NCAA Football

Tennessee Landing Defensive Coordinator Bob Shoop a Home Run for Vols

Go big or go home.

That appears to be the mantra of Tennessee head coach Butch Jones in 2016 after pulling off one of the most impressive coaching-staff coups of the offseason.

Jones and former defensive coordinator John Jancek "mutually agreed" to part ways late last week in a surprise move given the timing just one week before the recruiting dead period is lifted. 

It was Jones' version of taking a strike hoping to get his pitch later in the at-bat, and he knocked that pitch out of the park with the addition of former Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who was announced as the new defensive coordinator of the Vols in a release late Saturday night.

"We are very excited about the addition of Bob Shoop to our coaching staff," Jones said in a statement. "Bob has established himself as one of the premier coordinators in all of college football and is very well-respected as a recruiter, football coach and person. He brings a wealth of experience at the highest level and possesses all the qualities we were looking for as we went through this process."

Shoop's defenses have been nothing short of spectacular in State College.

The Nittany Lions finished with the Big Ten's best defense in 2014, giving up just 278.7 yards per game and 4.27 yards per play, and gave up 4.78 yards per play in 2015—his second season with the program. Prior to that, Shoop coordinated a Vanderbilt defense that finished in the top six in total defense in the SEC every year from 2011-2013, and second in yards per play in 2013 (5.07).

"This was not an easy decision and one that I didn’t take lightly," Shoop said in a statement. "Over the last 24 hours I had an opportunity to meet with Coach Jones and his staff.  It became evident to me that he is building a great program, a program on the rise and certainly one that will compete for an SEC championship." 

It's not like Shoop is taking over a broken defense.

The Vols finished third in the nation in third-down defense under Jancek in 2015 (27.6 percent), on the heels of a 2014 campaign in which they finished 16th (34.21 percent). Fourth-down defense under Jancek wasn't great, which is a big reason the Vols lost to Florida for the 11th straight year and missed out on what would have been their first appearance in the SEC Championship Game since 2007.

As Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports' noted on Twitter, he's walking into a perfect situation:

Cornerback Cam Sutton and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin are weighing their NFL decisions, monster defensive end Derek Barnett will be back as a true junior in 2016, talented youngsters Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle will be back up front and the secondary is still littered with talented youngsters like Todd Kelly and Evan Berry.

The window for Tennessee to return to the prominence it once enjoyed under Phillip Fulmer is wide-open in the SEC East thanks to the coaching changes at South Carolina, Georgia and Missouri, the quarterback issue at Florida and the depth that Jones has developed on Rocky Top over the last three recruiting cycles.

Jones knows it, stepped up to the plate and hit a home run that should resonate around the rest of the conference.

The Vols are going big, and Shoop's arrival is only more evidence.

It's a hire that could put Tennessee over the top and send it to Atlanta in early December.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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B/R CFB 250: Top 16 Dual-Threat Quarterbacks

Bleacher Report's CFB 250 is an annual ranking of the best players in college football, regardless of NFL potential. Through interviews with B/R Experts Matt Miller, Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer, authors Brian Leigh and Brian Pedersen have studied, ranked and graded the top athletes in the country, narrowed that list to 250 and sorted by position. Today, Brian Pedersen presents the Top 16 Dual-Threat Quarterbacks.

 

Other CFB 250 Positions

 

The dual-threat quarterback has become the most coveted type of player in college football. That athlete with a special blend of passing acumen and running ability who can just as easily go from one to the other in a moment's notice. Across the country, more and more teams are moving toward an uptempo offense, and having a quarterback who can do it all is essential to this attack.

But just being able to run and throw effectively isn't a guarantee of success, as several of the players who were on our preseason list of the top dual-threat QBs have either dropped in the rankings or out of them altogether. They were replaced by another batch of great mobile passers.

The following rankings are based primarily on players' skills as college players rather than how they'd fare in the NFL. Though they may be using this time to develop their game for the pro level, their goals are centered on helping their teams succeed.

