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By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
March 23, 2013
Over the last three years, TideFans.com and NARCAS have taken a look back at old recruiting rankings, partially as a self-check, but also to see how players had progressed since arriving on campus.
The mark of a “great” class, five years after the fact, is generally considered appropriate when between 55 to 60 percent of the class becomes a front-line contributor at some point over the course of their career (“front-line contributor” defined as being a starter, or a second-teamer with a key role).
Last year’s re-evaluation took a look at the 2007 class, Nick Saban’s first class at Alabama. While most players in that class were recruited by Saban, there were a handful of players who had already committed to the Mike Shula staff, which was released at the end of the year. For the 2007 class, 13 of the 24 players signed (54.2%) made significant contributions.
The 2008 class had 17 of 32 players (53.1%) make such an impact. Given that the 2008 class is widely considered to be the class that set Alabama on its way to a dynasty, it’s a bit odd to see the numbers play out that way. More interestingly is how one position in particular – and it will become obvious the deeper into the article people read – ended up not being nearly as impressive, as a group, in reality as it first appeared on paper. The 2008 class also got as many contributions from the mid- and lower-ranked prospects as it did those at the top of the list.
Here’s a breakdown of the individual players represented in the 2008 class. Players are listed in the order in which they were ranked by TideFans/NARCAS on National Signing Day in 2008.
1. Julio Jones, WR (NARCAS ranking: 10.0)
There wasn’t much science behind this pick as to who was the best player in the 2008 class; anyone who’d watched Jones thoroughly dominate every other high school player in Alabama knew he was going to be great. And Jones made good on his promise at Alabama, starting for three years before being drafted by the Atlanta Falcons, who paid a steep price to move up the selection order to pick him. While current Tide star Amari Cooper has a chance to break Jones’ records (thanks in large part to a more dynamic passing game with A.J. McCarron at the helm), Jones more than any other recruit defined the early portion of Nick Saban’s Alabama career, and helped put Alabama on the map as a destination for wide receiver recruits. Without Jones, there might not have been an interested Amari Cooper four years later.
2. B.J. Scott, WR (10.0)
And here we have the other end of the spectrum. Scott arrived with almost as much fanfare as did Jones, for different reasons. Whereas Jones was a pure wideout, Scott was a freestyler with the ball in his hands at Vigor High School, making less athletic players look silly. But college is a different environment, and Scott found it much tougher when he was no longer clearly the best athlete on the field. More importantly, he struggled catching the ball and running consistent routes, and eventually moved to cornerback. But he further struggled to pick up Alabama’s complex defensive schemes, and ultimately transferred to South Alabama, where he stayed on defense. Scott actually blossomed late in his USA career and might yet find his way to the NFL. He should also be commended for keeping a good attitude during his time at Alabama even though things didn’t go his way.
3. Mark Barron, S (10.0)
Barron was essentially the Julio Jones of defense as a high school senior in Alabama. After struggling through a difficult true freshman year at Alabama, Barron turned on the jets as a sophomore and spent three years patrolling the Tide secondary. He consistently made wow-did-you-see-that plays on the ball as the centerfielder in the Bama defense, then continued his strong play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012. Like Jones, Barron’s name has become synonymous with his position – as in, “Alabama is searching for the next Mark Barron.”
4. Jerrell Harris, LB (10.0)
Harris’ first three years at Alabama were full of disappointment, not just from getting accustomed to the college game, but in a handful of off-field issues and suspensions. Then, 2012 happened. Harris took over at strongside linebacker for the departed Chavis Williams and became an important cog in the defensive scheme. Appropriately enough, he saved the best for last, becoming Jordan Jefferson’s personal nightmare in the BCS Championship Game against LSU. Perhaps the best pure athlete in the class, Harris is still making the rounds of NFL practice squads, most recently with Oakland.
