SEC: Da'Shawn Hand

College football is getting younger and younger. Gone are the days of just relying on upperclassmen to guide your football programs. Really, gone are the days of waiting for freshmen to develop.

Getting guys on the field earlier and earlier is more than just the norm, it's a necessity. Just look at all the young skill players tearing it up around the country.

The SEC has a treasure trove of young stars, so today we're going to look at rising sophomores and redshirt freshmen to keep an eye on in 2015.

Now, we aren't going to talk about the obvious guys. No All-SEC members from the coaches or the Associated Press. That's just too easy. We're diving into guys who just slid under the title of star in 2014 and could jump right in to the limelight this fall.

Here are the obvious guys who either made All-SEC teams, were honorable mentions or already are well known:
There are a ton of youngsters to choose from, so this certainly wasn't easy, but here are 10 rising sophomores and redshirt freshman from the SEC to keep an eye on in 2015:

EAST

[+] EnlargeJosh Malone
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsJosh Malone didn't live up to the hype as a freshman, but expectations for him remain high.
Will Grier, QB, Florida: He redshirted last year but will be in an all-out battle with Harris for the starting job. Some feel he might be more suited to run new coach Jim McElwain's more pro-style offense.

Jacob Park, QB, Georgia: Another quarterback who redshirted in 2014, Park will challenge for the starting spot in Athens, and he might be the most physically gifted of the three guys competing for that job this spring.

Lorenzo Carter, LB, Georgia: He really came on at the end of last season, proving to be one of the Bulldogs' best pass-rushers. He finished the year with 4.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries.

Isaiah McKenzie, WR/RS, Georgia: Running back Sony Michel should be fun to watch too, but McKenzie has a chance to really take a big step forward in the receiving, rushing and return game. He registered 684 all-purpose yards in 2014.

Dominick Sanders, S, Georgia: Sanders started all 13 games for the Bulldogs last season and finished the year on a very high note with a two-interception performance in Georgia's bowl win over Louisville.

Matt Elam, DT, Kentucky: He started seven games last season and finished the year with 10 tackles. He has to become a more disruptive player up front, but he really has a chance to help this defense in 2015.

Chris Lammons, CB, South Carolina: The Gamecocks' defense will be a little bit older and hopefully a little bit wiser in 2015, and Lammons could be a big part of the improvements in the secondary.

Josh Malone, WR, Tennessee: The Vols return a pretty deep receiving corps, but Malone could have a bright future in Knoxville and should improve on his 23 catches for 231 yards and a touchdown from 2014.

Ethan Wolf, TE, Tennessee: Another talented, young weapon in the Vols' offense, Wolf made an instant impact as a freshman and should continue to be a key part of the Vols' aerial attack in 2015.

Nigel Bowden, LB, Vanderbilt: Not much went right for the Commodores in 2014, but Bowden could be a budding star. He led Vandy with 78 tackles and added two tackles for loss and a sack.

WEST

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsFreshman defensive end Marquis Haynes led Ole Miss in sacks.
Da'Shawn Hand, DE, Alabama: He registered only seven tackles with two sacks in 2014, but Hand, a former five-star prospect, is a monster talent for the Tide who should see plenty of time this fall.

Marlon Humphrey/Tony Brown, CBs, Alabama: Brown played in 13 games, making two starts, while Humphrey redshirted. Alabama had issues at corner all year and these two youngsters, who might be the most talented corners on the team, will have every opportunity to take both starting spots.

Cam Sims, WR, Alabama: With Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones all departing, Alabama will be rebuilding at receiver. Sims, a former top high school prospect, could jump right into a key role at receiver for the Tide.

Jojo Robinson, WR, Arkansas: Coaches knew that he was really talented when he arrived last year, but he wasn't ready. There are high hopes for the former four-star prospect, who has a chance to make a strong impact in Arkansas' passing game.

Roc Thomas, RB, Auburn: In a crowded backfield, Thomas played in 12 games and registered 214 rushing yards with two touchdowns. With both Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant gone, Thomas will take over as Auburn's lead back so of course he'll be productive.

Travonte Valentine, DT, LSU: Eligibility issues cut into Valentine's chances of playing in 2014, but he has the potential to be a major player up front for the Tigers. He was probably physically ready to play last year.

Clifton Garrett, LB, LSU: Garrett didn’t really play much last season but was one of LSU's top prospects in its 2014 recruiting class. Garrett just wasn’t ready last season, but that will all change this year.

Gerri Green, LB, Mississippi State: While he sat out the 2014 season, the good news is that he's built like Benardrick McKinney, who just left Starkville for the NFL. He's a big, fast, strong, long, athletic linebacker, who the coaches are very excited about.

C.J. Hampton, S, Ole Miss: With Cody Prewitt gone, Hampton should step right in at that safety spot. There was even talk before the 2014 season that he could have replaced Prewitt and moved him to linebacker. He already has had good field experience, playing in 13 games.

Marquis Haynes, DE, Ole Miss: The Rebels are loaded with defensive line talent, but Haynes was Ole Miss' best pass-rusher in 2014. He started four of the 13 games he played in and led the team with 7.5 sacks while tying for the team lead with nine tackles for loss.
The SEC is known for its defensive line talent, with dozens of NFL linemen having played for one of the conference’s 14 schools. But this was an uncommonly productive season for the league’s freshman pass-rushers, even by the SEC’s lofty standards.

Two true freshmen – Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett – earned second-team All-SEC honors from the league’s coaches and media, and several others enjoyed productive debut seasons in arguably the nation’s toughest conference.

Garrett set an SEC record for freshmen with 11 sacks this season, but Barnett might have been not just the conference’s best freshman defensive lineman -- he might have been the SEC’s best defensive lineman, period.

[+] EnlargeDerek Barnett
AP Photo/Wade PayneTennessee freshman Derek Barnett ranks third in the nation in tackles for loss.
Missouri’s Shane Ray won the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year awards from both the coaches and media, and he is the conference’s only player whose numbers stand up against Barnett's. Ray led the SEC with 14 sacks and 21 tackles for loss in 13 games, although six of his sacks and 9.5 of his tackles for loss came against Missouri’s weak nonconference opposition. Barnett made all 10 of his sacks against SEC opponents, as well as 18 of his 20.5 tackles for loss.

Barnett is the only freshman to rank among the national top 30 in tackles for loss (he’s third) and Ole Miss freshman defensive end Marquis Haynes is the only freshman in the national top 50 in forced fumbles (he’s tied for 29th with three). Garrett (tied for sixth with 11), Barnett (tied for 16th with 10) and Haynes (tied for 43rd with 7.5) are three of the only four freshmen to rank in the national top 50 in sacks.

Haynes did not post the ridiculous numbers that Garrett and Barnett did, but he was the best pass-rusher on a powerful Ole Miss defense. He led the Rebels in sacks, quarterback hurries (eight), and forced fumbles and is tied for the team lead with a host of teammates with one fumble recovery.