The ratings are based on a tabulation of four different categories (arm strength, accuracy, mobility and intangibles) and based on evaluations made by our writers in conjunction with Bleacher Report football experts. 

 

NOTE: Any ties in overall grade were broken based on which player would gave a hypothetical college all-star team the best chance to win.

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College Football Championship 2016: Predictions for Stars in Alabama vs. Clemson

The College Football Playoff system worked well this year. The best two teams are going to play for the national championship Monday night, 8:30 p.m. at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, and there's not one team that didn't qualify for the CFP that can make a legitimate claim it was better than the Clemson Tigers or the Alabama Crimson Tide.

According to Odds Shark, Alabama is a 5.5-point favorite. The two biggest reasons Alabama is favored to win are its powerful running game and stout defense.

After establishing itself as the top run defense in the nation and one of the stingiest defenses in regard to points allowed, the unit proved its mettle by shutting out the Michigan State Spartans in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Eve.  

 

Regarding Henry

Alabama quarterback Jake Coker had a surprisingly strong game against the Spartans, but the threat of the running game set up much of his success. Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry will be back as the primary weapon in the championship game.   

After running the ball 90 times combined in the Iron Bowl and SEC championship, Henry only had 20 carries against the Spartans. With the decreased workload and the big gap in time between the national semifinal and the national championship, Henry should be fresh.

In what will likely be his last college game, Henry will punctuate a great career at Alabama with a big performance. Clemson has the 18th-ranked run defense, but it has been victimized on a number of occasions this year.

Appalachian State (202) and Syracuse (242) have both eclipsed 200 yards on the ground against Clemson. The Florida State Seminoles ran for 197 yards against the Tigers. With those totals, it's easy to see Alabama having success on the ground. 

That should equate to a big day from Henry.

 

Watson, This Won't Be Elementary

Per Bryan Beasley of ESPN.com, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson has been excellent against the blitz this season:

Watson has been blitzed on 27 percent of his dropbacks during his career, slightly more than the Power 5 average. Watson has had success on such plays, throwing 22 touchdowns and three interceptions while ranking third in both QBR (92) and yards per attempt (10.2) among Power 5 players. 

All of that information is impressive, but the truth is Alabama doesn't need to blitz to get pressure. Its primary rushers in A'Shawn Robinson, Tim Williams and others are so nasty that there's no need to bring extra pressure.

Simply rushing four will allow Alabama to drop up to seven in pass protection on most downs or six and one to spy Watson.

Alabama's speed and versatility will make it tough for the Heisman finalist to do damage. He'll make a decent account of himself, but this won't be the QB's best performance.

 

Reggie, Reggie, Reggie

This year's crop of inside linebackers looks to be especially strong. After the national championship game, Alabama's Reggie Ragland will be seen as one of the top two prospects at the position. 

Collectively, Alabama's defense is the best in the nation, but Ragland is the proven leader. Athletically, he's capable of making plays against the run and the pass, but what stands out with Ragland is his leadership skills.

In an interview with Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News, Ragland spoke about the difference between this year's team and the one that fell short in 2014:

Everybody on the team knew that leadership wasn't the right way (last year). But some guys can't say nothing about it. But now I can say something because I'm a leader. And I feel like, if I don't like something, I'm going to say it. The guys on the team know we got to do this the right way, because the right way gets it done. The wrong way doesn't. Guys are very focused in coming in on the plane and all. So I can tell my guys are ready already.

Expect him to fly around the field and make plays and adjustments at the line of scrimmage while leading 'Bama to a victory.

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Alabama vs. Clemson: Preview, Prediction for 2016 College Football Championship

So, as it turns out, having the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Eve isn’t actually a great idea. Terrible ratings aside, though, the worst thing about the Orange and Cotton Bowls was that they were, to put it simply, boring.

