Calvin Ridley

Teams may be the same for Alabama-Clemson IV but the names — and preparation — are a lot different in 2019

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — There have been variations over the years or in different parts of the country but most folks are familiar with the old adage of once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence and three times is a trend. 

If that’s the case though, what exactly might that make Monday’s national title game between No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson? It’s not just the programs’ third meeting in the final game of the season the past four years but also their fourth consecutive postseason meeting.

In short, the same… yet different.

“I think this sort of has become a little bit like someone you play in your league because we have played several years in a row now,” Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban said Saturday. “I’m sure they know a little more about us, we know a little more about them. I think that players still look at each game as a new challenge, and certainly I think that’s going to be important, because they’re a really good team that you’re playing against, which is what you should expect in a game like this.”

Saban understands each game being a unique challenge more than most involved. It’s not just new faces as players graduate or depart for the NFL, it’s quite a bit of staff turnover as well. This may be Alabama’s fourth meeting with Clemson but the Crimson Tide have done so with a different offensive coordinator/play-caller each time. 

Lane Kiffin in 2016 gave way to a brief turn by Steve Sarkisian in 2017. Brian Daboll was one-and-done in 2018 and turned things over to Mike Locksley this season, who will also be leaving after the game to take over as head coach at Maryland. 

While the turnover isn’t quite as significant on the defensive side, it’s still there. Though this is firmly Saban’s defense, the team will have gone from Kirby Smart to Jeremy Pruitt to the combination of Tosh Lupoi and Pete Golding — to say nothing of all the other assistants who have shuffled in and out of Tuscaloosa. 

“We do know what to expect but they have new coaches every year,” said receiver Hunter Renfrow, a hero in the 2017 title game and one 30 Tigers players who will have played in all four editions. “They can prepare for us a little better because we have continuity in our staff. I can go look at notes and it’s new guys but the same elite level.”

No kidding. 

Daron Payne played a huge role in last year’s Sugar Bowl in holding down Clemson’s offense. This year he’s simply been replaced in the lineup by Quinnen Williams, a unanimous All-American who won the Outland Trophy and will likely follow Payne as a top 15 draft pick in the spring. Minkah Fitzpatrick starred in the secondary during the first three meetings and has given way to the stellar play of Deionte Thompson, going from top star recruit to another without missing a step. 

“I would say they just have a bigger stable of running backs. It’s the running backs and it’s the wide receivers, man,” Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell said of the biggest difference on offense he’s noticed in Alabama over the years. “(Damien Harris) and Bo (Scarborough) last year got most of the carries but now they have three running backs that could go anywhere in the country and start and have a great career. The receiving core, it’s ridiculous to see the type of receivers they have and the tight ends, too. I really feel like they are a very complete offense. They can affect you in any level of their offense.”

Calvin Ridley was Bama’s big-play threat in the passing game before going on to become a first-round pick last spring but the team has actually gotten better in the passing game, including developing Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy this season and a host of others. Five Tide wideouts have over 600 yards and at least six touchdowns receiving coming into the title game and six different players have scored rushing. 

Then there’s the difference-maker at quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa, who was in high school during the first two meetings and sat on the bench for Round 3 in the Sugar Bowl. The Heisman Trophy runner-up has helped the Tide’s offense shatter several school records and is No. 2 in a number of statistical categories nationally behind the team, Oklahoma, they just beat in the Orange Bowl. The sophomore already has an incredible track record in the national title game and is looking for that to continue against Clemson.

“We’re very familiar with Alabama, same bat channel, different bat day, I guess,” remarked Dabo Swinney. “You just turn the page, whatever year. They’re great on defense. You can pick little things here or there. They’re built in the trenches. The biggest difference for them this year is just the explosiveness on offense. This is by far the best version of them we’ve seen offensively. I mean, it’s unbelievable.

“And we’re a lot alike, dynamic quarterbacks, explosive skill, explosive run game, built through the run game in the play action and those type of things.”

The head coach is spot on with that assessment. 

Tailback Travis Etienne has been phenomenal in helping take the Tigers ground game to the next level and is playing behind a veteran offensive line that has done a great job opening holes you could drive a truck through. While Renfrow is a mainstay at receiver, the Deon Cain’s and Ray-Ray McCloud’s of recent years have been replaced (and then some) by explosive playmakers like Amari Rodgers, Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. 

