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The Saban Top 100: No. 36-40

The Saban Top 100: No. 36-40

The Saban Top 100: No. 36-40

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

36] Rashaan Evans, LB

  • 2017 All-American
  • 2017 All-SEC
  • 22nd-overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft
  • Had a team-high tying 74 tackles, including 13 for a loss, despite missing a pair of games due to painful groin tear. Also had six sacks, seven quarterback hurries, three pass breakups, a forced fumble and one fumble recovery
  • Team captain

It was a direct question to linebacker Rashaan Evans that caused him to pause and let out an “ooh.”

Who’s a more versatile player on the 2017 Crimson Tide defense, Evans or junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick?

Even he wasn’t sure.

“Minkah’s very fast, fast twitch-type guy, just as much as I am,” Evans said. “With us, I feel like if we changed sizes, we could play each other’s position.

“Just with the type of guy he is, we compare a lot. He’s a guy that he’s one of those leaders on our team, and he can make big time plays just as much as I can.”

Although they might not have played the same roles or have the same build — Fitzpatrick (6-foot-1, 202 pounds) was a defensive back and Evans (6-3, 234) was a front-seven player — between the two of them they could line up just about anywhere.

Evans was an interior linebacker in the base package, knew the outside-linebacker spots and could play there at any time, and often moved up to the line as a pass-rusher.

Fitzpatrick played cornerback, safety and both additional spots in the nickel and dime packages, known in Nick Saban’s scheme as the star and money positions (the key was the first letter, the star replaces the strong-side linebacker and the money subs for the middle linebacker). Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt also used him as a disruptive blitzer.

“I’m good,” he said about the additional wear and tear. “I’m always in the training room either getting iced up, stretched, massaged. I just try to take advantage of it.”

They also contributed on special teams, and Evans emerged as a team leader while taking over the spot previously held by Butkus Award winner Reuben Foster.

“He came a long way from last year, as far as a leadership role goes,” sophomore outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings said about Evans. “He knew he had to step up.”

The two were the two biggest playmakers on a very talented Crimson Tide defense. Although Evans sustained a groin injury while trying to return a blocked field goal by Fitzpatrick in the season opener against Florida State, he came back and made steady progress through the rest of the season.

his ability to affect a quarterback, though, is what caused linebackers coach Tosh Lupoi to start calling him “Razor.”

“I like to cut,” Evans said about playing the edge.

It was while filling in for injured Shaun Dion Hamilton at the end of the 2016 season that Evans got a real taste of his potential, with a career-high seven tackles, including a sack, against Washington in the College Football Playoff semifinal. He then topped it with 11 tackles against Clemson in the National Championship Game.

Building on that was the hope of the 2016 defense and team, which in terms of talent may have been Saban’s best yet. With the veteran group in the secondary led by Fitzpatrick, the Crimson Tide made a point to try and execute quick counter adjustments, not just to react but give players like Evans a better opportunity to make big plays from all over the field.

After all, they those two were so much alike ... except for when it came to their hair. Given a little time, though, and Evans believed he could eventually pull off his teammates’ upright look.

“I don’t know if he could pull off the bald, though,” he said. “That would be interesting to see.”

A version of this story appeared in the book Bama Dynasty: The Crimson Tide's Road to College Football Immortality

37] Dre Kirkpatrick, CB

  • 2011 All-American
  • 17th-overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft
  • Went from making 53 tackles and three interceptions in 2010 to 30 in 2011 as offenses largely avoided him. Had a fumble recovery for a touchdown during final season

Five things to know about Dre Kirkpatrick:

- Kirkpatrick was considered one of the top prospects in the nation in 2008, and ended up signing with Alabama out of Gadsden City High School along with teammates Jerrell Harris and Kendell Kelly.

- In three seasons at Gadsden City he was credited with 193 tackles, 17 interceptions (including three returned for a touchdown), 36 pass breakups and two sacks. He also scored a touchdown on a punt return, kick return and receiving.

- Kirkpatrick moved into the starting lineup in 2010, when he had 53 tackles with three interceptions and seven passes broken up.

- Opponents stopped challenging him during his junior season, rarely throwing in his direction. The 2011 Crimson Tide led the nation in all four major statistical categories: Total, scoring, rushing and pass-efficiency defense.