Both Alabama and Clemson were clearly the better teams in their respective matchups, and there was little doubt by the end of the game that the committee had named gotten the No. 1 and No. 2 teams correct, even if Ohio State and Stanford fans scream until they turn blue.

But where there were bad semifinals, there is the chance at an epic clash in the national championship. With an established dynasty facing off against a team that has been on the fringe of the title picture without actually throwing its hat into the ring until this season, this could be a clash for the ages.

With two Heisman finalists—including the winner—in Derrick Henry and Deshaun Watson set to take center stage, there is no absence of star power in the championship game, and it very likely could come down to which superstar plays better Monday night at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Kickoff will take place at 8:30 p.m., with game coverage on ESPN.

Odds are, though, both players will find their typical amount of success. So before making a final score prediction, let’s take a look at which players could swing the game in their team’s favor.

 

X-Factor for Each Team

Alabama: QB Jake Coker

It might seem a bit unfair to label a starting quarterback for any team as an X-factor in the biggest matchup of the year, but when it comes to Alabama, there is this idea that the signal-callers are merely there to not screw up.

While the defense and the running backs take all the accolades, the quarterbacks are asked to not lose games, or at least that’s how the stereotype goes. But this has never really been a fair assessment, and this season has been no different with Jake Coker.

After emerging from a seemingly arbitrary competition in the early stages of the season, Coker hasn’t quite hit the heights Greg McElroy or AJ McCarron did, but he has had an outstanding season and showed he is more than capable of winning a title.

Against Michigan State, the veteran quarterback finished 25-30 for 286 yards and two touchdowns, and was a huge part of the 38-0 victory. If he can repeat his Cotton Bowl performance against Clemson, it could be hard for the Tigers to keep up.

 

Clemson WR: Hunter Renfrow

Beyond the obvious of Watson and running back Wayne Gallman, there might not be a more valuable player for the Clemson Tigers on offense than No. 1 receiver Artavis Scott. Leading the team in receptions and yards by a wide margin, the sophomore is clearly Watson’s top target, and that isn’t likely to change in the title game.

Thing is, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is more than aware of this fact and will game-plan as such, leaving the door open for the rest of the receiving corps to step up for the Tigers when their name is called. With Charone Peake drawing his share of attention in the secondary and Deon Cain suspended, it could come down to Hunter Renfrow to fill that role.

Only a freshman, Renfrow finished the season with 404 yards and three touchdowns through the air—fifth on the team—but stepped up in a big way when called on, putting in vital performances against Louisville, N.C. State and Oklahoma.

His showing against the Sooners, in particular—four catches for 59 yards and a score—could be a sign of things to come if Alabama elects to focus on Clemson’s top two receivers. Don’t be surprised if the matchup comes down to how the freshman receiver performs under pressure.

 

Prediction: Alabama 24, Clemson 20

Whether it be the natural charisma that Watson brings to the table or the typical idea of Clemson as a high-flying, speedy offensive team—which was the case during the last half-decade or more—the thing that gets overlooked by most casual fans is just how good the Tigers are defensively.

Ranking No. 6 in the country in yards per game allowed and No. 16 in points per game—a number that doesn’t do justice to the season as a whole, with games against N.C. State and North Carolina breaking the curve—Clemson dominated the Oklahoma offense, one of the most balanced in the country, to earn a spot here and cannot be overlooked in the title game.

But while the Tigers might be able to hold Alabama and Henry in check, none of that will matter if they can’t score themselves, and against the Crimson Tide that is easier said than done.

Alabama has only allowed more than 25 points once this season, and that was in a game where the team turned the ball over five times and saw the ball bounce in Ole Miss’ favor time and again. After watching Ohio State run over his defense in the semifinal the year before, Nick Saban isn’t going to let the same thing happen with Clemson this time around, and it could result in a defensive struggle for the ages.

It will be far more entertaining than some of Alabama’s field-goal heavy clashes with LSU in the past, but with scoring at a premium the Crimson Tide should have an advantage with their run-based attack and will keep their dynasty rolling with a close win against Clemson.

