By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
March 20, 2012
Over the last two 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.
Last year’s re-evaluation took a look at the 2006 class, Mike Shula’s last at Alabama. The figures were astounding: Only 10 of the 26 players signed (38.5%) became front-line contributors to the team. Many finished their playing careers elsewhere.
The 2007 team was Nick Saban’s first at Alabama, but Mike Shula’s fingerprints were still on the class. Several players committed first to Shula, but were retained by the incoming Saban regime.
In all, it proved to be a solid class, one that provided several cornerstones of both the 2011 and especially the 2009 national championship teams. A total of 13 of the 24 players signed (54.2%) became front-line contributors (defined as starters, or as second-teamers with key roles), numbers that are in line with the typical success rates (50%-60%) for recruiting classes.
1. Rolando McClain, LB (NARCAS rating: 10.0)
There’s no doubting everyone got this one right, from Shula (who originally took McClain’s commitment) to Saban to NARCAS to the NFL and everyone in between. McClain immediately became the focal point of Saban’s defense at Alabama, and by the time the 2009 season had come and gone, he was one of the most feared defenders in college football. McClain then went to the Oakland Raiders as a first-round draft pick a year early, opting out of his senior season at Alabama, and one of his most memorable rookie moments was body-slamming St. Louis Rams WR Danny Amendola to the turf in a manner only a WWE wrestler could love.
2. Luther Davis, DE (10.0)
Davis wasn’t on Alabama’s radar until Saban took the Alabama job, as most Louisiana recruits were off-limits to Alabama prior to Saban’s arrival. Davis quickly changed that. Expected to sign with LSU, Alabama picked him up late in the process and, after some initial concerns about qualifying, inserted Davis into the rotation at defensive end early into his career. Davis struggled a bit to adjust to college life, however, and it wasn’t until his senior season that he finally seemed to buy totally into the Saban system. In 2010, he emerged as a leader on the defensive line, but it wasn’t enough to draw much interest from NFL teams. He also seemed to struggle adding weight over his career, and wound up somewhat of a tweener in Alabama’s 3-4 scheme. He signed with the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent but is no longer on the roster.
3. Brandon Gibson, WR (10.0)
Gibson was the top receiver available in Alabama as a senior, and one of the last prospects to commit to Alabama that year. He had good size and speed and came from a good program, but never quite panned out in Tuscaloosa. Gibson’s hands weren’t as good as advertised, and it wasn’t until his redshirt junior season that he began to play with enough physicality to fit in Saban’s offense. As a senior, he finally broke into the starting rotation, but his career is as much remembered for two run-ins with LSU safety Eric Reid as anything else he did. Gibson’s route drift during Alabama’s regular-season contest with LSU drew Reid into the path of a pass intended for Michael Williams, and then Gibson dropped a sure touchdown in the BCS Championship Game following a hit from Reid. Gibson chose not to go through Alabama’s pro day and his playing career is likely over.
4. Chris Lett, CB (9.9)
Lett committed to the Mike Shula staff, but Nick Saban retained him after taking over as coach. Unfortunately, Lett’s career never took off, the result of juvenile diabetes that rendered him unable to practice more often than not. After several attempts with the Tide, Lett quit the team, but gave football a last-ditch try in 2009 and transferred to South Alabama. His health problems continued to haunt him there, however, bringing an untimely end to his career. With his size (6’1”, 200 pounds) and speed, Lett could have been a key part of a college secondary.
5. Marquis Maze, WR (9.9)
The Shula staff never gave Maze much of a look, scared away either by concerns over his grades, or worried that he might not be a fit for Shula’s offensive system. Either way, Saban quickly made Maze a priority and got him away from Michigan, which is where he was headed. It turned out to be one of the best recruiting decisions Saban made in those early days, as Maze redshirted in 2007 and then because a key contributor to the offense for four years. He also became a feared punt returner, although his Alabama career would memorably come to a close after being injured on a punt return in the BCS Championship Game. The images of Maze crying after realizing he would not be able to return are some of the most memorable from the game. He will likely be drafted in April.
6. Alfred McCullough, DT (9.9)
Another priority of the Shula staff, McCullough became the consummate Nick Saban player when he unselfishly agreed to move from defensive line to offensive line and essentially spend his career as a multi-position substitute. McCullough’s unselfishness was rewarded in 2011, when he took over at right guard for the injured Anthony Steen halfway through the season and ended the year as one of the team’s most consistent players. McCullough’s versatility (he spent a large portion of 2009 at tackle, replacing an injured D.J. Fluker) was his hallmark, followed closely by his toughness. McCullough performed well at Alabama’s pro day and will probably be invited to an NFL training camp.
7. Tarence Farmer, S (9.9)
The first real “bust” of the class, Farmer redshirted in his first season at Alabama, then transferred. Farmer and fellow classmate Nick Fanuzzi were recruited by Major Applewhite after Applewhite joined the Alabama staff from Rice. Farmer struggled to learn the defense and eventually enrolled at Wyoming to play wide receiver. He never made it to the field in Laramie, though, and his current whereabouts are unknown.
