NCF Nation: Geno Smith

For most big-time college football programs, January is a time of letting go.

On Friday, Alabama had to do just that as three of the program's most prolific underclassmen -- Landon Collins, Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon -- announced that they would forgo their final seasons of eligibility to enter the NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWithout Landon Collins, Alabama's secondary enters a period of uncertainty that it hasn't experienced in some time.
Really, who can blame them? For three years they've been an integral part of the Crimson Tide's success, leaving no stone left unturned in their careers.

Yeldon ran for 100 yards in his first game and has proved himself ever since. Cooper caught the game-winning pass in the SEC title game as a freshman and made it all the way to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in December. Collins may have taken a little longer to develop than his fellow juniors, but when he shifted from special-teams stud to a starting safety as a sophomore, you knew he would become an All-American.

But now they must move on.

And now Alabama must move on.

While no one should weep for coach Nick Saban as he sends this latest trio of underclassmen off to the pros, it should be said that his job of replacing them won't be easy. Granted, the duo of Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake should pick up right where Yeldon left off, but in the case of Cooper at receiver and Collins at safety, there are no obvious replacements.

Three consecutive No. 1-ranked recruiting classes have assured Alabama plenty of talent from which to draw, but there's a difference between a potential star and an already-known commodity.

In fact, what's known about the secondary without Collins isn't necessarily promising. Setting aside the rocky situation at cornerback, there are two vacant safety positions ahead of spring practice, and there's no clue who will fill them.

Alabama's amazing run of continuity at the position is over. This won't be 2011 when Mark Barron returned for another year. It won't be 2012, with a seasoned Robert Lester. It won't be 2013 with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri, and it won't be this past season with Collins stabilizing the back end of the defense as a veteran starter.

While there's Geno Smith, who has played at safety and nickel, and Hootie Jones, who saw the field as a true freshman, neither has shown he's ready for the spotlight. It could be a wild card who ends up starting, such as redshirt freshman Ronnie Clark or one of the two top-10 rated safeties Alabama has committed in its 2015 signing class (four-star Deionte Thompson is already on campus).

The situation at receiver without Cooper is just as murky, because it's not just Cooper and his 124 receptions heading out the door. It's the next two leading receivers, too, as Christion Jones and DeAndrew White have moved on.

So who is Alabama's top returning receiver? That would be Chris Black, who caught 19 passes this past season. Besides him, there's ArDarius Stewart, who caught 12 balls, Cam Sims (seven) and Robert Foster (six). It's a talented group, to be sure, but none of the four underclassmen has had to deliver in crunch time.

With a new quarterback set to take snaps under center, it will be interesting to see who develops into the go-to targets in the passing game.

Don't discount someone like the 6-foot-4 Raheem Falkins or the 6-5 Derek Kief getting into the mix. Calvin Ridley, the No. 1 receiver in the 2015 class and an Alabama verbal commitment, could vie for playing time right away, too.

With so much up in the air, stay tuned for what unfolds during spring and fall practice.

It will be a different group of playmakers leading Alabama next season now that Collins, Cooper and Yeldon are gone, but by now Saban and his staff should be used to this game of plug-and-play.

It's January, which is as good a time as any to start anew.
Kirby SmartStacy Revere/Getty ImagesKirby Smart knows his Alabama defense must improve against uptempo offenses.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Lane Kiffin is beginning to understand. He referenced the word “process” -- Nick Saban’s beloved “process” -- twice during a 15-minute news conference on Sunday. And maybe more importantly, he seemed to understand the role of assistants under Saban, which is to be seen and not heard.

Kirby Smart has been familiar with “the process” for quite some time now. He practically grew up in it, cutting his teeth under Saban for the past nine seasons at LSU, the Miami Dolphins and Alabama. In that time he has never ruffled feathers, never said much of anything to make headlines. Every year he has quietly gone about the business of molding one of the best defenses in college football.

This season, however, could be his most challenging.

Alabama lost its leader at middle linebacker in C.J. Mosley; three-quarters of the secondary is gone, including first-round draft pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix; and veterans Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan will be missed on the defensive line. With such little experience and the question of solving uptempo offenses still perplexing the Alabama brain trust, there’s a lot to watch for.

“In terms of the defense this year, really excited about the group that we’ve got to work with,” Smart said at the outset of media day Sunday. “They’re full of energy, a lot of young guys out there competing. Obviously we’ve got to show some improvement, especially after the last two games last year.”

Those last two games against Auburn and Oklahoma were the tipping point. There were holes to be found before then, but you had to look long and hard to find them. Auburn, however, put the Tide’s defensive blemishes under a microscope, pushing the pace and outflanking the defense to the tune of 296 yards rushing. And to prove that was no fluke, Oklahoma went uptempo and exploited the secondary for 429 yards through the air, handing Alabama back-to-back losses to end the season for the first time since 2008.

To spin that into a positive, Smart said there “seems to be a little bit of a chip-on-their-shoulder type attitude,” and despite being a young defense, he sees “more depth at a lot of positions we didn’t have last year.”

“That’s key in college football these days -- having depth, playing more players, keeping guys fresh,” he said.

It’s also key to defending uptempo offenses, where shuffling in fresh legs is vital to keep up with the pace of play. Alabama looked a step slow against Auburn in the fourth quarter, and it meant the end to a perfect season and a shot at a third straight national championship.

“It’s definitely challenging because you don’t face that kind of offense daily,” Smart said. “It’s not really who we are offensively, so you spend time, obviously simulating that in different ways, whether it’s the scout team or your offense. But you can never simulate it as good as a hurry-up team that traditionally does this well.”

We won’t know whether Smart and Saban have the answers against uptempo offenses until we see how the season unfolds. But even this early into fall camp, we can glimpse where the strengths of Alabama’s defenses lie. And despite Saban’s best efforts to tamp down the hype machine this spring, it’s up front where 320-pound sophomore A’Shawn Robinson anchors the line.

