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Monday, December 17, 2012
Three to watch

By Alex Scarborough

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- After more than two weeks of waiting, the focus can finally return to the football field in Tuscaloosa. Not that it ever really left.

But thanks to the Crimson Tide's return from a 16-day layoff, the talk can become less about speculation and more about specifics. Players and coaches will hit the practice field on Tuesday afternoon for the beginning of preparations for the Discover BCS Championship Game.

Geno Smith
Geno Smith will get some valuable experience and practice time as Alabama prepares for Notre Dame.
While the focus will remain on the starters, their health and the game plan, bowl practice is also a time for young players to take a step forward and gain notice. Alabama has had no shortage of underclassmen contribute this season and that trend should continue for the final game of the year.

Remember Kevin Norwood, then a sophomore, catching a career-high four passes against LSU in last year's title game? What about Christion Jones, then a freshman, stepping in for Marquis Maze as the return specialist, taking a kickoff back 32 yards? Both developed into starters this season.

Here are three players who could benefit the most and rise the highest as the Crimson Tide prepare for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Jan. 7 in Miami.

Geno Smith, cornerback, freshman

The true freshman wasn't exactly thrown to the wolves, but he did feel the fire late in the season, coming on as the starting nickel back just in time for the SEC championship game. Georgia tried to pick on the former four-star prospect from Atlanta, but had little luck. Smith held his ground and showed he's capable of contributing to a thin secondary.

"It's an NFL-style defense," Smith said after the Tide's 32-28 win over the Bulldogs. "The language and everything is NFL-based. When you practice it, you learn it. Myself, I messed up in games before. When you mess up, you learn. Before the bye week I was making a lot of mental errors. After the bye week, everything started to click."

With another few weeks to learn the defense and prove his mettle to the coaching staff, Smith could find himself possibly earning a bigger role on defense. Starting cornerback Deion Belue has been susceptible and Alabama has a lack of pure cover corners outside of Dee Milliner, who is likely headed to the NFL draft after the season ends.

Ryan Kelly, center, redshirt freshman

Chances are he won't even need to see the field in Miami, but the hours of work and reps he'll get between now and Jan. 7 will be invaluable in terms of his capability as a backup in the event that Barrett Jones is unable to start with a foot injury. It will also be beneficial for Kelly's future development as he's likely to become the starting center next season when Jones is gone to the NFL. The 6-foot-5, 288-pound redshirt freshman has played well on the second unit this season, seeing significant snaps early in the season and against Western Carolina in the game before the SEC championship.

"He's my protege, the guy that I've been training up to be the next center, and I think he's going to be an outstanding player and somebody who's going be to a lot of fun for you guys to watch," Jones said after the blowout win over Western Carolina. Jones would injure his foot two weeks later in Atlanta, hobbling to the stage on crutches. "He's extremely quick and explosive. He just has great feet and body quickness. He's a whole heck of a lot more talented than I am."

Kelly is the former fourth-ranked center in the 2011 recruiting class, according to ESPN. The Ohio native will be one of three potential first-time starters on the offensive line next season. Arie Kouandjio figures to start at guard and Austin Shepherd will have a battle on his hands at right tackle with either junior college commitment Leon Brown or Alabama five-star target Laremy Tunsil, who is weighing his options between the Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs.

Darren Lake, nose guard, freshman

The big true freshman hasn't played much recently, but could figure into the plans with Jesse Williams nursing a knee injury. The 6-foot-3, 315-pound Alabama native would come in handy against Notre Dame's downhill, between-the-tackles running game. But more than what he can do on Jan. 7 is what he can prove before spring camp. He'll likely be in a battle with sophomore Brandon Ivory for the starting nod and could benefit from a strong final push before the offseason.

Coach Nick Saban said he would have preferred to redshirt Lake this season, but a lack of depth on the defensive line forced his hand. The last we heard of Lake, he was progressing well. With the benefit of no classes from now until the national championship game, Lake has a unique opportunity to pour everything he has into the next few weeks and earn a role on defense against the Irish.