Alabama Crimson Tide: Julio Jones

As the 2014 NFL draft drew to a close last Saturday, I could still hear Joe Pendry’s prophetic words in the press box on Nov. 5, 2011.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
Scott Donaldson/Icon SMIC.J. Mosley was taken in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens.
Pendry, who had just retired the previous year as Alabama’s offensive line coach, said there was a very simple reason that nobody could score a touchdown that night in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

“Look out there on the field, and probably 20 of the 22 defensive starters will be playing in the NFL,” said Pendry, who was an offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans before ending his career in the college ranks.

Turns out, he might have undersold just how much talent was on the field, which in my 20-plus years of covering the SEC is unquestionably the gold standard for premium defensive talent on the field together at one time.

In that game alone, which LSU won 9-6 in overtime, there were 28 defensive players who played in the game -- 14 on each side -- who would get drafted. That includes 10 first-rounders.

The grand total of future draftees who played in the game was 42, and that doesn’t even count another handful of players who made NFL rosters as undrafted free agents.

“You don’t see that every Saturday,” said Phil Savage, former Cleveland Browns general manager and current executive director of the Senior Bowl.

“That’s why it was a tug-of-war in the middle of the field, all those future pros on defense. We call it a logo game. Neither offense could move the ball very far past the logo at midfield.”

Savage, the color man on Alabama’s radio broadcasts, remembers doing interviews leading up to that epic No. 1-versus-No. 2 encounter and estimating that 40 to 50 players from the game would end up playing in the NFL.

“It’s as close to an NFL game as you’re ever going to see in terms of a college matchup, with so many future NFL players on each side,” Savage said.

The two teams wound up playing twice that season. Alabama avenged its only loss by beating LSU 21-0 in the BCS National Championship in New Orleans. Alabama finished No. 1 nationally that season in scoring defense, and LSU was No. 2. Between them, they gave up 27 touchdowns in 27 games.

The only games in Savage’s recent memory that would come close to that Alabama-LSU affair in terms of producing NFL draft picks were the Florida State-Miami game in 2000 and the Miami-Ohio State BCS National Championship game to cap the 2002 season.

Miami beat Florida State 27-24 in 2000, snapping the Seminoles’ 26-game regular-season winning streak.

In the next three drafts, Miami produced 26 draft choices, although not all of those players played in that 2000 game. For instance, Willis McGahee and Jerome McDougle redshirted in 2000, and Clinton Portis was injured and didn’t play.

Florida State, over the next three drafts, produced 18 draft choices.

But in one game, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever see 42 future draft choices again on the field playing, and certainly not 28 on defense.

As a comparison, in that FSU-Miami game in 2000, there were a total of 17 defensive players who would end up being drafted.

Now, when it comes to one team, good luck in trumping Miami’s 2001 national championship team. The Hurricanes had 16 players from that team who would go on to be first-round picks.

Here’s a look at the draftees from that Alabama-LSU game in 2011:

ALABAMA

[+] EnlargeBarkevious Mingo
AP Photo/David RichardBarkevious Mingo was one of the many LSU defenders on the 2011 team that was drafted.
2014 draft
2013 draft
2012 draft
LSU

2014 draft
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2012 draft
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Nick Saban was introduced as the head football coach at Alabama on Jan. 4, 2007, he mentioned recruiting some 10 times. Building the program from the ground up, Saban told reporters at the news conference that, “First of all, you got to have good players. You got to recruit well.”

And ever since, Alabama has been the pre-eminent recruiting powerhouse in college football. Saban’s first signing class wasn’t spectacular -- he had only weeks to work with -- but from 2008 on, he’s never had a group of signees that didn’t rank among the top three in the country, according to ESPN.

On Feb. 5, Saban and his staff wrapped up their third consecutive No. 1-ranked recruiting class, signing one-third of all five-star prospects and 19 ESPN 300 recruits. Depending on how it plays out, the 27-man class could go down as the best in Alabama history.

But that’s a matter for another day. This week, we’re counting down the three most impactful recruiting classes of Saban’s tenure at Alabama, not including the Tide’s most recent class.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Chris Graythen/Getty Images2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram was part of a 2008 class that helped make Alabama a top destination for high school recruits.
No. 2 on our list wasn’t the highest ranked class in Alabama history. It wasn’t even the No. 1- or 2-ranked class in the country that year. But to Saban, the 2008 signing class remains the most special.

