The Saban 250: 71-80 Features Two Key Leaders, Damien Harris and Greg McElroy

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 7, 2019; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Damien Harris (34) against the Clemson Tigers in the 2019 College Football Playoff Championship game at Levi's Stadium.
Jan 7, 2019; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Damien Harris (34) against the Clemson Tigers in the 2019 College Football Playoff Championship game at Levi's Stadium. / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
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There was no press conference, no fanfare. Just a simple post on social media and that was enough. On March 25, former University of Alabama running back Damien Harris announced his retirement from football at the age of 27.

For anyone who had gotten to know Harris during his career, it made perfect sense, both the decision and the way he went about it — especially after the way his final season in 2023 with the Buffalo Bills ended during Week 6 against the New York Giants. For those who don't remember, he was taken off the field in an ambulance with neck and concussion injuries.

"Today I am grateful I have found the strength to walk away from the game I love so much," Harris posted a handful of days after his first son was born. And that was it.

Of all the football players Nick Saban coached at Alabama, few, if any, continually demonstrated how to deal with different kinds of adversity than the once-prized prospect out of Madison Southern High School in Kentucky.

Go back to the end of the 2016 season, the one Harris didn't get a national championship ring.

One can try and empathize, but no one else really understands how it feels. To see the title slip away was difficult for the Crimson Tide, especially those who could only helplessly watch the final plays against Clemson from the sideline.

“Losing the national championship with one second left on the clock, I still don’t know,” Harris said. “I remember people were asking me about it in the locker room right after the game, and I didn’t know what to say. And I still don’t know what to say.”

The thing is, he could have been talking about his lack of involvement in the game instead of how the Crimson Tide lost 35-31. Alabama understandably opted for more of a power rushing attack, and hot hand, with Bo Scarbrough after his 180 rushing yards on 19 carries against Washington in the Peach Bowl semifinal.

But Harris was the real workhorse of the Crimson Tide  running backs, both that season and throughout his career. He’s the one who gained 1,037 yards on 146 attempts and started 11 games before the College Football Playoff, when Scarbrough went off.

Moreover, while quarterback Jalen Hurts ran into the end zone 13 times and Scarbrough notched 11, Harris had just two rushing touchdowns.

“None of that matters, who gets the ball more, who has the better stats,” said Harris while emphasizing a big- picture approach.

Few seemed to appreciate how tough of a spot he was in. Go back yet another season, and one of the Crimson Tide’s biggest concerns was that there was no veteran running back for the offense to rely upon, although that uncertainty was completely overshadowed by the quarterback competition eventually won by Hurts.

Additionally, whoever stepped up as Alabama’s primary tailback also would be following Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. In 2015, Henry established a new SEC single-season rushing record of 2,219 yards — topping the likes of Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson (albeit in more games).

Of course, Harris was the one to step up. He’s the one who knew the offense best and quickly became the running back the Crimson Tide relied on the most. Despite being carted to the locker room with an ankle injury against Kent State, he averaged 69.1 rushing yards per game, which went up to 86.3 when Alabama faced one of its 10 ranked opponents.

However, his four 100-yard games against Southern California, Ole Miss, Arkansas and Texas A &M, all occurred during the first two months of the schedule. Over the last six games the only time he had double-digit carries was against Chattanooga (13 attempts, 91 yards).

In the playoff, Harris had nine carries for 30 yards vs. Washington, and his final stat line against Clemson was five carries for 24 yards. Even after Scarbrough got hurt, he still didn’t get the ball much.

In fairness to Harris, Alabama’s rushing game was having problems before Scarbrough suffered a fractured leg late in the third quarter. It went from having 10 carries for 71 yards in the first quarter, and 11 for 72 in the second, to just five for 21 in the third. The first three offensive possessions of the second half were three-and-outs, followed by the 68-yard touchdown pass to tight end O.J. Howard as Alabama went into the final 15 minutes ahead 24-14.