- During a time in which teams were struggling to match up against big wide receivers, Kirkpatrick came along at the right time. The 6-2 physical corner known as a hard hitter was a first-round draft pick of the Bengals and still plays in the NFL with the Cardinals.

38] Marcell Dareus, DT

  • 2010 All-SEC
  • Third-overall pick in 2011 NFL Draft
  • Was defensive MVP of the 2010 BCS Championship Game after returning an interception for a 28-yard touchdown against Texas in the Rose Bowl

Five things to know about Marcell Dareus:

- Dareus was a lot more than a football player at Huffman High School in Birmingham, Ala. He also played basketball and competed in track and field as a shot putter. He was credited with 117 tackles and 20 sacks as a senior, and also returned a fumble for a touchdown.

- He was a high school teammate of Andre Smith.

- As a true freshman, Dareus saw playing time in eight games, primarily as the nose tackle in third-and-long situations. The player he will step in for was two-time All-American Terrence Cody.

- As a sophomore, when he was considered more of a situational pass-rusher than started, he had 33 total tackles, include 9.0 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, seven quarterback hurries, an interception and two pass breakups. He had comparable numbers as a junior, but missed a couple of games due to a suspension.

- Dareus was named the defensive MVP of the BCS National Championship Game against Texas when he made a key 28-yard interception return for a touchdown just before halftime. He also knocked Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy out of the game with an early hit that resulted in a pinched nerve.

39] Eddie Jackson, DB

  • 2015 Second-team All-American
  • 2015 All-SEC
  • Fourth-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft
  • Team captain
  • Has Alabama record for career interception return yards with 303 on nine picks. Tied the program all-time career record for interception returns into the end zone with three
  • Arrived as a wide receiver, moved to cornerback and started four games as a true freshman. Moved to safety before junior year

It was a play that seemed almost tailor-made for Alabama safety Eddie Jackson, right down to the seams.

The Crimson Tide wasn’t playing particularly well during the second quarter of its 2016 season home opener against Western Kentucky, when on second-and-8 at the his own 32, Hilltoppers quarterback Mike White executed a play-action and threw the ball downfield between his route-running tight end and wide receiver, who were both well covered.

The only one who saw the ball the whole way was Jackson, and, having slid over, reached up to make the easy interception.

Yet the play was anything but over.

Suddenly aided by a caravan of blockers, the senior only had one thought in mind as he juked past one player, eluded another who had dove from a bad angle and stiff-arm to the quarterback at the 10-yard line before walking into the end zone.

“I knew it was a crucial turnover,” Jackson said. “We needed to score.”

Up 17-3 following the 55-yard interception return, Bryant-Denny Stadium fans were able to breathe a little easier because they had seen this before. A pick-six is one of the most backbreaking plays that can occur in a football game, and sure enough Alabama went on to win 38-10.

But for Jackson, it helped confirm his status as one of the top safeties in the Southeastern Conference, if not nation. Not only was it the 10th interception of his career, but third that directly resulted in points. The other two occurred during the 2015 national championship season, at Georgia and Texas A&M, but this was the first time he was able to celebrate the accomplishment with home-cheering fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

He also had a pickoff in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game against Clemson, which helped him land defensive MVP honors. It was a nice way to cap his first season at safety after initially being a cornerback.

“It was real frustrating making that change, basically coming in as a freshman all over again; you have to learn different plays and everything. Different guys on the other side, you were giving the calls,” Jackson described the switch to strong safety, where he had the unenviable task of trying to replace All-American Landon Collins.

“Now I’m taking the calls,” said the player who became a living example of overcoming adversity, including having been overlooked by many as a recruit.

That was as part the recruiting class of 2013, when Jackson was listed as a consensus 3-star prospect Boyd Anderson High School in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. Only Alabama knew better and saw what it considered to be a good two-way player, and plucked him out the Sunshine State.

Jackson ended up starting four games at cornerback as a true freshman, but en route to taking over as a starter the next spring suffered a torn ACL. Not backing down from the injury and taking a redshirt, Jackson played in the season opener against FAU and went on to make 10 more starts.

During the subsequent offseason the coaching staff was left with critical holes to fill, especially at safety, while also having some extremely talented young cornerbacks including Marlon Humphrey, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Tony Brown.

