Alabama football: Top 25 Crimson Tide players in the Nick Saban Era

Without question, this is the most difficult assignment we have ever gotten at Saturday Down South:

“Hey, DW, how about you rank the Top 25 Crimson Tide players in the Nick Saban Era?”

Geez, boss, how about you rank your children. Or rank the greatest chicken wings/beer combinations you’ve ever come across. In comparison, ranking Saban’s Top 10 *teams* was a cakewalk. Heck, we could have easily have done a Top 50 players and left someone absurdly logical off the list.

But in times like this, and like That School Down The Road did in eventually landing on Extremely Great New Coaching Hire Bryan Harsin, we turned to our crack committee to help with this list. Our boy Marky knows the Tide and has a decent head on his shoulders, which isn’t as easy as you’d think with Alabama fans. And he remains practically a scratch golfer even though he begs for strokes, so we know his logic is still intact.

So we bounced our rough-draft list off his rough-draft list, argued a bunch via text and settled on the Top 25.

Before we get there, though, let’s identify some honorable mentions. These dudes would make any other school in the SEC’s Top 10. But hey, they’re the ones who chose to go to Alabama and get their name writ in crimson flame.

Honorable mention:

Greg McElroy (QB), Trent Richardson (RB), Jerry Jeudy (WR), Henry Ruggs III (WR), D.J. Hall (WR), Leigh Tiffin (K), Cam Robinson (OL), Chance Warmack (OL), Landon Dickerson (OL), Anthony Steen (OL), Andre Smith (OL) Jonah Williams (OL), Jesse Williams (DE), C.J. Mosley (LB), Dee Milliner (DB), Javier Arenas (DB), Marlon Humphrey (DB), Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix (SS), Rashaan Evans (LB), Da’Shawn Hand (DL), Landon Collins (SS), Tim Williams (LB), Reggie Ragland (LB)

And now, let the arguments begin — here are the Top 25 Crimson Tide players in the Nick Saban Era:

25: Mark Barron, free safety

Why: Barron started his final 39 games at Alabama en route to All-American honors in 2010 and 2011. He finished with 88 solo tackles, 237 total tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 5 sacks and 12 interceptions.

24: Reuben Foster, linebacker

Why: The 2016 Butkus Award winner, Foster took over as starting inside linebacker from Trey DePriest as a sophomore in 2014 and finished 2nd on the team with 73 total tackles, 8 for a loss on the season. Foster played 2 more seasons in Tuscaloosa, and as a senior in 2016 he finished with 115 tackles, 13 for losses, and 5 sacks.

23: AJ McCarron, quarterback

Why: McCarron was an All-American in 2013 and also because he won a national title as a starting QB in 2012. He also made Brent Musburger drool all over himself on national television, which is a plus.

22: Kenyan Drake, running back

Why: “Look out, Kenyan Drake can FLY!” Chris Fowler was right, as Drake’s electrifying speed in the 2015 CFP title game triggered a 95-yard touchdown return. How great was Drake? He was a backup.

21: J.K. Scott, punter

Why: Scott was a 1-man field-position machine, plain and simple. In a game where 22 players fight for every inch of the field for 60 minutes, Scott’s punting single-footedly pushed opposing teams deep into their own end time and time and time again.

20: O.J. Howard, tight end

Why: With the most receptions by an Alabama TE in back-to-back seasons, Howard was a force in Crimson. As a junior in 2015, Howard had 38 catches for 602 yards and 2 touchdowns. As a senior in 2016, he had 45 receptions for 595 yards and 3 TDs.

19: Courtney Upshaw, linebacker

Why: In his 2010 junior season, Upshaw started 11 games and accounted for 52 total tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 7 sacks and 4 forced fumbles. In his senior season, Upshaw started all 13 games and piled up 51 total tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles.

18: Quinnen Williams, nose tackle

Why: With 56 solo tackles, 91 total tackles and 10 sacks in just 2 seasons in the middle of the Tide defense, Williams was a force during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Williams won the Outland Trophy in 2018 as the nation’s best interior lineman, as his 20 tackles for loss that season were for 2nd in the SEC, and his 8 sacks were tied for 6th in the conference.

17: Jalen Hurts, quarterback

Why: Probably the most polarizing player on the list. Could’ve been in the top 10, but certainly belongs. Along with Tua Tagovailoa, Hurts changed the way offense is played at Alabama before opting for his final season at Oklahoma.

16: Calvin Ridley, wide receiver

Why: While it is insane that Ridley is a backup to anyone, especially as his 2,781 career receiving yards rank him just a smidge above future NFL teammate Julio Jones, Ridley benefitted from coming after Jones.

15: Marcell Dareus, defensive lineman

Why: The defensive MVP of the 2010 BCS national championship game, Dareus returned an interception 28 yards for a back-breaking touchdown against Texas to cement the Tide’s 13th national title.

