SEC: Lane Kiffin

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There's a certain pride that comes with playing along the Alabama Crimson Tide offensive line. If you sign up to be one of Tuscaloosa's big uglies, you better be prepared for the pressure of living up to the past.

While this year's line, which is replacing two starters from last season, is still slightly covered by the shadows of players such as Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker, Cyrus Kouandjio, and William Vlachos, the pressure of living up to what they did is absent.

The pressure for this line is to live up to its own potential.

"We want to be better than those lines," senior right tackle Austin Shepherd said. "We try not to live in the past so we'd like to have a million rushing yards if we could. We want to be the most dominant offense in the NCAA."

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsRyan Kelly and Alabama's offensive line are working together to build unity; plans include more speed in practice and more gatherings during the week.
To do that, Alabama's offensive line tried to move faster this spring. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, speed has increased for lineman before snaps. Instead of lumbering to the line to make checks and adjust to the defense, redshirt junior center Ryan Kelly said offensive linemen have been running to get set and make calls earlier before the snap.

"That way we can at least be set before we want send motions or figure out what the defense is doing," Kelly said. "It's kind of speeding up the offense, but it's also helping us have more time and put us in better situations."

So far, the offensive line, which has the responsibility of protecting a new starting quarterback and arguably the nation's best running back stable, is coming together. There have been some natural hiccups, and coach Nick Saban even called out the line's physicality recently, but this doesn't appear to be a problem area for the Crimson Tide.

The three returning starters -- Kelly, Shepherd and fifth-year senior left guard Arie Kouandjio -- have cemented their places up front, while welcoming a few new pieces to the bunch. Most notably, left tackle Cam Robinson, the true freshman pegged to replace former All-American Cyrus Kouandjio.

The nation's No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2014 recruiting class, Robinson stepped into the first-team spot at left tackle toward the end of spring, and hasn't moved.

With senior Leon Brown and junior college transfer Dominick Jackson dealing with injuries during camp, there has been a little shuffling up front, but third-year sophomore Alphonse Taylor has impressed at right guard.

The biggest thing the players want to take care of along the line is communication. Kelly said communication broke down at times last year, leading to some glaring errors up front.

One way to enhance that? Develop better chemistry, and to do that, Alabama's linemen are hoping to bring back the Thursday night dinner tradition started by former quarterback AJ McCarron.

A chance to unwind and leave Alabama football talk at the facilities, the Thursday night dinners have done wonders for bringing the big boys together, Kelly said.

"It was good," Kelly said of past dinners. "You spend so much time up here [at the football facilities] talking about football and stuff that you can get away. ...It clears your mind going into Friday and getting ready for the game [on Saturday].

"When you get away, your bonds become more than just a football relationship. You have real friends you can do stuff with and that carries over to the football field and makes us a better team."

McCarron played host before, but Shepherd is hoping to take over the reins this season.

"It's time to get away from all the coaches and just be guys around everyone else," Shepherd said. "The only other time we're all together at the same time is when we're in the offensive line meeting room with a coach in there. We can't really talk because he's teaching us. It's time to mingle and do what you want and hang out."

From watching Thursday night football games and playing a variety of sports video games on the house Xbox to dining on the finest red meats and starches, Thursday nights for Alabama's offensive line are special.

Meals have usually involved a combination of steaks, burgers, brats and tight end Corey McCarron's famous mac & cheese. Every once in a while, the group gets a surprise, like when former guard Anthony Steen's parents brought over venison to make tenderloin.

Just looking for a succulent steak? Talk to Shepherd.

"I cook a mean filet. I like it fresh off the cow," he said.

Need a tidy house to eat in? Well, Shepherd doesn't think he needs to go that far.

"It doesn't matter when you have all these nasty guys in there."
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.
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.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 5, 2014
Aug 5
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Traditions, position changes, underrated players, suspension news and even anonymous scouting reports on SEC teams. It's all here for you in today's lunch links:
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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

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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Seven SEC coaches, including Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and LSU’s Les Miles, will go through ESPN’s “Car Wash” on Monday, appearing on "Sportscenter," "College Football Live," "First Take" and more. Stay tuned throughout the day.

In the meantime, be sure to read Monday’s lunch links to get your SEC fix.
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You want controversy? You want regional bias? You BCS-raised, college football young'uns don't know squat. Consider Exhibit A: USC and Alabama in 1978.

