What doesn't change, at least if you want to be good, is that you have to be able to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense.
To the latter, I went back and looked at the recent SEC champions.
Last season, Auburn was 62nd nationally in rushing defense, the lowest any SEC champion has finished in rushing defense in the SEC championship game era. Nine of the previous 10 SEC champs had finished in the top-15 nationally in rushing defense, and six had finished in the top 10.
So, clearly, Auburn was the exception a season ago. The Tigers allowed an average of 162.1 rushing yards per game last season, the most by an SEC champion since the advent of the SEC championship game in 1992. Only three other SEC champions during the championship game era have averaged giving up more than 120 yards per game on the ground.
Prior to last season, the last seven SEC champs averaged giving up just 91.1 yards per game rushing.
Here's a look at the rush defensive numbers for all of the SEC champions going back to the first SEC championship game in 1992. Their national rank is in parentheses:
- 2013 -- Auburn (62nd) -- 162.1 yards
- 2012 -- Alabama (1st) – 76.4 yards
- 2011 -- LSU (5th) – 90.1 yards
- 2010 -- Auburn (9th) – 109.1 yards
- 2009 -- Alabama (2nd) – 78.1 yards
- 2008 -- Florida (15th) – 105.4 yards
- 2007 -- LSU (12th) – 106.1 yards
- 2006 -- Florida (5th) – 72.5 yards
- 2005 -- Georgia (52nd) 143.8 yards
- 2004 -- Auburn (12th) 104.2 yards
- 2003 -- LSU (3rd) – 67 yards
- 2002 – Georgia (19th) 114 yards
- 2001 – LSU (21st) 116.7 yards
- 2000 – Florida (39th) 133.1 yards
- 1999 – Alabama (2nd) 75.3 yards
- 1998 – Tennessee (6th) – 93.9 yards
- 1997 – Tennessee (8th) – 93.3 yards
- 1996 – Florida (18th) – 108.6 yards
- 1995 – Florida (25th) – 130.2 yards
- 1994 – Florida (5th) – 84.6 yards
- 1993 – Florida (9th) – 111.2 yards
- 1992 – Alabama (1st) – 55 yards
Jalen Whitlow is leaving Kentucky, and Matt Joeckel is leaving Texas A&M. Now, the reality might be that neither one of those guys was going to win the job. But in both cases, the Wildcats and Aggies are going to put a quarterback on the field in the fall who has very little experience.
They're hardly the only ones in that boat in the SEC.
Only three teams in the league are bringing back an established quarterback who started all or most of the season a year ago. Auburn returns Nick Marshall, while Dak Prescott is back at Mississippi State and Bo Wallace at Ole Miss. Fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson returns at South Carolina, but most of his work to this point has been coming off the bench in relief, although he did have the memorable performance against Clemson two years ago in a start when Connor Shaw was injured and couldn't play.
The bottom line: There aren't a ton of rock-solid quarterback situations in the SEC as we exit the spring.
Your homework assignment (the fans) is telling us who has the most precarious quarterback situation heading into the 2014 season. So go vote in our SportsNation poll, and we'll unveil the results in the next few days.
Obviously, the landscape can change pretty dramatically. Did anybody really know what Texas A&M had at quarterback with Johnny Manziel entering the 2012 season?
The five schools we've come up with as candidates all have some major question marks.
At Kentucky, sophomore Patrick Towles and true freshman Drew Barker are now battling it out. And at Texas A&M, it's down to a redshirt freshman (Kenny Hill) and a true freshman (Kyle Allen). Hill has already been in trouble this offseason, too.
Brandon Allen is the guy at Arkansas, but struggled through an injury-marred season a year ago. The Hogs finished last in the SEC in passing offense.
True freshman Brandon Harris outplayed sophomore Anthony Jennings in LSU's spring game, so this summer and the preseason should be quite interesting on the Bayou.
And at Alabama, the Crimson Tide's starter for the 2014 season might well be attending classes at another school. Jacob Coker is transferring from Florida State and won't be on Alabama's campus until he graduates from FSU in May. Fifth-year senior Blake Sims has taken the lead this spring in the Tide's quarterback derby as he adjusts to Lane Kiffin's pro-style offense, but will have to hold off Coker. Whoever wins the job at Alabama will have very little, if any, meaningful game experience.