Those three were the headliners, but they are not the only freshman pass rushers who appear destined for SEC stardom. Here are three more freshmen who could strike fear into quarterbacks’ hearts next season:

OLB Lorenzo Carter, Georgia: Arguably the biggest recruit in Georgia’s 2014 class, Carter didn’t start for the first time until Game 9 against Kentucky. But he made the most of that opportunity wotj nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss against the Wildcats. The Freshman All-SEC honoree started the last four games and figures to become a major impact player in 2015.

OLB Rashaan Evans, Alabama: Earning playing time as a freshman on Alabama’s talented front seven is difficult, but Evans contributed as a role player. He made 15 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack thanks to impressive speed and a high motor. Once he gets an opportunity to play more, he’s going to be a regular visitor into opponents’ backfields.

DE Da'Shawn Hand, Alabama: The SEC’s coaches saw enough from Hand in limited action to name him to their Freshman All-SEC team. One of the nation’s most coveted recruits in 2014, Hand recorded just seven tackles, two sacks and two tackles for loss as a reserve on Alabama’s deep defensive line. Rest assured, his time is coming.

 
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.”
Who’s next? That’s the question asked by fan bases across the SEC. They all want to know which top recruit is most likely to come in and play right away. Who are the newcomers who are going to see the field early this fall?

In January, we broke down the top early enrollees once they arrived on campus. Now, as the late enrollees continue to trickle in around the conference, we take a look at a handful of four- and five-star guys who could impact the league in their first year.

Below are 10 late enrollees from the SEC West to keep an eye on. They're listed alphabetically. Check back later today for the top late enrollees from the SEC East.

Malachi Dupre, WR, LSU: Losing both Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry was a huge blow for LSU after last season, but some of that pain went away when Dupre signed with the Tigers. He’s not as experienced as fellow wide receiver Travin Dural, but he’s every bit as talented. Don’t be surprised if Dupre becomes the go-to guy for LSU this season.

Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: There’s not a more highly anticipated freshman in the country. As the nation’s No. 1 recruit, that comes with the territory, but the expectations for Fournette this season range from ridiculous to absurd. The scary part is that he has the talent and opportunity to make good on them and be one of the top running backs in the SEC.

Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M: He’s not Jadeveon Clowney, but Garrett might be the closest thing since Clowney came out in 2011. At 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, he’s a physical freak, and looks like he could step right on the field. The Aggies return all of their defensive ends, but that doesn’t mean Garrett won’t crack the rotation at some point.


Da’Shawn Hand, DE, Alabama: Finding pass rushers was a priority for Nick Saban and his staff in 2014, and they landed one of the nation’s best in Hand. The 6-foot-4, 262-pound prospect, ranked No. 6 overall, can play both with his hand down on the line or in space as a rush linebacker. Regardless of where he ends up, he’ll make an immediate impact.

Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama: Between Humphrey and five-star Tony Brown, Alabama should be set at cornerback for the foreseeable future. The question is which one is more likely to play early this season? Brown has a leg up after arriving early, but Humphrey has the size and technical ability to come in and contribute right away.

Bijhon Jackson, DT, Arkansas: Bret Bielema’s goal is to build Arkansas from the inside out, and Jackson is the perfect piece to serve as the cornerstone of the defensive line for years to come. He’s already big enough (6-2, 330) and strong enough to play as a freshman and should make a good unit even better for the Hogs this fall.

Rod Taylor, OG, Ole Miss: Austin Golson’s transfer this spring left Ole Miss thin along the offensive line, but Taylor, the Rebels’ top-ranked signee in 2014, could be just the man to fill the void. Year-after-year, he drew rave reviews from SEC coaches at various camps, and now he has an opportunity to fulfill the potential that everybody saw in him.

Racean Thomas, RB, Auburn: The Tigers have three capable running backs already on campus, but the coaches still believe that Thomas will be a factor this season. They’re even giving him a chance to compete for the starting job in fall camp. Although it’s unlikely he wins the job, Thomas will play and play often for Auburn this fall.

Aeris Williams, RB, Mississippi State: Mr. Football in the state of Mississippi didn’t go to Taylor, the state’s top recruit. It didn’t go to Markell Pack or C.J. Hampton. It went to Williams, a four-star running back who had 2,821 all-purpose yards and 33 touchdowns as a senior. He’s now expected to carry that over to his freshman year at Mississippi State.

Andrew Williams, DE, Auburn: With the loss of Dee Ford and the uncertainty surrounding the health of Carl Lawson and LaDarius Owens, defensive end went from a position of strength to a position of need for Auburn. The good news is that Williams arrived last month and is plenty capable of filling in and contributing early if needed.

Other late enrollees to watch include S Jamal Adams (LSU), LB Rashaan Evans (Alabama), CB Nick Harvey (Texas A&M), CB Tee Shepard (Ole Miss) and LB Tre Williams (Auburn).

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It didn’t take long for the sickening feeling to seep out of Landon Collins’ stomach and circulate through his body.

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.”

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAfter a less-than-stellar performance in its bowl loss to Oklahoma, Landon Collins expects Alabama's defense to play with a chip on its shoulder in 2014.
If Alabama is going to make it back to the national championship, Collins said the defense has to improve. During Alabama’s two-year BCS title run (2011-12), the Tide finished first nationally in total and scoring defense in both seasons. Last season, Alabama finished in the top five in both categories, but that final game serves as a harsh reminder of the defense's flaws.

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.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At first, Nick Saban scoffed at the idea of his defensive line having good depth. After a lecture on the merits of perception, he said he wasn’t at all happy with the group. Alabama might appear loaded, but the veteran head coach wasn’t interested in how his defensive line appeared.

“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.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Ivory, Jonathan Allen
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith a new coach, Brandon Ivory (left), Jonathan Allen and the rest of Alabama's defensive line are focused on improving their pass-rushing abilities.
And then people actually listened.

“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.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It started out innocently enough as Alabama coach Nick Saban ribbed the media on Monday about returning from spring break. He acted surprised when one reporter said she didn't take the time off, noting sarcastically how, "You really appreciate them when you work hard."

The jab was obvious as he gave a sly look around the room as if to say that hard work was a foreign concept to the press. One writer quipped, "Why are you looking down here?"

A smirk from Saban: "I don't know. I'm wondering."

The playful mood lasted a hiccup longer and then it was back to business as Saban said how his players were starting to worry too much about the depth chart, followed by a news flash: “We really don’t have a depth chart.”

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsFighting expectations and speculation during spring practice is nothing new to Nick Saban.
Later on came the question that really set him off.

Saban can talk about X’s and O's all day. The problem is there’s hardly anything concrete about spring practice. There’s no game film, no stat book, no players of the week. Without a depth chart, there’s only who’s getting better and who’s getting worse. And without results, that’s a matter of opinion.

But Saban isn’t fond of conjecture. He’s even less fond of appearances, apparently.

“What does appear mean?” Saban said, responding to a question about the perceived depth of his defensive line. “It just means you’ve dreamed about it and it’s there?”

A quick clarification before he fired back: “What it looks like on paper? We’ve never seen these guys play or seen them take on an SEC lineman. But it appears.”

He continued, putting a point on the matter: “That’s how we form public opinion because something appears to be that way and everyone believes it.”

Such was a sneak peek into the mind of Saban. There’s no room in there for what could be. There’s a standard he’s trying to uphold and anything that takes him away from that -- say, speculation -- isn’t tolerated.