5. Melvin Ray, WR (10.0)
While Florida and Florida State were major players in the Melvin Ray recruiting war, Alabama’s principal competition for Ray’s signature was professional baseball, and Alabama ultimately lost the battle. Ray spent three unsuccessful seasons in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, where he was stricken with the same fate that plagues many a top baseball prospect – the Curse of the Wooden Bat. He came back to football in 2012 and considered re-signing with Alabama and Florida State, but could get a scholarship offer from neither. He wound up at Auburn, where he played in all 12 games for the Tigers, mostly on special teams.
6. Star Jackson, QB (10.0)
Jackson, while not a true dual-threat quarterback, was mobile, athletic and impressive in high school and was looked to be the quarterback of the future – perhaps even the present – when Alabama signed him. Heading into the 2008 season, Alabama had returning starter John Parker Wilson, but he had been just OK up to that point, and then there was this undersized, soft-armed kid named Greg McElroy milling about as well. Jackson redshirted in 2008 and was a solid third on the depth chart, but many fans were convinced it was just a matter of time until he unseated McElroy. Not only did it not happen, Nick Saban has since said that Jackson – technically McElroy’s backup for the 2009 championship season – would not have replaced McElroy against Texas in the BCS Championship Game had McElroy been hurt. A.J. McCarron, just a true freshman and redshirting at the time, had passed Jackson in practice. Jackson saw the writing on the wall and took off for emerging Georgia State, but he couldn’t start there, either. He’s listed among rated prospects for the 2013 NFL Draft, but no one seriously expects him to get a call. Simply put, he struggled with decision-making at both the SEC level with Alabama, and at a much lower level with Georgia State.
7. Tyler Love, OL (10.0)
Love was considered to be one of the best left tackle prospects in the country as a high school senior, and was rated accordingly. But trouble began to surface in postseason all-star work, where Love struggled with footwork against premier edge pass rushers. The problem continued in Tuscaloosa, where Love was more than just a bit reminiscent of former UA tackle Chris Capps. Love still had a higher ceiling than Capps, but then injuries struck. Love moved to center as a junior, where he was in the mix for playing time as a backup, before getting hurt again. He gave up football before his eligibility was exhausted.
8. Barrett Jones, OL (10.0)
Of Alabama’s three key offensive line signees in 2008, Jones was thought to have the most work to do physically, probably due to his boyish looks more than anything else. As it turns out, Jones was hiding an ox under his clothes, and after redshirting in 2008, spent the next four years dominating the competition at three different positions. He started at right guard, left tackle and center in his days at Alabama, and was in the mix for playing time at right tackle as a true freshman. Coupled with his academic achievements, his missionary work and his leadership, Jones is in the discussion for best-all-time at a school that also produced names like John Hannah, Chris Samuels and Dwight Stephenson. He’s certain to be drafted in April.
9. Kerry Murphy, OL/DL (10.0)
Murphy was part of multiple recruiting classes thanks to academics; he finally made it to campus in 2008. While at Hargrave Military Academy in 2007, Murphy surprisingly ended up playing offensive tackle, rather than defensive line, where he was considered among the top seniors in the nation coming out of high school. Unfortunately, Hargrave might have been onto something, and not because Murphy couldn’t play defense: He had a terrible, chronic knee injury that ultimately short-circuited his Alabama career. When his ability to even walk in middle age became questionable, Murphy wisely decided to give up his starting job and quit football altogether.
10. Michael Williams, TE/DE (10.0)
Williams was the first commitment in the class, originally coming to Alabama as a defensive prospect. Soon after arriving, though, the coaches noticed his blocking skills, and given his lack of burst at defensive end, moved him to tight end. Things started slowly for Williams, who redshirted in 2008 and was not a major part of the offense in 2009, being well behind Colin Peek at the time. In 2010, he was overshadowed in the gameplan by both Preston Dial and Brad Smelley, but he was a good seal blocker on the line. Williams finally started to draw some attention in 2011 and 2012, and will be a mid-round draft pick in April. He ended his career as one of the best blocking tight ends in school history.
