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The Saban Top 100:  Ranking Alabama's top players during the Nick Saban era, No. 86-90

The Saban Top 100:  Ranking Alabama's top players during the Nick Saban era, No. 86-90

The Saban Top 100: Ranking the Best Alabama Players of the Nick Saban Era, No. 86-90

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

86] Jesse Williams, DT

  • Fifth-round selection in 2013 NFL Draft
  • Was one of Alabama’s first Internet stars when video of him bench pressing 600 pounds went viral
  • Junior college transfer moved into starting lineup as junior and made 24 tackles and a sack
  • As a senior had 37 total tackles, a sack and blocked a kick

When most people looked at Alabama defensive lineman Jesse Williams, they didn’t know where to begin.

There was the Mohawk, which he would occasionally shave off for a different look, but could always return.

Nearly everything else on him was covered by tattoos, even his ear lobes. Some honored his warrior heritage, others his family including a poem written by his father. Mixed in were the personal massages and a few for fun, like the one on the side of his head that read: “Fear is a liar.”

He’s also big, not just in height, but wide. Williams was the kind of person when you saw walking down the street might invoke the thought “If I ever get into a bar fight, he’s someone I want on my side.”

So even before he opened his mount and said, “G′day” with an Australian accent, it could be a lot to take in.

Yet, while those elements were all part of him, they really didn’t describe what Williams was all about – other than he could be the last person on the planet to go incognito if necessary.

“Laid-back guy,” senior defensive end Damion Square said. “He's a guy that loves to lift weights. He's a guy that's just a cool guy. Laid back, honest, trust-worthy guy.”

Although Williams may be different on the outside, when you rubbed off the face paint that he wore for games the real Jesse was much more subdued, a relaxed, personable spirit with an infectious smile and a wicked sense of humor.

He tweeted under the name ThaMonstar, but didn’t watch much TV. He called road games business trips, had been known to get up before the sun rises. Williams also used to walk around Tuscaloosa barefoot, a lot, even in winter.

At first there was a buzz about some of those things, but it faded. Before long he just became “Jesse” around the football complex and when asked for their best story about No. 54 most teammates couldn’t come up with one (although junior running back Eddie Lacy did joke, “If I did I probably wouldn’t say it because he’s a lot bigger than I am”).

But what he done as a defensive lineman could only be considered remarkable, not only with the cultural transition but in a sport he didn’t grow up around.

While Williams did play a lot rugby and basketball, he was introduced to football by some friends at the age of 14 and quickly took to it while attending Cavendish Road State High School and playing for the club-level Bayside Ravens and Queensland Sun Devils. When Hawaii offered a scholarship, Williams accepted but didn’t qualify academically, so decided to attend a junior college roughly 7,500 miles away, requiring more than 22 hours of travel.

His first year at Arizona Western College, Williams anchored the defensive line and registered 46 tackles in 11 games with seven tackles for loss and four sacks. While getting the attention of every major Division I program he was twice named to the All-Region I team in addition to the All-Western States Team. One of the first schools to offer was Alabama, and he eventually chose it over the likes of LSU, Oklahoma State, Southern California, Arkansas, Oregon State, Mississippi and Tennessee.

At the time, Williams was just one of just four Australians playing in the Football Bowl Subdivision at a position other than punter. He was also Nick Saban’s first player from halfway-around the world.

“I kind of missed the break-you-in period of the first couple years, but junior college isn’t a walk in the park either,” Williams said.

“I know a lot of players that come from pretty rough backgrounds and come, I imagine, to change everything around and help benefit themselves. Coach does a really good job of helping us on and off the field with a lot of those things.”

While growing accustomed to the different surroundings, and everything that went with Crimson Tide football, Williams earned a starting job at defensive end on what would be a national championship team. With the departure of three-year fixture Josh Chapman, he slid over to draw many of the same double-teams in the middle during his final season.

“Jesse didn't play much nose guard last year so it's a new position for him, but he played really well for us last year,” Saban said. “He was probably the most underrated player on our defensive team in terms of his consistency and performance.

“He's very athletic for a big guy. He really hasn't gotten bigger, he's gotten stronger. He weighs exactly the same as he weighed last year.”

Everyone found out just how strong when Williams posted a video online of his bench-pressing 600 pounds, and had still not maxed out. Social media went berzerk, with some calling foul from afar and others flat-out refusing to believe it was legit.