USC went to Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sept. 23, 1978, and whipped the top-ranked Crimson Tide 24-14 in front of 77,313 fans who didn't appreciate West Coast cool rolling over their southern-fried team like an army of deranged surfers.

The technical term for that in college football parlance is a "head-to-head victory." That the win was accomplished on the road provided it even more gravity as an objective and seemingly insurmountable measure of two teams. Ergo, when the season ended with both USC and Alabama winning New Year's Day bowl games following one-loss seasons, it was obvious who should be ranked No. 1. That would be the Trojans, of course.

[+] EnlargeSam Cunningham
University of Southern California/Getty ImagesUSC fullback Sam Cunningham turned in a big performance in the Trojans' 1970 victory over the Crimson Tide.
Au contraire. The Associated Press poll voted the Crimson Tide No. 1 after they nipped regular-season No. 1 Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. USC had to settle for the UPI -- coaches' poll -- national title after beating No. 5 Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

Even today, if you throw this Apple of Discord onto a bar table between Tide and Trojans adherents over 50, spittle will fly, veins will bulge, and the unique righteous indignation of college football fans will thunder forth like water over Niagara Falls.

That just begins the story of USC-Alabama, which might have the most storied seven-game all-time series in college football history. Or is that Alabama-USC?

So if we are overbrimming with joy at the prospect of the Crimson Tide and Trojans opening the 2016 season in the eighth annual Cowboys Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in a Labor Day weekend, neutral-site game, please forgive us.

This, my friends, is what we've all been craving. If this is the luscious fruit brought forth by the new College Football Playoff demanding more challenging scheduling, then let's give the sport's powers-that-be a collective fist bump. They have, rightfully, been taking a lot of grief lately, most notably in the courts. If we can, for a moment at least, block off consideration of the monstrosity of the cash flow certain to gush from this one. Let's instead awash ourselves in the anticipation of the game itself.

Alabama and USC are without question two of college football's preeminent powers. They might be college football's two preeminent powers. They have combined for 26 national championships (11 by USC, 15 by Alabama), 66 bowl victories (32 USC, 34 Alabama), seven Heisman Trophy winners (6 USC, one Alabama), 272 first-team All-Americans (161 USC, 111 Alabama), 797 NFL draftees (483 USC, 314 Alabama), 52 College Football Hall of Fame players (31 USC, 21 Alabama) and such legendary coaches as USC's Howard Jones, John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll and Alabama's Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Bear Bryant and current head coach Nick Saban.

Whew. While Notre Dame and Michigan fans are jumping up and down, waving their arms, this matchup is about as special as it gets, particularly when you project forward that both are likely to be top-10 teams to start 2016.

As for the series itself, Alabama leads 5-2. The Tide's biggest wins came in the 1946 Rose Bowl and in the Coliseum in 1971 and 1977, a decade in which both teams were dominating their respective regions. USC's other victory, a 42-21 blowout in 1970 in Birmingham, is often credited with pushing forward the integration of college football in the South, as the Trojans' African-American players, particularly fullback Sam Cunningham, tailback Clarence Davis and quarterback Jimmy Jones, turned in big performances. That game has been the subject of many stories and documentary films.

When those iconic helmets are standing opposite each other, there might be a few goose bumps from the old-timers that prove contagious to those who don't recall much from the pre-BCS age.

As for the present, the plot is also pretty thick. For one, the SEC and Pac-12 are the top two conferences in college football, and there's little reason to believe that will change much over the next three seasons. This game, therefore, could operate as a season-long measuring stick for both leagues. CFP committee members might be willing to apply the transitive property if they should be forced to make distinctions between Pac-12 and SEC teams that didn't play -- as in, "Well, UCLA beat USC and USC beat Alabama and LSU lost to Alabama, so UCLA should eclipse LSU."

Finally, there's the Lane Kiffin angle. Kiffin, you might have heard, was fired five games into the 2013 season as USC's head coach. He is now Alabama's offensive coordinator, a pairing with Saban that seems, well, interesting. Kiffin might be somewhere else in 2016, but it certainly would be a notable sidebar to the game if he is not.

By the way, Saban will be 65 in 2016. He might not be atop the Crimson Tide when this game rolls around.

Hmm. Lane Kiffin, Lane Kiffin. Hmm.

Ah, there is a lot to ponder with this one. Plenty of topics that will percolate. And ferment. Perhaps it's good we have two full seasons between now and this showdown to hone our hyperbole.

