Alabama Crimson Tide: Marcell Dareus

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.
Looking back at the top Alabama players in the last decade, not every one was a five-star recruit coming out of high school. Much of the Crimson Tide’s success can be traced to more under-the-radar prospects who emerged once they got to Tuscaloosa. Every recruiting class has a hidden gem or two that succeeds beyond expectations.

We look back at the top five players who might not have been household names in high school but who went on to make a significant impact during their careers at Alabama.

LB DeMeco Ryans (Class of 2002)
Bessemer, Ala./Jess Lanier
DeMeco Ryans
Kellen Micah/Icon SMILightly recruited out of high school, DeMeco Ryans starred at Alabama and is entering his eighth season in the NFL.
Ryans grew up a huge Alabama fan, so it wasn’t surprising when he committed to the Tide. The surprising part was that he had just two other offers, from Mississippi State and UAB. He was relatively undersized coming out of high school, but UA fans are happy that former coach Dennis Franchione took a chance on him. Ryans started out as a special teams contributor, but he went on to become an All-American linebacker and was named the SEC defensive player of the year in 2005. He was the first pick of the second round in the 2006 NFL draft.

DB Rashad Johnson (Class of 2004)
Sulligent, Ala./Sulligent
Forget stars coming out of high school. Johnson had none. He didn’t have a single Division I scholarship offer when he graduated from Sulligent High School. He walked on at Alabama as a running back. After making his mark on special teams as a freshman, Johnson moved to safety, where he started four games as a sophomore. By the time he was a junior, he was a captain for Alabama, and he finished among the SEC leaders in interceptions. After his senior year, the former walk-on was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the third round of the 2009 draft.

DB Javier Arenas (Class of 2006)
Tampa/Robinson
Arenas committed to Florida Atlantic early in the recruiting process. It was his only offer, and it remained his only offer until Alabama jumped in late and stole him away with the intention of making him a return specialist. The plan worked. Arenas set the SEC record for career punt return touchdowns. But he did much more than that during his time in Tuscaloosa. Under the direction of Nick Saban, Arenas became one of the stars of Alabama’s 2009 defense and helped lead the Tide a national championship. He was a second-round pick in 2010.

DL Marcell Dareus (Class of 2008)
Birmingham, Ala./Huffman
Looking back, it was Alabama’s 2008 recruiting class that served as the catalyst for the Tide’s recent success. The biggest gem in that class had to be Dareus, who was ranked No. 30 in the state of Alabama coming out of high school. The potential was there, but nobody expected him to have the success he had during his time at UA. As a true freshman, he suited up for the Tide’s opener against Clemson and never looked back. After just three years in Tuscaloosa, Dareus left early for the NFL and was taken No. 3 overall in the 2011 draft by the Buffalo Bills.

OL Chance Warmack (Class of 2009)
Atlanta/Westlake
When Warmack was in high school, he never received an offer from Georgia, the in-state favorite. Had the Bulldogs offered, he might not be on this list. Instead, the three-star offensive guard ended up at Alabama, where he made 39 career starts and was a part of three national championship teams. Saban and his staff were the first to offer Warmack, which went a long way in securing his signature. They saw the potential in the 300-pound lineman, and it paid off. Warmack was taken No. 10 overall by the Tennessee Titans in April's draft.

Honorable mention: QB Greg McElroy, RB Glen Coffee, DT Terrence Cody.

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