NCF Nation: Dee Hart


AUBURN, Ala. -- All Corey Grant ever wanted was a shot.

He grew up in Auburn's backyard, but the four-star running back committed to cross-state rival Alabama in the Class of 2010 based on a pitch the Crimson Tide staff gave him, promising to open the offense and utilize his blazing speed. Had he stayed home and signed with the Tigers, he would've been a part of the 2010 BCS National Championship team.

Not to worry, Grant surely would get a ring while at Alabama, right?

Wrong. The role he thought he was going to play in Tuscaloosa never panned out, and he transferred to Auburn after his freshman season. He was back home, but he had to watch his former team win back-to-back national championships.

The state of Alabama has claimed the past four crystal balls, and Grant doesn't have a ring to show for it. But none of that matters.

"I'd rather play than sit on the bench and get rings," Grant, now a junior, said.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCorey Grant finally is playing, which means more to him than winning rings while on the sideline.
That's how he always has been.

Grant grew up around football. His father, Ike Grant, was a football coach for 33 years and would take his son with him to work as soon as Corey was old enough to walk. Corey would cut the grass. He would watch film. He would hang out in the weight room with the players. He was always working, always around football.

"Corey didn't have no other choice than to be the kind of kid that he is, simply because I was a football coach and no stranger to hard work," said Ike, the 10th child of 14.

More than anything else, Ike wanted his son to be a good person, but he could see at an early age that Corey was going to be a special athlete. When Corey started walking, it wasn't long before he was running around the house. In pee-wee football, they would toss him the ball and Corey would outrun everybody.

It continued into high school, where he emerged as one of the top prospects in the state.

"Corey had a tremendous junior year," Opelika coach Brian Blackmon said. "Corey had a really big upside. He played a little bit at a bunch of different positions as a sophomore for us. His junior year, though, he had an incredible year. A lot of big plays."

Stanford was the first to offer Corey a scholarship. Auburn was the first SEC school to offer back when Tommy Tuberville was still the head coach. He had double-digit offers but chose Alabama over both Auburn and Florida, which was also in the mix.

But Corey never found a fit while he was in Tuscaloosa.

"He went to Alabama, but we could tell during preseason that he wasn't really happy," his father said. "He wasn't really sure. Midway through the season, we really knew it, because when he'd come home, he would kind of indicate that, and he would always regret going back."

Corey stuck it out through the next spring, but when freshman running back Dee Hart arrived in January and passed him on the depth chart, the writing was on the wall. It was time to move on.

There was just one problem. Nick Saban wouldn't release Corey's scholarship if he chose to play for another SEC school. The Alabama coach knew the caliber of athlete he had and didn't want to have to compete against him for the next two or three years.

That left Corey with very few options. Ultimately, he wanted to come home and play for Auburn. But to do that, he was forced to walk on to the program and live at home for the first year. He would wake up at 4 a.m. and drive to the football complex every morning for practice. It wasn't easy, but it was the only way.

"I think Corey was just happy to be home," Blackmon said. "Corey's a very driven kid. He had to go back and earn it all over again. He went from a four-star, highly recruited kid to a walk-on, having to earn it again."

Corey won multiple team awards the year he walked on and eventually earned a scholarship. But when former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn left for Arkansas State, Corey's opportunity to play left with him. The local kid was working hard and doing everything the right way, but his opportunity never came.

"He's had a hard road, simply because when he got to Auburn, he had to sit down, because Coach Saban wouldn't release him," Ike said. "Then the next year, he stood on the sideline and nobody gave him an opportunity.

"All the coaches would say he's a great kid, he's a great athlete, he's a hard worker, he does what he's supposed to, but he never got that opportunity. He's had a struggle with that."

Flash forward to this season. Malzahn returned to Auburn as head coach, and, in turn, Corey has become an integral part of the rushing attack. He's one of four Tigers with more than 500 yards rushing, and he leads the SEC in yards per carry (9.9) with a minimum of 50 attempts. He had 53 yards and a touchdown on just six carries last week against Georgia.

"He's one of the faster guys probably in college football," Malzahn said. "He's been a speed guy, but he's gotten a lot better at running in between the tackles and doing the things that a normal running back does. He's an outstanding player and an even better person."

It would have been easy to stay at Alabama. He might never have seen the field, but he'd have been part of two national championship teams. Some of his teammates knew they were never going to play but stayed anyway for the shot at getting a ring.

But that's not Corey. His father once asked him about the rings, to which he responded, "Daddy, it don't make no difference if you're not happy."

Corey's finally happy, and he'll get his shot against his former team this Saturday in the Iron Bowl. If Auburn wins, he might even get a chance to play for a ring.
College football prognosticator Phil Steele continues his look at the top depth charts around the country. Today, we're looking at his top running back depth charts Insider.

Steele has three SEC teams on his list, with Georgia taking his top spot. Alabama is No. 2, while Texas A&M is 14th.

