SEC: Alabama

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban knows who will win at least one of Alabama’s position battles heading into next week’s anticipated season-opener against West Virginia. The problem is, it is not the quarterback. J.K. Scott, the Crimson Tide’s true freshman punter, has "separated himself," according to his head coach.

"He’s the best punter we have," Saban said this week. "I mean, have you seen him punt?"

We had not. Practices and scrimmages are closed to the media, remember.

"Well, that’s an easy one," Saban said.

Saban looked around the room to see if there were any more questions. There were none.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherCoaches and teammates say Blake Sims has worked on his delivery and is a more accurate passer.
"That’s it?" he said. "You guys are easy today."

If only every day were so simple.

Naming a starting punter is one thing. Finding your next starting quarterback is another. Not when you are replacing a two-time champion in AJ McCarron. Not when you are the consensus No. 2 team in the country coming off back-to-back losses for the first time since 2008. Not when you have two vastly different options to choose from.

The fact that Blake Sims has hung in the competition this long is surprising to many. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the former four-star athlete was wondering if he would play running back or receiver for the Tide. Now, after four years in the system, he has worked on his delivery, studied the playbook and become what coaches and teammates describe as a much more accurate passer.

All of the sudden it’s a race between he and Jake Coker. At least that is what we’re told.

Again, practices and scrimmages are walled off to the prying eyes of the media. And the stats the program typically provides? They have gone missing, too. All that is left is one man’s word to draw from, and there is always the potential for a bit of cat-and-mouse games from Saban.

"Somebody has got to take the job," Saban said. "One day one guy plays really well and you say, 'Well, that looks like that might be it.' And the next day the other guy plays really well.

"I think the good news is we have two guys that I would feel very comfortable playing."

On the one hand is Sims, who is said to have the intangibles: comfort with the offense, command of the huddle and the respect of his teammates. He even has a new mindset, according to safety Jarrick Williams, who said, "Blake has an attitude, you know. He’s taking the competition very seriously."

[+] EnlargeJake Coker
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonJake Coker has the size and arm strength coaches covet in a pocket passer.
On the other hand is Coker, who is still 6-foot-5, 230 pounds and blessed with a cannon for an arm -- "You’ve got to watch it in your eyes because it’s humming," said receiver Chris Black. Coker is said to be working on the intangibles, like winning over his teammates and establishing a chemistry with his receivers.

Black said he is often asked about the quarterback competition around town and on campus. His response: "It’s a tough decision. I’ll leave that up to coach Saban."

But the timing of Saban's decision is a topic of debate. A two-quarterback system for the first few weeks of the system is now a distinct possibility. The hope is that by Week 4 against Florida -- after non-conference games against unranked West Virginia, Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss -- someone will have seized the job.

Between now and then, the questions about where the quarterback race stands will keep coming. There won’t be many more easy days to talk about the starting punter. And the happy Saban we saw this week? He might revert to the form we saw a week prior when he threatened to withold the scrimmage statistics again if he was asked about the competition once more.

In judging this race, patience is the one and only virtue. Until Week 1 against West Virginia, we won’t know much of anything.

"I would like to see somebody take the bull by the horns from a leadership standpoint, a consistency standpoint and win the job here sometime," Saban said. "But we're not going to make a decision until somebody does that."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Best of luck to the defensive coordinators tasked with devising game plans for Alabama this season. Sure, there’s no more AJ McCarron to deal with under center. That has to be a relief. But there’s more to the offense than the quarterback, and they know that. The receivers, the running backs, the tight ends -- those are the ones they have to worry about. And at each level of the Crimson Tide's offense, there’s a mismatch waiting to keep those coordinatorss up at night.

Let’s start with O.J. Howard. How do you cover that guy? His numbers as a true freshmen weren’t overwhelming -- 14 receptions, 269 yards, two touchdowns -- but that belies his athleticism and potential as a pass-catcher. For instance, his average of 19.2 yards per catch led Alabama last season. He’s 6-foot-6, 240 pounds and moves like a receiver. You can’t put a linebacker on him. He’ll make one move and leave them in the dust. You can’t put an undersized DB on him, either. He’ll push them around and create the space he needs to get open.

[+] EnlargeOJ Howard
RVR Photos/USA TODAY SportsO.J. Howard's combination of size (6-foot-6, 240 pounds) and speed make him particularly difficult to defend.
"Having a guy like that," coach Nick Saban said, "really there's a lot of multiples in terms of how you can use him and create problems for the defense.”

Said offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin: “O.J. is really extremely talented .... We’re working more with him about speed and his ability to do everything.”

Don’t focus too much on Howard, though. If you chip him at the line of scrimmage with an extra linebacker, you might miss on whoever pops out of the backfield behind him.