On Alabama’s first offensive snap of the fourth quarter Harris gained 13 yards. He only touched the ball twice more, a 3-yard gain on first down, and a 5-yard carry on fourth-and-1 after Clemson had taken the lead. You know the rest.

"We think Damien had a great year last year,” Nick Saban said in the spring of 2017. “I think he was hurt a bit toward the end of the season. Probably slowed him down a little bit. “I think until he got injured he was probably our most consistent guy at that position, especially to do all things relative to third-down blocking, understanding protection, being a halfway decent receiver. I just think that if he could play at a high standard of consistency all the time, which he’s shown at times, but to be able to sustain that, I think that would certainly sort of be the next step for Damien because he’s certainly played some good football for us.”

It turned out to be the first of three straight seasons in which Harris would lead the unit, and at least flirt with the 1,000-yard mark. He also did so as the running back room got only more crowded, as Alabama landed Najee Harris, who some considered the best player in the signing Class of 2017.

T.J. Yeldon went through something similar playing ahead of Henry in 2014. Few seemed to remember that he was coming off a season with 1,108 rushing yards in 2012, and 1,235 in 2013, when Henry still was trying to figure things out. It all really didn’t start to click for the then-freshman until bowl practices.

But Yeldon didn’t have such a deep position group, either. In addition to Najee Harris, the depth chart also included Josh Jacobs and B.J. Emmons, and true freshman Brian Robinson Jr. It led to a lot of speculation about how the coaching staff could keep everyone happy because as Saban pointed out numerous times over the years there’s only one ball.

“One of the strengths of the team is the running back position,” Saban said. “We’ll have to find roles for some of those guys because they’re some of our best players at that position."

The key was the approach of the player at the top, and his non-complaing approach day in and day out. No. 34 led the running backs through drills every day. He’s also the one Alabama made available to reporters on a regular basis, and got asked questions like how the players handled all the turnover at offensive coordinator with the departures of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, and the addition of Brian Daboll from the New England Patriots.

“We didn’t really have a choice but to just kind of accept it,” he said. “You just have to have a positive outlook and be like, ‘Coach Saban wouldn’t put us in any sort of position that wasn’t beneficial for us.’ That’s how we looked at it, that he was only trying to do what was going to help us be the most successful. So at the end of the day, it’s what he says.”

That too was an answer that gave a glimpse about how the running back viewed his role on the Crimson Tide. He was sort of like the football equivalent of the saying about the type of person one dates and the kind they marry.

“There’s always room for improvement, and there’s plenty of plays, plenty of situations last year where they have it on film where I didn’t do the right thing, I didn’t do what I was supposed to do,” said Damien Harris, who helped lead Alabama to the 2017 national title. “Just looking at those things, I know there’s always something to improve on. And even the fact that I had a little success, that just makes me want to have even more success in the upcoming years. You can always get better and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

The Saban 250: 71-80

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

71. JC Latham, OL, 2021-23

• 2023 second-team All-American
• 2023 All-SEC
• Seventh-overall selection in 2024 NFL Draft
• Made 27 starts for Alabama at right tackle, and played in 14 games as a reserve guard his freshman season
• During his final season was credited with 41 knockdown blocks on 813 snaps, averaging 3.2 per game. Yielded just two sacks in 408 pass sets.

72. Ryan Anderson, LB, 2013-16

• 2016 All-SEC
• Second-round pick in 2017 NFL Draft
• Came on strong late during his junior season, recording his 9.5 tackles for loss in his last 10 games
• As a senior had 61 tackles, including a team-high 19.0 tackles for loss and nine sacks, with 10 quarterback hurries, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and three pass breakups
• Credited with 128 career tackles, including 39.5 for a loss and 19 sacks, and six fumble recoveries (six forced as well)