All stats via cfbstats.com

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Tennessee Football: 5 Reasons Why the Volunteers Should Be Optimistic About 2016

It was a strong conclusion to the season for the Tennessee football program, and 2016 started with a sizzle as well.

After the Volunteers won five consecutive games to end the regular season, they pummeled Northwestern 45-6 in the Outback Bowl.

Then when he lost tight ends coach Mark Elder to Eastern Kentucky and parted ways with defensive coordinator John Jancek, head coach Butch Jones upgraded his staff by hiring Larry Scott from Miami to replace Elder and securing Penn State's Bob Shoop to lead the defense.

Tennessee is finally beginning to flex its muscles as a college football alpha dog again, and with tons of talent returning in 2016, there's no reason to believe the Vols won't be in contention for the SEC championship. If that's the case, playing for the national title can't be that far behind.

Ever since Jones signed his first full, loaded recruiting class in 2014, the '16 season has been circled on Tennessee's calendar as "The Year of the Vols." They were oh so close this season, finishing 9-4 and coming just a 4th-and-14 failure away from playing in Atlanta for the league championship.

Instead, inexperience on the field and on the sideline led to losses. But as the season progressed, so did the Vols' capacity to make plays at important moments. By the time the Outback Bowl rolled around, they handled business.

Now the expectations and exposure will be rampant leading up to next season. Jones made some coaching tweaks in attempts to take UT to the next level, and all those great players are going to be a year older.

There's plenty about which to be excited for Vols fans as the calendar flips to '16. Let's take a look at the reasons.

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Alabama's Secret Superstar, Bo Scarbrough, May Not Even Play in Title Game

PHOENIX — I have spent the past 10 minutes trying to convince myself that the man standing before me is a running back. It simply cannot be. Linebacker? Sure. Defensive end? Why not. But running back? Not a chance.

His shoulders are bursting out of the sleeves of his jersey—like two spaceships waiting to blast off into orbit. His arms are a sight to behold, even when completely at ease. In fact, his entire body is constructed of granite and full of fury. His hands are the size of catchers’ mitts.

Standing among his Alabama teammates—a congregation of some of the most physically gifted human beings on the planet—he still manages to stand out. He is the one you can't help but notice first. He is a superman among men.

He stands 6’2” and weighs 240 pounds—his ideal playing body. He has a bench press of 475 pounds and a squat of 540 pounds. He was recently clocked at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash and has clocked sub-4.4 40s in the past.

He is not Derrick Henry. He is Bo Scarbrough, the future of Alabama football.

Right now, however, no one seems to care. Days before the national championship, the media is far more interested in peppering Nick Saban with questions about his legacy and “the process.” They want to hear what Jake Coker has in store for an encore. They want to speak with Henry before his final collegiate game.

The world doesn't know this Bo. Not yet, at least.

Henry has him beat with the ruler—standing a good two inches taller than the man who will eventually replace him. In terms of thickness, Scarbrough bests the Heisman winner. He is put together unlike anyone the sport has seen in some time. Maybe ever. 

I asked each player who weighed more. They both simply smiled and laughed it off. Truth is, it probably changes weekly.

“I told everybody that he’s kind of like Adrian Peterson,” IMG Academy (FL) assistant coach Adam Behrends told Bleacher Report. Behrends worked with Scarbrough his senior year of high school. “Kids like this only come around once every 10 years. I haven’t really been around anybody like Bo.”

Scarbrough is the essence of Alabama’s unrelenting run of dominance—a prodigy in a long line of prodigies that has to wait his turn. In all likelihood, he will not play a single down on Monday night.

This year, Scarbrough carried the ball 18 times. Those 18 carries—10 of which came in a single game—have already turned him into a cult hero in Tuscaloosa. 

The instant Henry and his Heisman bolt to the NFL, Scarbrough will become a fixture. For now, for one more night, he will serve as Alabama’s mop-up man. When the game has been decided and the starters are removed for the day, Scarbrough goes to work.