8. Jeramie Griffin, FB (9.9)
Griffin’s commitment to Alabama had Tide fans’ mouths watering at the prospect of a punishing fullback making holes for tailbacks and getting tough conversions on short-yardage downs. There was just one problem: Alabama ditched the fullback position from its offense the same year. Griffin made the move to running back, and had started to get some playing time against lesser opponents as well as a spot on Tide special teams. Then, he blew out his knee. His career ended prior to the 2010 season.
9. Kerry Murphy, DT (9.9)
Murphy would eventually land at Alabama, but not in 2007. At one time, he was considered the top prospect in Alabama as a defensive tackle. He failed to qualify in 2007, however, and ended up at Hargrave Military Academy, where he played offensive line. After two nondescript years there, Murphy re-signed with Alabama in 2009, moving back to defense and ultimately working his way into a starting role in 2010. But chronic knee issues plagued him throughout his post-Hoover career, finally reaching a level Murphy could no longer tolerate. He surrendered his starting job and gave up football prior to the 2011 season.
10. Demetrius Goode, RB (9.8)
If the 2007 recruiting class as a whole was injury-plagued, then Demetrius Goode was the poster boy for the group. Goode was committed to Kentucky when Saban convinced him to switch his commitment, and Tide fans were excited by his speed. Unfortunately, his speed didn’t last, as Goode suffered numerous injuries, including at least one major knee injury. He also battled ankle and shoulder ailments. Prior to the 2011 season, Goode found himself buried on the depth chart and made the decision to transfer to Division-II North Alabama. Once there, Goode – what else – was injured, and played a total of five games for UNA. Popular with his teammates and always upbeat, Goode’s story was particularly heartbreaking.
11. Alex Watkins, DE (9.7)
Watkins was a Mike Shula commitment, and the Shula staff had him ticketed for defensive end despite weighing only 210 pounds as a high school senior. Saban honored the commitment, then moved Watkins to Jack linebacker, where it took three years for him to learn the position and make an impact. But when he finally made an impact, it was a big one. Watkins became one of the most consistent pass rushers on the team as a junior and senior, and added to his legend in 2011 by returning from major knee surgery months ahead of schedule. Watkins was considered one of the toughest Tiders of the last few years as well as one of its hardest workers.
12. William Vlachos, C (9.7)
While the Saban staff inherited several Mike Shula commitments, William Vlachos represents a case of the Saban staff correcting an earlier Shula mistake. The Shula staff had attempted to grayshirt Vlachos, who had an offer in hand from Michigan and nearly took it. Saban upgraded Vlachos to a full offer, and it turned out to be an inspired move. Despite being undersized for a Division-IA center, Vlachos became a key cog in both the 2009 and 2011 championship offensive lines. When Vlachos struggled in 2010, so did the offensive line as a whole. He stands an excellent chance of being a late-round draft pick, as evidenced by Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll’s effusive praise of his play in the 2009 BCS victory over Texas. He will be difficult to replace.
13. Josh Chapman, DT (9.6)
Like Vlachos, Chapman was offered only a grayshirt from the Mike Shula regime. Saban quickly rectified the issue, as he needed a fireplug nosetackle for his 3-4 defense. Chapman redshirted in 2007, then spent four years plugging holes on Alabama’s defensive line. He played much of the 2011 season with a torn knee ligament, a testament to his toughness. Had Saban not offered Chapman an immediate ride, it’s likely one of the most reliable Alabama linemen in recent years would have signed with Auburn instead.
14. Michael Ricks, S (9.6)
Qualifying issues ended Ricks’ would-be Alabama career. Signed out of R.A. Hubbard High School in Courtland, Ricks would likely have been a key component of Nick Saban’s defense. He had good size (6’2”, 190 pounds) and speed (4.4) and was known in high school as a ferocious hitter. Ricks tried several times to get his collegiate eligibility together, but eventually ended up at Stillman College. He was signed to a free agent contract with the Baltimore Ravens prior to the 2011 season, but was cut during training camp.
15. Nick Gentry, DT (9.6)
It’s unclear where the Mike Shula staff would have played Nick Gentry, as he didn’t necessarily fit Joe Kines’ defensive scheme. He didn’t really fit Nick Saban’s 3-4 scheme, either, but that didn’t stop Gentry from becoming one of the key playmakers against LSU in January. Gentry never started a game for Alabama, but he absolutely owned the role of pass-rushing nosetackle. Used in place of or alongside Josh Chapman in obvious passing downs, Gentry frustrated opposing offensive linemen while amusing fans with his pot-bellied, everyman look. Against LSU in the BCS Championship Game, though, there was nothing funny about the way Gentry abused LSU OG Will Blackwell – if you were an LSU fan, that is.
