Nick Saban is currently being labeled as arguably the best college football coach in the last 25 seasons and in some circles has even been anointed as the greatest college football coach ever. He has coached for 3 different college programs (ignoring his 1 year tenure at Toledo where he finished 9-2 in 1990): Michigan State, LSU, and Alabama.
The scary part is that Saban has gradually grown better and more successful as a coach with each new college. At Michigan State he went 34-24-1, LSU he finished 48-16-0, and now at Alabama he’s gone 79-15-0 while winning 3 National Championships.
A lot is made of Saban’s success transitioning his talent to the NFL level due to the schemes he utilizes with a run favored offensive Pro attack combined with a complex, 3-4 multiple defense reminiscent of his defensive coordinator years under Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns from 1991-1994.
As great a mind as he has for the X’s and O’s and technique side of football, it’s really his ability to recruit that has had other coaches such as Steve Spurrier calling him, “the greatest recruiter in college football history.”
Since 2007, Nick Saban has made an immediate presence on the recruiting trail and secured talent from all over while consistently being given highly rated recruiting classes. Here is how he has ranked since he started at Alabama in 2007.
2007: Rated #10 by Rivals.com (25 Commits)
2008: Rated #1 by Rivals.com (32 Commits)
2009: Rated #1 by Rivals.com (27 Commits)
2010: Rated #5 by Rivals.com (26 Commits)
2011: Rated #1 by Rivals.com (22 Commits)
2012: Rated #1 by Rivals.com (26 Commits)
2013: Rated #1 by Rivals.com (25 Commits)
2014: Rated #1 by Rivals.com (26 Commits)
They already have 21 commits for their 2015 Class.
Size Wins the Battle
Those familiar with Nick Saban have stated that he will go after the more physically solid 6’0″ cornerback who may lack the athleticism or pure ability in comparison to a 5’9″ natural cornerback graded at ***** (college recruiting sites grade athletes from a 1* to 5* range).
Longtime Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart has said that Saban and the staff go by their white board and refuse to deviate for mediocre talent or to grab somebody as a need fill in. Their ability to not only recruit for the current season but 2 and 3 seasons down the road helps separate Alabama from the pack. They are able to bring in athletes with NFL size (or players who can grow into their frame) and essentially put out a proto-NFL team on the field at nearly all 22 positions on offense and defense.
His 2009 class was filled with players that would eventually go on to the NFL but most impressive was the sheer size that was immediately apparent. It looks like a typed up roster list from an NFL team’s web site.
QB AJ McCarron (****): 6’4″ 189 pounds
RB Eddie Lacy (****): 5’11” 210 pounds
OL James Carpenter (****): 6’5″ 305 pounds
OL D.J. Fluker (*****): 6’7″ 350 pounds
DE Ed Stinson (****): 6’4″ 227 pounds
DT Quinton Dial (****): 6’5″ 308 pounds
LB Nico Johnson (*****): 6’3″ 226 pounds
DB Dre Kirkpatrick (*****): 6’2″ 180 pounds
Bill Parcells preached speed but more importantly being bigger and stronger than the opposing team. This carried down to Bill Belichick and has also transitioned to Nick Saban whom has managed to transform Alabama into a farm machine predicated to winning games and sending players to the NFL.
Worth noting is that he allows linebackers to grow into their bodies but emphasizes the height necessary for the position. 2010 recruit C.J. Mosley was also a linebacker and was listed at 6’2″ and 212 pounds. By 2012, he had added weight and was up to a more physical 234 pounds while possessing a near ideal frame for an inside linebacker at the NFL level. Nico Johnson had also grown into his body weighing 245 pounds as a Senior in 2012 (up almost 20 pounds).
One of his biggest accomplishments at Alabama is his ability to churn out solid running back talent in an era where running back by committees are the normal and spread offenses (emphasizing smaller, faster backs) being the rage all around football at both the college and even NFL level. One of the reasons is that Saban preaches size with his running backs and often employs an NFL sized back paired with a bowling ball bruiser too to wear down and punish opposing defenses.
2008: Mark Ingram was listed at 5’10” and 195 pounds. Even *** players possessed size (Ivan Matchett was 5’10” 206 and Jermaine Preyear was 5’11” 205).
2009: See Above.
2010: Jalston Fowler was listed at 6’0″ and 240 pounds. One influence could have been the size & success of Brandon Jacobs with the New York Giants at the NFL level.
2011: Demetrius Hart was listed at a short 5’8″ but a packed 190 pounds.
2012: Kenyan Drake was listed at 6’1″ and 195 pounds. T.J. Yeldon was listed at 6’2″ and 205 pounds.
2013: Altee Tenpenny was listed at 6’0″ and 212 pounds. Tyren Jones was listed at 5’9″ and 215 pounds. Alvin Kamara was listed at 5’10” and 197 pounds.