“They had great team success here, won a national championship and came here when this was not the sexy place to be,” Saban said. “We were 7-6. So I guess that class is the one that’s closest to my heart because those guys bought in when they just believed that we were going to be able to be successful and they could make a great contribution to helping us be successful.”

The stars: Alabama wasn’t “sexy” in 2008. But it was about to be. By signing players such as Courtney Upshaw, Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, Barrett Jones, Marcell Dareus and Mark Barron, Saban brought the sizzle back to Tuscaloosa. Julio Jones was, by far, the star of the class as ESPN’s No. 2 overall player. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound athletic dynamo became an All-American receiver and first-round NFL draft pick with the Tide.

The contributors: Robert Lester was supposed to be the throw-in to land the commitment of Julio Jones. But the forgotten high school teammate developed into a three-year starter at safety for Alabama and even had significant playing time with the Carolina Panthers as a rookie in the NFL this past season. In addition to Lester, Michael Williams was a longtime starter at tight end and Damion Square was an unheralded anchor on the defensive line that won the national championship in 2011 and 2012.

The letdowns: Tyler Love, all 6-foot-7 and 280 pounds of him, had all the earmarks of a future NFL offensive tackle. But the top-50 prospect never panned out at Alabama, leaving the program in 2010 without ever breaking into the starting lineup. Love wasn’t the only miss, though, as uber-athlete Burton Scott transferred to South Alabama after appearing in just 15 games and heralded quarterback Star Jackson left for Georgia State after playing in five games as a redshirt freshman in 2009.

The results: More than 10 players from Alabama’s 2008 signing class went on to careers in the NFL. Four such signees were taken in the first round. But the lasting impact of the class, as noted by Saban earlier in this post, was the precedent they set. By choosing Alabama before the championships and before the nationwide fame, the class laid the foundation for years to come. Without the likes of Julio Jones and Ingram, Alabama might not have the reputation it has today. Saban needed to start with a bang in the 2008 class, and he did just that.

Ultimate 300: SEC's top classes 

January, 30, 2014
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The SEC has dominated the recruiting world over the past several years. Since 2008, the SEC has had at least three schools finish in the top 10 of the ESPN recruiting class rankings each year. Last year, the conference had an impressive six schools ranked among the top 10 recruiting classes in the country. This year is much of the same, as seven SEC schools are ranked in the top 10.

Here’s a closer look at the five best recruiting SEC schools in the Ultimate ESPN 300.

Ultimate 300: SEC’s top recruits 

January, 29, 2014
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The ESPN Ultimate 300 looks back at the best recruits since 2006, and it’s hardly surprising that the SEC made its presence felt in the rankings.

Here’s a look at the top five SEC recruits in the Ultimate ESPN 300:


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Sit down, Michigan-Ohio State.

Take a back seat, Alabama-Auburn. Not so fast, Florida-Florida State. Try a little harder, Notre Dame-USC. Better luck next time, Oklahoma-Texas.

Although you're all amazing rivalry games, you just don't currently compare to the new rivalry in town: Alabama-LSU.

No, this game doesn't have the hatred that comes with the Iron Bowl or the storied tradition that Michigan-Ohio State possesses. But when it comes to the national championship, no other game holds the importance of Alabama-LSU. In the past few years, this game has been the game of the season.

On Saturday, when No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) hosts No. 13 LSU (7-2, 3-2), it will mark the eighth consecutive time these two have met as ranked opponents, and it will yet again have major SEC West Division championship and national championship implications in the balance.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles and Nick Saban
Jamie Squire/Getty Images for ESPN The MagazineThere's always a lot on the line when Nick Saban and Les Miles clash.
The past three games in this series have all dealt with the phrase "Game of the Century." And when the SEC West and the national championships have all been on the line, it's hard to argue against the hyperbole.

Since the 2006 season, these teams have delivered a few gems together. Four times, both have been ranked in the top 10, and twice they've met as No. 1 and No. 2. Oh, and once was in the national championship back in 2011.

"Every year -- past the first year we've been here [2007] -- it's [been a big game]," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

"We have a tremendous amount of respect for them, being one of the most challenging opponents that we have in this league. The fact that they've been really, really good and we've been pretty good makes this game -- more than it has -- a tremendous amount of significance for both teams. ... It's a great game, and it's a game that players on both sides probably look forward to, but it's a tremendous challenge."