T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry are mismatches in their own right. Yeldon, on the one hand, is a one-cut back who will chip away until he’s hit 100 yards and a couple touchdowns. Henry, meanwhile, is simply no fun to tackle. Running backs aren’t supposed to be 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds and run like that. Oklahoma’s defense had trouble getting a hand on him, and when they did they couldn’t bring him down.

But it’s not Yeldon or Henry who poses the biggest schematic challenge. The third back, Kenyan Drake, is the one you’ll have trouble accounting for. He’s Alabama’s change-up, except he throws you off with acceleration. His speed is uncanny, as evidenced by his 7.54 yards per carry average (fifth nationally among qualifying backs). Once he hits the hole and gets to the second level of the defense, he’s gone. And when you look at him in the context of Kiffin’s offense -- a shifty back with speed and the ability to catch the football -- there’s one obvious comparison to make: Reggie Bush. In each of Alabama’s last two scrimmages, Drake has taken to the role of receiver, leading the team in receptions with a combined seven catches for 140 yards and a touchdown.

“Drake is like a cat to me, very slippery runner,” said wideout Amari Cooper at SEC media days. “You can’t turn your head when he’s running the ball because he can make the big play at any time.”

Cooper should know. He’s the team’s most consistently explosive offensive weapon. The junior from South Florida isn’t the biggest or the fastest, but he has that certain knack for getting open. As a freshman, he became the first rookie receiver in Alabama history to reach 1,000 yards. In spite of dealing with an assortment of nagging injuries last season, he caught 45 passes for 736 yards and four touchdowns. In his final two games against Auburn and Oklahoma, he accounted for 327 total yards of offense.

As Saban put it: “He’s pretty hard to stop unless you put two guys on him.”

"The guy’s really an explosive guy," Saban said this spring. "He’s got great speed. He’s got really good hands. He’s got good size. He can catch the ball vertically down the field. He’s difficult to cover coming out of a break.”

On paper, Alabama’s skill players have the potential to be among the best in the SEC. When you have to account for the tight end, running back and receiver, it puts defensive coordinators in a bind. But even so, there’s still the question of how it all comes together. Without a strong offensive line, they won’t matter. Without a serviceable quarterback, there won’t be anyone to get them the football.

The good news for Alabama is that whether it’s Blake Sims or Jake Coker who ends up under center, he’ll have plenty of firepower to work with.
Derrick HenryAP Photo/AL.com, Vasha HuntDerrick Henry hopes to pick up where he left off at the end of last season.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- His dreadlocks were a little longer. They were brighter, too, turned yellow at the tail end of each strand, presumably by bleach. But beyond that, there wasn’t much different about Derrick Henry when he met with the media on Thursday night at Alabama.

If anything, he sounded more tired than usual.

“It was a good offseason,” the weary sophomore said. “Feel like I worked hard, progressed as a player, got in better condition just so I’d be ready for fall camp.”

Standing before him, you’d think he wasn’t the talk of college football. Henry’s 161-yard, two-touchdown performance against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl was a revelation. It was the former five-star prospect’s “this is me” moment after doing relatively little during the regular season. He went from under the radar to a Heisman Trophy contender in the span of one night in New Orleans, running over and around would-be tacklers.

But if you were looking for Henry to feel as if he’d arrived, you were left wanting. He may be one of the biggest running backs in all of college football at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, but his ego on Thursday seemed nonexistent. He said all the right things -- “We’re excited for fall camp.” “We’re all working hard.” “I just make sure I’m on my P's and Q's.” -- and deferred to his teammates at all the right times.

Was he even aware of the hype surrounding him?

“I definitely tune it out. You’ve got to stay humble," he said.

Is there anything he wants to improve on?

“Everything," he said. "I just want to become a complete back.”

How about your 40-yard dash? Have you timed yourself?

“No, no, no.”

Maybe he didn’t want to add more fuel to the fire. Expectations are enormous as it is. People think he’s fast for his size already. Giving them an actual measurement would only prompt further discussion.

What's been lost in the Henry Hype Machine -- and what Henry himself seems to realize -- is that he hasn’t really done all that much up to this point. The starter ahead of him, T.J. Yeldon, has more than 2,000 career rushing yards. Kenyan Drake, who many assume will be the third back behind Yeldon and Henry, had 694 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Henry’s actual numbers as a freshman: 36 carries, 382 rushing yards, three touchdowns. He had one reception, which came against Oklahoma.

"I’d say I have a lot to prove," he said. "I don’t see I’ve done anything that makes me feel like I’ve arrived or anything like that."

