “fixed” will be paramount for the Tigers, especially after losing so much talent on defense.

There are always new stars and new leaders emerging in the spring.

This time a year ago, Damontre Moore, Dee Milliner, Mike Gillislee, Jordan Matthews, Tre Mason, Ace Sanders and Manziel weren’t exactly household names.

We’ll find out who the next wave of those guys are over the next several months.
SEC bloggers Chris Low and Edward Aschoff will occasionally give their takes on a burning question or hot debate facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Today's Take Two topic: If you could pick an offense in 2013, which one would you take -- Alabama's or Georgia's?

Take 1: Chris Low

To me, the three best offenses in the SEC next year should belong to, in alphabetical order, Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M. You couldn’t go wrong with any of the three. If I were picking one, though, I’d take the Crimson Tide. It starts with senior quarterback AJ McCarron, who knows that offense inside and out, also knows the league, and doesn’t make mistakes. In the past two seasons, he has thrown 46 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions. He also has been at his best in each of the past two BCS National Championships. There’s no substitute for having a veteran quarterback who delivers in the big games.

It’s true that the Crimson Tide will be missing three starters from that vaunted offensive line, but they return the top left tackle in the league in junior Cyrus Kouandjio. And is there a more explosive one-two punch returning at running back and receiver than T.J. Yeldon and receiver Amari Cooper? As freshmen, Yeldon rushed for more than 1,100 yards, and Cooper amassed 1,000 yards in receiving. They combined for 24 touchdowns. Not only that, but McCarron also will have a healthy Kenny Bell and Chris Black to throw to next season, meaning defenses will have to make some tough choices. The Tide also are adding some new pieces, in particular freshman tight end O.J. Howard, who’s already on campus and will go through spring practice. So if you’re looking for an offense that will be both balanced and explosive, and guided by a quarterback who specializes in winning, it’s hard to beat what Alabama will put on the field in 2013.

Take 2: Edward Aschoff

If I had to pick a returning offense to have in 2013, I’m going with Georgia’s. This unit averaged 467.6 yards and 37.8 points per game, and just about all of the working parts return. For starters, I’d get arguably the SEC’s top returning quarterback in Aaron Murray. Last season, he became the first SEC player to throw for 3,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. And with a host of receiving weapons returning, my money is on him making it four straight seasons with 3,000 passing yards.

Trusted receiver Tavarres King might be gone, but Malcolm Mitchell and Michael Bennett are both back. Mitchell has the talent to be the best in the league, and he’s sticking with offense, while Bennett should be back to normal after going down with an ACL injury last fall. Remember, he was one of the top receivers in the league before his injury. Chris Conley could be up for a breakout season at receiver. The coaches are excited about Justin Scott-Wesley’s potential and speed, and junior college transfer Jonathan Rumph has big play written all over him. Oh, and the running tandem of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall (2,144 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns) returns, and should be even better. The entire starting offensive line is back as well, so I’ll take my chances with the Bulldogs’ offense in 2013.
Quick: Name the SEC’s leader in sacks and tackles for loss.

Jarvis Jones? Obvious choice after he led the SEC with 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss last year, but no.

How about Jadeveon Clowney? He’s a freak, but think again.

Time’s up!

Both were solid guesses, but both are staring up at the new kid on the SEC block -- Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore.

[+] EnlargeDamontre Moore
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDamontre Moore has spent a lot of time in the offensive backfield this season.
The former outside linebacker has taken to his new position and run with it … right over opposing quarterbacks. He’s tied for first in the nation with 11.5 sacks and stands alone nationally with 19 tackles for loss.

Jones’ impressive 2011 debut might be a blip on the radar compared to what Moore could do in the next month.

“He’s definitely come a long way,” defensive line coach Terry Price said.

“He’s really turned his game up and accepted the challenges that are put in front of him to be the hardest playing defensive end in the country.”

He was a star in the Big 12 last year with his 8.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss, but his numbers masked a glaring issue that his new coaches immediately noticed on film.

They saw a primo athlete who was also very sluggish at times. When he was on, he was dominant, but he was only registering around 30 or 40 plays a game. When Kevin Sumlin took over at A&M, he realized that if Moore was going to succeed in the line-driven SEC, he had to get into better shape.