It’s an odd conundrum to have a program that loathes appearances while at the same time being such an object of speculation. It’s like a celebrity shunning the paparazzi. You want to avoid them but they’re always there.

Alabama is nonetheless wrought with pressure from the outside. Inside the bubble of the football offices it’s all business, but everywhere around there’s immense expectations and boundless conjecture about wins, losses, championships and future stars.

Saban might claim to not have a depth chart, but every day is a constant battle for fans to determine who the starters will be on a team that loses two starting offensive linemen, two veteran receivers, two high-profile linebackers and three key contributors in the secondary. Oh, and there’s also the small matter of AJ McCarron leaving a vacancy at starting quarterback -- just don’t ask Saban about that race because he’ll tell you to hold your horses and be patient.

Take for instance the question about the defensive line. Saban might not see his group in a good light today, but when you look at the depth Alabama has up front on defense, it’s scary. A’Shawn Robinson was one of the most impressive rookies in the SEC last season. He’s joined by Jonathan Allen, another true freshman who was promising off the bench. Brandon Ivory is back at nose guard, Darren Lake returns as his backup and there are a number of options to bring in the rotation around them. Dalvin Tomlinson, when healthy, has the potential to be a game changer. And we haven’t even mentioned the return of former Freshman All-SEC choice D.J. Pettway and the eventual arrival of five-star Da’Shawn Hand.

List those names all you want, just don’t expect Saban to sing their praise. It’s simply not his way to buy into the hype.

“I’m not satisfied with the way any of them are playing, if you want to know the truth about it," Saban said of his D-line. "They’ve got to be more aggressive, physical, play with better leverage, hold the point better, rush the passer better. I didn’t think that last year was one of our best years up front, and even though we have a couple new players competing and Dalvin Tomlinson back, I think all of them have a ways to go. A’Shawn Robinson has a lot of ability, but I think we need to get him in shape and he’s got to play with better focus and intensity down in and down out to be more consistent.

"So defensively we have a ways to go to improve to get back to the level and our standard of what we like to play here.”

Though sometimes it feels like Saban is constantly fighting with reporters, he’s not. The speculation extends far beyond the walls of the media room and the pages of newspapers. It’s all the talk that drives Saban nuts because it has a way of reaching his players, inflating their egos long before they’ve earned their stripes. Remember Saban’s comment about the depth chart? That came unsolicited, a direct shot at his team one floor below in the locker room.

What Saban is fighting is the standard. While others are taking time off, he’s busy worrying about the next move, not the next question about how things appear.

How it looks on paper? He’d rather see how it looks with his eyes, and then he’ll get back to you.

Q&A: Alabama DE signee Da'Shawn Hand

February, 28, 2014
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For any other school, five-star defensive end Da'Shawn Hand would have been the prized recruit and the cornerstone of its recruiting class. Not at Alabama, though. Not when the Crimson Tide signed 19 players in the ESPN 300, including 12 in the top 75. The Woodbridge, Va., native is just another signee at Alabama, and that’s the way he likes it.

This week, we caught up with the nation’s No. 6 player to talk about the Tide class and where he fits in. He’s expected to enroll in June.

[+] EnlargeDa'Shawn Hand
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIFive-star defensive end Da'Shawn Hand isn't sure which position he'll play at Alabama.
Q: What’s life been like since you signed with Alabama?

Da’Shawn Hand: Peaceful. Everything has been good. I’ve been able to relax and be a normal kid. You don’t get phone calls that often anymore, except from coaches every now and again, but no media attention. Just doing what you usually do before you were noticed.

Q: You committed on Nov. 14, your 18th birthday. When did you know for sure you wanted to go to Alabama?

Hand: It was the night before my decision, so about 12 hours before my actual decision. I was driving to Wendy’s to get something to eat. I just thought about the overall picture. I saw the big picture and why not go where you can compete for a national championship and still study your passion which is civil engineering?

Q: Alabama finished with the No. 1 recruiting class. How good can this class be?

Hand: It’s a good class. We just have to see how everybody turns out in camp. Once the pads come on, then we’ll really see how good the class is. So far, all of us get along. We’re all cool, very down-to-earth. Nobody’s cocky or thinks they’re like a big fish in a small pond anymore. Everybody knows they have to start all over. I think, for the whole class, everybody just needs to work hard and get in where you fit in.

Q: AJ McCarron made a comment recently about how some of these five-star guys have a sense of entitlement. How do you avoid that?

Hand: Honestly, if you don’t have it -- if you don’t have that mentality that you’re good -- if you’re just naturally humble, then the transition will be easy. But even for those guys who think that because they’re a five-star [recruit], they deserve to do this, practice is right around the corner. It will be a wake-up call.

Q: I assume you have more of a humble attitude coming in?

Hand: Of course. Like I said before, you kind of have to be real with yourself. I’m 18, young, and I just happen to have God-given talent, but I still have to get coached up and fine tune my techniques and skills. Everybody’s big, fast and strong. I realize that. You just have to be on your A game. I’m prepared for the worst. I just want to go in and make an impact. That’s all.

Q: What’s the position or role Alabama sees you playing at the next level?

Hand: That I have no clue. I don’t know where I’m going to play the most -- either defensive end or Jack linebacker. I’m just preparing for both. Like I said, I just want to get in where I fit in. If they want me at Jack, I’ll do it. If they want me at defensive end, I’m going to do it.

Q: Have they mentioned to you the chance to play early?

Hand: They present an opportunity. You just have to take it. I mean everybody has an equal opportunity. You just have to work hard and earn it.

Q: What are you doing now to prepare yourself for Alabama?

Hand: Track season just started, so we’re doing tryouts right now. (Groans) I’ve been running so much. But I’m doing a lot of core things. I do pool workouts in the morning, now I’ll start track, and days that I don’t have track during the week, I just do my workouts.

Edward's top impact true freshmen

February, 12, 2014
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Now that you've seen Chris' list of his top five freshmen for next season, I figured I'd give it a whirl and come up with my own list (in alphabetical order, of course):

Lorenzo Carter, DE, Georgia: The Bulldogs needed help up front and got it in Carter, who can move to outside linebacker if needed. The Bulldogs aren't ditching the 3-4 defensive scheme, which could make Carter an ideal hybrid DE/OLB player for Georgia, especially when it comes to the rushing the passer. That's his bread and butter and will be where he makes his hay with the Dawgs. Carter still needs to add to his frame, but expect him to be a situational pass-rusher for the Dawgs early before he fills out into an every-down player.

C.J. Hampton, S, Ole Miss: Yes, the Rebels have starting safeties Cody Prewitt (first-team All-American) and Trae Elston returning, but Hampton is just too good of a player not to see the field in some capacity this fall. The early enrollee will go through spring drills and if he plays well enough, he could force Ole Miss' coaching staff to move some guys around in the secondary. Hampton was a ballhawk in high school, and with his range in the back end, he could get reps at free safety, which could move Prewitt down to linebacker, allowing the Rebels to get even more athletes on the field at once.