It certainly has become quite the challenge for both teams. Since 2006, Alabama has a 4-3 advantage over the Tigers but has lost at home twice. The winner of this game -- and the loser in 2011 -- has played in the national championship four times and won the SEC West five times. The average margin of victory in the six regular-season meetings between these two during that span has been 6.3 points. Alabama blanked LSU 21-0 in the BCS National Championship at the end of the 2011 season.

Two months earlier, the teams played their first "Game of the Century" when No. 1 LSU went to Tuscaloosa and left with a draining, 9-6 overtime victory over No. 2 Alabama. People poked at the offenses, but the story of that game was just how good both defenses were, as neither team gained 300 yards of offense and both defenses grabbed two takeaways.

Two freight trains smashed into each other in the middle of Bryant-Denny Stadium, but the one coated in purple and gold emerged still on the tracks.

Things were even more entertaining last fall, when No. 1 Alabama won 21-17 in thrilling, comeback style in Baton Rouge, La. While the 2011 game in Tuscaloosa had special-teams blunders and beautiful defensive stops, this one had a high-flying LSU passing game and a screen pass from AJ McCarron to T.J. Yeldon with 51 seconds remaining that put McCarron in tears and etched its place in the college football highlights hall of fame.

We also saw a classic in 2010, which featured two LSU fourth-down conversions and Les Miles introducing us to his appetite for eating grass. The 2009 game had that wonderful 73-yard Julio Jones touchdown and an interception that wasn't for LSU corner Patrick Peterson.

You want talent? There have been 31 players selected in the NFL draft who were on the Alabama or LSU rosters in the 2011 BCS title game.

Outside of the tremendous play on the field, you have the sideshow of Saban versus Miles. Saban is the ultimate perfectionist, and Miles' quirkiness can get the best of both him and his opponents. It truly is a match made in heaven, just like this game.

The animosity and disdain that seeps into every major rivalry isn't really there for this one. Sure, there was the Saban storyline that lingered for a few years because he's coached and won a national championship at both schools, but the loathing between players and fans in other rivalries really doesn't exist here.

This game has more of a mutual respect about it because of what is on the line when the clock hits zero. There isn't a shiny trophy or in-state bragging rights to claim. No, this game's winner is looking for bigger, more important awards, such as a division title and national championship.

"If you played at Alabama or LSU, it's one of those games you measure yourself by," Peterson said. "Look at the players who've come out of both schools, how many of those guys are in the NFL. It's the game in college football."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Amari Cooper is nonchalant about most things. Still just a fresh-faced sophomore, it's hard to tell whether the enormity of his young career, the one that took off like a rocket last season and ended with consensus All-American honors, has sunk in. Has he felt the impact he's had the Tide? Or the SEC?

Alabama hasn't had a playmaker at wide receiver like him since Julio Jones. He's not as physically intimidating or as wildly popular, but his impact is approaching that of Jones. Cooper set nearly every rookie receiving record at Alabama last season, passing his dreadlocked predecessor and others in the process. And he did all that without starting a game until Week 6.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper, Damian Swann
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsThe go-ahead score against Georgia in the SEC title game, was one of many big plays for Amari Cooper during his 11-score freshman season at Alabama.
"My life hasn't changed," Cooper told reporters on Wednesday night, less than 72 hours removed from the season opener against Virginia Tech in Atlanta. Last December he was there and he was anything but understated when he spiked his foot into the ground to help sell a play-action pass in the fourth quarter. Georgia's Damian Swann nearly fell down when Cooper broke left, and 45 yards later Cooper was in the end zone with the game-winning score to give the Tide the SEC Championship. "On the football field I just try to get better every day, so not much changed there either."

At the end of his signature play in the Georgia Dome, Cooper didn't even break his stride to celebrate. He put one hand up and barely recognized the crowd on his jog back to the sidelines. Meanwhile, quarterback AJ McCarron pumped his fist and waved his arms like a wild man all the way to the back of the end zone.

Nothing seems too big for Cooper; no moment, no situation. Whether it's a defense trying to beat him up in man coverage -- "They're saying their guys is better than you" -- or the pressure of living up to the past -- "I don't feel like I did a whole lot last year" -- there doesn’t seem to be an ounce of stress on his shoulders.

His only expectation: "To have a better year than last year."

