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December 4, 2011

What to watch: AL-MS All-Star week

MORE: AL-MS rosters | More all-star coverage

The 25th annual Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Classic is Saturday in Montgomery, Ala., Throughout the week, Rivals.com will be in Alabama to cover the practices leading up to this matchup. Here are five things Southeast analyst Keith Niebuhr is looking forward to seeing in the coming days:

1.The front line: The defensive front for Mississippi should be incredibly stout. It includes players such as Mississippi State defensive tackle commits Quay Evans and Nick James, Ole Miss tackle commit Issac Gross and uncommitted end Channing Ward. Evans and Ward are members of the Rivals250; Ward, in fact, checks in at No. 88. The 6-foot-3, 295-pound Evans, who played at Morton, can be an absolute beast when he wants to be. Ward is a quiet, shy, prospect from Aberdeen that is extremely explosive and recorded 20-plus sacks in 2011. Many believe they're the two best prospects in the Magnolia State. James is an intriguing player to say the least. Nobody questions the Long Beach standout's talent, but he was recently dismissed from his high school team, so it will be interesting to see how he responds this week. Gross, a standout at Batesville South Panola, hasn't received nearly the amount of press as Evans, James or Ward, but the 6-3, 270-pounder is an outstanding player who recently capped an ultra-productive high school career. Defensive ends A.J. Jefferson of North Pike and Temario Strong of South Panola also are solid prospects. Strong is an Ole Miss commit who also could play outside linebacker at the next level given his size and overall quickness.

2. Two-sport studs: This game will feature several quality quarterbacks, including two in particular - Anthony Alford of Petal (Miss.) and Jameis Winston of Hueytown (Ala.). What makes them even more interesting is that each potentially could be an early round draft pick next summer for baseball. Alford, who is uncommitted, is a four-star Rivals250 prospect who accounted for more than 3,500 yards of offense in 2011. A year earlier, he was the state's player of the year. Winston, who is committed to Florida State, is an elite five-star signal caller who is every bit as dangerous with his legs as with his arm. But even if he couldn't run as well as he does, he'd still likely be a major recruit because he spins the ball exceptionally well, and with terrific accuracy. By the way, each squad also has another strong player at this position. Southern Miss commit Jonathan Wallace of Phoenix City Central is on the Alabama roster; uncommitted Olive Branch QB Todd Mays will suit up for Mississippi.

3. Mississippi State-ment: At last check, there were 10 Mississippi State commits on the rosters, including nine from Mississippi. That speaks to how well the Bulldogs have done in-state this recruiting cycle. Besides the aforementioned Evans and James, the headliners arguably are running back Deonte Evans of McComb, center Devon Desper of Madison Central and defensive back Xavier Grindle from East Marion. The 6-foot, 198-pound Evans is a terrific athlete with sub-4.5 speed. Desper is an Under Armour All-American who apparently had a monster senior season. Grindle is an excellent two-way standout who is slated to line up on defense this week. How well will the future Mississippi State players perform together? Not only is this a chance for them to play on the same team, it should give them an opportunity to bond a little bit off the field before they get to Starkville.

4. Tide turners: Three Crimson Tide commits will play linebacker for the Alabama squad: Ryan Anderson of Daphne, Tyler Hayes of Thomasville and Reggie Ragland of Madison Bob Jones. All three are four-star prospects. Hayes and Ragland are Rivals250 players. Anderson, who transitioned from end to outside linebacker this year, is a big, physical presence not to mention a ferocious hitter. Hayes is a fantastic overall athlete and a true sideline-to-sideline defender who also can effectively drop into coverage. The 6-4, 245-pound Ragland is a force at inside linebacker who doesn't let many ball carriers get past him. These three are a big chunk of Alabama's defensive future. This should be a great setting to compare and contrast the three throughout the week. Are they as good as advertised? Are they better?

5. Still looking: Several of the game's biggest names remain uncommitted, including Alford, linebackers Beniquez Brown of Florence (Ala.) and Richie Brown of Long Beach (Miss.), safety Trae Elston of Oxford (Ala.,) quarterback Jeremy Liggins of Oxford (Miss.) Lafayette and Ward. Alford isn't likely to decide until the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. There has been some unconfirmed buzz that Ward may be nearing a decision. Also of interest are players such as Winston and Auburn five-star running back commit T.J. Yeldon of Daphne (Ala.), who are still being heavily pursued by other schools. We should get an indication of how firm those two are with their pledges.



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