Da'Shawn Hand, DE, Alabama: What Nick Saban really needed in this class was an elite pass-rusher, and Hand certainly fills that role. Hand has already gained some good weight, but he could stand to gain more when he gets on campus. The nation's No. 2 defensive end could play with his hand in the ground or at the "Jack" linebacker spot and be used as more of a pass-rusher for the Crimson Tide. It might not matter where Hand lines up for the Tide because he'll figure out a way to see valuable time this fall.

Josh Malone, WR, Tennessee: Coach Butch Jones has to be happy about having another top-flight receiver on his roster, in Malone. Even better news? Malone is on campus now and will go through spring practice. He already has good size at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds and has the potential to be a real deep threat for a Tennessee team looking for more offensive playmakers. Malone, who caught 71 passes for 1,404 yards with 31 total touchdowns as a senior, should take some pressure off of Marquez North and Alton Howard.

Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida: With four starters gone in the secondary, the Gators were in desperate need of some secondary help and got plenty of it in this class. The 6-1, 188-pound Tabor is the star and figures to provide immediate help at the cornerback position, opposite freshman All-American Vernon Hargreaves III. A five-star prospect coming out of high school, Tabor enrolled early at Florida. He's a physical corner who intercepted five passes as a senior and was an Under Armour All-American. His speed, strength and size are exactly what Will Muschamp wants in a corner, and Tabor's natural ability should have him shoot up Florida's depth chart early.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- As impressive as Alabama’s 2014 recruiting class was, the fact remains that most of the Tide’s 27 signees will not make significant contributions Year 1 in the program. It never fails. Landon Collins, a former No. 1 safety in his class, spent his entire rookie season playing special teams and learning the system. Adrian Hubbard, a former top-five defensive end in his class, had to physically mature and add weight before he could play on Saturdays.

This past year’s signing class had 20 four- or five-star prospects, and only a handful of them saw the field in any meaningful capacity as true freshmen.

It’s not an easy transition from high school senior to college freshman. Doing so while studying a playbook and earning the trust of a coaching staff is an even more difficult mountain to climb.

Still, as true as it is that most will fail in their goal to play right away, there are always a few who do meet that lofty ambition. Reuben Foster, Robert Foster and Dee Liner never made much of an impact as true freshmen in 2013, but their counterparts A’Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and O.J. Howard did. Derrick Henry took some time to develop, but eventually he emerged as one of the most talented young running backs in the SEC.


So who will be the ones from the 2014 signing class to step up and make an impact as rookies? Not counting the four transfers, let’s take a look at five possible candidates:

CB Tony Brown: The five-star prospect and two-sport star didn’t start his college career the way you’d like with an early arrest for failure to obey. But the hope for Nick Saban and his staff is that Brown has learned his lesson and will be better off for it. If he has, he could develop into a starter at cornerback. Deion Belue is gone and the carousel of starters opposite him isn’t the most inspiring bunch. Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith could still develop as sophomores, but they’re not a sure thing. Enter Brown, who has the size (6-0, 196 pounds) and athleticism (4.35 second 40-yard dash) to play right away. Match that with a muscular frame and some of the best feet in the country, and no one should be counting him out of the race this spring.

[+] EnlargeDa'Shawn Hand
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIDa'Shawn Hand could specialize in rushing the passer as a freshman.
DE/LB Da’Shawn Hand: Saban has said it over and over again the past few months: He needs more athletic pass-rushers -- “quick-twitch,” he calls them -- to combat the rising tide of mobile quarterbacks and hurry-up no-huddle offenses in college football. Hand, who is something of a tweener prospect as a defensive end/linebacker, perfectly fits that bill. He’s got the size (6-4, 262 pounds) to put his hand in the dirt and take on offensive linemen, but he also has the speed and quickness (4.95 second 40-yard dash) to get off the edge and track down the quarterback. Alabama could easily ask him to come on the field for third downs and do nothing but rush the passer as a freshman. And with his raw skill and natural instincts, he might be able to make it work.

CB Marlon Humphrey: The fact that Humphrey isn’t an early enrollee, was beaten to campus by Brown and still has a legitimate chance to work his way into the cornerback rotation speaks to the limited amount of depth Alabama has at the position. Humphrey is as athletic as they come, sporting the same two-sport credentials as Brown. But the five-star corner from nearby Hoover is also one of the most sound athletes in terms of technique in the country. That will help him when he makes it to campus and comes under the watchful eye of Saban, who is the defacto cornerbacks coach in addition to being the head coach. For Humphrey and Brown, the biggest obstacle will be picking up the playbook in a timely fashion.

OT Cameron Robinson: There are so many similarities between Robinson and former Alabama left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio: both were the No. 1 prospects at their position, both were five-star athletes, both came to Alabama from out of state. And last but not least: Both signed on with expectations to start from Day 1. It’s not easy to play as a true freshman on the offensive line, but Kouandjio showed you could do it, starting eight games in 2011 before injuring his knee. Robinson has those same traits to challenge for playing time as a true freshman. At 6-5 and 330 pounds with plenty of athleticism, he’s the complete package.

K J.K. Scott: Didn’t expect to see a specialist on this list, did you? Scott may not jump off the page as a prospect, but he nonetheless has an opportunity to come in and play right away. With senior Cody Mandell gone, the door is open for the Colorado native to take his place as the team’s punter.

Recruiting hits and misses: SEC West

February, 6, 2014
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Now that the fax machines are quiet, the 2014 signing classes have been announced and before we start looking ahead to 2015, let's take a moment to examine how each of the SEC schools did in filling immediate needs via recruiting.

We're checking out what all 14 teams did to fill holes, and we're looking at which holes still remain. We'll start with the SEC West (click here for the SEC East):

ALABAMA

Needs filled: It was obvious Alabama needed help at cornerback, and the Crimson Tide went out and got two of the best in the country in five-star prospects Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey. Pass rushers were also a priority, which makes five-star defensive end Da'Shawn Hand and four-star outside linebackers Rashaan Evans and Christian Miller key pickups. Cameron Robinson, yet another five-star prospect, could end up starting at left tackle next season on the offensive line.

Holes remaining: The Crimson Tide could have used another marquee receiver and lost out on No. 1 wideout Malachi Dupre to LSU. With Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri both heading early to the NFL, the Tide also might have come up short at safety.

ARKANSAS

Needs filled: The Hogs’ passing game was in need of a jump-start, and getting an ESPN 300 player out of Miami the caliber of JoJo Robinson adds another playmaker to the equation. Arkansas’ offensive line class is equally impressive with four-star prospects Brian Wallace and Frank Ragnow and three-star prospect Jovan Pruitt joining Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper from last year’s class.

Holes remaining: The highest-ranked player in the Hogs’ class was defensive tackle Bijhon Jackson of El Dorado, Ark., which was big considering they need help everywhere on defense. But they missed out on a pair of highly ranked defensive ends in Solomon Thomas and Demetrius Jackson.

AUBURN

Needs filled: Gus Malzahn called ESPN 300 prospect Tre' Williams the key to the class, and he should provide an immediate boost at linebacker. With Chris Davis departing, the Tigers also needed to replenish at cornerback, which is where four-star prospects Kalvaraz Bessent and Stephen Roberts come in. Both were ranked in the top 10 nationally at their position. With Greg Robinson leaving early for the NFL draft, it was good to add muscle on the offensive line with ESPN 300 prospect Braden Smith, who could play guard or tackle.

