Alabama football: Crimson Tide freshmen show promise, could play early in season

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerAugust 21, 2011 

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The number. The big body. The bigger expectations.

Parallels between Andre Smith of six years ago and Cyrus Kouandjio can’t be ignored. Both were the No. 1 rated offensive lineman coming out of high school with huge frames and the No. 71 on their back.

Alabama’s football roster says Kouandjio (6-foot-6, 322 pounds) is one inch taller and seven pounds heavier than Smith (6-5, 315) was as a freshman.

But will Kouandjio and a few freshman teammates need to step into the prime role Smith inherited as the starting left tackle in 2006? The same applies for linebacker Trey DePriest and the similarities drawn between him and Rolando McClain as a rookie in 2007.

It’s possible, head coach Nick Saban said after Saturday’s scrimmage, that a few fresh faces will see serious game action early on.

“I think after we look at this film and go through another week of practice, we’ll probably decide somewhere Thursday or Friday of next week who these guys are,” Saban said. “I’ve got some idea right now, but I don’t really want to throw it out there and it changes.”

The names of a few true freshmen have risen out of the first two weeks of Crimson Tide preseason practices. Besides Kouandjio and DePriest, top defensive back Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix has turned heads along with utility offensive athlete Christion Jones.

All benefit from playing with experienced veterans, who not only impart knowledge on the young ones but also stand as a buffer between instant duty.

In a sense, they can be more of a luxury than a necessity like Smith was in Mike Shula’s final season in Tuscaloosa. That said, Saban won’t sit an 18-year-old simply because of his birth date.

“We’re not about seniority,” Saban said. “Just ’cause a guy’s been here doesn’t mean somebody else can’t be better than him.”

Even among an offensive line peppered with upperclassmen, Kouandjio is a towering presence.

What could vault him into game action early this season, though, isn’t just his size or raw abilities. Barrett Jones, the junior offensive lineman working at the No. 1 left tackle position, likes what’s going on inside Kouandjio’s helmet.

“He is always asking questions, always wanting to get better,” Jones said. “It’s no secret he was extremely highly recruited and extremely highly touted guy. Sometimes guys like that think they know everything, but he’s not like that at all. He’s very hungry.”

Unlike DePriest, Kouandjio graduated high school at the traditional time instead of enrolling early and participating in spring practices.

Those 15 workouts can make a big difference, especially on the offensive line where Saban said the installation process can be most taxing.

“Sometimes he looks like Orlando Pace out there at left tackle and at other times he looks like a freshman, as he should,” fifth-year senior center William Vlachos said. “So, we continue to bring him along. He’s an intelligent guy. I’ve been working with him a lot trying to make sure he understands when he messes something up while he’s on the field. He’s a really good player. I look for big things out of him.”

DePriest, a linebacker from Springfield, Ohio, also migrated south with five stars beside his name. Scout.com said he was the No. 1 middle linebacker in the nation and carried the 15 spring workouts with him to practice this August.

But unlike McClain four years ago, he won’t need to step on the field right away Sept. 3 against Kent State. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t.

The interior linebackers return Dont’a Hightower, Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley -- all of whom, fittingly, started games as true freshmen.

“Trey is just like C.J.,” Johnson said. “Fast learner, loves football. He flies around real fast. It’s going to be exciting to see what coach Saban does with this linebacking corps. We’ve got a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball, outside linebackers, inside linebackers. It’s going to be real fun.”

The extra few months on campus also helped build his frame. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said DePriest has added 5-10 pounds since arriving in January.

“He is a very instinctive football player,” said Smart, who works with mostly inside linebackers in practice. “He finds the ball and makes a lot of plays on the ball. He did a lot of that in the spring. Trey has really good speed, and he has done a good job of being patient and trying to learn the defense and not getting frustrated, which some freshmen do. He has a great future ahead of him. He keeps his head on straight. We are really excited about Trey.”

When listing the most difficult positions to master quickly, Saban listed the defensive secondary right next to the offensive line. For Clinton-Dix, he is learning with the same schedule as Kouandjio because he didn’t arrive in Tuscaloosa until summer.

The player they call “Ha-Ha” drew high praise from Saban for his willingness to learn a complex defense.

“He is the most pleasant, up-beat, smile-on-his-face-all-the-time, easy-to-coach-guy that wants to learn that we’ve probably had around here in a long time,” Saban said. “I mean, he’s really got a great disposition about doing it, and I think that’ll help him in the long run.”

Running back Dee Hart, a former teammate of Clinton-Dix at Orlando’s Dr. Phillips High School and a five-star prospect, also was angling for immediate playing time before tearing a knee ligament this summer.

Jones, who drew three stars from Scout, worked with the running backs before moving over to the receiving corps full time. After the first several practices, Saban said Jones’ quick burst of speed could make him a contributor early in his career.

The defensive line has a few blue-chippers, such as Jeoffrey Pagan, D.J. Pettaway and LaMichael Fanning (Harris County) competing for time and looking to play right away. That’s more of the trend with talented young players.

“I think the whole climate of redshirting guys has changed. Guys graduate more quickly, so we have quite a few of our guys that graduate in three, three-and-a-half years,” Saban said. “I think if a guy needs the development or is not in a position to be helpful to the team … then it’s probably not worth it. But if a guy can do that, we’ll certainly play him.”

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