SEC: Phelon Jones
Junior college signee DeQuan Menzie ruptured his Achilles tendon while playing pickup basketball earlier this week and expects to redshirt during the 2010 season. He underwent surgery Thursday, and his recovery could take up to six months.
Having lost so many players in the secondary, Alabama signed Menzie with the thought he would be able to come in and play right away.
But with Menzie sidelined and junior safety Robby Green's eligibility for the upcoming season in question, Alabama's secondary for the 2010 season will easily be the most unproven unit on the team.
The stalwart back there is junior Mark Barron, who returns as one of the best safeties in the SEC. But after him, it gets dicey.
Right now, sophomores Dre Kirkpatrick and B.J. Scott are working with the first team at cornerback, although true freshmen DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton are both extremely gifted. Kirkpatrick is pretty well entrenched. He's probably the next star cornerback for the Crimson Tide with his mix of speed, instincts and confidence.
Given Nick Saban's track record, it's unlikely that he's going to throw a true freshman out there at cornerback, particularly early, which makes the addition of LSU transfer Phelon Jones all the more important.
Jones is also working in the cornerback rotation and is a candidate for the Crimson Tide's all-important "star" position in the nickel package. It's the same position Javier Arenas played in the nickel last season.
Sophomore Robert Lester is working as the other starting safety opposite Barron.
Saban said this week that he likes what he sees from a talent standpoint in the secondary, but he'd trade some of that talent for more experience.
"To me, you’re always better off when you have guys who have experience, because they will make less mistakes," Saban said. "Even if guys are talented and are going to be really good players, they usually end up costing you back there."
Case in point: Alabama's loss to eventual national champion LSU in 2007.
Arenas, an inexperienced sophomore at the time, was forced into action late in that game. Granted, he left Alabama as an All-American, but Saban said Arenas' inexperience that night was probably the difference in the game.
"He messed up in two-minute, didn’t cover the right guy, covered him wrong and made a couple of mental errors," Saban recalled. "He was a talented kid who was going to be a really good player, but he wasn’t ready to play and he hadn’t played.
"And when he got out there, he kind of froze up, and one mistake led to another. So to have that maturity about you is critical, and that has to develop with these guys."
Saban said he expects to have an answer on Green before the summer. At this point, Saban is planning on not having him.
"But it would be helpful if he was here," Saban said. "We just don't have enough guys who've played back there."
Up first is defending national champion Alabama:
Strongest position: Running back
Key returnees: Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy
Key departures: Roy Upchurch, Terry Grant
The skinny: Is there any school in America that wouldn't trade running backs with the Crimson Tide? They might have the two best backs in the SEC in 2010. Ingram won the school’s first Heisman Trophy last season while rushing for 1,658 yards and scoring 20 touchdowns. His ability to break tackles is what sets him apart. Richardson is probably even more explosive and will no doubt see his carries increase as a sophomore. If they both stay healthy, don’t be surprised if Ingram and Richardson both rush for 1,000 yards next season. Lacey was redshirted last season, but was also highly recruited out of Louisiana. Grant was eligible to come back, but decided not to play his senior season.
Weakest position: Secondary
Key returnees: Mark Barron
Key departures: Javier Arenas, Kareem Jackson, Justin Woodall, Marquis Johnson, Ali Sharrief
The skinny: All told, seven defensive backs who played last season for the Crimson Tide are gone. Making matters worse, there’s an issue with junior safety Robby Green, and he may or may not be eligible next season. He was being counted on to take over at the other safety spot opposite Barron, who led the SEC with seven interceptions last season. Get ready to see a lot of young faces in the secondary next season for the Crimson Tide. Sophomore Dre Kirkpatrick is probably the most talented of the bunch. If you don’t believe so, just ask him. He has everything it takes to be a top cornerback in this league. Highly rated true freshmen DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton are on campus and going through spring practice, while LSU transfer Phelon Jones also factors into the rotation somewhere.
