Thursday night could prove to be a historic night for the University of Alabama.
Coming off its second national championship in three years, the Crimson Tide could have up to five players selected in the first round of the NFL draft, the most ever taken in the first round from one SEC school.
A year ago, Alabama had four players taken in the first round, which tied the conference record and set a school record.
This year, UA hopes to set a new mark as running back Trent Richardson, defensive backs Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick, and linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw hope to all hear their names called in New York on Thursday night.
“It is special for us to see our guys, who have worked so hard, have the opportunity now to get a lot of positive self-gratification from the opportunity they get to play at the next level,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said.
“And they all did it the right way (at Alabama). They were all good students. They all have a chance to graduate if they haven’t already, and they represented the university well. We’re extremely proud of them, happy for them and want to be very, very supportive in every way that we can.”
Richardson is projected to go the highest of all the potential Tide first rounders. The Heisman trophy finalist is a consensus top five pick that could go anywhere from pick three to pick five. There’s even been rumors of teams looking to trade up to land the All-American back.
Barron and Kirkpatrick are also projected to be sure-fire first-round picks, and Barron’s name continues to move up the draft board in the days leading up to the draft. The Buffalo Bills, who pick at No. 10, have even floated his name as a possibility.
“I think he’s ready to play in the NFL,” Saban said of Barron. “He’s got a lot of experience here. We do a lot of the same stuff here that we did in the NFL, so he’s been exposed to a lot of those types of coverages, adjustments and different things.
“I think, that kind of development, Mark’s very responsible and accountable to do things the right way. I think all those things enhance a guy’s ability to have a smooth transition into the NFL and be a productive player early on.”
Upshaw, who played a combination of defensive end and outside linebacker as the Tide’s jack linebacker, has seen his name moving in the opposite direction of Barron, dropping down on most draft boards.
The New York Jets at No. 16, the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 17 or No. 21, and the New England Patriots at No. 27 are possible destinations for Upshaw.
“Courtney’s really hard to block,” Saban said. “He’s a very physical player, very strong. He’s got ability to pass rush. I think he has adequate ability to play in space, and I think he can be an every-down player for somebody, and I think he’s going to be a very good player.”
The only fringe player in the first round may be Hightower, but there’s been a lot of talk that the Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 24 or the Baltimore Ravens at No. 29 could take the former Alabama linebacker.
If all five players get selected, it could turn into a record-setting night for Alabama and for Saban, who plans to accompany his players to New York for the draft.
“It's a really great experience, and I'm happy that our players would like for me to be there,” he said. “I think it's great for our program.”
In all, Saban has had seven first-round draft picks since taking over at Alabama and this year’s crop could make it 12 players taken in the first round. His 2008 recruiting class alone could produce six first-rounders after Thursday night.