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The Saban Top 100: No_76-80

The Saban Top 100: No_76-80

The Saban Top 100: Ranking the Best Alabama Players of the Nick Saban Era, No. 76-80

BamaCentral is ranking the top 100 players of the Nick Saban era at Alabama over the course of the 2020 football season

76] Josh Chapman, DT

  • Fifth-round selection in 2012 NFL Draft
  • Played most of 2011 title season on torn ACL, meniscus in knee
  • Played in 44 games at nose tackle. Had 88 career tackles, including 13.5 for a loss

It was fourth-and-1 and Derek Dooley thought he had nothing to lose. Alabama had just scored on its first possession of the second half and the Tennessee coach knew it might be his team’s last chance to keep from being overwhelmed by the momentum.

His quarterback had failed to execute a quick snap before the Crimson Tide could bring in its short-yardage package and Nick Saban was able to call time out to not only make the desired personnel changes but also to remind his players that the Volunteers liked to go with a quarterback sneak in that situation.

Matt Simms probably never knew how much had going against him, and sure enough came up short. Although the official statistician credited junior linebacker Dont’a Hightower with being in on the play, the stop was really all senior nose tackle Josh Chapman, who shot out of his stance and pushed the opposing interior players back.

Like so many other times, the biggest, strongest player in the middle, and heart of the Crimson Tide’s defensive line, received nowhere near the praise he deserved.

“Playing my position, you have to be the guy who doesn’t look for credit,” Chapman explained. “My fun is when you see the linebackers, the safeties get their amount of tackles. Dont’a is a great guy, plays behind me, my job is to keep guys off him. When I see him and Nico (Johnson) making tackles it cheers me up.

“That Tennessee play, I knew they were going to try and sneak the ball. They were going to try a hard count to jump us offside, I could see that they were going to try it. This was Tennessee, the biggest rival for the state. To make that stand that was just something to be proud of. I just tried to go back there and create a new line of scrimmage.”

On the very next play, after Alabama took over on downs, sophomore quarterback AJ McCarron hit sophomore Kenny Bell in the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown and the rout was on. Other plays may have been flashier, like senior Marquis Maze’s 69-yard bomb in the first half, or featured in the highlights, including junior running back Trent Richardson’s 12-yard touchdown run through four-plus defenders. But Chapman’s stuff was the key point of the 37-6 victory.

“I think that Josh is one of the better defensive linemen in the country,” Hightower said. “He probably doesn't get as much praise because he doesn't make as many tackles or sacks or anything on the statistical level. But playing a 3-4 (scheme) you've got to have a really good nose guard. If me or Nico Johnson or Jerrell Harris or Courtney Upshaw is having a good game, 95 percent of the time it's not just because of raw talent, it's definitely because of Josh Chapman, because he demands a double-team every play.”

If it seemed like Chapman had been doing that for years, it’s because he did. While Australian Jesse Williams was sort of the new sensation in 2011, and before him Terrence Cody became a campus favorite, Alabama’s weight-room warrior kept plugging away.

Go back to Saban’s first Southeastern Conference game with Alabama in 2007, which was played at Vanderbilt. On the field that day was Chapman, the only person on the 2011 national champions who played that Saturday before taking a medical redshirt. He was also one of the few players still around who had been initially recruited by Mike Shula.

But unlike center William Vlachos, linebacker Alex Watkins or defensive lineman Nick Gentry, who all said yes to Alabama and then decided to stay with it through the coaching change, Chapman wasn’t committed to play for the Crimson Tide when Saban took over. He was committed to Auburn.

“I was going to be a Tiger,” Chapman said. “I was at Hoover and I was in one of my coaches’ offices and Coach Steele came in, he was in all black, he was like “How are you doing, I’m (defensive coordinator) Kevin Steele. He introduced himself to me, he met my mom and all of that, talked to my uncle. Then I came and met coach, and it was this is where I want to be. “

How much time was there between Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa and National Signing Day? Roughly a month, but that was long enough to also land Marquis Maze, Darius Hanks and a few others.

“Coach, he has a little sense of humor to him, he makes you laugh at times, but the guy knows a lot about the game of football and can get you to where you need to be in life, as a player and as a person,” Chapman said. “I just felt like being here and playing for him.

“One thing I came here to do, a lot of guys want to play at the next level, my thing was graduating. I got my degree last December. Your degree is something that your mom will be on you all the time about, I know that I can leave here with my degree, it’s real special. I’m just proud of myself, proud that Coach Saban and the staff have put me in the position I am now.”

The Tennessee game was the 50 of his career. It was especially fitting when Sports Illustrated decided to put a player on the regional cover to characterize the Crimson Tide’s defense after dominating Florida, it chose the man teammates called “Boss.”

“It’s like a fight. It’s who hit who first, and you just keep on hitting and hitting,” he said.