14: Najee Harris, running back

Why: Recency bias is a factor here, as it is tricky to judge Harris and his career-defining 2020 season objectively against other superstar Crimson Tide RBs. Still, he holds the school record for career rushing yards, career rushing touchdowns and career touchdowns.

13: Dre Kirkpatrick, defensive back

Why: Kirkpatrick had swag for days and showed it for Alabama on every play. He finished his career with 65 solo tackles and 91 total stops. His 3-interception sophomore season in 2010 helped the Tide salvage a 10-3 season, and Kirkpatrick’s lock-down style helped push Alabama to the 2011 national title.

12: Rolando McClain, linebacker

Why: The 2009 Lambert and Butkus Award winner, McClain was a fearsome presence in the Crimson Tide defense from 2007-09. He was a unanimous 1st-team All-American, and remains a sentimental favorite of Saban.

11: Jonathan Allen, defensive end

Why: Returning to Alabama for his senior season in 2016 trying to win back-to-back national titles, Allen finished his career ranked 2nd in Alabama history for career sacks with 28.5 (-205 yards) behind only College and Pro Football Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas.

10: Mac Jones, quarterback

Why: Recency bias is what it is, and Mac Jones is quite possibly about to become the 1st Alabama quarterback to ever win the Heisman Trophy. Jones threw for 3,739 yards and 32 touchdowns with just 4 interceptions in 2020 — and completed an insane 76.5% of his passes.

9: Amari Cooper, wide receiver

Why: Held school records for receptions (228), single-season yards (1,727, on an insane SEC-record 124 receptions in 2014, both are still records), career yards (3,463) and receiving touchdowns (31) until DeVonta Smith came along in 2020.

8: Dont’a Hightower, linebacker

Why: In the top 5 greatest Alabama linebackers not named Derrick Thomas, Hightower started 43 of the 45 games he was healthy for during his time in Tuscaloosa. As a junior in 2010, Hightower made 30 solo tackles and 70 total tackles, and as a senior in 2011 he made 40 solo tackles, 85 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 4 sacks.

7: Minkah Fitzpatrick, defensive back

Why: Regarded as one of the top defensive backs in Alabama history, Fitzpatrick finished as the Bednarik and Thorpe award winner — the 2nd recipient of each award in Crimson Tide history, and he became just the 3rd player in NCAA history to win both awards in the same season, joining eventual NFL Hall of Famer Charles Woodson and current Arizona Cardinals All-Pro Patrick Peterson.

6: DeVonta Smith, wide receiver

Why: Separated himself from Cooper with a stellar 2020 season that vaulted him into Heisman Trophy contention. Caught 98 passes in 11 games as a senior for 1,511 yards and 17 touchdowns — and still could have 2 more games to break the SEC single-season records. Career stats are gaudy — 216 catches for 3,620 yards and 40 TDs.

5: Mark Ingram, running back

Why: All Ingram did was win Alabama’s 1st Heisman Trophy in 2009 as a sophomore, setting the Crimson Tide’s single-season rushing record with 1,658 yards (since broken) with 17 touchdowns. Was the dominant offensive force of the 2009 national championship team — Saban’s only team to finish undefeated.

4: Barrett Jones, offensive lineman

Why: The only Alabama player in a decade to be named an All-American at 2 different positions (offensive tackle in 2011 and again as a center in 2012), Jones won the 2011 Outland Trophy and the 2012 Rimington Trophy (outstanding center) — becoming only the 2nd person in history to win both an Outland and a Rimington.

3: Derrick Henry, running back

Why: Henry won the school’s second Heisman Trophy as part of a national championship season in 2015 — a season that saw Henry rush for an SEC-record 2,219 yards on 395 attempts. Henry also rushed for a school-record 28 TDs. Held Alabama career rushing record with 3,591 yards on only 602 carries (Shaun Alexander went for 3,565 yards on 727 carries) until Harris broke it.

2: Julio Jones, wide receiver

Why: You could argue Jones just as easily at No. 1. Jones’ signing from Foley High School cemented Saban as a recruiting dynamo as part of a No. 1 recruiting class in 2008. As a junior in 2010, Jones caught 78 passes for 1,133 yards and 7 touchdowns. Finished his college career with 2,653 receiving yards — and would have caught a million passes for a zillion yards and 500,000 touchdowns in the current offense.

1: Tua Tagovailoa, quarterback

Why: Alabama’s sweet Hawaiian prince rewrote the Alabama record book during his time in Tuscaloosa. Even with his junior season cut short due to injury in 2019, Tagovailoa threw for 2,840 yards and 33 touchdowns. In 2018, Tagovailoa passed for 3,966 yards and a program-record 43 touchdowns to finish as a Heisman Trophy runner-up. Ended up 3rd in career passing yards with 7,442 and 1st with 87 career TD passes despite playing less than 2 seasons as a starter.

David Wasson
An APSE national award-winning writer and page designer, David Wasson has almost four decades of experience in the print journalism business in Florida and Alabama. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and several national magazines and websites. His Twitter handle: @TheSharpDW

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