Early Evaluation Of Alabama's 2013 Freshman Class
By Brett Beaird
Once again, Alabama signed the No. 1 recruiting class for 2013 in the nation according to JC Shurburtt, director of recruiting for 247sports.com. There were five prospects rated five-stars: running back Derrick Henry (Yulee, Fla.), tight end O.J. Howard (Prattville, Ala./Autauga Academy), wide receiver Robert Foster (Monaca, Pa./Central Valley), linebacker/defensive end Jonathan Allen (Ashburn, Va./Stone Bridge) and linebacker Reuben Foster (Auburn, Ala.).
“This class also featured many prospects who were tops at their projected positions nationally,” Shurburtt said. “Henry (athlete), Howard (tight end), Leon Brown (JUCO offensive tackle), Brandon Hill (prep school offensive tackle) and Reuben Foster (inside linebacker) all were ranked No. 1 at their position according to the 247Composite. There were 13 different states represented in this class and three of the five five-star prospects are from out-of-state. Alabama also signed the top overall prospect in the states of Alabama (Reuben Foster), Arkansas (Altee Tenpenny), Pennsylvania (Robert Foster) and Utah (Cooper Bateman).”
Alabama has a deep and talented roster. It’s difficult for a pure freshman to break into the two-deep rotation. But Alabama coach Nick Saban is not afraid to play underclassmen if they show the ability to contribute. After four games, let’s evaluate some of the top freshman performances for the Crimson Tide.
Eddie Jackson Knows Bo
The most impressive debut of this signing class for Alabama has been three-star Eddie Jackson from Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. Mixed in with the majority of the usual four and five-star blue chip recruits Saban normally signs, many recruiting fans thought Jackson might be an afterthought who could contribute in two years after a redshirt season since he was “only a three-star."
Because of injuries to starting cornerback Deion Belue and a suspension to Geno Smith, Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart had to accelerate Jackson’s learning curve. Jackson responded with a brilliant game against Ole Miss last week. Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace tried to pick on Jackson from the opening offensive series with little success. Jackson responded to the aerial assault by making four tackles, including one tackle for a loss, an interception and two pass breakups. Jackson did not fall for a trick play when Rebels wide receiver Laquon Treadwell tried to throw an option pass that Jackson intercepted.
Senior editor Travis Reier of Bamaonline.com is a Jackson convert. What impressed Reier the most about Jackson was the maturity he displayed in handling the latest ‘ejection/non-ejection’ involving a Crimson Tide defensive back.
“Jackson never wavered, bouncing back to rip free a pass that (Donte) Moncrief had all but secured in the fourth quarter,” Reier said. “It was the kind of performance that supplies the confidence needed for a young corner to survive in college football's toughest league.”
Playmaker At Tight End
The second-most impressive debut of a true freshman for the Tide is O.J. Howard. Rivals.com and 247Sports.com rated Howard, a 6-foot-6, 237-pound five-star prospect, as the No. 1 tight end nationally. Howard has one start and has appeared in all four games this season. He leads the team in yards per catch (17.7) and is third in receiving yards (106). The early enrollee impressed fans at the A-Day game. Howard is a matchup problem for shorter defensive backs and provides offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier a playmaker at tight end. Former tight end Michael Williams was a renowned blocker, but only caught 24 passes for 183 yards in his career.
It’s also impressive that Howard made an impact this early considering the Tide may have the deepest and most talented receiving unit in school history with reliable veterans such as Amari Cooper, Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones.
The Alabama staff also added two more dynamic wide receivers in Raheem Falkins and Robert Foster. Foster is considered to be one of the nation’s top receivers, according to 247 Sports. Falkins, a four-star prospect, was an early enrollee and made an impressive debut in the Alabama spring game making several key runs after the catch.
Saban Tweaks Recruiting Philosophy On Defense
One of the most essential characteristics for an elite coach is to occasionally tweak his philosophy. Saban has publicly admitted he is looking for more “fast-twitch” players to play on the defense line.
"I think we added fast-twitch pass-rushing athletic guys to the defensive line category as being a higher priority because of more spread offenses and more athletic quarterbacks," Saban said. "The same things that NFL teams are talking about when they play against RGIII (Robert Griffin) or (Colin) Kaepernick or the guy from Seattle (Russell Wilson) are athletic (quarterbacks) who can run the ball. We have to be able to adapt to that level of athleticism, and that means we have to be more athletic to do that."