Potential 2014 SEC villains

July, 10, 2014
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It’s over now, so you can admit it.

AJ McCarron and Johnny Manziel are gone, so it’s time to come clean.

Chances are you hated one or both. How much they won, how they won -- you hated it all. There might have been some respect for their play, but above all, most of you couldn’t stand them.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsSEC fans don't have Johnny Manziel to kick around anymore.
It’s OK. AJ and Johnny were the SEC’s necessary villains last season. And for that they will be sorely missed.

This year won’t be the same without them. Who will you boo? Who will you tune in to watch in hopes of seeing them fail?

It’s totally unreasonable, but it’s also unavoidable: SEC fans are haters.

Who will fill their unceremonious shoes in 2014? Who will be the ones SEC fans love to hate?

Note: Before we get to the candidates, let us apologize to them. We’re sorry, fellas. It’s not fun being disliked, but look at it this way: The more people boo you, the more you’re probably doing something right. So take this as a badge of honor. After all, villains make the SEC a more entertaining place.

Subjects are listed is in alphabetical order, as there is no scientifically known way to measure levels of dislike.

Jacob Coker, Alabama: He’s no McCarron. Let’s get that out of the way first. Unlike his predecessor, Coker is about as unassuming as a major talent can get. He started out as a humble three-star recruit, and his disposition has remained the same. But with the runaway hype machine that’s surrounded his landing at Alabama -- not to mention that he transferred to Alabama in the first place -- you’ve got the perfect recipe for blind dislike.

Jeff Driskel, Florida: Is anyone else tired of hearing about how Driskel is going to get better? Before you start, that was a rhetorical question. The answer, for everyone outside of Gainesville, is a resounding yes. You can hear the chants of “O-VER-RATED” now, can’t you? Because he’s Florida’s starting quarterback, Driskel has to be discussed. Because he has a cannon for an arm and good mobility, his potential is a constant source of discussion. And because he’s so discussed, he’s so disliked. If Driskel does progress into an All-SEC quarterback, he’ll have plenty of detractors. They’ll boo him because he plays for Florida and they’ll boo him because they’ll all want to know what took so long to get there.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesNew Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has said some things that caused a stir in SEC country.
Lane Kiffin, Alabama: Coordinators are rarely the subject of such scorn, but the hate for Kiffin burns more intensely than for any head coach in the SEC. And the naysayers need only focus on his tumultuous time at Tennessee. There, he “turned in” Urban Meyer for a recruiting violation only to find that no violation was committed and that he, in fact, was the one violating an SEC rule by mentioning a recruit by name. He also made the Alshon Jeffery “pumping gas” comment, which didn’t exactly ingratiate himself to the rest of the league. Then, after one season, he left the Vols to return to USC. And now, after flunking out of Southern Cal, he’s back as offensive coordinator at Alabama.

Nick Marshall, Auburn: He’s as quiet as a church mouse, but Marshall has baggage. His unflattering dismissal from Georgia ruined whatever reputation he had long before he found his way to Auburn. Then he led the Tigers to the BCS title game and invoked the ghosts of Cam Newton. Marshall might not have invited the limelight a fraction of the way Newton did, but hate is unreasonable like that. They’ll obsess over his supposed shortcomings as a passer and neglect his utter effectiveness as a runner and orchestrator of Gus Malzahn’s offense. Marshall’s quiet nature ultimately will be mistaken for cockiness and fans will hate him just the same.

Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He’s been a rock star since he was 16 years old, and that alone is enough to do him in. It’s a matter of overexposure and jealousy. By simply choosing to commit to Ole Miss in the first place, he offended every other fan base that was actively pursuing him. In many ways, Nkemdiche is the face of Hugh Freeze’s out-of-the-blue 2013 signing class. Fans cried foul when the Rebels finished in the top five of the recruiting rankings that year, and Nkemdiche was the primary target. The fact he plays with so much fire will be wrongly taken as showboating, and if he dominates on the defensive line the way he should, he’ll accumulate haters quickly.

SEC lunchtime links

July, 8, 2014
Jul 8
12:00
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SEC media days will be in full swing by this time next week. But if baseball and the World Cup won't provide your sports fix until then, check out coverage of The Opening and Elite 11 on ESPNU and ESPN.com. (Like this story that features several future SEC quarterbacks.)

" Two more college football award watch lists will debut today: those for the Mackey Award (best tight end) and Rimington Trophy (best center). Check out the lists as they update on the National College Football Awards Association website.

