SEC: Leon Brown

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Like a lot of position battles going on during spring practice in Tuscaloosa, Ala., -- hello, quarterbacks -- the starting five up front for the Crimson Tide likely won’t be decided anytime soon.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesCenter Ryan Kelly is one of three returning starters for Alabama. The Tide is auditioning several youngsters at left tackle and right guard.
Sure, Ryan Kelly returns at center, Austin Shepherd is back at right tackle and Arie Kouandjio remains at left guard, but that’s only slightly more than half the equation. The second half of the Kouandjio Bros., left tackle Cyrus, is off to a carer in the NFL, as is veteran right guard Anthony Steen, who racked up more than 35 starts in his career. Replacing those two stalwarts won’t be an easy, much less quick, task.

The good news for Alabama is that this isn’t the first time coach Nick Saban and his staff have been through this. Just last season offensive line coach Mario Cristobal had the unenviable job of replacing three All-SEC caliber linemen: Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. And do you remember what happened? The 2013 line actually one-upped the previous season's line in some respects. The line allowed six fewer sacks and also saw its rushes for zero or negative yards -- a good indicator of the push a line generates -- fall from 91 to 79, vaulting the Tide to fourth nationally in that category.

But, of course, there’s room to improve. Just ask Kelly.

“Communication is the most important thing,” he explained. “All 11 guys have to be on the same page. ... It starts with the offensive line. One of the things we’re trying to emphasize is get up to the ball, get down, get set. Last year, look at it, we were running the clock down to five, four seconds every time. The faster that we can get to the line, get set, let the quarterback look at what he’s got to look at, the more time we can have and we’re not rushing to make calls last-minute.”

Does that mean Alabama is turning to a more up-tempo offense under new coordinator Lane Kiffin? It depends whom you ask.

Brian Vogler, a senior tight end, said that he thought the offense would stay similar to years past, relying on the “mauler” style it was founded on. Kelly, however, asked the question: “Anytime we can run more plays it’s good for an offense, right?” He said he anticipates “a lot” of change this season, including new plays and new formations.

“Obviously, we want to practice faster every day,” Kelly continued. “As as the spread offense, stuff like that, it’s still the same. We’ve just been wanting to get more reps in practice. Obviously, reps make us better.”

More repetitions will be key for the newcomers on the offensive line, not to mention the communication among all five potential starters.

Through the first four practices, the first-team line features Kelly, Shepherd and Kouandjio at their usual positions, with Alphonse Taylor added at right guard and Leon Brown at left tackle. The two combined for 17 appearances and one start last season, the lone start coming from Brown when Shepherd was lost for the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.

Though he can play inside, Brown might be better suited at tackle given his length (6-foot-6, 313 pounds).

Taylor, however, has all the earmarks of a punishing guard. At 6-5, 335 pounds and a low center of gravity, he looks vaguely like Warmack when he shuffles upfield in running situations.

“If you look at how big he is, he’s actually really athletic, can bend really well and he’s got a lot of power,” Kelly said. “Another young guy, doesn’t have a whole lot of experience, obviously, playing games. But I think this spring’s going to be really big for him.”

But the most intriguing prospect of all has to be Cameron Robinson, a five-star prospect and the No. 1 offensive lineman in the 2014 class. He has everything you look for in an offensive tackle: size, strength, athleticism. The 6-6, 325-pound freshman from Louisiana has shown some growing pains since enrolling in January, but he has also shown flashes of the talent that made him such a coveted recruit.

With a spring to learn, an offseason to prepare and an open position at left tackle to compete for come fall, don’t sleep on Robinson.

“He’s got a lot of ability,” Kelly said of Robinson. “He’s a big guy, can bend really well, long arms. Obviously he came into an offense where we kind of transitioning into a new style or new plays, stuff like that. So he never really learned the old one. Anytime you’re coming from high school to college it’s going to take a while to kind of get acclimated to it. Older guys have been helping him along the way, kind of showing him the ropes, because it can be eye-opening at times, coming from high school to college.”

Saban called Robinson “a young guy that’s learning and getting better every day.” But along the same line, Saban said of the entire line that he wasn’t “satisfied with where they are, but pleased with the progress they’re making.”

In other words, the line is very much an ongoing process.

“The depth chart means nothing right now,” Shepherd said. “The depth chart won't mean anything until we play West Virginia.”

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It happens every year now, so don't act surprised. If you're an Alabama fan, deal with it. If you're not, don't weep for the Crimson Tide, either. Coach Nick Saban has lost multiple underclassmen to the NFL before, so Thursday's news that safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan will all leave school early is no insurmountable thing. This is just the reason why Saban and his staff recruit so hard.