It's hard to argue against having Georgia No. 1. The Bulldogs bring back the top one-two rushing punch in Todd Gurley, who led SEC running backs with 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns, and slasher Keith Marshall. The duo combined for 2,144 yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry. There isn't much behind these two, but they did just fine with the majority of the carries last year.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
AP Photo/Romeo GuzmanT.J. Yeldon returns to lead a deep backfield for the Crimson Tide this season.
Alabama has a very deep backfield that's led by sophomore T.J. Yeldon, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year. He should compete to be one of the top players at his position this fall as both a slasher and a pounder. The Tide will get back the beastly Jalston Fowler, who is coming off of knee surgery, and scat back Dee Hart, who is also returning from a knee injury. Sophomore Kenyan Drake is back and true freshman Derrick Henry should help out as both a running back and H-back this fall.

As for the Aggies, they're also very deep at running back. Leading rusher Ben Malena (808 yards) is back, and he'll be working with some younger but very talented teammates. Brandon Williams, who transferred from Oklahoma, has the potential to be very special. Then you have Oregon transfer Tra Carson and sophomore Trey Williams. There is a lot of speed and athleticism in Texas A&M's running back stable.

I'd also keep an eye on Florida, LSU and Ole Miss this fall. The Gators will be led by sophomore Matt Jones, who had a very good spring and should pick up right where Mike Gillislee left off. He'll also get help from redshirt junior Mack Brown, who left spring as the No. 2 back, and freshmen Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane. Taylor had a good spring and Lane should come in and help right away.

LSU might have made Steele's list if Jeremy Hill wasn't suspended from the team. Hill's recent arrest has his future at LSU in doubt, but if he plays this fall he'll be one of the league's best. Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue are nothing to sneeze at. Both have shown flashes in the past and Blue should be healed from a knee injury that cost him most of his 2012 season. Losing Hill will really hurt, but the Tigers have a solid duo in Hilliard and Blue to work with.

Ole Miss returns rushing leader Jeff Scott and a talented bunch of youngsters. Scott is a solid all-purpose-type back, while sophomores I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton came on strong late last year and this spring. True freshman Mark Dodson will get his chance to see the field as well after a strong spring.
Looking at ESPN NFL Insider KC Joyner's recent piece on whether West Virginia's offense can stay elite got me to thinking: Can the SEC's top offenses from 2012 replicate last year's success?

The SEC is bringing back some real offensive firepower in 2013. Sure, this is still a defensive league, but as we've seen over the past couple of years, the offenses are really evolving and getting better.

So can the top five SEC offenses from last year duplicate what they did in 2012? Let's take a look:

1. Texas A&M
2012 total offense: 558.5 yards per game
2012 scoring offense: 44.5 points per game

The Aggies bring back Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, but a lot of Johnny Football's supporting cast is gone. Gone are offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, left tackle Luke Joeckel and senior receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu. Joeckel was the best tackle in the SEC last year, Kingsbury and Manziel had a special on-field relationship, and those receivers are taking 1,398 yards and 15 touchdowns.

The Aggies have a stacked backfield that should be headlined by senior Ben Malena and Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams, and Mike Evans leads a younger but very talented receiving corps. But teams will have better game plans for Manziel and those youngsters at receiver will have to grow up quickly. Manziel is special, but that target on his back is enormous. The Aggies were great on offense last year, and they'll be good again, but I expect the Aggies' numbers to dip in 2013.

2. Tennessee
2012 total offense: 475.9
2012 scoring offense: 36.2

The Vols lost their starting quarterback and top four receiving targets. Tyler Bray accounted for 3,612 passing yards and 34 touchdowns. His top four targets, including Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, caught 187 passes for 2,914 yards and 26 touchdowns. Tennessee returns one of the top lines around and has a solid trio at running back, but so much is different on offense.

Can the Vols adapt to Butch Jones' new hurry-up offense before the season starts? Can either Justin Worley or Nathan Peterman play beyond their inexperience this fall? There isn't a lot of experience at quarterback or receiver, and that's a major problem when Tennessee's offense revolved around its passing game last year.

3. Georgia
2012 total offense: 467.6
2012 scoring offense: 37.8

Record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray is back along with his entire offensive line, arguably the top running back duo in the SEC (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) and a host of talented receivers. Tavarres King and Marlon Brown, ranked first and third on the team in receiving last year, are gone, but Malcolm Mitchell is back and Michael Bennett should be healthy for the start of the season. Bennett might have been the Dawgs' top receiver before he went down with an ACL injury early last season.

There are some young players to keep an eye on as well in Chris Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley. Junior college transfer Jonathan Rumph and seasoned tight end Arthur Lynch should both be valuable options as well. This could be one of the most balanced offenses in the country this fall.

4. Alabama
2012 total offense: 445.5
2012 scoring offense: 38.7

Running back Eddie Lacy and three starters along Alabama's offensive line are gone. Two of those linemen were first-round picks and Lacy was a second-rounder. But quarterback AJ McCarron is back and he has a lot to work with. Amari Cooper is one of the top receivers in the league and Chris Black should be 100 percent this fall, giving McCarron another deep threat to complement Cooper and Kenny Bell. Kevin Norwood is also a reliable target for McCarron.

We know the offense goes through the running game first, and Alabama's backfield is once again stacked. T.J. Yeldon will battle to be one of the top rushers in the league and he'll have big boy Jalston Fowler and speedster Dee Hart to share time with. Youngsters Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry, who is returning from a spring injury, should both contribute as well. Henry can be used in both the rushing and passing game. Alabama's line seems fine, so there isn't much worry in Tuscaloosa.

