The Saban 250: 81-90 Includes the Once Forgotten Player, Josh Jacobs

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 Josh Jacobs (8) against the Clemson Tigers during the 2019 College Football Playoff Championship game at Levi's Stadium.
Jan 7, 2019; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Josh Jacobs (8) against the Clemson Tigers during the 2019 College Football Playoff Championship game at Levi's Stadium. / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
In this story:

He couldn’t miss him when the man who would change his life entered the gym, but it was the big shiny ring that really got his attention.

It was January 2016, less than a month until National Signing Day, and right after the University of Alabama had won another national championship under Nick Saban. Although Josh Jacobs had led the state of Oklahoma in rushing, he was barely a blip on the recruiting map. Between playing as a sort of wildcat quarterback his senior season, McLain Senior High in Tulsa having not produced a big-time prospect in years and Jacobs doing other things than football camps during the offseason, he was still a virtual unknown on the national scene.

That was until his coach put some of Jacobs’ highlights on social media to promote the star player who didn’t have a single Division I scholarship offer. New Mexico came calling first, but Alabama, still looking to add a running back, quickly sent Burton Burns to put eyes on him, even if it was during a practice for another sport.

“I heard him walk in because we had closed basketball practice, so you see him,” Jacobs said about the popular position coach who had mentored two Heisman Trophy winners. “The first thing I noticed was the ring as soon as he came in.

“Once he talked to me, he said he had to go meet somebody else, so he left, but he ended up coming back 10 minutes later and we talked for an hour. So from then on, I knew that was the choice I wanted to make.”

Actually, what Burns did was call Saban, who had seen Jacobs’ tape and statistics and thought both were too good to be true. Jacobs had missed part of his junior year due to an injury, but as a senior, he averaged 15.1 yards per carry and 245.8 yards per game. Overall, he finished his career at McLain with 5,372 rushing yards and 56 touchdowns.

"Well, there’s got to be something wrong with the guy," Saban said over the phone, only there wasn’t. The more Alabama looked into Jacobs, the more the coaches were dumbfounded that he was still available.

“It’s really refreshing. He has his head on straight," McLain coach Jarvis Payne told Bleacher Report. "He’s sort of an old-school kid, he’s really not into video games and stuff, he gets outside. He likes playing basketball and hanging out with his friends, and he always includes them in everything."

Jacobs made a last-minute visit to Tuscaloosa and eventually picked Alabama over Missouri and Oklahoma. Even Sooners coach Bob Stoops called his recruitment "probably unprecedented," but with a loaded backfield, he had also tried to sign him as a wide receiver.

It’s now all sort of fitting, especially considering the way Jacobs appeared to come out of nowhere to start contributing with the Crimson Tide. It really began with his first two career touchdowns as a reserve against Kent State (Saban's alma mater), followed by a 100-yard rushing performance against Kentucky in 2016.

His first receiving touchdown, 18 yards, came against Ole Miss in 2017 off a play-action, with sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts rolling to his right, looking like he’s going to throw to either junior wide receiver Calvin Ridley along the sideline, or freshman Jerry Jeudy or DeVonta Smith running long crossing routes. The play was designed to have Jacobs, the original decoy, sort of get lost behind the play and become the actual target. It had worked all week in practice, and sure enough, the Rebels seemed to forget about him as well.

Statistically, Jacobs didn't do much in the game, but it was important for two reasons: It signaled that Alabama was looking for ways to get him on the field and more involved in the offense, and he was emerging as a multi-threat player.

Those watching the Crimson Tide closely (and in Oklahoma) already knew that Jacobs was the real thing, though. Despite his unconventional addition, he tallied 567 rushing yards (averaging 6.7 yards per carry) and four touchdowns as a freshman, which was fourth on the Crimson Tide behind Hurts, Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough. He also made 14 receptions, which tied Harris for the lead among running backs, while edging him in receiving yards 156-99.

“I really don’t think about it too much,” Jacobs said of catching passes out of the backfield. “I kind of just like go with it. It’s been working, so whatever’s best for the team is cool with me.” But he did admit: “I can do more than just run. They can use me in different packages as a receiver and all that. That’s probably the best thing.”

It was sort of a new wrinkle for the Crimson Tide offense under coordinator Brian Daboll, who liked to get as many players involved in the passing game as possible. While Harris, Scarbrough and freshman Najee Harris had been more involved, Jacobs may have been the best receiver of them all. After missing the first two games of the season with a hamstring injury, his return gave the Crimson Tide not only another explosive player, but another contributor who can help keep the running back corps fresh and from wearing down.

“I think their variations of style might affect the defense a little bit, in terms of the type of runners that each one of them are, what their skillsets and strengths are may affect a defense to some degree,” Saban said. “And I think it’s sort of unique to have that kind of depth.”