Easley, who is rated the draft's No. 5 prospect at DT and the No. 64 prospect overall by Scouts Inc., tore the ACL and medial meniscus in his right knee in a late September practice.
After Thursday's workout, Easley said his knee was "about 80 percent" of its full strength, but he expects to be 100 percent for summer mini-camps.
"I felt real good out there," he said. "I wanted to show them that I can move, that I still have the quickness, I still have my get-off and my tenacity in everything that I do."
Chicago Bears DL coach Paul Pasqualoni works with ex-#Gators Dominique Easley on a drill. pic.twitter.com/qMzPze4dOBFlorida head coach Will Muschamp started Easley's day with drills to show off his flexibility, lateral movement and quickness.
— Jeff Barlis (@JeffBarlisESPN) April 17, 2014
"We made the workout very difficult purposely," Muschamp said. "I got him going a little bit. The coaches finished it up. They all made comments about how when it got tough, that's when he's at his best."
It's been a long, hard road to recovery for Easley, who said he rehabbed the injury three times a day, every day.
It's also not the first time he has gone through this. He tore the ACL in his left knee in November 2011 but missed no playing time and established himself as a disruptive force playing mostly at defensive end for the Gators in the 2012 season.
"The mental part was different," he said. "I didn't know my limits [with the first injury]. With this knee, I know I'm going to be safe. I know my knee is stable, so I can push it."
Considered undersized at 6-foot-1.75 and 285 pounds, Easley has nevertheless proved most effective at defensive tackle, where he can consistently penetrate gaps with a lightning-quick first step.
Several of Easley's teammates and coaches were on hand Thursday morning to show support for the player they called the heart and soul of the team. Easley started 26 of 32 games at Florida and led the team with four sacks in 2012.
"He was very impressive," Muschamp said. "The [NFL scouts] all commented you could see what he does on tape in the workout. His competitive edge is one of his greatest talents.
"I think he's got a great ceiling. ... He would have been [a sure first-round pick]. It's unfortunate, but his best football is ahead of him. I know one thing: Nobody is going to work harder than him to get it done. He's got a great work ethic. He's got a great competitive edge. All the intangibles are there."
Easley is projected most often as a second- or third-round pick in the NFL draft, which is May 8-10.
"I don't really pay attention to that," he said. "Everybody knows how I play. Everybody sees my love for the game. So that stuff doesn't matter to me."
He'll visit NFL teams for seven straight days starting on Sunday.
- After a frustrating 2013, Alabama wide receiver Chris Black is embracing his changing role under Lane Kiffin.
- Arkansas' secondary is moving on from last fall's struggles.
- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn wraps up the Tigers' final scrimmage and previews Saturday's A-Day.
- Florida defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. is searching for consistency in 2014.
- Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was pleased with his pro day workout.
- Quarterback Jalen Whitlow decided to transfer from Kentucky after being asked if he had any interest in moving to wide receiver.
- Missouri's trip to the AT&T Cotton Bowl last season cost $1.83 million.
- Former South Carolina cornerback Victor Hampton was arrested earlier this month for an alleged dispute with his sister.
- Athlon Sports wonders how many SEC games Texas A&M will win in 2014.
- Running backs and linebackers will be key to Vanderbilt's success this fall.
It's a Friday morning in late March, and while many of Alabama's football players are laid out on sunlit beaches enjoying spring break, Coker has his mind set to working in his own slushy backyard.
The 21-year-old put aside a jam-packed final semester at Florida State to drive 250 miles home to Mobile, sit in a car and watch as rain threatened to wash away his scheduled throwing session with David Morris, his quarterback coach of more than 5 years.
A week earlier, Coker spent his spring vacation in Tuscaloosa watching film and working out. He missed walking in on AJ McCarron's pro day by minutes, leaving Alabama's indoor facility just as the Crimson Tide's former star quarterback began throwing for scouts.