If Henry was willing to concede anything, it was that he feels more comfortable in the offense now. He was never asked to block or pass protect in high school, where he set the national record for career rushing yards. Now, he said, “I feel like I can catch the ball pretty well,” which is something new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is asking of all the running backs.

“I’ve just really been focusing in the meetings and in practice, making sure I’m paying attention to [pass blocking and picking up the blitz] because that’s really big in college," he said. "There are a lot of defenses, different defenses, so you’ve got to know the blitzes if you want to play.”

Last season he was nervous. He wasn’t relaxed enough and “letting it all come to me,” he said. Now he knows what he’s doing. Now he said he’s “playing fast.”

That should be a scary thought for the SEC. We all saw what Henry playing fast looked like against Oklahoma. If he can replicate that, he and Yeldon and Drake could form one of the best backfields in the country.

Just don’t expect any kind of riff there. Sharing carries won't be an issue, Henry said.

“Coach will make a decision on how he wants to play. Like I said, whenever I’m in, I’m going to go in there and execute a play, play fast, know what I’m saying?”

We do. But good luck telling that to the people who gave you 20/1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy. Good luck telling that to the people saying you should start ahead of Yeldon and Drake. They see a completely different Derrick Henry than a season ago.

SEC morning links

August, 13, 2014
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1. On Tuesday, ESPN unveiled campaign posters for the top four contenders in the College Football Playoff hunt. Each came with a clever tagline, such as Alabama’s “Process of elimination” and Oregon’s “Look good, play better.” Florida State’s “Dallas to Dallas” was a nod, of course, to the Seminoles opening the season in Big D against Oklahoma State and, hopefully, closing the season there in the CFB Playoff title match. But it got me thinking: What taglines would other SEC programs employ in their bid to make the Playoff? Auburn’s is easy: #AuburnFast. Florida’s could read: No Georgia Southern, no problem. LSU’s might go: The young and the relentless. And South Carolina’s could nod to the Head Ball Coach: Keeping the SEC spicy. There’s a comments section, so go ahead and have fun with the concept.

2. Laquon Treadwell is not a man to be trifled with. Even in practice, he does things that make your jaw hit the floor. Just look at this catch the other day. His Go-Go-Gadget fingertips are just ridiculous. How he corralled that pass is mesmerizing. To me, he seems like a young Joe Horn (without the cell-phone celebrations). He not physically imposing or particularly fast, yet he’s explosive. If he can’t get by a DB, he’ll simply jump around or over them. He's got that knack for getting his hands on the football. Though there are definite questions about the quarterbacks in the SEC, I’m excited to see the crop of receivers. Treadwell and Amari Cooper are clearly at the top of the list. But look out for young studs such as Ricky Seals-Jones (Mike Evans 2.0), Speedy Noil (the SEC West’s long-awaited answer to Percy Harvin) and Malachi Dupre (think of a young A.J. Green).

3. A few weeks ago, ESPNU replayed the South Carolina-Missouri game from last season. You remember it, I’m sure: Connor Shaw comes off the bench to lead the Gamecocks to a furious come-from-behind win in double overtime. It was a doozy. But watching it again, I paid closer attention to the offense under Dylan Thompson. It was a best case-worst case scenario. At times, Thompson was sharp. It wasn’t his fault Mike Davis fumbled twice in the first half. But there were other times where Thompson left you wanting more. I had to rewind and replay his interception at least a dozen times. His footwork and fundamentals were unspeakably bad. It was what you teach a QB not to do. Turns out, he has a little gunslinger in him. Now he’s trying to tone some of that down. That’s good news if you’re a Gamecocks fan. You don’t need Thompson to be Brett Favre. With a stellar group of tailbacks, a strong offensive line and an underrated receiving corps, Thompson needs to simply manage the game. If he limits his mistakes and keeps his defense out of short-field situations, South Carolina has a chance to separate itself in the East.

More around the SEC

SEC morning links

August, 12, 2014
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1. Tennessee needed some good news. And on Saturday, the Vols got some as Alton Howard returned to the football field after being absent from the program for spring practice and the start of fall camp. Now, “The past is the past,” Howard says. Let’s hope so. If Tennessee is going to be competitive this season, it’s going to need Howard to perform. Along with Marquez North and Marlin Lane, you’re looking at a good group of skill players on offense. Whoever starts at QB -- and that person could be named soon -- will need their help, especially when you consider the fact that there are no returning starters on the offensive line.