“You’re sitting there with [Dalvin Tomlinson] back, [D.J. Pettway] back ... then this group of freshmen that just got here," Smart said, referencing a rookie class that includes Da'Shawn Hand, Joshua Frazier, Johnny Dwight and O.J. Smith. "So if those guys grow and continue to get better, that can be the strength of the team.

“We have more guys playing winning football at that position than we had last year.”

Inside linebacker is one spot where Alabama could use more depth. Outside of Trey DePriest, Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster, there aren’t many true inside linebackers with experience on the roster. That means playing more rookies and cross-training outside linebackers to shift inside, Smart said.

But the real concern for Alabama isn’t the front seven. The back end of the defense is still a lingering question mark. Both starting corners must be replaced, and there’s no word yet on who will settle in at safety opposite Landon Collins.

Smart called it a “unique situation” at safety in that he lost two players to the draft, yet he has some experience returning in Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry, his two “older statesmen.” Then there’s Geno Smith, who transitioned from corner to safety last season and is “just starting to feel comfortable there.”

“At corner, we’ve got some of the same guys back from last year,” Smart said. “We’ve also got some big, young, new guys. So it’s hard to tell right now. They’ve got good athletic ability, and we hope to be better at that position.”

Is Smart happy with his depth at corner?

“You talk about depth, you’ve got what you’ve got,” he said, making reference to Bradley Sylve starting against Kentucky and Cyrus Jones’ time in relief of the oft-injured Deion Belue. “I can’t say I’m happy or disappointed."

If Eddie Jackson can come back from injury, he could be a big boost. Despite tearing his ACL this spring, he has been able to participate in fall camp, albeit while wearing a non-contact jersey.

Then there’s Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, Alabama’s pair of five-star prospects from the 2014 class. Both are on campus and expected to contribute right away.

“As far as Tony, he’s done a great job so far; you know he enrolled mid-year,” Smart said. “He’s worked really hard. He’s very conscientious. He’s always up here watching football. He’s a little bit of a football junkie. That makes him a better player because he really competes.”

If you were looking for Smart to tip his hand and say Brown would start, you were left somewhat disappointed. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything Alabama’s veteran defensive coordinator would commit to, other than the usual enthusiasm about his group moving forward.

Smart's defense may be better this season. It may answer all those questions at linebacker and cornerback and safety, and return Alabama to its status as the best in college football. But it’s not for Smart to say. He just works the process and sees what happens.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- “It’s not like we don’t have anybody at the position,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told a group of reporters prior to the start of spring practice earlier this month, running down the list of questions he had for his team before arriving at the safety position.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is gone at free safety. Vinnie Sunseri is gone at strong safety. Mark Barron has been around the practice facility training lately, but his eligibility ran out long ago, not to mention the pay is decent in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Ryan A. Miller/Icon SMIAlabama will need Landon Collins to solidify his safety role and lead the Tide's secondary.
So while everyone is craving news on the quarterback competition and the progress of new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, Saban, who happens to coach the defensive backs, is looking at the safeties where he must replace his two most veteran starters.

“We lost two safeties, but we've got Jarrick Williams, Landon Collins,” he said. “Nick Perry's coming back. Geno (Smith) spent a year at safety so he's probably going to continue to progress.”

Indeed, there are a few reasons for Saban to feel good about the position, maybe none more so than Colllins, who came on strong last season after playing primarily on special teams as a true freshman in 2012. The former five-star prospect filled in for Clinton-Dix when he was suspended and then changed roles when Sunseri was lost for the season to injury.

He didn’t start the first four games of the season, but Collins was in the lineup for the final nine contests, showing the playmaking ability that made him such a coveted recruit out of Louisiana. He finished second on the team in tackles (70), tied for first in interceptions (2) and fumble recoveries (2) and led everyone with eight passes defended. He was named second team All-SEC by the Associated Press.

Saban is expecting even more in 2014. From his seat as head coach, he has seen the key to Collins’ improvement: when the games slow down in his head he can play fast, and when he plays fast there’s no stopping him.

“All players have things that they can work on to improve, and Landon's certainly a guy that is a great competitor and really works hard every day to try to improve and has a really good attitude about it,” Saban said following the third practice of the spring on Wednesday. “I think he's trying to affect other people, be a leader set a good example, encourage others to do things the way they need to do it.

“With Landon, to me, when he understands what he's supposed to do, he really plays fast and is effective. I think the more knowledge and experience that he gets, the more consistently he'll be able to play that way, and that's certainly our goal for him this spring.”

Collins wasn’t expected to be a full-time starter last spring, which was his first on campus. This spring there’s no question he’ll be in the lineup week in and week out.

While most players might not love the grind of spring practice, where the finish line of a game each Saturday doesn’t exist, Collins is embracing it.

“Most of us love spring practice,” he told ESPN’s Ivan Maisel. “Speaking for the defensive part of it, a lot of our safeties are just trying to figure it out. It was fast-paced going into the season and in fall camp we still didn’t know a lot of the formations and calls and what to do. [In the spring] the coaches get a chance to sit down and take over everything slowly and go over every point and detail to help them act quickly on the field.”

If Collins can play fast, that’s a good sign for Alabama’s defense moving forward. He’ll need help, though. The free safety spot opposite him is up for grabs, along with both starting cornerback positions.

It will be an uphill climb for Saban and his staff to solidify the secondary, but at least they have Collins to start with. From there, at least there are options. As Saban said, it’s not like there’s no one out there to choose from.

The QBs that got away

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
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There’s no more important position in football than quarterback, and in many cases, fans look at quarterbacks that got away and wonder what might have been had they come to their favorite school. Some schools passed on a quarterback because he evaluated poorly or another QB appeared more attractive. Others simply didn't have enough recruiting ammunition to land the recruit in the first place. Here’s a look at six quarterbacks that got away.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsWhat might the offense at Oregon or Texas looked like with Johnny Manziel at the controls?
Teddy Bridgewater
Bridgewater had offers from Florida, LSU, Miami, Rutgers, USF and Tennessee when he was a senior coming out of Miami Northwestern. While there were notable programs after Bridgewater, it was hardly the amount of attention you would expect from the player who sits atop many NFL draft boards after a stellar career at Louisville. Some coaches will tell you Bridgewater’s stock was lower coming out of high school because many expected him to land at Miami. He did commit to the Canes at one point, but eventually backed off that pledge and announced he was going to Louisville because of the opportunity for early playing time. “The toughest part of it was that I had to say that I wasn't going to the University of Miami,” he said after selecting the Cards in 2011. “I told the coaches that I had to do what was best for me, and they understood that.” It was a wise decision by Bridgewater and a miss that still haunts the Canes.