16. Chavis Williams, DE (9.6)
A late pickup by the Saban staff in this transitional year, Williams was headed to Arkansas before the Tide came calling. Williams ended up having one of the most curious careers of any player on this list. He played sparingly as a backup strongside linebacker his true freshman season, then began the 2008 season as a pass-rushing specialist at both SLB and Jack. His performance against Clemson in the opener got him into the Tide’s pregame video highlight package for the next two years, but not long afterwards, he found himself suspended. After barely playing any role at all in 2009, Williams was named the starter at strongside backer in 2010. Despite showing much potential his first three years on campus, even with limited opportunities, Williams was practically transparent his senior season even though he started every game. He made few plays and his career ended quietly.
17. Jamar Taylor, RB (9.5)
Taylor signed early and went through spring practice with the Tide in 2007. He had a strong showing, capped by an impressive A-Day performance. And then, everything went sideways. Taylor got homesick, and rather than stick it out, transferred to South Florida, where he eventually shared time with an Alabama transfer from the 2006 class, Michael Ford. Taylor played a part-time role his first three seasons, but was considered a weapon with potential. Heading into his senior year, though, he first injured a knee and was then suspended for academic reasons.
18. Nick Fanuzzi, QB (9.5)
When Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, Robert Marve was committed to the Tide program. After meeting with Saban, the Marve family decided Miami (and later, Purdue) would be a better fit for Robert’s talents. With Marve gone, Alabama turned to Nick Fanuzzi, who new offensive coordinator Major Applewhite had recruited at Rice. Fanuzzi was considered a dual-threat talent, but he was in over his head a bit at Alabama. While Fanuzzi displayed good rushing ability, his arm strength was a question mark, and he also appeared overwhelmed by the complexity of the offense. He eventually transferred to Rice, where he threw for 4,402 yards and 29 touchdowns in three seasons, including a 400-yard performance against UTEP as a senior. But he never completely won the job at Rice and split time under center with multiple teammates.
19. Jeremy Elder, DT (9.4)
Elder never saw the field for Alabama thanks to one of the strangest incidents ever to involve an Alabama player. Prior to the 2008 season, Elder was arrested on charges of robbing two fellow students at gunpoint. The gun turned out to be a pellet gun and the entire incident was a prank, but the fallout was swift thanks in no small part to reaction to several gun-related campus crimes at schools across the country. Alabama released Elder from his scholarship, and he first ended up at Georgia Military and then at Troy. He played two seasons for the Trojans, but never became a starter.
20. Patrick Crump, OG (9.4)
William Vlachos wasn’t the only offensive lineman looking at a grayshirt offer from the Mike Shula staff in 2007. So was Patrick Crump of Hoover. Like Vlachos, Crump’s stock began rising late in his senior season, and many who watched him as a senior believed he’d eventually be a major contributor once he filled out his frame. But unlike Vlachos, no one ever found out what Crump’s potential would have been. Just prior to the 2008 season, Crump abruptly gave up football, saying his heart wasn’t in it anymore.
21. Darius Hanks, WR (9.3)
Hanks wasn’t considered nearly the receiver Brandon Gibson was, at least not by most analysts. In the end, it was Hanks who wound up with a starting role and playing in postseason all-star games. Hanks’ hands and route-running ability were superior to Gibson’s from the outset, and it didn’t take long for Hanks to crack the playing rotation. He began to really emerge in 2009, then started in both 2010 and 2011, first as a slot receiver and later on the edge. Hanks’ calling card was his willingness to go across the middle and, subsequently, his ability to hold onto the ball after big hits. He was invited to play in the East-West Shrine Game following his senior year and could end up getting a look in the late rounds of the 2012 NFL Draft.
22. Chris Underwood, TE (9.2)
Underwood was not recruited by the Shula staff despite being a standout in summer camps. Saban offered him as a 220-pound tight end, and not surprisingly, it took Underwood a few seasons to make an impact. He played only during trash time until 2010, when he served as Brad Smelley’s backup at H-back. He then moved into a greater role in 2011, that of primary backup at both tight end and H-back and a frequent participant in the Tide’s Ace package. He saved his best for last, making two key catches in the BCS Championship Game against LSU after not having caught a pass the entire regular season and only three other passes during his first four years on campus. Underwood’s career is likely over now, but he picked the right way to go out.
23. Kareem Jackson, CB (9.2)
Committed to Vanderbilt originally, Saban extended Jackson a late offer and he took it. All he did after that was become a first-round draft pick of the Houston Texans and embarrass a lot of recruiting analysts in the process. Jackson almost immediately stepped into a starting role in 2007 before becoming a lockdown cornerback the next two seasons. He skipped his senior year at Alabama to head to the NFL.
24. Jennings Hester, LB (9.2)
Hester was one of Alabama’s first commitments of the 2007 class and was slated to play middle linebacker in Kines’ 4-3 scheme. Saban honored Hester’s commitment, but his Alabama career was short. After redshirting in 2007, Hester didn’t play in 2008 and then went onto medical scholarship prior to the 2009 season along with fellow linebacker Charlie Kirschman, who later would allege that he wasn’t really injured. Hester graduated with honors and works in the marketing field.