2. On Monday, Travis Haney gave you his four teams that should be in the top 25 of ESPN's Power Rankings. Among them was Mississippi State and Florida, which got me thinking: If we put them in the top 25, who from the SEC would we boot out? Alabama, Auburn and South Carolina aren't going anywhere. And though I'm not high on Georgia (where's the defense?) and LSU (how much can you really count on freshmen?), I'm not ready to throw them out, either. That, of course, leaves Ole Miss and Texas A&M. The Rebs are solid with good skill players on offense and a defense that goes two deep. Even though their O-line scares me, I wouldn't leave them unranked. I can't say the same for the Aggies. They look like LSU without the defense. I love the young wideouts and running backs, but who starts under center? And until I see a single three-and-out from Mark Snyder's bunch, I'm inclined to think last season wasn't a fluke. Things could change, but for now I'm not sold on the Aggies being ranked in the Top 25.

3. Andy Staples had a good story Monday on finding hidden gems on the recruiting trail. In it, he spotlighted Mississippi State linebacker Bernardrick McKinney. After seeing McKinney in person and talking to defensive coordinator Geoff Collins about him last fall, it's a wonder how anyone ever missed on him. But Staples' story reminded me of a conversation I had with Dan Mullen this spring. The gist of what he said was that not everyone can pretend to be Alabama and Florida -- top-tier programs that plug in five-star prospects with other, younger five-star prospects. "We don't get the pre-made guys," Mullen told me, citing Derrick Henry at Alabama. "We take a guy and develop them." With that, the hope is the cycle of turnover aligns every few years where a large group of upperclassmen are contributing. Mississippi State has that this year with a loaded defense and Dak Prescott under center. The question for teams like State -- programs like Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Kentucky -- is how they develop their young guys now and when their window of opportunity opens up down the road.

More around the SEC

SEC morning links

August, 11, 2014
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Yes, you’re reading this right. And, no, you’re not reading this at the wrong time, either.

“SEC lunchtime links” is no more. But don’t cue the funeral procession music. We wanted to give you more to read earlier in the day, so we’ve shifted the post to the morning. And rather than focusing solely on providing you with links from every team around the SEC, we’re instead going to make the post more multi-faceted with fewer quotes, more analysis and, hopefully, more fun.

With that said, let’s get on with our maiden voyage.

Saban gets defensive

Don’t call it a tirade, because it wasn’t. But when Nick Saban was asked on Saturday how he and the staff were preparing for hurry-up, no-huddle offenses, he didn’t exactly answer in kind.

“You know, in all honesty, guys, you all make way too much of this,” he said.

Oh, do tell.

“I mean, [Auburn] had 21 points against us with 30 seconds to go in the game, and I don’t think anybody held them to 21 points all year long,” Saban said. “I saw them score 60 in the SEC Championship Game, or whatever. We shut Ole Miss out here. We had four turnovers against Oklahoma that led to 28 points; two [touchdowns] the defense never even got back on the field.”

You know what that sounds like? Excuses.

Before you go ballistic, think about it. Did Alabama play all that poorly against HUNH offenses last season? Maybe not, compared to the rest of the country. But since when does Alabama compare itself to anyone? As Kirby Smart said prior to last season, “A lot of people think our standard is to be first in the SEC, be first in the country. ... We really don't go by that motto. We go by: Be the best Alabama defense there's been.”

From 2009-11, it seemed like no one could score on the Tide. Now, uptempo offenses are having some success poking holes in Alabama’s aura of invincibility. Are they big holes? Maybe not, but they are there nonetheless. Nearly 300 yards rushing by Auburn says so. Oklahoma throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns says so. Texas A&M racking up 628 yards -- the most ever allowed by an Alabama defense -- says so, too.

When Saban said, “We make it out like we’re horrible when we play a (no-huddle) team,” his argument was essentially that the scheme is sound, the preparation is good, but that the tempo makes it difficult to implement because of the trouble communicating from the sideline. But that sounds like a distinction without a difference. If you study all week for an exam, bring the sharpest No. 2 pencils and then answer most of the questions incorrectly, you still fail.

“We need to improve on it,” Saban said of defending the HUNH. “But I think we need to improve on defense, period.”

Both are true. But what good is one without the other?

Scrimmage season

From now until the season begins, you’ll hear a lot of talk about scrimmages. At Georgia, Hutson Mason called the Bulldogs’ first scrimmage a “draw.” At Alabama, Saban said both quarterbacks “did a lot of good things." And at Tennessee, Butch Jones said he saw "marked improvement."

That’s cause for celebration, right? Well, maybe.

Talk is great, but seeing is believing. And with many scrimmages these days, no one in the media or the general public is allowed to see anything.

So practice caution with the post-scrimmage news conferences, and beware of the stat sheet you’ll see shortly thereafter. The picture they paint is often a little too rosy.

Just look at Georgia, where somehow 51 passes were attempted without a single interception or touchdown. Alabama provided some rushing and receiving stats, but nothing from the QBs. Tennessee, meanwhile, didn’t provide any statistics whatsoever.