The Saban 250: 81-90

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

81. Ronnie Harrison, S, 2015-17

• 2017 second-team All-American
• 2017 All-SEC
• Third-round selection in 2018 NFL Draft
• Scored two touchdowns as a sophomore, on an interception and fumble recovery, and was credited with 86 tackles
• Had 74 tackles and three interceptions during final season
• Made 174 stops, including seven for a loss and 3.5 sacks, and made seven interceptions

82. Christian Barmore, DT, 2019-20

• 2020 All-SEC
• Second-round pick in 2021 NFL Draft
• In 24 career games over two seasons, had 63 tackles, including 15.5 for a loss and 10 sacks, to go with five passes defended and three forced fumbles
• In 2020, had 37 tackles, including a team-high eight sacks to rank second in the SEC. Also had 9.5 tackles for loss to go with six quarterback pressures, to go with three passes knocked down and three forced fumbles
• Named Defensive Most Valuable Player in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game
• After earning a rotation spot as a redshirt freshman was credited with 26 tackles, including six for loss and two sacks, plus five quarterback pressures and two pass breakups

83. Bradley Bozeman, OL, 2014-17

• 2017 second-team All-American
• 2017 All-SEC
• Sixth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft
• Team captain
• Made 31 career starts at center
• Graded out at an average of 86.2 percent as a senior with 19 knockdown blocks, just eight missed assignments and six mental errors in 866 snaps (98.4 success rate). Allowed two sacks all season and four pressures

84. Anfernee Jennings, LB, 2016-19

• 2019 All-SEC
• Third-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft
• Three-year starter who sustained a scary knee injury in the 2017 College Football Playoff
• As a senior notched eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss, third most in the SEC. Was credited with 83 tackles. eight quarterback pressures, five pass breakups and one forced fumble
• Made 193 career tackles, including 33.5 for a loss and 14.5 sacks
• Team captain

85. Glen Coffee, RB, 2005-08

• 2008 All-SEC
• Third-round pick in 2009 NFL Draft
• As the full-time starter in 2008, had 1,383 rushing yards on 233 carries and 10 rushing touchdowns
• His 218 rushing yards against Kentucky were the most by an Alabama running back since Shaun Alexander in 1996
• Finished career with 410 carries for 2,107 rushing yards, 351 receiving and 16 touchdowns

Alabama running back Glen Coffee on the cover of Sports Illustrated
Alabama running back Glen Coffee on the cover of Sports Illustrated /

86. James Carpenter, T, 2009-10

• 2010 All-SEC; 2009 second-team All-SEC
• No. 25-overall pick 2011 NFL Draft
• The junior-college transfer started all 27 games at left tackle during two seasons

87. Brian Robinson Jr., RB, 2017-20

• 2021 All-SEC
• Third-round selection in 2022 NFL Draft
• Showed a lot of patience before taking over starting duties in 2021, when he had 271 carries for 1,343 yards and 14 touchdowns, plus had35 receptions for 296 yards and two more scores.
• Finished career with 545 carries for 2,704 yards and 30 rushing touchdowns. Caught 52 passes for 296 yards and two receiving touchdowns.
• Cotton Bowl offensive MVP after grinding out 204 yards on 25 carries against Cincinnati (7.8 average). The 204 yards set an Alabama bowl record.

88. Caleb Downs, S, 2023

• 2023 All-American; second-team All-American
• Named the Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year
• 2023 SEC Freshman of the Year
• 2023 All-SEC
• During only season with Crimson Tide ranked fourth in the SEC with 107 total tackles, including 3.5 for a loss
• Was the first Alabama freshman to lead his team in tackles in program history (dating back to at least 1970), and he had the most stops by an Alabama freshman in the last 50-plus years
• Was part of four turnovers with two interceptions, a fumbled fumble and a fumble recovery. Broke up four passes. Added four punt returns for a combined 87 yards with a touchdown

89. Josh Jacobs, RB, 2016-18

• No. 24-overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft
• Versatile athlete who averaged 28.6 yards per kickoff return for his career, ranking third in Alabama history
• Named MVP of SEC Championship Game
• Scored 15 touchdowns (11 rushing, three receiving, one kickoff return) his final season. His 30.6 yards per return average led the SEC and was second in the FBS
• Tied for the 2018 team lead in all-purpose yards with 1,315 to average 87.7 yards per game, and was second in scoring with 90 points
• Finished Crimson Tide career with 1,491 rushing yards on 251 carries and 16 touchdowns, plus had 48 receptions for 571 yards and five more touchdowns. On special teams, returned 18 kicks for 514 yards and one touchdown
• As a freshman, recovered Derrick Gore’s blocked punt in the end zone for a touchdown against Florida in the SEC Championship Game

90. Blake Sims, QB, 2011-14

• 2014 second-team All-SEC
• Broke AJ McCarron’s single-season passing record with 3,487 yards, to go with 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions
• Threw for 445 yards against Florida, second most in a game in Crimson Tide history
• Led Alabama into the inaugural College Football Playoff as the top-seeded team
• Team captain
• Played running back and wide receiver before establishing himself at quarterback

Alabama quarterback Blake Sims on the cover of Sports Illustrated's 214 college football playoff preview
Alabama quarterback Blake Sims on the cover of Sports Illustrated's 214 college football playoff preview /

Despite the doubters, he was arguably the best story in college football during the 2014 season.