5. Ole Miss
2012 total offense: 423.8
2012 scoring offense: 31.5

The Rebels return a lot of pieces on offense and you'd think they'd be even better in Year 2 of Hugh Freeze's spread offense. Ole Miss managed to get through last season without any major injuries. Even Freeze doesn't know if that's likely to happen again. If it does, the Rebels should be fine, considering starters Bo Wallace (quarterback), Jeff Scott (running back) and Donte Moncrief (wide receiver) are all back. There are some talented younger players the Rebels can use as well, but the continuing theme in Oxford is that there are still depth issues along the offensive line and at receiver.

Any sort of injuries to those positions could rock the Rebels. Plus, Wallace is coming off of shoulder surgery and threw 17 interceptions last year. Wallace can't be as careless with the ball this fall. Vince Sanders and Ja-Mes Logan, along with true freshman Laquon Treadwell, should take some pressure off Moncrief, and the Rebels are also deep at running back, but the Rebels won't sneak up on people this fall.
The other day I was asked a question about the SEC that caught me off guard a little.

And no, it wasn't about Bob Stoops or scheduling.

I was asked if the league would be a quarterback or running back league in 2013. Obviously, when you think about the SEC, you think of pound-it-out, grind-it-out football. Games are won and lost in the trenches and running backs are usually a team's most coveted asset. The more the merrier, too.

But the SEC returns some pretty good experience at both positions.

At running back, the SEC will be without four of the league's top 10 rushers -- Eddie Lacy, Mike Gillislee, Zac Stacy and Kendial Lawrence -- from the 2012 season. The SEC will be without three of the top 10 passers -- Tyler Bray, Tyler Wilson and Jordan Rodgers.

Now, my math skills tell me that seven top players at a position is better than six, but the SEC is deep at running back this season. Of the seven top quarterbacks returning, six reached 2,500 passing yards, while only two made it to 3,000 yards -- Aaron Murray and Johnny Manziel. Nine true starters return (Kentucky's Maxwell Smith missed most of last season and ended the spring behind Jalen Whitlow). So five teams are breaking in new starters.

The SEC saw eight running backs hit the 1,000-yard mark last season. There's a chance the league could not only reach that number again but it could eclipse it.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
AP Photo/Romeo GuzmanT.J. Yeldon takes over for running back Eddie Lacy as "the guy" for Alabama.
Alabama lost Lacy -- and his 1,322 yards/17 touchdowns -- but rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon appears more than ready to take over as the lead back. He rushed for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, and it sounds like he looked even better as the guy. He'll also have help from fellow sophomore Kenyan Drake, who played in 12 games last year, and Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart, who are both returning from season-ending knee injuries. Remember, Fowler had nearly 400 rushing yards in 2011. True freshman Derrick Henry, who was tearing it up this spring before his leg injury, should help once he's healthy this fall.

Oh, and Alabama will welcome three more backs this summer, including ESPN 150 member Alvn Kamara.

Texas A&M and Florida will also have the luxury of a packed backfield. The Aggies return leading rusher (for a running back) Ben Malena (808 yards), but will also have rising sophomore Trey Williams, and transfers Brandon Williams and Tra Carson. Brandon Williams might be the most talented of the bunch, and none of these guys should get too tired with all those legs to work with.

The Gators lost Gillislee, but sophomore-to-be Matt Jones had an excellent spring. He knew the playbook backward and forward and showed a more physical style. He already has the goal of getting 1,500 yards. But he'll have help from redshirt junior Mack Brown, who had a very solid spring, and freshmen Kelvin Taylor (early enrollee) and Adam Lane. The coaches feel very good about all four contributing a lot this fall.

Georgia is a little thin at running back, but with Gurley and Keith Marshall returning, the Dawgs could have the best running back duo in the SEC -- maybe the country.

Here's a quick look at how other SEC teams currently fare at running back heading into the summer:

Arkansas

The Razorbacks lack experience at the position, but sophomore Jonathan Williams made good strides this spring and looks poised to be the top back. He'll also have incoming freshman Alex Collins to help him this fall.

Auburn

Tre Mason and his 1,000 yards return. He should have even more space to work with in Gus Malzahn's spread, which could spell trouble for defenses. Junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne had a solid spring, and Corey Grant returns.

Kentucky

Leading rushers Raymond Sanders (669 yards) and Jonathan George (504 yards) return with two talented youngsters to help out. Dyshawn Mobley had an excellent spring and Josh Clemons is back from a devastating knee injury he suffered in 2011.

LSU

Legal issues have Jeremy Hill's fall status unknown for the fall. If he returns, he gives the Tigers on of the top backs in the league. Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue return, but LSU will be thin at the position without Hill.

Mississippi State

LaDarius Perkins returns after his 1,000-yard season. He's a complete back and can hurt teams running and catching. Josh Robinson returns after a productive year as the backup. Nick Griffin has a ton of skill, but still hasn't reached his potential.

