SEC: O.J. Howard
What’s new: The coaching staff has gone under some serious reconstruction. In fact, it looks a lot like Nick Saban’s staffs of old with Kevin Steele as the linebackers coach and Bo Davis as the defensive line coach. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart moved back to coaching the secondary to allow for Steele’s return. And let’s not forget the one new face on the staff, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. You might have heard of him.
On the move: When Saban last spoke to the media a week ago, he said there was “no news on who’s playing what position and who the quarterback is.” But there will be movement. Look for some tweaking in the defensive backfield this spring. Much like last year,when Saban asked offensive players Dee Hart, Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones to try their hand at cornerback, he might ask someone like ArDarius Stewart to see if a return to defense is in order. Considering the lack of depth at cornerback and the departure of safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri, the coaching staff might need to plug some holes in the secondary with some surprise players.
New faces: Aside from the handful of early enrollees fresh out of high school, there are four junior college transfers to watch, including the return of former Alabama defensive end D.J. Pettway. There’s also tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith, who was at Georgia once upon a time and could add to the passing game behind O.J. Howard; defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who could help plug the middle at 315 pounds; and offensive tackle Dominick Jackson, who was ranked as the No. 1 player at his position and could challenge to replace Cyrus Kouandjio.
Question marks: We’ve detailed the problems in the secondary and hinted at the battle at left tackle, leaving a major unanswered question as to who replaces C.J. Mosley on defense. The former All-American linebacker was the heart and soul of the unit. We know Trey DePriest wants to take on the role, but is he ready? And who will play alongside him at inside linebacker? Reuben Foster was an immensely talented linebacker coming out of high school -- with a dramatic recruitment, no less -- but he played mostly on special teams as a freshman. He’ll have a lot of competition for playing time, with Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland hoping to emerge.
Key battle: Unfortunately, this one won’t be solved until the fall. But that makes the battle no less important. Alabama needs to find a starting quarterback to replace AJ McCarron, and until that’s resolved, it’s priority No. 1. Jacob Coker, the Florida State transfer, won’t arrive on campus until May. So that leaves a bevy of unproven options under center. Blake Sims will get his shot after backing up McCarron last year, but it remains to be seen how the run-first athlete will do as a pocket passer. Beyond Sims, there’s rising sophomore Alec Morris and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod. If one stands out this spring, he’ll surely have the upper hand come fall and could challenge the presumed frontrunner, Coker.
Breaking out: It was a process started at the Sugar Bowl that many Alabama fans hope will continue right on into his sophomore season. Derrick Henry didn’t do much during the regular season, carrying the ball a total of 28 times. But all you’ll remember is the bowl game and his eight carries and one reception against Oklahoma, accounting for 161 yards and two touchdowns. He’s big (try 6-3 and 238 pounds) and he’s deceptively fast. With dreadlocks that stick out from under his helmet, picture a stretched out Trent Richardson. After losing a large chunk of practice last spring to a broken leg, he’ll have the benefit of a full offseason to climb the depth chart and nip at the heels of incumbent starter T.J. Yeldon.
Don’t forget about: Don’t sleep on Yeldon. He’s pretty darn good, with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons to start his career. But don’t forget Alabama’s depth at wide receiver. Whoever starts at quarterback will have plenty of receivers to throw to. Amari Cooper, who is among the best in the SEC when healthy, is just the tip of the iceberg. DeAndrew White and Christion Jones are two veteran pieces, and tight end O.J. Howard has the potential to be one of the disruptive offensive weapons in the league if he reaches his potential. Given the way Alabama has recruited of late, look for one or two blue-chip prospects to emerge. Chris Black has been waiting patiently, and Robert Foster seems poised to step up with a year of experience under his belt.
All eyes on: There’s going to be a quarterback competition, position battles and several new players will emerge. But keep an eye on Alabama’s attitude. Saban’s dynasty in Tuscaloosa was shaken but not entirely derailed last season. Losing the final two games, to Auburn and Oklahoma, in such unspectacular fashion hurts. The question is how Alabama will respond. It worked out well after the 2010 season, but this isn’t the same team. There are quite a few leaders in need of replacing, and there might be something to McCarron’s criticism that a five-star sense of entitlement crept into the program. Righting the ship won’t be easy for Saban and his staff, but he will have the luxury of putting a gigantic chip on his players’ shoulders this offseason. How they respond is up to them.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was a long and winding quote that really ended nowhere and didn’t reveal much at all. Alabama coach Nick Saban was asked what impact Lane Kiffin might have on the offense in 2014, and he didn’t bite. So far removed from the start of the season, he chose to play it close to the vest, answering the question in a way that gave away nothing.
