TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was Feb. 6, 2008, and head coach Nick Saban was optimistic yet really had no idea how good of a recruiting haul he had just landed.
It was his first full signing class at the University of Alabama, having only a month to secure the previous collection after taking the job in January 2007. The coach called it a “quality group,” knowing that it would be the one to set the tone and hopefully build the program around.
Now it’s the class that the others are all compared to, including this year’s collection of prize prospects. Although it’ll take years before anyone knows for sure how well it measures up, the early indications are favorable.
It’s headlined by running back Najee Harris, the top prospect in the nation according to Scout.com, top linebacker Dylan Moses and offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood. They’re all thought to have game-changing ability and could make an instant impact.
There’s also defensive end Isaiah Buggs, a junior college transfer who made a lot of offensive linemen look bad the last two years while at Mississippi Gulf Coast, and linebacker Vandarius Cowan is already sporting a big Alabama tattoo. The Crimson Tide then capped the class by landing 5-star wide receiver Devonta Smith.
Of the 28-plus players added, 12 of whom are already on campus as early enrollees and junior college transfers, 11 are rated in Scout.com’s top 100, with the six elite 5-star talents and 17 4-star players. That’s better than 80 percent of the class—almost an exact reflection of the roster as a whole—even though Alabama added two special teams players, a kicker and long snapper.
It means another No. 1 recruiting class for the Crimson Tide, something Crimson Tide fans have gotten used to over the past decade. Alabama’s considered the best bet for those who want to win a championship and play in the National Football League.
It used to be that recruiting services considered a 5-star player to be someone who could contribute immediately on any team, but since there are so many true freshmen playing on even the biggest programs nowadays, that concept has sort of become outdated.
In part due to consistency, however, recruiting services generally try to limit the number of its 5-star players to be close to the number of first-round selections in the NFL draft. This year Scout.com has 36. Alabama additions Tua Tagovailoa (No. 38) and Jerry Jeudy (No. 52) just missed, but the quarterback and wide receiver were labeled as 5-star prospects by others along with wide receiver Henry Ruggs III, defensive end LaBryan Ray and offensive linemen Jedrick Wills and Elliot Baker.
Consequently, on paper at least, Alabama’s 2017 class is easily in the top three under Saban and maybe the best yet. It has that kind of promise and even broke the ESPN record for most top-300 players in its rankings.
“I think we’ve had very good players in every recruiting class that we’ve had,” Saban said.
That’s true. But not all recruiting classes are equal—even at Alabama, where each class since 2009 has at least played for a national championship.
If you go by the rankings alone, Alabama’s best recruiting class was probably 2014, when it landed seven players who had earned 5-star status from Scout.com: linebacker Rashaan Evans, cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Tony Brown, defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand, offensive linemen Cam Robinson and Dominick Jackson and running back Bo Scarbrough.
But, collectively, that class is still unproven. Many of the players are expected to be team leaders next season, although Humphrey and Robinson are already heading to the NFL and Jackson went undrafted last year and wasn’t able to latch on to a pro team.
The year before, Alabama landed six 5-star players: defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen, linebacker Reuben Foster, wide receiver Robert Foster, running back Derrick Henry and tight end O.J. Howard.
That group played a big part in winning the 2015 national championship and has won an impressive number of individual honors. In addition to Henry landing the Heisman, Walter Camp and Maxwell honors as player of the year, this past season Allen was Alabama’s first winner of the Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski Awards for defensive player of the year and Reuben Foster scored the Butkus Award as best linebacker.
But so far even that pales in comparison to the 2008 class, which included the likes of wide receiver Julio Jones, running back Mark Ingram Jr., defensive linemen Marcell Dareus and Terrence Cody, offensive lineman Barrett Jones, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Mark Barron.
Five of those players were named consensus All-Americans, two twice (Dareus and Julio Jones were not). Five were also first-round draft picks, with linebacker Courtney Upshaw just missing.
Although Saban isn’t about to compare classes, or players in general, that first one will always be special to him.
“They actually all proved that they were a great recruiting class,” Saban said in 2014. “They had great team success here, won a national championship and came here when this was not the sexy place to be. We were 7-6.
“So I guess that class is the one that’s closest to my heart, all right, 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 amazing thing about that class is that a number of players in it didn’t work out. Additionally, only three players were considered 5-star talents: Julio Jones, Barron and offensive tackle Tyler Love, while cornerback B.J. Scott received that distinction from other recruiting services.
Love never started a game, and Scott, who was the first big-name signing in the class and had been instrumental in recruiting other players including Julio jones, ended up transferring to South Alabama to have a chance to start.
Ingram, who won the 2009 Heisman Trophy, Alabama’s first, was rated a 3-star talent.
It just goes to show that you never know how players will develop. But when it comes to potential, this year’s class has as much as any that Saban’s signed, maybe more.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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