“Being up front where they’re fighting in the trenches is just fun when you have three guys on you, and you’re holding three guys up and all you hear is a big collision. One of my boys just came and laid the bang on somebody.”

77] Cyrus Jones, DB

  • Second-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft
  • Went from playing wide receiver as a freshman to cornerback as a sophomore. Started 11 games that season
  • Had 46 tackles and three interceptions in 2014, and 37 tackles and two interceptions as a senior
  • Jones was the Defensive MVP of the 2015 Cotton Bowl, and also returned a punt for a touchdown in the victory

The key to understanding Cyrus Jones as a football player was to first examine the massive chip on his shoulder.

The one that loomed as big as Bryant-Denny Stadium.

It has essentially always been there, even with he was at Gilman High School in Maryland. Jones used it as motivation with every step of his career.

Tell him he can’t do something, tell him he’s too small to compete at a high level and then watch him prove you wrong. He did it over and over again, including at Alabama.

"He feels like he's overlooked sometimes,” said teammate Geno Matias-Smith after Jones wasn’t named to the preseason watch list for the Thorpe Award for best defensive back. “But he's definitely not overlooked by us."

Once you got that part down putting Smith’s success into perspective was pretty easy, as it made him not only a standout cornerback but the leader of the 2015 Crimson Tide secondary.

It also made him understand that true respect doesn’t come from an awards committee or even his coaches during practices.

“You can't really expect to get praise for doing well,” he’s said. “That's pretty much expected. If you take pride in your performance you shouldn't need someone to kind of validate what you're doing. You know if you're doing well or if you're doing poorly. It's all about taking the right steps to keep doing that, being consistent or to step your game up.

“The [coaches] really don't have to praise me for what I'm doing. I feel like it's what I'm supposed to do.”

Go back to the beginning of his collegiate career and it’s easy to see how that perspective developed. Jones had already cleared a hurdle in high school when naysayers claimed he was too small to be considered a prize prospect.

Aided by the chip he beat out other Crimson Tide freshmen for playing time and participated in 11 games during the 2012 season. As a wide receiver, Jones caught four passes for 51 yards, but also returned 10 kicks for 250 yards and eight punts for 61 yards.

After winning the national championship, Alabama’s developing hole at cornerback was glaring so coaches asked him to make the switch to the defensive side. He had played the position in high school yet the transition wasn’t easy. Jones wouldn’t have the benefit of having a year to learn his new position at the collegiate level, either.

During Alabama’s second game of the 2013 season, he was thrown into the fire, which in this case was an accurate description considering the brutal heat and the even hotter Texas A&M passing combination of Johnny Manziel to Mike Evans. Jones was inserted off the bench and then he and cornerback Deion Belue swapped spots to try and slow the Aggies at Kyle Field.

Alabama won 49-42, but gave up a program record 628 total yards, while Manziel and Evans set Aggies records with 464 passing yards and 279 receiving.

“I grew up a lot that day, let's just put it that way,” Jones said. “It was just a great game, back and forth. That was my first time really being out there in that type of atmosphere. It was definitely a learning experience.”

The chip grew bigger even though Jones had reacted to Manziel’s overthrow of a fade into the end zone for a crucial interception. Nick Saban called it a “Huge play” after saying that Evans “had his way with our corners pretty much all day.”

Fast-forward to the start of the 2014 season and the wide receiver torching the secondary was West Virginia’s Kevin White. He had seven receptions for 133 yards when Alabama’s coaches switched Jones on him even though he had almost exclusively playing the other cornerback position since training camp opened.

“I knew what they were going to do,” said Jones, who broke up the up the next attempt to the tall receiver and finally nullified the threat. From that point on White only had two receptions, one for 7 yards and the other for 3, with Jones making the tackle both times.

“He had a really good camp and really matured as a player, much more confident this year than a year ago – and has played really well,” Saban said after the 33-23 victory, and singled Jones out as the player who had improved the most over the previous year. “I think he has a good understanding, and is a smart guy, has the poise to adjust.”

Jones ended up with 46 tackles, three interceptions, a team-high 13 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery while establishing himself as Alabama’s most consistent cornerback, and was named second-team All-SEC. Now here’s the really impressive part: He played the entire season with a torn hip labrum.

The injury had been diagnosed during the summer and required surgery that would take months of recovery. Instead of spending the entire fall on the sideline he opted to undergo the procedure in January.

"Right when I made the transition my sophomore year I was trying to feel my way around, like I was playing unconfident, still not sure what I was supposed to be doing as far as the defense goes," Jones said. "It definitely hindered me as far as being able to just go out there and play fast and with confidence.

"If you don't have confidence playing corner, you just can't do it. It's impossible. Now I know what I can do, and I know my abilities, and I know the defense. Now it's just up to me to just go out there and play and prove everyone wrong who has something bad to say about it."