Robert Griffin III
Before he was RG III, he was a Houston commitment. Coming out of Copperas Cove, Texas, Griffin originally pledged to Art Briles when he was the coach at Houston. When Briles departed for Baylor, other schools like Kansas, Nebraska, Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State were in hot pursuit, but that was about it. He eventually followed Briles to Waco, and the rest is history. It’s been pointed out a number of times that Texas passed on Griffin because it thought he was a defensive back, and A&M signed Tommy Dorman in that same 2008 class. Dorman played sparingly as a fullback and a tight end.

Kevin Hogan
What would Rutgers, Vanderbilt or Virginia been like had they been able to land Hogan? Hogan was a heavily recruited quarterback coming out of Washington (D.C.) Gonzaga in the 2011 class and his final five consisted of Rutgers, Vandy, UVa and the Cardinal. He decided to leave the East Coast and has settled in nicely on The Farm. Rutgers, Vandy and Virginia surely could have used Hogan this season, as they threw a combined 38 interceptions, while Hogan led the Cardinal to their second straight Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl appearance.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesThe fortunes of two SEC teams might have changed drastically had Geno Smith not gone to West Virginia.
Collin Klein
Coming out of Loveland, Colo., Klein accepted the only scholarship offer he received. And despite a stellar high school career in football and basketball and a solid showing at the Nike Training Camp, the Wildcats were the only team to believe in him enough to offer. Klein went on to lead K-State to the Big 12 championship in 2012, finish second in the Heisman Trophy voting and win more than 20 games as a starter. At the same time, Colorado struggled at the quarterback spot, won only eight games in a three-year span and would have given anything to have an in-state star like Klein as its leader.

Johnny Manziel
You have to give credit to Oregon and Texas A&M, because they identified early on that Manziel had the goods to be a special quarterback. But they were about the only ones that did. Virtually every recruiting service had him as a three-star prospect and his offer sheet read more like a regionally recruited prospect, not a Heisman Trophy winner. Texas also had a chance to recruit Manziel, but the Horns saw him more as a defensive back prospect than a quarterback. Oregon had faith early in him, and it paid off with a commitment the summer after his junior season. He later flipped to the Aggies in September of his senior season.

Bryce Petty
Coming out of Midlothian, Texas, in the Class of 2009, Petty pledged to then-Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer as a junior. When Fulmer was let go, Lane Kiffin thought Petty didn’t fit what he wanted at quarterback, and Petty was left looking for a home two months before national signing day. Several teams showed interest in the talented young quarterback, including South Carolina, Nebraska and Oklahoma, but few had room. Virginia Tech and Baylor eventually offered Petty a grayshirt opportunity, and he took the Bears’ offer. Surely a number of teams around the Big 12, or even the Hokies or Cornhuskers, would have loved to have Petty as their quarterback.

Geno Smith
Imagine Smith wearing an LSU or an Alabama uniform. It certainly was a possibility at one point in the recruiting process, as the Tigers and Tide were two of Smith’s top teams coming out of Miramar (Fla.) High School. But after an official visit to West Virginia in November of his senior season, he was sold that West Virginia was the place for him. The Tide got their QB of the future in AJ McCarron in that same class and the Tigers hinged their hopes on highly recruited Russell Shepard. McCarron was the right choice for the Tide, but Shepard never developed as a quarterback and LSU had up-and-down play at the position for a number of years. Smith rewrote WVU’s record books and is now an NFL starter.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Jarrick Williams should have been in this position a year ago. Heading into fall camp last season, he was slated to be Alabama's primary option at nickel back. But in a practice, he went to make a tackle, landed awkwardly, bent backward and felt the tell-tale pop in his knee that every athlete dreads. His ACL gave and he was lost for the season. Geno Smith, a freshman, took over the position and made a handful of key stops against Georgia in the SEC championship game.

[+] EnlargeJarrick Williams
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWhen Jarrick Williams (20) hits, "you feel it," says Alabama teammate Vinnie Sunseri.
Largely overlooked during the offseason, Williams slowly worked his way back into shape. "There were some days I wanted to give up," he said, days where he thought he'd never be the same player again. A former four-star safety out of Prichard, Ala., Williams was a coveted prospect because of his size and athleticism. Scouting profiles noted his fluidity and ability to redirect in the open field -- all key traits in a defensive back. But with a bum knee, those skills were in doubt. Smith, it seemed, was the future at nickel back. Williams, at best, would provide some depth behind him.

"Going through all the surgery and stuff, I've just been ready to get out there on the field," he said.

Williams, who sought counsel from family members such as his mother to keep him focused during his rehab, stayed the course. And when Smith was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence during camp, he seized the opportunity. Immediately he stepped back in at nickel, playing with a physical style.

Trey DePriest, Alabama's starting inside linebacker, said Williams plays like a fellow linebacker only a few feet further removed from the line of scrimmage. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, he has the frame to play wherever he wants.

"Jarrick is real strong, and when he plays and we go dime, he drops down into the box with C.J. [Mosley], he’s got the look of a linebacker," DePriest said. "He brings that presence."

That presence can boil over to off the field, too. Vinnie Sunseri, who directs the defense at strong safety, said, "When you get hit by him, you feel it." And that's not just during games.

"We'll be messing around off-the-field and he'll push me around and I'll say, 'You've got to calm down, man. You're too big to do that now,' " said Sunseri, no slouch at 210 pounds himself. "He can hit you, he can cover, and having him blitzing is a real threat, too."