Missouri

Lawrence is gone, but Henry Josey is back and says he's 100 percent after his devastating knee injury in 2011. He was one of the Big 12's best and most explosive running backs before his injury. The Tigers have plenty of bodies at running back and should get good use out of Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough.

Ole Miss

Leading rusher Jeff Scott (846) is back and he'll be working with some solid sophomores in I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. True freshman Mark Dodson had a productive spring as well. Along with the six returning lettermen, Ole Miss will have three more signees on campus this fall.

South Carolina

Mike Davis isn't trying to be Marcus Lattimore, but he did a good job of taking his spot this spring. The rising sophomore can pound it or break out for that home run play. Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson are back from injuries and ESPN 150 member David Williams will be in town this fall.

Tennessee

Marlin Lane's off-field problems didn't help things this spring, but Butch Jones was very happy with the play of Alden Hill and Rajion Neal this spring. Lane has every chance to come back and if he does the Vols will have a pretty solid three-headed rushing monster.

Vanderbilt

Stacy is gone, but Wesley Tate and Brian Kimbrow had good springs in Nashville. Jerron Seymour gives Vandy another body to use, as well. Tate and Kimbrow both have big-play ability, but they'll have to stay healthy because there isn't a lot of experience behind them.
Now that all of the early entries for this year's NFL draft are in, we decided to take a closer look at some of the players who decided to leave school early.

We're checking in on how teams were affected and who some of the winners and losers were from all of these early departures:

[+] EnlargeJoeckel
Brett Davis/US PresswireIt was a no-brainer for Luke Joeckel to take his talents to the NFL.
1. Biggest winners: Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel flirted with staying in school for his senior year, but it appears that would have been a major mistake for the nation's top left tackle. He was a guaranteed top-10 pick for most of the season, but with the draft creeping closer, Joeckel has a great chance of being the top pick come April. He definitely made the right decision to leave school early, and so did his teammate Damontre Moore. After a monster 2012 season, Moore could follow Joeckel as the second player taken off the board. He moved to defensive end last fall and is a very attractive pick for teams because of his versatility. Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones and Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner could also hear their names called very early in April, as they too could both be top-five picks.

2. Biggest loser: LSU was ravaged by the NFL draft, as ten underclassmen declared early. Some were pretty obvious, but others left people confused. It didn't shock anyone that defensive linemen Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo and Bennie Logan declared. Montgomery and Mingo could be first-round draft picks, while Logan could go within the first three rounds. Safety Eric Reid and linebacker Kevin Minter made sense as well, but seeing punter Brad Wing, cornerback Tharold Simon, offensive lineman Chris Faulk and running backs Spencer Ware and Michael Ford all leave was pretty surprising. The Tigers will be losing seven quality starters and basically their entire defensive line. LSU has a lot of quality youngsters who will be vying for major playing time, but losing all that experience will hurt the Tigers in 2013.

3. Head-scratchers: Ware, Ford and Simon could all have benefited from another year in Baton Rouge. Neither Ford nor Ware hit the 400-yard rushing mark and combined for just four touchdowns on the season. Maybe the emergence of freshman running back Jeremy Hill helped influence their decisions. South Carolina wide receiver Ace Sanders shocked everyone when he decided to turn pro at the last minute. Sanders was one of the league's top multipurpose weapons, and while he isn't going to get any taller (he's a generous 5-foot-8), he could use another year to improve his receiving skills. He'll be looked at as a returner first in the NFL and won't likely be drafted very high at all. Also, Florida linebacker Jelani Jenkins could have used another year of school as well. He was banged up in 2012, only playing in nine games, and registered just 29 tackles. He's a very smart player, but another year could have helped his draft status even more.

4. The replacements:

  • LSU loses a lot, but that doesn't mean that the Bayou is void of talent. Wing will be replaced by sophomore-to-be Jamie Keehn, who started in Wing's place for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. With Ware and Ford gone, Hill will be helped out by Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard in the run game. Junior-to-be Anthony Johnson should get more reps at defensive tackle with Logan gone, and he'll also be helped by Ego Ferguson. Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins both had solid seasons at corner, so expect more of each with Simon gone.
  • With Eddie Lacy leaving Alabama, rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon will now be the guy at running back for the Crimson Tide. With his 1,000-yard season, he's already proven that he can more than handle himself in this league. He'll also be helped by Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler, who are both returning from knee injuries, and Kenyan Drake, who looked impressive in mop-up duty last season. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Derrick Henry, who is already on campus and should be a factor in the run game.
  • Sanders' departure at South Carolina means Bruce Ellington is now the top returning receiver for the Gamecocks, and it also puts more on the shoulders of Shaq Roland, who was expected to make an immediate impact during his freshman year. Roland has the skills to be a big-time threat in the passing game.
  • Georgia lost some key juniors on defense, but no one will be missed more than Jones. Jordan Jenkins came on strong in his first year last fall, and will do his best to replace Jones' pass-rushing ability.
  • Florida only lost three underclassmen to the draft, but replacing safety Matt Elam and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd will be tough. There are a host of youngsters who could vie for Elam's spot (keep an eye on freshman Marcus Maye), while Damien Jacobs will help man the middle of Florida's line with Leon Orr.