Combined with Alabama benefitting with the emergence of redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey, true freshmen Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison, and Eddie Jackson’s successful transition to safety, the 2015 secondary was a real strength.

Aided by an outstanding front seven applying pressure, Alabama made 12 interceptions in its first eight games and returned four for touchdowns. Jones had only one pickoff, with four passes broken up, as opposing offenses opted not to throw in his direction very often.

That’s the ultimate compliment for a cornerback. But for those who really wanted to know how far Jones had come as a player all he or she had to do was imagine where Alabama would have been without him.

“I just think we have to be hungry at all times,” Jones said. “I think we’re going to be one of the most well-prepared teams and secondary in the country week-in and week-out. I just think as long as we get our personal attitude under control and knowing what we’re going out there to do, coming out there with that chip on our shoulder, I think the sky is the limit for us.”

78] Kevin Norwood, WR

  • Fourth-round selection in in the 2014 NFL Draft
  • Team captain
  • As a senior had 568 yards and seven touchdowns
  • Finished his career with 81 receptions for 1,275 yards and 12 touchdowns

Five things to know about Kevin Norwood:

– Norwood was born and raised in Biloxi, Miss. Recruited out of D'Iberville High School he was the Sun Herald's South Mississippi Defensive Player of the Year.

- His first reception at Alabama was memorable, and not just because Norwood scored a 36-yard touchdown against Penn State. The freshman flipped into the end zone, which didn’t result in a penalty, but he went more than two months without another reception.

- Became known for clutch catches, especially on third downs.

- Norwood had his breakout performance at the end of the 2011 season in the BCS Championship Game against LSU, despite being defended by the dynamic Tyrann Mathieu. He was also a bit of a Tiger-killer, with 13 career receptions against LSU.

- Had one 100-yard game, against Tennessee in 2013 when Norwood had six catches for 112 yards and a touchdown.

79] Isaiah Buggs, DT

  • 2018 Second-team All-American
  • Sixth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft
  • The junior-college transfer was credited with 103 tackles, 17.5 sacks and two forced fumbles for his career
  • As a senior, his 9.5 sacks were fourth in the SEC, and he was eighth in tackles for a loss with 13.5. Overall, had 51 tackles six quarterback pressures, three pass breakups, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery

It’s not only motivation, but a huge source of pride for Alabama senior defensive end Isaiah Buggs.

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At least now it is.

When he was coming out of Ruston High School in Louisiana, Buggs was barely recruited, which if you followed him on social media he regularly mentioned. Back then it was more frustration because just about the only school that would give him a second look was Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

Usually when a player this successful has to go through the junior college ranks poor grades are often a factor. But Buggs claimed that wasn’t the case. It’s because he wasn’t a prototypical prospect from proven recruiting town.

“I came from a small school where we don’t have a lot of players who get recruited by big-time schools,” he said.

Rustin is a small city in the northern part of the state with a population just shy of 22,000 according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Located midway between Shreveport and Monroe, it’s known for being a stopping point off U.S. I-20, and the home of Louisiana Tech.

Consequently, most recruiters didn’t stop, or at least give too many second looks while heading somewhere else. Buggs, who was about 40-plus pounds lighter than senior-year playing weight of 286, knew he to keep moving if he was going continue playing the game.

“A lot more schools need to go out there to recruit guys,” Buggs said. “We have great kids who deserve and need a chance. For most of those kids football is the only thing that they have to keep them out of trouble and stuff like that. I just wish big-time schools would go down to Reston, Louisiana and recruit those kids.”

He had to go to Mississippi to finally get noticed.

Buggs notched 59 tackles, including eight for a loss, and four sacks as a freshman in 2015, and topped that with 75 tackles, including 10 for a loss, and 3.5 sacks as a sophomore. He was named first-team All-MACJC South Division both years and rated by some services as being the top junior college player in the nation.

You definitely got noticed after that. The biggest schools in the nation were climbing over one another to try and land him.

“Just every school you could name,” he said. “When I came here to Alabama I just fell in love. It just made me feel like I was at home.

“It was just about the vibe that was here, the coaches who were here. It was just great. For anyone to go to a place and feel like that. That was the main thing.”

That and having a chance to play for the program that had won the national title in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2015, plus needed help on the defensive line. The opportunity to come in and compete for immediate playing time was a nice bonus.

“Of course I wanted to win and I wanted to play for Coach Saban, one of the greatest coaches in college football,” Buggs said. “That was a blessing to be able to do that.”

Buggs ended up enrolling early and was able to help out with some of the team’s on-campus preparations for the National Championship Game against Clemson, the one the Crimson Tide lost at the last second.

It definitely made an impact on him.