Opposing offenses have felt Williams' pain as well. He's 10th on the team with 15 tackles. He had a highlight-reel sack against Kentucky last Saturday -- "He was either going to move or me. I moved him," Williams said -- and tipped a pass against Texas A&M that set up an interception return for a touchdown by Sunseri.

Mosley, the heart and soul of the defense at middle linebacker, said Williams has been "holding his own" since taking over at nickel back. Williams injured his eye against Texas A&M and temporarily lost sight in it, causing him to miss the following game. It proved to be a a cautionary step, but given his history, there was concern.

"He came back and hasn't missed a beat," Mosley said. "So he's helping us with our short depth at DB. He's doing a great job."

Williams, a man of few words himself, is now entrenched at nickel back. Smith has since moved to free safety, where he's rotating in with Landon Collins while Ha Ha Clinton-Dix serves a suspension.

With Arkansas next on the docket Saturday, Williams is poised to get plenty of looks in the nickel alignment, which is essentially a base formation for Alabama. The Razorbacks like to run the football, which is exactly like Williams wants to see.

"Oh yeah, a lot of contact," he said. "More tackling for me."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There's an elusive nature to Vinnie Sunseri's game, a nagging need to define what makes him so special. In a sports that lusts after measurables, he doesn't fit the mold. He makes play after play at safety for Alabama, but we're not sure why or how.

[+] EnlargeVinnie Sunseri
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsVinnie Sunseri has shown a big-play ability this season as both of his interceptions have been returned for scores.
Trey DePriest wishes he could tell you what makes his friend and teammate such a playmaker, but the junior linebacker doesn't know. The two came up on special teams together as freshman and he's still trying to figure him out. Both of Sunseri's interceptions this season have been returned for touchdowns, including one which came against Texas A&M when he juked Johnny Manziel out of his shoes. He had no business making the defending Heisman Trophy winner look that bad. No one expected it.

"That's just what he does," DePriest said. "That's him."

At 6-feet tall, there's nothing inspiring about Sunseri's size. Sure he's sturdy, quick and has a nose for the football, but in terms of what scouts crave -- the numbers combines generate like 40-yard dash, vertical jump and the three cone drill -- he leaves something to be desired. Mike Smith, Sunseri’s former coach at Northridge High (Ala.) did say via text: "He's a relentless competitor!"

"He's a throwback guy in a modern era," Mike Smith said. He knows how athletic Sunseri is having played him at linebacker, punt returner and running back, but defines him in simpler terms. "He's the way it used to be played. He breaks the mold of what we are led to believe is needed to win in college football."

Sunseri, the son of longtime college football assistant coach Sal, is a coach's dream. He hurls his body around like a bowling ball crashing against the lanes. And more than making plays at pivotal moments, he's a teacher and a leader. In a secondary that's had more than its fair share of turnover, he's been a driving force for youngsters like Landon Collins and Geno Smith who have had to fill in at free safety with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix serving a suspension.

One week it's Sunseri shouting out the play to John Fulton at cornerback, the next it's Eddie Jackson and then the next it's Bradley Sylve. The carousel in the back end of Alabama's defense has been spinning from early on this season with Sunseri calmly holding the wheel.

"Vinnie's a very smart guy," UA coach Nick Saban said. "He's been showing leadership in terms of making calls and trying to help the other guys in the secondary, which I think they appreciate.

"He all of a sudden is one of the most experienced guys back there right now."

Saban explained how the communication Sunseri provided against a no-huddle team like Kentucky was vital to the Tide holding the Wildcats one touchdown, less than 200 total yards of offense and under 50 percent completions through the air. Sunseri narrowly missed his third interception of the year when he jumped in front of a pass from Maxwell Smith, knocking it to the turf.

It was easy to see the joy in his face in the waning moments of the Kentucky game. He bear-hugged wide receiver Kevin Norwood on the sideline and congratulated his fellow defensive backs for a job well done. They'll need to improve with Arkansas coming to town this week and LSU in less than a month's time.

"It's been fun to see all these guys develop: Bradley, Eddie, Landon Collins, and see the players they're becoming and teach them all the things they need to know has just been something really fun," Sunseri said. "They're doing a great job."

"He’s taken the leadership role very hands-on because he’s got to make more calls now because we’ve got two new safeties doing the position,” Collins said. “There’s more calls now, doing a lot more and talkative so he’s helping a lot more than I think and I appreciate that."

Though his role as a starter and leader of the secondary might be larger, teammates insist nothing has changed. He doesn't have the flash of some big-name players in the SEC, but he's just as important as any of them to his team.

"He's still the same old Vinnie, which has always been a leader," defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan said. "Since he's been here he's always been a leader."

It’s everyone else that’s just now catching on. Both ESPN and CBS Sports named Sunseri a Midseason All-American this week, though as many as three of Alabama's defensive backs could be more physically gifted. But it's that old-school idea that production trumps all that makes Sunseri so special. After a while, the interceptions and big plays are too much to ignore. The why and how he's doing it starts to become irrelevant.

"He's got great ball instinct," Pagan said matter-of-factly. "The guy knows football. I'll give him this: he's a football player."
Landon Collins AP Photo/Butch DillWith suspended safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's future status up in the air, sophomores Landon Collins (pictured) and Geno Smith made their career debuts at free safety Saturday against Georgia State.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Getting more insight into the suspension of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix wasn't going to happen Saturday afternoon. No. 1-ranked Alabama had just finished throttling Georgia State 45-3 to cap off the school's homecoming game, and Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban wasn't in the sharing mood when he was asked for an update on his star safety's status.

"I don't have any new information," he told reporters in Tuscaloosa. "And when we get new information, I'll certainly pass it along to you."

And with that, the matter of Clinton-Dix's future with the team was put on hold for another day. Nearly a week after it was announced, neither the nature of the suspension or its intended duration have been officially announced by UA.

But the matter of life without Clinton-Dix was addressed on Saturday when Landon Collins and Geno Smith took up for their departed teammate in the secondary, filling in for him at free safety. Clinton-Dix was on the sidelines, but all he could provide his teammates with was advice.