3-point stance: Crimson Tide hurting

October, 2, 2012
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1. Alabama is a unanimous No. 1 for a reason but injuries have just about used up the margin of difference between the Crimson Tide and the rest. The season-ending (and non-contact!) knee injuries suffered by wideout DeAndrew White and tailback Dee Hart Saturday bring to five the number of backs, receivers or safeties lost for the season to injury. The impact will come down most heavily on special teams. I’m guessing Nick Saban will use the off week to shore up the depth chart of his kicking game.

2. If you want a top running back to make the Heisman race, you’re going to have to take a workhorse, not a showhorse. Two of the top FBS rushers, Nevada junior Stephon Jefferson and Ohio junior Beau Blankenship, average more than 31 carries per game. If you’re looking for a tailback who plays a tougher schedule, keep an eye on Oklahoma State junior Joseph Randle, who ripped through Texas for 199 yards on 25 carries. Still, as the Heisman race goes, none of the rushers is keeping pace with the quarterbacks.

3. NCAA stats are reliable, even if they continue to list Oklahoma State quarterback J.W. Walsh as a sophomore instead of a redshirt freshman. But I digress. According to the NCAA, Nebraska junior Taylor Martinez, who is 12th in the FBS in passing efficiency, is the only Big Ten quarterback in the top 40. By contrast, the Big 12 has four of the top five and seven of the top 17. You can’t pin that on Big 12 defenses, the West Virginia-Baylor game notwithstanding. Conference play really hasn’t kicked in yet.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Jalston Fowler, who will likely miss the rest of the season recovering from knee surgery, wasn't the leading rusher, the leading blocker or the leading receiver for the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide. His name didn't appear first on any depth chart. In fact, he shared the distinction of being the No. 2 tailback with true freshman T.J. Yeldon.

But what Fowler lacked for in distinction on paper he made up for in usefulness on the field. His unique skill set -- a power runner with light feet and soft hands -- was put to use by the Alabama coaching staff. He was second on the team in yards rushing, but he was also a reason why the Alabama rushing game has been so effective this season in his role as a lead blocker at H-back.

[+] EnlargeJalston Fowler
John David Mercer/US PresswireTide running back Jalston Fowler gets helped off the field during the fourth quarter against W. Kentucky.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said replacing Fowler's production will be a team effort. His loss at tailback hurts when considering starter Eddie Lacy's health concerns. He missed all of spring practice recovering from surgery to fix his battle with turf toe, only to sprain his ankle late in fall camp. He's been limited thus far, carrying the ball less than 10 times in each of the first two games.

The good news is Yeldon has emerged so quickly. The rookie was the first freshman in school history to rush for 100 yards in his debut. He followed up that performance by leading the team in receptions against Western Kentucky on Saturday. He and fellow freshmen Dee Hart and Kenyan Drake will take on more responsibility in Fowler's absence.

"I think we have what we have," Saban said. "We have backups at every one of the positions and roles that he filled. There may not be one particular guy. I think on special teams, there's a different guy on each special team that would take his place now. At running back, Dee Hart, Kenyan Drake will have a little more opportunity. Kelly [Johnson] was his backup at fullback, which is where he plays anyway. So we are going to miss him. It's going to take a number of people to replace him in various roles that he played on our team."

Junior receiver Kevin Norwood, who caught two touchdowns against Western Kentucky, said there's not much the team can do now other than move on.

"We're all going to pray for Jalston that hopefully he'll get back our there soon," Norwood said. "But the only thing we really can do is move on and make sure everybody is focused and preparing right for this team."

Guard Chance Warmack said he hasn't spoken to Fowler since the injury and hopes his recovery will happen swiftly. In the meantime, he said Alabama's lost a weapon on offense.

"Phenomenal player," Warmack explained. "Brought a lot to the offense. I don't want to count him out just yet. I don't know the specifics about how the injury is. Great guy, brought a lot to the offense. Very powerful back."

Fowler was one of three tailbacks in the SEC to average better than 6.9 yards per carry in 2011-12. He ran for 395 yards and four touchdowns on 56 carries.

Linebacker Nico Johnson went up against Fowler every day in practice. The 6-foot-1, 242-pound wrecking ball at tailback was routinely considered the most difficult man to bring down with the ball in his hands.

"He's more like a back like Trent (Richardson)," Johnson said. "He can run, catch out of the backfield, and he's tough to tackle. So, it's going to be real tough, but we've got enough guys and depth for somebody to step in and fill his role."

Can Alabama repeat in 2012?

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In college football, repeats only really occur in the video game world.

The last time the sport had a consensus back-to-back national champion was Nebraska in 1995. USC claims to have won in both 2003 and 2004, but there was a split with LSU in 2004.

Florida has missed out on it twice since 2006 and Alabama couldn't do it in 2010. However, Alabama is one of just four other programs to claim back-to-back titles since 1960 (1978 and 79).

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinCoach Nick Saban leaned on QB AJ McCarron in last year's campaign, and he'll do so again in 2012.
So could distant history repeat itself? Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com's TideNation dives right into that query with his three reasons why Alabama can win it all and three reasons why Alabama can't Insider.