“Every coach wants to create as much improvement as possible as he can with the players he coaches and the unit he's responsible for. I think Lane certainly has the knowledge and experience to do that," Saban said of his new offensive coordinator, the former USC and Tennessee head coach. "I think players sort of respect him and, from what I've seen so far, [they] have a good relationship. You're talking about offseason program and off-the-field kind of stuff, but I think from an accountability standpoint, coaches and players, that because of his knowledge and experience that would be something that he can contribute to our team in a positive way with.”
Overall, Kiffin is expected to bring more punch to Alabama’s attack. First, he’ll have to settle on a starting quarterback, of course, but beyond that he’ll bring a new flavor to Tuscaloosa, Ala., starting with a more up-tempo feel. Saban hinted at such a change last season when he told ESPN in September that, “It’s something we’re going to look at. I think we’ll have to.
“I think we need to play faster and will have to do more of that going forward,” he said at the time. “The only reason we haven't done more of it to this point is that our guys seem to play better when we don't [go fast] just because it's been our style and we've had reasonably good success moving the ball and running the ball.”
But that will change this spring. AJ McCarron is gone from under center. Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell are no longer out wide at receiver. The conservative tendencies of Doug Nussmeier and Jim McElwain before him have been replaced by the more forward-thinking Kiffin.
Along with a quicker tempo, expect more playmakers to emerge under Kiffin’s rule.
Alabama has too much talent at running back to continue rotating backs on the field one at a time. With versatile weapons such as Derrick Henry and Bo Scarbrough available, Kiffin could easily split them out at receiver or shift them on the line at H-back. Just the threat of a quick pass out to a player with breakaway speed like theirs should be enough to make opponents commit a defender, freeing up a teammate in the process.
Speaking of stretching the defense thin, look for O.J. Howard to do much more in the passing game as a sophomore. The former No. 2-rated tight end in the ESPN 300 showed flashes of promise as a true freshman in 2013 but went missing at times. Whether that was the fault of his own inexperience or poor coaching is up for interpretation.
Whatever the answer, though, it won’t be an excuse in 2014. There’s no greater threat to the defense than an athletic tight end who can split the middle of the defense. Howard, at 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds with receiver-like speed, fits that mold perfectly. Kiffin had great success with Fred Davis at USC and Luke Stocker at Tennessee and could find a similar payout with Howard at Alabama.
Finally, don’t forget the wealth of talent Kiffin inherits at receiver. Despite Norwood and Bell departing, there’s plenty left in the cupboard in Tuscaloosa. Amari Cooper, when healthy, is among the best receivers in the SEC. Given Kiffin’s work with Marqise Lee, Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett at USC, Cooper should be licking his chops to work with his new offensive coordinator.
Throw in DeAndrew White, Christion Jones and a slew of other young, talented receivers behind them and Kiffin has more than enough weapons to work with.
The 38-year-old's reputation as a play caller and developer of talent precedes him, according to David Cornwell, who committed to Alabama prior to Kiffin's arrival and enrolled early in January just days before the hire was announced.
"Coach Kiffin, man, he’s the guy," the No. 4-rated pocket passer in the 2014 ESPN 300 explained. "I really look forward to getting to know him. I think you all know what he can do. You look at him offensively, I think he’s going to do great things for Alabama.”
But what in particular?
“His explosiveness," Cornwell said, with a smirk. "I know he’ll bring a different kind of feel to Alabama. From what I hear, it could be a whole different offense."
While some of Alabama’s offensive inefficiencies in the recent past have been greatly exaggerated, there’s still more than enough room for Kiffin to improve upon. By upping the tempo and developing more playmakers, he stands to breathe some much-needed life into the Tide in 2014. Whether it's a David Cornwell, a Jacob Coker or an Alec Morris under center at quarterback, he'll have the keys to a potentially speedy ride.
Granted, we won’t know specifically what the offense is capable of until we see it in action. But from the outside looking in, the possibilities are great.
Hopefully we'll get a sneak peek when spring practice starts later this week, but don't count on it.
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.
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.
But the more immediate memory of Nussmeier is not so rosy. The numbers, however impressive they might be, only serve as a faint silver outline of what turned out to be a disappointing ending, as Alabama's offense failed on the national stage against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. It turned out to be the final game of Nussmeier's tenure, as he's agreed to move north and take the same job at Michigan.
