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May 1, 2014

SEC Spring Wrap-up: Alabama starting over

Editor's note: This is the second installment of a 14-part in-depth look at spring practices from throughout the Southeastern Conference from the SEC writers of the Rivals.com network. Up today are the Alabama Crimson Tide.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. | The 15 practices, including three scrimmages, around the University of Alabama football program during the spring had one central theme. It was all about starting over.

Forget about three national championships in the last five years. Forget about two Southeastern Conference titles during that time. Forget about a 60-7 record over that span.

It's over. It's done.

For the Crimson Tide in 2014 it's about leaving the past in the past and starting from scratch.

UA coach Nick Saban seeks to create the hunger that surrounded his program when he took over Crimson Tide as the head coach, particularly beginning in 2008 when he transformed a 7-6 squad in 2007 to a team that came within a hair of playing for a national championship and finished 12-2.

"I said back in the beginning that we're starting over in terms of starting a new program and going back to reemphasize the basic fundamental things that we thought made the program successful to start with," Saban said. "Everybody has to buy into that, and I like the way the players have responded. I like the leadership we have so far on this team."

After a season when distractions, including selfishness, were blamed for tripping up a dream season, Saban praised this team's attitude multiple times during the spring. How that attitude translates to the field is yet to be seen, however certain players have already stepped up to fill leadership roles on offense and defense to fill the voids left by departing seniors AJ McCarron and C.J. Mosley.

"I really like the attitude of this team, in terms of how they go about what they try to do, how they work and the effort that they give, the mental and physical toughness they play with," Saban said. "The togetherness on the team is, to me, a lot better."


What's the biggest thing you learned about Alabama this spring?

The guys up front on Alabama's defensive line are big, fast and strong. And despite what Saban says, the unit is exceptionally deep.

It starts with A'Shawn Robinson, who turned heads during his freshman season, and a couple of junior college transfers in D.J. Pettway and Jarran Reed. Pettway had an interception return for a touchdown during the spring game and Reed is a 6-foot-4, 310-pound bull in Alabama's 3-4 defense.

Then there's returning nose guard Brandon Ivory, Dalvin Tomlinson, who returns from an ACL injury, Jonathan Allen and Darren Lake. Of course there's also the No. 1 player in the country in the class of 2014, Da'Shawn Hand, who reports during the summer.

There were times when Alabama's defensive line was neutralized in 2013. That will be a much tougher task to accomplish this season. I also expect much more of a pass rush from the unit, as sacks and tackles for loss were at an all-time low during the Saban era in 2013.

What is the biggest question Alabama answered during spring ball?

There's no denying that Alabama lost a lot of talent off its defense. Gone are C.J. Mosley, Ha Ha Clinton Dix, Vinnie Sunseri, Adrian Hubbard, Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan. But Alabama will plug and play and field another stellar defense this season.

The defensive line is poised to be the best under Saban at Alabama. Two starters return at linebacker, and while Mosley's shoes will certainly be tough to fill, Alabama has two talented candidates in Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster.

Landon Collins proved he's ready to handle the leadership role at strong safety and make this defense his along with middle linebacker Trey DePriest.

The main question mark will be at cornerback, a position that troubled the Crimson Tide in 2013. But Eddie Jackson will return from an ACL injury in the fall and five-star cornerbacks Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey will immediately compete for playing time their freshmen years.

What are the questions still lingering around Alabama after the conclusion of spring practice?

It's clear that Alabama has two glaring areas that must be addressed before heading to the Georgia Dome for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against West Virginia.

The first is quarterback. Who replaces McCarron? Post-spring practice the answer isn't clear. The most likely candidate isn't on campus. Jacob Coker will be the favorite and the frontrunner from the first time he puts on the crimson jersey.

Blake Sims ran the offense all spring, and his teammates respect the work he's put in and are actively rooting for him to win the job in the fall. However, his spring game performance, 13-of-30 for 178 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, didn't inspire a lot of confidence from the Crimson Tide faithful.

As much as McCarron was viewed as a game manager, he had complete control of the offense. No matter who wins the job, Coker or McCarron, there is bound to be a drop off.

There is also a new offensive coordinator to factor in, as Lane Kiffin takes the reins of the UA offense.

The other obvious area of concern is cornerback. Alabama never settled on a second cornerback in 2013, shuffling in several players at the position due to injury and ineffective play. Add to that the most experienced corner, Deion Belue, graduated and it becomes a serious area of concern in 2014.

Eddie Jackson, the top corner during spring, tore his ACL during the first scrimmage, but Saban said he expects him back by the fall.

Alabama signed two five star corners in the 2014 class in Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey. Brown is enrolled early and made a serious push during spring practice

Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve exited spring as the top two corners, but there is likely to be much more movement at the position before the first game of the season.

What players stepped up during spring?

Derrick Henry burst onto the scene during the Sugar Bowl, and his progress continued during the spring. The sophomore jumbo running back has star written all over him, but don't expect him to jump over T.J. Yeldon for the No. 1 spot.

It's clear, however, that Henry has a grasp on the No. 2 back position, and he'll split carries with Yeldon throughout the season. If Yeldon's propensity to put the ball on the ground continues, look for Henry's role to increase.

Defensive linemen Reed and Pettway are junior college transfers who will make an immediate difference not in only in terms of depth on the defensive line, but also in terms of talent.

Wide receiver Chris Black has patiently bided his time, redshirting in 2012 and playing sparingly in 2013, but this could be the season that he gets more playing time. Saban made it clear that Kiffin would get the ball to the playmakers, and while that mainly means Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard, Black is a player who is a threat to bust a big play every time he touches the ball.

Who are the players who need to step up heading into the summer?

Someone on the offensive line needs to grab the opportunity to shape this unit. That never happened last season. Of course, that line was replacing three All-Americans in Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker and Barrett Jones.

Now the group must find a replacement for left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and right guard Anthony Steen. The most likely candidates to fill that leadership role are center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Austin Shepherd. Both have played solidly during their time as starters, but both need to become vocal leaders for an inexperienced group.

Geno Smith has a chance in front of him to become the starter at free safety if he has a strong fall camp. That will begin this summer, if he takes advantage of the opportunity. Landon Collins stepped up this spring and will provide an excellent example for Smith.

Reggie Ragland and Foster will continue to compete for C.J. Mosley's vacant Will linebacker position. Foster battled a neck injury throughout spring, giving Ragland the upper hand. That could change this fall. Whoever wins the job will have Mike linebacker DePriest to learn from.

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