The O-zone: Previewing the 2014 class

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Earlier this month, the University of Alabama signed the No. 1 recruiting class for the second year in a row, but that’s in the past. It’s time for the Crimson Tide to focus on the 2014 class, and Saturday’s junior day is a good place to start.

This week’s O-zone previews the rising seniors -- highlighting the top players, looking at the biggest position of need and identifying which regions to keep an eye on.

Most talented: DE Da’Shawn Hand

The day after national signing day, ESPN tabbed Hand as the RecruitingNation Junior of the Year -- high praise for the Watch List defensive end -- but he could legitimately be in the same class as a Jadeveon Clowney or a Robert Nkemdiche before it’s all said and done. Alabama struck out with both Clowney and Nkemdiche in years past, but they’re hoping to buck that trend in 2014 with Hand. The Virginia native already has the Tide in his top five along with Michigan, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia Tech. He visited Tuscaloosa last summer for camp, and he’ll likely make a return trip either this spring or over the summer. Expect Alabama to be a factor all the way to the end.

On Alabama:

“It’s just great football,” Hand said. “They have a great coaching staff. Nick Saban is amazing. He knows how to recruit. He knows how to get guys. When you go down there, you just fall in love with the campus. It’s just a factory. They make NFL players. What’s not to like about it? And they win national championships.”

Most important: CB Marlon Humphrey

Although Hand might be the No. 1 player in the country, Humphrey isn’t far off. The Watch List cornerback is likely the top player in the state of Alabama and could be No. 1 at his position when the ESPN 150 rankings debut. For the Tide, it’s key that they sign him. For one, he fills a need at cornerback and gives them a player who can step in and play right away. Humphrey could be better than all four 2013 defensive backs who recently signed with Alabama, and there’s no doubt that Nick Saban would love to work with him. It’s also important for UA to keep the in-state talent close to home. The Tide have dominated the state in recent years, and they’d like to continue that with the 2014 class.

Opelika head coach Brian Blackmon on Humphrey:

“He’s a tremendous football player. He’s got great quickness as well as speed. I think he’s got a lot of class and character about him, and I think he’s got that ‘it’ factor that colleges are looking for at the next level.”

Position of need: Offensive line

If there was one position that Alabama didn’t fully address in the 2013 class, it would be the offensive line. The Tide signed just three players, including one from junior college and one from prep school. In-state offensive guard Bradley Bozeman accepted a grayshirt offer from Alabama and will now be a part of the 2014 class, a class that’s expected to load up on offensive linemen. The top targets include Andy Bauer, Orlando Brown Jr., K.C. McDermott and Cameron Robinson. This week, based on a recommendation from new offensive line coach Mario Cristobal, the staff offered in-state guard Jordan Sims, a mauler inside who also holds offers from Florida State, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.

Key state: Georgia

Alabama has had quite a bit of success in the Peach State recently. In the last three recruiting classes alone, the Tide have signed 13 players from the state of Georgia. It should be no different with the 2014 class. Under the direction of Kirby Smart, Alabama already has over 15 known offers out to prospects in Georgia. Some of the top names early on include wide receiver Demarre Kitt, defensive tackle Elisha Shaw, defensive ends Lorenzo Carter and Andrew Williams, linebackers Bryson Allen-Williams and Raekwon McMillan and safety Nick Glass. At least 10 Peach State kids attended the Tide’s first junior day in January, and a handful more, including Shaw, will be in town this weekend for the second junior day.

Region to watch: Mid-Atlantic

The DMV (D.C., Maryland and Virginia) has always produced elite-level talent, but it’s never seen a year like 2014. In addition to Hand, the No. 1 player in the country, the region has close to a dozen prospects already on the ESPN Watch List. Alabama is looking to take advantage of all that talent. The Tide have already offered Hand, defensive end Andrew Brown, cornerback Jalen Tabor, and on Wednesday, they extended an offer to defensive end/linebacker Jesse Aniebonam. UA assistant coach Lance Thompson will spearhead the Tide’s recruiting efforts in the Mid-atlantic region.

“They have so much talent go through the DMV,” Aniebonam said. “I think it’s honestly really underestimated. Also, at Alabama, you have some players from the DMV down there. In this area, they just breed talent.”