Spring practice starts: March 12
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
- Retooling the secondary -- The Crimson Tide are losing three starters in the secondary, and another guy who played a good bit last season, safety Robby Green, is in limbo. The battle for the two starting cornerback spots this spring will be fierce. Sophomore Dre Kirkpatrick has star potential with his combination of talent and swagger. Coveted freshman signees DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton both enrolled early and will go through spring practice, while sophomore B.J. Scott will also get a shot at one of the three starting positions in Alabama’s nickel defense along with LSU transfer Phelon Jones, who already has SEC experience. Junior college newcomer DeQuan Menzie arrives this summer, so there will be a bunch of new faces in the Alabama secondary next fall. And with Green’s eligibility in question, another guy to watch at safety is sophomore Robert Lester, a teammate of Julio Jones’ in high school. Scott could also play safety if needed.
- Cody’s replacement -- Even though Terrence Cody wasn’t an every-down player for Alabama, he was a one-man wrecking crew against the run. Teams simply didn’t run between the tackles against the Crimson Tide. Junior Josh Chapman is the most experienced of the inside guys and played behind Cody the last two seasons. The defensive coaches are eager to get a more extensive look at sophomore Kerry Murphy this spring. He may have as much pure talent as anybody up front. He got a late start getting to Alabama because of qualifying issues, but was a big-time recruit. Damion Square is a wild card and can play any position on the defensive line. He’s back after tearing his ACL in the second game, but will be limited this spring.
- Special teams makeover -- Don’t underestimate the importance special teams played for Alabama each of the past two seasons. Place-kicker Leigh Tiffin and punter P.J. Fitzgerald both had excellent senior seasons. Freshman place-kicker Cade Foster is already enrolled in school and will show off his leg in the spring. Christian Kauffman is walking on and will be on campus this summer. Freshman punter Jay Williams will be on campus in the summer. Equally important is finding a dynamic return man. How many games did Javier Arenas win for the Crimson Tide the last few seasons? Julio Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Trent Richardson, Marquis Maze and Terry Grant are all more than capable candidates. We’ll see who emerges.
Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:
- Playing without Mallett -- It will be sophomore Tyler Wilson’s show this spring at quarterback with Ryan Mallett out with a broken bone in his left foot. Wilson will get some help from redshirt freshman Brandon Mitchell and true freshman Jacoby Walker, who enrolled early and will also participate in spring practice. Obviously, the Hogs would like to have their main guy under center with everybody getting better around him, but it’s also a chance for Wilson and some of the other quarterbacks to get valuable practice time with the first unit. Having a second-team quarterback who’s ready to step in as opposed to having one who’s in over his head is the difference between saving a season and going belly-up if the starter happens to go down.
- Making strides on defense -- The Hogs will be older and more experienced on defense next season, and they’re hopeful that means they will be stingier. Depth at linebacker remains a concern, but the secondary should be better with the return of cornerback Isaac Madison, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. For precautionary reasons, Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said he’s not sure how much contact Madison will get this spring. Malcolm Sheppard and Adrian Davis are gone from the defensive line, but Petrino thinks the defensive front will be good. Jake Bequette, Damario Ambrose, Tenarius Wright, Zach Stadther, D.D. Jones, Patrick Jones and Lavunce Askew are all back. Petrino says it’s paramount that the Hogs develop more depth at linebacker this spring, and ultimately, find a way to eliminate the big plays.
- Loaded backfield -- It’s no secret that Arkansas is loaded at receiver, but Petrino really likes the potential in the backfield, headlined by sophomore Ronnie Wingo Jr. He has track speed and has beefed up to 230 pounds. He’s primed for a breakout season. It’s also a backfield that appears to have all the pieces. Broderick Green is pushing 250 pounds and gives the Hogs that power back down around the goal line, while Dennis Johnson and Knile Davis are guys who can do a little bit of everything. With new offensive line coach Chris Klenakis coming over from Nevada, look for the Hogs to tweak their running game and use a lot of the Pistol formation that was so successful for Klenakis at Nevada.
Spring practice starts: March 22
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
- Linebacker depth -- The Tigers were so thin at linebacker last season that Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens had to play every snap in the overtime win against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. Both of those guys are back, and both should be primed for big seasons. But one of the priorities this spring is building some depth around them. Junior Eltoro Freeman should be more consistent in 2010 after coming over from junior college last season. Redshirt freshman Harris Gaston was injured for much of last season, while sophomore Jonathan Evans played well late when he was forced into action. Freshman signee Jessel Curry was a midterm enrollee. The rest of the linebacker reinforcements -- LaDarius Owens, Jake Holland and Jawara White -- will be on campus this summer.