In the Sugar Bowl, the flaws of Nussmeier's scheme were put under a heavy spotlight: the protection broke down, McCarron faltered and three turnovers ultimately doomed the Tide. Alabama's most potent weapons -- guys such as O.J. Howard and Derrick Henry -- were underutilized, and a back-and-forth commitment to the running game turned the offense from dangerously dynamic to utterly predictable.
Alabama coach Nick Saban will have to think of that when he hires his next offensive coordinator, the fourth in his time with the Tide. In fact, he's probably already thought plenty about it.
Over the past year, Saban has dropped a number of not-so-subtle hints that change was coming. No-huddle, up-tempo offenses were something he wanted to explore and even implement, he said.
"It's something we're going to look at. I think we'll have to," Saban told ESPN.com in September. "I think we need to play faster and will have to do more of that going forward."
But who will be the man to make those changes? One name being bandied about is Lane Kiffin. Yes, the same Lane Kiffin who unceremoniously bailed on the SEC when he left Tennessee in 2010 and then was unceremoniously dumped by USC in 2013. He's something of a villainized character in college football, and that's an area where Saban can sympathize. Saban's been called a "devil" himself, so a devil-may-care attitude might be fitting.
The connections between Saban and Kiffin are obvious: both coaches share the same agent (Jimmy Sexton) and both coaches have shared the same meeting room in the past few months. Saban invited Kiffin to Tuscaloosa to help evaluate the offense in mid-December, and Saban had only glowing things to say about Kiffin at the time.
"Lane is a really good offensive coach, and I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for him," Saban said. "Just to come in and brainstorm a little bit to get some professional ideas with our guys is a really positive thing."
Whether that mutual respect will lead to a contract is anyone's guess. There are plenty of high-profile offensive coordinators out there who might be interested in moving to a program so stockpiled with talent that blue-chip prospects overflow from the roster.
If the hurry-up is what Saban's after, a guy such as Clemson's Chad Morris would be a home run. If Saban wants to stick to the run, Stanford's Mike Bloomberg would be a big name to go after. If Saban wants to stick to what he knows, current wide receivers coach Billy Napier and former wide receivers coach Mike Groh could be possibilities.
Whoever Saban chooses will have immediately high expectations. It's championship-or-bust at Alabama, and putting up big numbers isn't always enough to make everyone happy. Just ask Doug Nussmeier.
Guys like seasoned linebacker C.J. Mosley and wide receiver Kevin Norwood are graduating, while junior left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and junior safety Ha Ha Clinton-dix could be headed to the NFL early with their first-round projections.
The sting from Thursday night's loss will stay for a while, but it's important for a new set of leaders to help heal that wound soon.
"There are a lot of guys out there that can be leaders," Norwood said, "if they can just get in their minds that this program is fit to win and you have to do everything that the coaches ask you to do to win."
One of the veterans on a team that fell well short of its goals in 2013, Norwood admitted that the leadership on this team suffered down the stretch. Making sure players, especially younger ones, were properly prepared and focused on a day-to-day basis wasn't always there, he said. A more lax approach helped trigger some of Alabama's deficiencies late in the season, as Norwood said players started believing that things would come more easily to them.
"It was a hard time getting them guys to focus at times,” he said. “Then again, it was up to the leadership team to get them focused and get them right, and that's one thing I guess we kind of slacked at going into the end of the season. I can't put everything on them. At the same time, seniors, we didn't do a good job, too.
"When you have freshmen coming in and they're All-Americans and stuff like that, they have to get off their high pedestals when they come in because you have to work for everything and it's going to be tough, man."
Alabama’s new band of leaders will have to kick out that complacency and reestablish the toughness to get back to a championship level. The good news is that immediately after Thursday night's loss, players seemed confident that new leaders will emerge, eager to motivate.
"The cream always rises to the top," said Kouandjio, who has yet to make a decision about the NFL draft. "A lot of these guys get recruited just because they're natural leaders and they're going to come out sooner or later. It's going to manifest itself."
And knowing Nick Saban's mentality, he's going to want it to manifest quickly. He's been down this road before and adjusted. He certainly has the bodies with guys like T.J. Yeldon, Landon Collins, Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, Vinnie Sunseri, Jeoffrey Pagan and possibly Derrick Henry, who had a coming out party against the Sooners. But there has to be a will and want from players.