You get a revolving door at a key position of the offense and it not only explains why Saban leans towards the running game but also offers up keen insight that he knows those running backs will likely gain the weight necessary to be more effective physically entering their Junior and Senior seasons along with the fact they’ll punish defenses when Saban is able to rotate 3 and 4 backs in a game.
Versatility is a Necessity and Roles Will Vary
Saban, much like Bill Belichick is not afraid to move players all over the field and from one side of the team such as offense to the other side if it means that the team is better off for it if not the player especially. One prime example at Alabama was Vinnie Sunseri, selected in the 5th Round in the 2014 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints. He came into Alabama as an undersized Linebacker listed at 5’11” 193 pounds. He was immediately switched over to Defensive Back and became a monster on ST. He became a starter in 2012 in Alabama’s 5 DB “Dime” formation and by 2013 was starting at Safety and up to 210 pounds. Another player who transitioned from a linebacker role to a safety was Mark Barron.
This tactic goes back to his days as the head coach at LSU with players such as Skyler Green whom entered at a loaded running back position and switched to WR while handling return duties due to his 5’9″ 192 pound frame.
Marcus Spears was talented and had come to LSU hoping to continue in the mold of a down field athletic target at TE. In 2001, he even played 3 different positions: Fullback, Tight End, and Defensive End trying to carve out a role under Saban. By 2002 he would stick on the defensive side and eventually get selected to the NFL.
Till the Land at Home First
One of Nick Saban’s best recruiting tactics is making sure he snares the premium, elite talent in his backyard first before spotlighting a few names in surrounding states. He not only ensures that he gets the best talent in his home state but also does so while sticking to his board.
In 2008, Mark Barron was rated the #5 Athlete in the nation and #5 talent in Alabama (athlete is generally a term for a dual sport player in high school who may be a tweener for a true college position). ILB Don’ta Hightower was listed as the 3rd best player in Alabama despite being the 15th overall among his position in the country. WR Julio Jones was rated #1 in Alabama and #4 nationally. OLB Courtney Upshaw was rated 9th in Alabama and 12th at his position.
As the recruiting wars have continued, Saban has started to branch out and expand the pipeline into Alabama. Here is a breakdown of his most recent classes by state. One of the biggest expansions seems to be in Georgia (12 recruits from 2012-2014 with 4 more thus far in 2015).
2012: 7 (Alabama), 7 (Georgia), 3 (Florida), 2 (Louisiana), 1 (Arizona), 1 (Maryland), 1 (Mississippi), 1 (Tennessee), 1 (Texas), 1 (Virginia)
2013: 7 (Alabama), 3 (Georgia), 2 (Florida), 2 (Louisiana), 2 (Texas), 2 (Virginia), 1 (Arkansas), 1 (California), 1 (New Jersey), 1 (New York), 1 (Pennsylvania), 1 (Tennessee), 1 (Utah)
2014: 7 (Alabama), 4 (Louisiana), 2 (Georgia), 2 (Mississippi), 1 (Arizona), 1 (California), 1 (Colorado), 1 (Florida), 1 (Iowa), 1 (Minnesota), 1 (Ohio), 1 (Oklahoma), 1 (South Carolina), 1 (Texas), 1 (Virginia)
Finding Undervalued Gems that Just Need Polish
Saban not only sticks to his board but as a result of coaching in the NFL and knowing the values he wants out of his players, he can take fliers on players coming out who may be slightly flawed but whom Saban knows he can try to fit his system and help them flourish.
A key example was Marcel Dareus in the 2008 recruiting class. He was listed at just *** by Rivals.com and was ranked 28th amongst all Defensive Tackles in the nation. What he possessed was solid size that Saban could mold, listed at 6’4″ 277, and had been productive as a Senior with 20 sacks (granted most high school stats come with a grain of salt).
Brad Smelley entered Alabama as a quarterback but the depth chart was loaded. He had good size (6’3″ 220 pounds) and ran a solid 4.7 but was rated 33rd in Alabama (at ***) and 30th amongst pro style quarterbacks. At Alabama he’d work his way around the field and eventually settle down as a TE and be drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the 7th Round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
It’s clear that Nick Saban uses recruiting as a way to mass produce talent at nearly every position at Alabama and is a large, large reason why Alabama has steadily seen such dominance under his reign. While every school tries to do what he does recruiting wise, Saban has been able to separate himself from the pack and appears to be a level beyond other programs. A true credit to Saban, his staff at Alabama, and the overall tenacity of recruiting at that college.
Large thanks to the amazing Rivals.com recruiting site for most of this information.
Credit to Associated Press/Chattanooga Times at timesfreepress.com for feature image