- Newton stepping in at quarterback -- All signs point to junior college newcomer Cameron Newton being the guy to beat at quarterback. He’ll go through spring practice after signing in December. The 6-foot-6, 247-pound Newton can run and pass, which is what Gus Malzahn is looking for in his spread offense. Redshirt freshman Tyrik Rollison was thought to be the Tigers’ quarterback of the future until his suspension prior to the bowl game last year. Now, his status remains up in the air. Senior Neil Caudle will also get a shot this spring. Remember that Chris Todd sort of came from the back of the pack last season to win the job.
- Difference-makers on defense -- Antonio Coleman was the SEC’s sacks leader and tackles for loss leader a year ago, but now he’s gone. Who’s going to take his place when it comes to making the big plays on defense? Senior Antoine Carter is the odds-on favorite at Coleman’s end spot, but the guy the Auburn coaches were really excited about last season was freshman Nosa Eguae, who injured his foot just prior to the season and wound up redshirting. It’s also a big spring for junior tackle Nick Fairley. He made some big plays inside last season after coming over from junior college, but needs to show more consistency. Junior college players are typically much better their second season in the program.
Spring practice starts: Feb. 26
Spring game: March 27
What to watch:
- Finding an identity on offense -- After last season’s woeful showing, the Tigers have to find an identity on offense. They weren’t particularly good at anything a year ago and finished 112th nationally in total offense (304.5 yards per game). The first part of that equation this spring will be revving up the running game. Even though Charles Scott and Keiland Williams are both gone, junior Stevan Ridley has all sorts of ability, and senior Richard Murphy will be back after missing most of last season with a knee injury. LSU coach Les Miles also brought in former Florida assistant Billy Gonzalez to be the Tigers’ passing game coordinator. It’s not a talent issue. There’s more than enough talent on LSU’s roster to be one of the top offensive clubs in the league. The key is utilizing that talent properly.
- Searching for Russell Shepard -- It’s pretty obvious by now that Shepard isn’t going to be an every-down quarterback at LSU. In fact, don’t be surprised if he takes very few snaps at quarterback this spring. Miles believes Shepard might have been spread too thin last season at all the different positions, which is the reason he’s going to work primarily at running back and receiver this spring. He’s one of the most dynamic athletes on LSU’s roster, and the Tigers have to find a way to get his hands on the ball more than they did during his freshman season. Finding his niche in this offense will be critical this spring.
- Jefferson’s next step -- It’s true that quarterback Jordan Jefferson tended to hold onto the ball too long last season, but it’s also true that there were more than a few breakdowns in LSU’s offensive line. The Tigers gave up a staggering 37 sacks. Jefferson has to get a better feel for the pressure this spring, where it’s coming from and when he has to get rid of the ball. The LSU coaches will be looking for him to make a big jump from his sophomore to junior season. Either way, redshirt freshman Chris Garrett will get a good look this spring, too. The 6-4, 220-pound Garrett is more of a classic drop-back passer with a big arm.
Spring practice starts: March 23
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
- Tyler Russell’s stage -- Certainly nobody is going to hand the starting quarterback job to redshirt freshman Tyler Russell, who was one of the prizes of the Bulldogs’ 2009 signing class. But he will get every chance to win the job this spring. Junior Chris Relf isn’t going anywhere and was effective as Mississippi State’s designated running quarterback when he returned from his suspension last season. Still, it’s Russell who has the most upside to be the kind of every-down quarterback Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is looking for in his offense. Mullen didn’t think Russell was ready last season and didn’t push him. We’ll have a better idea of how ready he is after this spring.
- Life after Anthony Dixon -- When you take away almost 1,400 yards rushing from an offense, that means somebody waiting in the wings better be really special or that two or three people better be poised to step up and divvy up that production. It’s probably going to be the latter for the Bulldogs, who face the task of replacing Dixon and his 126.5 yards per game. Junior Robert Elliott has the most experience. Freshman Montrell Conner redshirted last season, while junior college newcomer Vick Ballard is in school and will also go through spring practice. Look for sophomore receiver Chad Bumphis’ role in this offense to grow exponentially, too. He’s one of those guys who makes plays no matter where you put him.