As freshman tight end O.J. Howard pointed out after Thursday's game, the last time Alabama lost in the Sugar Bowl, it rebounded the next year to win Saban's first national championship in Tuscaloosa with a new quarterback and identity.
No one would be shocked if the Tide did it again.
"Guys are just going to step up and become leaders and we're going to take their place and see how everything goes next year," Howard said.
"It's not over yet. We still have a couple of years around here. We have a chance. We can still win a championship. We just had a down year, but next year, hopefully we can get one.
"You just have to make this momentum and build on it and every time you want to take a day off, just remember how we lost back-to-back games and it'll motivate everybody on the team, I think."
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.
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.
Nobody's safe: Five SEC teams in the Top 25 lost Saturday, and only one (Florida) was an underdog coming in. Georgia and South Carolina still were considered among the favorites to win the East, but both teams tripped up on the road to unranked opponents. Vanderbilt scored a touchdown in the final minutes to knock off the Bulldogs, and Tennessee kicked a field goal as time expired to spoil Steve Spurrier's latest trip to Knoxville. No. 7 Texas A&M was a heavy favorite at home against Auburn, but the Aggies' defense let them down again. Auburn rushed for 379 yards and scored late to pull off a 45-41 upset. In the nightcap, a short-handed Ole Miss team jumped out to a 17-0 lead and held off No. 6 LSU at home.
Auburn is for real: You can make excuses, particularly this one: If Johnny Manziel hadn't hurt his shoulder late in the game, Texas A&M would've won. But the fact of the matter is Auburn went to Kyle Field, put up 45 points, gained 615 yards and beat a top-10 team. Quarterback Nick Marshall looked very impressive after missing last week's game. He threw for 236 yards, rushed for 100 yards and scored four touchdowns. Even the defense, much maligned throughout the game, made the stop when it mattered -- with Manziel in the game. It comes back to first-year head coach Gus Malzahn. He has changed the culture around the Auburn program, and the Tigers are now 6-1 and the biggest threat to Alabama in the West.
Signature win for Butch: Tennessee came oh so close to pulling the upset against Georgia two weeks ago. It would've been the win to take the Volunteers to the next level, and show recruits that what coach Butch Jones is doing is real. But they came up short. Instead of dwelling on the loss, Tennessee bounced back after a week off and beat a Top 25 team at home. It wasn't pretty, but a win is a win. And how about that catch from Marquez North late in the game to put the Vols in range for the game-winning field goal? That was a grown-man catch. Tennessee isn't likely to go into Tuscaloosa and upset the No. 1 team in the nation, but it's obvious that Jones is turning around the program. The Vols took another step with Saturday's win over South Carolina.
Freshman impact: North's catch was spectacular, but he wasn't the only true freshman who had a big game on Saturday. Georgia's Shaq Wiggins returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown. Florida running back Kelvin Taylor scored the Gators' only offensive touchdown on a 20-yard run in the third quarter. And for Alabama, tight end O.J. Howard caught his first touchdown pass from 17 yards out, and running back Derrick Henry showed why he was such a heralded recruit with an 80-yard touchdown run late in the game. It just goes to show how important recruiting has become in the SEC, and it doesn't matter if it's the worst team in the conference or the best team -- freshmen will still play a role.
The groans could be heard all the way from Alabama's campus in Tuscaloosa. Howard, however talented he might be, was showing the telltale signs of youth in an environment that dictated nothing less than perfection.
"It’s a crazy environment down there," Alabama's veteran tight end said. "I told him, ‘Hey, man, in my first start against Michigan, I got a false start, too, so don’t worry about it.' "
Howard responded. He went back out and caught three passes for 68 yards, helping top-ranked Alabama remain undefeated in an offensive shootout against Texas A&M.
"He grew up a bunch in the Texas A&M game -- and he had to," Tide quarterback AJ McCarron said. "Third down and 12 or 15 or whatever it was and we completed the pass to him late in the game, kind of sealed the deal. He’s done an excellent job for us. Just got to keep progressing, can’t take any steps back.
"He does an excellent job of doing what we ask him to do. Hopefully, we can keep getting him more touches."
McCarron seemed happy to have a tight end who could create mismatches with his height, speed and athleticism. And he should be. He has never had anyone quite like Howard to whom to throw the ball.
Nick Saban has never utilized a tight end with Howard's skill set since taking over at Alabama in 2007. While the rest of the country has moved toward pass-catching tight ends who could be split out wide, Saban kept his tight ends on the line of scrimmage, hand on the ground, pounding away at defensive linemen and linebackers. Big plays have been few and far between. Their job was to block for Heisman hopeful tailbacks and field a handful of passes in the red zone each year.