South Carolina, on the other hand, had a scrimmage open to the media in which Pharoh Cooper continued to impress and Dylan Thompson connected on 9 of 15 passes for 114 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.

Around the SEC
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- University of Alabama defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson sprained his knee on Sunday and is “day to day,” according to coach Nick Saban.

“It’s not surgical,” Saban said. “It’s probably going to take a few days before we get him back out there, maybe a week or so.”

Robinson played in every game and started two contests as a true freshman last season, racking up 38 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 5 1/2 sacks. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound former four-star prospect was a first-team All-SEC selection by the media in July.

“We’re going to be pretty cautious with this kind of thing, especially with his position because it’s not easy to function as an inside player if you have a sprained knee,” Saban said.

On Thursday, Alabama welcomed defensive tackles Brandon Ivory and Jarran Reed back into the fold. The two were suspended at the start of camp for violation of team rules. Ivory, a senior who started every game last season, was seen practicing without pads on Thursday.

The good news for Alabama is that if there is any position where it can absorb personnel loss, it’s the defensive line. Jonathan Allen, Korren Kirven, Darren Lake and Dee Liner all saw the field last season, with Allen playing in all 13 games as a true freshman. Dalvin Tomlinson, who would have been Alabama’s third defensive end last season had he not had surgery on his knee, is back. Then there’s the 2014 class that includes five-star Da’Shawn Hand, former Freshman All-SEC selection D.J. Pettway and 330-pound rookie Joshua Frazier.

“We thought that the defensive line was an area where we had pretty good depth coming in with the guys we recruited,” Saban said. “But it’s provided an opportunity to create more reps for some of the younger players. Dalvin Tomlinson, Jonathan Allen, D.J. Pettway; those guys have gotten a ton of reps. It’s allowed Josh Frazier to get a ton of reps, who is just a freshman, as an inside player. Darren Lake, Korren Kirven, a lot of guys.

“We obviously need to get some of these bigger guys back so we can be a little more solid inside. But I think it’s always good that young players get a lot of reps.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- You don’t hire Lane Kiffin without igniting certain expectations. There’s his baggage, of course, but there’s also the enduring sense that the former USC and Tennessee head coach still has a trick up his sleeve, that somewhere beyond the headlines there’s the former coordinator who helped the Trojans to a 23-3 record and the most productive offense in college football from 2005-06.

Nick Saban remembered that Lane Kiffin when he offered him the job of Alabama’s next offensive coordinator. He remembered the Lane Kiffin who brought a depleted Tennessee Vols team into Tuscaloosa in 2009 and nearly beat the eventual national champions. He remembered the Lane Kiffin he tried to hire away from USC three years earlier.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLane Kiffin knows he doesn't need to overhaul Alabama's offense.
So what will this reincarnation of Lane Kiffin bring? The coordinator with a gift for coaxing the best out of his players or the head coach who was fired after three-and-a-half underwhelming years of guiding USC?

Everything is set up for him to succeed at Alabama. There’s the matter of finding two new starters on the offensive line and picking a quarterback, of course, but there’s also a wealth of talent across the board. Amari Cooper may be the best receiver in the country, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry could be the scariest duo of tailbacks in the SEC and tight end O.J. Howard has the potential to be an absolute nightmare for defensive coordinators to game plan for.

Kiffin, for his part, seems to understand what he’s walked into. And rather than trying to rebuild his reputation by putting his stamp on Alabama, he’s doing the wise thing and trying not to do too much.

“As far as the offense, the last thing we'd want to do is come in and change a bunch of stuff,” he said. “As I mentioned before, it's a great offensive staff that's been together here. Had a great run here last year on offense, the number of players had great success last year. Really just coming in and looking at some things, very small changes just to make sure at the end of the day we're putting our great players in the best position to utilize their talents in the best position for us to win games.”

That, in a nutshell, is Kiffin’s job description. He’s the caretaker of Alabama’s offense now.

Because, make no mistake, this is not his offense. It wasn’t Doug Nussmeier’s or Jim McElwain’s either. Saban is the architect of the run-oriented, pro-style attack Alabama won three national championships with. He may not call the plays himself, but, as Nussmeier put it when he was hired in 2012, “This is Alabama’s offense.”

Kiffin is instead tasked with making the most of it: more explosive plays, more of a vertical passing game, a more even and consistent run-pass balance. He must get the most out of Cooper, pull the right strings with a deep group of running backs and make Howard a more complete player.

“The last thing I want to do here is focus on what they do really well,” Kiffin explained. “That’s our challenge here this fall: Let’s focus on what you haven’t done so well and not what you’ve done. We know what you can do, let’s bring your game up.”