By the time he was inserted into the Cotton Bowl, Alabama fans were booking plane tickets and hotel rooms with their iPhones in the stands. They had checked out, and the next game was coming into focus. Still, when Scarbrough emerged from the sideline in the final minutes, his presence set off murmurs in the crowd. He gave the blowout life.

True to his folklore, Scarbrough unleashed a preview of the years to come. The measureables were put to use in a single moment. When they were, Tide fans and the Alabama sideline erupted.

“He's done a very nice job,” Saban said. “He had to overcome adversity after being injured in the spring where he was having a very good effective spring practice, so it's taken him a while to come back physically. But I think he's gotten more and more confident.”

This has not come out of nowhere. Scarbrough was 247Sports' No. 2 athlete and the No. 16 overall player in the 2014 class. When he committed to Alabama, Saban knew precisely what kind of player he was getting.

Even at the prestigious IMG Academy—a place that cycles through 5-star players every year—Scarbrough was looked at differently. The coaches had not seen anyone quite like him.

“Once you see him in a cutoff on the field, you think he’s going to be good because he’s just bigger than everybody,” Behrends said. “He’s not just one of those guys who’s really good because he’s bigger and faster than everybody. He was better than everybody because he was just better than everything.”

In the red zone, Scarbrough would convert into the team’s go-to receiver. When he did, the team would often call “Him” routes.

The route was exactly what the name implies. There was no progression. There was no need to read defense. Because Scarbrough was bigger and could leap higher than anyone else, the concept was simple: Throw it up to Bo, and throw it high. Let him go up in the air and grab it.

“I’d say it worked 90 percent of the time,” Behrends said.

On the ground, Scarbrough ran for 1,420 yards and 19 touchdowns in only nine games—missing two due to injury. He averaged nearly 11 yards per carry. He also averaged more than 14 yards per reception.

When there was no opening to run through, he would still find one. In the film room, the coaches would marvel at how a back with such size would maneuver through such tight openings.

In the open field, the staff would watch Scarbrough outrun players he outweighed by more than 50 pounds.

“He has such long strides,” Behrends said. “He’s just got veins bursting in his legs, calves and knees. When he ran, it looked like a racehorse going around the track.”

When Scarbrough arrived on campus, he was dealt a flurry of setbacks in his first 18 months. 

Due to academic issues, Scarbrough didn’t enroll at Alabama until the spring semester of 2015, missing the entirety of what would have been his freshman season. When he finally joined the team during the spring of 2015, he promptly tore his ACL. He was then suspended for four games in August due to an NCAA matter.

“In high school, you’re the guy,” Scarbrough said. “But once you get to college, everybody is the same. You can’t question anybody but yourself about how to get better. I think the waiting has really made me grow mentally.”

Scarbrough only saw action in four games this season, debuting against Georgia in early October. The combined final score of the four games he played was 163-22.

When Alabama decided it had buried an opponent deep enough, Scarbrough would then be given a chance. One can’t help but appreciate just how much of a rich man’s problem Alabama has on its hands.

Fully aware of the routine, Behrends would watch games—even the grandest of blowouts—until the conclusion. If a game turned sideways early, he knew his former player had a better chance of getting in. He rooted for routs.

Scarbrough, fully aware of his current status, has welcomed a role that would frustrate most.

“I’m going to do everything I am supposed to do,” Scarbrough said. “Most athletes with 15 seconds left don’t want to get in the game. I do. I’m going to take advantage of every chance that I get.”

If it were another university—perhaps any other program, really—things would be different. Bo would be starting and starring. Talents of his caliber aren’t often tucked away and stored for later.

But Alabama is a different kind of brute. Even the rarest of freak shows have to pay their dues.

This year’s Heisman winner knows this more than anyone. Henry waited until his junior year before assuming the role of the team’s primary back. The similarities between the two extend well beyond their physical makeup.