It was an awkward position for both sophomores to be in. Neither had started a game or played a meaningful snap at free safety in their careers. Smith was a cornerback all of last season before being moved to safety this fall. Collins, meanwhile, played almost every position but free safety prior to this week. The former five-star athlete learned cornerback, money, star and strong safety already, but he'd never tackled Clinton-Dix's position.

So like any college student would, Smith and Collins put in extra hours during the week studying. Under the direction of Professor Saban and his assistant, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, they took a crash course Free Safety 101. The syllabus might have read something like: Basic understanding of coverages with an emphasis on footwork, alignment and communication.

"Those guys came in at 1:15 every day, so for 45 minutes I would just meet with them about basic fundamental things," Saban said. "I would show teaching tapes of guys doing it correctly, whether it's hitting your mark in Cover 2 or how to play Cover 7. Whatever the circumstance was.

"Those days really helped those guys, because it gave them a visual of this is how we're supposed to do it and why. I think that extra time is just really beneficial to helping the players."

Collins said the one-on-one work made him more confident when game day finally arrived. Sure it was just Georgia State, a team in its first year in the FBS, but Collins felt some anxiousness when he took the field.

"It was my first start, so yeah I had some butterflies," he said.

It took only one play for those feelings to evaporate according to Collins, who said he thought he played well and made the right calls working alongside veteran strong safety Vinnie Sunseri.

Georgia State amassed all of 160 yards through the air, completing just 12 of 22 passes. Alabama gave up just two passing plays of 20 or more yards and, more importantly, no touchdowns.

Saban lauded the effort of both of his young safeties, saying of Smith that there were only "a couple of things that we'd like for him to do better." In the ultra-critical world of Alabama, that might be considered a compliment.

"I'm hopeful that they continue to improve," Saban said. "Landon Collins has been a really good player for us in whatever role we put him in. He's a fantastic special teams player. He also has played with six defensive backs in the game, so he's played a significant role and he does a great job at that. He hasn't had to play a lot of safety, but now he's playing safety and he did a good job out there today. I think that experience will help him feel more comfortable and confident.

"Geno hasn't played safety as long, so that will continue to be a work in progress. But Geno's got a great attitude and wants to do well and works hard. "

Smith and Collins did inspire some confidence in their opening auditions, but it's still unclear whether they'll be ready when the main event arrives in the form of LSU on Nov. 9. While it's expected that Clinton-Dix will return to the starting lineup by then, without official word from UA the future remains somewhat in doubt.

Saban and Alabama can take heart, though, as there will be plenty more opportunities for Smith and Collins to prepare in the meantime with three more unranked teams (Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee) and a bye week before LSU.

Games like Saturday's against Georgia State might not be inspiring in the grand scheme of things, but the opponent doesn't matter. The experience, for players like Smith and Collins, is what does.

"It's a mental thing," Collins said. "We always say we play against ourselves."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama did just about everything everyone expected it to. Playing an overmatched Georgia State, the top-ranked Crimson Tide dominated every area in their 45-3 win Saturday.

These games might be snoozers, but Alabama coach Nick Saban considers them valuable learning experiences and opportunities to clean up the little things that could cost the Tide in conference games.

[+] EnlargeKenyan Drake
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesKenyan Drake was among the many Tide players to see action in Alabama's rout of Georgia State.
"We executed better, and our players made some improvement," Saban said.

While Georgia State clearly couldn't touch Alabama's talent pool, this was arguably Alabama's most complete game of the season, offensively and defensively. The Tide scored on their first seven possessions of the game. The defense gave up 1.9 yards per play in the first half and 3.9 for the game. Alabama started with five straight touchdown drives to take an early 35-0 lead before heading into the half up 38-0.

Georgia State's only points came on a school-record 53-yard field goal.

Quarterback AJ McCarron was lights out, going 15-of-16 passing for 166 yards and four touchdowns. He was out of the game before halftime even rolled around. Running back T.J. Yeldon looked like his old springy self, rushing for 51 yards on six carries before his early trip to the sideline. Wide receiver DeAndrew White made a circus catch for a touchdown late in the first quarter, and Alabama had 308 yards and 19 first downs to Georgia State's 41 yards and three first downs in the first half.

The second half was all about the youngsters, as Saban sat most of his starters to give reserves some valuable time before heading deeper into SEC play.

"The experience creates the best learning opportunity for every guy that got an opportunity to play," Saban said. "Some of those things got a little sloppy at times, but the benefit far outweighs the consequence in terms of the experience that guys were able to gain."

You knew the day was for the backups when Blake Sims replaced McCarron with 4:26 remaining in the second quarter. Saban said the idea was to let Sims, who entered the game with just two pass attempts on the year, run the offense. Saban didn't want any designed QB runs; he wanted Sims to take charge and throw.

It worked, as Sims completed 14 of 18 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown. Forget who the opponent was, that was a confidence-building performance that could go a long way the next time Sims gets into a game.

Seventy Alabama players played, including sophomore wide receiver Chris Black, who led the Tide with six catches for 54 yards and a touchdown. It was the most time he had seen in a game during his career, after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury.

"I'm looking forward to improving, getting better and doing work," Black said.

Saturday was also a chance for Landon Collins and Geno Smith to get time at free safety, where the suspended Ha Ha Clinton-Dix played. It was the first time Collins had played in a game at free safety, and he said he was nervous for one play -- the first one.

It was a chance for offensive lineman Grant Hill to get in and prove that burning his redshirt for the season was worth it. And it was a chance for freshman Altee Tenpenny to carry the ball four times on Homecoming inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.

These might look insignificant, but more learning experiences and more game action will go a long way for Alabama's youngsters.

"Coach isn't there to help them each and every step, like he is in practice, so it gives them more confidence," White said. "In the future, we're not going to be able to hold their hands the whole way. For us to get out of the game and them come in the game and we're not missing a beat, that's real good."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- He was talking about football at the time, but what Alabama coach Nick Saban said following Saturday's scrimmage was exactly the type of message he likes to deliver at this point of the year, a warning that every action has a consequence whether it's on the field or off of it. With the season opener exactly two weeks away, Saban outlined what his players couldn't be if they wanted to be successful.