73. Greg McElroy, QB, 2008-10

• 2010 SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year; Football Scholar-Athlete of the Year
• Seventh-round selection in 2011 NFL Draft
• Team captain
• Starting quarterback for undefeated 2009 season. Played in title game with rib injury suffered in SEC Championship Game
• Threw for 5,691 yards and 39 touchdowns over career
• Was 197-for-325 (60.6 percent) for 2,508 yards, 17 touchdowns and four interceptions as junior
• During final season was 222-for-313 (70.9 percent) for 2,987 yards, 20 touchdowns, with five picks
• Had career passer rating of 155.4

74. Damien Harris, RB, 2015-18

• Third-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft
• Team captain
• Just missed becoming the first Alabama running back to post three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Had 876 yards his senior season
• Finished with 3,070 career rushing yards
• Averaged 6.4 yards per carry on 477 carries for his career to set the Alabama all-time career mark (minimum 400 rushes)

75. JK Scott, P, 2014-17

• 2014 All-American; 2016-17 second-team All-American
• 2014, 2016-17 All-SEC
• Fifth-round pick in 2018 NFL Draft
• Holds Alabama records for career punting yards (11,074), attempts (243), and punting average (45.6)
• Had only five punts returned as a senior. Had 27 of 54 punts inside the 20-yard line, with only four touchbacks
• Led nation with a 48.0 average as a freshman

Alabama running back Eddie Lacy on the cover of Sports Illustrated
Running back Eddie Lacy on the cover of Sports Illustrated after Alabama ran over Notre Dame for the national championship /

76. Eddie Lacy, RB, 2010-12

• 2012 All-SEC
• Second round pick 2013 NFL Draft
• As a junior had 1,322 rushing yards (6.5 average) and 19 total touchdowns
• Had 2,402 career rushing yards, 338 receiving and 32 touchdowns
• Rushed for a career-high 181 yards against Georgia in the 2012 SEC title game
• Named offensive MVP of the BCS Championship Game after having 140 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving)

77. Jalen Milroe, QB, 2021-23*

• Won the starting job as a sophomore and led Alabama to the College Football Playoff
• Named second-team All-SEC by the AP
• Completed 187 of 284 passes for 2,834 yards and 23 touchdowns, with six interceptions. Rushed 161 times for 531 yards and 12 more score, which was fifth over in the SEC.
• Ranked second in the conference and fifth nationally in passer efficiency rating at 172.2 Was also second in the SEC and seventh in Division I with a 15.16 yards per completion mark, and was second and third, respectively, by averaging 9.98 yards per pass attempt.
• Team captain

78. Ross Pierschbacher, OL, 2015-18

• 2018 All-American
• 2017 second-team All-American
• 2017 All-SEC (G); 2018 (C); 2016 second-team All-SEC (G)
• Fifth-round selection in the 2019 NFL Draft
• Team captain
• His 57 career starts, including eight in the College Football Playoff, is a record for position players at Alabama
• Was a three year starter at guard (42 starts) before switching to center as a senior
• Blocked for 31 100-yard rushing performances during career
• As senior recorded 36 knockdown blocks and allowed only a single pressure while giving up just two sacks in 962 snaps

79. Jordan Battle, DB, 2019-22

• 2021-22 second-team All-American
• 2021-22 All-SEC
• Third-round selection in 2023 NFL Draft
• Team captain 2022
• Three-year starter who over 54 career games made 251 tackles (141 solo), including 6.5 for a loss and a sack, along with 16 passes defended and six interceptions
• During final season was credited with 71 tackles, including half a stop for loss (-1 yard), to go with three pass breakups and an interception
• In 2021 tied for the team lead and was fifth in the SEC with three interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. Had 86 tackles to rank fourth on the Alabama defense, to go with six passes defended

80. Raekwon Davis, DL, 2016-19

• 2019 second-team All-American
• 2017 All-SEC; 2018-19 second-team All-SEC
• Second-round selection in the 2020 NFL draft
• Best numbers posted as a sophomore, with 69 tackles, 10 for a loss and a team-high 8.5 sacks
• As a senior, had 47 tackles including three tackles for a loss and half a sack, along with five quarterback hurries
• Finished with 176 career tackles, including 19.5 for a loss and 11.5 sacks

The QB With More Than Freckles: Greg McElroy

The Alabama football team was practicing on the SMU campus in Dallas, just outside of the Mustangs’ football stadium when the skinny kid with freckles walked up and said hello to his future.