The numbers bear out that fact. No tight end has ever caught more than 35 balls or broken the 400-yard receiving mark at Alabama under Saban. Meanwhile, college football has seen 83 instances of a tight ends finishing the season with more than 35 receptions and 400 yards. All-American Tyler Eifert had 113 catches and 1,485 yards over his final two seasons at Notre Dame.
Alabama's lackluster numbers were the biggest reason why Howard entered his rookie season viewed as something of a savior at the position. Not since Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome in the 1970s had UA featured a tight end who could move like Howard, whose long legs bound effortlessly like a deer when he runs upfield. He's big yet graceful, jumping and pivoting like a power forward in shoulder pads.
"O.J. Howard is a different kind of player, young player, very athletic, pretty good pass receiver," Saban said. "[He] has to get a little bigger and stronger, maybe work on his blocking a little bit, but he is tough and he will try and get after you. His athleticism is a real asset to the passing game. He gives us another threat out there. We’re really pleased with his development."
The tight end position as a whole has grown leaps and bounds this season. Howard's 13 catches for 148 yards has something to do with that. He is, after all, tied for fourth nationally in yards per reception among tight ends. But Vogler and utility back Jalston Fowler have picked up the pace as well.
All told, Alabama's tight ends are on pace to finish the season -- should it go 13 games -- with 57 catches and 642 yards. That number would surpass the previous high in production when Brad Smelley and Co. ended the 2011 season with 52 receptions and 558 yards. And that's if things stay on course. As Howard keeps developing and growing more comfortable in the offense, he stands to do even more in the passing game.
Howard still shows some signs of youth, and the growth of the tight end position as a whole is still in its embryonic stages. After a rough start to the year, things are coming along. After dealing with early season frustrations, there's reason to believe Howard and his fellow tight ends are ready to take the next step.
You'll recall AJ McCarron being ticked off by all of the talk of his line performing poorly Week 1 against Virginia Tech. It was a sore spot for the senior quarterback, and understandably so. These were the guys charged with protecting him that were being thrown under the bus. So McCarron stepped up, told everyone that would listen that the offensive line wasn't as bad as it was being made out to be and that it would play better against Texas A&M when the time came.
"They did a great job of communicating," McCarron told reporters on Monday. "That's what we needed. Kept me clean most of the game, I was proud of those big guys. Did a really good job. I felt like communication was going to be the biggest thing for us in this last game, especially with that crowd they have there, so I felt like everybody did a great job of communicating and helped our offense a ton."
Saban, for his part, applauded the line's improvement at the point of attack. Their ability to control the tempo opened up the offense as a whole. The Tide, two weeks after going three-and-out seven times and failing to score on a drive that began inside its own territory, had seven drives of 60 or more yards and went three-and-out just three times. Alabama racked up 49 points and 568 total yards -- 334 yards passing, 234 yards on the ground.
"Obviously [we] played a lot better offensively, communicated better, controlled the line of scrimmage, didn't have a lot of negative plays," Saban said. "Had a lot of balance running the ball as well as being able to throw it effectively and not have a lot of pressure in the pocket and really control the time of possession in the game, which is really, really important. Especially when you're playing against an offense like they have."
Kouandjio said the communication that failed them in the season opener was 10 times better, and he noted that their ability to run the ball helped wear down Texas A&M's defense. Mostly, though, he was pleased to hear how much the tone had changed after the game.
"Yeah, it felt really good," he said of quieting the critics. "People misunderstood the first game. We came out there and did what we were supposed to do."
Alabama's line didn't miss a beat, even when starting right guard Anthony Steen had to leave the field with an injury. Kellen Williams came in and the offense went right down the field yet again.
"K-dub deserves a lot of credit," McCarron said. "I mean for a guy to sit there the whole game and have to stay into the game mentally and then be called on for the last drive to help lead us down the field, unbelievable job. It really says a lot about him as a player, as a teammate, but as a person too. Excellent job by him, and he really did make some good blocks on that drive to help him put points on the board."
Said Saban: "We think Kellen is kind of a jack-of-all trades for us. He can play left tackle, left guard, right guard, can probably play right tackle. He was the most experienced guy to put in the game at that time. Did a really good job and we didn't really miss a beat with him in there. He's a fifth-year senior and he's played a lot, has a lot of experience. We really look at him as a starter on our team."