[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillSafety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is one of four Alabama players who are leaving school early to enter the 2014 NFL draft.
Their leadership and experience will be missed -- along with seniors AJ McCarron, C.J. Mosley and Anthony Steen -- but their talent can be replaced. When you're the only school in the country to finish in the top three of ESPN's class rankings every year since 2008, you have that luxury of plug-and-play. Blue-chip prospects overflow from Alabama's football offices, rattling out its pockets every once in a while like loose change.

"Our twos and threes could do what I did out there," Clinton-Dix said of the team moving forward. "I'm not worried about any of those guys stepping up."

Alabama will be fine without Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix. Many of their replacements are already on board: Landon Collins at safety, Leon Brown at tackle, Dillon Lee at strongside linebacker, Jonathan Allen at defensive end. Those who will challenge them for playing time are either just now arriving or just now finishing their first seasons in Tuscaloosa: defensive backs ArDarius Stewart and Laurence 'Hootie' Jones, tackles Grant Hill and Cam Robinson, linebackers Tim Williams and Da'Shawn Hand, and defensive ends Dee Liner and D.J. Pettway -- all excellent prospects.

It's easy to look at the loss of stars and say, "Oh no!" but that's not how it works at Alabama. It wasn't that long ago that safety Mark Barron left school and Clinton-Dix entered the fold. D.J. Fluker went to the NFL a year early and Austin Shepherd had little trouble at right tackle in his absence. Eddie Lacy torched Notre Dame in last year's BCS title game, announced he was turning pro and Alabama never missed a beat. Not only is T.J. Yeldon back for his junior season, a fella by the name of Derrick Henry appears ready to be his new sidekick.

This is the program that Saban has built. This is what his "Process" has borne. And it's embraced around campus. Just look at this, this and this from Alabama's director of player personnel Tyler Siskey. As Saban told reporters, "We've had 13 guys go out early for the NFL draft, 11 of those guys have been first-round draft picks."

Often when other schools lose key players to the NFL, there's a mad scramble to find their replacements. At Alabama, coaches turn to a stocked cupboard. Take the safety position, for instance: Cinton-Dix goes out with off-field drama and Collins enters the fold at free safety, followed by Vinnie Sunseri blowing out his knee and Collins then shifting over to strong safety. Collins, a former five-star prospect in his own right, immediately found success. A year after playing primarily on special teams, he finished second on the team in tackles, tied for first in interceptions and tops in passes defended.

Sure, Saban would love to see Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix back for another year. Just don't expect him to openly weep about it. He's probably more than thrilled that Trey DePriest and DeAndrew White should be sticking around for their senior seasons.

You know, two out of six isn't bad. Three championships in five years seems to be going over quite well in Tuscaloosa.

Alabama will survive and new stars will emerge next season. Sometimes you hate to see athletes like Clinton-Dix leave early, but their departure only clears the way for who's next.

Maybe the loss at Auburn was a warning shot. Or was it the narrow victory at Texas A&M? Possibly the lackluster performances against Colorado State and Mississippi State?

Whenever the signs came that Alabama wasn't all it was cracked up to be, very few, if anyone, saw it coming. But looking back, maybe it all makes sense.

Alabama wasn't the best team in the country Wednesday night. It wasn't even the best team in the Superdome.

The narrative that Alabama would come out in the Sugar Bowl and prove again that it was worthy of being thought of as No. 1 ultimately proved misguided and downright untrue. The team's every flaw was exposed. Every one of Alabama's weaknesses was exploited.

This time there was no kicker to blame. This time it couldn't be chalked up to Lady Luck.

The only championship-caliber team in New Orleans was the one that entered the game a 14-point underdog. And if the way you end a season says anything about how you'll start the next, then Oklahoma should begin next season ranked ahead of Alabama by a mile.

The Sooners' future is undeniably promising. But the Tide's future is now best described as a series of question marks.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron lost in his last two starts for Alabama and didn't look like himself in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
AJ McCarron looked nothing like himself Thursday night, throwing multiple interceptions in a game for just the third time in his career. It was a terrible way for him to leave things at Alabama -- one week a Heisman Trophy finalist, the next a scapegoat. But what's worse is that no one knows who will take over for him in the spring. Will it be the mobile quarterback Blake Sims? The soon-to-be redshirt sophomore Alec Morris? What about the three freshmen: Cooper Bateman, Luke Del Rio and Parker McLeod?

