published Sunday, January 12th, 2014

Tide looks to rise: Alabama may be assembling Saban's best class

Alabama lost its extensive grip on college football this past season with its stunning loss at Auburn and its surprise defeat against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

Quarterback AJ McCarron and linebacker C.J. Mosley are now out of college eligibility, and the Crimson Tide on Thursday lost four players early to the NFL, including left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and safety HaHa Clinton-Dix. With no clear-cut quarterback waiting in the wings for new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, there is a sense Alabama's remarkable run may be ending.

The Crimson Tide's 2014 recruiting class suggests otherwise.

Alabama is on the verge of assembling college football's highest-rated crop of signees for the sixth time in seven years, with this bunch potentially being Nick Saban's best one yet.

"I certainly think that from certain positional values, you could make that argument," ESPN national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said. "That's particularly the case with the offensive line. You recruit not only the best player you can get but the right player, and you've got to address your needs on the board.

"Sometimes everybody gets caught up in the four stars and five stars and things of that nature, but it's really about where you have a depletion of talent or a depletion in depth, so it becomes a matter of meeting the needs at critical spots."

The Crimson Tide had an overpowering offensive line during their national championship season of 2012, when the lineup had Kouandjio at left tackle, Chance Warmack at left guard, Barrett Jones at center, Anthony Steen at right guard and D.J. Fluker at right tackle. Kouandjio and Steen returned for the 2013 season, when Alabama's line was more good than great, but now they are gone.

Alabama last winter signed junior college lineman Leon Brown, who got the start for an injured Steen in the Sugar Bowl, and there is plenty more help on the way.

According to ESPN, the Crimson Tide have commitments from the nation's No. 1 tackle prospect (Cameron Robinson), the No. 1 junior college tackle (Dominick Jackson), the No. 1 guard (Ross Pierschbacher), the No. 1 center (Joshua Casher) and the No. 2 center (J.C. Hassenauer). The 6-foot-6, 320-pound Robinson enrolled in Tuscaloosa this past week after disappointing many residents in West Monroe, La., by leaving for LSU's chief nemesis in the SEC West.

"If they turn on me, that means they weren't supporting me in the first place," Robinson told Rivals.com after committing to the Tide.

Alabama had eight commitments enroll last week, including ESPN No. 2 quarterback David Cornwell and defensive backs Tony Brown and Laurence "Hootie" Jones, who are Rivals.com top-40 prospects.

Defensive end is also a position requiring some overhaul with senior Ed Stinson and junior Jeoffrey Pagan, who chose to leave Thursday, no longer in the program. Alabama signed D.J. Pettway for a second time -- Pettway was dismissed from the Tide last February -- but the more heralded catch is Da'Shawn Hand of Woodbridge, Va. The 6-4, 260-pound Hand is Rivals' No. 1 prospect regardless of position and picked Alabama over Michigan, which many analysts thought was his leader.

"Why not go where there's a great possibility you can win a national championship?" Hand said in his announcement.

Determining Alabama's top recruiting class under Saban involves some hair-splitting.

The Tide's class so far has 17 combined Rivals four- and five-star prospects, and that may not catch the 2008 crop that had 22 and was headed by receiver Julio Jones, Barrett Jones and linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw. This year's class has a Rivals average star ranking of 3.88, which slightly trails the 3.91 of the 2011 class headed by Kouandjio, Clinton-Dix and linebacker Trey DePriest, who announced last month that he was returning.

Last year's class headed by running back Derrick Henry, tight end O.J. Howard and defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson scored the highest number of points (3,166) in Rivals' ranking system. This year's group already places second with 3,007 and would forge ahead should Alabama close with in-state cornerback Marlon Humphrey and defensive tackle Matt Elam from Kentucky.

"You look at the defensive end spot and the offensive line, and they've addressed those needs," Luginbill said. "I think they've already addressed needs at quarterback, and they've already addressed needs at wide receiver and at linebacker.

"That's why this class at Alabama is receiving such accolades."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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