It’s also the deepest group Clemson has taken to the championship game, adding a top recruiting class full of several five-stars to a roster that returned 61 players with experience coming into 2018. 

“I don’t think we were intimated by them (in the first meeting), we were more intimated by the moment,” added Renfrow. “It was new to everyone and we were all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, kinda nervous. Now, we know what to expect, what it takes.”

They also have their own difference maker under center in Trevor Lawrence, a freshman who is no longer a freshman and inserted into the starting lineup in September specifically to make the big throws on this stage. He sliced up a stout Notre Dame secondary in the Cotton Bowl and is just the second player ever to top 300 yards and three touchdowns in a College Football Playoff game (the other being some fella named Deshaun Watson). 

So while some may roll their eyes and claim fatigue in seeing Alabama and Clemson jerseys trot out onto the field for a fourth time, this year’s go-around is very much has a different flavor even if there’s plenty of similarities to past editions. 

Perhaps the lone thing that everybody agrees on coming into the 2019 National Championship Game is that both 14-0 squads are truly the best of the best and a fitting conclusion to a season where two elite teams rose above the rest. 

“Everybody says that they’re tired of watching us play. But year in, year out we proved that we’re the best two teams, and we play tough,” said Alabama’s Harris. “We take care of our business in the regular season. That’s why we keep meeting here.”

And so it will be — again — in Santa Clara with an undefeated season and the national championship on the line.

Tua Tagovailoa suffers setback in return from hand injury, spring game status uncertain

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Tua Tagovailoa suffered a setback in his recovery from the hand injury that has cost him much of spring practice and may force him out of next Saturday’s A-Day game, Nick Saban confirmed Saturday.

“You know, Tua had a little setback yesterday with his hand,” Saban said, via the Tuscaloosa News. “Doctors are trying to evaluate the best course of action and what we do with him the remainder of spring. That said, I can’t really tell you any more. He didn’t take any snaps today. He did take a lot of snaps yesterday. We’re going to try to protect this and make sure that this thing is not going to be an issue for him in the fall.”

Tagovailoa was expected to compete with incumbent Jalen Hurts for the Tide’s starting quarterback job, but thus far that competition has not materialized. Tempting as it may be to hand-wave any issue Alabama faces with “They’re Bama,” missing much of spring practice is a significant loss for Tagovailoa. Alabama is looking to replace Calvin Ridley, whose 63 receptions accounted for more than every returning wideout — combined. Alabama is also working in two more voices to the play-calling process, as Mike Locksley ascended to offensive coordinator and Dan Enos was hired as associate head coach and quarterbacks coach after Brian Daboll left for the Buffalo Bills.

Alabama will practice twice this week ahead of Saturday’s spring game. Tagovailoa’s status for all three events is unknown, trending toward doubtful.

If the sophomore is unable to go, Alabama will be down to two healthy scholarship quarterbacks: Hurts and Mac Jones. Jones is a 4-star recruit from Jacksonville who redshirted in 2017.

“I think Mac had made a lot of improvement,” Saban said. “He’s a guy that has to mature in terms of… He’s very competitive. When you’re the quarterback, how does what I’m doing affect my unit? So when things don’t go well, you can’t always show your emotions, show your disappointment. You have to be positive, like ‘We’re going to get them on the next play.’ That’s a part of his leadership we have to continue to work on. But he’s made more and more good plays. We feel really good about his development. We’re just trying to get him to focus on being the best player that he can be. Because he’s going to be in position this year where he’s not going to be far away from having to play.”

Calvin Ridley said stats disparity led to some awkwardness in Alabama WR room

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It’s NFL Scouting Combine weekend in Indianapolis and, freed from the shackles of controlling coaches and sports information directors, recent college football players are a lot more honest about their seasons than they would otherwise be if they were back on campus.

Case in point? Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley was asked about the gap between his statistics in the passing game and those of his teammates like Robert Foster and why there was such a notable chasm.

“Sometimes (it got awkward), yeah because some of the guys made comments, throw up the charts,” Ridley said Friday, per AL.com. “Everybody would have like five catches and I had like 50. It’s just kinda weird. I wish we all had the same amount but we won the championship. And everybody was happy.”

