Alabama football: Stars leaving early for the NFL is simply part of The Process
It is nearly as important to Nick Saban as on-field success, and is certainly a part of “The Process” that Alabama players want to see pan out when they sign with Alabama.
Which is why Thursday’s announcement that quarterback Mac Jones, wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, defensive back Patrick Surtain II and defensive tackle Christian Barmore are departing the Crimson Tide to be considered for the 2021 NFL Draft comes as absolutely no surprise.
No, not every player who puts on a crimson helmet with white numerals on it in Tuscaloosa ultimately ends up playing on Sundays, although it feels more and more like it with every passing season. The Process is designed to get the absolute best out of every player, though, whether that means becoming a starter for a national championship team, simply making the dress roster, or hearing your name called by Roger Goodell.
The Process is about maximizing your worth, on and off the field. With that goal firmly in place for every player on the 2021 Alabama roster, as it has been for rosters ever since Saban arrived in 2007, the time is certainly perfect for Jones, Waddle, Surtain and Barmore to head to the next level.
“We want all players here to make a decision about their future based on business and what is the best business decision for them,” Saban said Thursday at a news conference to announce the quartet’s decisions. “Not an emotional decisions about continuing to play at Alabama or having this dream and desire to play in the NFL, but to make good business decisions about what makes sense for them.
“I’m very proud of the way these 4 young men have contributed to the program here, winning 2 SEC championships and a national championship as well as extending 10-win seasons for 13 years, and finishing in the top 10 for 13 years. All these guys made great contributions to the team — not only in their performance on the field, but how they bought into the principles and values of the program, the leadership they demonstrated by the example they set and work ethic they had, and the production that they were able to play with.”
Those contributions mean, as usual, the 2021 Crimson Tide will look significantly different than the 2020 Crimson Tide. Just as is the case with Duke basketball, accelerated paths to the pros means you gotta have 5-stars waiting in the wings at all times — because their time is coming a bit faster than at some other schools.
Take quarterback, for example. Getting true freshman Bryce Young as much playing time as possible this season was always a priority, but that priority became even clearer once Jones began blossoming into a Heisman Trophy contender. Having finished 3rd in the Heisman voting after a stellar season that included 4,500 passing yards and 41 touchdowns, Jones has vaulted up draft boards and is projected as the 21st overall pick by ESPN’s Todd McShay.
Simply put, Jones’ stock wasn’t going to get any higher. And with a master’s degree already in hand, Jones has plenty of education to fall back on once his NFL career fades away.
Waddle’s departure was different than Jones, in that he was tabbed as a can’t-miss pick before the season even started. A broken ankle against Tennessee limited Waddle to 5 full games, and he finished his Alabama career with 106 catches for 1,999 yards and 17 receiving touchdowns. McShay projects Waddle to be chosen 17th in its latest mock draft. He and Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith could become the 2nd Alabama WR pair to be taken in the 1st round — as Henry Ruggs III (Raiders with the 12th pick) and Jerry Jeudy (Broncos with the No. 15 pick) did it just last year.
Surtain is perhaps the nation’s best lock-down defensive back and was a unanimous All-America selection this season. McShay projects Surtain to be taken No. 10 overall. Barmore was a 3rd-team All-America pick this year by the Associated Press, recorded 6 sacks over his final 6 games and was named the CFP National Championship Game defensive MVP. McShay projects Barmore to be drafted 27th overall in April.
“Each one of these guys is on track to graduate. Each one of them has made a promise to me that they will finish their degree programs — Mac already has a master’s degree,” Saban said. “But we’re very proud of the fact that these guys have been great people in the organization, they’ve been great students, they’re all career-oriented and they’ve made a great contribution to the development of their careers as football players.
“We’re very proud of each one of these guys and they’re always going to be a part of the University of Alabama and the program here. We’re going to be here to help them with all future endeavors in everything they try to do. We wish them very much success and luck in the future.”
That value-added component of The Process also means 4 Tide players are likely to return to Tuscaloosa for 2021. Junior defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis announced Thursday he would also remain in school. And both junior defensive back Josh Jobe and redshirt junior outside linebacker Christopher Allen are expected to stay put. Senior running back Brian Robinson is expected to take advantage of the NCAA’s unique blanket eligibility waiver and return to the Tide in 2021.
Departures aren’t limited to players, of course. Assistant coaches aren’t spelled out in The Process quite the same, but Saban and Alabama have a small exodus almost every year — as coaches also gain value in the program. Steve Sarkisian is the biggest example, landing the head coaching job at Texas. Sarkisian is expected to take with him tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Jeff Banks and offensive line coach Kyle Flood, with Flood to become the Longhorns’ offensive coordinator.
Saban has been widely reported to be bringing in former Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien to replace Sarkisian as offensive coordinator. Much-maligned Tide defensive coordinator Pete Golding has been rumored to be the third assistant to join Sarkisian in Austin, but no decision has been made.