Coker is the favorite to inherit McCarron's throne when he finishes his undergraduate degree and transfers to Alabama next month, but not before days like this -- days where you either push through less than ideal conditions or waste away at home. If there's the slightest hint of precipitation, his future teammates move practice indoors to an air-conditioned, 97,000-square foot facility. Meanwhile, Coker is left to create his own version of camp at empty high school stadiums and busy city parks. Wherever there's room and whenever there's time, he's training.
So even though a window of decent weather won't appear, it's no matter. Coker swings open the car door and steps on the field with his cleats already laced.
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It rings true with the mentality new defensive coordinator Robb Smith wants to instill in his group.
"Coach Smith stressed he can stand getting beat, but he can't stand getting 'beat up,'" senior defensive end Trey Flowers said.
"When Bret hired me, one of the things he wanted to do was be aggressive on defense," Smith said. "We're going to pick our opportunities to do that. We have a couple of wrinkles in right now, and we'll continue to build off of that. We've got to continue to get more precise with those things and keep getting better and keep improving."
The focus this spring, Flowers said, has been on physical play, stopping the run and creating turnovers. The Razorbacks were 11th in the SEC and 90th in the nation last season in yards-per-carry allowed (4.67) to opponents and were 11th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (178.58). When it comes to turnovers, the Razorbacks had the worst turnover margin in the SEC (minus-9) and they created the fewest, too (14).
So the current defensive staff, which consists of one returnee (linebackers coach Randy Shannon) and three newcomers (Smith, defensive line coach Rory Segrest and secondary coach Clay Jennings) has honed in on getting the Razorbacks playing with the type of mentality desired.
"I think you do it a couple different ways," Smith said. "You practice it in terms of technique. You make sure you're physical tackling. You make sure that you're taking on blocks the right way. You can do it from a scheme standpoint. You make sure you're dictating daylight, things of that nature. You can pressure a little bit. I think all of that kind of builds to an aggressive mentality."
While the Razorbacks remain in a base 4-3 alignment, there are definitely wrinkles and differences in what they're doing this season. Segrest said the defensive line is transitioning to the attacking mentality.
"I think one of the biggest things, just looking back at least year, there was more of a read concept and I'm more of an attack guy when the ball is snapped," he said. "We still want to make sure we're attacking proper aiming points and not just running up the field, so there's an adjustment going from a pure read to an attack and react. That's been a little bit of a transition, but I think the guys have really come a long way as far as that goes."
Senior cornerback Tevin Mitchel, one of six starters returning on Arkansas' defense, said he completely buys into Smith's "I can stand getting beat, but I can't stand getting beat up," approach.
"I love that saying because as a corner, you can tell that he understands that you're going to get beat. That's just the game of football," Mitchel said. "He can stomach that, he can deal with that. But he cannot stomach getting beaten up. I'm down for that. I'm doing my best every practice not to get beat. My job is to defend my man from the ball and be more physical than the other man."
Smith stressed that there's a long way to go before the Razorbacks are where they want to be defensively and that the defense is still "a work in progress." But the players seem to have the kind of attitude he and his staff are seeking, and they hope that translates to results in the 2014 season.
"It's just instilling that attitude, being a championship defense," Flowers said. "That's with everything from running to the ball, smart swarming, tackling, creating takeaways and just being physical. That all-around attitude is one we just want to hang our hat on and get better at during the spring."
On the way back to Tuscaloosa after Alabama’s humbling 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the junior safety replayed the nauseating moments from a game in which the Crimson Tide, which entered the contest with the SEC’s top-ranked defense, surrendered 429 yards of offense, nearly 6 yards per play, 348 passing yards and four passing touchdowns.
Collins called the performance by the defense “disgraceful” to Alabama football.
“We weren’t the defense that we always used to be,” Collins told ESPN.com in early April. “That’s what we’re working on this spring.”
Associating Alabama’s defense with anything less than elite feels awkward, but that’s all you can say about Bama’s bowl performance. Players were tired and run down against Oklahoma’s hurry-up offense. This spring, Tide defenders saw red, as coaches constantly reminded them of that bowl performance. That led to tougher conditioning routines and more intense player interaction on and off the field, Collins said.
Looking back at the bowl game has been tough for players, but they know that it’s a performance they never want to see again.