They just hadn’t been following Williams’ career.

He couldn’t believe the stir it created.

Again, though, people didn’t see the real Williams, because there’s so much more to being a defensive lineman than brute strength. They don’t know about the extensive time and effort he put into improving his footwork, hand placement, pass-rushing, ability to hold the point and diffuse the offensive attack by collapsing the pocket.

“He's a really good player,” offensive lineman Barrett Jones said. “The way I feel is that if I can block Jesse in a 3-4 nose, I can block anybody.”

While the 2012 season took a little more of a physical toll on Williams, at 6-foot-4, 320 pounds, he seemed suited to play defensive tackle at the next level, or possibly end, although a lot would depend on the defensive scheme and team needs. Being versatile to play more than one position could only raise his status.

“I think having to step up as like a leader, being a senior, and it being my last season, playing last year I had more experience trying to help other people,” he said. “I think we have a different team. Last year we had a lot of great players. Don’t get me wrong. We have a lot of great players this year, but I think we’re more one. We came together real well. I’m just trying to help get everyone going with that.”

Of course, being that powerful helped too. So if you thought Williams looked intimidating off the field, just imagine what it was like trying to face him on it — like when he lined up at fullback and served as a lead blocker in goal-line situations — with or without the Mohawk, tattoos and war paint.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see Jesse,” Lacy said. “Big. Strong. Fast. Not too much you can do when he’s right in front of you.

“There’s no spinning away from Jesse. If he’s there, he’s there. Just take it for what it is.”

87] Shaun Dion Hamilton, LB

  • Sixth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft
  • Team captain
  • Suffered season-ending knee injury during both junior and senior years, a torn ACL and broken kneecap, respectively.
  • 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

Five things to know about Shaun Dion Hamilton:

- Hamilton was a top in-state prospect. Out of Carver High School in Montgomery, Ala., Hamilton was tabbed as a consensus top-10 player in the state and selected for the 2014 U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

- He got off to a really good start his senior season in 2017. Against Florida State, his 3.5 tackles for a loss were the most by an Alabama player since cornerback Javier Arenas notched 4.5 against Tennessee in 2009. He also had a sack and was subsequently named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week.

- Hamilton was still on Alabama’s sideline after his career had already ended due to injury. For the final games he still helped his teammates any way he could, and was subsequently named a team co-captain.

- When the linebacker suffered his season-ending broken kneecap against LSU, he refused to leave the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium for the last time as a player in uniform on a cart. Instead, he limped off with the help of trainers and endured the pain.

- Hamilton knew his draft stock dropped due to his injuries, but he used it as motivation. “My whole life I’ve always to work harder than everybody else,” Hamilton said. “I was never the tallest guy, the biggest guy, the strongest or the fastest. I always had to have an edge about myself. And that’s just how the dice roll for some people. I like that I have to work that much harder or be that much smarter than other people. It brings out the best in me.”

88] William Vlachos, C

  • 2011 Second-team All-American
  • 2011 All-SEC
  • Took over as starter as redshirt sophomore in 2009
  • Started 40 consecutive games and played in 48 games overall

One hailed from the Birmingham area. The son of a Greek immigrant, with a grandfather who barely spoke English, much of his limited down time was spent outdoors, perhaps on a lake or hunting in the woods somewhere.

The other had called the Memphis area home. The product of German ancestry, he had a 4.0 GPA and made volunteering more than habit, like giving up more than one spring break to help those in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

It begged the question, were offensive linemen William Vlachos and Barrett Jones more alike, or different?

“More alike,” Vlachos said.

“I’d say more different,” Jones countered.

“There’s your answer right there,” Vlachos said as they both laughed.

“I guess to the naked eye we’re pretty alike,” Jones said. “We’ve been around and we’re both ambitious. William’s a lot cooler than me, I think.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” Vlachos said while sporting a grin.

“There are a lot of people at the university he’s introduced me to,” Jones continued undaunted. “Is there anything you’d like to add to that?”

“Well said,” followed by more laughter.

Back in 2011, they were the offensive line’s version of the “Odd Couple,” and first met while Jones was on a recruiting trip along with Vlachos’ former teammate from Mountain Brook High School, tackle Tyler Love. Jones tagged along when they got together to eat and catch up, and each thought the other was likable, but a little unusual … in a good way.

“He is kind of weird,” Vlachos quipped.

“He adjusted to me and we became good friends,” Jones said.