11. Marcel Dareus, DL (9.9)
Dareus didn’t get much attention as a high school senior, perhaps the product of an academic situation presumed to be challenging, but more likely that most national analysts just whiffed. NARCAS’s 9.9 rating was probably the highest Dareus got anywhere, and he more than lived up to it while at Alabama. Dareus spent just three years in Tuscaloosa, but he packed a lot of activity into a short amount of time. His iconic interception of a shovel pass against Texas in the BCS Championship Game cemented his legacy, and he was drafted at the top of the first round by the Buffalo Bills following the 2010 season.
12. Alonzo Lawrence, CB (9.9)
Given his potential, Lawrence might have been the biggest disappointment in this class. Many expected him to contend for a starting job right away – and “many” in this case might just include Nick Saban, who was rumored to have been particularly excited about Lawrence’s potential. It didn’t work out that way, to say the least. Lawrence lasted just a year in Tuscaloosa, where he struggled to pick up the defense, then compounded the problem by getting suspended late in the season and then ultimately cut from the team altogether after apparently violating more team rules. He transferred to Southern Miss and sat out the 2009 season, then left that program as well and ended up in junior college. Things got better for Lawrence at that point, as he managed to make it onto the Detroit Lions’ practice squad for three months in 2012 before getting cut.
13. John Michael Boswell, OL (9.9)
Boswell was the football equivalent of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” as the older he got, the less he contributed. He played quite a bit as a true freshman in 2008, eventually starting in the Sugar Bowl against Utah. Although a right tackle for much of that year, Boswell’s body type suggested he’d eventually move to guard, and be a force there. But Boswell kept finding himself just behind a slightly better player no matter which position he played – and at the same time, never redshirted, so his career was over in four years. His final three seasons were as a little-used backup, playing less and less of a key role as the seasons ticked along.
14. Courtney Upshaw, DE (9.8)
Upshaw committed to Alabama out of the heart of Auburn country, stuck with the commitment and became a force for three years after playing a backup’s role as a true freshman. He never had the greatest measurables – he fell to the Baltimore Ravens in the second round because the NFL couldn’t figure out whether he was an end or an outside linebacker – but he was always effective at Alabama. In his first couple of seasons, he was used primary as an edge rusher on passing downs, but in his last two seasons became a complete player in the Alabama defense.
15. Chris Jackson, WR (9.8)
Alabama got Jackson late in the game, flipping him from a Georgia Tech commitment after the Yellow Jackets fired pro-style-friendly Chan Gailey and hired option devotee Paul Johnson as head coach. As it turns out, Jackson would have been wise to stick with the Yellow Jackets from the outset. At Alabama, Jackson played wideout in 2008, but his greatest contributions came on kick coverage. Heading into the 2009 season, Jackson was tried some on defense, but he decided to leave Alabama and head back to Tech. He was never a difference-maker for the Yellow Jackets, recording just two catches in his collegiate career, but he became a blocking specialist at receiver (yes, those things exist in an option attack) and held a spot of importance on the Tech depth chart.
16. DeVonta Bolton, WR/LB (9.8)
By now, it’s apparent that Alabama’s wideout class in 2008 was largely a bust outside of Julio Jones. Bolton never made it to Alabama, failing to qualify as a high school senior, then apparently having more issues in junior college. He dropped off the radar entirely after that and his whereabouts are unknown.
17. Dont’a Hightower, LB (9.8)
Hightower might go down in Tennessee football history as the recruit that signaled the end for Phil Fulmer with the Vols. Hightower was a solid prospect from Lewisburg, not known as a football hotbed by any means, but still allegedly a strong enough prospect to draw interest from the home-state Volunteers, who don’t have many home-grown prospects fall in their laps as it is. But Tennessee didn’t make Hightower a priority, and by the time UT figured out just how good he was, Hightower was an Alabama commitment. In four years at Alabama, Hightower became one of the best inside linebackers the school ever had, and many a Tennessee fan pointed to his recruitment as evidence that Fulmer had lost his touch. While other issues ultimately brought Fulmer down, Hightower was evidence of the larger problem. He is currently making ballcarriers nervous as a member of the New England Patriots.
