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!"

Lane Kiffin was just as audible. Alabama's new offensive coordinator, who came with plenty of baggage, wore a white visor and a white long-sleeve shirt. A laminated play card stuck out of his crimson shorts. "Play the ball, don't let the ball play you!" he told his receivers. "I want more air on the ball," he instructed his quarterbacks. If Kiffin came to Alabama with one order, it was to coax more big plays out of the offense. With a star receiver like Amari Cooper on the outside and a big-armed quarterback like Coker under center, the potential is there.

It was Day 1 of fall camp, but it's never too soon to get a feel for what lies ahead.

"I feel like we're going out there and we all got the right mindset, we want to win a championship," said linebacker Denzel Devall after practice. "I feel like we're going out there each and every day with a chip on our shoulder and striving to get better."

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After Alabama's post-practice press conference and a three-hour drive across the state, it was suddenly 3 o'clock in the afternoon. There was no time to get a feel for the mood around Auburn's campus. Instead, it was straight to football.

In the indoor practice facility, there were reminders of last year's Iron Bowl everywhere. Near the north end zone, there was a giant poster of Chris Davis racing down the sideline for the game-winning touchdown.

Near the south end zone hung another giant poster. This time, it was an aerial photo of Jordan-Hare Stadium in the moments after Davis' return. The field was flooded with fans. Not an inch of green turf was visible.

It still seems like a dream. Lightning struck more than once for Auburn on its way to an SEC title. Now comes the sequel.

A noise signaled the end of the practice period, and the offense went outside to join the defense to stretch. Melvin Smith, an assistant coach, walked alongside a few players, saying to no one in particular, "It's all about being clean. It starts today." Another staffer blew his whistle when the stretch period ended. As he walked through the crowd, his shirt became visible. It read "Iron Bowl" on top, and "Enough Said," below.

Back indoors, the offense went to work. Nick Marshall, who burst onto the scene last year with 26 touchdowns and 3,079 total yards, looked comfortable at quarterback. He took the snap, got the ball out quickly and hurried to the line of scrimmage where another snap was waiting. With mechanical precision, the offense went 50 yards in roughly 35 seconds. There were no drops, not a single hiccup. Coach Gus Malzahn's up-tempo attack was in midseason form.

But after practice reality struck. Malzahn announced what discipline Marshall and starting cornerback Jonathon Mincy faced for their off-the-field troubles.

"I've decided that they will not start Game 1 as part of their punishment," Malzahn said, dropping the long-awaited bombshell. "I will say this: Nick Marshall is still our quarterback, Jonathon Mincy is still our cornerback, but that's part of their punishment."

If that wasn't bad enough, there was more.

"Also, I'd like to update you on the status of Alex Kozan," Malzahn said of his Outland Trophy Watch List lineman. "Kozan recently had back surgery. He injured his back while he was home lifting during the summer. He came back, we tried to rehab it, do some different things and he tweaked it. The doctors just felt like it was the best thing for him and his future to have surgery. He will miss the season."

Jermaine Whitehead, a senior defensive back, didn't seem to mind, though. He said he was "100 percent" behind his coach's decision to sit Marshall and Mincy. Whitehead even claimed that it would be a positive for others to see that "that action [will] not be tolerated." He laughed at the thought of it being a distraction just as easily as he brushed off the idea of hype and expectations.

"I don't pay attention to it," he said. "The media is so wishy-washy."

That was one of the last things he said before his turn in front of the cameras was over. Malzahn was long gone. The rest of the players had left as well. The conference room emptied, and the attention turned toward tomorrow.

It wasn't a great start for either Auburn or Alabama on Friday. For two teams ranked in the top five of the Amway Coaches Poll, suspensions and injuries were the last thing anyone wanted. The questions are piling up.

It wasn't a clean first day, but it was over.