Jackson was asked to make the move along with Geno Matias-Smith to provide a veteran presence and more overall speed on the back end. Besides, it figured to be a better fit for Jackson if he wanted to play at the next level.

“I think he just adds another dynamic player in our secondary,” former Crimson Tide cornerback Cyrus Jones said. “I mean, he was a good corner. But I think having a guy that’s played corner and has that type of feel for the game playing safety, it’s definitely a valuable part to our whole defense, not just the secondary.”

The only concern was how well the converted corners would hold up while playing the more physically demanding positions

But you already know how it worked out in the larger sense.

Read More

Statistically, Jackson’s six picks led the SEC and his 230 return yards shattered the school record of 163 set by Hootie Ingram in 1952.

That led to second-team All-American honors form the Walter Camp Foundation and the Football Writers Association of America, and third-team status from the Associated Press.

But when it came to being motivated, Jackson said he looks to his mother, father and sister more than anyone else.

“They just push me to be better every day,” he said. “You know, they call, my mom sends me bible scriptures every day. I talk to my dad. You know, they never lost faith in me over anything, and they just stay on top of me and push me.

"Most definitely [they help me]. Especially in camp as a freshman, making that transition from high school, it's kind of tough, so you need your family there to comfort you as well.”

That from the man who added a tattoo on his arm reading: "Tough times don't last, tough people do.” He called it a motto to live by. Depending on how tough you are, “you can overcome anything."

Jackson’s living proof regardless of the scar on his knee – although that’s not what he wants to be remembered for at Alabama. His tailor-made legacy would be “Just a guy who came out and competed every time. Gave his all every play.”

Wait, not pick-sixes?

“Yeah that too,” he said with a smile.

40] O.J. Howard, TE

  • 2016 All-American
  • 19th-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft
  • With five catches for a career-high 208 yards and two touchdowns was named Offensive MVP honors for 2015 title game against Clemson. The yards were the most in a bowl game in Alabama history, and set a College Football Playoff record
  • Led all receivers in yards with 106 on four receptions with a career-long 68-yard touchdown catch in 2016 title game against Clemson. Finished with 314 receiving yards and three touchdowns in two championship games against the Tigers

In 1974, long before Alabama tight end O.J. Howard was born, American Express began shooting the “Do you know me?” advertising campaign, which would become one of the most successful in television history.

It featured celebrities who weren’t often recognized in public, like voice actor Mel Blanc, Jim Henson of the Muppets and author Stephen King. Each ad would end with the person’s name shown on a credit card.

Howard could relate. During the summer of 2015, he and a film crew wandered near campus, conducting man-in-the-street interviews and asking fans and students about the Crimson Tide football team, the offense and finally for their opinions about the starting tight end.

Not one person recognized him.

Of course, Howard then had the game of a lifetime, notching his jaw-dropping 208 receiving yards and two touchdowns against Clemson en route to being named the offensive MVP of the College Football Playoff title game. Not only did he set the record for most receiving yards in a national championship, but the corresponding Crimson Tide record for bowl games.

Needless to say, a lot of things in his life changed.

“People kind of recognize me now, face-wise,” said Howard, “and it’s definitely helped in notoriety.”

Although a lot of athletes in that circumstance might have done the equivalent of a microphone drop and left the college stage to try and immediately cash in, Howard didn’t. He would emotionally stay on cloud nine for about a month — “Initially it felt like a dream and I tried to tell everybody to wake me up because I thought it wasn't real,” Howard said — but he also had roughly a week after returning back in Tuscaloosa to make a decision about whether or not to enter the 2016 NFL Draft.

Although analysts like ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. called him an intriguing NFL prospect who could possibly be the first tight end selected, Howard talked things over with his family and coaches before calling his decision to stay a “no brainer.”

As for why, Howard saw his football resume as incomplete. A solid senior season could make him a certifiable first-round pick, which meant more money, plus he’d have the chance to be a team captain and maybe add to his ring collection.

With assistant coach Mario Cristobal taking over the tight ends there would be a real chance to improve his blocking, and Howard would obviously have a chance to compete for some major individual honors.

At 6-foot-6, he had always been considered a bit of a physical freak. Coming out of Prattville, Ala., where he attended Autauga Academy, Howard was considered not just the consensus top tight end in the recruiting class of 2013, but one of the best players in the nation at any position.