18. Chris Jordan, LB/RB (9.8)
Another Tennessee-grown product, Jordan almost ended up on the offensive side of the ball before moving to defense for depth reasons. There, he seemed to be on track to challenge for a starting job eventually. It took Jordan a bit longer to catch onto the defensive schemes, but his real challenge was injury-related. Then, as 2011 arrived, Jordan mysteriously went from being a key cog in the defense to having a much smaller role, at least partially because of the emergence of true freshman Trey DePriest.
19. Damion Square, DT (9.7)
Every class needs some bad dudes, and Square was a bad dude. Tough and physical, he redshirted in 2008 and became a key part of the defense almost immediately thereafter. While Square never quite took the next step in physical development – he left Alabama pretty much at the same weight as when arrived – he did get stronger and even though he was undersized by 3-4 standards, was highly effective in the trenches. He also became a leader, both verbally and by example, and will be missed going forward. He’s expected to be drafted in the middle rounds in April.
20. Ivan Matchett, RB (9.7)
Matchett’s collegiate career was a short one. After redshirting as a true freshman, Matchett was placed on medical scholarship with an undisclosed injury, although he had reportedly suffered both back and knee injuries during his first year. Matchett was not a particularly explosive high school back and would likely have taken some time to crack the depth chart, be he was expected to be an early contributor on special teams at least.
21. Mark Ingram, RB (9.7)
Looking back on the way these rankings fell, it’s funny to see Ingram a slot behind Matchett. While Matchett’s career went nowhere, Ingram immediately grabbed the backup job to Glen Coffee in 2008, then won a Heisman Trophy in 2009 and followed that up with a solid 2010 season, eventually getting selected by the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the 2011 draft. Ingram was also responsible for helping raise the profile of the Alabama program nationally during that period, thanks – both positively and negatively – to the publicity surrounding his relationship with his father, incarcerated at the time. Ingram is a fixture on the Alabama sideline even today, coming back to cheer on his school at games, which continues to have a ripple effect on the program. Not bad for a kid from Michigan with no prior connection to Alabama athletics. The fact he won the first Heisman Trophy in school history will likely not be forgotten anytime soon.
22. Robby Green, CB (9.7)
Green was on his way to starting in the Alabama secondary in 2010 when he was declared ineligible for the entire season by the NCAA. It wasn’t Green’s first brush with drama since arriving at Alabama, but it would basically be his last. After getting suspended for spring practice in 2011, Green decided to cut his losses, and transferred to California-PA. He’s listed about mid-pack in draft-eligible safeties, but few expect him to be taken. When Green arrived at Alabama, he picked up the defense quickly, and despite his thin build, played with physicality and speed. He started a handful of games in 2009 and would likely have gotten the nod at safety over Will Lowery and Robert Lester, had he been eligible that year.
23. Glenn Harbin, DE (9.6)
Harbin was taken late in the process, spurning offers from Florida and Auburn along the way. Despite having an impressive physique, Harbin never saw the field at Alabama, either during games or in the spring at A-Day. He eventually gave up football and tried playing for the school’s baseball program instead.
24. Jermaine Preyear, RB (9.6)
Preyear committed early in the process, but underwent shoulder surgery and delayed his enrollment at Alabama. Bigger than his listed height/weight at the time of his signing, Preyear was considered a prospect at either running back or fullback. But he left the program prior to the 2009 season, transferred to Alabama State, played there briefly and then left the Hornet program as well.
