By Jess Nicholas
Feb. 2, 2017
Sometimes, a headline says it all without the need for additional commentary: On paper, Alabama signed the highest-rated class since TideFans.com/NARCAS started tracking classes 20 years ago.
The 2012 and 2015 classes both recorded average scores of 9.86, setting a bar few people thought even Nick Saban could break. But the 2017 class did just that, finishing with an average score of 9.9 (9.904, to be precise) among 25 prospects signed (TideFans.com/NARCAS does not rate specialists, so LS Thomas Fletcher was not included in the class score).
On the other hand, this class appears to have completely whiffed on a position of need, meaning on an adjusted basis, Alabama only barely took another unofficial “recruiting national championship” title over Ohio State.
Alabama’s big need coming into this signing cycle was most definitely defensive line, specifically combo players who could play tackle in a four-man look and end in a three-man front. To that end, Alabama got what it needed. But the Crimson Tide pulled a zero in cornerback recruiting, something Nick Saban himself even mentioned in Signing Day press conferences.
Otherwise, Alabama hit all the right notes. It grabbed two quarterbacks, rebuilt the second line of its receiver corps, bolstered its linebacker and defensive end groups and signed three potential safeties. It also added enviable depth at running back and offensive line.
In addition to the 26 players discussed below, Alabama took delayed-entry commitments from three players: C Hunter Brannon (9.3), PK Joseph Bulovas (*.*) and the shocker of the day, DE Jarez Parks (9.9), who would be the crown jewel of most schools’ classes. If Brannon and Parks were added to this class, the total class ranking would have dropped to 9.88, still a school record in the modern recruiting era.
Here’s a look at each player who signed, and their ranking.
Name POS Ht Wt 40time Rating Hometown/school
1. Phidarian Mathis DL 6-4 295 5.4 10.0 Monroe, La./Neville
Alabama needed to make a splash on the defensive line and specifically at defensive tackle, and getting no worse than the No. 2 defensive tackle on TideFans.com/NARCAS’s board helps take some of the stress off Alabama’s rotation heading into the fall. Mathis is athletic, strong and violent at the point of contact, playing with aggressively with no sign of back-down in his game. He projects as a nose in Bama’s 3-4 over/under scheme but has the athleticism to slide outside, as well as play quick tackle in a 4-man front. Like most Nick Saban recruits, attitude is not an issue here. Mathis will push for playing time from the outset and while the presence of Da’Ron Payne will probably prevent him from starting, it would be a surprise if Mathis wasn’t on the field early in game one. He is expected to qualify.
2. Najee Harris RB 6-2 225 4.5 10.0 Antioch, Calif./Antioch
The consensus top running back available in this class, Harris’ highlight tapes look like a go-kart race with an Indy Car thrown in the mix. Harris came back to earth a little in postseason all-star work, but his rare combination of size, speed and the frame to build more bulk have Alabama coaches seeing stars. Harris has plus-talent in all tools and hasn’t begun to tap into his potential yet. Once he adjusts to the speed of SEC ball, he should rise fast up the depth chart. He has already enrolled at Alabama and will participate in spring drills.
3. Alex Leatherwood OL 6-6 325 5.3 10.0 Pensacola, Fla./Booker T. Washington
Leatherwood is this class’ A’Shawn Robinson in terms of looks and presence. As an offensive line prospect, he might be one of the best Nick Saban has ever signed. Leatherwood has to ability to play on either side of the line, outside as well as inside. His ultimate position figures to be right tackle but his footwork is good enough that he’ll get an early look at guard, a position of need for Alabama. Leatherwood has already enrolled at Alabama and will go through spring drills. Early opinions of those who have seen him in workouts is that he’ll be hard to keep off the field in 2017. To say Leatherwood plays with a mean streak is a discredit to the phrase; he simply has not shown to be intimidated yet on the field.
4. Jedrick Wills OL 6-5 310 5.2 10.0 Lexington, Ky./Lafayette
It’s easy to overlook Wills in this collection of talent, but in regards to pure OL tools, Alabama may not have signed anyone better. Wills projects as a tackle at the next level although he could find a home at guard as well. Tactical, athletic and overpowering, he could easily have anchored Alabama’s OL class in the event Leatherwood hadn’t signed. Wills was the top player in Kentucky and a standout in camps. He’ll probably redshirt while he settles into his final position but don’t rule out a push for playing time in fall camp. He’s expected to qualify.