They also became anchors for the offensive line, both cracking the lineup in 2009 when Mark Ingram Jr. won Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy and the Crimson Tide captured the national championship. While the powerful Vlachos stayed put at center, Jones went from starting right guard to left tackle.

In 2012, it took Jones moving to the middle to replace Vlachos, who had been a finalist for the Rimington Award as the best center in college football.

“Chemistry,” Jones identified as the principal reason for their success. “We knew we had good players the whole time. Another key, kind of the same thing is communication. We just continue to improve that, and that’s something that just takes time, kind of us to gel at a unit.

“We did have four guys coming back, but I moved spots so it was kind of like having two new guys, sort of. It just takes time and a lot of reps to be able to do that, and we’re starting to do that better. We have a long way to go before we reach our full potential.”

“I agree,” Vlachos added. “But we also have a new coach. It’s taken a little time to fully understand what he means when he says this, and what he expects from us every day. With Coach [Joe] Pendry we kind of knew what he said before he said it.“

A lot of times Vlachos and Jones were like that on their own, and there’s good reason for that. In addition to all the time they spent at practice and studying opponents, they often roomed together on road trips and after returning had a ritual of late-night McDonald’s run. It used to be the one on 15 Street that was destroyed by the tornado, so they switched to the downtown location.

Jones, whose father played basketball at Alabama under head coach Wimp Sanderson (1982-84), could even do an impersonation of Vlachos’ father and his Greek accent. Such familiarity was the kind of thing that definitely translated to the field in ways that were not obvious.

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“I think it also has to do with trust,” Jones said. “If I can trust that the guy beside me is going to do his job, I can do my job a lot better because I don’t have to worry about him doing his job. When all five trust each other that everyone’s doing to do their job, and you can just worry about your job, it just happens so much better and faster.“

For tennis fans, the continuity could be like playing or watching doubles, with the players ideally moving like a pair of perfectly timed car windshield wipers, only instead of two there are at least five trying to move in unison. So naturally there were days when Vlachos may have worked better with one of his guards, junior Chance Warmack and sophomore Anthony Steen, with the exact opposite true the next day.

“I like that (description),” Vlachos said.

Although Jones was protecting new starting quarterback A.J. McCarron’s blindside, he credited Vlachos with being the heart of the offensive line because everything always started with him.

“You want look for a good offensive line, you have to look first at the center,” he explained. “You have to have a guy out there who can diagnose every situation and effectively communicate it within a split second. One thing that William does an awesome job at is we put a whole lot of responsibility on his shoulders, with our game-plan and the amount of calls that he’s responsible to make, the blocking assignments and how many times we leave him one-on-one with a nose guard. He’s just so poised, and never panics.

“It really makes the rest of us play so much better. He’s the one who has to make the first call every time we go up to the line ad everything builds on what he says. So if he gets it wrong, everyone gets it wrong.”

Jones certainly got an appreciation for what the job entailed in 2011 when coaches first got him some snaps at center, where he remained the first option should something happen to Vlachos. Consequently, he wasn’t joking when telling reporters that it was easier trying to make corrections from a guard or tackle spot than the initial calls.

However, that also led to some arguments in the film room about what they should do for certain looks and opposing formations. That way, when they saw it on the field they already knew what to do and just make sure the others were aware.

“I guess it’s like healthy conversation,” Jones said.

“Well said,” Vlachos added.

89] Da'Shawn Hand, DE

  • Fourth-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft
  • As a senior had 27 tackles including 3.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, and recovered a fumble despite missing three games
  • Had 10 careers sacks

Five things to know about Da’Shawn Hand:

- Hand was in the defensive line rotation during his first game at Alabama. Hit debut came in the neutral-site opener against West Virginia in Atlanta.

- Some considered Hand the nation’s top recruit of 2014, ahead of Leonard Fournette, Myles Garrett and Deshaun Watson. He was ranked No. 1 in the Rivals100, No. 5 in the 247Sports composite and No. 6 in the ESPN300. The Parade Magazine All-American notched 56 sacks during his high school career in Woodbridge, Va.

- He had been a two-sport standout in high school. Hand was a state champion wrestler in Virginia. He went undefeated as a heavyweight in eighth grade, gave it up as a freshman to focus on football and returned to the sport as a junior. “He’s a freak, freak athlete, really talented player, a good competitor, so we definitely make each other better I feel like in practice,” left tackle Jonah Williams said. “It’s good to have a guy like that you can go against so when you go against other talented guys on Saturday, it’s not a big surprise.”