“He’s come back from injury, worked hard and gotten better,” Henry said of Scarbrough. “As the season has progressed, he’s improved each and every week.”

It’s simply a matter of time. The mystique that follows Scarbrough will morph into something more—something tangible and real. Until then, perhaps on Monday night the score will turn lopsided enough for Saban to call for a 5-star mop-up in the closing moments. 

If he does, listen for the roar.

 

Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. 

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Jim Harbaugh Reportedly Attempting to Hold Michigan's Spring Practice in Florida

Michigan Wolverines head football coach Jim Harbaugh is always trying to stay one step ahead of the competition. His latest idea involves holding his team's spring practice out of state in Florida.

Per TheWolverine.com (via Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press), Michigan is looking into practicing at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

Snyder said Harbaugh has been to the IMG Academy campus numerous times, and the cost should not be an issue for a school with a large budget like Michigan.

While the NCAA bylaws don't mention anything about a team's practice location, Harbaugh may still face some hurdles, per Snyder:

The issues would be the location and the amount of practice time. The NCAA spring practice rules (bylaw 17.10.6.4) govern how often a team can practice (15 times) and the span (34 calendar days not counting schools vacations) and how much contact there can be (only in 12 of the 15 practices). There is nothing noted about the location.

Often northern coaches have to schedule their spring practices around the school's spring break. Either they will start spring practice after the break or they will do what Brady Hoke did two years ago at U-M and Harbaugh did last year, have a few practices before the break, then stop for the 10 days and then resume after the break.

Michigan's spring break is from Feb. 27 to March 6, and if the team uses this timeframe for spring practice, Florida's warm weather would be appealing to players and potential recruits who aren't used to the colder northern weather.

If Harbaugh uses this break, he would still have to abide by the same practice rules he does when classes are in session, according to Snyder:

The rules state it still would have to mirror the in-school rules: "Any such practice sessions held during vacation days may not be of longer duration than those normally held when academic classes are in session."

One potential complication, if the Big Ten or NCAA nix the idea. Despite no apparent roadblocks in the bylaws, the conference and national organization likely would have to clear it before the Wolverines followed through.

Yet in unusual or unconventional situations, schools usually have the idea vetted for through their own compliance department and cleared by the conference and/or NCAA before proceeding. That is the procedure Michigan State followed when its basketball team attended the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 31.

This alone may not be the difference between landing the No. 10 and No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, but Harbaugh looks for all of the advantages he can find—and when added up, they can make a big difference.

He uses every available practice hour he can, per Snyder, who noted Harbaugh uses his assistant coaches as much as he can when it comes to recruiting:

The "Summer Swarm," as Michigan called it, had the U-M coaches in 10 different locations in seven different states from June 4-12. As much as it disturbed coaches in those states -- especially in the SEC and ACC who were not allowed to have their own "satellite camps" -- it was within the NCAA rules.

Whatever he's doing must be working. After Michigan's five-win season in 2014, Harbaugh guided the Wolverines to 10 wins in his first season, and they have the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation, per 247Sports.

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Toughness Is the Key to Nick Saban's Alabama Dynasty

PHOENIX — The University of Alabama football team has numerous goals every year, which often translate into trophies and titles at the end of a season.

But one that often gets overlooked may best explain the Crimson Tide's success under head coach Nick Saban.

Alabama wants to be the toughest team in college football. Not just collectively—but on each unit and at every position.

“There are a lot of tough guys,” senior quarterback Jake Coker said. “I think if we didn’t have the amount of tough guys that we have, we wouldn’t be where we are.”

Coker himself won over a lot of his teammates with his toughness, dropping his shoulder and taking on linebackers and defensive backs at the end of some of his runs. No one questions that aspect of running back and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry’s game, as his pushing carries helped close out games down the stretch.

On the defensive line, A’Shwan Robinson is about as intimidating as can be, and he has a lot of company.

