Alabama Crimson Tide: Lance Thompson

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."

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JACKSON, Ala. -- The recruiting process might have started slow for Jackson High School linebacker Gavin Bryant, but it has not slowed down. This spring, he’s added offers from the likes of Florida, Miami, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, giving him close to 15 total, all in the last three months.

Still, there’s one school that stands alone at the top -- the University of Alabama.

Bryant added an offer from the Crimson Tide in February, but the staff wants to see him at camp in June before the offer becomes committable. UA assistant coach Lance Thompson came by recently and told him to be ready to compete.

“They told me they were going to need me to get in good condition,” Bryant said. “Coach [Nick] Saban doesn’t like to see folks running to the water cooler, slouched over and all, so he just told me to get in shape. I really want to play for Alabama, and I want to try to show up up there.”


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Nick Saban adds new, old faces to staff

January, 17, 2012
1/17/12
1:07
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One thing's for sure about Alabama coach Nick Saban when it comes to hiring assistant coaches: He's flexible.

Look at his last two hires.

New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier comes to Alabama after spending the last three seasons as Washington's offensive coordinator. Nussmeier has never previously worked under Saban, although Nussmeier has worked with people Saban has worked with, including former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, the man Nussmeier is replacing.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinAlabama coach Nick Saban has had a busy offseason already, hiring a new offensive coordinator and a new outslide linebackers coach.
Nussmeier and McElwain also previously worked as offensive coordinators at Fresno State under former Fresno State coach Pat Hill, who told The Birmingham News that Nussmeier had a lot of the same qualities as McElwain. Hill and Saban worked together as assistants with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s.

Then there's new outside linebackers coach Lance Thompson, who's embarking on his third different stint under Saban. Not only that, but Thompson left Alabama following the 2008 season for a job on Tennessee's staff when Lane Kiffin assembled the highest-paid collection of assistant coaches in the country.

Thompson worked for Saban at LSU in 2002 and 2003 before rejoining him at Alabama in 2007. Thompson spent the last three seasons on the Vols' staff, but wasn't considered by Derek Dooley for the defensive coordinator's job and was looking to get out. It just so happened that Alabama had an opening after Sal Sunseri was hired as the Vols' new defensive coordinator.

So, in essence, the Crimson Tide and Vols swapped.

There's also a back story here that will no doubt be downplayed at Alabama now that Thompson is back with the Crimson Tide.

But remember Kiffin's loudmouthed tour around the state of Tennessee following national signing day in 2009?

It's when he made his infamous comments about Urban Meyer allegedly cheating in an attempt to get Nu'Keese Richardson. Of course, Kiffin was dead wrong in his understanding of the NCAA rules (imagine that) and wound up being reprimanded by the SEC.

During that same "signing day celebration" tour, Thompson also reportedly popped off about Saban and referred to Saban as the "other guy."

And according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Thompson boasted to a crowd in Knoxville of Saban: "He ain't getting any more of my (recruits)."

Kiffin added: "Nick Saban should have started his (signing day) press conference by saying, 'Our great class that we signed ... I'd really like to thank Lance (Thompson) because Lance signed eight of those guys.' "

It's merely a guess, but something says Saban and Thompson won't be doing any signing day tours around the state of Alabama this February.

But Thompson's return to the Capstone is proof that Saban can forgive and forget, and it's also worth noting that Thompson's reasons for leaving Alabama the first time weren't all football-related.

Either way, he's back and has a clean slate, and if he recruits the way he did the last time he was at Alabama, nobody in that state will even remember his time in orange.

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