Sumlin’s extra workout sessions with strength coach Larry Jackson pushed spring practice back two weeks. It was something that irked Moore, who was antsy without his pads this spring, but as he prepares for his 10th game of the season, he looks back at the grueling punishment his body took and is thankful for the extra work.

“Those two weeks helped me build up my conditioning,” Moore said.

“I’m able to run a lot longer than most big men my size. That was the advantage on my end and I’m able to work at a high level consistently and go 60, 80 plays down the line. When other people are dying off, I’m building up or staying consistent where I’m at.”

Moore is basically a new man. He’s physically and mentally tougher and his endurance has cranked his motor up to a level he didn’t have in 2011. He’s gone from taking himself out of games to taking wide receivers down from behind -- in a dead sprint.

That extra conditioning has also helped him adapted better up front. Having to constantly throw one’s body into someone with more than 60 pounds on him each play can take a toll on someone’s stamina, especially when you aren’t used to so much contact.

But with Moore’s one-track mind, he’s too obsessed with hammering quarterbacks to worry about being out-muscled. Quarterbacks have something he wants -- the football – and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to either get it, or make them feel sorry for ever deciding to take it.

“It’s like a horse when you put on their blinders when they’re about to race,” Moore said. “They only see that one thing in front of them and that’s how I feel. I see that one thing in front of me and I lock in on it and I hone in on it and I go get it.”

Moore might be regularly terrorizing opposing backfields, but he’s still managed to stay in the shadows of Jones and Clowney. League seniority will do that, but it doesn’t bother Moore.

He isn’t offended. He’s motivated.

Moore understands he still has a lot to prove and he knows he has a great opportunity to earn more respect against the nation’s top offensive this weekend in Tuscaloosa. Alabama features two future first-rounders in Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker who will make Moore work for everything, and try to wear him out of 60 or 80 plays.

Moore relishes the opportunity. He’s bested most who have stood before him, and while he isn’t favored Saturday, he likes his odds.

“I don’t mind being the underdog,” he said. “I love proving people wrong.

“I like it when people say, ‘You can’t do that.’ That way, when I go in there I have that motivation, that drive, that will and that want-to just to prove that I can do whatever I put my mind to.

“If you tell me I can’t do it, then I’m going to go do it.”
We're all looking for the next great thing. Whether it's in life or in football, new and better is what's popular.

As we get closer and closer to the 2012 college football season, we'll continue to poke and prod every team out there in order to figure out which teams should be front-runners and which teams will be in the rearview mirror for most of the season.

ESPN's KC Joyner points out that one way we can judge teams is by the amount of returning starts they have. But he also points out that sometimes new can be better in his look at four breakout first-time starters for 2012 .

Joyner's lone SEC member is LSU rising junior cornerback Tharold Simon. It's a good pick by Joyner. While I don't think he'll be the game-changer that Morris Claiborne was, he might be a better cover corner in one-on-one situations. Joyner points out some interesting facts concerning the two that might suggest that Simon does have better coverage skills, but isn't the ball hawk that Claiborne was.

We'll find out this season.

We'll find out if other new starters can get the job done and maybe make their positions better this fall as well, so why not take a look at a few more SEC players who will be stepping into new starting roles this fall?

Don't expect to see the obvious candidates, such as South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney or LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter and Alabama running back Eddie Lacy aren't on here either because we know what those players bring to the table. Also, no junior college transfers. Sorry Denico Autry.

[+] EnlargeMike Gillislee
Phil Sears/US PresswireMike Gillislee (left) made a case during the spring to be Florida's top running back.
Here are 10 first-time starters to keep an eye on in the SEC:

  • Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri: The Tigers' defensive line will get a lot of attention this fall, as it makes the transition to playing against SEC offensive lines. Ealy is a player who could make much more of an impact this fall. He left spring as a starter on the outside and the coaches think he has a good bit of upside to him. He started just one game last year, registering three tackles for loss, but seemed to be much more comfortable this spring.
  • Dee Ford, DE, Auburn: Ford made one start in 2010, but missed most of last season because of back issues. That didn't stop him from being one of Auburn's best players this spring and catapulting him to the top of the depth chart opposite Corey Lemonier. The rising junior was extremely disruptive this spring and looks poised to have a big year in 2012.
  • Mike Gillislee, RB, Florida: The Gators haven't had a power back since Tim Tebow and have struggled to generate any sort of consistent production between the tackles since. In steps Gillislee, who has appeared in 36 games with no starts. He's a bigger body who the coaches think will have much more of an impact up the middle, especially with what the coaches think is an improved offensive line. During his career, Gillislee has averaged 6.3 yards per carry.
  • Steven Jenkins, OLB, Texas A&M: Jenkins started during the second half of last season and had a very solid spring in College Station this year. With the Aggies moving to a 3-4 scheme, the coaches expect to get a lot more out of him in 2012. Jenkins has tremendous speed and athleticism and could be a real spark for a defense undergoing changes in a new league like the SEC.
  • Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama: Kouandjio was one of the top prospects coming out of high school and played in eight games before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Tennessee. While his conditioning suffered a little as he rehabbed, the hope is that he takes complete hold of the left tackle spot this fall, with Barrett Jones moving to center. Kouandjio has a ton of talent, but he'll have to get back healthy in order to show all his worth.
  • Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU: With Rueben Randle gone, the Tigers are looking for a new deep threat in their offense. While Odell Beckham Jr. had a bit of a breakout freshman year, keep an eye on Landry. The rising sophomore might be LSU's most athletic receiver and has a chance to take over as the Tigers' new big-play threat. He has solid speed and his bigger frame could frustrate opposing cornerbacks. Landry and Mettenberger seemed to generate good chemistry this spring, and LSU's staff hopes it carries over to the fall.
  • Marcus Lucas, WR, Missouri: Most of the focus when it has come to the Tigers' passing game has revolved around incoming freshman Dorial Green-Beckham. But don't forget about Lucas. He only started three games last year, but the coaches tried to get him on the field as much as possible because of the speed and deep-threat ability he possess. Lucas caught 23 passes in 2011, averaging 18 yards per reception, and registered five touchdowns.
  • Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee: The Vols were looking to enhance the play of their offensive line, and seeing Richardson's development this spring was a major plus for Tennessee's staff. After spending 2011 on special teams as a freshman, Richardson emerged this spring as the starter at left tackle. Richardson's move to left tackle shifts vet Dallas Thomas to left guard, giving what Tennessee's staff thinks is the best combination on the line.
  • Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn: The youngster redshirted last year, but could end up as the Tigers' starting left tackle this fall. Robinson said this spring that redshirting was probably the best thing he could have done. It gave him the chance to get much more comfortable with things on the field.
  • Avery Williamson, MLB, Kentucky: The Wildcats are looking to replace four starting linebackers from last year and Williamson stood out plenty of times this spring. He registered 49 tackles as Ronnie Sneed's backup at middle linebacker last year and was one of the better defensive players for the Wildcats this spring.

Video: Top 20 Roundtable -- Alabama

May, 23, 2012
5/23/12
8:55
PM ET


College Football Live's panel of experts discusses the upcoming season for the Crimson Tide.

SEC scrimmage recap

August, 22, 2011
8/22/11
11:07
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Looking back at some of the scrimmage highlights from this past Saturday:

ALABAMA

Alabama coach Nick Saban would like to see more of his second-team players playing at a higher level, but he was pleased with his first units in last Saturday's scrimmage. In particular, he said the quarterbacks threw the deep ball well, and the Crimson Tide made more explosive plays down the field than they did the week before. Don't be surprised if senior receiver Marquis Maze emerges this season as one of the top big-play threats in the league. Saban continues to say that both quarterbacks, AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims, are going to play, although Alabama is not releasing any quarterback statistics from the closed scrimmages. The Crimson Tide are still searching for their best combination in the offensive line. True freshman Cyrus Kouandjio has been everything Alabama thought he was and is making a legitimate run at the starting left tackle job. It's also been a very good preseason camp for sophomore offensive guard Anthony Steen.