They had questioned if he could play quarterback at this level for a program like Alabama. He responded by winning the starting job.

They didn’t respect his arm strength. He had touchdown passes on the first offensive play against both Florida and Tennessee, and posted comparable numbers to his predecessor. 

They didn’t think he could win on the road. Blake Sims led a huge last minute-comeback at maybe the toughest venue in college football, LSU.

“I felt good as a quarterback,” Sims after helping lead the 20-13 overtime victory at Death Valley. “I knew my team had my back, but that just shows other people why I think the way I think. They played their hearts out.

“When they got on the plane, on the way back to Tuscaloosa, everybody was knocked out from being so tired. When you're in the air and you look back on the plane and everybody's tired, you feel good, because you know everybody gave it their all.”

This from there the guy who first tried safety, wide receiver and running back before finally becoming a quarterback for the Crimson Tide, and as CBS announcer Vern Lundquist would say “Oh my,” made the most of the opportunity. 

In the neutral-site opener in Atlanta he set program records for most completions and attempts by a quarterback in his debut as a starter, going 24 of 33 for 250 yards, as Alabama defeated West Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic.

Sims recorded the second-most passing yards in a single game in program history, 445 against Florida, trailing only Scott Hunter’s 484 in 1969. It was also the most ever by at Alabama quarterback at Bryant-Denny Stadium. 

Against Tennessee, he helped teammate Amari Cooper set the Crimson Tide record for receiving yards in a single game, plus the quarterback’s 43-yard touchdown was at that point the team’s longest rushing play of the season.

“I’m not surprised at all because me and Blake having been working since the spring on our timing and everything like that,” Cooper said about the real secret to Sims’ success.

He put in the time. He put in the effort. When training camp came around in the fall, and Sims was in the midst of a high-profile quarterback competition, things started to really click.

“There has been a chemistry there that Blake’s been around these guys for a long time,” head coach Nick Saban said. “They know him well. He’s performed well. I think their confidence in him has gone up and I think that when the leaders on the team are good people and they play effectively, I think it enhances their ability and capacity to affect other people, which is what leadership was all about.”

“I think he's made a lot of improvement.”

Perhaps the reason why so many people had a hard time believing that Sims would do so well was he hardly took the conventional route to the starting lineup. Yes, he was considered a top-notch prospect out of Gainesville, Ga., but not even the recruiting services knew which position he would end up playing at the collegiate level. They listed him at “athlete.”

For years the only other thing one heard about Sims were the regular comments by his teammates like, “He’s a very good guy,” like wide receiver DeAndrew White said.

But starting quarterback? At Alabama?

The Crimson Tide’s previous quarterbacks had been well established under Saban, with AJ McCarron starting all 40 games over the three years, and before him Greg McElroy started 27. Factor in John Parker Wilson and those three had accounted for every start since the 2006 season opener.

Yet long before Sims started winning over the fans and media, he first had to do so in his own locker room. While those on the outside viewed the pairing as something unlikely, especially after he struggled on A-Day (the final scrimmage of spring), his teammates started to fall in line.

Fueled by the critics Sims kept plugging along, but it wasn’t until Alabama was a couple games into the schedule that the competition was deemed over. Along the way the dual-threat posted some very impressive numbers – especially in passing efficiency and third-down conversions – while Alabama made a run at being part of the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff.

“I think that trust is the big, big thing for us,” he said, while another statement in early November might have best exemplified his rise: “We’re not trying to do things until we do it right. We know it’s going to be that one play that’s going to win us the game. We want to be the ones that win that play, trying to do things until we can’t do it wrong.”

It paid off at LSU, where he almost mimicked what McCarron pulled off two years earlier, lead a clutch drive at Death Valley and then head home with a potentially career-changing win. A big difference in this case was that the Tigers were so confident of winning that an announcement had already been made in the stadium asking fans to please refrain from rushing the field. Oops.

With no time outs he completed 4 of 6 passes while leading a 47-second drive down to the 10-yard line, with kicker Adam Griffith making the field goal to send the game into overtime. Sims subsequently threw the game-winning touchdown pass to White. 

“It was big,” Sims said. “It let the team know that we're capable of doing anything that we need to do. It showed that we've got the poise to, when times were going rough for us the whole game, when it's time for the clutch time we can pull it through.”

See Also: 91-100 Jahmyr Gibbs or Henry To'oTo'o, Which Transfer Do You Have?

Next up: No. 71-80


Published |Modified
Christopher Walsh

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.