On the road with Alabama & Auburn

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was early Friday morning, and Alabama's campus was as quiet as you'll ever find it.

School wasn't in session. The Strip, a section of University Boulevard cramped with bars and restaurants, was, for the most part, deserted. "Countdown to kickoff: 30" was plastered on the window of the Alabama Bookstore in big block letters.

Driving alongside Bryant-Denny Stadium, you could only glimpse the green football field below.

A block away, the Mal Moore Athletic Facility was buzzing. Three national championship trophies faced out from the second floor, greeting players as they parked their cars and entered the building. Nick Saban's black Mercedes was in its usual spot. At 9 a.m., a horn blared from the practice fields.

Across the way, reporters arrived for the first day of fall camp. "Who's going to have a better year, Alabama or Auburn?" a cameraman asked. It's an obvious question without an obvious answer. Not after the way last season ended. "Both," someone said, before adding the caveat, "I'm not sold on Coker."

Around 9:30, the media was ushered onto the practice field. It was a race to spot who was and wasn't there and who looked different from last year.  Brandon Ivory, Jarran Reed and Tim Williams were are all missing -- suspended, as we found out later.  Leon Brown was sidelined with an injury. On the near field, Eddie Jackson, four months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL, was somehow practicing. Tony Brown was at corner with him, which was news because the first day of fall camp is split into two practices: one in the morning for veterans and one in the afternoon for newcomers. Everyone could agree, though, that Brown, a former five-star prospect, doesn't look or play like a freshman.

On the far field was another first-timer: Jake Coker. The former backup to Jameis Winston at Florida State transferred to Alabama in May. The redshirt junior wore No. 14, working in a three-man group of quarterbacks with Blake Sims and Cooper Bateman. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Coker stood apart from the other QBs. But the first-day jitters seemed to get to him as he sailed a few throws high and wide. As the presumptive favorite to replace AJ McCarron, it was cause for concern to some. Sims vs. Coker is an endless source of debate, although a starter may not be named until the season opener against West Virginia on Aug. 30.

"I say this every year and you never, ever get it," Saban said later, "because you guys can't operate unless you have something on a piece of paper that you can rank in some kind of order. But we do not have a depth chart right now."

At the time, though, Saban was busy with the cornerbacks. He may be 62 years old, but he has maintained his enthusiasm and energy, running up and down the field with his players and throwing passes. "Hook 'em Tony!" he said to Brown. "Ball! Ball! Ball!" he shouted to Jackson. "Swat, Cyrus!" he said to Cyrus Jones, "I don't care if you get it!"

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