25. Destin Hood, WR (9.6)
Like in the case of Melvin Ray, Alabama was in a competition with Major League Baseball for Hood. Like in the case of Melvin Ray, Alabama lost. Unlike Ray, however, Hood made the right choice. He’s expected to play at the AAA level for the Washington Nationals in 2013, and the Nationals are expecting him to make a run at a starting job with the big-league club in the next couple of years.
26. Undra Billingsley, DT (9.6)
Billingsley’s career was a strange one, as he never totally found a position at which he could excel. The primary reason that he played his second, third and fourth seasons wearing No. 86 had to do with the fact that he was briefly a tight end. He began his Alabama career at defensive end, then ended it and nosetackle. While a decent depth player against the run, Billingsley was neither big enough to play nose, nor quick enough for end in the Tide’s 3-4 scheme. He did manage to start a couple of games for Alabama before he was through. He decided to end his career after four seasons and not come back for 2012.
27. Brandon Lewis, DE (9.5)
Lewis was expected to immediately compete for playing time at strongside end, where Alabama had an immediate need in 2008. But Lewis surprisingly failed to qualify, and began his career in junior college instead. Unfortunately, he also failed to develop much beyond that, plateauing early in his career. He returned to Alabama as a JUCO signee, having redshirted his first year in order to give Alabama three years of his time. But he struggled to make an impact on defense, and eventually moved to tight end before giving up football altogether.
28. Terrence Cody, DT (9.5)
Not many people knew what to do with Terrence Cody, a 400-pound oddity in junior college. But Nick Saban knew what to do with him, prescribing a weight-loss plan that got Cody down into the 360-pound range and turned him from an immovable object into an unstoppable force. On Cody’s first play of his Alabama career in 2008, he sent Clemson’s center backwards five feet, and it was “game on” from that point forward. It took teams the better part of his first year to either believe he was for real, or come up with a plan for keeping him off their quarterbacks. By the time Cody blocked a pair of field goals against Tennessee in 2009 and thereby saved Alabama’s championship season, he was already a legend. The soft-spoken Cody left for the Baltimore Ravens having become one of the most memorable Alabama football players ever, and also one of its most-loved.
29. Robert Lester, S (9.4)
Known his first two years as “that guy who played in high school with Julio Jones,” Lester came into his own quickly and will likely be drafted in the middle rounds in April. He redshirted in 2008, then played sparingly in 2009 before Robby Green’s suspension effectively handed him the starting free safety position in 2010. Working as a tandem with Mark Barron, Lester had his best season in 2011, then played solidly as the elder statesman of the secondary in 2012. Unlike Barron, Lester wasn’t a premier athlete, but he was intelligent, knew the defense and was usually in position to make a play.
30. Brad Smelley, FB (9.1)
Smelley was among the first commitments of the 2008 class, and caused quite a bit of consternation among recruitophiles due to him being a fairly low-ranked prospect from a small school. Then, people saw his tapes. Smelley was a quarterback in high school, and may very well have been able to play there for Alabama had he stuck it out. But his quicker path to playing time was at H-back, and he wisely took the opportunity. By the end of his senior year in 2011, Smelley was one of the most effective weapons on the Alabama offense. Linebackers didn’t have the speed to cover him, and most defensive backs weren’t as physical as he was. He heads into 2013 on the Cleveland Browns roster, with a good chance to remain on the team and play with his former Alabama teammate, Trent Richardson.
31. Wesley Neighbors, S (8.9)
Neighbors’ Alabama career reads a bit like John Michael Boswell’s, although in Neighbors’ case, there were also injuries in the mix. Neighbors got to second-team level, if only briefly, before more athletic players passed him and he got hurt. He gave up football before his eligibility was exhausted.
32. Corey Smith, PK (*.*)
Smith eventually made an impact – at the University of West Virginia. He actually played as a true freshman, attempting a field goal and a point-after against Tulane after Leigh Tiffin was injured. He missed both kicks. Smith transferred the following spring to West Virginia, where he kicked off and punted before eventually losing his job as a punter to Tyler Bitancurt.
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