" The NCAA on Monday suggested new safety guidelines that would limit teams to two full-contact practices per week during the season.

" Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason considered a transfer when he was stuck behind Aaron Murray on the depth chart. But that was nothing compared to what his coach, Mark Richt, faced as a player at Miami. Richt discussed that 1982 logjam at quarterback -- when he was a teammate of Jim Kelly, Vinny Testaverde and Bernie Kosar -- in a story for the Buffalo News.

" Mock-up magazine covers, cereal boxes, movie posters and more. All of those items are included in how college programs are getting creative with their recruiting pitches to high school prospects.

" Sean Lester of the Dallas Morning News examines Texas A&M's depth chart at receiver and tight end and projects the starters.

" Five more freshman signees started classes in South Carolina's second summer semester on Monday, bringing the total of 2014 Gamecock signees who have enrolled to 15.

" Ole Miss safety Anthony Alford is enjoying success in limited work as a minor league baseball player. In his five games with the Toronto Blue Jays' Class-A affiliate, the Lansing Lugnuts, he batted .320.

" Among those participating at The Opening in Oregon are arguably the top prospect in the state of Kentucky -- running back Damien Harris -- and many other players whom Kentucky's football program is recruiting.

" Athlon Sports polled 15 national college football media members on which programs have the best stadiums and game-day atmospheres. LSU's Tiger Stadium was the runaway winner, and five SEC programs ranked in the top 8.

" In its list of the 25 most important figures in Alabama's 2014 season, AL.com turns today to new Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

" The Gainesville Sun's Pat Dooley lists his top 10 nonconference games of the upcoming season.
In 2013, the freshmen of the SEC were truly fabulous.

Hunter Henry and Alex Collins were impact players at Arkansas. Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche were spectacular for Ole Miss. And who can forget the play of Vernon Hargreaves, Chris Jones and A'Shawn Robinson?

But standout rookies aren’t easy to come by. More often it takes some time to make a transition from high school to college, and in Year 2 we generally see the biggest jump in production from players.

With that in mind, we’re taking a team-by-team look at the players who didn’t quite break through as freshmen, but could see their stock skyrocket with as sophomores.

First up: Alabama.

Class recap: Nick Saban followed one top-ranked signing class with another in 2013, further extending his lead as the nation’s top recruiter. All told, Alabama signed 18 ESPN 300 prospects. A’Shawn Robinson, O.J. Howard and a handful of others developed into impact players.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Henry's breakout game in the Sugar Bowl showed he's certainly ready for prime time. But T.J. Yeldon is still ahead of him on the depth chart.
Second-year star: RB Derrick Henry (6-foot-3, 238 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Henry was one of only 11 five-star prospects in the 2013 class. He was the No. 1 athlete in the country and the No. 9 recruit overall, according to ESPN.

2013 in review: Maybe Henry needed a break. He did, after all, just set the national record for career yards rushing at Yulee High in Florida. At Alabama, he became just another freshman fighting for reps, trailing veterans T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake on the depth chart. After carrying the ball only 28 times during the regular season, Henry emerged during practice before the Sugar Bowl and earned the second-string spot in the rotation behind Yeldon against Oklahoma, where he ran for 100 yards and a touchdown on just eight carries. He also caught one pass -- his first and only as a freshman -- and took it 61 yards for another score.

2014 potential: The hype surrounding Henry’s sophomore season comes with good reason. While it might be a stretch to call him a Heisman Trophy contender, or even a threat to Yeldon to take over as the team’s top running back, there is the potential for a big breakout season as a sophomore. It takes an army to tackle him. And he’s got the wheels to back it up. But maybe most importantly, he’ll have a new offensive coordinator in Lane Kiffin who is looking to make the most of his talent, whether that means lining up as a traditional tailback or elsewhere.

Also watch out for: The rungs of the Alabama receiver corps loosened immensely with Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell exiting for the NFL, so look for Robert Foster to take advantage. The No. 2-ranked wideout in the 2013 class has all the skills to become a top-flight target. Along those same lines, keep an eye on Howard. The pass-catching tight end was vastly underutilized as a freshman and should flourish under Kiffin’s play-calling. On defense, defensive end Jonathan Allen and linebacker Reuben Foster both seem ready to step into a starting roles.