Holes remaining: The sting of losing Evans, who’s from Auburn, to Alabama could be felt for a while. He's the kind of explosive athlete who would fit on any defense, and the Tigers need more of those guys, particularly at linebacker.

LSU

Needs filled: The loss of running back Jeremy Hill early to the NFL draft was lessened by landing Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 overall prospect in this class. It only got better for the Tigers’ offense on signing day when the country’s No. 1 receiver, Dupre, said he would play his college football on the Bayou. Safety was a real sore spot on defense last season, so getting ESPN 300 prospect Jamal Adams was a major pickup. Adams is rated by ESPN RecruitingNation as the No. 2 safety in the 2014 class.

Holes remaining: Robinson would have been a nice centerpiece on that LSU offensive line, but Alabama came into West Monroe, La., and swiped the five-star prospect. The Tigers also lost five-star athlete Speedy Noil of New Orleans to Texas A&M.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Needs filled: Junior college signee Jocquell Johnson is already on campus and will battle for a starting job next season on an offensive line that’s losing two starters, including All-SEC guard Gabe Jackson. The Bulldogs also added a pair of playmakers at receiver in ESPN 300 prospects Jamoral Graham and Jesse Jackson. Flipping 6-foot-6, 265-pound defensive lineman Cory Thomas from Tennessee on signing day added some more punch to an already deep and talented defensive line in Starkville.

Holes remaining: More secondary help would have been nice, which is why losing cornerback Tee Shepard to Ole Miss on signing day was a downer. A couple of the offensive linemen the Bulldogs wanted, Jordan Sims and Sean Rawlings, also opted for Ole Miss.

OLE MISS

Needs filled: The Rebels wanted to continue to stockpile talent on the offensive line after reeling in Laremy Tunsil and Austin Golson a year ago and did that with four-star prospects Rod Taylor, Tyler Putman and Sims. Upgrading the defense was also a priority, which is why beating Alabama for ESPN 300 safety C.J. Hampton was so important along with getting ESPN 300 defensive end Garrald McDowell out of Louisiana. Flipping junior college cornerback Shepard from Mississippi State was a nice signing day coup.

Holes remaining: You can never have enough defensive linemen in the SEC, so losing defensive tackle Michael Sawyers to Tennessee was a blow. The same goes for ESPN 300 defensive end Davon Godchaux, who stuck with his commitment and signed with LSU.

TEXAS A&M

Needs filled: With Johnny Manziel taking his show to the NFL, Texas A&M has to find a quarterback. Early enrollee Kyle Allen is an ESPN 300 prospect and ranked as the No. 1 pocket passer in this class. Noil, another early enrollee, should help fill a void with big-play receiver Mike Evans headed to the NFL, and the Aggies also loaded up on offensive linemen, including a pair of junior college signees. Any help on defense was a priority, which makes five-star defensive end Myles Garrett one of the keys to the class.

Holes remaining: The Aggies are still thin at safety after swinging and missing on several of their top targets in this class, including Adams, Steven Parker II and Mattrell McGraw. They also had ESPN 300 safety Dylan Sumner-Gardner committed but lost him to Boise State when Marcel Yates took the defensive coordinator job there.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban isn’t a particularly joyous man in front of a microphone. Speaking with the media is more an obligation he suffers through for the greater good. He doesn’t enjoy previewing games; he’s too worried about the process of preparing. He doesn’t enjoy the postmortem following games either; win or lose, he’s too concerned about the next challenge that awaits.

But the 62-year-old head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide does allow himself a respite from the pain of constantly looking ahead at least one day during the year. He is in his element more than ever on signing day. And despite the media hubbub that surrounds the counting of stars and the faxing of paperwork, Saban appears happy, relieved even. A smile shows on his tanned face and he looks like a man who genuinely loves his job no matter its obligations. At least for a moment, he’s willing to take a deep breath and reflect.

Christmas in July? Try Christmas in February, at least in Alabama.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesIf there's anything that can get Nick Saban smiling, it's the process of building and signing a recruiting class.
Maybe it was the prospects hung like ornaments on the “Big Board” that created the festive atmosphere at Alabama’s football offices. Derek Kief, a four-star wide receiver from Ohio, was the first to fax in his letter of intent early Wednesday morning. Da'Shawn Hand, the No. 2 defensive end in the ESPN 300, and Bo Scarbrough, the No. 2 athlete in his class, would join him as the 15th and 27th signees, respectively. Eight early enrollees beat everyone to the punch by starting class in January, including the top offensive tackle and the second-best cornerback in the country.

Jacob Coker, a highly sought after quarterback from Florida State, signed his paperwork to transfer to Alabama weeks earlier. By the time signing day was over and all the faxes had rolled in, Saban counted up five five-stars, 17 four-stars and the No. 1 recruiting class in the country for the third consecutive year.

“Certainly great to see everybody here again,” Saban said that afternoon, giving the media assembled for his annual news conference a knowing, sarcastic smile. “I’ve missed you all since Jan. 1. I think you know how much.”

Sporting brownish slacks, a crimson coat and a matching crimson and cream tie, Saban looked the part of a proud University of Alabama salesman, a veteran campus recruiter ready to give a campus tour on the spot.

Before gushing over his prized signees, he allowed himself to look back on the process as a whole, calling the day “an accumulation of a lot of hard work and a lot of time spent by a whole bunch of people.” His laundry list of thank-yous included everyone from the president of the university to the athletic director to the academic support staff. He even thanked fans who come out to games and events, such as A-Day.

It was as though he had to go around the table once and say a few words before digging into a holiday feast. He didn’t want to leave anyone out on a day like this.

“We had a good class and we sort of identified our needs,” Saban said. “I think the key to that is that we satisfied our needs because we identified those needs early on in the recruiting process and evaluated the players we thought fit in best for what we want to do. I think that we did a good job of going out and getting a lot of those players.”

Alabama needed a quarterback. So it went and got Coker to go along with David Cornwell, the No. 4-rated pocket passer in the country.

Alabama needed a couple of cornerbacks. So it signed Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, two five-stars.

Alabama needed help on the offensive line. So it put together maybe the best O-line class in school history with not only Robinson, but Dominick Johnson, the top junior college offensive tackle.

[+] EnlargeRashaan Evans
AP Photo/Butch DillTaking Rashaan Evans out of Auburn's backyard put a bow on top of another top-ranked recruiting class.
Finally, Alabama needed more athletic defensive linemen and outside linebackers to create pressure off the edge. So it signed some of the best pass-rushers available, pulling off a huge coup by nabbing four-star Rashaan Evans out of Auburn’s backyard.

“One of the goals we had was to get a little more fast-twitch, quicker-body-type guys to play on the edges for us,” Saban said. “We're playing against a lot more spread. I feel between the outside backer types we got, as well as some of the more athletic kind of defensive ends we got, that maybe we satisfied that need as well.

“We also needed a punter and we feel good about the punter we were able to attract in this class.”

Whatever Saban needed, he got. Prospects were just waiting for him under the tree as if it were Christmas morning. His haul turned out to be the envy of every program in the country.