Brian Vogler, Alabama's starting tight end, said Williams gives "a lot of peoples' morale in the huddle" with his energy.
But Vogler had to credit himself and his fellow tight ends for some of the Alabama's success both in the running and the passing game. Brandon Greene essentially served as a third offensive tackle and true freshman O.J. Howard made plenty of plays in the passing game.
For the first time in a while, the tight end position felt relevant for the Crimson Tide.
"Any way we can contribute is great," Vogler said. "Sometimes you get disappointed when they call Big Play, but they call it to the other tight end. But I know O.J.’s abilities. There were a couple of times where if they called my number anc it was a deep ball, I just wanted to be like, ‘Put O.J. in now,’ because I know like I’m kind of tired right now and I want to see what he can do out there. Having him gain more confidence really helps. A game like this can really help with his confidence and hopefully he can improve in some areas."
Vogler said Greene, who began his career on the offensive line, has made "unbelievable progress" at tight end. He might be known as a blocker in short-yardage and goal-line situations now, but Vogler thinks it's only a matter of time before he expands his role on offense.
"He’s working on his route technique every single day," Vogler said. "As an offensive lineman, he knows how to block. He’s making improvement every day. We’re trying to throw him in there on more routes in practice so he’ll feel a little more comfortable out there. For a guy his size [6-5, 307], he moves well. I can’t wait for the opportunity for him running a route out there and you guys being shocked at how he can move."
DePriest, a junior with NFL potential at 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, missed Tuesday's practice in Tuscaloosa. He's part of a linebacking corps that returns all four of its starters from a season ago, including All-American inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and top pass-rusher Adrian Hubbard on the outside.
Saban also announced that star wide receiver Amari Cooper would miss the next few practices with a strained foot. The preseason All-SEC selection led the team with 59 catches, 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, setting nearly every Alabama rookie receiving record in the process.
Cooper wore a black no-contact jersey during practice on Tuesday.
"He’s going to be out for a few days," Saban explained, "and then he will be day-to-day. I don’t think he’s going to be hurt for a long time."
Luckily for Saban, Alabama is loaded at wide receiver. Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones, DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell all have starting experience and freshmen such as Chris Black, Robert Foster and Raheem Falkins are pushing for playing time as well.
"The receiver group has progressed very, very well from where we were at this point last year," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said at UA's media day on Aug. 4. "We have a couple of new players, a lot of returning guys, a lot of guys who've played a lot of games. Obviously we had some injury issues last year that helped us develop some younger players."
Alabama was able to welcome back tight end Malcolm Faciane on Tuesday after he finished a 30-day suspension for violation of team rules. The 6-foot-5, 267-pound redshirt sophomore was in line for more reps this season after the departure of Michael Williams, but will have an uphill battle now that backups such as Harrison Jones and O.J. Howard have begun making their case for playing time.
"I don’t like suspending players," Saban said. "If we’re going to punish any players or suspend any players, it’s going to be in their best interest to change their behavior so they have a better opportunity to be successful. If it’s not going to do that, I don’t see any reason to do it.
"It’s almost like raising your kids. If you’re going to spank them and it doesn’t change their behavior, why spank them? If you take their computer or their cell phone away from them and it changes their behavior, I’d say that’s the thing to do. We would only do it in the best interest of the player."
Michael Williams was as dependable as they come, starting 41 games in his four years on campus. He was big, hard-nosed and reliable, a force blocking downhill in the running game and a sure-handed target in the red zone. Brad Smelley and Preston Dial before him were the same way, blue-collar players who put their hand on the ground and went to work everyday.
Brian Vogler doesn't want that identity to change. Rather, he'd like to see it evolve.
"Each year you have a different mold of a guy," he explained. "When you watch film on each guy, you try to take something they do and bring it into your game. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to pull everything I see out of their talents and try to mix it in my game."
At 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds, his size is the first thing you notice. And despite what he'd describe as lackluster athleticism, he can move. A former high school basketball player, he knows how to create space and use his long arms to shield defenders. That's only translated to three career receptions thus far, but that should change as he becomes a focal point of the offense.
Nick Saban called Vogler "one of the top conditioned guys coming back from summer," and praised his ability to sustain. Much of fall camp has been about promoting mental toughness for Alabama's seventh-year head coach, and he was able to point to Vogler on Tuesday as an example of just that.