“It wasn’t the way we play,” linebacker Trey DePriest said. “We don’t get that many points put up on us. That’s way more than what our goal is -- 13 points or less. It didn’t seem like us. We were ready, we just didn’t go out and leave it on the field like it was our last game. It’s definitely been a driving force.”
But things won’t be easier in 2014, not with a younger defensive look and the loss of leaders -- and producers -- like C.J. Mosley and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Collins and DePriest, picked to replace those two, now head a defense that will be playing angry in 2014 after losing five starters from last season's team.
Can guys like Nick Perry, Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson, A'Shawn Robinson and Jarrick Williams expand their roles? Can some of the youngsters like Tony Brown and Laurence "Hootie" Jones step up? And don't forget about the much-anticipated arrival of defensive end Da'Shawn Hand.
There's no shortage of talent, and this defense might even have a little more athleticism sprinkled around, but we all know talent can only go so far, even with the best teams.
For now, attitudes seem to be flowing in the right direction, DePriest said, but there’s no getting around the fact that this entire defense has to grow up in the coming months to replace some valuable leaders.
“It’s some big shoes to fill, definitely,” Collins said. “A lot of us looked up to those guys. Without that leadership, we have to just step in and take over because we need that on the field constantly, and [we need it] off the field because without that, this program could go in a different direction that it doesn’t need to.”
There’s a certain pride that this defense holds that it lost in that bowl game.
Or was it something that slowly trickled out before the Tide even got to Bourbon Street?
Alabama had holes in its defense all last fall, but found ways of patching them as the season went on. Alabama surrendered a school-record 628 yards in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M, allowed Zach Mettenberger to throw for 241 yards in the win over LSU and watched Auburn rush for 296 yards in that heartbreaking loss on the Plains.
Hundreds of other teams would kill for Alabama’s 2013 defense, but it didn’t live up to the standards this program holds so dear.
For Collins, the secondary is key. While Alabama ranked near the top nationally against the pass, there were times when the secondary surrendered too many big plays. Injuries contributed to some of the secondary’s issues, but the last line of defense never truly looked settled last season.
Collins said the secondary put too much pressure on itself to live up to the enormous preseason hype after back-to-back BCS titles and wasn’t always prepared for games.
“Our downfall was our secondary last year,” Collins said. “We got picked apart because of that.”
“If you watch our film of practice, you can see how hard we work every day. You can tell how hard we’re working to establish our secondary to be dominant again.”
Spring practice can only take a team so far, and Alabama defenders know that. They have that chip, they have that anger, but it’s about carrying that feeling over to the season and performing.
The good thing for the defense is that it has a constant reminder in the bowl game that still fuels this unit.
“That just fires it up, because we know what type of defense we are,” Collins said. “We already know what we are capable of. Just to hear that we got picked apart by an offense that shouldn’t have been on the field with us, that’s a disgrace to Alabama defense. We need to pick it up from that standpoint.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- Shortly after a string of grueling 6 a.m. offseason workouts and just before spring practice began on the Plains, Auburn’s offensive players gathered together. Around the same time, the defense locked itself away, too.
There was no discussion of mutiny or complaining about the harsh offseason that was. These meetings were strictly business and about progress.
Offensive players anonymously wrote down their ideas on what it was going to take to push forward and what would hinder their growth, while defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson preached to his unit that it was much easier to build on losses than success.
“We’ve not arrived,” Tigers coach Gus Malzahn told ESPN.com in early April. “We had a really good season and we came a long way. We were 13 seconds away from winning the whole thing, and we’re trying to use all of that in a positive way moving forward and not let any of the things that come with success seep in. We have a heightened alert of it.”
More than a year removed from the dark stain that was 2012, the Tigers embark on a season in which they’ll be viewed as favorites more often than not, but they’re looking to evolve. Last year has vanished, and while it was a special season, everyone on the Plains feels something was left out in California with the loss to FSU.
Complacency isn’t an option for this year’s Auburn Tigers.
“Getting to the national championship was one of the hardest things to do,” senior defensive lineman Gabe Wright said, “but let’s face it: Getting there and then not winning it probably puts more fire in you than getting there and winning it. I know this team is highly motivated, highly driven, and that’s not coach-talk -- that’s talk in the locker room, and that’s exactly how we feel.”