Word spread quickly to those looking on, “There may be the next quarterback of the Crimson Tide, the one from nearly Southlake who hadn’t lost a game since eighth grade.” There may have even been a few Opie references as well.

“I just remember being very taken back at the situation,” McElroy later recalled about attending practice for the 2006 Cotton Bowl. “Just wanting to go to Alabama through the entire process but also keeping it close to the vest because being a Texas kid you have to be respectful of the state schools.

“I just remember being so proud being part of that, going to that game and going the practice and being recruited by Alabama was such a great experience.”

A couple of days later, Brodie Croyle led Alabama on a 10-play, 58-yard drive to put the Crimson Tide within field-goal range, and Jamie Christensen booted a knuckleball 45-yard field goal with no time remaining (even he called it “ugly”) to beat Texas Tech 13-10.

“Coming to Alabama, that’s what you dream of: Your last game, in the Cotton Bowl, you got two minutes to go score,” Croyle said before heading off to the National Football League.

Little did he know it, but the quarterback who would blow those dreams away was there watching, with Texas Tech the other school vying for his services. Alabama finally offered a scholarship after Tim Tebow said yes to Florida, and after visiting the campus McElroy accepted roughly two weeks later when Mike Shula made his official visit.

“I’ve always been a big fan of their school and I’m proud to have the chance to be a part of it,” McElroy said at that time. “I’m looking forward to going there and creating a legacy of our own and adding a couple of more national championships.”

Imagine what McElroy then would have thought if he knew how things would turn out. Shula fired, Nick Saban hired and two years later he would finally take the reigns as the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback. And what a season it was, winning a national title, MVP of the SEC Championship Game (beating Tebow in the process), and playing alongside Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy winner.

 “I signed up here to win football games,” McElroy said. “Whether that was to win seven games, thirteen games our first two years here, whether to win the national championship, whether it was to win the SEC Championship, I just wanted to win football games. Really, I signed up with the anticipation of hopefully someday having to play for the national championship, but also realizing that would be a dream come true and also be very difficult to get there. The fact that it was able to materialize was such a great experience.”

McElroy finally took a loss in 2010 after 19 straight wins, three short of Jay Barker’s school-best 22 to start a career. Yet his name is still all over the Crimson Tide record book.

In addition to finishing with more than 5,000 yards of total offense, there was the Third Saturday in October at Tennessee, where he helped Julio Jones set the Alabama single-game mark for receiving yards with 221. 

“During camp we were roommates and started building our chemistry there, more so than last year,” Jones said at the time. “All the time we communicated. During summer and camp, going out, doing seven-on-seven, just communicating, trying to get on the same page, telling him what I see and what he sees so we’re on the same page.

“If a guy’s on me, and he’s playing on the inside, Greg wants to go back shoulder, but I’m thinking over the top, you can’t be like that. It’s getting a lot better, but we’re never satisfied.”

That also helped explain McElroy’s success in the classroom, where he had just one B in college and was named to some of Alabama's most prestigious honor societies. He was a finalist for the William Campbell Trophy, considered the academic Heisman, applied to be a Rhodes Scholar and was considered for Sports Illustrated’s highest honor, the Sportsman of the Year.

Sports Illustrated commemorative edition cover for the 2009 national championship Alabama Crimson Tide
Sports Illustrated commemorative edition cover for the 2009 national championship Alabama Crimson Tide /

See Also: 81-90 Includes the Once Forgotten Player, Josh Jacobs

Next up: No. 61-70

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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.