The Saban 250, 6-10: The Great Debate, Julio Jones vs. DeVonta Smith

BamaCentral marks the end of the Nick Saban coaching era with the definitive rankings of his top 250 players with the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Nov 26, 2010; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide receiver Julio Jones (8) avoids the tackle of Auburn Tiger safety Mike McNeil (26) during the first half at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Nov 26, 2010; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide receiver Julio Jones (8) avoids the tackle of Auburn Tiger safety Mike McNeil (26) during the first half at Bryant-Denny Stadium. / John Reed-USA TODAY Sports
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Let's be clear on something, Julio Jones could be first on this list. Any discussion about which players had the biggest impact on on Alabama football during the Nick Saban era can easily start with the wide receiver credited with getting the roster really rolling as the coaches' first elite signee and will almost certainly end up enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But the cornerstone of the Saban 250 is accomplishments, specifically with the Crimson Tide. Sure it would be fun to speculate what kind of career Jones would have had if Saban's offense had opened up when the wide receiver was still there, his resume is otherwise set. However, Jones will never enter the College Football Hall of Fame under its current rules because he doesn't qualify.

DeVonta Smith doesn't have that problem, obviously, after winning the Heisman Trophy in 2020. For those who followed that team, Alabama had other strong contenders with Mac Jones, Najee Harris, who finished third and fifth in the voting respectively, while the Crimson Tide ran the table. Yet Smith, was the one who made the offense so dangerous, and a threat to score nearly anywhere on the field at any time.

In 2009, Jones played a huge part in Mark Ingram II winning the game's most prestigious award, as he forced defenses to make a choice: Either crowd the box and try and take away the running attack, or play back more and take their chances with the big wide receiver. It was pick your poison.

“Just because Julio isn’t catching balls doesn’t mean he’s not involved,” quarterback Greg McElroy said during the 2009 season. “He’s very involved. There are four eyes on him every time he comes near the ball, the safety and the corner. He makes a difference whether he catches a ball or not. 

“He’s a great player and that’s why we can’t get him the ball sometimes. Honestly, I’m going to put the ball where my reads take me. The fact that Julio is such a great target, and a great talent, people are going to do their best to limit his touches and production.”

At the time, Saban used one of his favorite coaching expressions, “There is an old saying, if you take what the defense gives they will eventually give you the game." Either way things almost always worked to the Crimson Tide's advantage, as Alabama ran the table in 2009, and the program just kept going.

Former Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones on the cover of Sports Illustrated
Julio Jones on the cover of Sports Illustrated /

When Jones had his biggest game with the Crimson Tide statistically in 2010, McElroy needed just three snaps at Tennessee to figure out what was coming, and the first two plays had been Ingram runs. No. 8 lined up to the right, worked his way downfield into a gap and turned toward the sideline where the pass sailed perfectly over the cornerback and into Jones’ hands before the Volunteers’ safety could get over to help out.

It wasn’t the impressive 14-yard catch that got McElroy’s attention so much, rather the coverage. It told him that the Volunteers were going to try and man-up against Jones, with just one defender, and take their chances he wouldn’t torch them.

“It’s almost, I don’t want to say disrespect, any time they press Julio without a safety over the top it’s like ‘What are you doing?’ is kind of what I’m thinking in my head,” said McElroy, who proceeded to repeatedly burn the home team by going to his favorite receiver again, and again, and again …

When the cigar smoke eventually cleared from Neyland Stadium that night, Jones had caught 12 passes and set an Alabama single-game receiving record with 221 yards. Alabama crushed one of its biggest rivals, 41-10.

“I was waiting for that to happen,” said safety Robert Lester, who grew up about a block away from Jones in Foley, Ala.

What made it even more remarkable was that Jones did it less than two weeks after having surgery to repair a fracture in his left hand.

“I’m not surprised anything that Julio does,” said Ingram, who had seen his teammate also endure shoulder, knee and wrist injuries along with a sports hernia. “He’s a warrior. He just goes out and gives his all every time he steps on the field. If he can play, he’s going to play. If he hurts little bit, he’ll play through the pain.”

For every Alabama legend there’s always that one game that no one ever seems to forget, and for Jones this was clearly it. He punished Tennessee with nearly every kind of reception possible: slants, diving, sideline with only his toes in-bounds, and, of course, deep with completions of 47, 42 and 38 yards.

Yet every time Jones touched the ball he felt the bone-jarring pain, and still tried to make his trademark downfield blocks – albeit scaled down a bit.

“As far as blocking my man and dominating, I had some that were good but I didn’t block like the way I want to block,” he said, noting that’s why he doesn't necessarily consider Tennessee his best game at Alabama. “I block so they can’t get to the runner, but my blocks I want to take them to the sideline, on the ground. I really couldn’t do that.”

