Former five-star ‘Bama RB moves to corner… for now

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A five-star member of Alabama’s 2011 recruiting class, Dee Hart was expected to be the latest in a string of very productive Tide running backs.

In July of 2011, Hart suffered a torn ACL that forced him to miss his true freshman season.  After rehabbing that injury, Hart tore the ACL in the same knee during an October win over Ole Miss last year and, obviously, missed the remainder of the season.  While Hart is returning yet again from injury, he’ll be doing so on the other side of the ball.

The two-time defending national champions opened spring practice Saturday afternoon, and Hart was working in the secondary as a cornerback in a black, no-contact jersey.  Head coach Nick Saban, however, stressed that just because players are working at a different position this spring, Hart included, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the moves will be permanent.

“We’re looking to see if any of those guys can help us, and if this would be a better circumstance for how much they would be able to contribute to our team,” Saban said in explaining a handful of position switches.

The Tide is absolutely loaded at the running back position, with second-leading rusher T.J. Yeldon, one of two UA backs with over 1,000 yards last season, returning as well as four RBs in this year’s recruiting class added to a stable of four- and five-star players at the position.  The combination of that depth and Hart’s recent injury history would make switching to the secondary on a permanent basis sensible on several levels.

Hart, though, isn’t the only player making a secondary move.  Cyrus Jones and Christion Jones, wide receivers in 2012, were working with the defensive backs during the first of 15 spring practice sessions.

“I’ve been encouraged by all those guys. They’re all really athletic,” the coach said of the three skill-position players. “They’ve all played defensive back before, so it’s not like they’re lost. But I don’t think there’s any way that all those guys are going to end up on defense. Maybe one. Maybe two, if they both have roles.”

For the most part, and likely to Saban’s liking, the Tide’s first spring practice of the year was an uneventful one.  Here, though, are a few notes and one quote from the Tide’s return to the practice field.

— A total of nine early enrollees took part in the spring practice: quarterback Cooper Bateman, junior college offensive lineman Leon Brown, quarterback Luke Del Rio, wide receiver Raheem Falkins, running back Derrick Henry, offensive lineman Brandon Hill, tight end O.J. Howard, quarterback Parker McLeod and defensive back Jai Miller.

— Bateman, Del Rio and McLeod, incidentally, were three of the eight quarterbacks — yes, eight — who are currently on the roster and received reps.  In addition to those two as well as starter AJ McCarron and backup Blake SimsAlec MorrisPhillip Ely and walk-on Edward Aldag also received some semblance of work.

— Ely had reportedly been considering a transfer earlier this offseason, so his presence served as somewhat of a mild surprise.  Depending on how things shake out over the next five weeks, though, Ely could still look to move on to a program less congested at the quarterback position.

— From the Anniston Star: “During a couple of drills, McCarron was able to throw to someone he said he wanted to play alongside — his brother, tight end Corey McCarron, a rising sophomore.”

— As noted in UA’s release, secondary coach Greg Brown, assistant head coach and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal and wide receivers coach Billy Napier getting their first on-field look at the 2013 Crimson Tide squad.  All of those assistants are in their first months on the job after three of Saban’s assistants left this offseason for better jobs title-wise.

— Wide receiver DeAndrew White (knee), running back Jalston Fowler (knee) and linebacker C.J. Mosley were among those wearing the black, no-contact jersey.  There was no word on the specific nature of Mosley’s injury.  (Writer’s note: Mosley underwent offseason shoulder surgery, hence the no-contact jersey.)

— Quasi-starting linebacker Xzavier Dickson was in the mix along the defensive line.  Again, the move is not necessarily a permanent one.  Dickson started six of the 13 games in which he played at LB last year.

— It was noted by al.com that “WR Kenny Bell doesn’t look like someone who broke his leg four months ago.”

— For those who keep track of this sort of thing, the Tide officially returns six starters on offense and seven on defense.  Starting punter Cody Mandell returns as well.

— Quotable, from Saban via the school’s sports information department:

“The main objective to me for spring practice is to focus on player improvement. Whether it is what a player needs to be able to do, the technique of how he should do it and to have an understanding conceptually of why it is important to do it that way.

“In the spring you don’t have game plans. You don’t have to change what you are doing and it is an opportunity for everyone to know our offense, our defense and our special teams – and to understand what is expected of them. I think it is also a time that a player needs to learn how to practice.”