Beyond hunger, this team has talent. Important pieces such as running back Tre Mason (a school-record 1,816 rushing yards and 2,374 yards of total offense), defensive end Dee Ford (10.5 sacks), cornerback Chris Davis (15 pass breakups and the Alabama kick-six) and left tackle Greg Robinson (future first-round draft pick) are gone, but the Tigers are stockpiled with more than adequate personnel.
Auburn has an All-SEC candidate quarterback in Nick Marshall, a healthy stable of running backs, older and improved receivers, and a young, yet beastly, set of defensive linemen that could be budding stars.
This team isn’t perfect, but it isn’t learning so much this spring as it is adjusting and growing. There’s less installing. Practices have been more technical than anything, with extra wrinkles being thrown in.
There’s also a healthy nucleus of veterans and youngsters who were key to last season's success, creating a great balance of camaraderie and skill.
Going 12-2 with an SEC championship and some miraculous victories set the college football world ablaze, but it hasn’t satisfied an Auburn team looking for more.
“It’s going to be tougher next year,” senior center Reese Dismukes said. “Now, everyone is going to have a target on us. You can’t let the little things slip ... you have to focus on everything being right.
“You can’t ever sleep. You gotta keep working hard and keep getting better because someone is always going to be coming after you.”
With a schedule that features trips to Kansas State, both Mississippi schools, Georgia and Alabama, Auburn will get all it can handle during its run to repeat as SEC champs. To attack that road, the no-longer-sneaky Tigers must make sure their defense can keep up with what should be another potent offense.
After allowing 466.6 yards and 29.6 points per game in conference play, Johnson described last season's defense as not very good. It gave up too many yards, had too many missed assignments, made too many adjustment mistakes, and allowed too many “cheap plays,” Johnson said.
But with the experience returning, instead of rebuilding and re-coaching, Johnson said he’s been able to work with a more comfortable group. Players know what they are doing now and aren't making the same silly mistakes that plagued them last spring and fall, which has made the defense "so much better" this spring, Johnson said.
“It’s a fine line sometimes between panic and recklessness,” Johnson said of his defense. “We’ve got to keep that recklessness and intensity if we’re going to have a chance. We’re still not one of the most talented teams in America, but we’re talented enough if we continue to focus like we did last year and keep trying hard and improving.”
It would be easy for the Tigers to rely on their talent and past success. But that's not the mindset. The mindset is that this team has so much more to show in 2014. The Tigers want to get comfortable with a championship lifestyle.
“Really and truly, I don’t think the confidence level could be too high," Wright said. "It’s not anything about overconfidence, it’s just that we don’t want to maintain to stay here. We know there’s another level to go.”
Although he didn’t attempt more than 100 throws like Mettenberger did at LSU’s pro day last week, Murray’s battery of agility drills and a wide range of drops, rollouts and throws showed that he should be physically ready to compete when his future team opens rookie camp.
Murray completed 48 of 54 throws with three drops in Wednesday’s passing session, which was directed by quarterback guru and former NFL assistant Terry Shea. Among Shea’s previous pre-draft clients are No. 1 overall picks Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford and No. 2 pick Robert Griffin III.
“I thought it went very well,” Shea said. “In four weeks that we’ve been together, I’ve never seen him favor that knee or anything. So I’m really excited that he’s healthy.”
In fact, Murray is apparently ahead of schedule in his recovery. Trevor Moawad, vice president at the EXOS/Athletes’ Performance facilities where Murray conducted his offseason workouts, said the training staff followed a similar rehab schedule as they did with Bradford, who was also coming off an injury when preparing for the 2010 draft.
“I think he’s ahead of probably where he should be at this time and I think come May 8 after the draft, I think he’s going to be able to show up at a team and be right where he needs to be,” Moawad said.
Murray was the featured attraction at Wednesday’s sparsely attended pro day, which represented a significant change from last year, when the Bulldogs had eight players drafted -- four in the first 85 picks -- and three more who made NFL rosters as undrafted free agents.