"Now I'll be starting the first game this year," he continued. "I didn't start the first game last year. We'll see if I have a better year than last year."

Make no mistake, though, Cooper is confident in his abilities. During his first time speaking with the media in Tuscaloosa this spring, he slipped up and said he only had two years left in school, meaning he intends to enter the NFL draft as an underclassman. The sports information director on hand quickly corrected him and Cooper added "at least" a second too late.

"He can be as great as he wants to be," former UA cornerback Dee Milliner said last October, before the rest of the world had caught on to Alabama's rookie phenom. "He can be one of the greatest receivers we’ve had at Alabama. He does a lot of things you really don’t see freshmen do with his speed, his hands, and his quickness that he got. He can be one of the great receivers in years to come."

Doug Nussmeier didn't hesitate to call Cooper one of the game’s best earlier this month. It wasn't just his 59 receptions, 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns that impressed the second-year offensive coordinator. Instead it was Cooper's savvy.

"Amari, and what he did, from where he started to his progression through the season, we felt that towards the end of the season, he was playing as good as anybody in the country at that position," Nussmeier said. "He continues to develop … he's still learning. He's really starting to focus on the little things that are going to take his game to the next level."

Up and down the roster there's respect for Cooper, who added 7 pounds and cut his 40-yard dash time from 4.4 seconds to 4.3 this offseason. Fellow wideout Kenny Bell marveled at Cooper's growth, saying he could be even more explosive this year. Junior tight end Brian Vogler said he "really loves the game," praising his hard work and dedication.

John Fulton has had to go up against Cooper countless times during practice. The senior cornerback said that some of the stuff Cooper does, Fulton has "no idea where he learned it from, but he's absolutely amazing."

"He has this thing he does off the line," Fulton said. "I'm kind of catching onto it now, but he's going to develop something else to mess with my head. He'll take two steps outside, shake inside, shake outside and then shake back inside for a slant and its under .5 seconds. It's so fast, you can't time it. It's crazy."

Defenders around the SEC understand. Coaches do too. Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer took a second to connect Cooper with the game film during a conference call on Monday, but when he did he compared him to a two-time, first-team All-American receiver in his conference.

"I know who he is," Beamer said. "In our league he reminds you of Sammie Watkins there at Clemson. A guy that's just athletic, can go. They've got a good group of wide receivers, but certainly Cooper is a guy who is hard … It's hard to cover that guy."

Teams looking to recover in 2013

August, 19, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was a mixture of old and new on the University of Alabama campus on Saturday. Coeds went one direction toward their future sorority houses on Bid Day while the school's silver-haired alumnus went another, walking toward Bryant-Denny Stadium for the Crimson Tide's second scrimmage of the preseason.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesNick Saban brought Alabama from middling to powerhouse. Which SEC school will do that next?
Boosters came en masse to watch the practice, agonizing over a team picked by the Associated Press that morning to begin the season at No. 1. Quarterback AJ McCarron would throw for 152 yards and a touchdown in yet another sign pointing toward his contention for the Heisman Trophy, and pass-rush specialist Adrian Hubbard had three sacks to help add to the anticipation of the season.

Up and down University Boulevard, the buzz was obvious. With Nick Saban at the helm, Alabama is back contending for another national championship.

The scene in Tuscaloosa wouldn't have been familiar seven years ago, before Saban arrived and the football program had swung out of neutral. A fraction of the team's boosters went to scrimmages and the school's undergraduate enrollment was some 5,000 students fewer.

But for those on the outside looking in that day, it was a reminder not only of how far Alabama has come but of how far other teams can go in the blink of an eye.

Tennessee tackle Antonio Richardson knows the history. He pointed out as much at SEC media days in July.

"Before Bama turned it around they were terrible … I mean, dead terrible," he said. "So why can't we be the next team that blows up?"

He's not the only one asking the question. Players at Kentucky, Arkansas, Auburn and Missouri are wondering the same thing: Why can't they reverse their fortunes and bounce back in 2013? If you're looking for a sense of defeat from teams that have become familiar with losing, think again.

Jacques Smith is hoping his new coach, Butch Jones, can bring the Vols out of the doldrums and return them to competitiveness in the SEC. Tennessee has a lot to replace with quarterback Tyler Bray and his top three pass-catchers from a season ago gone, but there's something Rocky Top has now that it didn't have a year ago -- energy.