Cal plays tough, but No. 5 USC pulls away late to stay undefeated

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USC’s annual trip to the Bay Area for what is commonly referred to as ‘The Weekender’ is typically a casual affair for the Trojans when they go to Berkeley and their team takes on overmatched Pac-12 rivals Cal. Such was not the case for most of Saturday afternoon however, as the Bears pushed and prodded their in-state rivals before the dam finally broke early in the fourth quarter for a 30-20 win by the cardinal and gold.

The closer-than-it-indicated final score may not have been all that pretty but still allowed USC to capture their 14th straight victory and run their record against Cal to 13 straight wins over nearly a decade and a half.

Part of the reason the Trojans couldn’t pull away until late was an ineffective offense that was a continuation of last week against Texas. Quarterback Sam Darnold had to carry the team at times but wasn’t quite as sharp early in the passing game, forcing several balls while throwing his seventh interception (after having just nine all last year). His numbers improved as the game went on and, in front of a bunch of NFL scouts, he still finished with 223 yards and two touchdown passes against a feisty defense.

The biggest issue for the signal-caller was the lack of a running game. Normal starter Ronald Jones II didn’t even make the trip with the team, while true freshman Stephen Carr had his moments rushing for 82 yards and a touchdown taking the bulk of the carries.

Head coach Clay Helton can once again thank his defense for bailing out the slow starting offense as they forced six turnovers and straight up took over in the final quarter to change momentum. Josh Fatu forced a fumble early in the 4th that was recovered near the goal line to kick the party off and interceptions by Ykili Ross and Jack Jones in the next few series all but sealed the deal in Strawberry Canyon.

As a result, the numbers for Cal signal-caller Ross Bowers looked dreadful on the final stat sheet (303 yards, 1 TD, four interceptions and a fumble). Still, he did help give the team a chance for most of the day and, combined with a solid run game and defensive performance, helped show that things are still looking up for Justin Wilcox’s team despite suffering their first loss of the year to move to 3-1.

That might not be the case for USC as they fly back and look over the game tape from a sloppy victory. While it does put the team up 2-0 in league play, notching another win might prove to be even more difficult if they play like that given they face a stiff test next Friday against a Washington State team that should be ranked in the top 20.

No. 16 TCU goes to Stillwater and locks up No. 6 Oklahoma State

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Oklahoma State spent its first three games blasting its opponents from the jump. Against Tulsa, South Alabama and Pittsburgh — admittedly, not exactly the toughest non-conference schedule in the game — the Cowboys held a combined 59-0 lead at the end of the first quarter en route to blowout victories.

This game was pretty much the exact opposite.

TCU controlled the ball and the pace and tone of the game from the beginning, using a massive possession advantage to lean on an overmatched Cowboys defense and survive a late challenge from a powerful Pokes offense en route to a 44-31 victory.

Actually, the first quarter looked as if TCU would spoil a great game plan and an early advantage. The Frogs ran 25 of the game’s first 33 plays but found themselves in a 7-6 hole after two drives ended in field goals and Mason Rudolph hit James Washington for an 86-yard touchdown.

But the Frogs answered, rallying for consecutive touchdown drives of 75 and 62 yards, capped by a 28-yard Darius Anderson and a 9-yard strike from Kenny Hill to John Diarse. Oklahoma State tacked on a field goal before the break, but TCU hit the locker room with a 10-point lead on the scoreboard and an 11-minute time of possession advantage.

After halftime, a rested TCU defense intercepted Rudolph in Cowboys territory and turned it into points on a 6-yard Anderson run. Oklahoma State responded with a 10-play, 78-yard touchdown march to pull within 27-17 midway through the third quarter, but TCU rumbled down the field on a 9-play, 75-yard drive in which eight of the snaps were runs and the only pass was a 43-yard strike to Jaelan AustinSewo Olonilua punched in a 1-yard plunge — which he later fumbled, but the call of touchdown was upheld upon review — to give the Frogs a 34-17 lead.

TCU (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) forced a punt on the next drive and had a chance to put the game away early in the fourth quarter, but Hill fired incomplete on a 3rd-and-7 from the OSU 14. Jonathan Song‘s third field goal of the game made the score 37-17 but preserved a comeback window for Oklahoma State with 12:03 remaining.