Even though Alabama had 30 sacks in 2012 and 35 in 2011, one of Saban’s goals this season is a more consistent pass rush. Redshirt freshmen Dalvin Tomlinson was thought to be one of the players who could improve the pass rush. Tomlinson, a former four-star prospect from Georgia, was listed as a backup to starting defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan. Tomlinson had four tackles in the Tide’s season-opening win 35-10 against Virginia Tech, but tore his ACL in practice the next week and is out for the season. The Saban philosophy of big, fast defensive lineman and linebackers has served him well in winning three of the past four BCS National Championships. But Saban realizes he needs a more mobile pass rusher who can come off the edges and “chase down or contain” elusive quarterbacks such as Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M.
Allen And Robinson Personify ‘‘Fast-Twitch”
Another freshman in the “fast-twitch” mold is Jonathan Allen. The Crimson Tide won a huge recruiting battle earlier this year in landing the five-star standout. Allen was rated as the nation’s No. 2 weakside defensive end and No. 11 overall prospect by Rivals.com. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound Allen saw action early in the defensive end rotation. Allen seems to be the second defensive end coming off the bench. Allen is playing behind another talented freshman A’Shawn Robinson. In three games, Allen has posted three solo tackles.
Robinson has been impressive in his 2013 debut. He surprised some recruiting analysts by leaving his home state of Texas to sign with Alabama. A five-star defensive tackle at 6-foot-5, 320-pound Robinson was rated the No. 4 defensive tackle in the nation by Rivals.com. He posted three tackles and two quarterback hurries this season. Robinson is tied for the team lead in sacks with two (one sack against Manziel in Alabama’s 49-42 win over the Aggies) and currently is ranked third among Alabama defensive linemen in tackles with nine.
Another “Three-Star” Making An Impact
The most consistent unit for Alabama this season has been special teams. One of the reasons is unheralded three-star freshman long-snapper Cole Mazza, 6-foot-1, 240 pounds from Bakersfield, Calif. Mazza had one glaring mistake with an errant snap to punter Cody Mandell in the Ole Miss game, but otherwise has handled punt, extra point and field goal snaps through the first four games efficiently.
The fifth game of the season (which for Alabama is Georgia State) is normally the cut line for freshmen to get on the field. Saban mentioned on his weekly radio show earlier this week that freshman offensive lineman Grant Hill from Huntsville high school likely will make his Alabama debut Saturday against the Panthers. Hill, a four-star recruit, is listed as Alabama's third-string left tackle behind Cyrus Kouandjio and Kellen Williams. He was projected to play guard and has also been seen working at right tackle during practice.
"I don't care if we're getting beat by 40 or winning by 40, it doesn't matter," Saban said on his weekly radio show. "We're going to play him (Grant) because he deserves to play. He may be one of our five best players. If he is, we need to find a spot for him."
Hill, at 6-foot-6, 301 pounds, is one of 12 Alabama freshmen who have yet to see the field this season. Drew DeArmond, recruiting analyst for Alabama Intel and former color commentator for the Huntsville Panthers, believes Hill has a major upside.
“I have been watching Madison County and Huntsville football closely since 1988 and Hill is the best offensive lineman I have ever seen come out of the area,” DeArmond said. “He has all the tools: size, strength and most importantly football intelligence. He has enough wing span and size to play right tackle at Alabama. But with his athletic ability and power I believe moving inside to guard will happen by the spring of 2014. His mobility is one of his greatest strengths and should allow him to be devastating when asked to pull. He has the football IQ of Barrett Jones with a better skill set than former All-American guard Mike Johnson.”
After a bruising September slate of games against three Top 25 opponents, the October foes are not as challenging and will allow the Crimson Tide to shore up some depth issues. Alabama fans certainly want to see more of five-star linebacker Reuben Foster (two tackles on season) and running backs Altee Tenpenny (nine carries for 42 yards) and Derrick Henry (four carries for 22 yards).
"We have some other players who have not been playing that are improving that we may play more in the future," Saban said. "That A, creates competition but B, could actually help us. I have no problem playing young players. We've played a lot of young players so far this year and we're probably going to play some more before it's over."