5. Isaiah Buggs DL 6-4 275 4.8 10.0 Ruston, La./MS Gulf Coast CC
Buggs is all but guaranteed a starting job this fall so long as he stays healthy and in any way backs up the reputation he built for himself in the junior college ranks and on film. For that matter, Buggs may be the linchpin to the entire class, given Alabama’s shortage of available interior defensive linemen. Buggs is quick for his size, a high-motor disruptor whose game resembles that of Dalvin Tomlinson’s in almost eerie fashion. He mixes the ability to penetrate with good gap discipline and the ability to turn running plays inside, making him well equipped to deal with spread offenses. He is already enrolled at Alabama and will go through spring practice with the team.
6. Tua Tagovailoa QB 6-1 215 4.8 10.0 Honolulu, HI/St. Louis
The lefty Tagovailoa figures to be no worse than Jalen Hurts’ backup in 2017, thanks to passing ability that already is sharper than the Tide’s incumbent starter. Tagovailoa has drawn comparisons across the board, from Aaron Rodgers to Johnny Manziel to everything in between. From a tools standpoint, he’s adequately thick but not large, quick enough but not a speed burner. Combine plus-average skills in those categories with his arm talent, though, and that’s when the what-if meter starts to peg out. Like Hurts, Tagovailoa is considered a highly coachable, natural leader who will do whatever is best for the team. It’s hard to immediately imagine Alabama having true freshman starting quarterbacks in consecutive years, but the talent is there. Tagovailoa is already enrolled at Alabama and will compete in spring camp.
7. LaBryan Ray DL 6-5 265 5.0 10.0 Madison/James Clemens
The focused, man-of-few-words Ray had to have been one of the least-hyped best instate recruits in recent memory. Any concerns about how he’ll do on the college level stem from his frame, which teeters into tweener territory but may prove perfect for the flex defensive end role in Alabama’s 3-4 over/under scheme. Quicker than he is fast, Ray’s ability to maneuver both around and inside of tackles in close quarters early in his move to the pocket will serve him well if he lands at strongside end. He’s considered a lockup tackle against the run and has shown the ability to work quickly off blocks. He is expected to qualify.
8. Dylan Moses LB 6-3 235 4.5 10.0 Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy
A superior pass-rushing prospect who bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Tim Williams, Moses explodes out of a first step and has the potential to add weight without losing performance. With Alabama losing a couple of key members from its OLB rotation, Moses figures to have a shot to get snaps on par with the amount Courtney Upshaw did as a true freshman. While Moses possesses the ability to play inside if needed, it’s much more likely that he bulks up slightly and competes at either SLB or Jack. Moses has already enrolled at Alabama and will participate in spring drills.
9. Chris Allen LB 6-3 240 4.8 10.0 Baton Rouge, La./Southern Lab
Allen is an intriguing OLB/ILB combo prospect with enough speed to become a force in the pass rush. Drawing comparisons to both Dont’a Hightower and Reggie Ragland, Allen’s frame is game-ready for early action and given Alabama’s situation at inside linebacker, could make an early push. It’s also not out of the realm of possibility to consider him adding weight and moving to the edge as a run-control Jack, a la Denzel Devall, but with more initial quickness. He is expected to qualify.
10. Jerry Jeudy WR 6-1 180 4.6 10.0 Deerfield Beach, Fla./Deerfield Beach
There are some questions about his topline speed but his route-running ability, affinity for navigating traffic and skills when the ball goes away from him make him arguably the most complete receiver in this class. Similar to former Ole Miss receiver Cody Core, but with a higher upside, Jeudy has an excellent chance to push for early playing time. He needs to improve his consistency, but most receivers his age do. He is already enrolled at Alabama and will compete for playing time this spring.
11. Henry Ruggs III WR 6-0 180 4.4 10.0 Montgomery/Lee
Few recruits saw their stock go up late as much as Ruggs, a slippery, fast and smooth receiver with a build similar to Calvin Ridley. By the time the recruiting process came to a close, Ruggs could have named his destination. His skill set is similar to that of the receivers Alabama has prioritized in recent years under Saban (Ridley, ArDarius Stewart, Amari Cooper). Ruggs and Jeudy in a one-two punch gives Alabama a one-two punch few teams can match. While a little more bulk would be nice, Alabama has made the 180-pound receiver model work to smashing success recently. He is expected to qualify.
