Decade of Dominance: Nick Saban's All-Freshman Team at Alabama
Alabama coach Nick Saban has hoarded blue-chip talent on National Signing Day every February since arriving in Tuscaloosa.
As a result, you might assume that freshmen find it difficult getting on the field outside of garbage-time snaps in the fourth quarter of blowouts. There are seemingly nothing but four- and five-star studs on the depth chart.
However, during his decade of dominance with the Crimson Tide, Saban has featured his fair share of first-year phenoms. From offense to defense to special teams, some players are simply too good — like this season’s quarterback, Jalen Hurts — and must contribute immediately. Others have taken advantage of injuries and ineffectiveness.
Regardless, it takes a special prospect to go from high school to the peak of the college football mountain for the most demanding field general in America. Kids need to be physically ready. They need to be mentally ready, too.
There are a handful of first-round draft picks in the NFL who did little more than cover kicks for the Tide as freshmen.
Imagine being not just No. 1 in your school, but your conference, your city or even your state. Then you go to ‘Bama, where there are three sophomores, two juniors and a senior with equal-or-greater credentials … at your position alone.
For some, it can be quite humbling. For others, it can be awfully intimidating — if not downright crippling. At many programs, where the stakes aren’t as high, freshmen are given a chance to get their feet wet at the next level. But once Saban puts you on the field, the “well, he’s just a freshman” argument is null and void.
For a chosen few, this is where the best become the best of the best. Every play could have been smoother. Every drive steadier. Every game cleaner. Just because perfection is unattainable, that doesn’t mean they stop chasing it.
On the weekly SEC coaches teleconference Wednesday, Saban was asked about Hurts and the rest of 2016’s freshman class.
“Once we decide that they’re ready to play,” he said, “they’re really not freshmen anymore.”
Saban decided that the following guys were indeed ready to play. Here is my All-Freshman Team during his regime at Alabama.
Jalen Hurts (2016)
Each of the past three seasons, Saban started a fifth-year senior quarterback in Jake Coker, Blake Sims and AJ McCarron.
All of them were good players, not necessarily great. The same can be said of Saban’s previous two starting QBs, Greg McElroy and John Parker Wilson. Many have wondered how dominant ‘Bama could be with a legit difference maker under center.
Well, now we know. After splitting the job with redshirt freshman Blake Barnett, Hurts quickly proved to be the superior signal caller — Barnett saw the writing on the wall and left the program — and has been a revelation ever since. He’s a dual-threat monster capable of winning games with his arm or his legs.
This past Saturday, Hurts (above) became the first player in school history to record 300 yards passing and 100 rushing in the same game. He’s completing 64.2 percent of his throws, averaging 5.8 yards per rush and has totaled 27 touchdowns.
As a result, the Tide look scarier than ever offensively. Hurts deserves to go to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
T.J. Yeldon (2012)
Trent Richardson (2009)
As the backup to junior Eddie Lacy, Yeldon put up starting-caliber numbers with 175 carries for 1,108 yards and 12 TDs. While Lacy averaged 6.5 yards per attempt, Yeldon was right behind him at 6.3. Their styles varied greatly, but there was essentially zero drop-off from one to the other. Yeldon was a terrific back for three years.
Even if Mark Ingram won the Heisman as a sophomore in 2009 with 1,658 yards and 17 scores on 271 rushes, there was chatter around the program that the freshman Richardson was actually the better ball carrier. In a secondary role, he ran 144 times for 749 yards and 8 touchdowns. He finally started as a junior and was a Heisman finalist.
Calvin Ridley (2015)
Amari Cooper (2012)
Even if Ridley’s numbers are down across the board in 2016, that shouldn’t take away from what he did last year right out of high school. He caught 89 balls for 1,045 yards — both freshman records at ‘Bama — and 7 TDs as the primary target for a team that won a national title. Ridley made Coker look better than he really was.
Prior to Cooper stepping foot on campus, the figurehead for freshman receivers in Tuscaloosa was Julio Jones, who somehow didn’t make this list. Not only did Cooper match Jones with 58 receptions, but he topped him in yards (999 to 924) and nearly tripled him in scoring grabs (11 to 4). Cooper is all over the Tide record book.