Scarborough brings up many of the same reasons I could see Alabama going either way in 2012. For starters, the offense could be more explosive without Trent Richardson. Yeah, I said it.

No disrespect to Richardson at all, but with a more improved quarterback in AJ McCarron, some more athleticism and depth at wide receiver and another strong, veteran offensive line to work with, the Crimson Tide shouldn't have issues moving the ball on the ground or through the air. Coach Nick Saban wants to air it out a little more and he knows McCarron has the ability to do it. The question is whether he can overcome some of his immaturity on the field to consistently get it done.

Bama's line could be chock-full of NFL first-rounders and the backfield is yet again stacked, even without Richardson. Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon lead the way, while Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler provide more than adequate depth.

Offensively, this team shouldn't have much of an issue moving the ball. Defensively, there are some questions. Scarborough points out Alabama is more retooling than rebuilding, but there's no getting around all that defensive talent this team lost. Certainly there are talented players stepping in, like linebackers Adrian Hubbard and Nico Johnson and JUCO cornerbacks Deion Belue and Travell Dixon, but experience is everything.

Saban said as much this spring and he also said he's still looking for more defensive leaders to step up before fall camp gets underway.

Also, the schedule is a bit tougher than last year. The Tide starts the year against Michigan in Arlington, Texas, which should get all those SEC-Big Ten juices flowing. And look at this road schedule: Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri (back to back) and LSU. That just doesn't sound fun at all.

Alabama's 2012 team will no doubt draw more comparisons to the 2010 squad that had defensive issues for part of the year, but from what I've gathered, this team wants that. Players want to hear about 2010 because it upsets them -- it motivates them.

The thing that team lacked was ideal leadership and if this team wants to get back to the BCS title game, that's the area where Alabama really needs to make sure it's solid in.

Who has the SEC's best young talent?

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On Wednesday, we highlighted the three players we feel like will be the top impact true freshmen in the SEC this season as well as the three sophomores we feel like will have the biggest impacts.

That’s a perfect segue to picking the teams in the league that have the best young talent. And in young talent, we’re talking about players who will be sophomores, redshirt freshmen or true freshmen in 2011.

No. 1 on our list is an easy choice -- LSU. The Tigers might have as much talent in their freshman and sophomore classes as any team in America.

Here’s a look at how our top 5 teams stack up:

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
Paul Abell/US PresswireCornerback Tyrann Mathieu is part of LSU's impressive young secondary.
1. LSU: Check out that LSU defense. The Tigers have at least 10 players who are sophomores or younger that will play key roles this season, and most of those have star potential. In the secondary alone, you’ve got sophomores Tyrann Mathieu, Tharold Simon, Eric Reid and Craig Loston, not to mention redshirt freshman Ronnie Vinson. And up front, defensive coordinator John Chavis can’t wait to turn redshirt freshman Ego Ferguson and true freshman Anthony Johnson loose at tackle, while sophomore Michael Brockers also returns inside. Chavis has said sophomore defensive end Barkevious Mingo will be one of the premier pass-rushers in the league, and don’t forget that sophomore Sam Montgomery is back at the other end. Montgomery started the first five games as a redshirt freshman and had six tackles for loss before injuring his knee. Sophomore Kevin Minter is the favorite to replace Kelvin Sheppard at middle linebacker. On offense, there aren’t as many talented underclassmen that stand out -- yet. But sophomore tailback Spencer Ware is primed for a huge season and might be the SEC’s top breakout player. Sophomore guard Josh Williford was one of the team’s most improved players in the spring, and the Tigers like their entire crop of young offensive linemen. True freshman receiver Jarvis Landry has dynamic playmaker written all over him, although a broken foot will cause him to miss the first three weeks of camp. Last but not least, the Tigers’ quarterback of the future, former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger, is only a sophomore and has three years of eligibility remaining after spending last season at junior college. Don’t be surprised if Mettenberger plays some this season.

2. Florida: It’s hard to beat the Gators’ young collection of talent in both the offensive and defensive lines. On offense, sophomore guard Jon Halapio is one of three underclassmen who could wind up in the starting lineup or at least be in the rotation. And on defense, the second time around for Ronald Powell, Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley should be a lot better. All three are supremely talented. Sophomore safety Matt Elam leads a secondary that is full of promising newcomers. Coach Will Muschamp thinks true freshman cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson both have a chance to be special, and watch sophomore Jelani Jenkins take off this season and become an All-SEC caliber player at linebacker. Redshirt freshman receiver Quinton Dunbar has had an excellent start to camp, and true freshman Ja’Juan Story is another receiver the Gators think will provide more plays down the field. Sophomore tight end Jordan Reed and sophomore running back Trey Burton have already proven that they have what it takes to make plays in this league (at a number of different positions), and true freshman Jeff Driskel was the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the country last year.