"You create your own standard of superiority whatever you're trying to do," Saban said. "But the challenge is, Can you sustain that? Can you continue to do it with consistency and consistency in performance? That's one thing that he has, the mental toughness and maturity to do so it allows you to continue to improve."
Trust has never been in short supply at the tight end position for Saban. Unfortunately the ability to create big plays has.
If there's been one noticeable gap in Alabama's offense in recent years, it's been that no tight end has had more than 35 catches in a season since 2007. This past year was an all-time low as Williams and Co. combined for a paltry 33 catches and 249 yards. Meanwhile a new wave of tight ends like Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert snagged 50 receptions and 685 yards.
Vogler isn't likely to develop into that type of player overnight. But combined with backups Harrison Jones, O.J. Howard and Jalston Fowler, the position could become more potent in 2013.
Fowler's transition to a utility running back/fullback/H-back role was cut short by season-ending knee surgery last season, but now he's back where he left off, according to Vogler, who called the bowling ball of a back a "hard-hitting guy who's not afraid of anybody."
"That's the exact same guy you're going to see at the H-back position," he said.
Fowler's ability to play multiple spots on the field could be of use to offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Fowler said he had begged coaches to let him catch the football, and last year they finally listened. After having things end tragically, he said he's coming out with something to prove.
"I've got a big chip on my shoulder," he said. "I'm trying to show the world what I'm worth."
The wild card in it all is Howard, an early enrollee who came to campus in January and immediately began making waves. If there's anyone on the roster capable of taking the tight end position into the 21st century, it's him. A former four-star recruit, he was a "monster on tape," according to scouts. He has the size at 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds to dominate cornerbacks and the track-level speed to blow by linebackers.
Vogler called Howard a "whole new dimension to this offense" in the spring and praised his athleticism and ability to run after the catch. If he made the right kind of progress, Vogler said he thought he'd be a viable part of the offense.
On Tuesday, Vogler revisited the subject, praising the way the former blue-chip prospect has come into camp eager to do all the little things right.
"He's working really hard," Vogler said. "He asks me questions if he has any problems or wants to know how to do things. He's one of those guys that comes into work everyday with a really good work ethic and tries to learn."
Of those on the watch list, five are from the SEC. Here are those five:
- Rory Anderson, Jr., South Carolina
- Malcolm Johnson, Jr., Mississippi State
- Arthur Lynch, Sr., Georgia
- C.J. Uzomah, Jr., Auburn
- Brian Vogler, Jr., Alabama
I'd also keep an eye on Alabama's Oj Howard, who could have a monster year for the Crimson Tide. He's extremely athletic and could be a major mismatch for linebackers with his speed and defensive backs with his size. He caught just about everything thrown his way this spring.
South Carolina's Jerell Adams had a solid freshman year, and even with Anderson sharing time with him, Adams could have a big year in Columbia because he's so athletic.
Junior college transfer Cameron Clear could also be a big factor in Texas A&M's passing game this fall.
Mo stars, mo problems.
Yet again, a solid bunch of true freshmen could make immediate impacts this fall. Here are five to keep an eye on (in alphabetical order) in 2013:
- Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: Collins is the type of back first-year coach Bret Bielema needs to get his offense going. He can be both a tough, downhill runner and a slasher. The Hogs don't have much experience at running back, so Collins will be expected to step in right away.
- O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Howard is just a missmatch waiting to happen with his 6-foot-6, 237-pound frame and receiver-like speed. He enrolled early and seemed to catch everything thrown his way this spring. He does have to improve his blocking, but with Michael Williams gone, Howard should be a very valuable receiving weapon.
- Tray Matthews, S, Georgia: The Bulldogs are rebuilding all over on defense, but the free safety spot is more than covered by Matthews. He was outstanding this spring and was pegged as a starter the moment he stepped on campus. He's not only a big-hitter but can cover a ton of ground with his speed.
- Robert Nkemdiche, DE, Ole Miss: The No. 1 recruit in the nation should play immediately. The coaches know that hype could be a distraction, but they also know that Nkemdiche already has the talent to see the field now. He has to get comfortable with the playbook, but people around the program think he can have a Jadeveon Clowney-like impact.
- Demarcus Robinson, WR, Florida: The Gators are desperately looking for a go-to receiver. Robinson possesses the skill to be that guy, but he has to get his head in the playbook more during summer workouts. He certainly got a head-start by enrolling early and made a lot of plays stretching the field and making the tough catches this spring.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There's something dangerous about diving headlong into a recruit's game film, mainly because it's never really just that. What is seen online are chopped and spliced 3-minute packages hitting the highlights. We see what players and coaches want us to see.
