The Saban 250: No. 141-150, Not All Careers Went as Expected

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 25, 2017; Auburn, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton (20) receives a hug during the fourth quarter against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Nov 25, 2017; Auburn, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton (20) receives a hug during the fourth quarter against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium. / John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When you talk about unsung heroes of Alabama national championship teams under Nick Saban, look no further than Shaun Dion Hamilton in 2017.

After moving into a starting role in 2015, he earned the starting job gig in the middle next to Butkus Award winner Reuben Foster, only to suffer a season-ending knee injury in the SEC Championship Game against Florida. At the time he was third on the Crimson Tide in tackles with 64, including nine tackles for loss and two sacks, and was considered one of the team's best run-stoppers. Moreover, he had really emerged as a team leader.

“He’s worked really hard,” Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban said at the beginning of camp, noting that Hamilton was close to being back to full strength following knee surgery. “I think he’s confident that he’s healthy. “He has a very, very good understanding of our defense, what we do, the concepts of how we play things, and that’s going to benefit him.”

However, Hamilton was largely overlooked outside of Tuscaloosa following the setback. Moreover, after watching from the sidelined when Alabama played in the College Football Playoff, he still had to work his way back in 2017 while the Crimson Tide had some other very talented linebackers waiting in the wings. He went from being in the shadow of Foster, to Rashaan Evans, while younger players Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses pushed for playing time and for their chance.

"We’re ’Bama. We just reload,” Hamilton said. “Everybody is going to embrace the challenge.”

Hamilton, exactly as many expected, did come back and played a significant role on the 2017 team, which like 2015 won the national title, plus was named a team captain. However, along the way he suffered a season-ending knee injury against LSU to close out his Crimson Tide career.

He's a glaring example of a player who overcame adversity, but one can't help but wonder what might have been under different circumstances. There are more than a few of those in the Saban 250 (ranking the players who made the biggest impact during the era).

The Saban 250: 141-150

141. Nico Johnson, LB, 2009-12

• Fourth-round selection in 2013 NFL Draft
• Had starts all four years, 20 total. Played in 51 games
• Had a career-high 54 tackles as a senior, including 16.5 tackles for a loss, and had two forced fumbles
• Finished with 163 career tackles, including 16.5 for a loss and two sacks. Made two interceptions and forced three fumbles

142. Ja'Corey Brooks, WR, 2021-23

In three seasons under Saban, had 57 catches for 896 yards, and 10 touchdowns. Had the over-the-shoulder touchdown catch on third-and-10 from the 28-yard line to send the 2022 Iron Bowl into overtime

143. Damion Square, DL, 2009-12

• Played four seasons and in 40 career games, with 31 starts
• Registered 93 tackles, 18 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks for his career
• His final season led the Crimson Tide with nine hurries, to go with 33 tackles (11 solo), four tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, a pass defensed and a fumble recovery
• Team captain

144. Darius Hanks, WR, 2008-2011

            Was a two-year starter in 2009-10, finished his career with 84 catches for 1,150 yards, and seven touchdowns.

145. Deonte Brown, G, 2017-20

• 2020 All-SEC
• Played in 48 career games with 26 starts
• Started at left guard during his final season. Out of 843 snaps he missed only two assignments while committing four penalties. He was credited with allowing half of a sack, one pressure and five quarterback hurries
• Missed the end of the 2018 season and the first four games of 2019 due to an NCAA suspension, but played the final nine contests with eight starts at right guard
• Sixth-round pick in 2021 NFL Draft

146. Shaun Dion Hamilton, LB, 2014-17

• Sixth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft
• Team captain
• Suffered season-ending knee injury during both junior and senior years
• When sustained injury as a senior was second in team tackles and third in tackles for a loss
• Played in 50 games during his four-year career. Had 134 tackles including 16 for a loss and 4.5 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles

147. Simeon Castille, CB, 2007

• 2007 All-SEC
• During lone season under Nick Saban had 63 tackles, including 6.5 for a loss and 1.5 sacks, two interceptions and 10 passes broken up
• Was also All-SEC in 2006 and had six interceptions (finished career with 162 tackles, including 14.0 for a loss and 4.5 sacks, and 12 interceptions)

148. Deontae Lawson, ILB, 2022-23

Was the middle linebacker during Nick Saban’s final season. In 11 games was second on team with 67 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and three sacks, plus four quarterback hurries and four pass breakups. Was a semifinalist for the Butkus Award as a sophomore. During two seasons had 118 career tackles, including eight for a loss and three sacks  

149. Tim Smith, 2020-23*

Appeared in all 14 games for Alabama last season and finished the 2023 season with 31 tackles and a pair of sacks. He’ll enter his final season with 90 career tackles, including 11.5 for a loss and 4.5 sacks.

150. Austin Shepherd, OL, 2011-14

• Was a two-year starter at right tackle (2013-14), and played in another 17 as a reserve
• Did not allow a regular-season sack as a senior, and yielded just one as a junior
• Seventh-round 2015 NFL Draft

Remembering The Catch

Under normal circumstances, he probably wouldn’t have been on the field. But when Alabama football faces Auburn, normal often goes right out the window.

In 2021, the Crimson Tide had already locked up the SEC West division title and its spot in the SEC Championship Game, but both its national title and Heisman Trophy chances with Bryce Young were still on the line. Like usual, the regular season would close with the Iron Bowl, which would be especially challenging at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Alabama had lost three of its last four games at Auburn dating back to 2013, and another setback appears to be in the works. With the offense struggling, Alabama trailed 10-3 with it got the back at its own 3, and just 1:27 remaining on the clock.

Even though he didn’t have his top target, as wide receiver Jameson Williams had been ejected for targeting in the second quarter. Young calmly got to work. Alabama converted on third or fourth down three times, including once to the freshman who had been asked to step up as a replacement, Ja’Corey Brooks.  

With 29 seconds remaining, Alabama was facing third-and-10 from the Auburn 28, and everyone in the Tigers’ student section was completely going bonkers. Brooks ended up in man coverage, and hauled in the over-the-shoulder touchdown catch to break their hearts.

Granted, the game wasn’t over, but it’s the play that stood out from the game. Brooks finished with four receptions (two on that key 97-yard drive) for 76 yards, and Young went 20-for-30 for 343  passing yards, 391 total, and four touchdowns as Alabama went on to win in double-overtime, 24-22.

"Most of the time I remember the ones we lose," Nick Saban said after the dramatic win. "But I think I’ll remember this one because of the way the players competed in the game, and it was a great comeback."

Young went to be the first quarterback in Crimson Tide history to win the Heisman, and Alabama won the SEC Championship Game against Georgia, but lost the rematch for the national title. Brooks led the Crimson Tide in touchdown receptions in 20022 but transferred after missing most of the 2023 season with an injury and Saban’s subsequent retirement.

He’ll forever have that catch against Auburn, though.

"Pretty much when everybody sees me, they always say, ‘that was a great catch from the Iron Bowl,’ so I’m guessing it’s that big," Brooks said nearly a full year after that game. "I’m still shocked about it, but not really. Really looking forward to this year, and how this game’s going to go.”

Alabama Crimson Tide Players 151-175

Next up: No. 131-140






Published
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.