3. Auburn: The Tigers’ past two recruiting classes have ranked among the top 5 nationally, and you’re going to see a ton of those players on the field this season. The sophomore class will be especially important. Guys like defensive ends Nosa Eguae, Corey Lemonier and Craig Sanders, defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker and running back Mike Dyer will be the heart and soul of this team. Redshirt freshman receiver Trovon Reed would have made a big impact last season had he not had the knee problems, and coach Gene Chizik is already on record as saying the true freshmen would be playing and not watching this season. The ones who might play the quickest are Reese Dismukes and Christian Westermann in the offensive line, Jermaine Whitehead at cornerback, Robenson Therezie at safety and Kiehl Frazier at quarterback. Redshirt freshman Chad Slade and sophomore Blake Burgess have been working some with the first-team offensive line, and true freshman Quan Bray is one of those guys who just makes plays no matter where he lines up.

4. Tennessee: The Vols were one of the youngest teams in the SEC last season and will be again this season. They started three true freshmen in the offensive line – tackle Ja’Wuan James, guard Zach Fulton and center James Stone – and then added to that base with Notre Dame transfer Alex Bullard, a sophomore, and true freshmen Marcus Jackson and Antonio Richardson. Second-year coach Derek Dooley thinks it’s an offensive line that has a chance to be dominant. There’s also sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray, who threw 18 touchdown passes as a true freshman, and his top two targets are sophomores Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers. Already immensely talented, Rogers was one of the Vols’ most improved players in the spring. The Vols brought in several reinforcements on defense. Junior college nose guard Maurice Couch will be just a sophomore. The same goes for junior college defensive backs Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier. The guy the Vols’ defensive staff thinks might really break out this season is sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith, and true freshman running back Marlin Lane could be that breakaway threat Tennessee was missing a year ago.

5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide probably deserve to be ranked even higher. But they’ve been so talented over the past few seasons that the younger players simply haven’t had a chance to play. We’ll see more of them this season, guys like sophomore cornerback Dee Milliner, sophomore running back Eddie Lacy, sophomore defensive end Ed Stinson, sophomore safety Jarrick Williams, sophomore safety Nick Perry and redshirt freshman receiver DeAndrew White. Sophomore offensive tackle D.J. Fluker was a starter last season, and so was sophomore linebacker C.J. Mosley. Coach Nick Saban has yet to make a decision at quarterback, but the thinks he has two he can win with -- sophomore AJ McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims. True freshman Cyrus Kouandjio was the No. 1 offensive tackle prospect in the country last year, and even though true freshman running back Dee Hart was injured this offseason, he’s certainly going to be heard from in the future. On defense, true freshman end LaMichael Fanning has been impressive to this point in camp, and that’s a position the Tide could use some help at this season.

SEC position rankings: Running backs

June, 15, 2011
6/15/11
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Mike Dyer & Onterio McCalebbUS PresswireMike Dyer (5) and Onterio McCalebb (23) give Auburn a powerful punch in the backfield.
We turn our attention today to the running back position in the SEC, which is always loaded.

The 2011 season will be no different:

1. Auburn: Who do you put No. 1? How about the team with the best tandem in the league. Sophomore Mike Dyer can do it all -- run with power, run with speed and break tackles. He’s coming off a 1,093-yard rushing season as a true freshman. The Tigers can also throw their version of “Lightning” at you in junior Onterio McCalebb, who’s one of the SEC’s best breakaway threats. He rushed for 810 yards last season, averaging 8.5 yards a pop, and his 70-yard touchdown run against LSU was the difference in that game.

2. Alabama: Trent Richardson alone gets the Crimson Tide into the No. 2 spot. He’s that good and that dynamic, and he’s going to make up for all those carries he didn’t get the past two seasons while playing in the shadow of Mark Ingram. Simply, he’s the kind of running back who can carry an offense. Sophomore Eddie Lacy would be a starter at a lot of places, and true freshman Dee Hart turned a lot of heads in the spring with his ability to make plays a number of different ways.

3. Arkansas: The Hogs’ depth is outstanding and would have been even better had the bruiser of the group, Broderick Green, not suffered a season-ending knee injury in the spring. Junior Knile Davis demonstrated just how special he was a year ago with 1,322 rushing yards. Bobby Petrino also thinks this might be the year that junior Ronnie Wingo Jr. truly blossoms after showing flashes the past two years, and do-it-all junior Dennis Johnson is back after missing all of last season with an injury.

4. South Carolina: Sophomore Marcus Lattimore is right up there with Richardson when it comes to game-changing running backs who can carry a football team. Willing to tote it 35 and 40 times a game, Lattimore is an entire running back corps unto himself. But he will need some help, and that’s where junior Kenny Miles comes in. Miles had an excellent spring, and it looks like junior Eric Baker is healthy again.

5. Florida: From a pure speed standpoint, nobody can top Florida’s backfield. The Chris Rainey-Jeff Demps combo figures to be a blur in 2011, and new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is going to see to it that both players get plenty of work. Don’t forget about junior Mike Gillislee, either, and sophomore Mack Brown was one of the highest-rated backs in the country when Florida signed him. The reason the Gators aren’t ranked a little higher is that it remains to be seen if they have that power back who can get the tough yards in this league.

6. Mississippi State: It’s a crime to put the Bulldogs this low, but it goes to show you just how deep and talented the running position is in the SEC. Senior Vick Ballard just missed 1,000 yards last season and scored 20 touchdowns. Sophomore LaDarius Perkins has great speed and is also versatile. He had three receiving touchdowns in 2010. Senior Robert Elliott also returns, and coach Dan Mullen said freshman Nick Griffin might be the best of the bunch once he gets healthy.

