The Saban 250, 16-20: 'When All Of Us Are Freaks, We’re All Good'

BamaCentral marks the end of the Nick Saban coaching era with the definitive rankings of his top 250 players with the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Jan 1, 2021; Arlington, TX, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Najee Harris (22) jumps over Notre Dame Fighting Irish cornerback Nick McCloud (4) in the first quarter during the Rose Bowl at AT&T Stadium.
Jan 1, 2021; Arlington, TX, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Najee Harris (22) jumps over Notre Dame Fighting Irish cornerback Nick McCloud (4) in the first quarter during the Rose Bowl at AT&T Stadium. / Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Najee Harris doesn’t like uncertainty.

He doesn’t like it in life. He doesn’t like it in football. He doesn’t seem to like it at all.

So for him, the decision about whether to come back and play his senior season at the University of Alabama wasn’t something that he was going to dwell upon, or second-guess regardless of the circumstances.

“When I make a decision, I stand firm on it,” he said. “I don’t have no regrets on it. I want to come back with my team and just grind it out through another year. We didn’t know what was gonna happen but now I feel like we have a really good team. No matter what, I’m so happy that I came back. I don’t regret nothing.”

That attitude/philosophy certainly made sense when watching Harris on the field. Often the worst thing that a running back can do with the ball is hesitate or second-guess. What coaches preach, and the best ones often do, is simply make the decision and hit the hole.

Of course, being able to do a split-second adjustment on the fly, like with a cutback or trying to hurdle a would-be tackler, doesn’t hurt either. Harris was obviously proficient at both during his Crimson Tide career, when he became Alabama's all-time rushing king.

Granted the 2020 offense was absolutely loaded, with the Heisman Trophy winner, four returning starters on the offensive line, blazing playmakers and the entire coaching staff was back from the previous season, a rarity during the Nick Saban era.

Yet in true Crimson Tide fashion, it started at running back, and with Harris.

“When you look at Najee from a physical stature standpoint, he’s a big physical runner,” offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. “Very traditional in the types of runners who have been here at Alabama. 

“There may be games in which he is that total bell-cow and we have to go the way we need to go to do what we need to do to win the game. There may be other games in which it’s not as many. Maybe we do find ways to get him the ball in the passing game and different things.”

As a junior, Harris led the Crimson Tide in rushing with 1,224 yards on 209 carries, for an average of 5.9 per attempt. He also ran in 13 touchdowns, plus caught 27 passes for 304 yards and had seven more scores.

Even though Alabama had first-round NFL draft picks Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, plus talented holdovers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Harris led the team in touchdowns by a wide margin. Smith was second with 14, and Jeudy had 10.

Harris also had 236 touches, and averaged 6.5 yards on them without the benefit of lining up on special teams. No one else had more than 110.

“I think last year was probably one of the first times around here where we leaned so much on one back the way we leaned on Najee, especially the last two-thirds of the season,” Sarkisian noted. “I think, ideally, we would like to have a little bit more rotation, so that Najee is maybe a little bit more fresh into the second half.

“I think there is a fine line in finding that rhythm for your lead runner, but also your complementary backs. Whether it’s the third series of the game and giving them a series, or special situations, maybe third down where a certain guy can go in and utilize his talents.”

Even so, Alabama was thrilled to have Harris return for final go-around, especially since he added to the already-talented backfield that could provide coaches with numerous options. There’s also experience with senior Brian Robinson Jr., explosiveness with redshirt freshman Trey Sanders, who missed all of the 2019 season with a knee injury, plus the three-headed freshmen trio of Roydell Williams, Jase McClellan and Kyle Edwards. From top to bottom, it was probably the deepest and strongest position group on the team.

“[When] you have Najee Harris, Trey Sanders, BRob, you have no choice but to get better every day,” sophomore interior linebacker Christian Harris said about facing the Crimson Tide offense in practice. 

Harris went into his final season with 2,377 career rushing yards, which at the end of his junior year had him 15th on the Crimson Tide’s all-time rushing list. If he’s able to match his rushing numbers from 2019, when Alabama played 13 games, he'd become Crimson Tide’s career rushing king (Derrick Henry 2013-15, 3,591).