What Alabama wouldn't give to have someone with a future as bright as Oklahoma's Trevor Knight. The last quarterback to improve that much in New Orleans was McCarron in early 2012.

But the problems ahead are much deeper than who's under center. It goes even deeper than who will protect him. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio looks like he needs another year to develop, and even if he returns, Alabama will have to replace veteran right guard Anthony Steen. Leon Brown played OK in his stead, but the chemistry of the entire line was way off. Simply put, you can't give up seven sacks and expect to win many games.

Alabama's defense has to go back to the drawing board, too. All of it.

It's not just the secondary that was atrocious. The big plays speak for themselves, but two true freshmen were on the field at cornerback at one point against Oklahoma. Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson will get better with time. Maybe Cyrus Jones or Bradley Sylve will emerge. Vinnie Sunseri will return at safety to provide some needed leadership and Landon Collins will mature alongside him.

The front seven needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and find a way to help the back end of the defense. There were times where Alabama put pressure on Knight, but rarely did it finish the play. Saban might not think sacks are important, but having just one is pretty glaring. Freshmen defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen have shown promise. It's time to let them loose. If Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall aren't bringing the heat at outside linebacker, someone needs to.

Like McCarron, C.J. Mosley did everything he could to end his career on a high note. But Alabama's back-to-back All-American linebacker couldn't do it all on his own, even though there were times this season where it looked like he could. Trey DePriest, his heir apparent, will now have to shoulder that heavy burden. As Saban attempts to solve the riddle of no-huddle and spread offenses, DePriest will be his centerpiece.

In fact, the entire coaching staff has questions to answer. Yes, even Saban.

Saban and Kirby Smart have seen their defense get exposed one too many times by more developed offenses such as Oklahoma and Auburn. When the pace has picked up, Alabama has been left behind. When quarterbacks have been able to escape the pocket, Alabama has been left holding the bag. Giving up 822 yards in the final two games should be a wake-up call for the entire staff to rethink the way it answers offenses on both fronts.

And don't think that offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier isn't in the same boat. He can no longer afford to leave weapons such as Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard hanging on the shelf. He can't abandon the run and expect his quarterback to save him. Balance always has been preached at Alabama, but it's not always been practiced, and that has to change. The Tide needs an offense that can make up a double-digit deficit in a hurry because the one it's trotted out the last few years has never been capable of that.

But even with all that, don't expect Saban to abandon his process. Wholesale changes aren't likely. Multiple times after the game, Saban said how his is a proven formula. He's focusing instead on how the loss was more of a signal to recommit to it. And maybe he's right.

From afar, the Sugar Bowl has the look of an outlier in a mountain of evidence supporting Saban's way of doing things. But this season showed some of the cracks in its foundation, cracks that could grow into more devastating gaps with time and pressure.

Oklahoma wasn't the only one to expose Alabama. Auburn was the first team to beat the Tide, and Texas A&M, Mississippi State and even Colorado State delivered blows of their own, even in defeat. With each flaw they revealed, a blueprint emerged: Pressure the quarterback, try for turnovers, push the tempo.

At the end of it all, the truth was obvious: Alabama not only wasn't the best team in the country this season, it has a lot of work to do moving forward to regain that title.
We are in the final weekend of spring games in the SEC. On Saturday, it all comes to an end so eat it up SEC fans.

Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri and Tennessee will all close out the spring this weekend.

Here's a look at five things to watch this weekend from the final seven spring games:

[+] EnlargeJustin Worley
Wade Rackley/Tennessee AthleticsJustin Worley is one of many quarterbacks fighting for a starting job this spring.
1. Quarterback battles continue: Four of the seven teams playing spring games this weekend have some quarterback controversy to deal with. Brandon Allen appears to have the lead over the more athletic Brandon Mitchell at Arkansas, but seeing both on the field Saturday should be fun. Auburn is wondering if Kiehl Frazier can finally push himself to the top of the depth chart, but he's having to face Jonathan Wallace, who ended last season as the Tigers' starter. Both are more comfortable in Gus Malzahn's spread offense. Tennessee will throw Justin Worley out against Nathan Peterman this weekend. Worley actually has college experience, but this has been a tight race so far this spring. Then, there's Missouri. James Franklin entered spring as the seasoned starter, but redshirt freshman Maty Mauk has impressed the coaches. Franklin's confidence has increased and he isn't dealing with excruciating shoulder pain anymore, but he's now having to fight off the very talented Mauk, who knows the offense as well as anyone. Gary Pinkel has been mum on who is ahead in this race, so expect this to carry over into fall.