SEC's lunch links

May, 30, 2014
May 30
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It’s the time you’ve all been waiting for: Lane Kiffin speaks! The good folks at Al.com were on hand for a speaking engagement for the former USC-head-coach-turned-Alabama-offensive-coordinator.
In the past, Lane Kiffin has proven to be someone who knows how to cast aside boring, sleep-inducing coach speak for some fresh -- sometimes controversial -- dialogue when talking football. Sometimes it's gotten him in trouble, but it's always been nice to see someone not afraid to actually speak his mind.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertT.J. Yeldon, who rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 TDs in 2013, is part of a deep and talented group of Alabama running backs.
On Thursday night, Alabama's new offensive coordinator spoke loud and clearly in Mobile, Ala., about the loaded running backs stable he's working with in Tuscaloosa. While speaking at the DEX Imaging 20th annual L'Arche Football Preview, Kiffin discussed the Crimson Tide's offense and talked about how he's injected some of his own philosophies into Alabama's offensive scheme.

The one thing that won't be changing is how the running backs dictate the Tide's offense.

"As you guys know extremely well, I think the offense is led by the tailbacks," Kiffin said. "... There probably aren't three more talented tailbacks in the NFL on a roster than we're fortunate to be able to work with at Alabama."

That's pretty high praise for Alabama's trio that consists of juniors T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, and sophomore Derrick Henry. That's a cool 2,311 yards and 25 touchdowns from last season. Of course, Yeldon led the way with 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he won't have to worry about being the main workhorse this fall with Drake back and the recent emergence of Henry, who really has what it takes to grab the majority of the carries this fall.

"Finishing his true freshman year at 245 pounds, running 4.4, that was really easy to come in and see that it'd be good to give him the ball," Kiffin said of Henry, who totaled 161 total yards of offense and two touchdowns during his breakout performance against Oklahoma in Alabama's bowl game.

While Yeldon and Henry have captured most of the headlines this spring, Drake is still around, and he still has the kind of skill that could frustrate defenses next season. He rushed for 694 yards and eight touchdowns last fall, while averaging 7.5 yards per carry along the way. He's the most elusive of one in the trio and adds a totally different element to Alabama's attack.

What he has to do is make sure he doesn't get in his own way when it comes to earning carries this fall. His focus has to improve going forward.

Earlier this week at the SEC spring meetings, Saban was asked if he found his best running back coming out of the spring. To him, he felt like he found three.

"I'd rather look at it like we have three really good running backs; I think all a little bit different in style," Saban said. "They've all been pretty productive at some point in a game and I don't think it's necessary to compare them at all. They all work hard, do a good job, want to do what's best for the team, and I think they can all contribute in a very positive way to our team."
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- It’s a shame, really. What did Nick Saban ever do to anyone?

He’s never been convicted of a crime. Any crab legs he’s bagged at the grocery store were bought and paid for.

He’s a devout Catholic who, only a few months ago, wished reporters a happy Easter. Even if he secretly hoped they wouldn’t return from the holiday, it was a nice thing to say.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban's gruff demeanor, and his overwhelming success, has made him one of the most disliked figures in sports. Not that he cares very much.
He’s a man of good works, too, with charitable organizations such as Nick’s Kids. Just last week he donated $50,000 to the V Foundation for cancer research.

Sure, he’s cursed a few times and been known to go on a rant, but what coach hasn’t? There was that one time Heath Evans accused him of stepping over a player who was convulsing on the practice field. But Evans went to Auburn, and everything is tainted by the Iron Bowl, right?

It’s not like TMZ ever caught Saban whipping some poor dog in the street. He’s never caused a government shutdown that we know of. He doesn’t pal around with Donald Sterling in L.A., and he didn’t have a secret hand in the situation in Crimea. He does have a certain Stalin-esque vibe, but that’s a comparison for another era.

Can we give the man a break, though? Can we give the Nicky Satan name-calling a rest?

The answer to that, obviously, is no.

This week Sports Illustrated.com named Saban one of the 35 most disliked people in all of sports. The website cited his “failures in the NFL” and "oversigning players" as cause for his unceremonious selection.

First, he won 15 games in two seasons at Miami. Saban’s predecessor was fired after going 4-12. The coach that followed him in 2007 went 1-15 and was immediately canned. Saban, meanwhile, left on his own terms. Second, he’s not the only coach in college football pushing the recruiting boundaries. Go look at how many players Butch Jones signed at Tennessee this year or how many Kevin Sumlin signed the year before that at Texas A&M. Hint: It’s a lot.