"He's brought the confidence," Smith said of Jones, "and now we have our swagger back."

At Auburn, where the Tigers went winless in league play last season, players are substituting "swagger" for "edge." As coach Gus Malzahn explained, when the Tigers play with the right "blue collar" attitude, history shows they can compete for championships.

"The No. 1 thing that our players have to do for us to be successful this year is get our edge back," he explained at media days. "That is the mental and physical toughness, the blue-collar, hard-nosed hit-you-in-the-mouth Auburn football that's made Auburn great. Worry about your teammate, not worry about yourself. Lose the entitlement issue."

On the field, Auburn took one step forward and one step back in that respect last week, losing safety Demetruce McNeal on the same day it announced that Nick Marshall had won the starting quarterback job. The good news: Malzahn had decent success with his last transfer quarterback, Cam Newton. The bad: Marshall will be the seventh different quarterback to start a season opener for the Tigers in the last seven years.

Kentucky, which had the fewest wins of any SEC team a year ago, doesn't know who its starting quarterback is. The Wildcats entered preseason camp with three players competing for the job: Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles, who ended spring practice in a dead heat. Determining who will handle snaps under center, whether it's one player or a mixture of all three, will be Step No. 1 in getting a team that is returning 13 starters back on track.

But what Mark Stoops has done off the field has already reinvigorated the Bluegrass State. Football may never trump basketball in Kentucky, but UK's new head coach is at least making the game more competitive, creating a buzz on the recruiting trail that's spread out to players and the fan base as a whole. If the saying is true that Jimmies and Joes do more than X's and O's, then Stoops is on the right track. Kentucky finished a respectable 36th in the ESPN Class Rankings in February and is off to a hot start for the 2014 class, coming in at No. 16, ahead of programs like Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and Mississippi State.

To the Southwest, Arkansas is taking the old-school approach under new head coach Bret Bielema, who insists that the Razorbacks return to "normal American football." John L. Smith might have been a disaster as head coach in 2012, losing four of eight games, but he didn't leave the cupboard completely bare. With All-American candidates on both the offensive and defensive line and a fullback that looks as though he could run through a brick wall, Bielema has the pieces to run the type of smashmouth system he wants.

The problem for Bielema is the schedule, which sets up dreadfully with Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama in consecutive weeks. By the time Auburn and Ole Miss role around, there's no telling where the Razorbacks will stand, if they're standing at all.

Unlike the previously mentioned schools, Missouri is hoping for a significant rebound despite no significant overhaul on the coaching staff as Josh Henson was promoted from co-offensive line coach to offensive coordinator. Gary Pinkel is back for his second turn in the SEC and this time he hopes to bring senior quarterback James Franklin along with him for the ride.

Last year Franklin missed a significant portion of the season with a shoulder injury and Pinkel didn't do him any favors when he came back this spring, thrusting him into a quarterback competition that didn't end until last week. Now fully healthy, Franklin hopes to return to his form of 2011, when he finished fourth in the Big 12 in passing efficiency behind future pros Robert Griffin III, Brandon Weeden and Landry Jones. And with some help from the running game and a boost from rising star Dorial Green-Beckham, those expectations might not be that far off.

Like so many programs hoping to bounce back in 2013, Missouri relies on more than the play of its quarterbacks. Winning the line of scrimmage and protecting the football will be vital to competing against traditional powers like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU. In this league, you can't give games away, which is exactly what Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn and Arkansas did last year, finishing among the bottom five schools in the SEC in turnover margin.

Luck will be important too.

Alabama didn't get to where it is without the stars aligning properly. Saban had to sign before the program took off, and even then he had some cleaning house to do. Without landing standouts like Julio Jones, Courtney Upshaw and AJ McCarron, there's no telling where the Tide would be right now.

Instead of packing the stands for a scrimmage in mid-August, Alabama could be like much of the SEC, looking up at empty bleachers while it waits for its luck to turn.

The stars of the Alabama-LSU rivalry 

July, 17, 2013
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There have been dozens of All-Americans and first-round picks to come out Alabama and LSU in recent years, talented guys like Courtney Upshaw, Barkevious Mingo, Trent Richardson and Tyrann Mathieu. All told, there have been more than 30 NFL draft picks from both programs since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007.

But with so many players to choose from, how do you determine the best athletes to compete in the rivalry, the ones who have shown up and played their best when the two schools met on the football field each year?

