Alabama head coach Nick Saban knows NFL talent when he sees it, and since his arrival in Tuscaloosa, he has set the recruiting bar at a level the SEC has never seen before, even before scholarship limitations were set in place.
Since 2008, Saban has signed a top-three recruiting class or better with the exception of his inaugural season in 2007 when he hauled in the 10th-ranked class in the country less than a month after replacing Mike Shula as the coach in T-Town. The SEC and the entire country were immediately put on notice that the Crimson Tide was back, and back for the long haul.
From day one, Saban has, as expected, pushed the envelope in recruiting, even sparking the NCAA to conjure up new rules regulating how college coaches can contact prospected student-athletes. See the “bump-rule”. Despite the NCAA’s attempt to wrangle Saban’s aggressive recruiting tactics, the future hall of famer continued on a torrid pace in landing top-notch athletes.
Saban’s last five recruiting class rankings according to ESPN.com:
2008 – 3rd
2009 – 2nd
2010 – 3rd
2011 – 2nd
2012 – 1st
Of the last five classes, none were more important than the 2008 coup which included the likes of first round NFL Draft picks Julio Jones and Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. They both played a significant role in Alabama’s resurgence to the top of college football’s select few of premier programs.
Here is the list of Saban’s top 10 recruits that have contributed the most to Alabama’s return to the mountaintop since 2007:
- Julio Jones – The Foley, Ala. native was the nation’s 2nd ranked overall player as a wide receiver and the top priority in Saban’s first full recruiting class in 2008. Jones thrilled the Bama Nation when he signed with the Crimson Tide on National Signing Day, capping off one the most talented classes in the history of Alabama football. His pedigree and notoriety put Alabama on the radars of other future highly rated recruits on a national scale. Jones earned an immediate starting position and played a pivotal role in the 2009 undefeated championship season.
- Mark Ingram – In one of the more surprising signing day moments in ’08, Ingram inked with Alabama over Iowa and hometown favorite Michigan State as a four-star running back out of Flynt, Michigan. At 5-foot-10-inches, Ingram was somewhat overlooked by recruiting services despite his highlight-filled film. Ingram cracked the starting running back rotation in his freshman season, providing the offense a unexpected spark on their way to an undefeated season.
- Barrett Jones – In Jones’ four years at the Capstone, he has collected two national championships, an SEC Championship, multiple All-American honors and an Outland Trophy. He quietly became the unquestioned leader for Saban’s offensive line and has played every position up front. He has a chance to become the only player in history to win both the Outland and Lombardi trophies.
- Trent Richardson – Hailed as the next Emitt Smith, Richardson quickly established himself as the next star running back in Tuscaloosa. From his very first bulldozing carry against Virginia Tech in the 2009 season opener to his final touchdown run in the BCS Championship win over LSU last season, Richardson lived up to the lofty expectations.
- Rolando McClain – The mammoth middle linebacker committed to the Tide before the start of the 2006 season due in large part to former defensive coordinator Joe Kines, but he was pressured to sign elsewhere after the Shula firing. He reaffirmed his commitment to Saban after his hiring and hit the ground running as a true freshman, becoming one of college football’s most dominant linebackers. He joined Alabama great Derrick Thomas as the only Dick Butkus Award winners in school history in 2009.
- Dont’a Hightower – Saban grabbed another beast of a linebacker in 2008 in Hightower, and like McClain, he became an immediate contributor on defense as a true freshman, starting in 12 games and playing in all 14. He earned Freshman All-American and All-SEC honors that year. His best season came last year as he captained the nation’s best defense that pitched the first shutout in BCS Championship game history. He was a consensus first-team All-American and a finalist for the Lombardi Award, Chuck Bednarik Award, the Butkus Award and the Lott Trophy.
- Mark Barron – Considered to be a 4-star athlete coming out of high school, Saban saw 5-star talent in Barron as a strong safety, and well, he was right. Fans caught a glimpse of what was to come in his true freshman debut against Clemson in 2008 when he destroyed Jacoby Ford on kickoff coverage. Barron matured into another consensus first-team All-American for Saban and was the veteran leader in his complex secondary after starting 38 games at safety during his time at the Capstone. The 2011 Thorpe Award finalist finished his career with 12 interceptions, ranking him eighth all-time in school history.
- Marcel Dareus – The rule of three. In just three years, the Huffman, Ala. native went from a 3-star defensive tackle prospect in Saban’s 2008 recruiting class to the No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. He did all that after having mastered the 3-technique along the front of Saban’s defense. Dareus entered Alabama football lore as a sophomore after his Defensive MVP performance in the 2010 BCS Title game against Texas. It was his brutal, knockout hit on the Longhorns’ Mr. Everything starting quarterback, Colt McCoy, and his mesmerizing interception return for a touchdown that sparked Alabama to their first national championship since 1992.
- Courtney Upshaw – Another 2008 recruiting class member, Upshaw became Saban’s most productive pass-rushers in his final two seasons, finishing his career by being named the Defensive MVP in the title victory over LSU in January. Also in 2011, he was a finalist for both the Butkus Award and Lombardi Award and earned first-team All-American honors.
- William Vlachos – The short, stubby 3-star center from Mountain Brook, Ala. and the least athletic of the list, became a three-year starter at center for Saban, and it was his consistent play as a sophomore that helped pave the way for Mark Ingram’s winning of Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy. He was the unsung hero and the quarterback on two national championship offensive lines having had the responsibility to make all the calls and checks at the line of scrimmage. He was a finalist for the Remington Trophy in his final season at Alabama in 2011.
Honorable Mentions: Terrance Cody, Josh Chapman, DJ Fluker, Chance Warmack, James Carpenter, Dre Kirkpatrick and Robert Lester.