If Kiffin can do that -- if he can do that even a little bit -- Alabama will be in good shape. There’s plenty of talent in Tuscaloosa. There’s a proven system in place as well. Kiffin doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Saban did that for him. He simply needs to get the wheel to spin a little faster.
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.
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Alabama Crimson Tide:

2013 record: 11-2, lost to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesT.J. Yeldon and Alabama enter another season with great expectations.
Final grade for 2013 season: For any other team, a Sugar Bowl berth and double-digit wins would merit an A. But this is Alabama, which came into last season loaded and looking for a third straight national championship. Seeing as the Crimson Tide lost back-to-back games to end the season and ultimately fell short of another title, a C seems appropriate.

Key losses: QB AJ McCarron, LT Cyrus Kouandjio, RG Anthony Steen, WR Kevin Norwood, LB C.J. Mosley, DL Ed Stinson, S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, CB Deion Belue

Key returnees: RB T.J. Yeldon, WR Amari Cooper, TE O.J. Howard, C Ryan Kelly, RT Austin Shepherd, DL A’Shawn Robinson, LB Trey DePriest, S Landon Collins

Projected 2014 starters: QB Jacob Coker, RB T.J. Yeldon, TE O.J. Howard, LT Cam Robinson, LG Leon Brown, C Ryan Kelly, RG Arie Kouandjio, RT Austin Shepherd, WR Amari Cooper, WR Christion Jones, WR DeAndrew White, DE Jonathan Allen, NG Brandon Ivory, DE A’Shawn Robinson, OLB Denzel Devall, ILB Dillon Lee, ILB Trey DePriest, OLB Xavier Dickson, CB Tony Brown, S Landon Collins, S Jarrick Williams, CB Bradley Sylve

Instant-impact newcomers: CB Tony Brown, CB Marlon Humphrey, S Hootie Jones, DE/OLB Da’Shawn Hand, OLB Rashaan Evans, OL Cam Robinson

Breakout player: O.J. Howard was incredibly underutilized as a true freshman in 2013. Despite being a constant mismatch for defenses with his size and speed at tight end, there were times he went missing. In five games he had no catches. But that was last year and now he has both a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator. Given Lane Kiffin’s track record on spotlighting playmakers, look for Howard to be a bigger part of the offense. And considering the fact tight ends are an inexperienced quarterback’s best friend, look for Jacob Coker to know where No. 88 is at all times.

Most important game: You could argue Auburn as being the game for Alabama, and you might be right. But in terms of timing and playoff implications, the Crimson Tide’s Nov. 8 trip to LSU carries more weight. With all due respect to Ole Miss and Tennessee, going to Baton Rouge will mark the first real road test of the season for Alabama. If the Tide survives Death Valley, the Iron Bowl will loom large. If not, the stakes won’t be quite so high.

 Biggest question mark: All the talk has been about the quarterback, and rightfully so considering it’s the glamour position of football. But no position group will have a bigger impact on Alabama’s success than the secondary, which returns only one starter from a season ago. Landon Collins has the chance to be a special safety, but he might have a tough go of it considering the potential for two true freshmen to take significant reps at cornerback. Tony Brown, who enrolled early, has a shot at starting from Week 1.

Upset special: Watch out for Ole Miss on Oct. 4. Alabama easily beat the Rebs in Tuscaloosa last season, but going on the road to Oxford will be a doozy. Ole Miss shouldn’t be taken lightly. Not with a veteran QB in Bo Wallace and two talented pass-catchers in Laquon Treadwell and Evan Engram. And definitely not with a defense that returns 10 starters, including potential All-SEC selections Cody Prewitt, Robert Nkemdiche and C.J. Johnson. With a couple of turnovers on defense and a fast-paced game on offense, Ole Miss could pull off the upset at home.

Key stat: With 2,343 yards in the past two seasons, T.J. Yeldon trails only Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Georgia’s Todd Gurley among active players in rushing.

They said it: “Having lost our last two games last year, I think it's a little bit different mindset with our players. We have to re-establish our identity as a team at Alabama. It's going to take every player to have a tremendous amount of buy-in for us to be able to do that. I think you basically need to check your ego at the door, all of us in our organizations: players, coaches, everybody in our organization” -- head coach Nick Saban at SEC media days in July.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 9.9 wins

Bovada over-under: 10.5

Our take: An undefeated season could be hard to come by with a new quarterback, two new offensive linemen and three new starters in the secondary. Oh, and linebacker C.J. Mosley and wideout Kevin Norwood are gone, as well. Somehow their names have gotten lost in the offseason shuffle. With so much experience gone at so many key positions, it’s going to be hard to run the gauntlet of the SEC West unscathed. But considering Alabama retains its annual rivalry with Tennessee and gets Florida as the other opponent out of the East, 10 wins isn’t out of the question. Not when you look at a nonconference slate that’s not exactly challenging: West Virginia, Florida Atlantic, Southern Miss and Western Carolina.
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban had a word of advice for Lane Kiffin as he prepared to address the media for the first time since taking over as Alabama's offensive coordinator: Don’t make any headlines.