However, there was no guarantee that Harris would get that opportunity, even if healthy. Due to Covid concerns, Alabama was set to play only a 10-game schedule over 11 weeks, all against Southeastern Conference foes. He would need to average 121.5 yards per game, which is a pretty tall task. However, if the Crimson Tide could manage to win the SEC West, and secure a spot in the College Football Playoff, there’s the possibility of playing in three more games — which is exactly what happened as Alabama ran the table.

To further put it into perspective, since 2014 only three Alabama running backs had topped the 1,000-yard season milestone: Henry when he won the Heisman Trophy in 2015, Harris, and the other Harris, Damien. He did so twice, with 1,037 yards in 2016 and 1,000 the following year.

It was quite the decision for the running back, who could have easily taken the easier route and gone pro a year early. If anything, it made everyone involved only more determined to get Najee Harris that chance of surpassing Henry, including the guy calling the plays.

“We didn’t control games maybe as good as we could have because it was like ‘Run out of necessity’ because we were so good at throwing it,” Sarkisian said about the end of 2019, but then added. “You know we’re always striving for balance. It’s something we definitely want to build upon as we head into this year and maybe the pendulum switches a little.”

The Saban 250: 16-20

The Saban 250 ranks the players who made the biggest impact during his time with the Crimson Tide (2007-23).

16. Najee Harris, RB, 2017-20

• Won 2020 Doak Walker Award
• Unanimous All-American 2020
• 2020 All-SEC; 2019 second-team All-SEC
• Finalist for the Jason Witten Man of the Year
• 24th-overall pick in 2021 NFL Draft
• Crimson Tide’s rushing king with 3,843 career yards on the ground
• Alabama's career leader for rushing scores with 46, and the Crimson Tide's all-time leader for total touchdowns with 57 (46 rushing, 11 receiving). Is fourth all-time in scoring (342 points).
• His 4,624 all-purpose yards are second all-time at Alabama
• Averaged 6.0 yards per carry for his career to rank third in Crimson Tide history (minimum 400 carries)
• Had 13 games with 100-plus rushing yards.

17. Rolando McClain, LB, 2007-09

• Won 2009 Butkus Award
• 2009 SEC Defensive Player of the Year
• 2009 unanimous All-American
• 2008-09 All-SEC
• Eighth-overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft
• First Alabama linebacker to win the Lambert Award (best linebacker)
• In 2009, had 105 tackles, including 14.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, fourteen quarterback hurries, two interceptions, three passes broken up, and a forced fumble during his final season
• Credited with 274 total tackles, including 31.5 for a loss and eight sacks, and five interceptions
• Team captain

18. Trent Richardson, RB, 2009-11

• Won 2011 Doak Walker Award
• 2011 SEC Offensive Player of the Year
• 2011 unanimous All-American
• 2011 All-SEC; 2010 second-team All-SEC
• Third-overall pick in 2012 NFL Draft
• Finished third for the 2011 Heisman Trophy
• Set the Alabama single-season rushing record with 1,679 yards
• Set an SEC record for rushing touchdown by a running back (21) and tied Shaun Alexander’s SEC record for total touchdowns in a season (24)
• Team captain

Alabama running back Trent Richardson on the commemorative national championship issue of Sports Illustrated.
Alabama running back Trent Richardson on the commemorative national championship issue of Sports Illustrated, celebrating the Crimson Tide's 2011 title. /

19. Quinnen Williams, DT, 2017-18

• Won 2018 Outland Trophy
• 2018 unanimous All-American
• 2018 All-SEC
• Third-overall pick in 2019 NFL Draft
• Despite his position had 70 tackles (44 solo) to tie for third on the 2018 team, including 18.5 for a loss, which was second in the SEC and top-10 nationally

20. Andre Smith, T, 2007-08

• Won 2008 Outland Trophy
• 2008 Unanimous All-American
• 2007 SEC Jacobs Blocking Trophy
• 2007-08 All-SEC
• Sixth-overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft
• Started at left tackle as a freshman and was credited with a team-high 62 pancake blocks
• Scored a touchdown off of a lateral in the 2006 Independence Bowl loss against Oklahoma State
• In 2008, led the team with 103 key knockdowns and added seven blocks downfield. He was penalized just twice and allowed just one sack and six pressures on 334 pass plays

The Freak: Quinnen Williams

The term he specifically used was “freak.”

It’s a word that was used a lot in regard to massive defensive lineman Raekwon Davis, only in this case he was using it himself to describe someone else. It’s what he starting calling former Alabama nose tackle Quinnen Williams after the redshirt sophomore earned a starting spot during the spring of 2018.

