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The Saban Top 100: No. 46-50

The Saban Top 100: No. 46-50

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The Saban Top 100: No. 46-50

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

46] Dalvin Tomlinson, DT

  • Second-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft
  • As a senior had 62 total tackles, including 5.5 for a loss and three sacks, seven quarterback hurries and four pass breakups. He had a knack for swatting down balls at the line of scrimmage

Dalvin Tomlinson is interesting, really interesting.

He’s interesting as a player, who seems to turn on a mental switch as needed. When his Alabama teammates saw a certain look in his eye they knew what was about to be unleashed.

He’s interesting as a person. Tomlinson’s as likable as can be, hails from Georgia and has overcome two knee surgeries. Away from the game he’s usually pretty laid back and often smiling.

Tomlinson’s even interesting as a student. Of course he wanted to give the National Football League a try after his college football career concluded, but if it didn’t work out had a backup plan.

“I’ll go into financial planning,” he said.

It wasn’t necessary. Tomlinson’s the kind of player that every NFL team covets: big, fast and hard-working. That he was one of the main cogs on a national champion defensive line didn’t hurt his pro prospects either.

“I don’t know if you can tell, but he’s really a difference maker on the front,” defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “That’s my dawg man. He’s funny.”

While players like Allen, interior linebacker Reuben Foster and outside linebackers Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams got more of the attention among the Crimson Tide’s imposing defensive front seven, Tomlinson was a program stalwart for years.

Before his final season in 2016 he had already played in 29 games for Alabama, notching 60 tackles, including six for a loss, two sacks and six passes knocked down. About the only thing he hadn’t done is start. He took care of that in the high-profile opener against Southern California.

“Dalvin has been a real contributor for us,” Nick Saban said. “Made a lot of plays, bats down a lot of balls. A very consistent player, a smart player. Plays really good technique and is athletic and can rush and do a lot of things.

“He's been an outstanding player for us. He's gotten better and better each year. He was a little bit undersized when we recruited him. He's gotten bigger and stronger and now he's a pretty effective player on a consistent basis.”

That fed into the notion among his teammates that Tomlinson might have been the most underrated player on the Crimson Tide roster. Sometimes they even contributed to it themselves, although not intentionally.

“Dalvin is a big part of this defense,” Anderson said. “He doesn’t get a lot of credit he deserves, but Dalvin is a monster. He’s been that way for a while. He can run, pass rush.

“[The other day] we were talking and I thought he was like 280, he’s like 310. So he got up on the scale and I was like ‘Dang.’ He don’t look like it. He doesn’t play like it. He’s one of the fastest D-linemen we have besides Da’Shawn [Hand]. He’s big. Dalvin is a big-time player man.”

But that mean streak that Tomlinson played with was something to behold, and came through in each and every game. It allowed him to pounce off the line with a burst that could be surprising, causing a rushing lane to collapse, or disruption in the backfield.

That’s one of the secrets to his playing success. Another was his hands, something that can make or break a defensive lineman.

“Pretty much hands for a defensive lineman are key, if you don’t use your hands you’re not going to be successful,” Tomlinson explained. “You use your hands every single play, and simply, if you don’t have good hand placement you’re going to pretty much get blown off the ball by the offensive lineman and lose your block and lose your gap which leads to big plays by the offense.”

Tomlinson had exceptional hands, perhaps the best on the Crimson Tide — at least among the linemen. Although he was surrounded by players who were rated as being 5-star prospects by a variety of recruiting services, they couldn’t duplicate what he di. And yes, they tried.

“I watch a lot of things he does with his hands, and I can’t really pick up on it’s just natural the stuff he does,” Anderson said. “I don’t know if he took jujitsu or something in the jungle. It’s just so quick.”

Actually, a lot of it came from playing other sports in addition to football. Tomlinson was the goalie for his high school soccer team (which was how the first knee injury occurred) and a prize wrestler. He only lost twice.

“The first one was my first-ever varsity match and I was nervous and lost by points,” he said. “The second one I got disqualified for hip-tossing a dude onto his neck.”

To clarify, Tomlinson wasn’t trying to hurt his opponent, he executed a move that his coach called for when way out in front and missed on the follow through. But that he was able to throw a 285-pound opponent like that was more than enough to raise the eyebrows of his teammates.

