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Injuries, departures make for new-look Tide

3/16/2015

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It took 2 minutes for reality to sink in. After Nick Saban professed his excitement for spring camp beginning and touched on the idea of the next 14 practices providing a "snapshot" of where the team is, he had to turn his attention to personnel.

Cornerback Cyrus Jones was out with a hip injury.

Linebacker Denzel Devall was sidelined after having an operation on his foot.

Running back Tyren Jones was still suspended for undisclosed reasons.

Offensive lineman Grant Hill, meanwhile, was on "medical leave."

There was good news, of course. Kenyan Drake, one of the offense's most explosive weapons at tailback, was back on the practice field after breaking his leg last year and had recently run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, Saban said. But with two starters on defense sidelined until fall practice, one hopeful starter on the offensive line under a cloud of health concerns and the team's fourth-leading rusher in the dog house, the biggest takeaway from the start of spring camp was just how different everything looked.

On offense, the team's leading passer (Blake Sims), leading receiver (Amari Cooper) and leading rusher (T.J. Yeldon) were are all gone. On defense it was more of the same with three of the top four tacklers (Landon Collins, Trey DePriest and Nick Perry) off preparing for the NFL draft.

In a statement that should reverberate over the next few weeks of practice and on into the offseason, Saban said, "Any time you lose experienced players it's a work in progress to try and replace them."

Patience with the QBs

Before the start of spring practice last year, Saban warned reporters.

"You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game, who's the first-team quarterback," he said, "and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.'"

Ready for more of the same? You should be.

Saban all but scoffed at the notion of evaluating the progress of freshman and former five-star prospect Blake Barnett, noting how, "Like all freshmen, they all have a lot to learn." And to hit both ends of the spectrum, Saban wasn't up for judging the difference in former Florida State transfer Jake Coker either.

"We only had one practice and you guys act like we've been practicing illegally everyday in the offseason," Saban said.

He later said of Coker: "Obviously when he started last year it was a whole new offense to him, everyone was ahead of him and right now I feel like right now he's a lot more comfortable and confident with what we're doing."

Whether it's Coker, Barnett or another QB on the roster, what Saban wants from the starter is clear.

"I want to see what every coach would want to see and what every fan would want to see and everyone sitting in this room would want to see, is that the guy can go in and provide leadership for our team, make good choices and decisions about what he has to do to play winning football as his position," he said.

Retooling the offensive line

Hill's absence lessens the pool of O-line candidates by one, but the battle to replace Arie Kouandjio and Leon Brown at guard and Austin Shepherd at right tackle is still quite competitive.

On Friday, Saban mentioned Dominick Jackson and Bradley Bozeman, who appeared in a combined 16 games last season, as potential replacements. He also singled out redshirt junior Alphonse Taylor and Brandon Greene, who had spent time at tight end last season but was back with the linemen this spring.

"Having Ryan Kelly and Cam Robinson back certainly is very, very helpful," Saban said. "I think every player out there is going to get an opportunity.

"[Ross] Pierschbacher was redshirted last year. He's a guy that we had high hopes for."