12. Markail Benton LB 6-1 235 4.6 9.9 Phenix City/Phenix City
Benton projects as a weakside linebacker at the college level, but could also play SLB and grow into a flex end. He already has playable size, a good base and plenty of pop at the point of attack. Coverage skills will be key to his development, and it probably means a redshirt year. There’s a little bit of Marvin Constant here in Benton; athleticism is not a concern for this prospect. He is expected to qualify.
13. Daniel Wright S 6-1 180 4.5 9.9 Lauderdale Lakes, Fla./Boyd Anderson
Wright, the brother of former Florida star Major Wright, is a prototypical free safety with the athleticism to play several positions in the defensive backfield. He brings a high football intelligence to the field and observers are optimistic about his developing coverage skills. He has an excellent frame to add more weight, and with Alabama’s secondary in need of improvement, his path to early playing time may be more direct than it would first appear. He is expected to qualify.
14. DeVonta Smith WR 6-0 165 4.4 9.9 Amite, La./Amite
A lack of size is the only thing holding Smith back from the next echelon of receivers in this class. But with the smaller size comes superior athleticism, quick-cut ability and the mouth-watering promise of watching Smith be a weapon on special teams and returns. He’ll get a chance to compete early for a slot receiver job, but it would also not be a surprise to see him take a year to get plugged into a weight training program. He is expected to qualify.
15. VanDarius Cowan LB 6-4 225 4.7 9.9 Palm Beach Gardens, Fla./PBGHS
Cowan is a pure OLB/DE speed rusher and prototypical Nick Saban Jack linebacker. He’s also one of the toughest players in this class, playing with aggressiveness and a take-charge attitude. Cowan is about 20 pounds away from where the coaches would eventually like him to be, but Cowan signed early and is on campus for spring practice, so he’ll get a head start on competition at the two open outside linebacker posts. Cowan’s first step is among the best at the position in this recruiting cycle, and he’s consistently aggressive to the hole. He has a chance to be the copy of the Miami Dolphins’ Jason Taylor that Alabama has long sought at the position.
16. Elliot Baker OL 6-7 295 5.3 9.9 San Francisco, Calif./CC of San Francisco
Baker will be expected to immediately compete for a starting tackle job, likely at right tackle with Jonah Williams sliding to left tackle. Baker was an early commitment to this class and while many thought he would eventually slide off the commitment list, he not only held steady with Alabama, he entered school early and will compete for a job in the spring. Baker is still a bit of a raw prospect, with good athletic ability and promising footwork, but this is a potential-based rating more than a summation of what he has done so far. It wouldn’t be completely a shock if he were to redshirt or play limited snaps in 2017. But his ceiling is higher than most, and if he shows ready to start from day one, the sky is the limit.
17. Tyrell Shavers WR 6-6 190 4.5 9.9 Lewisville, Texas/Lewisville
Shavers’ impressive height and ability to go vertical have scouts’ mouths watering, but he is the most raw of the receivers Alabama signed in this class. Ideally, he’ll need a year in the weight room to flesh out his frame, but many observers believe he’s ready to play now. Depending on what happens to oft-injured veterans like Raheem Falkins and Robert Foster, Alabama’s WR corps suffers from a lack of tall options and Shavers could squeeze ahead. He has already enrolled at Alabama and will compete for a job this spring.
18. Brian Robinson RB 6-1 220 4.5 9.9 Tuscaloosa/Hillcrest
Lost in the hoopla over Najee Harris’ recruitment is that Alabama’s “other” back in this class, homegrown talent Brian Robinson, could have easily fronted the running back position for Bama this recruiting cycle. Robinson is a physical back with speed comparable to, perhaps even better than Harris, and some believe his more aggressive style will translate better to the SEC college game. Robinson could also bulk up and move to fullback eventually a la Jalson Fowler, but for now he’ll get a shot at being a featured back. He is expected to qualify.
19. Xavier McKinney S 6-1 195 4.5 9.9 Roswell, Ga./Roswell
McKinney was the other big-name get for Alabama at safety, a talented deep cover player who can also get into the box and mix it up. For the same reasons Daniel Wright has an excellent chance at early playing time, so too does McKinney. McKinney probably has the higher ceiling between the two players, a function of a tick better speed and frame, but it’s really too close to call at this moment. It’s amazing a player of his caliber ranks 19th in this class, but that’s the level of recruiting Alabama is able to pull off under Saban. He is expected to qualify.