"We can't have complacency," he said. "Can't be satisfied with where we are. … Can't have selfishness on the team because that will fracture the team chemistry. We can't lose our accountability and attention to detail. Those three things right there are very important in us being the kind of team we're capable of being. Everybody's got to make that choice and decide are they willing to do the things they need to do to do it."

[+] EnlargeAlabama's Geno Smith
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsDefensive back Geno Smith was a key contributor late last season for Alabama.
He couldn't have made it any clearer, but what Alabama's seventh-year head coach said fell on deaf ears for sophomore cornerback Geno Smith, who dealt himself a major setback only hours later when he was arrested by the Tuscaloosa police department for suspicion of driving under the influence. He was held on $1,000 bond by the sheriff's office, but no amount of cash could save him from the one-game suspension Saban awarded him on Tuesday for his reckless behavior.

"He's never been in trouble here before, never been in my office for anything," Saban said, "but I think this is something that everybody should learn from that when you make a bad choice, sometimes the consequences of that choice can really have a negative effect. Some of these guys don't have enough foresight to understand cause and effect, but Geno has been a really good person in the program and just made a choice, bad decision. Made several of them, so now he's got consequences for it."

Smith, a former four-star prospect who came on late last year as a freshman, was expected to log significant minutes this season as the team's nickel back. Against teams like Virginia Tech who like to spread the field with multiple receivers, he would have played a big part of the Tide's defense, matching up against the slot receiver.

Now, Alabama must go back to the drawing board to determine who can fill his vacancy during the suspension. With Deion Belue and John Fulton projected to start as boundary corners, it falls to sophomores Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve to step up among the cornerbacks. Jones shifted to defense from wide receiver this year and has looked promising at the position, which he played in high school.

But the intriguing, and more likely option, is for Saban to utilize his depth at safety and bring down someone like Nick Perry, Vinnie Sunseri, Jarrick Williams or Landon Collins to play nickel, or "star" as Saban describes it. To get an idea of all the different combinations that are possible, take a look at what Saban said of the star and money positions in early April.

"Geno's been playing star, Vinnie can play star -- he played it all last year," Saban said. "Geno did it for the last three or four games of the season. Vinnie's been playing money, Landon Collins has been playing money, Jarrick Williams has been playing money, which is what he was before he got hurt. We've been trying to develop somebody other than Vinnie. Nick Perry can play star. We don't really have another corner that can play star. Also, Jarrick Williams is playing star. We have more multiples of guys right now than we had a year ago."

The options, clearly, are there. The problem, though, is that while Alabama is deep at safety, it's thin in terms of true cornerbacks. Signing Anthony Averett, Jonathan Cook, Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith in February helped, but a freshman learning curve is inevitable. Given Saban's complicated defense, it's hard for rookies to see the field early. Hence, Geno Smith not coming on until late last year.

"First of all, opportunity is important, to have an opportunity to do that," Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart explained. "[It takes a] very conscientious kid to understand, 'Hey, I got to know this defense inside and out, I got to know all the checks, I got to know all the motions and checks, I got to know all the adjustments.' You've got to be very conscientious to do that, but you've got to have some ability. It's very easy for us to find those guys out there. When we recruit good players, they usually stick out as freshmen. We find ways to get them on the field and always have in some kind of role."

Not long ago, Big 12 media days was an event worthy of a red carpet, with star-studded quarterbacks annually filling the halls.

Many -- like “Vince” and “Sam” -- were on a first-name basis with their fans. Others -- like “RG3” -- donned catchy nicknames.

This year, though, there were no rock stars at media days in Dallas. Because, well, there are no marquee quarterbacks returning.

As the SEC with defense, the Big 12 has become synonymous with quarterbacking. Of the past 13 quarterbacks taken in the first round of the NFL draft, six are Big 12 alums.

But these are foreign times in the conference. For a change, quarterbacking is the Big 12’s big unknown.

“We're in the same situation as seven or eight others,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, who is replacing his school’s all-time leading passer, Geno Smith.

“Pretty much everyone is in the same boat.”

A boat that seats virtually everyone in the league.

Texas' David Ash is the Big 12's only expected starter who started more than five games last season. Six other teams are still officially involved in quarterback derbies, including Texas Tech, which could wind up starting true freshman walk-on Baker Mayfield in its opener with projected starter Michael Brewer dealing with a back injury.

Such quarterback uncertainty has rendered the Big 12 as wide open as ever, with six teams receiving first-place votes in the league’s preseason poll.

“I think it would be unfair to even predict what could happen in the league this year,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, who has hinted he won’t announce Clint Chelf or J.W. Walsh as the starter until the opener against Mississippi State. “You have a certain number of teams, five or six, who if they stay healthy and get quality quarterback play, have a chance to win the league.

“For the fans and for the media, this year is as exciting as it gets -- because I don’t think anyone really knows.”

But the lack of marquee returning quarterbacks is also predominantly why for the first time in its history the Big 12 doesn't have a team ranked in the top 10 of the preseason polls. Oklahoma State was the league’s highest-ranked squad at No. 13.

Ash started every game but one for the Longhorns last season. But he also was benched against Kansas and TCU.

TCU’s Casey Pachall had a banner 2011 campaign. But he left four games into last season to seek treatment for substance abuse.

And while Chelf and Walsh both won games for the Cowboys as starters last year, it’s unclear at the moment which of the two will get the majority of snaps.

“The preseason polls for the majority in my opinion are based on returning quarterback play, because we all know how important quality quarterback play is to winning games,” Gundy said. “They look on paper and see there’s not a lot of returning quarterbacks in this league and so you’re not going to get recognized as much as other schools.”

Coaches and players around the conference, however, caution not to dismiss this batch of quarterbacks just because they’re new.