Championship rings do have a way of smoothing things over but the numbers are still hard to fathom. AL.com notes Ridley had 30.1 percent of Crimson Tide receptions in 2017 and the drop off between his team-leading 63 catches to No. 2 Bo Scarbrough’s 17 was… stark. In fact, running backs finished second and third last year for Alabama in terms of catches before a wideout even enters the picture and no member of the receiver group averaged more than a catch per game in 2017.

Quarterback Jalen Hurts only threw it 254 times last year (Tua Tagovailoa added another 77, nearly a third of which came in the second half of the title game) so it’s not like there were a ton of receptions to go around but it’s probably not all that surprising to hear from Ridley that the rest of the Alabama receivers wanted the ball a bit more and that led to at least a little friction in Tuscaloosa. Either way, it certainly seems like the disparity will be something that Nick Saban and new offensive coordinator Mike Locksley will be addressing when they start spring practice later this month.

Record number of players on NFL’s official early-entry list for 2018 draft

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If it seemed to you like there were an inordinate number of early cannonballers jumping into the draft pool, you were correct.

Four days after the Jan. 15 deadline, the NFL Friday announced that 106 players have been granted special eligibility for the April draft.  That sets a new record for early entrants, breaking the mark of 98 set in 2014.  The past two seasons, there were 95 and 96 in 2017 and 2016, respectively.  In 2015, there were just 74.

The SEC was hit hardest by attrition with 26 players leaving early, although the ACC wasn’t far behind at 24.  The Pac-12 was next among the Power Five conferences with 17, followed by the Big 12’s 13 and the Big Ten’s 11.

Among Group of Five leagues, Conference USA lost the most with four.  The Mountain West saw three go early, with the AAC (two), MAC (one) and Sun Belt (one) coming next in line.  There were also two non-FBS players who left early, as well as two from Notre Dame.

As far as individual schools go, there were three that lost six apiece — Florida State, LSU and Texas.  Alabama lost five, while Auburn, Miami, Oklahoma, UCLA, and USC all lost four apiece.  Clemson, Florida, Louisville, Stanford and Tennessee were on the losing end of three players each.

In addition to the 106 granted special eligibility — they’ll be listed at the end — the NFL also granted eligibility to 13 players who the league writes “have in timely fashion under NFL rules officially notified the league office that they have fulfilled their degree requirements.” Those players are listed below:

» Jordan Akins, TE, UCF
» Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
» Kyle Allen, QB, Houston
» Will Clapp, C, LSU
» Terrell Edmunds, DB, Virginia Tech
» Taylor Hearn, G, Clemson
» Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State
» Sam Jones, G, Arizona State
» Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame
» Brian O’Neill, T, Pittsburgh
» Christian Sam, LB, Arizona State
» Tre'Quan Smith, WR, UCF
» Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU

Courtesy of the NFL, below is the complete list of 106 players who have been granted special eligibility for the 2018 NFL Draft:

