FAIRHOPE, Ala. — Remember how shocking it seemed to see Nick Saban smile on the sideline after his Alabama players recovered the perfectly called and executed onside kick that swung the national title game against Clemson? On Tuesday, it seemed Saban hadn't stopped smiling.
When he arrived at the South team's practice for the Senior Bowl, Saban stepped out of a white GMC Yukon and walked right into a hug from former Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron. Both grinned as McCarron told Saban about his time as the Cincinnati Bengals' starter following a thumb injury to Andy Dalton and Saban told McCarron about Alabama's fourth national championship in seven seasons. And who could blame Saban for being so happy? Thanks to the decisions of a handful of talented Tide players, next fall he should be in prime position to chase his fifth national title at Alabama and his sixth overall.
On the field behind Saban were two of the reasons Alabama should be loaded again in 2016. Linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive end Jarran Reed probably played their way into more money by returning to Tuscaloosa for the '15 campaign. That almost certainly had an influence on defensive end Jonathan Allen, safety Eddie Jackson, linebackers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson and tight end O.J. Howard. All five could have left—and most, if not all, would have made excellent money—but after watching Ragland come back and potentially earn several million more by turning himself into a likely first-round pick, they stayed. So, now I need to correct the column I wrote the day after Alabama's victory. It seemed logical that most of the Crimson Tide's draft-eligible players would declare for the NFL, and that seemed to leave the team with an experience and leadership vacuum. Because of the way Saban has recruited, it could be possible to overcome that, but that would be far from a sure thing. Now? As long as offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin can identify a third effective starting quarterback in three years and build a scheme that suits him, the Tide could be every bit as good in '16 as they were last season.
The only players who left Alabama early were Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry and defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson. Henry's draft position likely wouldn't have changed with another year, and Robinson is poised to go early in the first round. "For those who can't improve their draft status based on what they get, it's probably the best thing for them to come out," Saban said Tuesday. "I thought the two guys that should have, did. All the guys that have an opportunity to prove themselves at Alabama all stayed to take advantage of that."
On the day after Alabama beat Clemson 45–40 for the title in Glendale, Ariz., Saban engaged in his habit of talking to his players through the media. With Howard, who broke out with 208 receiving yards and two touchdowns against the Tigers, sitting on the same dais, Saban made the case for players using their senior seasons as a financial springboard. "Reggie Ragland last year, had a second-round grade. I'm sure he'll be a top-15 pick this year," Saban said on Jan. 12. "If you want to do the math on that, that's like maybe a $12 million, $14 million decision. [Safety] Mark Barron did it a few years ago. He was a second-round guy, and then he's the seventh pick in the draft. That was a $16 million, $18 million decision. Plus he graduated."
Alabama's draft-eligible players sought Ragland's advice this month, and he didn't try to steer them in any particular direction. He figured they had enough people doing that already.
"They asked me my advice. I just told them to make sure it's the right decision for you and your family," Ragland said Tuesday. "You can't worry about what another guy does. Everybody's different. The way everything happened for me might not happen for them. Hopefully it does. But they needed to make sure it was the right decision for what they wanted to do and not what somebody else wanted them to do."
It didn't hurt the Crimson Tide's case that linebacker C.J. Mosley, Barron, offensive tackle D.J. Fluker and linebacker Dont'a Hightower all benefited financially by staying in Tuscaloosa one season longer than the NFL's draft-eligibility rules require.
Howard and Williams probably stand to reap the most rewards from another year on campus. At 6' 6" and 242 pounds, Howard already has the ideal body for a flex tight end in the NFL. But professional teams might have wondered why he didn't catch a touchdown pass between the 2013 season and this January's national title game. After Howard proved what he can do in Alabama's 38–0 Cotton Bowl shutout of Michigan State and its triumph over Clemson, Kiffin should know exactly how to use him next year. With rising sophomore receiver Calvin Ridley on the same field, Howard should have opportunities to shine. Williams, meanwhile, finished second on the team in sacks (10.5) even though he played primarily on obvious passing downs. If the 6' 4", 230-pound rush backer can prove he can play every down, he stands to make huge money in '17.
All the while, Saban will keep working to find the players who will replace these stars when they do leave. The coach took a lot of ribbing for introducing the Dinosaur—or the T-Rex, depending on which Alabama player is poking fun—following the Cotton Bowl.
Apparently Saban saves his best moves for five-star recruits. This weekend, with a group of sought-after official visitors in Tuscaloosa, Saban hit that Dab.
Then, during a Monday visit with Sachse, Texas, cornerback Jared Mayden, Saban broke out The Wobble.
Tuesday, Saban said his wiggle has its roots in his native West Virginia. "Hey, I've been able to step through it ever since I was in high school," Saban said. "They used to take the firetruck out of the fire department and put the band in it. That's where we went to the dance—on the cement floor. [Wife] Terry and I have been doing that for years. I don't know why anybody's surprised that I can step through it now."
Then he smiled. With all those rings and all that talent putting off the draft to return to campus, why wouldn't Saban be dancing and grinning?