2. Receiving help: Mississippi State said goodbye to all of its starting wide receivers before spring arrived. The good news is that the Bulldogs return a veteran quarterback in Tyler Russell, but he has to make sure his less-experienced receivers grow up in a hurry. Saturday, we'll see what sort of progress this group has made during the first 14 practices of the spring. One guy to keep an eye is rising sophomore Joe Morrow. He has the skill to be a big playmaker, but he's still trying to figure things out and needs to have a big day. Juniors Robert Johnson and Jameon Lewis had good springs, especially Johnson, who should end up being the go-to target. Watching this group should be interesting Saturday.

3. Henry's health: Losing Henry Josey last year was a big blow to Missouri's offense. When he was healthy in 2011 he was arguably the Big 12's best running back. But a devastating knee injury cut that season short and left him watching for all of 2012. But his knee is healthy and he's been running with pain or a brace all spring. He's loved taking contact so far, but this will be a chance for him to showcase his improvements to the Mizzou faithful. Keep an eye on the confidence he uses with his runs. After talking to him earlier this week, he sounds like a man on a mission. If he gets back to his old ways this fall, he could be a big-time player in this league.

4. Coming along up front: Alabama might once again be favored to win the national championship this year, but there's still work to be done on an offensive line that lost three starters -- three All-Americans and two projected first round draft picks. While Nick Saban has said that he's happy with the way the line is taking shape, it's going to look a lot different Saturday. Ryan Kelly (center) and Cyrus Kouandjio (left tackle) pretty much had their spots entering the spring, but Alabama's 14 practices produced some excitement at the other positions. It looks like rising junior Austin Shepard has the edge at right tackle, but he's getting pushed by junior college transfer Leon Brown. Anthony Steen is a proven vet, but he's being pushed by fellow senior Kellen Williams.

5. Toomer's last rolling: Following Auburn's spring game, fans will join to roll the live oaks at Toomer's Corner with celebratory toilet paper for one last time. The removal of the historic trees will take place on April 23, so Saturday will serve as a nice farewell for the oaks. Alabama fan Harvey Updyke was sentenced to six months in jail and five years on supervised probation after pleading guilty in the poisoning of the trees following Auburn's 2010 national championship victory over Oregon. The good news is that Auburn's board of trustees approved plans to redevelop the site.

Spring blooms in the SEC

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One of the most rewarding parts of spring practice for coaches is finding those pleasant surprises, whether it’s players who fly in under the radar and step up at positions of need or players little-used to this point who look like they’re going to be key contributors in the fall.

Several of those guys have emerged this spring in the SEC.

Here’s a look:

Sterling Bailey, DE, Georgia, RSo.: Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham cross-trained his defensive linemen at all three positions this spring, and Bailey stood out at both end and nose guard. He’s poised to be a valuable run-stopper for the Bulldogs after playing in only three games last season as a redshirt freshman.

Kentrell Brothers, LB, Missouri, RSo.: Brothers appears to be all the way back from the broken leg he suffered in preseason camp two years ago. He’s pushing Darvin Ruise hard for the starting weakside linebacker job and has been impressive this spring. Brothers had 14 tackles last season and didn’t make any starts.

Justin Garrett, LB/S, Auburn, Jr.: Stuck behind Daren Bates the past two seasons and playing only sparingly, Garrett has gone from an undersized linebacker to the “Star” in Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme. He’ll be part-linebacker and part-safety and has shown the kind of speed and tackling ability this spring that Johnson is looking for at that hybrid position.

Joe Morrow, WR, Mississippi State, RSo.: Morrow has been a spring sensation for the Bulldogs in the past, but it’s yet to translate during the season. He caught just five passes last season as a redshirt freshman and was plagued by a bum knee. But this spring, Morrow has been much more consistent and has given his teammates and coaches confidence that he can be a go-to receiver. He’s an inviting target at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds and a tough matchup for smaller cornerbacks.

Floyd Raven, S, Texas A&M, Jr.: A backup cornerback a year ago, Raven has moved to free safety and is currently sitting atop the depth chart. His athleticism and playmaking skills make him a natural back there. He’s intercepted Johnny Manziel a couple of different times in scrimmages. The key will be fully understanding his role at safety and what all that entails. If he gets that down, look out.

Dontavis Sapp, LB, Tennessee, Sr.: First-year coach Butch Jones said following Saturday’s second scrimmage that Sapp has been “amazing” this spring. Some pretty lofty praise for a guy who made just 17 tackles last season. But with a new staff and a new defensive scheme, Sapp has prospered. The former safety can play any of the three linebacker positions and is a fixture on special teams.