Murray (No. 129) is the only Bulldog listed among ESPN’s top 150 draft prospects, and only he and tight end Arthur Lynch received invitations to the NFL combine. Nonetheless, 15 former Bulldogs worked out Wednesday before the 23 NFL teams that had representatives on hand -- many of whom still harbor hopes of becoming late-round selections or undrafted free agents.
That group included offensive guards Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee, both of whom snapped to the quarterbacks during passing drills, showing off what they hope teams will view as positional versatility.
“I feel like you get to the next level, they want to have a guy who’s a swingman, who can play multiple positions,” said Burnette, rated by ESPN as the draft’s No. 19 guard prospect. “I don’t want to limit myself to guard. I’ve had a little bit of experience playing center, so I tried to focus on my snaps and stuff like that during this time off. I think it was good for me to be able to do that.”
Another player hoping to catch an NFL club’s eye was defensive lineman Garrison Smith, who ranked fourth on the team with 63 tackles and added six sacks and 10 tackles for a loss. Smith is hardly a flashy player, but said scouts who pay close attention to his performances on film will see an NFL-caliber player.
“I can do it all. I can look good in a T-shirt, I can look good in the birthday suit, it don’t matter. But I’m a football player,” joked Smith, rated by ESPN as the No. 34 defensive tackle prospect. “When them pads get on, it gets real serious. In them trenches, ask about me down there. I’ve got a lot of respect down there and I made a lot of plays.
“Look at game film, look at my stats. I had good games against good teams this year. I didn’t have no amazing games against teams that they say were less of opponents. I had good games against Florida, LSU, Tennessee. They’re supposed to have one of the best offensive lines in the country. Watch the film. That’s all I want people to see: I’m a good player.”
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt agreed with his former player’s assessment, noting that he would not be surprised to see Smith find a way to stick on an NFL roster like the three undrafted Bulldogs -- receiver Marlon Brown and defensive linemen Kwame Geathers and Abry Jones -- did a year ago.
“People will see his film. They’ll see his productivity,” Richt said. “From what I’m hearing, if he doesn’t get drafted, he’s going to get into a camp and get a chance to make it. We had Geathers last year didn’t get drafted and made a team. We had Abry Jones, I don’t think he was drafted [and] he made a team. I’m hoping he gets drafted, but if he doesn’t, he’ll get in camp and I think he’ll find a way to stick.”
Both arrived at Kentucky with enormous hype and now could be barreling toward their own two-man race for the starting QB job for the Wildcats.
Both have dealt with early superstar status in Lexington, but with one more body out of the quarterback race, they better get used to the attention around them greatly increasing.
While coach Mark Stoops isn't in a hurry to name a starting quarterback for the 2014 season, the Wildcats now likely will have to speed up Barker's development and throw a little bit more at him. He's clearly the quarterback of the future for Big Blue Nation, and this is another step in that direction.
“He has every opportunity to take control because we’re so unsettled there,” Stoops told ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough last month. “He’s a guy that’s very mature. He’s a guy that has high expectations himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position.”
Barker, a former ESPN 300 recruit, better get ready for even more pressure. He already knew before arriving at Kentucky that he'd get every opportunity to take the starting job, either this spring or in the fall. Taking Whitlow out of the equation could expedite the process for a player who passed for 2,671 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2013 at Conner Senior High in Hebron, Ky.
Towles, who was the Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Kentucky in 2011, has never really found his groove on the field since his arrival. After passing for 233 yards and a touchdown in five games as a freshman in 2012, he redshirted last season when Stoops and his coaching staff arrived.
Towles has played well this spring, especially in Kentucky's second scrimmage, and this could be his last chance to prove to the coaches that he can be the guy under center. Honestly, he might not get any more chances if Barker takes the job. Towles was labeled as the quarterback of the future before he even stepped on campus, but he has yet to live up to expectations. The time is now for him, if he truly wants it.
It's still very early in the process, but this is a very important battle for the Wildcats. Don't expect Stoops to slow Barker's progression because he's a freshman. If he's good enough to play, he will.
If Smith can return and Phillips makes headway, that's just another plus for the Wildcats. A more intense battle will go a long way for every quarterback, but for now Barker and Towles have the most to prove.