“He made sure I didn’t say anything that would be on the ticker,” Kiffin said with a smile.

Kiffin smiled a lot Sunday. He joked about how when Saban called him in December to visit Alabama, “He knew I didn’t have much going on.” Asked about Alabama’s trip to Tennessee this year, Kiffin grinned and said, “It took a long time for the Knoxville question.” He was relaxed and, at times, even self-deprecating.

In his 15 minutes with the media, Kiffin didn’t put his foot in his mouth once. Saban would have been proud.

After so long butting heads with reporters, Kiffin was at ease Sunday. Maybe it was the knowledge that this would be the only time he would have to speak with the press during the regular season. More likely, it was because he’s a man unburdened by the duties of being a head coach. It was the look of a man who is aware of his unconventional career arc and believes that, despite all the turmoil, he’s on the right track.

After all, he’s only 39 years old. How many coaches would kill to be Alabama’s offensive coordinator at that age?

“To be able to go what I’ve gone through and still be fortunate before the age of 40 to be here and be an offensive coordinator with Coach Saban at Alabama, you take some time to reflect on that,” he said.

Kiffin didn’t bring up the Oakland Raiders. He said only the best of Tennessee. He mentioned being fired by USC but didn’t attempt to throw his former school under the bus. Rather, Kiffin said how proud he is now to have worked under two coaches he considers among the best in football: Pete Carroll and Nick Saban.

The adjustment from head coach to coordinator will be gradual for Kiffin, who hasn’t been in this position since 2007. But being more hands on with players and focusing solely on the offense could be a good thing for him. Taking a step back from everything that goes into being a head coach -- discipline, the media, etc. -- might remind everyone why he was once one of the hottest names in coaching, someone who was thought of as an offensive genius.

His list of priorities at Alabama isn't long. As he said, “The last thing we would want to do is come in here and change a bunch of stuff.” With Amari Cooper, T.J. Yeldon and the other skill players on offense, he doesn’t have to. But he does have to find a way to generate more big plays, and there is the small matter of developing a starting quarterback.

Day 1 of practice saw Blake Sims ahead of Jake Coker, who sailed a number of passes high and wide of his target. Day 2 saw a big improvement from Coker, who Saban said had his best day of camp.

“Lane has done a really good job since he’s been here, providing good leadership for the whole offense,” Saban said. “The direction we want to go, the identity we want to have and emphasizing some of the intangible things -- the fundamentals -- we needed to improve on.”

As Saban put it, “It’s not just about knowledge.” What he sees in Kiffin is an ability to communicate.

“Some people have a tremendous amount of knowledge, but you have to be able to articulate it to the players in a way they can understand it and it’s simple for them to go out and execute it,” Saban said. “Systematically, Lane does that with the players he coaches and with the entire offense, which I think is really, really important.”

Whether it’s fair or not, Kiffin is one of the biggest storylines in college football. If Alabama’s offense does well, he will get the credit. If it fails and Alabama doesn’t live up to its No. 2 ranking, he will receive a disproportionate share of the blame.

But for at least one day -- the only day he had to speak himself -- Kiffin did well. He didn’t make any headlines. He didn’t ruffle any feathers. He played the part of assistant and smiled all the way through it.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
12:00
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When Auburn opens fall camp this afternoon, it will do so with a reminder of their former teammate, Philip Lutzenkirchen.


Top SEC players: Nos. 5-1

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
9:00
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Finally, the moment you've all been waiting for. Our top-25 countdown ends here and now with our best five players in the SEC entering the 2014 season.

5. Landon Collins, S, Alabama Crimson Tide
It was only a matter of time before Collins became one of the league’s best DBs. The former five-star recruit had to wait his turn, but when he got his chance as a sophomore, he jumped at the opportunity. Despite switching back and forth between free and strong safety and not starting the first four games of the season, he filled up the stat sheet with 70 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and eight passes defended.

4. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida Gators
Cornerback is one of those positions that’s supposed to take time to master. You have to learn the various coverages and physically mature to handle more experienced receivers. But Hargreaves defied convention last season, quickly becoming the top on-ball defender in the SEC by season’s end with three interceptions and 11 passes defended. "At the end of the day, he has some natural instincts that others of us don't have," his coach, Will Muschamp, explained.

3. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama Crimson Tide
We didn’t see Cooper’s best until late in 2013. By the time his foot injury healed, he tweaked his knee, and without full mobility, he wasn’t his usual elusive self. But in the final six games, he looked more like the Cooper we saw burst onto the scene as a true freshman, catching 30 passes for 507 yards and three touchdowns. Now fully healthy and armed with an offensive coordinator in Lane Kiffin who loves to highlight his playmakers, Cooper’s stock could soar even higher as a junior.

2. Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M Aggies
There’s got to be something in the water in College Station, Texas. The way the Aggies keep producing NFL-caliber offensive tackles defies any other explanation. First, it was Luke Joeckel. Then, it was Jake Matthews. Now, it’s Ogbuehi, who made himself a potential first-round pick at right tackle last season before deciding to return for his senior year and a shot at playing left tackle, the O-line’s biggest money position. You'd be hard pressed to find an offensive lineman who has a better blend of size, strength and athleticism than Ogbuehi.

1. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia Bulldogs
Coaches, players and sports writers can agree on at least one thing: Gurley is a beast. At SEC media days, nearly every player surveyed by ESPN called Georgia’s lead tailback the most intimidating player to tackle in the league. Reporters, meanwhile, made Gurley a first-team All-SEC choice, awarding him the second-most votes overall. If he can stay healthy, he’s the league's best shot at winning the Heisman Trophy. With 2,374 yards in the past two seasons, only Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah has more career rushing yards entering 2014.
It may be the first time in seven years that the SEC does not boast the defending champion of college football, but the league still maintains the most teams in the Amway Coaches Poll with seven of the Top 25. The next closest conference was the Pac-12 with six.

Alabama, coming off back-to-back losses for the first time since 2008, was ranked No. 2 behind defending champ Florida State. Auburn, fresh off an SEC championship, came in at No. 5.

Neither the Crimson Tide nor the Tigers received a first-place vote from the coaches surveyed, which included Bret Bielema, Les Miles, Mark Richt, Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, and Kevin Sumlin of the SEC. The Seminoles, on the other hand, garnered 56 of the 62 total first-place votes.

South Carolina (9), Georgia (12), LSU (13), Ole Miss (19) and Texas A&M (20) also made the Top 25 from the SEC, which saw its total selections in the preseason Top 25 poll rise from six to seven this year. However, the SEC saw its numbers in the top 10 drop from five to three.

Missouri led all teams not in the Top 25 in votes received with 126. Mississippi State (74) and Arkansas (1) were also listed as having received votes in the preseason poll.

SEC lunchtime links

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
12:00
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You hear that?

No, it's not the sound of former LSU defensive back Patrick Peterson making it rain with his new $70 million contract extension.

That sound you hear is another kind of excitement.

Football is here. Sort of.

Fall camp in the SEC gets going this afternoon at Mississippi State and will kick off at Auburn and Alabama tomorrow.

So, to celebrate, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban took his players out on the lake. Enjoy.

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Now back to your regularly scheduled programming and a look around the rest of the conference.
  • "Everything gets lumped into one bucket," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin lamented. The Aggies have had a tough offseason and Sumlin believes his players' off-field problems have been judged somewhat unfairly. (An aside, coach: It's not a saying but it should be, "The police blotter don't lie.")
  • Tough news for former Alabama defensive lineman Jesse Williams. The Seattle Seahawk, fresh off an entire rookie season spent on the injured reserve list, was carted off of the practice field with a leg injury. The Monstar, as he likes to be called, has a history of knee problems. Here's to a speedy recovery for the lovable Aussie.
  • Tennessee is not necessarily lacking for talent. The problem for the Vols is that the majority of it resides in its freshman class. A veteran star in his own right, linebacker C.J. Johnson said you need to have the "right mindset" to play early. With a whopping 35 players in the 2014 signing class, the law of averages seems to favor at least a few possessing the ability to contribute as rookies, right?
  • Wait, so Auburn got a commitment from Jeremy Johnson yesterday? No, it's not the same guy who already backs up Nick Marshall at quarterback. Unfortunately for our purposes the younger Johnson is a baseball player. But that doesn't mean he doesn't think toting the pigskin is out of the question. "Maybe Auburn was interested in me (for football) for some time, but I lost contact," he told Al.com. "I'm not sure. If they need a kick/punt returner, I specialize in that."
  • South Carolina signed five cornerbacks in its 2014 class. But before Wednesday, only two had been cleared by the NCAA to get on campus. Well, good news for the Gamecocks: Chris Lammon and Wesley Green, two of their top four overall prospects, according to ESPN, are good to go, according to coach Steve Spurrier.

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