But why was Saban so happy? It wasn’t that he won signing day or that he had all the best toys when it was over. No, he has had plenty of wins in his career. He’s not one to bask in a trophy, real or imagined.

Rather, he was pleased because this is what he does year-around. This is what he works for and what the NFL could never offer him: a chance to develop relationships. Getting to know recruits, establishing trust and convincing them to come to his program is the first step in his life’s calling as a college football coach. It’s Part 1 in his beloved “Process” -- the second step being to develop his players and win games. But even winning means recruiting to Saban, who famously said after winning the national championship in 2013 that it took time away from talking to prospects.

He could smile on signing day because it’s the end of something challenging. He can laugh and poke fun at the media because there’s not something dreadful that lies ahead. Instead, signing a recruiting class is both the end and the start of something special.

Signing day wrap: SEC

February, 5, 2014
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The Southeastern Conference had a strong finish the 2014 recruiting class. Alabama, which received a commitment from four-star outside linebacker Rashaan Evans (Auburn, Ala./Auburn) on Wednesday, finished with the top overall class by a landslide, and seven of the top 10 recruiting classes in the country are in the SEC. Here’s a closer look at some of the top news from around the SEC on national signing day.

Top class

[+] EnlargeRashaan Evans
AP Photo/Butch DillESPN 300 OLB Rashaan Evans, who chose Bama over Auburn, made a great class even better.
There is no question Alabama had the top overall class. The Crimson Tide finished with 27 signees, including 19 ranked in the ESPN 300 and five five-star prospects. In addition to the incredible class Alabama put together leading up to signing day, the Crimson Tide were also able to land Evans, the No. 52 player in the country. Evans chose Alabama over arch-rival and hometown Auburn Tigers.

The Alabama class was led by the No. 1 offensive tackle in the country, Cameron Robinson (West Monroe, La./West Monroe), the No. 2-ranked defensive end Da'Shawn Hand (Woodbridge, Va./Woodbridge) and the No. 2-ranked cornerback in the country Tony Brown (Beaumont, Texas/Ozen), who is already enrolled.

The SEC West alone had three schools, Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M, finish in the top five of the final recruiting team rankings. In all, 13 of the 14 SEC schools finished in the top 40 of the team recruiting rankings.

South Carolina, LSU and Georgia finish strong

South Carolina had arguably the best finish of any class in the SEC. The Gamecocks were able to flip ESPN 300 defensive end Dexter Wideman (Saluda, S.C./Saluda) from Florida State and defensive tackle Blake McClain (Jacksonville, Fla./Sandalwood) from Nebraska. They were also able to land ESPN 300 defensive backs Chris Lammons (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./Plantation) and Wesley Green (Lithonia, Ga./Martin Luther King) giving the Gamecocks a very athletic secondary.

If South Carolina was the best, LSU wasn’t far behind. The Tigers were able to land the No. 1 wide receiver in the country Malachi Dupre (River Ridge, La./John Curtis) and ESPN 300 defensive tackle Travonte Valentine (Hialeah, Fla./Champagnat Catholic). Dupre chose LSU over UCLA, Ole Miss, Alabama and FSU. Valentine had decommitted from three different schools – Louisville, Florida and Miami -- over the course of his recruitment before finally settling on LSU. The Tigers were also able to hang on to defensive end Davon Godchaux (Plaquemine, La./Plaquemine), who had been wavering on his commitment leading up to signing day.

Georgia, meanwhile, added five-star defensive end Lorenzo Carter (Norcross, Ga./Norcross), who chose the Bulldogs over LSU, FSU and Florida. They also added four-star wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie (Plantation, Fla./American Heritage). The ESPN 300 wide receiver wasn’t even considering Georgia until earlier this week, but a late offer from the Bulldogs was enough for McKenzie to pull the trigger and sign with Georgia.

Several schools lose commits

Signing day was full of surprises, including several prospects who backed off of their commitments and signed with a different school. Three-star defensive tackle Cory Thomas (McCalla, Ala./McAdory), a long-time Tennessee commit, spurned the Volunteers and signed with Mississippi State. But not all was good news for Mississippi State. Ole Miss was able to steal junior college defensive back Tee Shepard (Fresno, Calif./Holmes CC), the No. 22-ranked player in the ESPN JC 50. The Vols took another hit when three-star offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. (Duluth, Ga./Peachtree Ridge) unexpectedly signed with Oklahoma. The Volunteers, however, were able to land four-star defensive tackle Michael Sawyers (Nashville/The Ensworth School), and had the No. 5 recruiting class in the country -- one that included 11 players ranked in the ESPN 300.

Quarterback Treon Harris (Miami/Booker T. Washington) backed off his pledge to FSU and signed with Florida. Offensive tackle Andrew Mike (Tucson, Ariz./Sabino) was only a part of Vanderbilt’s class for one short day, but the three-star tackle flipped on Tuesday night and signed with Florida on Wednesday. Four-star Alabama safety commit Chris Williams (Kingsland, Ga./Camden Co.) flipped and signed with UCF because of personal family reasons. Four-star wide receiver DeSean Blair (Jacksonville, Fla./Sandalwood) flipped his commitment from Louisville and signed with Missouri.

Vanderbilt able to rebound

The Vanderbilt class may not be filled with four- and five-star prospects, but the job new head coach Derek Mason did to rebuild the Commodores’ class is nothing short of amazing. After James Franklin left to take the head coaching job at Penn State and a string of decommitments followed, Vanderbilt was down to eight verbal commitments. After an impressive few weeks of recruiting the Commodores finished with 22 signees, including 17 prospects ranked three stars or higher.

The class is led by ESPN 300 defensive tackle Nifae Lealao (Sacramento, Calif./Capital Christian) and four-star running back Dallas Rivers (Stone Mountain, Ga./Stephenson). After losing ESPN 300 quarterback Kyle Carta-Samuels to Washington, Vanderbilt was able to flip Pitt quarterback commit Wade Freebeck (Fort Lauderdale, Fla/St. Thomas Aquinas) and former ECU commit Shawn Stankavage (Raleigh, N.C./Cardinal Gibbons).

It was another successful national signing day for the SEC. After all 14 schools officially announced their 2014 signing classes, the SEC finished the day with 10 schools in the top 25 and 13 schools in the top 40 of the ESPN RecruitingNation class rankings.

Seven schools -- Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and Georgia -- ranked in the top 10, while Alabama took home the nation's No. 1 class. The Crimson Tide signed 27 players, including 19 ESPN 300 recruits and five five-star prospects: OT Cameron Robinson (West Monroe, La./West Monroe), DE Da'Shawn Hand (Woodbridge, Va./Woodbridge), CB Tony Brown (Beaumont, Texas/Ozen), RB Bo Scarbrough (Northport, Ala./Tuscaloosa County) and CB Marlon Humphrey (Hoover, Ala./Hoover).

LSU ranked second, bringing in 22 signees, including 15 ESPN 300 members and one five-star prospect: No. 1 running back Leonard Fournette (New Orleans/Saint Augustine). The Tigers could add No. 23 and their 16th ESPN 300 member Thursday once defensive end Deondre Clark (Oklahoma City/Douglass) signs his letter of intent. The four-star prospect was unable to sign his LOI after weather canceled his signing ceremony Wednesday.