» Josh Adams, RB, Notre Dame
» Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, DE, Toledo
» Jaire Alexander, DB, Louisville
» Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma
» Dorance Armstrong, DE, Kansas
» Jerome Baker, LB, Ohio State
» Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
» Jessie Bates, DB, Wake Forest
» Orlando Brown, T, Oklahoma
» Taven Bryan, DT, Florida
» Deontay Burnett, WR, USC
» Deon Cain, WR, Clemson
» Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida
» Geron Christian, T, Louisville
» Simmie Cobbs, WR, Indiana
» Keke Coutee, WR, Texas Tech
» Vosean Crumbie, DB, Nevada
» J.J. Dallas, DB, Louisiana-Monroe
» James Daniels, C, Iowa
» Sam Darnold, QB, USC
» Carlton Davis, DB, Auburn
» Michael Dickson, P, Texas
» Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech
» DeShon Elliott, DB, Texas
» Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
» Matt Fleming, WR, Benedictine
» Nick Gates, T, Nebraska
» Rashaan Gaulden, DB, Tennessee
» Frank Ginda, LB, San Jose State
» Rasheem Green, DT, USC
» Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
» Ronnie Harrison, DB, Alabama
» Quadree Henderson, WR, Pittsburgh
» Holton Hill, DB, Texas
» Nyheim Hines, RB, NC State
» Jeff Holland, LB, Auburn
» Mike Hughes, DB UCF
» Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina
» Joel Iyiegbuniwe, LB, Western Kentucky
» Ryan Izzo, TE, FSU
» Donte Jackson, DB, LSU
» J.C. Jackson, DB, Maryland
» Josh Jackson, DB, Iowa
» Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
» Derwin James, DB, FSU
» Richie James, WR, Middle Tennessee
» Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
» Courtel Jenkins, DT, Miami
» Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn
» Ronald Jones, RB, USC
» John Kelly, RB, Tennessee
» Arden Key, LB, LSU
» Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
» Du’Vonta Lampkin, DT, Oklahoma
» Jordan Lasley, WR, UCLA
» Chase Litton, QB, Marshall
» Tavares Martin, WR, Washington State
» Hercules Mata’afa, DE, Washington State
» Ray-Ray McCloud, WR, Clemson
» Tarvarus McFadden, DB, Florida State
» R.J. McIntosh, DT, Miami
» Reginald McKenzie, DT, Tennessee
» Quenton Meeks, DB, Stanford
» Kolton Miller, T, UCLA
» D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland
» Ryan Nall, RB, Oregon State
» Nick Nelson, DB, Wisconsin
» Kendrick Norton, DT, Miami
» Isaiah Oliver, DB, Colorado
» Dwayne Orso-Bacchus, T, Oklahoma
» Da’Ron Payne, NT, Alabama
» Kamryn Pettway, RB, Auburn
» Eddy Pineiro, K, Florida
» Trey Quinn, WR, SMU
» D.J. Reed, DB, Kansas State
» Justin Reid, DB, Stanford
» Will Richardson, T, NC State
» Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
» Austin Roberts, TE, UCLA
» Korey Robertson, WR, Southern Miss
» Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
» Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama
» Dalton Schultz, TE, Stanford
» Tim Settle, DT, Virginia Tech
» Andre Smith, LB, UNC
» Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
» Van Smith, DB, Clemson
» Breeland Speaks, DE, Ole Miss
» Equanimeous St. Brown, WR, Notre Dame
» Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State
» Auden Tate, WR, Florida State
» Maea Teuhema, T, Southeastern Louisiana
» Trenton Thompson, DT, Georgia
» Kevin Toliver, DB, LSU
» Travonte Valentine, NT, LSU
» Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State
» Vita Vea, NT, Washington
» Mark Walton, RB, Miami
» Denzel Ward, DB, Ohio State
» Chris Warren, RB, Texas
» Toby Weathersby, T, LSU
» Jordan Whitehead, DB, Pittsburgh
» JoJo Wicker, DT, Arizona State
» Jalen Wilkerson, DE, Florida State
» Connor Williams, T, Texas
» Eddy Wilson, DT, Purdue

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison join Alabama teammates in NFL draft pool

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We already knew that wide receiver Calvin Ridley, running back Bo Scarbrough and defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne would be leaving Alabama early, while running back Damien Harris had opted to stay.  Thursday, we learned the fate of other draft-eligible Crimson Tide football players.

At what’s become an annual press conference, head coach Nick Saban confirmed that defensive backs Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison will be leaving the Crimson Tide as well and declaring for the NFL draft.  Fitzpatrick is a first-round lock and could be one of the first five taken in the April draft, while Harrison was given a second-round grade.

Fitzpatrick was one of 14 unanimous All-Americans for the 2017 season, and won both the Jim Thorpe and Chuck Bednarik Awards.  The multi-talented junior became the third player to claim both awards in the same season, joining Michigan’s Charles Woodson and LSU’s Patrick Peterson.

He also missed the game-winning play in the national championship game because he was using the bathroom.

Harrison was a second-team All-SEC selection in his second season as a starter for the Crimson Tide.

Isaiah Buggs was not at the postseason press conference and Saban did not mention that the defensive lineman was part of the group exiting early.  That seemingly means that Buggs will join Harris as draft-eligible players who will return to Tuscaloosa.

It’s not expected that the Tide will lose any additional players, although the official deadline for declaring their intentions to the NFL is Jan. 15.