After enrolling early, he quickly earned regular playing time as a freshman even though Brian Vogler was the every-down tight end and Jalston Fowler a sort of combination fullback and H-back. Yet even then his pass-catching ability was obvious, especially after taking a slant and outracing the LSU secondary to the end zone for a 52-yard touchdown that was the turning point of a 38-17 victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

“He’s a fabulous receiver,” Nick Saban said. “He's got great hands. He's got speed to stretch the field. He can make the tough catch. He can separate from man to man.”

Howard finished that 2013 season by catching 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns in 13 games, including five starts. All but one of his receptions resulted in a first down, and his 19.2 yards per catch average topped the team.

Yet the part his game that needed the most work was his blocking, which played a part in Howard’s numbers not seeing much change during his sophomore year: 17 catches for 260 yards in 14 games, with three starts.

Even as a junior he only had 30 receptions for 335 yards at the end of the regular season, which would have attracted more attention if not for dynamic wide receivers Amari Cooper and Calvin Ridley posting back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns under the direction of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

That obviously changed in the postseason, with Clemson’s defense seemed totally shocked to learn that Alabama had a fast receiving tight end even though Howard had made a 41-yard reception against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl playoff semifinal.

Howard’s first catch in the title game was for 25 yards and converted a third-and-3 in the first quarter, but Kiffin didn’t go back to him again until the second half. The first touchdown was for 53 yards off blown coverage after Alabama lined up four players wide, two on each side, with wide receiver ArDarius Stewart next to the tight end and faking that he was getting a screen pass.

On the second, Clemson appeared to be more concerned about running back Kenyan Drake running a wheel route out of the backfield, and again Howard slipped behind the coverage into open space. Quarterback Jake Coker hit him in stride at the 15 for the easy 51-yard touchdown.

“The first touchdown, it was a stork and go block,” Howard described. “No guy was over the top, no safety was over the top. I kind of knew that one was going to be open. The second one was just the exact same play from last week against Michigan State. This time I took the middle of the field, nobody was in the middle and it was wide open. Just a great play call by Coach Kiffin.

“We know those guys play a lot of cover one and cover two, so we took advantage of it.”

When Clemson kept clawing its way back to within a touchdown, Howard got the call one final time. With Alabama looking at second-and 12, and ahead 38-33 with four minutes remaining, he caught a play-action screen behind a blitzer and took off for a career-long 63-yard gain before being pushed out of bounds. It set up Derrick Henry’s 1-yard game-clinching touchdown as Alabama held on to win 45-40.

Well, O.J., quite honestly, should have been more involved all year long,” Saban said during the postgame press conference. “Sometimes he was open and we didn't get him the ball, but I think the last two games have been breakout games for him in terms of what he's capable of and what he can do … He's improved tremendously as a player this year. He's improved his blocking.

“There were times when as Jake was developing we were protecting sort of what we did, and I think that that affected O.J. maybe a little bit in terms of what his production was, but I can tell you that there was not one time that he ever complained about it and not one time did he ever not go out there and do exactly what the coach asked him to do, even when he wasn't catching a lot of passes or scoring a lot of touchdowns.”

Howard was sitting to Saban’s side when his coach made the comment, although later admitted it took a while to sink in. “I was in shock,” he said, but just like that he had a name that would forever be remembered in Crimson Tide lore.

Maybe it wouldn’t lead to endorsement deals, but Howard was still sort of like those celebrities in those credit-card ads who never mentioned their names and just let their accomplishments do their talking for them.

“Going up against him every day at practice, whether he has his hand on the ground or he’s split out, I know that you’re not going to find too many 6-6, 250-pound tight ends who can run routes like [he has] Calvin Ridley’s size,” Crimson Tide linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said.

“Talk about a great player, I’m glad he’s on our team and not on the other team.”


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

Introduction

41-45: Courtney Upshaw, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Henry Ruggs III, Jarran Reed, Xavier McKinney

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 

36] Rashaan Evans, LB

  • 2017 All-American
  • 2017 All-SEC
  • 22nd-overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft
  • Had a team-high tying 74 tackles, including 13 for a loss, despite missing a pair of games due to painful groin tear. Also had six sacks, seven quarterback hurries, three pass breakups, a forced fumble and one fumble recovery
  • Team captain
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