“There’ll be a bunch of names you’ll be talking about next year -- that they’re all back,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said.

While there’s no Vince Young, Sam Bradford or Robert Griffin III yet, there is talent.

Blake Bell and Trevor Knight, who are vying to replace four-year starter Landry Jones in Norman, were both four-star recruits. So was Kansas’ Jake Heaps, who sat out last season after transferring from BYU.

Baylor’s Bryce Petty had offers to play at Nebraska and Virginia Tech coming out of high school.

And Kansas State’s Jake Waters, who is fighting Daniel Sams to succeed Heisman finalist Collin Klein, was the No. 1-rated quarterback to come out of junior college this year.

“The quarterback play in the Big 12 last year was phenomenal,” Holgorsen said. “And it's always going to be phenomenal.

“It's just going to be with newer people.”
Who is this year’s Johnny Manziel in the Pac-12? In other words, which player could come out of nowhere and win the Heisman from the conference? Well, if we knew, he wouldn't be coming out of nowhere in the preseason, now, would he?

Perhaps it is better that the Pac-12’s elite players are coasting below Mr. Heisman's persnickety radar. After all, front-runner status hasn't been kind to the Pac-12 the past couple of years. Two seasons ago it was Andrew Luck -- a shoo-in from the day he announced his return to take home the Heisman. Last year, it was Matt Barkley who had the unpropitious front-runner title pegged on him.

Luck carried the title much longer in his final season. Barkley, however, quickly gave way to Geno Smith, who in turn gave way to Collin Klein, who in turn fell to Johnny Football.

[+] EnlargeMarion Grice
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsArizona State's Marion Grice averaged 6.6 yards per carry and had 11 touchdowns last season.
So how about the Pac-12?

Marcusy Football?

Marqy Football?

DATy Football?

Ka’Deemy Football?

Bretty Football?

Not exactly phonetically pleasing.

Within the Pac-12, there aren't many dark-horse candidates. There are some front-runners who immediately come to mind: Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas, USC’s Marqise Lee, Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey and UCLA’s Brett Hundley. But none of them are considered national front-runners with Manziel (maybe?) back to defend his title, Braxton Miller coming off a perfect season, AJ McCarron and his ridiculous 30-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year and Teddy Bridgewater soaking up his share of hype.

You can make a case for all five in the preseason. Mariota and Thomas will be playing for a top-five team, which always helps garner the necessary attention from the national media, and they should continue to put up video game numbers. Hundley is one of the most exciting players in the league, and with a year of maturity, many are anxious to see just how far he can lead the Bruins. Lee was last year’s Biletnikoff winner and is arguably the top skill player in the country. Carey was last year’s national leader in rushing. Solid credentials for all.

But this is about the sleepers. The guys who are so under the radar they're practically stealth. So who are they?

You have to start with ASU’s Marion Grice, who is going to continue putting up fantastic dual-threat numbers as a runner and receiver. He’s packed on more weight and ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said they've expanded the playbook now that he and quarterback Taylor Kelly are a year into the system. (Probably not a bad idea to keep an eye on Kelly, either).

Stanford’s Kevin Hogan could also be a sleeper. Like the Oregon duo, he’ll be on a high-profile team that is going to get plenty of national exposure with showdowns against Oregon, UCLA, USC and Notre Dame on the 2013 docket. He’s not as flashy as the other players and his numbers might not be as lofty, but he’s asked to do a lot more behind the scenes than a lot of other quarterbacks. That was Luck’s brilliance, as well as his Heisman curse.

The appearance of Manti Te’o in New York last year proved defensive players aren't immune to getting some attention in the spread era. So UCLA’s Anthony Barr and ASU’s Will Sutton certainly deserve to be in the conversation if we’re talking defensive players. Both should be atop the national defensive rankings in sacks and tackles for a loss. But both will have to play well enough to surpass the well-deserved hype of South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and overcome the public perception of the Pac-12 when it comes to defense. As I’ve written previously, the Heisman is all about subjectivity and perception. (Full disclosure, I have Clowney No. 1 on my preseason Heisman ballot).

Finally, a guy who I think is really a long shot -- but should be getting more love than he is -- is Oregon State running back Storm Woods. In the Beavers’ first six games against FBS opponents in 2013, they face only one defense that ranked in the top 20 last year in total rushing yards allowed (Utah), and only one other in the top 50 (San Diego State). The opportunity will be there early in the season for Woods to make a name for himself. He’s got four of five offensive linemen coming back (including an outstanding center), an offense that wants to be more balanced, and a quarterback-to-be-named who is a veteran and knows the offense. He’s also really, really good.

It’s probably best not to put all your hopes into one of these guys winning the Heisman. For now, it’s safer to track the conference front-runners. But don’t sleep on these guys, either.

The next Stormy Football is just waiting to breakout.
Someone has to chase down all those speedy skill position players, and the SEC is well equipped with some fine secondaries this fall.

Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:

1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.

[+] EnlargeHaHa Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillHaHa Clinton-Dix could emerge as one of the best safeties in the nation.
2. Alabama: First-round corner Dee Milliner and reliable safety Robert Lester are gone, but there's a wealth of young talent in the secondary. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is poised to be an All-American and could be the top safety in the country. Deion Belue emerged as a very reliable cornerback and should be one of the top players at his position in the SEC this year. Sophomore Geno Smith matured quickly last year and was solid this spring, so he shouldn't have a problem stepping into a starting role. Vinnie Sunseri gives Alabama a veteran leader at safety, while sophomore Landon Collins might be ready go from special teams workhorse to starting safety for the Tide.

3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.

4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.

5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.

6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTray Matthews could crack the starting lineup in time for the season opener.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a ton of production here, but defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is excited by the talent his youngsters have, especially safety Tray Matthews, who might already be one of the top players at his position in the SEC. He covers a lot of ground, has great instincts and hits with the best of them. There's "old man" Damian Swann, who excelled as both a nickel and boundary corner last year. He's now the guy at corner. Sophomore "Star" Josh Harvey-Clemons might be the most talented player in the secondary and he'll work at both safety and linebacker in certain packages. Sophomore Sheldon Dawson left spring as the other starting corner, and the coaches are excited about his potential, while talented early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson will miss the season after suffering an ACL injury. Sophomore Devin Bowman should help at corner, along with true freshman Shaq Wiggins, a former ESPN 150 member.