TideNation writer Alex Scarborough and GeauxTigerNation writer Gary Laney did their best to answer that difficult question.

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Ranking best games in Bama-LSU rivalry 

July, 17, 2013
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The Alabama-LSU rivalry began heating up the minute Nick Saban left the Miami Dolphins in an attempt to resurrect a sleeping giant in Tuscaloosa, and it hasn't slowed down since. Alabama has flourished into a dynasty with three rings and counting, while LSU continues to battle for national championships year in and year out under the sometimes-eccentric leadership of Les Miles.

Head to head, the Crimson Tide and Tigers have had some of the most thrilling games in recent memory, often propelling one team or another on to the SEC championship and beyond. Each matchup has had its defining play or its defining performance, whether it was T.J. Yeldon's last-second touchdown in 2012 or Eric Reid's acrobatic interception the year before.

Breaking down each game was no easy matter. In fact, when TideNation writer Alex Scarborough and GeauxTigerNation writer Gary Laney sat down to make up a top 10 list of the best games since 2007, determining No. 1 was so difficult they had to split the difference and stop just short of calling it a tie.

Looking at numbers three through seven wasn't much simpler. But they persevered and ranked the games from best to worst, and here's the order they came up with:


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MOBILE, Ala. -- Nearly in the middle of the Florida and Mississippi borders is Mobile, Ala., a port city whose founding can be traced back to French settlers in the early 1700s. Its roots, in other words, run deep. As does the richness of its soil, both in the figurative and literal sense. Football players are born here. Today, the seaside territory of South Alabama and its epicenter, Mobile, represent the key to the recruiting success of many of the top programs in the country.

The Crimson Tide wouldn't have won consecutive championships without holding sway over the region. Though the area lies well below sea level, South Alabama represents the territorial high ground for Nick Saban and the University of Alabama.

Xzavier Dickson, Lance Thompson
Alex Scarborough/ESPN.comAlabama coach Lance Thompson has long been a recruiting commodity in Mobile.
When Saban arrived at Alabama in 2006, he came in with a plan to first win back Mobile, then the state, and then the country. Looking up and down the roster he inherited from Mike Shula, Saban was struck by the lack of players from South Alabama.

In his first year at UA, Saban sent his best recruiter, assistant coach Lance Thompson, to the area. Thompson helped gain the commitments of three of the top prospects in the region: Foley High star wideout Julio Jones, St. Paul's stud safety Mark Barron and Vigor High super athlete B.J. Scott. Jones and Barron would become All-Americans at Alabama before being taken in first round of the NFL draft. Even Scott, who wound up transferring back home to the University of South Alabama, was signed by the Chicago Bears in late April.

Fast-forward to the present and all three of Alabama's most valuable players -- quarterback AJ McCarron, linebacker C.J. Mosley and running back T.J. Yeldon -- are all from within earshot of Mobile. Right tackle D.J. Fluker of Foley would have been a senior this season had he not entered the NFL draft in April.

"When we came to Alabama we only had one player, Wallace Gilberry, from this area on our team," Saban said at a speaking engagement in the area last week. "Now we have anywhere from 13-15 (players) pretty consistently. We've had, I think, three first-round draft picks from this area, and probably a couple more guys on the team who could be first-round draft picks in the future.

"There's great (high school) programs here and we certainly want to do a great job in our state in terms of recruiting and it just seems that historically there's been a lot of great players from this area. We certainly feel fortunate that we've been able to get some of those players to come to Alabama and it's made a huge difference in the success of our program."

After the top prospect from Mobile signed with Arkansas in 2006 and then Auburn in 2007, the tables turned. Alabama took over and signed the highest-rated recruit from the city all but one time from 2008-11.

But what's happened in the years since shows how other schools have taken notice. Chris Casher, the top prospect from the city in 2012, signed with Florida State. And Jason Smith, a four-star athlete from McGill-Toolen High, signed with Auburn this February.

Alabama's grip on South Alabama hasn't loosened, but the pull from programs like FSU, Auburn and others has grown stronger, thanks mainly to shifts in the recruiters charged with scouting the area in the past six months. Dameyune Craig, who made a name for himself as a recruiter on the FSU staff, was hired by Auburn’s new head coach Gus Malzahn in January; Jeremy Pruitt, who made a name for himself as an assistant coach at Alabama, took the defensive coordinator job for the Seminoles in December; and Thompson, who returned to Alabama last year after a stint at Tennessee, shifted his territory back to where he started in Mobile. The trio is some of the best in the business, and they're all spending much of their time in the same area.