20. Kedrick James TE 6-6 260 5.0 9.8 Waco, Texas/La Vega
One of two tight ends Alabama signed this cycle, James has almost unlimited potential if he can be taught proper route running techniques. James is already the size of some offensive tackles, and his blocking potential is almost uncapped. A big target at 6’6”, if he can develop his hands, he’ll be the perfect on-the-line tight end for Alabama at the Y position. Given the departure of O.J. Howard and the lack of production otherwise at the Y spot last year, the opportunity exists for playing time. He is expected to qualify.
21. Major Tennison TE 6-5 230 4.9 9.8 Bullard, Texas/Bullard
Tennison figures more into the mix at the H tight end position, where Miller Forristall is expected to start. Scouts are high on Tennison, although speed concerns could mean his future is bulking up and moving to Y. Observers already like what they see out of him as a receiver, and Alabama will need all the help it can get in that department now that the dynamic O.J. Howard has moved on. Given how thin Alabama is at that position, the fact Tennison signed early and is already on campus should make spring job competition at tight end much more interesting.
22. Chadarius Townsend WR/S 6-1 190 4.5 9.8 Tanner/Tanner
The question for Townsend is on which side of the ball will he play. Townsend played quarterback in high school, so the first inclination is that he’ll pick up ArDarius Stewart’s role on offense as a freestyler. But Townsend has also shown the ability to pick up coverage responsibilities, and with safety needing a talent infusion, it’s not impractical to consider he’ll start out on the defensive side of the ball. Townsend’s story is of the heartwarming variety: small school player who caught Saban’s eye, was offered early and committed immediately, then maintained his commitment for the better part of two years. He has already enrolled at Alabama and will go through spring practice with the team.
23. Kendall Randolph OL 6-4 300 5.1 9.7 Madison/Bob Jones
Randolph is somewhat of the forgotten man among Alabama’s offensive line signees. His recruitment went without a hitch, and he committed early as an in-state prospect. He projects as a guard at Alabama and his versatility inside and work ethic are both promising. The lack of pure tackle ability probably holds his grade down somewhat, and he’ll almost certainly redshirt given the logjam in front of him, but he is one to watch in future years. He is expected to qualify.
24. Mac Jones QB 6-1 185 4.9 9.7 Jacksonville, Fla./Bolles
So much of this screams “Greg McElroy Part II” that it’s almost eerie: the similar body type, the similar ranking … the similar hair color. Jones comes into this class decidedly in second place in the rankings of Alabama’s two signings, but the Crimson Tide has made a habit of turning pro-style, game-manager quarterbacks into important cogs in a national championship machine. Jones will get every opportunity to play as a freshman thanks to a depth chart that currently goes one-deep, especially if the coaches decide to redshirt Tua Tagovailoa to put an additional year between him and Jalen Hurts. Jones probably has more raw talent than McElroy, but he’s not a dual-threat player by any stretch and his value to the offense will be measured in terms of mistakes limited. He is expected to qualify.
25. Kyriq McDonald DB 5-10 190 4.6 9.6 Madison/James Clemens
McDonald is an intriguing prospect in the defensive backfield because he isn’t a perfect fit at any one spot. He becomes sort of a larger version of former Tider Cedric Samuel, a smaller defensive back whose primary project is at safety, but corner could be in his future. Most likely, Alabama starts him out in the Star safety spot and then figures out what to do with him next. Speed is the biggest question here, because a lot changes for the better (or the worse) depending on how well McDonald can keep up with receivers while playing corner. He’s an early entrant and will go through spring practice with the team, though, so Alabama can take its time making a decision.
26. Thomas Fletcher LS 6-1 215 *.* *.* Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy
Alabama needed a long snapper with Cole Mazza’s graduation, and landed Thomas Fletcher. The evaluation here is simple: If he shows up to spring practice and snaps well, it was a good take. Fletcher was roundly regarded as one of the top three snappers in this class, so Alabama didn’t reach for his signature. It’s a need position, and as an early entrant, Fletcher will get the entire spring to state his case for the job.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN