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The Saban Top 100: No 41-45

The Saban Top 100: No 41-45

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The Saban Top 100: No. 41-45

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

41] Courtney Upshaw, LB

  • 2011 All-American
  • 2011 All-SEC
  • Second-round pick in 2012 NFL Draft
  • As a junior was credited with 52 total tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, and four forced fumbles
  • His senior season accounted for 51 total tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles

There’s a part of Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw that Crimson Tide fans almost never saw, unless they’re from his hometown Eufaula.

Even though the city of 14,000 was in the state, it wasn’t exactly considered Crimson Tide territory when he was being recruited. Bordering Georgia and pretty much behind enemy lines due to its proximity to rival Auburn, Crimson Tide players from there had been pretty rare, like Paul Trodd (kicker, 1981-83), Jug Jenkins (end, 1949-51) and William Hoadley Merrill (guard, 1910).

Even when in Tuscaloosa, Upshaw regularly visited, and not just his Aunt Donnella Williams, who took in him at age seven along with his brother.

There were the McKenzies, Leigh and Tom, along with their son Will, whom Upshaw met in kindergarten, essentially his second family. The Haygoods helped him buckle down academically so he could qualify for his scholarship.

The schools where he attended classes, yes, he dropped by them too.

“When I go home I try and spend time with kids,” Upshaw explained in 2011. “If school is in, I’ll go to the elementary school. Go out to the high school and say hey to the people who taught me and what-not, the principal, those who lent a hand to me getting into college, my passing and tutoring me on the grad exam.

“Just because of the way I grew up. I didn’t really have a role model, to be honest. When I grew up I really didn’t just have anyone to help me.”

It was with this backdrop that Upshaw found himself home the day after the April 27, 2011 tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa, and like so many others wanted to do something to help. Because of the connections developed through the years, he asked about what could be done within the NCAA-rule boundaries, and they turned to out to be the right people.

With the help of Circuit Judge Burt Smithart and other Eufaula residents, Upshaw set up “The 41 Fund” to aid victims of the disaster. To help fund it, autograph sessions with all of the proceeds geared for the foundation were green-lighted through the Alabama compliance department.

Even he was surprised by the response. The lines were huge and others contributed to help raise thousands, with three U-Haul trucks full of relief items quickly sent to Tuscaloosa.

“I knew I would raise some money, but I didn’t think I would raise that much,” Upshaw said. “It was a bunch of people. I thought it was just going to be ’Bama fans, doing that in my hometown full of Auburn people, but a lot of people showed up.”

More than that, Eufaula took an immense amount of pride in its crimson-wearing son, the kind in which people asked to have their babies photographed with him. The public court records website boasted: “The town plays home for a few well know people like Martha Reeves, the lead singer of the American Motown group Martha & the Vandellas, Lula Mae Hardaway, mother of Stevie Wonder, and Courtney Upshaw, linebacker for the University of Alabama football team.”

Upshaw just hoped to have a season worthy of that kind of praise, and maybe propel himself into a top pick in the NFL draft. Despite being hobbled by a high-ankle sprain that that kept him from pushing off or getting a good jump with the snap, he still developed into Alabama’s best pass rusher in 2010.

Upshaw notched 10 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles against Auburn, and was just as potent against Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl. Earlier in the season he was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week against Florida (seven tackles, four for a loss, one forced fumble and two passes broken up), when his mom, who had recently re-entered his life, saw him play for the first time with Alabama.

We’re guessing that she was impressed. His teammates certainly were.

“Can I say the four-letter word?” sophomore tight end Michael Williams said about continually trying to stop No. 41 in practice. “Every day that's how it is.”

“It’s not pretty,” junior running back Trent Richardson said about trying to pick Upshaw up on a blitz. “He’s one of the strongest and biggest guys you’ll ever find on a football field, and he’s pretty fast, too. When I look at him and know he’s blitzing, I’m like, ‘Maaaaannn.’ You can’t cut in practice, so I’ve got to go toe-to-toe with him. We’re about the same in strength, but that body he’s got is something else.”

“It’s a challenge,” junior offensive lineman Barrett Jones summarized. “The best rushers in any league are guys who can beat you with speed and power. The thing about Courtney is he is the perfect hybrid of speed and power. He’s so fast off the edge and he can beat you with a speed rush. But the second you kind of soft set him so you set back and handle that speed rush, he’ll just run right over you. So he really is an extremely difficult guy to block.:

ESPN.com rated him the 10th-best player in the SEC heading into the 2011 season. In media balloting for preseason All-SEC honors only four other defensive players received more votes (three of whom were teammates: linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Mark Barron and nose tackle Josh Chapman), and just 11 overall.

“I don't see a way to block him,” Hightower said. “You slide him or you double-team him, but he'll find a way to get to the ball.”

A version of this entry first appeared in a 2011 Alabama game program.

42] Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S

  • 2013 Consensus All-American
  • 2013 All-SEC
  • No. 21-overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft
  • As a sophomore led the Crimson Tide with five interceptions
  • Despite missing two games, finished his junior year with 51 tackles and two interceptions

At 28-0, it was already past the desperation point, and with the national championship on the line the Alabama football team was showing no signs of letting up.

So when Notre Dame found itself with its best field position yet, looking at second-and-10 from the Alabama 36 early in the third quarter, it tried to make something happen. With quarterback Everett Golson turning to his right, he unloaded a pass down the sideline, hoping it would result in something, anything to at least give the Fighting Irish a glimmer of hope.

Instead, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix had his most memorable play of the 2012 season, if not his Crimson Tide career considering that it was the BCS Championship Game.

With Dee Milliner matching DaVaris Daniels stride for stride in coverage, the cornerback was in position to tip the ball away from the wide receiver. Meanwhile, Clinton-Dix had accurately read the play, broke early on the pass and raced over from the middle of the field to somehow make the diving catch off the deflection while keeping a foot inbounds at 3. Alabama subsequently drove 97 yards on 10 plays to squash any few lingering hopes of those wearing green at Sun Life Stadium.

Usually his interceptions, like against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, didn’t come with an assist.

“Ha Ha is definitely a playmaker back there, especially when he’s in the middle of the field you have to know when you can lay the ball up and when you can’t,” said quarterback AJ McCarron, who has had to face Clinton-Dix every day in practice.

“Him and Vinnie (Sunseri) both have great range. They both do a great job what I call ball-hawking, sitting back there and finding the ball, and when the ball is up in the air they go and get it.”

While the Notre Dame play may have been the one fans remember most about Clinton-Dix’s first season as starter, few seemed to notice that it was his third straight game with an interception, and fifth of the season to not only beat out veteran safety Robert Lester for the most on the Crimson Tide, but tied two others atop the Southeastern Conference (Tennessee junior Byron Moore, and Mississippi State’s Darius Slay).

What fans did know, though, was that he had enjoyed a breakout season, which didn’t lead to any immediate accolades, but over the summer Clinton-Dix was named a preseason All-American by nearly every major media outlet, including ESPN, CBS, the Sporting News, Athlon and Sports Illustrated.

With his size (6 foot 1, 208 pounds), length, instincts, and range as a free safety, he did nothing short but help take away the middle of the field from offenses. To put that in perspective, think of it like a chess game in which one player controls the middle of the board. It makes it extremely difficult for the opponent to attack when he or she can only maneuver along the periphery.

“Greatly,” was how senior linebacker C.J. Mosley described Clinton-Dix’s improvement. “Basically because he’s just a better leader, and he knows that. Just like today, he was telling guys ‘Come on, let’s speed it up. This is how we do it.’ Just little things like that.”

It was the part of his game, and life, the former prize recruit out of Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando changed the most at Alabama.

Known for being pretty quiet when he arrived on the Capstone in 2011, Clinton-Dix also had the challenge of working his way into the lineup and earning more playing time despite most of the other players at his position being older.

Similar to teammates like running back T.J. Yeldon and wide receiver Amari Cooper, he sort of had to work through it in his own way.

“Everybody who comes here was good, four-star, five-star player in high school, so it’s going to be the little things, being consistent, being a leader,” Clinton-Dix said. “You can come in here as a freshman and be a leader. Coaches look for the little things that separate you from the others.”

Regardless, Clinton-Dix’s career progression has had strong parallels to one former player in particular, All-American safety Mark Barron.

Granted, he didn’t hit like the seventh-overall pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2012 NFL Draft (“I wish,” he says), but Barron made a big impact on Clinton-Dix when he first arrived, and the younger safety spent a lot of time studying how his predecessor went about things and read defenses.

“He came though here, he came through the same system,” Clinton-Dix said. “He earned respect and he does his job well. He hardly made any mental errors at all.”

Perhaps one of the biggest indicators of his development and growth, though, occurred during the 2013 training camp, when the players were told by one of Nick Saban’s special guest speakers that they should all be more like a catfish – which in this case meant always being in their teammates’ ear, saying encouraging things and always making sure they’re doing the right things.

Clinton-Dix was mentioned as being one of those who was doing just that.

“It's quite funny,” said safety Nick Perry while making the obvious pun off Clinton-Dix’s nickname, which was something his grandmother called him as a kid (his real name is Ha’Sean). “Ha Ha, I was here when he was a freshman, so it's kind of a good feeling to see him grow up and become a great leader.”

Add that all to the other aspects of his game – he changed direction well, had good hands and vision, anticipated and adjusted, attacked the line of scrimmage and shook off miscues as well as anyone – and Clinton-Dix was becoming the perfect example of what a complete player looked like at his position.

“Really energetic and he's everywhere,” cornerback Deion Belue said.

43] Henry Ruggs III, WR

  • No. 12-overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft
  • Third on Alabama’s career touchdown receptions list with 24
  • Averaged 17.5 yards per catch across his three seasons, good for sixth on the UA career list (minimum 50 catches)
  • Had Alabama’s longest rush (75 yards) and the second-longest reception (81 yards) in 2019

You would think they’d be doing their own version of “Anything you can do,” which for those of you who don’t know is a song composed by Irving Berlin for the 1946 Broadway musical “Annie Get Your Gun.” Every few years it’s used in a sports-related advertisement to promote friendly competition and rivalries.

These guys would have definitely fallen into the former category. Maybe they didn’t take note of who had the most yards, or made the most catches on a given Saturday, but there were definitely times in the wide receivers room when everyone stopped the game film because of what they just saw.

“You’re just like, ‘Wow, how does somebody do something like that?’” DeVonta Smith said.

He could have been talking about Henry Ruggs III, like when he took a lateral 75 yards to the end zone on the first play of the New Mexico State game (and a big reason why was a block Smith threw downfield).

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Although Alabama has had some amazing wide receivers over the years, including Don Hutson, who was the NFL’s version of Jerry Rice during the early years (Hutson was twice named league MVP and an eight-time All-Pro), it never had this kind of collection before.

The three juniors who came in together in the recruiting Class of 2017, Jerry Jeudy being the other, and joined by Jaylen Waddle, were simply downright scary to face on the field. They had talent, speed and an unselfish attitude, which was a polite way of saying they have no problem throwing blocks, especially for each other.

Jeudy won the Belitnikoff Award as the game’s best receiver in 2018. He was the second Crimson Tide player to land the honor in five years, joining Amari Cooper in 2014, and the latest piece of evidence that Alabama had become the top destination for elite wide receivers (Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, etc. …)

Meanwhile, Ruggs and Waddle topped the list for fastest players on the Crimson Tide, although there was so much more to their games. Ruggs made some sensational catches for the Crimson Tide and Waddle’s punt returns were must-watch moments.

Smith? He only caught the overtime touchdown pass to win the national championship in 2017 and became known for a whole lot more.

“I’d be remiss to keep those four wide receivers not on the field when it presents itself to be an advantageous situation,” offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. “Too many times, if they’re standing next to us on the sidelines, something’s wrong or we feel good about something else that’s happening.

“But they’re four very dynamic playmakers.”

The formation was called red. It’s the four-wide receiver package that Alabama dusted off and kept opposing defensive coordinators awake at night. Maybe a defensive back or two can keep up. But not all four, and not on every down.

“These guys aren’t going to play man they are going to play zone,” quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said about how he expects opponents to try and limit the receivers. “If they play man against these guys, we gotta go out and torch the defense and I mean if they are going to play zone, it opens up a lot of the run game. Then, when they end up stepping into the box, then that’s time for RPO’s, play actions. It just opens up everything.”

However, the one thing no team could really counter was Ruggs’ speed. When he ran a 4.25 time in the 40-yard dash this spring he said, "I feel like I can do better.” Alabama’s GPS monitoring system had him hitting 23 mph when he scored against Missouri in 2018, and again against Duke in 2019 even though he was in full pads and not running in a straight line.

He was a lot more powerful than most realized.

“We just want to be a nightmare for whomever,” Ruggs said. “Just know that we’re going to come out and we’re going to play fast and we’re going to do what we have to do to make our plays with the ball in our hands.”

44] Jarran Reed, DT

  • Second-round pick in 2016 NFL Draft
  • The junior-college transfer made 28 career starts
  • Notched 112 tackles (49 solo), 2.0 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, one fumble recovery and seven passes defended

Five things to know about Jarran Reed:

- Reed and his brother Dee were raised by their mother in Goldsboro, N.C., and he said the first thing he was going to do after signing his first contract was get something for his mom. “It just makes me that much more responsible,” Reed says. “People are really counting on you now. You can’t mess up because just as quick as you got here, it can be taken away even faster. So to me, it’s not really about the money or how much I’m going to get. Now, you’ve got to produce.”

- After graduating from Goldsboro High, where he recorded 118 tackles with four sacks while causing a fumble, recovering a fumble and blocking a kick, Reed spent the 2011 season at Hargrave Military Academy.