But the spine of SI’s argument is that, “Saban wins football games -- and doesn't seem to care what anyone else thinks.”

That has a ring of truth to it. But in a results-based business, is that enough to be so disliked? His players love him and fans of Alabama adore him. Who else is he supposed to please? He’s not a Walmart greeter, remember.

And besides, it doesn’t seem fair to characterize him as completely uncaring. When he was called the devil by a former aide a year ago, he said it was “terribly disappointing.” He might be demanding, he said, “but it’s not personal.”

When asked Wednesday if the SI report bothered him, Saban said, “I didn’t even know about it, so I guess it doesn’t really bother me.”

But judging by his follow up, it might have.

"I try to do things the right way," he said. "I have a lot of compassion for people. We do a lot to help other people. We try to provide leadership to help young people have a better chance to be more successful in life. We do a lot for young kids.

“So, all's we can do is what we can control. What we can control is to try to do things the right way, help other people, have compassion, be a good leader, set a good example, care for other people, which we do, and I feel good about who we are and what we do and how we try to help others.

"If somebody else doesn't feel that way, I guess they're entitled to their opinion."

How that opinion is formed is what’s lost in all of this.

Perception is reality, and because Saban does nothing to soften his image, it remains that of a ruthless coach who wins at all costs. He’s not seen as likable because he doesn’t smile for the cameras or play along with the PR game. He barks at reporters, scowls on the sidelines and does nothing to let up on his competition, whether it's during games or in recruiting. He’s not likable because he’s the best.

And at 62 years old, why try to change that perception now? He might not agree with how he’s viewed publicly, but it’s gotten him this far.

Besides, at least he’s not the most disliked person in his own program. SI listed Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin No. 8 on its list, a full 14 spots ahead of Saban. That’s something, even if Saban was the one that brought him back into the fold after being fired at USC.

How’s that for being nice?

Saban might not like playing the part of the villain, but he sure keeps things interesting.

Alabama spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
11:00
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Alabama Crimson Tide:

1. No leader at QB: Blake Sims was said to have made strides as a passer, but he took a serious step back at A-Day, throwing two interceptions. Cooper Bateman, the clear No. 2, wasn’t much better, though he did limit his turnovers. And Alec Morris, the third QB in a three-man race, shined mostly as a punter. For those looking to see separation in the quarterback race, there was none to be had.

2. Depth at RB: T.J. Yeldon and his 2,434 career rushing yards might not be moved from his starting role, but Derrick Henry will try after having what was described as a “fabulous” spring. But behind him, there’s Kenyan Drake to consider. Behind the home run hitter Drake is Altee Tenpenny -- plus Tyren Jones and Jalston Fowler. In other words, Alabama might not have a quarterback, but it has plenty of running backs to turn to in case of emergency.

3. Kiffin effect: The running backs are happy to be featured in new ways. The tight ends are pleased with becoming a bigger part of the offense. The receivers are thrilled with the simpler schemes. Even Nick Saban appears excited, saying how new offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin, will do a good job of getting the ball in playmakers’ hands.

Three questions for the fall:

[+] EnlargeJacob Coker
AP Photo/Phil SearsFlorida State transfer Jacob Coker could be the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback in 2014.
1. But what will Kiffin actually do?: A lot was said about Kiffin this spring, but there was very little in the way of evidence. Practices were kept behind closed doors and the spring game featured what one player described as only 10 percent of the playbook. New plays? We saw none. New formations? None of them either. We’ll have to wait until the regular season to see what Kiffin’s actual imprint on the offense will be.

2. Coker’s arrival: He was the white elephant in the room in the sense that he was never in the room. Jacob Coker, the transfer quarterback from Florida State, wasn’t able to compete in spring practice as he finished his degree. But he’ll be on hand for fall camp and will jump right into the competition for the starting job.

3. Secondary concerns: Landon Collins might be the only sure thing about the Alabama secondary. The safety just so happens to be the only returning starter, too. Nick Perry, Geno Smith and Jarrick Williams will battle it out at free safety and the two cornerback spots are still up for grabs after Eddie Jackson tore his ACL during the spring. Early enrollee freshman Tony Brown shined at A-Day and fellow five-star signee Marlon Humphrey is on the way.