Jones initially sustained the fracture after making his first reception at South Carolina ealier that Octoebr. His stiff-arm got caught up in the defender who basically tried rip his head off.

“I knew after that play because I went to the sideline and my hand started hurting,” Jones described. “I pressed down on my hand and it was moving, the bone was moving. I didn’t tell the trainers but I told the strength coach, Scott Cochran: ‘I think I just broke my hand, don’t tell nobody. I’m going to wait until halftime.’ I didn’t want to make it a big issue.”

Somehow, Jones remarkably finished with eight receptions for 118 yards and one touchdown. The only thing that hurt worse than making a catch was trying open his palms like he would to field a kick, thus the reason he was pulled on special teams. The next day doctors cut into the outer part of his hand below the ring finger.

“There are six screws in there,” he said pointing to the scar, in addition to the plate.

The subsequent week coaches limited him during practices and Jones was pulled near the end of the first quarter against Ole Miss after aggravating the injury while trying to catch a slant pass that bent his finger back.

“My hand had no strength,” Jones said. “They had to cut through the muscle in my hand to get to the bone. So the Ole Miss game it was feeling like the South Carolina game, when it broke. But I tried to go out there and see what I could do but my hand didn’t have any strength.”

Consequently, when he and Saban met the next day, the Sunday before visiting Knoxville, Jones asked that the coaching staff not hold him back during practices, that he fully participate and endure the pain. It was the only way he could be ready to face the Volunteers.

“Julio obviously is a special talent,” the coach said.

The Saban 250: 6-10

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

6. Julio Jones, WR, 2008-10

• 2010 second-team All-American
• 2010 All-SEC; 2008-09 second-team All-SEC
• Sixth-overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft
• Set an Alabama single-season record with 78 catches, to go with 1,133 yards and seven touchdowns
• Jones ended his Alabama career second in career receptions (179) and yards (2,653) and fourth in touchdown catches (15)
• He had eight career 100-yard receiving games (second in school history)

7. Will Anderson Jr., OLB, 2020-22

• Won 2022 Chuck Bednarik Award
• Won 2021, 2022 Bronko Nagurski Award (only the second player in history to win the honor twice)
• Won 2022 Lombardi/Rotary Award
• Won 2022 Lott Impact Trophy
• Unanimous All-American 2021-2022
• 2020 Shaun Alexander-FWAA Freshman of the Year
• 2021-22 SEC Defensive Player of the Year
• 2021-22 All-SEC
• Third-overall selection of 2023 NFL Draft
• Team captain 2021-22
• Nicknamed "The Terminator," finished his three years at Alabama ranked second on the career sacks list with 34.5, trailing only Derrick Thomas
• Second in Alabama history behind Thomas in tackles for loss with 62
• Played in 41 games over three years and made 205 tackles
• In 2022: led the SEC and tied for sixth nationally in sacks with 10, also topped the conference and tied for eighth nationally with 17 tackles for loss. Also had 51 tackles, 12 quarterback hurries , one pass breakup, a blocked field goal and an interception that he returned 25 yards for a touchdown
• In 2021, led the nation in tackles for loss with 34.5, second in the Alabama single-season history. Also topped the nation with 17.5 sacks. Had 102 total tackles, nine quarterback hurries and three pass breakups
• Made an immediate impact for the 2020 national champions, starting 13 games. He made 52 tackles, 10.5 for loss with seven sacks

8. Barrett Jones, OL, 2009-12

• Won 2011 Outland Trophy
• 2011 Wuerffel Trophy
• 2012 William V. Campbell Trophy
• Rimington Trophy
• 2011 ARA Sportsmanship Award
• 2011 Jacobs Blocking Trophy
• 2011 unanimous All-American (tackle)
• 2012 consensus All-American (center)
• 2013 SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year
• 2011-12 SEC Football Scholar-Athlete of the Year
• 2011-12 All-SEC; 2010 second-team All-SEC
• Fourth-round selection in the 2013 NFL Draft
• Played through Lisfranc injury with at least two torn ligaments suffered in SEC Championship Game. Also played in national title game before having surgery that kept him out of the NFL combine
• Team captain

9. Jonathan Allen, DE, 2013-16

• Won 2016 Chuck Bednarik Award
• Won 2016 Bronko Nagurski Award
• Won 2016 Lombardi Award
• Won 2016 Ted Hendricks Award
• 2016 unanimous All-American
• 2016 SEC Defensive Player of the Year
• 2015-16 All-SEC
• 17th-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft
• Finished his career ranked second in Alabama history for career sacks with 28.5, only behind College and Pro Football Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas
• Finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting
• Appeared in 57 career games. Notched 154 career tackles (78 solo), 45.0 tackles for loss, seven pass breakups and three forced fumbles
• Team captain

10. Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, 2015-17

• Won 2017 Chuck Bednarik Award
• Won 2017 Jim Thorpe Award
• Became just the third player in history to win both the Bednarik and Thorpe during the same season joining eventual NFL Hall of Famer Charles Woodson and All-Pro Patrick Peterson
• 2016 consensus All-American; 2017 unanimous All-American
• 2016-17 All-SEC
• No. 11-overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft
• Returned two picks for scores in 2016 and four interceptions for touchdowns during his career to set the Alabama all-time mark for pick-sixes
• Was credited with 171 career tackles, including 16.5 for a loss and five sacks, and nine interceptions. He returned four of them for touchdowns
• Team captain

Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick on the cover of Sports Illustrated
Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick on the cover of the Sports Illustrated 2017-18 college football season preview /

Stats Didn't Tell the Full Story with Minkah Fitzpatrick Either

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — On his list of personal goals, Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick hoped to lead the NCAA in interceptions during his final season with the Crimson Tide in 2017. It didn't quite happen. He ended up with one, seven behind the leader, in part due to where he was often lining up to help his team most, and opponents being aware of where No. 29 lined up on each play. They were steadfast in making sure he didn’t have the opportunity.

It’s one of the few things he wasn’t able to accomplish during his illustrious collegiate career. Nevertheless, he was still named he winner of the 2017 Jim Thorpe Award as the best defensive back in college football, and the Chuck Bednarik Award as the most outstanding defensive player that season. He was just the third player in college football history to win both during one season.

“Minkah has just got all the right stuff,” said Nick Saban, who at times compared Fitzpatrick to himself in terms of his mental approach to the game. “He’s got a lot of ability, but he’s really driven in terms of work ethic, preparation, wantng to be successful. Just really great character and attitude, doesn’t get affected by a lot of other external factors, and just has a really high standard for what he expects of himself.”

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Fitzpatrick at Alabama was that Saban had to be talked into recruiting the talented prospect from New Jersey. Once he got on campus, though, and the coaching staff immediately knew knew it had a budding star. He played in 42 games, missing just two against FCS opponents (Charleston Southern as a freshman and Mercer during his final season as an injury precaution), before turning pro a year early.

Fitzpatrick, who for a while in high school worked to help his family make ends meet after Hurricane Irene destroyed their home, was projected by most draft experts to be a top-10 selection. Besides, all three years he was at Alabama, the Crimson Tide played for the national championship, and won two.

“It wasn’t a very difficult one,” he said of the decision. “It was a little bittersweet."

Fitzpatrick finished his career with 171 tackles, including 16.5 for a loss and five sacks, plus nine interceptions and three forced fumbles. His four pick-6s set an Alabama record, as did his 100-yard interceprion return against Arkansas. The 186 return yards in a single season were second in the record book behind Eddie Jackson’s 230 in 2015.

But there were three things especially that Fitzpatrick was known for at Alabama, his toughness, his versatility and his leading by example. The often went hand in hand.

For example, even though Fitzpatrick came to Alabama with the hope of playing at cornerback in preparation for the next level, he slip over to strong safety in the base defense near the end of the
2016 season after Jackson got hurt. He also played a lot at star, the extra defensive back in the slot when the nickel package was used in obvious passing situations when that's where he was needed. Physically, those positions took more of a toll on him.

“A lot of people don’t realize a lot of those guys have actually been banged up all year, especially Minkah,” said Jeremy Pruitt, Alabama's defensive coordinator in 2016-17. “Minkah’s had a lot of things going on early in the year.”

Pruitt didn’t go into details, but being banged up was in addition to a hamstring injury at LSU, plus the bruised kidney that sent him to the hospital after the Clemson victory in New Orleans in the 2017-18 College Football Playoff semifinal. Fitzpatrick played his final game, the national championship against Georgia, wearing a flak jacket for extra protection, yet didn’t complain. He also never denied the rumor that he had been urinating blood.

“I’m good, I was fine,” was all he would offer. "I had to wear some extra protection, but I was good.”

Moreover, for doing a lot of things that he didn’t brag about, such as his mission trip to Costa Rica, Fitzpatrick was named to the Allstate American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Good Works Team, and was a finalist for the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year.

“As good a player Minkah Fitzpatrick is on the field, he’s a better person off the field,” Pruitt said. “That tells you what kind of person he is.”

It's also telling because he might have been the best defensive back to ever play for the Crimson Tide.

See also: Who had the Better Alabama Career, AJ McCarron or Mac Jones?

Next up: 1-5

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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.