"He's very quick, knows how to use his technique,” Davis added. “He's got great ball [skills], he's good taking off on the ball, striking blocks, screening at the line of scrimmage. He's great."

Considering the way Williams played that season, when he graded out as not just one of the best defensive players on his team, but in the nation, few would argue.

“We feed off each other” Williams said about playing alongside both Davis and Isaiah Buggs, who also went on to play in the NFL.

“When all of us are freaks, we’re all good.”

Quinnen Williams

Even a year previous few would have believed that the player wearing No. 92 would be the one to replace first-round draft pick Da’Ron Payne at the nose position in the base formation. Of course, a lot has changed during those 12 months.

When Williams arrived as part the recruiting Class of 2016 out of Wenonah High School, located just southwest of Birmingham, he was thought to be a strong-side defensive end and maybe even a candidate to play Jack, the hybrid end/linebacker spot now occupied by Anfernee Jennings.

Williams was listed as weighing 265 pounds.

He worked his way up to near 300 pounds and looked like a completely different player, regularly making a push up the middle to stifle the run and collapse the pocket.

At 6 foot 4 he was just a shade smaller than Payne during his final season (6-3, 308), but with everyone looking up at Davis few seemed to notice.

“An animal,” was how Williams described Davis. “Raekwon’s just a different human. He’s so huge and he’s so athletic to be that big and strong and never get tired. So, he’s just an animal I’ve never seen before.”

But Williams’ development between the proven Buggs and the immense Davis didn’t just key the line, maybe the entire defense.

Nose tackle wasn’t just a crucial spot horizontally, it was vertically as well because Alabama didn’t have a single returning starter in the middle of the field with two new interior linebackers and two new safeties.

If the man over the center got pushed back it could be like watching 10 bowling pins getting knocked over. That’s why the technique aspect was so important.

It turned out to be Williams’ biggest strength.

During the 2016 season he spent a lot of time working with players like Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson, top-notch defensive linemen known for their technique. Apparently, he was paying attention.

“He’s really technical, really sound,” offensive tackle Jonah Williams said. “He has great fundamentals, good hand usage, all that stuff, so he’s definitely a challenge.

“Jon was obviously a technician and I think he definitely took some of that as far as hand fighting and hand usage goes. He’s always in good position, stuff like that. He doesn’t give his chest, so it’s difficult to (go against him).”

The first strong sign that the group was working well together under the direction of new defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski happened in the spring, when the pass-rush dominated A-Day and made things miserable for the quarterbacks.

The second occurred during fall camp, when the revamped defense with at least eight new starters was expected to struggle against the veteran offense. Only that didn’t happen during the scrimmages.

"He's really played well,” Saban said about Williams. “I think he's one of the guys that I'm really proud of.

“If you look at him as a young player, how he's developed and what he's grown into, improving himself physically, having a lot of maturity, really plays with a lot of effort, really smart player. I think he's one of our most productive guys up front."

Call them Big Pooh (a nickname Buggs has always had) and Q, with the massive rock on the end that quarterbacks didn’t dare try to pass over unless going deep.

Maybe they should have gone by Freak 1, Freak 2 and Freak 3.

“He's a freak,” Davis said again about Williams. “He just is a freak.”

Alabama Crimson Tide defensive tackle Quinnen Williams in the 2019 National Championship Game.
Jan 7, 2019; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive tackle Quinnen Williams (92) smiles prior to the game against the Clemson Tigers during the 2019 College Football Playoff Championship game at Levi's Stadium. / Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

See also: The Crimson Tide's Quarterback Competition for the Ages

Next up: 11-15

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Christopher Walsh


Christopher Walsh is the founder and publisher of BamaCentral, which first published in 2018. He's covered the Crimson Tide since 2004, and is the author of 26 books including Decade of Dominance, 100 Things Crimson Tide Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Nick Saban vs. College Football, and Bama Dynasty: The Crimson Tide's Road to College Football Immortality. He's an eight-time honoree of Football Writers Association of America awards and three-time winner of the Herby Kirby Memorial Award, the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s highest writing honor for story of the year. In 2022, he was named one of the 50 Legends of the ASWA. Previous beats include the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, along with Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks. Originally from Minnesota and a graduate of the University of New Hampshire, he currently resides in Tuscaloosa.