One way-too-early prediction:

It seems like a sturdy ledge, so let’s walk it: Coker will be named the starting quarterback before the start of the regular season. Simply put, Sims is not the type of quarterback to work long-term in a pro-style offense. And whatever added dimension he brought as a runner, Coker also possesses. Alabama wouldn’t have accepted a transfer like Coker if they didn’t believe he could start. And after what we saw from the other quarterbacks at A-Day, there’s no reason to believe he can’t win the job.
Not every prediction we made about Alabama heading into the spring panned out, but we got awfully close. Let’s take a look back:

Prediction No. 1: Kiffin provides a jolt

This one appears to be a work in progress as A-Day was not the most impressive performance for the offense. Outside of a failed flea-flicker attempt, there wasn’t any play or formation called by new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin that really wowed you. But, as one player told reporters after the game, only about 10 percent of the playbook was available. With that said, the reviews on Kiffin have been overwhelmingly positive. Nick Saban said he expects Kiffin to get the ball into his playmakers’ hands more often this season, specifically to players such as Amari Cooper. That should be music to fans’ ears. And as far as the players themselves, they’ve noticed a difference in Kiffin’s demeanor and play-calling. They’ve said his offense is much more simple and “player-friendly.” So while we never saw major schematic changes or a change in the tempo of the offense publicly, rest assured that Kiffin is working his magic behind the scenes.

Prediction No. 2: Sophomores emerge

[+] EnlargeTony Brown
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsRobert Foster, who dueled Tony Brown for this pass on A-Day, showed big-play potential this spring.
OK, so this wasn’t exactly an earth-shattering prediction. But we did name names. Reuben Foster, Robert Foster and Maurice Smith were spotlighted as players who missed spring practice last season but would benefit from it as sophomores. And with at least two out of the three, there was some measure of success. Reuben Foster, despite a series of stinger injuries, continued to draw positive praise and should be in the mix for significant reps at middle linebacker this fall. Robert Foster, on the other hand, made some spectacular catches at practice this spring, vaulting himself up the depth chart where he could be one of the first receivers off the bench. Smith, however, remained mostly quiet. Right after Eddie Jackson went down with a torn ACL, Smith missed a scrimmage with a concussion. Tony Brown, a five-star early enrollee, took full advantage of the reps and played well at A-Day, making an impressive interception despite playing in a no-contact jersey.

Prediction No. 3: Frosh challenges at LT

It took some time, but maybe not as much as some might have expected. Cam Robinson skipped his high school graduation and bypassed his prom to enroll at Alabama in January and compete in spring practice. With Cyrus Kouandjio gone at left tackle, he saw an opportunity. And after a few weeks of getting a handle on the offense, Robinson took a step forward, earning reps with the first team at left tackle, where he started A-Day. Robinson still has some growing pains to work out, but given his size, talent and early improvement, he'll be in serious contention to start at left tackle from Day 1. Though Saban called the five-star signee a “work in progress,” he also cautioned that, “You get experience by making mistakes. ... He did some good things, and he’s done some really good things all spring long.”

Prediction No. 4: DePriest steps up game

By the sounds of it, Trey DePriest is doing everything coaches are asking of him this spring. With C.J. Mosley off to the NFL, he has responded by becoming a more vocal presence on the defense, leading a group that’s as young in spots as it is talented. As DePriest put it, “I’m just trying to help out where I can.” And that means calling the majority of plays on defense, getting his front seven in line and the secondary in tune. Saban praised DePriest’s knowledge of the defense as well as his maturity, saying he has the ability to “affect other players in a positive way.” Judging by the small window of A-Day, he has done just that as the defense didn’t allow a point in the first half.

Prediction No. 5: Ranking Alabama’s QBs

Maybe we were too hard on Blake Sims, ranking him fourth out of five. By Saban’s estimation, he had a great spring, exhibiting control of the offense, improvement as a pocket passer and good production through two scrimmages, reportedly throwing for 515 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. But a sour A-Day performance kept him from being our post-A-Day leader in the clubhouse. Whatever momentum he’d gained before Saturday was lost when he threw one touchdown and two interceptions with a 43 percent completion percentage (13 for 30). Cooper Bateman, whom we previously ranked No. 1, looked the part at A-Day, showing the most poise and control of the quarterbacks. Alec Morris, meanwhile, was somewhat of a disappointment with just seven passing attempts and one interception. Parker McLeod and David Cornwell turned out to be the fourth and fifth quarterbacks in the race, attempting only two passes, completing none and throwing one interception. The one quarterback who did look good at A-Day was incoming transfer Jacob Coker, who looked on from the sideline as a spectator.

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