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  • Traditional powers have to evaluate another layer of players now that some of their backup choices may end up going elsewhere.
By Bruce Feldman
January 06, 2018

ATLANTA —When you’re at the top of the college football food chain, sometimes change isn’t a good thing. Alabama has been the dominant program in the game for the past decade thanks in large part to Nick Saban’s recruiting machine. This year, there’s been a bit of a wrench thrown into that machine due to the dynamics of the new early signing period.

Ed Marynowitz, a former Philadelphia Eagles VP of player personnel, helps run Bama’s player personnel department. He explained just how the change impacts the Tide.

"Anytime there’s a new rule change—we’ve done things a certain way for so long to maximize the rules and how to manage it and benefit us—so there’s been an adjustment period with this first year,” he told SI. "You didn’t have a full year to implement that. You’re really recruiting two and three classes simultaneously. Everything was a little bit more accelerated with this. I would think that moving forward we’ll have a much better plan about how to control it.”

Some other powerhouse programs around the country lost out on players they might’ve snagged away from lower-profile teams in their conference or Group of Five programs in the last few days before the February national Signing Day, but this year they didn’t have the added time to swoop in late. Marynowitz talked about how that dynamic impacts the Tide specifically.

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"I think what it’s gonna do if you look at it from a big picture standpoint, the elite players will still be the elite players whether they sign now or a little bit later,” he said. "It doesn’t matter, but that next tier of those really good players, like that second tier, there’s a strong likelihood that all those guys are gonna be gone now, whereas you could always go back and get those guys. You could hold out and get those guys at the end. Now those guys have signed with maybe a good (mid-level Power 5 program). Now if we’re forced to go back in on somebody we’re probably dropping down a whole 'nother level of player that we probably wouldn’t have gone to before. I think that’s probably how it’ll go.

"I think everybody will have a certain degree of benefit. It’ll probably benefit (second tier Power 5) programs more than it’ll benefit programs like us cause it’ll force our hand early instead of being able to wait till the end and see who we get, then come back and maybe poach a guy. That guy may be the No. 1 recruit at one of those schools where he may be the 10th or 11th guy for us. Time will tell. They probably didn’t get it all the way right as far as the adjustments but I think there’ll be some tweaks and modifications. There’s probably more good than bad long term.”

Chip off the old?

Kirby Smart couldn’t make it five minutes at Media Day without some Nick Saban related question geared toward the mentor-protege dynamic.

"I'm just trying to be me,” said Smart on what was probably the third of a bunch of such Saban-themed questions. "I'm not trying to be Nick Saban, I'll be honest with you. Our personalities for the people that know us are not the same. Nick is incredible at what he does. I'm a different person than Nick. I'm different than Nick in recruiting. But that's okay. I'm okay with who I am. I'm comfortable with that. I'm not trying to be him or emulate him. He's got his own mannerisms, and I've got mine.”

Smart said Saban’s wife Terry has also mentored his wife Mary Beth. "She's definitely mentored her. A lot more than Nick has mentored me, I'll be honest with that. It's been good because we have good friends and family over there and we don't play them that often. The outlook was we thought we might play them in the SEC Championship, and it didn't happen, and we thought this was an opportunity that could come down the road."

Shake and Bake

Georgia just got done handling Heisman winner Baker Mayfield and now the Dawgs face a different but challenging test in Bama’s dual-threat QB Jalen Hurts.

"They're two phenomenal players,” says Georgia’s star LB Roquan Smith. "But I would say this guy, Hurts, he's definitely a runner. So once he pulls the ball down from the pocket or whatever, he also keeps his eyes downfield. But once he gets out in the open field he's like a running back with the ball. We'll definitely have to try to keep that guy in check once he pull it down.

“Hurts definitely can create some problems for a defense downfield. We want to keep the guy in the pocket. If you can't keep the guy in the pocket he can definitely create some problems for your defense, because once he gets out of the pocket he's more like a running back."

Rising Tide

Bama has had a seemingly endless run of huge, nimble D-linemen since Saban took over. Talking to Tide staffers, two names to remember: LaBryan Ray and Phidarian Mathis, a pair of freshmen.

"LaBryan Ray is gonna be a phenomenal player,” Marynowitz said of the 6-5, 272-pound end. “He has such a high upside and ceiling. He really stands out in terms of his quickness, pass rush and penetration. He’s gonna be a big tackle-for-loss, sacks, disruption player.”

I asked Marynowitz how Ray compares to Bama’s Jonathan Allen, an ultra productive DE.  “He’s a little longer than Jon. Jonathan was probably a little stronger, a little bit better point of attack player, whereas LaBryan probably has a bit more quickness and juice. Jonathan evolved over time to be a thicker body type. I think LaBryan has a chance to be a pretty big impact player.”

Tide O-line coach Brent Key spoke very highly of Mathis as well as  Ray—"[Mathis is] a big man but he also moves really well. He goes hard. He doesn’t take plays off. He competes and competes and really has fun doing it."

Tennessee bound

Nobody knows better about what Bama DC Jeremy Pruitt, the new Tennessee head coach, is going through better than Smart, who also did double duty juggling the Bama DC job with becoming the new UGA head coach two years ago during the Playoff run, but things are actually more challenging now.

"I sympathize with Jeremy because I think he was in a worse situation because I did not have to deal with the signing day, and the fact that he had to deal with the signing day while there, I wouldn't wish that—it was probably outside of—I don't know, it was probably the hardest month of my life trying to deal with the two jobs because you're trying to hire a staff, run an organization but be loyal to a group of players who helped you get this information,” Smart said. "Now mix in a signing date while you're practicing at another place, that's unfathomable and I think he's done a tremendous job of that and he's done it the right way, which is what we do as coaches. We do this because of the kids. He's not doing it because of a loyalty to Nick. He's doing it because he thinks it's the right thing to do for those players, and he's done a great job of managing it."

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