As a whole, the SEC brought in 120 ESPN 300 prospects (the most of any conference) and 10 of the 15 five-star prospects in the ESPN 300.

You can check out all 14 SEC schools' 2014 recruiting classes in our ESPN RecruitingNation database:

SEC recruiting scorecard

February, 4, 2014
2/04/14
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And just like that, national signing day is a day away.

The future is almost here, folks, so here's one last recruiting scorecard for the 2014 recruiting season.

As of Tuesday, seven SEC teams rank in the top 10 of ESPN's recruiting class rankings. Alabama and Texas A&M lead the charge for the league, ranking first and second, respectively. Alabama has 27 verbal commitments, with 18 in the ESPN 300. Four are five-star prospects. Texas A&M has 23 commitments, including 11 ESPN 300 members and two five-star prospects.

How's the rest of the SEC doing before signing day? Let's take a look:

ALABAMA

2014 verbal commitments: 27

Spotlight: Defensive end Da'Shawn Hand of Woodbridge, Va., is a huge addition for the Crimson Tide. He's the nation's No. 2-ranked defensive end and could provide an immediate spark to a front seven that wants to generate more pressure on opposing backfields.

ESPN 300 members: 18 (Hand; OT Cameron Robinson of West Monroe, La.; CB Tony Brown of Beaumont, Texas; RB Bo Scarbrough of Tuscaloosa, Ala.; CB Marlon Humphrey of Hoover, Ala.; S Laurence Jones of Monroe, La.; OLB Christian Miller of Columbia, S.C.; WR Cameron Sims of Monroe, La., QB David Cornwell of Norman, Okla.; Ross Pierschbacher of Cedar Falls, Iowa; ATH Ronnie Clark of Calera, Ala.; ILB Shaun Dion Hamilton of Montgomery, Ala.; DT Joshua Frazier of Springdale, Ark.; C Josh Casher of Mobile, Ala., C J.C. Hassenauer of Woodbury, Minn.; WR Derek Kief of Cincinnati; DT O.J. Smith of Bossier City, La.)

Key targets: After gaining Humphrey's recent commitment, No. 1-ranked wide receiver Malachi Dupre of River Ridge, La., remains the Tide's top target.

ARKANSAS

2014 verbal commitments: 23

Spotlight: Defensive tackle Bijhon Jackson of El Dorado, Ark., is the top player in the state and ranked as the nation's No. 6 defensive tackle. At 6-foot-2 and 334 pounds, Jackson can clog the middle for the run, but has the quickness off the line to be a threat against the pass as well.

ESPN 300 members: 2 (Jackson; OT Brian Wallace of St. Louis)

Key targets: Offensive lineman Rashawn Shaw of Fort Pierce, Fla., was very much on Arkansas' radar, as the Hogs look to add much-needed depth up front, but he recently committed to Wake Forest. Florida State receiver commit JoJo Robison recently visited and could be one to watch with Arkansas, as could ESPN 300 linebacker Sharieff Rhaheed of Fort Pierce, Fla.

AUBURN

2014 verbal commitments: 21

Spotlight: Tre Mason might be gone, but Gus Malzahn hopes he has a solid replacement in running back Racean Thomas of Oxford, Ala. The nation's No. 5 running back runs hard and has the explosiveness to make some real noise in Auburn's offense. He's also elusive and strong enough to stretch plays.

ESPN 300 members: 10 (Thomas; QB Sean White of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; CB Stephen Roberts of Opelika, Ala.; CB Kalvaraz Bessent of Kingsland, Ga., ILB Tre' Williams of Mobile, Ala.; ATH Nicholas Ruffin of Atlanta; DE Justin Thornton of Prichard, Ala.; DT Dontavius Russell of Carrollton, Ga.; ATH Stanton Truitt of Monroe, Ga.; RB Kamryn Pettway of Prattville, Ala.)

Key targets: Auburn is almost done with this class, but ESPN 300 linebacker Rashaan Evans of Auburn, Ala., and defensive end Andrew Williams of McDonough, Ga., are still in the mix. Florida State quarterback commit Treon Harris is also very much in the mix for the Tigers.

FLORIDA

2014 verbal commitments: 21

Spotlight: Quarterback Will Grier of Davidson, N.C., is already on campus and gives the Gators a real quality body to work with behind Jeff Driskel. Grier appears to be he future of the position, and he totaled 4,989 passing yards with a national-best 77 touchdowns and rushed for another 1,251 yards with 13 more scores in 2013.

ESPN 300 members: 12 (Grier, CB Jalen Tabor of Washington, D.C.; OT David Sharpe of Jacksonville, Fla.; DT Gerald Willis III of New Orleans; DT Thomas Holley of Brooklyn, N.Y.; ATH J.C. Jackson of Immokalee, Fla.; WR Moral Stephens of Perry, Fla.; CB Duke Dawson of Cross City, Fla.; ATH Brandon Powell of Deerfield Beach, Fla.; DE Justus Reed of Clearwater, Fla.; S Quincy Wilson of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Key targets: ESPN 300 members Lorenzo Carter (defensive end from Norcross, Ga.), Damian Prince (offensive tackle from Forestville, Md.) and Adoree' Jackson (athlete from Gardena, Calif.) remain the Gators' top targets, while Treon Harris from Miami and former Florida State receiver commit C.J. Worton from Homestead, Fla., are very much in the mix.

GEORGIA

2014 verbal commitments: 19

Spotlight: The Bulldogs have had some recent success at the running back position and just added to it with Sony Michel of Plantation, Fla. The 5-11, 194-pound Michel is the nation's No. 2 RB and is an every-down back who can do it all. He has a chance to see the field early in his career at Georgia.

ESPN 300 members: 9 (Michel; DT Lamont Gaillard of Fayetteville, N.C.; RB Nick Chubb of Cedartown, Ga.; ATH Malkom Parrish of Quitman, Ga.; QB Jacob Park of Goose Creek, S.C.; TE Jeb Blazevich of Charlotte, N.C.; OG Isaiah Wynn of Saint Petersburg, Fla.; DE Keyon Brown of Wauchula, Fla.; WR Shakenneth Williams of Macon, Ga.)

Key targets: ESPN 300 defensive end Lorenzo Carter of Norcross, Ga., is the top remaining target on the Bulldogs' board. Georgia appears to be in good shape for the five-star prospect. Georgia is also hoping to gain ground with Rashaan Evans and is still in the hunt for South Carolina linebacker commit Bryson Allen-Williams.

KENTUCKY

2014 verbal commitments: 28

Spotlight: After being committed to Florida State for a year, defensive end Denzel Ware of Crestview, Fla., committed to Kentucky, before decommitting, and then committing again. He appears solidly committed to the Wildcats and has tremendous upside to match his explosiveness off the line.

ESPN 300 members: 6 (Ware; QB Drew Barker of Hebron, Ky.; WR Thaddeus Snodgrass of Springfield, Ohio; RB Stanley Williams of Monroe, Ga.; CB Darius West of Lima, Ohio; CB Kendall Randolph of Tallahassee, Fla.)