“You know the Alabama name sticks out, and Alabama only recruits the best and gets the best,” Buggs said on National Signing Day.

“I know if I’m at Alabama I’m here for a reason. It’s either go hard or go home.”

With the extra motivation, Buggs went to work and won a starting job alongside Da’Ron Payne and Da’Shawn Hand, who had both been considered 5-star recruits.

He proved to be every bit as good as the coaches had hoped, starting 13 games and making 51 tackles including four for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Buggs was tied for second on the team with seven quarterback pressures, but where he really excelled was against the run.

His 46 stops against the run accounted for 91 percent of his tackles.

As a senior, Buggs was a much bigger force as a pass rusher.

He may not have had that quick-twitch explosiveness that most elite pass-rushers possess, but his bull-rushing was good as anyone’s, along with his ability to finish off a quarterback who might have taken a step in the wrong direction.

In short, he finished.

“On double teams, it doesn’t matter if you’re inside or outside,” he said. “It’s about working toward to get what you’re trying to get. Just keep working. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting double-teamed, triple-teamed. Just keep working.”

Ask any of his former teammates and they’ll tell you that Buggs was a high-powered guy, both on the field and with his passions like rap music and basketball.

“He brings a lot of energy,” running back Damien Harris said.

“A lot of fire,” tight end Hale Hentges said, “He’s an energy-starter for us.

“He’s just a big, physical presence. Anytime you go against him in practice you know you have to buckle your chinstrap. He brings a lot of energy, a lot of juice. He’s hard to move off the ball.”

Buggs may have been the perfect example of the idea that the best way to motivate someone is to tell them they can’t do it. It happened to him and he’s spent every year since proving everyone wrong.

That includes his hometown, where it was assumed by many that once Buggs became a force at the junior college level he would play for one of the local teams like LSU.

But the real motivations were elsewhere.

“Just to show that no matter what’s going on, don’t let anything bring you down,” he said. “Just keep striving. Keep striving until you get what you want, and when you get what you want keep going. Keep going, don’t get complacent.

“Everybody has a reason why for the things that they do. My motivation is just keep doing everything the right way for my mom and to keep making her happy and proud.”

80] Jake Coker, QB

  • Team captain
  • Was 263-for-393 (66.9 percent), 3,110 yards with 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions while leading Alabama to a national title. Had passer rating of 147.0

There’s just something about the cement.

It’s the way each individual’s spot is unique and a little different from everyone else’s.

It’s how the block adds to the concrete centerpiece that extends out a little more each year from the heart of campus.

It’s that it stands the test of time and becomes a permanent part of the University of Alabama.

When the Crimson Tide held the 2016 Walk of Fame Ceremony at Denny Chimes just before the annual A-Day game inside nearby Bryant-Denny Stadium, Alabama added another strong group to its collection of team captains over the years: Jake Coker, Derrick Henry, Ryan Kelly and Reggie Ragland.

Per tradition, their names, footprints and handprints were prominently displayed in cement, forever alongside some of the most honored players in Crimson Tide history — which wasn’t lost on any of them.

“That’s one of the things that means more to me than any award out there, any honor you could possibly get,” Coker said. “I’m honored to be on this team with these guys. It’s unbelievable to be surrounded by guys like this.”

Interestingly, he and Henry sort of grew into the role as the 2015 national championship season progressed, with neither a starter prior to 2015. Henry’s relentless work ethic both on and off the field was already considered legendary, but Coker didn’t become the Crimson Tide’s permanent quarterback until late September.

Both primarily led by example. For example, although Coker was obviously frustrated by not starting Week 3 against Ole Miss he never voiced his displeasure publicly and kept working hard.

His teammates noticed.

“Ever since then, he’s had my vote,” Ragland said. “I’m riding with him to the end.”

That end was being the first team in Alabama history to win the title during the College Football Playoff format, while facing nine opponents that were ranked at the time, the most of any national champion.

“It’s been a special year,” Kelly said.


This story is a preview of the kind of content that will soon be part of our premium page, BamaCentral+

The Saban Top 100 will be revealed over the course of the 2020 football season. The series thus far:


81-85: Bo Scarbrough, Anthony Averett, Leigh Tiffin, Ed Stinson, DeQuan Menzie

86-90: Jesse Williams, Shaun Dion Hamilton, William Vlachos, Da'Shawn Hand, Arie Kouandjio

91-95: Nico Johnson, Wallace Gilberry, DJ Hall, Vinnie Sunseri, Quinton Dial

96-100: Trey DePriest, Damion Square, Christion Jones, John Parker Wilson, Simeon Castille 

76] Josh Chapman, DT

  • Fifth-round selection in 2012 NFL Draft
  • Played most of 2011 title season on torn ACL, meniscus in knee
  • Played in 44 games at nose tackle. Had 88 career tackles, including 13.5 for a loss
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