- Reed subsequently spent two seasons at East Mississippi Community College, where he was rated one of the top junior college defensive linemen in the nation.

- When he came out of college, Reed called Ndamukong Suh and former Alabama player Marcell Dareus the two best players at his position. “They’re nasty,” he told Sports Illustrated. “They’re mean and that’s how the game is, especially playing as an interior defensive lineman.”

- Loves basketball and usually plays the low post. After being drafted by the Seahawks said the one non-football thing Seattle fans should know about him is "I'm a basketball player."

45] Xavier McKinney, S

  • 2019 All-American
  • 2019 All-SEC
  • Second-round pick in 2020 NFL Draft
  • As a junior finished 10th in the SEC in tackles with 95 in 13 games. Also 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks
  • Led the SEC with four forced fumbles to go with three interceptions, five pass breakups and five quarterback hurries. Returned a pick for an 81-yard touchdown.
  • Team captain

Nowadays, there’s a statistic for nearly everything in college football, from yards after contact to release-time variables. But one thing that coaches are always looking for on the defensive side is simply being around the ball.

Some players have a knack for it, resulting in tackles and turnovers alike, which can often be the difference in being good and outstanding.

Alabama safety Xavier McKinney needed just one game of the 2019 season to establish himself in that regard. Against Duke in the season opener he led the Crimson Tide in tackles even though the Blue Devils only completed 12 passes.

It’s with that in mind, though, that he was constantly teased by his teammates during the next few days. On one play, McKinney not only read the pass and jumped the receiver on his route, so he was perfectly positioned … only to have it go right through his hands.

“We need to work on some more ball drills after practice,” cornerback Trevon Diggs said with a laugh.

It didn’t matter that McKinney played with an injured thump, which was still bothering him. The Crimson Tide receivers were especially unsympathetic.

It made sense. He was usually making their lives miserable.

“At the end of practice he’s always with us catching extra passes,” DeVonta Smith said. “We told him he needs to do that.”

Kidding aside, McKinney was Alabama’s most improved player in the secondary during the 2018 season, finishing third in tackles with 73, including six for a loss and three sacks, as the coaching staff started to trust him to blitz in the right situations.

One of his two interceptions resulted in a pick-six as McKinney returned it 30 yards for a touchdown at Ole Miss, plus he was also named the defensive most valuable player of the Orange Bowl, where Alabama defeated Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinal.

In the process (pun intended), he became a player that every opposing offense had to account for on each snap.

“He’s real physical,” Smith said. “Just the instincts he has, he can be anywhere. At the beginning of a play you can see him deep and then at the snap of the ball he’ll be by the ball. His instincts he has for the ball and how he’s always around, how he’s always attacking the ball.”

Not only was his anticipation at a high level, but also his technique. McKinney did a lot of the little things right and often played the safety position like he’s a cornerback. In 2018 he even played some in the slot after cornerback Trevon Diggs suffered a season-ending injury.

Not a lot of safeties could do that. Usually a quarterback sees a safety lined up in the slot and he things “mismatch.”

McKinney was also versatile enough to slide over to the position called “money” in the dime package, which was basically a defensive back playing an interior linebacker position when the defense utilized six defensive backs in obvious passing situations. It’s a better matchup in pass coverage.

“Very comfortable,” was how McKinney described the veteran secondary during the spring, which was important because he was the one to relay play calls and call out pre-snap adjustments.

But being surrounded by experienced players also meant that McKinney could focus on doing what he did best, be around the ball.

“Man, it feels great,” McKinney said.

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

Introduction

46-50: Dalvin Tomlinson, Antoine Caldwell, Kareem Jackson, Cyrus Kouandjio, Trevon Diggs 

51-55: Mike Johnson, T.J. Yeldon, Ronnie Harrison, Damien Harris, JK Scott

56-60: Ross Pierschbacher, Eddie Lacy, Bradley Bozeman, Ryan Anderson, Glen Coffee

61-65: Greg McElroy, Josh Jacobs, Anfernee Jennings, James Carpenter, Kenyan Drake

66-70: Terrell Lewis, Blake Sims, Christian Miller, Irv Smith Jr,, Tim Williams

71-75: Mack Wilson, ArDarius Stewart, Deionte Thompson, Raekwon Davis, Jalston Fowler

76-80: Josh Chapman, Cyrus Jones, Kevin Norwood, Isaiah Buggs, Jake Coker

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 

41] Courtney Upshaw, LB

  • 2011 All-American
  • 2011 All-SEC
  • Second-round pick in 2012 NFL Draft
  • As a junior was credited with 52 total tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, and four forced fumbles
  • His senior season accounted for 51 total tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles
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