7. LSU: Losing a 1,000-yard rusher the caliber of Stevan Ridley is never ideal, but there’s no shortage of returning talent in the LSU backfield. It starts with sophomore Spencer Ware, who’s poised for a huge season. He was one of the best players on the field in last season’s Cotton Bowl. Les Miles likes to use multiple backs, and sophomores Michael Ford and Alfred Blue will also be a big part of the rotation.

8. Ole Miss: There’s not a more versatile (or underrated) running back in the SEC than senior Brandon Bolden. The NFL scouts have had him in their sights for some time. He just missed 1,000 yards rushing a year ago and led the Rebels with 32 receptions. At 221 pounds, he also has a nose for the end zone and scored 17 touchdowns last season. The Rebels have a perfect complement to go with him, too, in speedy sophomore Jeff Scott, while senior Enrique Davis also returns.

9. Georgia: Take Washaun Ealey out of the equation. He’s decided to transfer. It’s now or never for senior Caleb King, who’s a more talented runner than he’s shown to this point. Junior Carlton Thomas is still hanging around, and redshirt freshman Ken Malcome is one to keep an eye, too. But the running back everybody wants to see in Athens is incoming freshman Isaiah Crowell, who has all the tools to be a great one. He’s going to get a chance to show what he can do right away and may get 15 to 20 carries in the opener.

10. Tennessee: Despite Tauren Poole rushing for 1,034 yards last season, coach Derek Dooley came away saying the Vols left too many yards on the field. They finished last in the league in rushing. Nonetheless, Poole is a tough runner who’s proved he can be productive in this league. Sophomore Rajion Neal came on in the spring, and the Vols hope incoming freshmen Marlin Lane and Tom Smith can help provide a few more explosive plays in the running game. Also, don’t sleep on sophomore Channing Fugate, who’s one of the better fullbacks in the league.

11. Vanderbilt: The Commodores have the talent and the depth to really move up this list during the season. Of course, so much of what they do in their running game will hinge on how well the guys develop up front along the offensive line. Injuries derailed Warren Norman and Zac Stacy last season. Neither player topped the 500-yard mark. Both should be healthy in 2011, though, and first-year coach James Franklin was really impressed with sophomore Wesley Tate’s blend of size, power and speed in the spring.

12. Kentucky: Derrick Locke had been the heart and soul of the Wildcats’ running game the past couple of seasons, and now he’s gone. The good news is that sophomore Raymond Sanders was one of the Wildcats’ most-improved players in the spring and looks like he’s more than capable of being their go-to back. Several other younger guys are also waiting for their chance, including redshirt freshman Brandon Gainer, and the Kentucky coaches are extremely high on incoming freshmen Marcus Caffey and Josh Clemons.

Exiting the spring: Alabama

April, 15, 2011
4/15/11
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Spring game: 3 p.m. ET on ESPNU and ESPN3.com

Questions answered: Julio Jones might not be out there anymore, but Alabama will still have a solid group of receivers this fall. Returning starters Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks have bee flying around this spring. Neither has the skill Jones had, but both will be formidable matchups for defenders this fall. Alabama should also be fine at running back without former Heisman winner Mark Ingram. Trent Richardson returns and he’s healthy, while newcomer Dee Hart has added a lot of speed to the position. Richardson not only has tremendous talent, but he has increased his leadership skills. This offense will be leaning on him quite a bit this season.

Questions unanswered: Greg McElroy is gone, but his replacement hasn’t been named. There are two guys -- A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims -- still battling for the spot and it looks like a starter won’t be named until the fall. McCarron entered as the favorite, but Sims has made a major push this spring. Players have been pretty tight-lipped about the quarterback position, making Saturday’s spring game that much more interesting. Alabama’s secondary was an issue for the Tide in 2010 and this spring most of the unit was on the mend. Barron, Jarrick Williams, Dre Kirkpatrick and Nick Perry all dealt with injuries this spring. True evaluation of this unit won’t come until summer and fall workouts.

Spring stars: Hart was supposed to be getting ready for prom around this time, but instead he’ll be getting reps in Alabama’s spring game Saturday. Hart has played well in scrimmages and with his shiftiness and speed, he’ll add another element to Alabama’s bruising running game. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower seems to have his legs back this spring. After suffering a major knee injury in 2009 that even slowed him last year, Hightower has been solid in spring practices and is back to 100 percent. Linebacker C.J. Mosley made a ton of plays in scrimmages this spring. Receiver DeAndrew White was a bright spot on offense as well.

Of note: Defensive tackle Kerry Murphy, receiver Kendall Kelly and defensive back Wesley Neighbors missed spring practice with injuries. … Senior safety Mark Barron was limited as he recovered from surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle. … Linebacker Alex Watkins underwent knee surgery that kept him out of the latter part of spring practices, but should ready for preseason camp in August. Former linebacker Ed Stinson is now at defensive end. ... Former Ohio State receiver Duron Carter, the son of Cris Carter, is finishing up at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College and plans to enroll at Alabama in June and will be eligible next season.

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