“I’m not satisfied with the way any of them are playing, if you want to know the truth about it,” he told reporters on March 31.
“I’ve been getting asked that everywhere I go, like we’ve got a bad defensive line,” he said a week and a half later. “We don’t have a bad defensive line. They’re doing fine.”
So which is it? The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
“They're improving,” Saban said following Saturday’s scrimmage. “But we're still not striking up front, playing as physical, converting pass rush, getting the kind of execution that we need, doing the little things right, especially when we're doing stunts and pressures.
“So I like the way they're working and they made improvement, but I think there's certainly a lot more that we can look for.”
While Saban’s feelings toward the defensive line have wavered throughout the spring, the players themselves appear largely pleased with their progress. They have a new coach (Bo Davis), new teammates (D.J. Pettway, Jarran Reed) and a new mandate (rush the passer).
Losing former defensive line coach Chris Rumph to Texas hurt initially, said sophomore defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson. “It was a shock to hear,” he said. But then he got to experience the energy and enthusiasm Davis brings.
“He’s a pretty fired-up guy on the field,” Tomlinson said, describing Davis as being more hands on as well. “He makes us be aggressive out there.”
Veteran nose guard Brandon Ivory agreed: “Davis is pushing us to the limit. ... He brings a lot of energy. He’s always fired up, hyped. I say that’s a good thing to have.”
The hope for Davis is that a renewed sense of energy translates into production. Last season Alabama ranked a paltry 81st nationally in sacks (22) and tied for 94th in tackles for loss per game (5.3). This season Davis is asking his players to read less and react more. In other words, he wants them to play fast.
“Last year we didn’t get enough sacks across the defensive line, we didn’t feel like,” Tomlinson said. “So this year our main focus is getting to the quarterback. So we’re trying to be more aggressive off the ball and more explosive.”
Ivory isn’t the pass-rushing prototype at 300-plus pounds, but he’s seen the linemen around him change into a group that’s better equipped to chase down the quarterback.
“We’ve got guys that are pretty good at rushing the passer like D.J. Pettway, Jonathan Allen, more smaller guys and quicker who can get after the quarterback more,” Ivory explained.
Maybe more so than in years past, Alabama has the “quick-twitch” defensive linemen Saban covets. Pettway and Allen certainly fit that mold. So do Tomlinson, Dee Liner and incoming freshman Da'Shawn Hand, a five-star prospect from Virginia. Even 320-pounder A'Shawn Robinson will be an asset in the pass-rushing department. He finished first on the team in sacks (5.5) as a true freshman last season.
But don’t run down the roster with Saban. Don’t tell him what the defensive line looks like on paper.
Maybe listen to the players themselves, however.
“We’ve been having our ups and downs,” Tomlinson said, “but throughout the spring I think we’re going to come together as a defensive line and be a great defensive line all the way across the front.”
It really is up in the air. Coach Kevin Sumlin is not expected to announce a starter until August, much like when he chose Johnny Manziel to be the starter before the 2012 season. Sumlin isn't the type to make a decision like this early, so there's plenty of time for both guys to prove themselves before the season opener against South Carolina on Aug. 28.
While Allen, a U.S. Army All-American and former ESPN 300 member, arrived in College Station with a mountain of hype and expectations, the more experienced Hill might still have a leg up on the rising star. Yes, Hill was indefinitely suspended this spring after he was arrested in late March on a public intoxication charge, but that setback won't disqualify him from taking the starting job this fall.
After all, Manziel was also arrested -- much later in the process, too -- and did just fine with the quarterback battle in 2012. He also turned out to be a pretty decent starter for the Aggies.
Now, Hill isn't Manziel. He isn't going to make the kind of jaw-dropping plays that made Manziel so much fun to watch and so tough to defend, but he knows the offense the best and has the only on-field experience. Hill played in five games last season, throwing for 183 yards and a touchdown on 16-of-22 passing. With that said, Hill is on thin ice and certainly can't afford to have another off-field transgression if he wants a shot at being the starter.