O.J. Howard (2013)
Saban’s offenses have never been overly productive at the tight end spot, but Howard’s freakish athleticism was undeniable. While the 14 passes he caught in 13 games won’t get anyone’s attention, his average of 19.2 yards per catch will. It was at least 2.5 yards clear of every wide receiver on that 2013 team.
Jonah Williams (2016)
Cam Robinson (2014)
A five-star recruit and the No. 2 prospect in the country at his position, Williams has stepped in right away and solidified one of the bookends up front. He’s a sure bet to be named to several freshman All-American teams.
Williams plays the somewhat less-demanding right tackle. Robinson — another five-star signee — lined up at the all-important left tackle from Day 1 and has been there ever since. He’s not impenetrable as a junior, but as a freshman he was outstanding.
Ross Pierschbacher (2015)
Barrett Jones (2009)
The third and final member of the current O-line for Alabama to make this list, Pierschbacher was a freshman All-American selection a year ago after initially taking a redshirt in 2014. He continues to play well this season.
Unquestionably the most versatile blocker of the Saban era, Jones was also a freshman All-American after originally starting his career at guard. He went on to win the Outland Trophy at tackle and then the Rimington Award at center.
Ryan Kelly (2012)
Although he was backing up Jones at the time, Kelly did enough in a reserve role to earn freshman All-SEC honors. By the time he was finished in Tuscaloosa, he was the premier center in America and developed into a first-rounder.
Da’Shawn Hand (2014)
A’Shawn Robinson (2013)
D.J. Pettway (2012)
Hand only appeared in nine games as a freshman and recorded but 7 tackles, although two were sacks. Not necessarily a star on a defense full of them, he remains a steady rotation player as a junior.
Conversely, Robinson (below) was a star from the moment he adorned himself in crimson. Right out of the gate, he posted 38 tackles, 5.5 sacks and even blocked a kick. He registered 22 tackles for loss in three seasons and left early for the NFL.
Pettway contributed as a freshman with 2.5 sacks, but he got kicked off the team following an arrest and ended up in junior college for a year. After straightening himself out, he came back to ‘Bama in 2014 and is now in the pros.
C.J. Mosley (2010)
Nico Johnson (2009)
Dont’a Hightower (2008)
Rolando McClain (2007)
Not only was Mosley the third-leading tackler for the Tide, but he came up with 2 interceptions as a freshman and took both to the house. As a junior and senior, he led the team in tackles.
A freshman All-SEC choice, of Johnson’s 28 total tackles, 4.5 occurred behind the line of scrimmage. He was also credited with a sack, 2 passes broken up and a forced fumble for the 2009 national champions.
Hightower dented the stat sheet liberally as a freshman. 64 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 5 quarterback hurries, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery — he put everything on display that led to his eventual selection in Round 1.
Another future first-round pick, McClain was sensational right out of high school for Saban’s initial defense in the Yellowhammer State. He had 74 tackles, 5 TFLs, a sack and 2 INTs. McClain was a no-brainer for freshman All-American.
Marlon Humphrey (2015)
Dee Milliner (2010)
One of the most physical corners around, Humphrey is a punishing tackler at a position typically known more for finesse than power. But he’s also an accomplished cover guy, picking off 3 passes and breaking up 8 more as a freshman.
A two-time national champion in 2011-12, Milliner started at corner as a freshman in 2010 and ended up with 55 tackles, which is a lot for a cover man. He intercepted a pass, broke up 7 others and also forced a fumble.
Ronnie Harrison (2015)
Vinnie Sunseri (2011)
Alabama has produced a lot of first-round safeties under Saban, but none really balled out as freshmen. Harrison, on the other hand, filled the stat sheet with 17 tackles, 2 INTs and even blocked a punt for a safety.
A freshman All-SEC choice, Sunseri did most of his damage in Year 1 on the coverage units. He was second on the Crimson Tide with 11 special-teams tackles. The son of a coach, he’s still bouncing around the NFL.
Cade Foster (2010)
Splitting the kicking duties with sophomore Jeremy Shelley, Foster was 7-of-9 on field goals, including 5-of-6 from 40-49 yards, and a perfect 7-of-7 on extra points.
JK Scott (2014)
Scott led the nation as a freshman by averaging an even 48 yards on 55 punts. Now a junior, his average is even better (48.4).
Cyrus Jones (2012)
As a freshman, he averaged a fairly pedestrian 7.6 yards per punt return. But as a senior, he set a school record with 4 punt-return TDs.