AUBURN

The Tigers' scrimmage last Saturday focused more on the younger players, so true freshman Kiehl Frazier took the snaps at quarterback. One of the stars of the scrimmage was true freshman receiver Quan Bray. He's not the only first-year playmaker who's made a name for himself this preseason. It's also been a big camp for true freshman running back Tre Mason. Two other true freshmen expected to contribute right away are center Reese Dismukes and safety Erique Florence. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said after the scrimmage that it was the toughest decision he's had in picking a starting quarterback. Junior Barrett Trotter helped separate himself with his mental and physical toughness, according to Malzahn. Freshman receiver Sammie Coates will have foot surgery this week.

GEORGIA

Back from a groin injury, true freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell was impressive last Saturday during the scrimmage part of the Bulldogs' practice. Coach Mark Richt told reporters that Crowell had a "couple of great runs" and also had a "great run after the catch" for a touchdown. It was the first time Crowell had gone full speed since injuring his groin on Aug. 12. True freshman receiver Malcolm Mitchell sat out Saturday with a pulled leg muscle, but is making a strong bid to be one of the Bulldogs' top three receivers. One of the surprises this preseason for Georgia has been that junior college newcomer John Jenkins hasn't been able to overtake Kwame Geathers at nose guard. Jenkins sat out Saturday after pulling his hamstring Friday in practice.

KENTUCKY

Coach Joker Phillips liked the aggressiveness of his defense in last Saturday's scrimmage. He said the Wildcats are running to the ball and attacking from different angles. One of first-year defensive coordinator Rick Minter's priorities was to create more turnovers. The first-team defense gave up a couple of big plays early in the scrimmage, but settled down after that, Phillips said. Quarterback Morgan Newton continues to play with confidence this preseason, and Phillips really likes Newton's command of the offense right now. The Wildcats are still trying to settle on their starting receivers, although Phillips felt like they caught the ball as a team better on Saturday.

OLE MISS

The Rebels' first-team defense was missing some key players nursing injuries in last Saturday's scrimmage, including linebacker Joel Kight and safety Damien Jackson, but defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix was still pleased with some of the turnovers they were able to create. Wesley Pendleton and Tanner Burns both had interceptions, and true freshman linebacker C.J. Johnson had another big scrimmage. There's still no word on Ole Miss' starting quarterback, and coach Houston Nutt is content to let the competition play out. Randall Mackey started out with the first team and was intercepted by Pendleton on his first play, but came back later in the scrimmage and threw a 53-yard pass to Donte Moncrief.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Coach Steve Spurrier was anything but pleased with his offense following last Saturday's scrimmage. But the defense? That was a different story. "The defense took charge," said Spurrier, noting that the offense had trouble making a first down when they put the ball on the 30. Quarterback Stephen Garcia struggled through a 3-for-11 day passing and was also intercepted once. Backup quarterback Connor Shaw, who played extremely well in the last scrimmage, didn't participate in this scrimmage after injuring his thumb. He hopes to return this week. The Gamecocks held out star running back Marcus Lattimore and star receiver Alshon Jeffery from the full-field part of the scrimmage. Once again, freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney made his presence felt. This should be the Gamecocks' best defensive line in a long time.

TENNESSEE

The offense and defense differed as to who won last Saturday's scrimmage, but coach Derek Dooley felt like there was improvement across the board. The first-team offense put together a pair of drives that were at least 10 plays. Quarterback Tyler Bray had his most efficient performance of the preseason scrimmages, going 10-for-20 for 144 yards and a 5-yard touchdown pass to true freshman Vincent Dallas. Dooley feels like the Vols will be better equipped to run the football this season. True freshman Marlin Lane's speed has helped. Defensively, true freshman outside linebacker Curt Maggitt has been one of the stories of preseason camp. He had four tackles in Saturday's scrimmage.

VANDERBILT

The defense forced five turnovers, and it was an overall sloppy performance by the Commodores' passing game in last Saturday night's scrimmage. Dropped passes plagued Vanderbilt on offense. It wasn't a live scrimmage, and the whistle blew when defenders touched the offensive player. Still, coach James Franklin was pleased with his defense's performance. Cornerback Trey Wilson intercepted a Larry Smith pass and returned it 35 yards. Backup quarterback Jordan Rodgers was intercepted on back-to-back passes. The offense managed just two touchdowns in the 99-play scrimmage. The Commodores are still looking for somebody other than Jordan Matthews at the receiver position to emerge as a consistent playmaker.

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