Defending champion Alabama replacing stars

© Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Saban and Alabama opened spring practice Friday with an immediate goal. Along with winning another national championship, that is.

For now, they need to find replacements for three of college football’s top offensive weapons.

The good news for the Crimson Tide is that, as usual, there are prized recruits waiting in the wings to replace those seemingly irreplaceable stars.

The competition officially commenced with the search for the potential successors to Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith, quarterback Mac Jones and tailback Najee Harris. Jones and Harris also finished in the Top 5 in Heisman voting.

Receiver Jaylen Waddle also departed for the NFL draft, where he’s projected as a potential Top 10 pick along with Smith.

Bryce Young, who saw some action as a freshman, is the only quarterback with college experience. The former five-star recruit played in nine games but only attempted 22 passes, completing 13 for 156 yards and a touchdown.

Playing only Southeastern Conference games limited the chances for him to play extended mop-up duties.

“I thought, at times, he was feeling his way out there, not playing with the kind of confidence that we would like for him to play with, but it’s part of his development and he learned from it,” Saban said.

“He’s been much better in practice, like today. This was the first day we could actually throw, and I thought he did a good job of throwing,” the coach said.

Saban said Young looked more comfortable managing the offense and the fast pace than he had at times in the past. He also didn’t get a spring practice last year because of the pandemic.

Alabama has 15 early enrollees from the nation’s No. 1-rated recruiting class, including top offensive line signees JC Latham and Tommy Brockermeyer, highly touted receiver prospects Jacorey Brooks and Agiye Hall and top-rated cornerback Ga'Quincy McKinstry.

Alabama must replace projected first-round pick Patrick Surtain Jr. at cornerback, along with such defensive stalwarts as inside linebacker Dylan Moses

The running back competition heading into next season figures to include senior Brian Robinson Jr., second-year back Jase McClellan and former five-star recruit Trey Sanders. Sanders missed his freshman season with a foot injury and then was sidelined after a car accident last November.

“He’s not 100% but he’s getting there, and we’re very happy with the progress,” Saban said. “He’s had a tough road to hoe and he’s had a great attitude about it and he’s worked hard. We’re really pleased.”

McClellan averaged 10.7 yards on 23 carries over four late-season games as a freshman.

Saban said several players are recovering from injuries and expected to be limited in spring practice, including defensive back Malachi Moore, defensive lineman Phil Mathis, wide receiver John Metchie and offensive linemen Pierce Quick and Emil Ekiyor.

One potential contender for carries in the backfield, five-star recruit Camar Wheaton, won’t be on campus until this summer.

The freshmen were hardly the only new faces on the field Friday for the Tide, especially on the offensive side.

Former NFL head coaches Bill O'Brien (offensive coordinator) and Doug Marrone (offensive line) are among the new assistants. Steve Sarkisian presided over last season’s loaded offense before taking the head job at Texas.

“The new coaches are doing, I think, really well,” Saban said. “I think it’s been a transition a little bit, and we spent a lot of time working together on offense to implement some new ideas, as well as for the new coaches to learn the system that we had here before and try to improve on it.”

Alabama beat Ohio State 52-24 on Jan. 11 for its sixth national title in 12 years under Saban. The Crimson Tide holds its spring game on April 17 and opens the regular season against Miami on Sept. 4 in Atlanta.

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.