Before Howard ever set foot on the University of Alabama's campus, the blue-chip prospect already was seen as a game-changer, a gifted athlete who could revive the tight end position in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama coach Nick Saban isn't one to rally the hype machine. In fact, he abhors it. But what he saw in Howard was enough for him to drop a few hints. During Saban's radio show in January, he was asked whether the Tide would join in on the tight end revolution started by his friend and former colleague, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Saban, who said he couldn't talk about specific recruits, didn't fail to insinuate with his answer.
"We feel like we found one of those kind of players this year," Saban explained, leaving the rest to the imagination.
Could Howard be the next Aaron Hernandez, the next Rob Gronkowski?
On film, Howard is that type of talent. He's a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-6 and well over 200 pounds. He can make catches that look impossible for someone his size. He was, as many Division-I prospects appear to be, a man among boys in high school. He was so good as a sophomore at Autauga Academy (Prattville, Ala.) -- setting a school record with 31 total touchdowns -- that he committed to Alabama ahead of schedule. Over the next two seasons, he'd average 1,133 total yards and earn back-to-back AISA All-State honors.
"He was a monster on tape," said ESPN senior national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill.
Howard didn't shrink in the face of real competition, either, when he played in the Under Armour All-America game. The tape, as it turned out, didn't lie.
To read more of Alex Scarborough's story, click here.
What’s new: Former Florida International head coach Mario Cristobal will coach the Alabama offensive line. He replaces Jeff Stoutland, who left to become the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive line coach. Billy Napier is the Crimson Tide’s new receivers coach and replaces Mike Groh, who left to take a job with the Chicago Bears. Also, Greg Brown will replace Jeremy Pruitt as secondary coach. Pruitt left to take the Florida State defensive coordinator’s job.
On the mend: Senior cornerback John Fulton (toe) and senior receiver Kevin Norwood (toe) will be limited this spring. Fulton is recovering from toe surgery.
On the move: Alabama’s deep enough at receiver that receivers Christion Jones and/or Cyrus Jones could get a look at cornerback this spring.
New faces: The Crimson Tide have nine early enrollees who will go through spring practice. Included are two of their most highly rated true freshmen in the 2013 class – running back Derrick Henry and tight end O.J. Howard. Alabama would like to get the 6-6, 235-pound Howard involved in the passing game right away. Junior college newcomer Leon Brown will get a long look at right tackle on the offensive line.
Key battle: With three starters gone in the offensive line, the battle for the right tackle job could be a closely contested one. Junior Austin Shepherd probably enters the spring as the guy to beat, but don’t count out Brown.
Breaking out: There hasn’t been any shortage of marquee cornerback talent to come through Alabama over the last few years, and sophomore Geno Smith looks like he could be the next great one. He’s poised to take Dee Milliner’s spot and saw his role expand as last season progressed. By the end of the season, he was the Tide’s third defensive back on passing downs. Staying in the secondary, look for talented sophomore Landon Collins to make his presence felt at safety. And on offense, sophomore center Ryan Kelly was impressive during pre-bowl practices last December while filling in for the injured Barrett Jones and working with the first unit.
Don’t forget about: Alabama should be as deep and talented at receiver as it’s been under Nick Saban. Sophomore Amari Cooper returns as one of the premier playmakers in the league. But the Tide will also add redshirt freshman Chris Black to the mix, and Black would have played a lot last season had he not injured his shoulder during the preseason. He’s the one who turned heads during the spring game. Norwood isn’t expected to be out there much this spring, but senior Kenny Bell should be back from a broken leg. And there’s also junior DeAndrew White, who missed most of last season with a knee injury.
All eyes on: T.J. Yeldon was sensational last season while sharing time in the Alabama backfield with Eddie Lacy. They became the first two players in Alabama history to both rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. With Lacy leaving early for the NFL draft, Yeldon gets his shot to be the feature back, although Alabama has played multiple backs under Saban. Everybody will be watching the 6-3, 242-pound Henry this spring after he racked up an incredible 4,261 rushing yards as a high school senior. Don’t sleep on junior Jalston Fowler and sophomore Kenyan Drake. How healthy is sophomore Dee Hart after a couple of knee injuries? There’s also more talent on the way this summer when true freshmen Altee Tenpenny, Alvin Kamara and Alvin Jones arrive. The Tide just seem to breed great running backs.