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Alabama's aerial circus

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Even with one former wide receiver at cornerback and another practicing both ways on defense, it's hard not to look at this year's class of wideouts at Alabama and wonder how it all happened.

It was only a few years ago the Crimson Tide had to rely on a group of lackluster targets to try and move the football through the air. The offense lacked explosion in the passing game, and it left everyone wondering when the next Julio Jones would come along to save the unit from mediocrity.

Julio Part II arrived in the form of freshman Amari Cooper last season. The former four-star receiver broke nearly every rookie receiving record at the Capstone and reinvigorated an offense in the process. AJ McCarron took a big step forward at quarterback, Kevin Norwood became a dependable No. 2 receiver and reserves such as Christion Jones made enough plays to draw the attention of the defense. Overnight, Alabama became promising in an area where it was once pedestrian.

And if last year was a welcome change, consider what's possible at receiver in 2013: Alabama has lost no one to graduation or the NFL, and gained back three valuable targets. Kenny Bell, Chris Black and DeAndrew White are all back in camp after undergoing season-ending surgeries last year.

White, a former starter who went down with a serious knee injury against Ole Miss, didn't waste a single minute making his triumphant return, racking up 132 yards and two touchdowns on seven receptions in Alabama's first scrimmage. He did it all with a black no-contact jersey on, a brace still wrapped around his surgically repaired knee.

"DeAndrew White is doing really well, did a really good job and made some big plays today," said UA head coach Nick Saban following Saturday's scrimmage.

Said UA tight end Brian Vogler a week earlier: "It's unbelievable how fast he came back from that surgery. ... He looks like the White of last year."

Saban said that of the three receivers back in camp this spring, Bell's progress has been the slowest. His injury was most recent, so there continue to be good days and bad for the speedy target who best stretched the field for Alabama in 2012.

"Kenny's probably the guy that has been the slowest coming back," Saban said, "but actually is starting to look like the Kenny of old at times."

Bell had 17 catches for 431 yards and three touchdowns before he went down with a knee injury against Auburn late last season. His 25.4 yards-per-catch average was the best of any Alabama receiver. And though Saban spoke cautiously about Bell's recovery, Vogler had a different assessment.

"I was watching film yesterday," Vogler said, "looking at Kenny Bell running down the field at full sprint. I said, 'That's the kid before he got hurt.' To see these guys come back is awesome."

Vogler, who is stepping into a larger role now that former starting tight end Michael Williams is gone, has been astounded by the wealth of options at wideout. Counting early enrollee Raheem Falkins, there are seven legitimate threats for McCarron to throw the ball to this coming season, not counting the tight ends and tailbacks.

"There's a lot of wide receivers," Vogler said. "We didn't lose anyone from last year, which is good. A lot of experience and the guys coming up. It's like, 'Where did we get these guys? Are they from this country?' They're great.

"You have guys like Chris Black, who unfortunately had to miss last season with his shoulder, to see him at 100 percent, he's an unbelievable player. He's so quick. Honestly, when you watch him running routes, you try and take what he does to separate from somebody and try to put it in your game."

Vogler added that if early enrollee tight end/H-back O.J. Howard develops as expected he could bring a "whole new dimension to this offense" with his length, athleticism and speed.

Like Saban, McCarron might not be one for public signs of optimism, but even this must bring a smile to his face. As he told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi on signing day: "It's going to be a fun year for our offense."

But as Saban noted on Saturday, the progress of the passing game will depend on how those formerly injured receivers work their way back into playing shape. They may appear ready to play physically, but the 61-year-old coach of the Tide wants to see how they develop between the ears.

"I think psychologically all these guys still have to sort of get over the fact that, 'I was hurt.' I think that just takes a lot of repetitions," he said. "We haven't hit some of those guys so far. As we practice and they get hurt, they'll say, 'Oh, I didn't get hurt again.' It's a little bit of a work in progress for them psychologically to get the confidence they need that they're really not hurt.

"But they've done a really good job, all those guys."