They shared the videos of him wrestling, which could still be found on YouTube, including the one when Tomlinson won a state title faster than the time it took you to read this sentence. He was that good, and was undefeated as the Crimson Tide’s locker room champion, initially defeating A’Shawn Robinson for the unofficial title.

Regardless, it all helped explain how Tomlinson could be so effective at getting off blocks and knocking down passes.

“Ryan just thinks I’m a freak of nature,” Tomlinson said.

He was certainly one of a kind.

47] Antoine Caldwell, C

  • 2008 Consensus All-American
  • 2008 All-SEC
  • Third-round selection in 2009 NFL Draft
  • Twice named a team captain
  • As a senior was second on the team with 92 knockdowns, and finished with an 85.93 percent blocking consistency grade

Five things to know about Antoine Caldwell:

1] Caldwell was a rare four-year starter, but at two different positions. He was first a guard and then slid over to center.

2] He was on the watch list for the Rimington Trophy, for most outstanding center, three times. However, despite being the consensus All-American in 2008 he didn’t get the award.

3] Caldwell had the distinction of being rated the No. 10 center prospect in the nation at Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery by Rivals.com, to being the consensus third center available in the 2009 NFL Draft. He was the 77th-overall pick by the Houston Texans.

4] Being part of the Alabama textbook disbursement scandal helped motive Caldwell to return for his senior season. “I feel like I had unfinished business,” he said. “Those were four big games that I missed, and I felt like I knew the direction this team was going in, we were going to have a good football team. Year two of Coach Saban and I knew what he’s about and I believe in what he’s doing here. I felt like everyone was going to be on the same page.”

5] Caldwell played 39 games, including 19 starts, for the Texans from 2009-12.

48] Kareem Jackson, DB

  • 20th-overall selection in the 2010 NFL Draft
  • Started 12 of 13 games as a true freshman in 2007 and earned Freshman All-American honors while making 48 tackles and three interceptions
  • Broke up 10 passes as a sophomore, while making 44 tackles
  • Tallied one pick, 13 broken up passes and 49 tackles during final season

Five things to know about Kareem Jackson:

- Jackson was actually a standout running back at Westside in Macon, Ga., gaining 3,447 yards and scoring 46 touchdowns over three seasons.

- He originally committed to Vanderbilt, but the school wanted him to secure a higher aptitude test score and play a different position, cornerback. Consequently, Jackson headed to Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia.

- Was a late addition to Nick Saban’s first recruiting class at Alabama in 2007.

Coaches plugged him into the starting lineup for the opener against Western Carolina, and his first SEC start was ironically against Vanderbilt. He had five tackles and a forced fumble as the Crimson Tide won 24-10.

- Later his freshman season, Jackson had two interceptions and six tackles against Tennessee en route to being named the SEC Freshman of the Week. It was his only multi-interception game at Alabama.

- Jackson was given a second-round grade by the NFL draft advisory committee but decided to leave Alabama a year early anyway. Surprisingly, the knock on him was speed, but after he ran the 40 in 4.48 seconds at the combine was a first-round selection.

49] Cyrus Kouandjio, T

  • 2013 Consensus All-American
  • 2013 All-SEC
  • Second-round selection in 2014 NFL Draft
  • Made 24 career starts, all at left tackle

Five things to know about Cyrus Kouandjio: 

- Kouandjio was born in Cameroon and moved with his family to the United States when he was 4. "When you think of America, a lot of guys especially back home in Africa, they look at America as somewhere where you go and you get an opportunity to make something of yourself," he said at the 2014 NFL combine. "Because there's no oppression here, there's democracy. There's no funny business going on here. So everybody has a good chance of being what they want in life. I feel as if me and my brother have taken advantage of this as much as we can. God bless America."

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- He speaks fluent French which is an official language of Cameroon along with English.

- Kouandjio was six-feet tall at age 12. He liked to play soccer, but was so big the coaches often made him play goaltender. Kouandjio also liked to wrestle with his brother Arie at home, much to the dismay of his parents.

- Cyrus followed his brother to DeMatha Catholic High School, where had hoped to pay defensive end. Instead he became a prize prospect at offensive tackle.

- As a sophomore in 2012, Alabama moved Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones to center in part to get Kouandjio in the starting lineup at left tackle. A year later Arie won the starting job at left guard and the brothers played side-by-side.