Key targets: With Elam in hand, the Wildcats are looking to add to their defensive line with fellow ESPN 300 member Travonte Valentine of Hialeah, Fla.

LSU

2014 verbal commitments: 19

Spotlight: Running back Leonard Fournette of New Orleans was the recruit LSU had to have. Not only is he the nation's No. 1 overall player but he immediately fills the need at running back with Jeremy Hill's departure. His excellent combination of size, speed and strength will get him on the field early in Baton Rouge.

ESPN 300 members: 14 (Fournette; S Jamal Adams of Lewisville, Texas; ILB Clifton Garrett of Plainfield, Ill.; OG Garrett Brumfield of Baton Rouge, La.; TE Jacory Washington of Westlake, La.; S Devin Voorhies of Woodville, Miss.; WR Trey Quinn of Lake Charles, La.; QB Brandon Harris of Bossier City, La.; S Edward Paris Jr. from Arlington, Texas; DE Davon Godchaux of Plaquemine, La.; OLB Donnie Alexander of New Orleans; WR D.J. Chark of Alexandria, La.; DE Deondre Clark of Oklahoma City; WR Tony Upchurch of Pearland, Texas)

Key targets: Five-star cornerback Adoree' Jackson is still on the board, as is Lorenzo Carter. ESPN 300 receiver Malachi Dupre from River Ridge, La., is in the mix and would be a major get for the Tigers.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

2014 verbal commitments: 21

Spotlight: ESPN 300 athlete Jamoral Graham of Decatur, Miss., has been committed for nearly a year and gives the Bulldogs their most versatile commitment. The 5-11, 180-pound Graham has 4.4 speed and can play on both sides of the ball. He will probably end up as a defensive back for the Bulldogs.

ESPN 300 members: 2 (Graham; WR Jesse Jackson of Petal, Miss.)

Key targets: Committed ESPN 300 defensive tackle O.J. Smith (Alabama) of Bossier City, La., and three-star defensive tackle commit Cory Thomas (Tennessee) are still in the mix with the Bulldogs.

MISSOURI

2014 verbal commitments: 27

Spotlight: With the Tigers losing two starting linebackers from the 2013 team, the addition of outside linebacker Brandon Lee of Indianapolis could be big down the road. There will be a lot of competition for those open spots, and Lee has a chance to get some reps, especially with him already being on campus. He has good speed and should fit any scheme once he adds some weight.

ESPN 300 members: 2 (Lee; OT Andy Bauer of St. Louis)

Key targets: ESPN 300 defensive tackle Poona Ford of Hilton Head, S.C., is one of the Tigers' top remaining targets, as is four-star linebacker Sharieff Rhaheed of Fort Pierce, Fla. Tennessee defensive end commit Derek Barnett is also still on Mizzou's radar.

OLE MISS

2014 verbal commitments: 24

Spotlight: It won't be easy to replace Donte Moncrief, but adding wide receiver Markell Pack of Purvis, Miss., to the roster will help soften the blow early. He's a natural playmaker who can get to the next level quickly with his speed. He'll need to add some weight when he gets on campus, but he's a major get at a position of need.

ESPN 300 members: 4 (Pack; OG Rod Taylor of Jackson, Miss.; DT Garrald McDowell of Covington, La.; S C.J. Hampton of Meridian, Miss.)

Key targets: Yet again, Malachi Dupre is in the mix here, as are ESPN 300 members defensive end Andrew Williams, safety Steven Parker II of Jenks, Okla., and running back Dacorius Law from Haines City, Fla.

SOUTH CAROLINA

2014 verbal commitments: 18

Spotlight: Defensive end Dante Sawyer of Suwanee, Ga., might not be Jadeveon Clowney, but he could help ease the pain of losing that physical freak. One plus about Sawyer is that he's versatile enough to play both defensive end and outside linebacker, which should allow the Gamecocks to move him around and show different looks to opposing offenses.

ESPN 300 members: 7 (Sawyer; CB D.J. Smith of Marietta, Ga.; TE Kevin Crosby of Bamberg, S.C.; WR Shaquille Davidson of Gaffney, S.C.; OLB Bryson Allen-Williams of Ellenwood, Ga.; OG Donell Stanley of Latta, S.C.; ATH Terry Googer of College Park, Ga.)

Key targets: ESPN 300 cornerback Wesley Green of Lithonia, Ga., and former Florida cornerback commit Chris Lammons are top targets for the Gamecocks, as is Florida State defensive tackle commit Dexter Wideman.

TENNESSEE

2014 verbal commitments: 34

Spotlight: The Vols need to add more athleticism and playmaking ability to the wide receiver position, and Josh Malone of Gallatin, Tenn., could step right in and get a healthy amount of reps this spring. Having him on campus now will help him as he continues to develop into a more sound receiver.

ESPN 300 members: 11 (Malone; S Todd Kelly Jr. of Knoxville, Tenn.;RB Jalen Hurd of Hendersonville, Tenn.; OLB Dillon Bates Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.; RB Derrell Scott of Havelock, N.C.; DE Dewayne Hendrix of O'Fallon, Ill.; S Cortez McDowell of Locust Grove, Ga.; ILB Gavin Bryant of Jackson, Ala.; CB D'Andre Payne of Washington, D.C.; ATH Evan Berry of Fairburn, Ga.; DE Derek Barnett of Brentwood, Tenn.)

Key targets: Four-star defensive tackle Michael Sawyers from Nashville has become a very important target for the Vols, who need another interior linemen. Tennessee's staff is still going after Alabama commit Bo Scarbrough.

TEXAS A&M

2014 verbal commitments: 23

Spotlight: Defensive end Myles Garrett of Arlington, Texas, is a major addition to this Texas A&M class. The Aggies need more playmakers on defense, especially up front, and Garrett, the nation's No. 1-rated defensive end has a chance to compete for immediate playing time and should add more of a presence in the pass rush.

ESPN 300 members: 11 (Garrett; ATH Speedy Noil of New Orleans; QB Kyle Allen of Scottsdale, Ariz.; ATH Nick Harvey of Richmond, Texas; WR Frank Iheanacho of Houston; DT DeShawn Washington of Nederland, Texas; OLB Otaro Alaka of Houston, Texas; DE Qualen Cunningham of Chandler, Ariz.; RB Shaun Nixon of Austin, Texas; ATH Armani Watts of Forney, Texas; OLB Josh Walker of Gilmer, Texas)

Key targets: Safety has become a spot of need, so the Aggies are going after ESPN 300 safeties Steven Parker II of Jenks, Okla., and Mattrell McGraw of River Ridge, La. ESPN 300 linebacker Kenny Young from River Ridge, La., is also still on the board.

VANDERBILT

2014 verbal commitments: 17

Spotlight: Running back Dallas Rivers of Stone Mountain, Ga., is the Commodores' top commitment and he's been solid with Vandy since committing last March. He's the type of playmaker Vandy needs going forward and will provide a grinder in the middle of the field, who can also stretch the field with his speed.

ESPN 300 members: 1 (Rivers)

Key targets: The Commodores are in the hunt for Tennessee ESPN 300 defensive end commit Derek Barnett.

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