Alabama Football: Early Impact of the 2012 Recruiting Class
Coming off their second BCS title in just three seasons, not too many people were expecting the Crimson Tide to get back to the title game once again. Not this season, anyway.
Alabama lost four players to the first round of April's NFL draft, and its defense had been gutted by departures.
If the Tide were to make a serious run at a successful title defense, they were going to have to rely on some young and inexperienced talent.
The 2012 recruiting class provided the talent needed and, lo and behold, the Tide is currently preparing to play Notre Dame for yet another BCS championship.
Alabama did return quite a lot of proven talent and was able to replace most of the missing pieces with similarly talented kids who had been patiently waiting their turn.
But it is the newcomers who have really pushed the Tide to the top of the national ranks and put them in place to compete for the crystal football once again.
Here is a look at some of the key components of the 2012 recruiting class that have impacted the Tide's title quest.
T.J. Yeldon was one of the surprises of the 2012 recruiting class after backing out of his commitment to Auburn in favor of Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide.
Yeldon was not expected to have the impact that he has had this season, as the Tide entered the year with a loaded backfield. An early-season injury to Jalston Fowler, however, pushed Yeldon into a co-feature back role with Eddie Lacy.
The true freshman has responded by picking up exactly 1,000 yards on the ground this season, averaging 6.5 yards per carry and scoring 12 touchdowns.
He has crossed the 100-yard mark four times this season, all of them away from home, in games against Michigan, Missouri, Tennessee and Georgia. Most impressively, he has done this while averaging less than 12 carries per game.
Yeldon's success has enabled the Tide to keep Eddie Lacy rested, and with the Tide basically carrying two feature backs, fresh legs are available in the fourth quarter.
His most memorable play of the year came on the final drive at LSU when Yeldon took a screen pass 28 yards for a touchdown for the winning score.
Freshman athlete Cyrus Jones didn't really see much significant action until the Missouri game when he was given the chance to return kicks for the Tide.
He has split time with fellow returner Christion Jones and now leads the team with 10 kick returns for 250 yards and also has returned eight punts for a 7.6 yard per return average.
Jones has shown the ability to be explosive at times with his longest punt return going for a team-high 32 yards against Tennessee.
He is also a versatile threat, catching five passes on the year for 52 yards.
Junior college transfer Deion Belue filled a much needed role by stepping into a decimated Tide backfield as an immediate starter.
The defensive back is currently ninth on the team in tackles with 36 and fifth in tackles for loss with 5.5 on the year. Routinely targeted by opposing quarterbacks, Belue is second on the team in passes defended with eight, including a pair of interceptions.
He also has forced one fumble and returned another for a 57-yard touchdown.
His biggest game also came against LSU where he had a season-high nine tackles, including 1.5 for loss.
Belue is likely to make a push for all-conference honors in 2013.
It could be argued that freshman wide receiver Amari Cooper has been the most valuable player for this team.
Cooper has caught 52 passes this season for 894 yards and a freshman-record nine touchdowns. He is just five catches and 31 yards short of breaking two more of Julio Jones' freshman records.
After bringing in just nine catches total in the Tide's first four games, Cooper established himself as a legitimate threat in the Ole Miss game by catching eight passes for 84 yards and two touchdowns.
His best statistical game came against Tennessee when Cooper caught seven passes for 162 yards and another pair of scores.
Cooper has wowed Tide fans with amazing leaping catches over properly positioned defenders all season and has filled a serious void with the losses of DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell to season-ending injuries.
Cooper proved that he can be a deep threat in the SEC title game against Georgia by bringing in a 44-yard catch by outleaping the Dawgs' Bacarri Rambo and ended the scoring with a 45-yard touchdown reception late in the fourth quarter.
Without Cooper, Alabama may very well be eying a trip to the Cotton Bowl instead of the BCS title game in Miami.