- New identity on defense -- Mullen brought in Manny Diaz from Middle Tennessee to run the Mississippi State defense along with Chris Wilson from Oklahoma. Wilson will serve as co-defensive coordinator and also coach the defensive line. The Bulldogs finished 11th in the SEC last season in both total defense and scoring defense. There’s some young talent in place defensively, not to mention a dominant presence up front in senior end Pernell McPhee. Diaz’s goal is to bring more of an attacking mentality to Mississippi State’s defense, and that starts this spring. The Bulldogs have a chance to be really good in the secondary when you look at all the young guys who made plays back there last season.
Spring practice starts: March 27
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
- Overhauling the offense -- With a new coordinator (Dave Rader) and new players at just about every position, the Rebels will take on a different look in 2010. The first order of business is settling on a starting quarterback. Sophomore Nathan Stanley is probably in the best position to win the job, but redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton will also get a long look this spring. Don’t count out multipurpose junior college newcomer Randall Mackey once he arrives in the summer, either. With Houston Nutt calling the shots on offense, the running game is always going to be what drives Ole Miss. Dexter McCluster won’t be around to break 70- and 80-yard touchdown runs anymore, which means Brandon Bolden, Rodney Scott, Tim Simon (if he’s healthy) and Enrique Davis will have split up the backfield duties. If Davis is going to make his move, it needs to be this spring.
- Sophomores stepping up -- Several talented, younger players in the program will need to take that next step if Ole Miss is going to have the kind of success it has during Nutt’s first two seasons in Oxford. In particular, there are a cluster of sophomores who showed a lot of promise last season as freshmen. They have to become leaders and prime-time players this coming season. Some of those guys include D.T. Shackelford at linebacker, Jesse Grandy at running back, return specialist or anywhere he can get his hands on the ball and Pat Patterson at receiver. If Patterson matures both on and off the field this spring, he’s got a chance to be Ole Miss’ next great receiver in the mold of Shay Hodge. And on the offensive line, tackle Bobby Massie needs to become a dominant player.
- Plugging in Dorsey at end -- The Ole Miss coaches will get their first look at 6-8, 255-pound Wayne Dorsey in their defense this spring. He’s the kind of guy who should fit perfectly into what defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix is looking for from his ends and was a force in junior college as a pass-rusher. Dorsey signed in December and is already enrolled in school. The Rebels had to have an impact player at end after losing Marcus Tillman, Emmanuel Stephens and Greg Hardy. Dorsey was one of the top junior college players in America, and getting him on campus for spring practice was huge.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Alabama is getting some defensive back help for the future.
Former LSU cornerback Phelon Jones has decided to transfer to Alabama, Ian Rapoport of The Birmingham News is reporting. Jones and his father met with Alabama coach Nick Saban on Monday.
Jones, who's from Mobile, Ala., will have to sit out next season and will then have two years of eligibility remaining. He started two games for the Tigers last season after redshirting in 2007.
Initially, it appeared that Jones was looking to transfer to Auburn, but he was told Auburn had no scholarships available. Jones was then released by LSU to pursue his opportunities with Alabama last Thursday, and he firmed everything up with Saban and Alabama officials on Monday.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Auburn could be getting some future help at cornerback.
Phelon Jones has received his release from LSU and would like to transfer to Auburn, his father told The Mobile Press-Register.
Jones, who's from Mobile, Ala., started two games last season for LSU after redshirting in 2007. He would have two years of eligibility remaining beginning with the 2010 season.
The defensive backfield is one of LSU's deepest positions on the team. Patrick Peterson, Chris Hawkins and Jai Eugene all have starting experience at cornerback, while Ron Brooks has been one of the stars of the spring. Brooks can play both cornerback and safety. LSU also returns starting safeties Chad Jones and Harry Coleman.
With Aairon Savage and Walter McFadden both entering their senior seasons, Auburn will be able to use some cornerback help in 2010. The Tigers like the way some of their younger defensive backs are progressing this spring. Sophomore Neiko Thorpe, who played some as a true freshman last season, is working with the first unit at cornerback along with McFadden. Redshirt freshman T'Sharvan Bell has also made a move at cornerback.
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