9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.

10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.

11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.

12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.

13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen could only chuckle when asked about his quarterback competition just days after the end of spring football.

Not only was that gig "wide open, man" according to Holgorsen, but he added that 20 or so other positions are still up for grabs for the rebuilding Mountaineers.

None of those spots will get more attention than an already spicy quarterback race that got spiced up even further with the addition of Florida State transfer Clint Trickett. The arrival of Jameis Winston, the nation's No. 1 quarterback in the 2012 class, led to Trickett seeking playing time elsewhere, and he believes he can find it in Morgantown. He'll have two years of eligibility remaining.

"WVU football welcomes Clint Trickett home. He basically grew up in Morgantown, and I know he feels very comfortable here," coach Dana Holgorsen said in a release. "He’s an excellent student and grew up around the game of football, which shows in his composure on the field. I am excited that he has decided to finish his career as a Mountaineer."

I don't buy the idea that Trickett's been guaranteed anything in the realm of playing time by Holgorsen, but the allure of what Holgorsen has done with basically every quarterback he's touched was attractive enough for Trickett to come back to compete to become the next passer at the state's flagship program.

Trickett lived in West Virginia for seven years, and returning to play for a passing game guru outweighed facing lesser competition in lesser offenses at Auburn and South Florida, two schools Trickett also considered.

He has the skills and experience to compete, even though he won't have the knowledge of the system Paul Millard possesses or Ford Childress' biggest asset: his arm strength.

It'll be a fascinating competition, and both current WVU quarterbacks will try and erase the memories of underwhelming performances in the spring game, but both are capable of winning games consistently in the Big 12. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen just has to decide if Trickett is the Mountaineers' guy who can do it best.

There's no way of knowing this soon how this chapter of West Virginia football will end, but it'll certainly be fun to watch it play out.
In a few hours, the NFL draft will officially begin. But for the Big 12, a very average first round awaits.

Colleagues Mel Kiper Jr.Insider and Todd McShay releasedInsider their latest mock drafts, and we'll take one final look at how it could shake out.

Oklahoma offensive tackle Lane Johnson's stock continued to rise, and McShay has him at No. 4 to Philadelphia in his mock draft, which is higher than I've seen him on most mock drafts all season. Kiper says Johnson won't hear his name called until the 11th pick, heading to San Diego.

Kiper, though, does see Geno Smith heading to the Eagles at No. 4, which is about as high as I've seen the West Virginia quarterback being picked. McShay says Smith will still be on the board at the end of the first round. That's a big difference of opinion.

McShay says Smith's teammate, receiver Tavon Austin, will be off the board at No. 13 to the New York Jets, but Kiper has him going to the Rams three picks later.

McShay has another Big 12 talent in the No. 16 spot to the Rams, but he says it'll be Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro.

Those are the only Big 12 players in our ESPN mock drafts, but when you look at the league's history since 2000, it's mostly just an average draft. The Big 12 has slimmed down to 10 teams, but over the past 12 drafts, the Big 12 has averaged exactly five first-round picks.

There won't be any history like we saw in 2010 when the Big 12 had the first four picks and five of the first six before landing nine first-rounders, but it's not going to be a boring night like back in 2008 (Kansas CB Aqib Talib) and 2000 (Oklahoma OL Stockar McDougle) when the Big 12 had just one first-round pick. It might feel like the league's experiencing a bit of a downturn, but after having at least seven first-round picks in the past three drafts, this year is more like a regression to the mean.

Landing three or four first-round picks, especially with a 10-team league, is a pretty average performance for the Big 12. Nothing to crow about, but nothing to be too concerned about, either.

A lot of dreams will officially come true tonight, though, and that's a cause worth celebrating.

Here are the number of first-round picks for the Big 12 since 2000:
  • 2012: 5 picks
  • 2011: 8 picks
  • 2010: 9 picks
  • 2009: 7 picks
  • 2008: 1 pick
  • 2007: 4 picks
  • 2006: 3 picks
  • 2005: 5 picks
  • 2004: 4 picks
  • 2003: 6 picks
  • 2002: 4 picks
  • 2001: 3 picks
  • 2000: 1 pick
The odds are good that next season will be Geno Smith's first since his sophomore year of high school -- a span of seven seasons -- that receiver Stedman Bailey won't be his teammate.

The duo goes all the way back to Miramar High School in Florida, when Smith talked Bailey into leaving his team and joining Smith's, but Smith is doing his part to extend that relationship as long as possible.

USA Today's Jim Corbett profiled the duo's relationship and reported that Smith accepted an invitation to attend the draft, but will be joined by his longtime friend and teammate in New York City.

From Corbett's story:
Smith could be chosen within the top nine picks. Bailey, at 5-10, 193 pounds, is projected to go in the first four rounds. He'll attend the first-round festivities in New York to share in his best friend's success.

"I want to be there to see Geno shake Roger Goodell's hand, be in his corner like I've always been," Bailey said. "I'm very blessed to have a friend in Geno who is like my brother. Our hard work over the years together got us to where we are."

You can't argue with Bailey's production, but his size is clearly one reason why his NFL stock doesn't match the 25 touchdowns he caught last season, more than any player in college football.

Cool move by both parties to be in the same place for Smith's big moment. The first round of the draft is April 25, and what was already a special night for Smith will be even more special with his best friend there to share in the happiness of a goal officially reached.

Teammate Tavon Austin, West Virginia's other likely first-round pick, will also be in the house to represent the Mountaineers. It's a safe bet coach Dana Holgorsen will be making an appearance as well.

Last season wasn't the fitting followup to a Big East championship and BCS bowl title the program reached in 2011, but there will be plenty of time for West Virginia to grab plenty of attention from prospects on draft night.

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