Austin Shepherd, OT, Alabama, RJr.: The Crimson Tide lost three starters from an offensive line that most people considered the best in the country a year ago. Shepherd, entering his fourth year in the program, has waited his turn and has the edge right now over junior-college newcomer Leon Brown in the battle for the starting right-tackle job.

Mitch Smothers, OG, Arkansas, RSo.: Smothers has found a new lease on his football life under first-year offensive-line coach Sam Pittman. After redshirting last season, Smothers has played his way back into the starting lineup at left guard. He was a starter at tackle to open his true freshman season in 2011, but was benched after the first four games and spent the rest of the season watching from the sideline.

Carlos Thompson, DE, Ole Miss, RJr.: A big get for the Rebels out of high school, Thompson has played in just 11 games during his first three years on campus. He redshirted last season to get stronger, and the Ole Miss coaches have been impressed with the results. He’s been more physical and has held up better at the point of attack. With C.J. Johnson out for the rest of the spring with a broken fibula, Thompson has made the most of his opportunities. He could be a breakout player in the fall for the Rebels.

D.J. Welter, LB, LSU, RJr.: Academics derailed Welter last season after he played sparingly as a redshirt freshman in 2011. The feeling coming into the spring was that Lamin Barrow would move from weakside linebacker to middle linebacker to replace Kevin Minter. But so far, Welter has played well enough in the middle that the Tigers haven’t felt like they needed to move anybody.

Impact early enrollees in the SEC

February, 21, 2013
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Enrolling into college has become a growing trend in college football. Missing prom and Senior Skip Day has become a regular for a lot of high schoolers these days.

In the SEC, getting a high number of early enrollees is becoming more and more of a priority for coaches. This year, all 14 SEC teams had players from their 2013 classes enroll in school early. Georgia leads the SEC with 13, Alabama has nine, and Florida and Texas A&M both have eight. In fact, 73 players from this year's recruiting class enrolled early at SEC schools in this year.

ESPN colleague Travis Haney unveiled his top impact early enrollees Insider from around the country Wednesday, and of his five players who made the cut, three came from the SEC. Well, four, because he said defensive backs Tray Matthews and Reggie Wilkerson would make immediate impacts at Georgia.

Florida running back Kelvin Taylor, who was the nation's No. 1 running back, and Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, who was an ESPN 150 member, also made the list.

Those all make sense. Georgia is basically replacing its entire secondary outside of cornerback Damian Swann, so the Bulldogs will need all the help they can get in the secondary. Florida proved that it could survive -- for the most part -- on a very strong running game last fall, but workhorse Mike Gillislee is gone, so the Gators will need help for Matt Jones and Mack Brown. Taylor is an elusive, physical back who could find himself getting a boatload of carries this fall. And Howard is a real difference-maker at tight end. The Alabama coaches are very excited about his big-play ability and his ability to create a lot of mismatches for defenders.

Haney also gave Tennessee wide receiver Paul Harris the honorable mention nod. Harris comes in at a position of great need, and it will only benefit, well, everyone, having him on campus early.

But what other players who decided to trade in their prom tuxes for shoulder pads could make immediate impacts in the SEC? Glad you asked, because here are some other guys I think you should all keep an eye on:

True freshmen

Christian LaCouture, DL, LSU: With LSU losing starters at both end spots and one at defensive tackle, LaCouture has a chance to get immediate playing time. He can play inside or outside for the Tigers.

Christian Morgan, TE, Ole Miss: The Rebels lost three senior tight ends from last season's team, and the returning players lack experience, so Morgan could step right into a starting spot with a successful spring.

Demarcus Robinson, WR, Florida: The Gators need receiving weapons, and Robinson might be the most versatile of the bunch on campus right now. He's the play-making type this offense desperately needs.

Junior college transfers

Leon Brown, OL, Alabama: Three starting offensive linemen are gone, which means Brown could find himself playing a lot this fall. He could be in line to take the vacant right tackle spot left by D.J. Fluker.

Justin Cox, DB, Mississippi State: Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay are gone, and Cox is already impressing people around the program. Word is he's already one of the fastest guys on the team, and could come in and start immediately at cornerback.

Za'Darius Smith, DE, Kentucky: With all the late movement in UK's class, Smith might have been overlooked, but Mark Stoops is very excited about him. He's been a monster in the weight room and could play right away this fall.

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