“That defensive line is a pretty nasty group, one of the meanest I’ve ever seen,” Coker said. “Sometimes we’re out there practicing, and we’re listening to them and it’s like ‘Man, that’s a little rough right there. We’re still on the same team.’ We wouldn’t be as good without that mentality.”

If the Crimson Tide took an informal poll to choose the toughest player on the toughest team, one player who would certainly get votes is senior right tackle Dominick Jackson.

Anyone who wants to understand what Saban’s "Process" is all about has only to look at Jackson, who may have advanced as a player more than anyone else on the roster over the past two seasons.

At 6’6,” 315 lbs., Jackson would stand out anywhere, but he does even more in Tuscaloosa because of his appearance. The self-described “city” guy likes big gold chains and sports a ton of ink.

“I love tattoos,” he said. “They’re therapeutic. I just like them. I promised my mom I wouldn’t tatt my face or my neck for later on in life. I have a whole [arm] sleeve, my chest and my stomach, the inside of my arm, my leg, my hand and my back.”

His favorite is on the arm. It’s the Alabama script-A logo that begins to spell out his 1-year-old daughter’s name, Aiyana. When he shows it, it’s with pride.

Moreover, Jackson’s from California. He attended Homestead High School in Cupertino, which is just west of San Jose on the edge of the Santa Clara Valley. While he was a good player, his grades were not. So to keep playing, he had to go the junior college route, spending two years at the College of San Mateo.

The Bulldogs ran an option offense that helped him develop a reputation as a mauler in the running game. The flip side to that was Jackson hardly ever pass protected, which is the toughest thing to develop at this level.

“It was a wing-T offense, and I came here and played big-time, NFL, spread, power, big-boy football,” Jackson said. “I’m just thankful to be here.”

So yeah, he stood out. The other Tide players from California, Isaac Luatua, Richard Mullaney, Cole Mazza and Blake Barnett, made it easier for him to fit in. The coaches went to work on his pass-blocking.

Just getting him back on track academically was also a big task. But Alabama’s academic center helped him make progress in the classroom.

The key word there was “work,” and he put a whole lot in.

“He was like taking a large-mouth bass and throwing in the middle of the ocean a coral reef. This guy was all over the place,” offensive line coach Mario Cristobal said. “But the one thing that always stood out was his motor and a desire to get it done. As long as he had that, we’d find a way.”

Although an injury slowed his initial progress in 2014, it was steady and continual. Jackson played in eight games as a reserve and the jumbo-blocking back in goal-line situations last season, and then won the starting job over the offseason. Every week he got better, and with each game the line became a little tighter.

Jackson ended up getting beat for a sack only twice this season while being credited with 43 knockdown blocks that ranked third on the team. Alabama won the inaugural Joe Moore Award for having the best offensive line, and of course, the Heisman went to Henry.

When the coaches handed out team honors after winning the Southeastern Conference title, Jackson was one of four to receive an Up-Front Award (for the outstanding lineman from each unit), along with defensive end Jonathan Allen, center Ryan Kelly and guard Ross Pierschbacher.

He was also named second-team All-SEC by the conference coaches.

“He’s a tremendous competitor with tremendous ability,” Cristobal said. “I really think his best football is still in front of him. He’s now really learning how to play the game. He’s a tough, physical son-of-a-gun who’s really earned the respect of his teammates.

“Alabama isn’t for everybody. Alabama is for people who want to be great, who want to be challenged, pushed, motivated every single day.”

So should Alabama defeat Clemson for the national championship on Monday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), it’ll be because of guys like Jackson, who might be the most overlooked player on the Crimson Tide offense.

It’ll be because of a line that has starters who are as different as can be and hail from California, Ohio, Iowa, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama, yet play together as one.

It’ll be because it again had the toughest team in college football, which has been the key to Saban’s dynasty with the Crimson Tide and might cause Jackson to get another tattoo to match the one celebrating the 2014 SEC championship—although he isn’t ready to say so yet. 

“I don’t want to jinx it,” he said with a smile.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

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