"They’re all great guys," Vigor High coach Ashley Johnson said. "...They’re great with the kids, interacting with them when they’re able to interact with them. They really, really learn them. They don’t forget a name, a face. They are really good at what they do."

ESPN 150 defensive end Justin Thornton stars at Vigor and has been recruited heavily by all three schools since before his junior season. The four-star prospect recently committed to Auburn, thanks in large part to the connection Craig was able to form.

"When Justin Thornton’s mom just had a baby, Dameyune Craig’s buzzing me. ‘Tell Justin I’m excited,'" said Johnson, marveling at how quickly the coach acted on the news. "They are up and on the know. I don’t know when they sleep."

(Read full post)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban certainly has had his share of talented players during his tenure at Alabama, and although player development is critical to success, it all starts on the recruiting trail.

Saban, considered by many to be the best recruiter in the game right now, knows that as well as anybody. He has always assembled his staff with coaches who know how to recruit and who put an emphasis on bringing the top talent to Tuscaloosa.

With that in mind, TideNation looks back at the top five recruiting victories for Saban and his assistant coaches in the last seven years.


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Alabama Class of 2009 review 

January, 24, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- As it turned out, 2008 was just the beginning. Alabama's 2009 signing class was one step ahead for Nick Saban and the coaching staff as it finished No. 2 in the country, highlighted by the likes of Dre Kirkpatrick, Trent Richardson, AJ McCarron and Eddie Lacy.

[+] EnlargeChance Warmack
AP Photo/Dave MartinTrent Richardson and AJ McCarron get the headlines, but Chance Warmack became an All-American player from the 2009 class.
But those were just the headliners. Like many of the recruiting classes to come in the years since, the 2009 class was solid top to bottom. Chance Warmack, Anthony Steen and James Carpenter were all ranked in the second half of the class. Kevin Norwood, Darrington Sentimore and Quinton Dial also came out of the lower half of the class to become playmakers at the college level.

There's no doubt, though, who the star of the class was. Richardson, the No. 1 running back from Pensacola, Fla. in the country, was stolen right out from under the Florida Gators' nose. The 5-foot-11, 219-pound athlete was an instant impact player, rushing for more than 700 yards as a true freshman. Two seasons later he was in New York City as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. A few months after that, he was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns.

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Scouts: Big pickup for Tide 

December, 21, 2012
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Robert Foster (Monaca, Pa./Central Valley), who is No. 28 in the ESPN 150 and the No. 2 wide receiver in the nation, has been a significant target for Alabama from the start.

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Tide's haul started at Saban's hiring 

November, 21, 2012
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- For Nick Saban, his success started on the recruiting trail, not the football field.

In his first season, the University of Alabama head football coach went 6-6 and guided the Crimson Tide to a berth in the Independence Bowl, the lowly Independence Bowl, where they hung on to defeat Colorado.


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Countdown to kickoff: 8

August, 24, 2012
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From now until kickoff in Arlington, Texas, we'll be counting down the days before Alabama and Michigan get the season started. Today, we move to No. 8 and what it means to UA football. See all the previous editions here.

From the day Julio Jones stepped on campus and pulled a crimson No. 8 jersey over his 6-foot-4 frame, coaches and fans knew it wouldn't take long. The former No. 1 wide receiver from Foley, Ala., was an instant impact to an offense looking for a go-to target on offense.

In his first career game against Clemson he hauled in four catches for 28 yards and a touchdown. He would go on to set Alabama freshman records for receptions (58), receiving yards (924) and receiving touchdowns (4). He passed Ozzie Newsome for the receiving yards record (374) and A.C. Carter for receptions and touchdowns.

Jones would go on to break even more records in his three seasons at Alabama.

His 78 receptions and 1,133 in 2010 are school records for a single season. The future first-round pick finished in the top five of career touchdowns, receptions and yards in a career.

In his second season with the Atlanta Falcons, Jones is lighting up camp.

Watch: NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas is predicting a successful sophomore year for Julio Jones.

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Trevor Matich discusses the coaching matchup in the Allstate Sugar Bowl between Alabama's Nick Saban and Ohio State's Urban Meyer.
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