Oklahoma State (3-1, 0-1 Big 12) immediately notched the first of its three needed touchdowns, moving 79 yards in 2:19 and culminating in a 1-yard Rudolph keeper to pull within 37-24 with 9:44 to play. The Pokes’ defense forced a three-and-out on TCU’s next possession and its offense moved to the TCU 23, but a wide receiver pass by Jalen McCleskey was intercepted at the 5-yard line by TCU’s Nick Orr.

Nevertheless, Oklahoma State forced another three-and-out — the Frogs’ offense “gained” minus-8 yards in its first two touches after going up 37-17 — and then moved 53 yards in five plays, keyed by a 34-yard McCleskey catch — to shrink the deficit to 37-31 with 3:03 to play.

After a 42-yard kickoff return by KaVontae Turpin, Oklahoma State used both of its remaining timeouts to force a do-or-die 3rd-and-4 at the OSU 42 with 2:37 to play. A stop would’ve given Oklahoma State the ball deep in its own territory with plenty of time and a chance to win with a touchdown, and a loss would’ve allowed the Frogs to run out the clock. Neither of those outcomes happened, though, as Anderson bursted through the Pokes’ front and raced untouched for a touchdown, pushing the lead back to two touchdowns.

Anderson and the TCU offensive line dominated the game, as he carried 26 times for 160 yards and three scores. Playing without senior Kyle Hicks, TCU as a team rushed 49 times for 241 yards and four scores, while Hill hit a manageable 22-of-33 passes for 228 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

The TCU defense forced Rudolph into easily his worst game of the season. Rudolph finished the game hitting 21-of-39 throws with 398 yards and two touchdowns, but he also lost a fumble and threw two interceptions. Rudolph’s first two turnovers turned into TCU touchdowns, and his third came on a tipped pass on 4th-and-1 on Oklahoma State’s last-gasp driving trailing 44-31. Washington caught six passes for 153 yards and a score, and Justice Hill carried 25 times for 102 yards and a score.

No. 1 Alabama is business as usual in 59-0 win at Vanderbilt

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There is certainly no shame in losing a head-to-head matchup against Alabama, but Vanderbilt (3-1, 0-1 SEC) will have almost nothing to be proud of after being demolished and paved over by No. 1 Alabama (4-0, 1-0 SEC) at home on national TV.

Damien Harris led an overpowering running game for Alabama with 151 yards and three touchdowns. Bo Scarbrough added 79 yards and two scores to the box score. As a team, Alabama rushed for 501 yards, gashing Vanderbilt on the ground on the way to 42 first downs. Vanderbilt had just three first downs in the game.

If there was a turning point in a 59-0 game, it must have come on the opening drive of the game. Vanderbilt had the game’s opening drive extended courtesy of a roughing the passer penalty on Alabama’s Anfernee Jennings. On the next play, Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur was picked off by Ronnie Harrison to hand the ball over to Alabama. Vanderbilt’s defense did respond by forcing a punt. Alabama would get the ball rolling on their next offensive possession. The game was essentially decided at that point, because Alabama never looked back.

So where do we go from here?

For Alabama, another week down means quickly turning the page to the next objective. The Crimson Tide host Ole Miss next week for a night game. The Rebels have given Alabama some trouble in recent years and will hope to pull a major stunner next week in Tuscaloosa. Vanderbilt will look to rebound next week on the road in Gainesville against Florida.

Matt Rhule again has Baylor run pregame ‘Oklahoma Drill’

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Matt Rhule really couldn’t care less what you, I or anybody else thinks.

The Baylor head coach came under heavy fire when, prior to the Week 3 game against Duke, he had his players run the “Oklahoma Drill,” a full-contact drill developed by the great Bud Wilkinson, as part of their pregame warmup.  Afterward, Rhule defended a drill whose use in practice settings is dwindling in this era of safety and is rarely seen in pregame.

“It’s a great opportunity to come together and establish our physicality as a team before games,” the coach said last week. “It’s something I’ve always done. We try to do it before Tuesday and Wednesday practices too.”

Prior to the game against No. 3 Oklahoma, fittingly, Rhule went back to that same well.

The Bears are currently 0-3 on the season, including a season-opening loss to FCS Liberty and one the following week to UT-San Antonio of Conference USA.  BU is one of two Power Five teams, along with Florida State, without a win this season.