Hill's suspension set him back this spring, giving Allen more opportunities. Allen showed the expected freshman jitters and errors this spring. He was far from perfect and still has a way to go in this offense. He might have an advantage in the arms race, as he threw arguably the best ball of all the competitors this spring. Allen might be the quarterback of the future with his talent and upside, but that doesn't mean he'll be the quarterback of 2014.
Hill has some work to do to get fully back into his coaches' good graces, but his knowledge of the offense gives him an advantage at the moment. Both will likely see playing time this fall, but Sumlin isn't one to swap quarterbacks in and out on a regular basis during the season.
Eventually there's going to be one guy for the job, and the next few months will still go a long way in determining who starts for the Aggies at quarterback in the fall.
- Well and ready, Alabama wide receiver Chris Black has another opportunity to compete for playing time this spring.
- Auburn running back Peyton Barber was recently diagnosed with dyslexia, but he’s not letting that or his ADHD slow him down.
- The Bowden Triangle (Tuscaloosa to Auburn to Tallahassee) owns college football.
- Former Arkansas quarterback A.J. Derby has adjusted well to his new position with the Razorbacks this spring, catching a touchdown in Saturday’s scrimmage.
- Now that the spring game is over, the real offseason begins for Florida.
- With more and more up-tempo offenses in college football, new Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt wants a leaner, faster defense.
- The quarterback competition at Kentucky is beginning to take shape after the school announced Wednesday that former starter Jalen Whitlow is planning to transfer.
- The new NCAA rule allowing unlimited meals and snacks for college athletes was given a thumbs up by Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who called it common sense.
- Dan Mullen’s job was safe regardless of the outcome against Ole Miss, but a last-second win over an in-state rival certainly made life easier in Starkville.
- Fresh off winning a Super Bowl, former Texas A&M running back Christine Michael recently attended prom with an autistic teen.
If the season opener was this Saturday, Auburn defensive back Joshua Holsey would be playing. It’s not, though. It’s only the spring game, and that’s why Holsey will be held out just like he has been for the majority of spring practice.
“We’re just erring on the side of caution,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said last month. “He’s doing some one-on-one and out there in a little bit of pass scale. If we were getting ready to line up and play next week against Arkansas, he’d be ready to go.
“He’s been playing here. He’s got two years under his belt, one year under our system. We know what he can do. We’re just kind of erring on the side of caution with him.”
If it were up to Holsey, he’d be out there with his teammates. Fellow defensive back Jermaine Whitehead said Holsey was sneaking in and taking reps on the first day of practice, and even when he’s not been out there, he’s still finding ways to help his secondary mates.
“He’s been one of the better guys as far as helping us with what he sees, what he thinks the offense is going to do,” Whitehead said.
Once fall camp rolls around, the question won’t be whether Holsey returns, it will be what position is he going to play when he does return?
As a sophomore, he started every game at boundary safety before the injury occurred. However, junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief has stepped in and found a home at the same position this spring. The newcomer has played so well that the coaches might look to move Holsey when he does return from injury.“We feel like with Holsey coming back that we’ve still got a wild card,” Johnson said Tuesday after practice. “We feel fine about the guys that went this spring, but in the back of your mind, you have to feel like Holsey was a legitimate starter. And who’s job is he going to take?
“The four that finished the spring -- [Jonathan] Jones, [Jonathon] Mincy, Whitehead and Moncrief -- all had good springs. And then Johnathan Ford, he and some of the other guys made great progress, and we’ve got confidence in them right now.
“[With] all that being said, I just have to believe that Josh Holsey will come back and probably get in the fight for a starting job. Is he going to be the boundary safety? Is he going to be a boundary corner? Where are we going to need him the most?
“We’ve got some question marks, but they’re not the type of question marks where we’re not sure who can do this. It’s more of who’s going to win that battle and who’s going to be that No. 1 guy and who’s going to be that No. 2 guy.”
Ultimately, that’s not a bad problem to have if you’re Auburn.
The secondary looked depleted at times last year, and it was never more evident than when Holsey went down midway through the season. The Tigers lost top cornerback Chris Davis and safeties Ryan Smith and Ryan White this past offseason, but when Holsey returns, they’re going to be better off than they were a year ago, regardless of his position.