50] Trevon Diggs, CB

  • Second-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft
  • As a senior tied for team lead in pass breakups with eight, to go with three interceptions. Allowed a passer rating of just 44.5 when targeted, according to Pro Football Focus
  • Had an 84-yard pick-six against Arkansas

It felt … weird.

That was Trevon Diggs’ description to finally practicing after being sidelined for six long months due to an injury. It was weird, exciting and maybe a little awkward.

Consequently, the cornerback was rusty, and understandingly so. But things quickly came back to him and the more reps he took the less he had to think about what to do or how odd everything initially felt. Pretty soon, playing became second nature again just like before he suffered a season-ending foot fracture at Arkansas.

“It’s good to be back,” Diggs said in the spring of 2019. “It was a humbling experience.”

“He couldn’t wait to get back,” senior teammate Shyheim Carter said.

When fans had last seen Diggs in 2018 he appeared to be in the midst of a breakout season. With Alabama having to replace every starter in the secondary, including the regulars in the nickel and dime packages (formations with five and six defensive backs), he and safety Deionte Thompson were the closest the unit had to incumbents.

They had game experience, which at that point was in very short supply.

Through the first five games, Diggs started to stand out. He was making tackles and among the Southeastern Conference leaders in passes defended.

Against Louisiana he had his first career interception and also his first forced fumble.

The strong play continued at Arkansas, where he made seven tackles. However, at some point he planted hard on the artificial turf and felt something give in his foot. He wouldn’t feel normal again until just before the Crimson Tide opened spring workouts.

It wasn’t easy to go into idle mode. Not when it appeared that his career was just taking off.

“I got to learn a different aspect,” Diggs said. “I got to see how to coach and to help other people and help myself as well. There are more aspects to the game than just playing and doing it. You can learn different ways and I learned you couldn’t take anything for granted. Make the most of every opportunity you get.”

He’s been doing that ever since.

From learning new positions, like what Alabama calls star in the nickel package when it replaces the strong-side linebacker with another defensive back to cover the wide receiver in the slot, to being a more vocal leader for the defense, Diggs continued to make strides.

Additionally, he got more of the big picture of why certain things needed to be done in a specific way for the defense to succeed. It also obviously also worked the other way as well, of how something small at the beginning of a play could lead to a big problem later on.

“Yeah, it helps you a lot because when you’re on the outside and a team does a slot formation in regular, you’re going to have to travel and you’re going to have to play slot anyway,” Diggs explained. “So me picking up on those little keys and little tricks and gimmicks in the slot, it helps me a lot. It helps me on the inside. It helps me on the outside. And you sort of learn where you’re at on the field and receiver location, so you expect their routes more.

“So if a receiver’s outside and the No. 2 receiver’s close to the tight end, he’s most likely not running that way. He’s going to run out. So little things like that help me pick up on things and learn more routes.”

That was a big change from the previous year, when the younger brother of Stephon Diggs of the Minnesota Vikings was still figuring out the position after moving from wide receiver. Even Nick Saban noted, “he wasn’t confident in everything he’s supposed to do.”

Diggs had to learn quickly, though, if for no other reason than to get through Alabama’s practices. In 2019, the Crimson Tide had two defensive back coaches in Charles Kelly and Karl Scott, plus Saban working with the position group during practices, and every day he was going up against the likes of Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Henry Ruggs III.

“He’s worked really hard,” Saban said at the time. “I think he has a much better knowledge of what to do, how to do it, why it’s important to do it that way.

“I’ve been really pleased with his progress, and even his leadership has been very, very good.”

The coach said that before Diggs played in his return game, the season-opener against Duke in Atlanta. Alabama only gave up three explosive plays, what Saban defines as a run 13 yards or more, or a pass completed for 17 yards or more, with Diggs making an interception and recovering a fumble.

Most would consider that a job well done, but he didn’t. The play that still stuck with Diggs days later was a sideline route for a gain of 37 yards when he played the ball instead of the man. It required just about a perfect throw, only that wasn’t much of a consolation.

“Playing the position, you know balls are going to be caught,” Diggs said. “You have to forget about it.

“I use it as motivation to make plays.”

As for getting back on the field for a game?

“It felt … really good,” Diggs admitted.

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

Introduction

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 

46] Dalvin Tomlinson, DT

  • Second-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft
  • As a senior had 62 total tackles, including 5.5 for a loss and three sacks, seven quarterback hurries and four pass breakups. He had a knack for swatting down balls at the line of scrimmage
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