- Hand’s high school coach was former Auburn linebacker Karibi Dede. However, one of the reasons why he opted for Alabama was its civil engineering program.

- His NFL draft stock rose after his Crimson Tide career ended. Although Hand played in 50 games during his career, he made only 11 starts. A key moment for him may have been at the Senior Bowl. Analyst Mike Mayock said during a broadcast, “He needs to show he can get to the quarterback, he’s already stout in the run game.” Sure enough, on the North’s first offensive possession, Hand got a sack. 

90] Arie Kouandjio, G

  • 2014 All-American
  • 2014 All-SEC
  • Fourth-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft
  • Two-year starter, played in 40 games

A Q&A with Arie Kouandjio.

There may have been no one on the Alabama football team who was looking more forward to the 2013 season opener against Virginia Tech in Atlanta than offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio.

Not only did he make his first career start for the Crimson Tide, and play alongside younger brother, Cyrus, at left guard, but it signaled the completion of a remarkable comeback from injuries in both knees that teammates feared would end his career.

In 2011, Kouandjio was diagnosed with the subluxation of the patella in both knees, a dislocation of the kneecap from its normal position in the groove in the end of the femur. It’s a hereditary condition that can cause numerous problems and become extremely painful.

Q: Did you hurt both knees at the same time?

“It was a long-term thing. I'd been fighting it for a very long time, convincing myself that I was fine. Eventually someone else had to tell me I wasn't fine. No, it wasn't one specific play.”

Q: Where there moments in which you wondered if you’d ever play again?

“Well right after it happened it was a pretty rough time, but that only lasted three hours or so. Somehow my father found out and my parents found out and they talked to me and I was fine again.”

Q: How much better is Cyrus after starting a year at left tackle?

“My brother's gotten substantially better. That's really up to you guys, the media to do all that and those types of questions so I don't know. My brother is constantly getting better. We're all constantly getting better as an o-line.”

Q: How cool is it to line up next to him?

“It’s insane. I love it. We’re real in sync and we know how each of us feel and we don’t really have to talk that much to know what’s going down and stuff like that with each other. It’s real cool, all of it.”

Q: When you two were bookend tackles in high school, did opponents think they might be seeing double?

“They probably couldn’t say much. We had a good time then, too, and I guess we’re going to keep it going. Now we’re actually closer to each other and can actually see what each of us is doing and it’s more fun now. We’re in for a good time.”

Q: Does being side-by-side give you any sort of advantage?

“It's pretty great. We have a chemistry we've built up through our whole lives so some things are a little bit easier.”

Q: Like what?

“You know, just like communication and stuff like that. Small nuances like that. It's great playing with all those guys. We've been through a lot together.

Q: Was there ever a sibling rivalry between you and Cyrus?

“My brother and I have always been very supportive of each other and it doesn’t stop here.”

Q: You didn’t fight when you were little?

“I don’t know if you could call what we did fighting. It was, oh, it was a different category. But now we’re fine.”

Q: What would it be more like, wrestling?

“No, not wrestling. It was break the walls. Get in trouble and then come back and do it again another day.”

Q: With your knee problems and Cyrus tearing his ACL having knee surgery, what was it for you to go through rehab together?

“That’s when competition came in and that helped us a lot. We turned it into a game and now we’re here.”

Q: How did you turn it into a game?

“Who can get most reps on leg extension, things like that. Little things, critique each other. It was a good thing to have someone there who has been with you your whole life to be with you when you are going through something like that.”

Q: You mentioned your dad before what’s he like?

“He's very stern. He's very discipline oriented. He's the kind of guy you learn to appreciate as you get older.”

Q: What does he think of football now?

“I think he just finally started really getting into it over the past few years, especially the last year. My first sport was soccer growing up from Cameroon. That's always been his sport. He's on board now. He definitely enjoys it.”

Q: Can you still hold your own on the soccer field?

“There's a reason why I play football.”

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:

Introduction

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 

86] Jesse Williams, DT

  • Fifth-round selection in 2013 NFL Draft
  • Was one of Alabama’s first Internet stars when video of him bench pressing 600 pounds went viral
  • Junior college transfer moved into starting lineup as junior and made 24 tackles and a sack
  • As a senior had 37 total tackles, a sack and blocked a kick
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