TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Some of them couldn't wait to become defending champions. Nine rookies are expected to join the Alabama Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa for the spring semester: six recent high school graduates, one junior college prospect, one prep school prospect and another who gave up the dream of professional baseball for a shot at football.
National signing day is four weeks away and the 2012 class is already one-third full.
Getting a head start has become more and more popular among the top athletes. As freshman linebacker Dillon Lee put it last year, he came to Tuscaloosa early "so I had a clue what was going on." He wanted a leg up. An extra semester to prepare can mean an increased chance at early playing time.
Alabama freshmen Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon both enrolled at this time last year and both contributed heavily to the run to the national title. Cooper broke school records for receptions, yards and touchdowns for a freshman. Yeldon became the first rookie to rush for 100 yards in his debut and never looked back, teaming with Eddie Lacy to become the first pair of 1,000-yard backs in school history.
Coach Nick Saban will have to wait and see if this year's crop of early enrollees can have the same kind of impact. All nine rookies have the talent to play at the next level.
1. OL Leon Brown: The 6-foot-6, 308-pound offensive tackle from ASA Institute (JC) in New York has been hailed as a potential replacement at right tackle if D.J. Fluker skips his senior season and enters the NFL draft. Brown, who committed to Alabama in June, has the frame and talent to develop into an SEC tackle, but needs help in the technical aspects of the position.
2. OL Brandon Hill: Brown will have his hands full competing with Hill for early playing time at right tackle. The one-time Ole Miss commitment has the raw skills that coaches from across the country flock to see. He's a whopping 6-6 and 350 pounds, yet still maintains the freedom of movement necessary to play on the outside. He doesn't have the same second-level burst of Fluker or Cyrus Kouandjio, but he has the size and build to do well in pass-protection like another former massive lineman -- Andre Smith.
3. TE/H O.J. Howard: Howard could be a game-changer at tight end for Alabama. He's a dynamic pass-catcher with the athleticism to create matchup nightmares for even the most versatile defenses. All one needs to do to understand his rare gifts is to go back to the Mobile (Ala.) Nike SPARQ Combine and find his SPARQ Rating was a whopping 104.22, the best of the event. You'll see the words "physical freak" written time and time again about this rookie.
4. ATH Derrick Henry: Henry has similar versatility on offense. He's the No. 3 athlete in the ESPN 150 and the No. 26 prospect overall. The 6-3, 243-pound Florida native wants to play tailback, but might be better suited elsewhere because of his height. Still, he runs a 4.7-second 40-yard dash and could wind up making gains at any position he plays. The most intriguing option is H-back, where Alabama is trying to carve out more production. He has a similar build and skill set to incumbent H-back Jalston Folwer (6-1, 242 pounds).
5. QB Cooper Bateman: While many were already in bed or heading out to the local watering hole as time expired on the national championship game, something interesting happened -- AJ McCarron did not leave the game at quarterback. What does that mean? Well, it could mean very little, or it could mean quite a lot about the quarterback competition next season. If Saban were confident in his current backup quarterbacks Phillip Ely and Blake Sims, wouldn't he have let them wrap up the game rather than risk an injury to his star player? It's that fact that leaves the door open for Bateman and redshirt freshman Alec Morris to duke it out for the No. 2 spot behind McCarron. Bateman will be arguably the most talented thrower on the roster behind McCarron when he shows up, a four-star prospect who ranked in the top 10 among pocket-passers. Neither Morris, Sims nor Ely can claim to have been any higher than a three-star when they graduated from high school.
6. ATH Jai Miller: Miller is the biggest question mark of the class. The former minor league baseball player surprisingly chose to give up the game and come to school at Alabama over Georgia. He projects as a safety and has the physical tools to play right away, unlike some teenagers. The soon-to-be 28-year-old is 6-2 and 220 pounds with the speed and range that scream defensive back. He spent 10 years in pro baseball and played in 28 games in the majors as an outfielder for three different teams, affording him a maturity that will give him a leg up on his fellow freshmen.
7. WR Raheem Falkins: The G.W. Carver alumnus is another in what's becoming a long line of Louisiana players to spurn the home-state Bayou Bengals in favor of the Crimson Tide. The 6-4, 195-pound receiver is walking into a crowded position, joining the likes of freshmen Amari Cooper, Chris Black, Cyrus Jones and Marvin Shinn. He won't be the only talented receiver in the 2013 class, either. Robert Foster is another four-star wideout slated to join Alabama in the fall. Falkins has flown somewhat under the radar since his commitment nearly a year ago, but the first line in his ESPN scouting report says it all about his skill: "Falkins is a ball vacuum -- he catches everything thrown within his area code."
8. QB Parker McLeod: The 6-3, 183-pound Georgia native might not grab the headlines the way Bateman has, but he'll have his say in the battle at quarterback. While he doesn't have the raw skill of some of the more elite prospects, the three-star quarterback can still throw the rock around. Our scouts watched film of him and saw a young McCarron, sighting a similar skill set and measurables.
9. QB Luke Del Rio: The son of Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Jack Del Rio certainly has the pedigree. And despite coming to Alabama as a walk-on, he might have the skill, too. The 6-1, 187-pound quarterback, who played high school football in Florida and Colorado, turned down scholarship offers from Oregon State and Colorado to come to Tuscaloosa with nothing more than the opportunity to compete. The three-star prospect doesn't have the high ceiling of some but he made a good impression at the Elite 11 camp, where scouts praised his consistency and intangibles such as feeling the pocket and maintaining balance in the face of pressure.