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The Saban Top 100: No. 51-55

The Saban Top 100: No. 51-55

The Saban Top 100: Ranking the Best Alabama Players of the Nick Saban Era, No. 51-55

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

51] Mike Johnson, G

  • 2009 Consensus All-American
  • 2009 All-SEC
  • Third-round selection in 2010 NFL Draft
  • Team captain
  • Played both guard and tackle

There was Rocky Block. The drive against Auburn. The program’s first Heisman Trophy. The revenge game against Florida in the SEC Championship Game. And, of course, the national championship game in the Rose Bowl, which has its own set of unique memories.

Years later, it’s still difficult to put the 2009 Crimson Tide season into perspective because there was just so many fascinating things about Nick Saban’s only undefeated season.

“People always ask ‘What was the difference?’” All-American offensive lineman Mark Johnson said. “That was really before the recruiting classes hit their stride. My answer is always, ‘We put in so much hard work.’

“When you look back at that year, and you look back at all the stuff we did with [strength coach Scott] Cochrane, and all the stuff that we did throughout the season after 2008, I just feel like we out-worked everybody. Everybody had a role, and everybody worked their rear off.”

Saban’s first national-title team at Alabama was also the first in college football history to defeat 10 opponents that finished with a winning record, plus it dispatched the three previous national champions along the way. Those left in the Crimson Tide’s wake included No. 2 Texas, No. 3 Florida, No. 10 Virginia Tech, No. 17 LSU and No. 20 Ole Miss.

Alabama also played South Carolina when it was ranked 22nd, a game that gets overlooked a lot.

Up only 13-6 in the second half, Alabama put Ingram in the wildcat formation and pounded away until his submissive 4-yard touchdown. He ended up with a career-high 246 rushing yards.

“That South Carolina game was like a microcosm of the entire year for me,” Johnson said. “Obviously we relied on our defense. I think it was Mark Barron who got an early pick-six [77 yards], and then it was our running game.

“Once our backs were against the wall, and once we had to have it, and we needed an eight-minute drive at the end of the game to not only make sure that we scored but to make sure we kept their offense off the field – you know we played a lot of ball control that year – that’s what we got. We put our foot down and said let’s put the ball in our best player’s hands.”

Alabama did something similar when closing out the SEC Championship Game and began what’s become known as the Decade of Dominance, the greatest stretch in college football history by a program, which continues today.

The 17-play touchdown drive went 88 yards and ate up 8 minutes and 47 seconds of the second half. It not only capped the 32-13 victory, and avenged the loss in the 2008 SEC Championship Game, but signaled a changing of the guard.

“I’m not sure that people look back now at Florida as a dynasty,” Johnson said. “You know they won two out of three national titles, and if they beat us they would have won three out of four. It blows your mind to look back on it and go Tim Tebow, Urban Meyer, Takeo Spikes, you name it. That was a dynasty.

“That was one of our best games.”

Overall, Alabama pummeled Florida nearly across the board statistically, including first downs (26-13), rushing yards (251-88), time of possession (39:27-20:23), and third-down conversions (11 of 15 vs. 4 of 11). The Crimson Tide never trailed, scoring on six of its first seven possessions (minus running out the clock in the second quarter) before game MVP Greg McElroy eventually took a knee.

But the quarterback also suffered a painful rib injury, helping lead to his attempting just 11 passes in the title game. Instead, Alabama relied on its offensive line and running backs in the BCS Championship Game at the Rose Bowl, where both the Heisman Trophy winner Ingram and Trent Richardson topped 100 rushing yards and scored two touchdowns.

52] T.J. Yeldon, RB

  • 2013 All-SEC
  • Second-round pick in 2015 NFL Draft
  • In first college game rushed for 111 yards and a touchdown. Had 153 yards against Georgia in 2012 SEC Championship Game. Set Alabama freshman record with 1,108 rushing yards
  • Ran for 110 yards and one touchdown against Notre Dame in BCS Championship Game
  • Had 3,322 career rushing yards and 37 touchdowns over three seasons. Just missed becoming first running back in program history with three 1,000-yard rushing seasons

The 2014 offseason was quiet for Alabama junior running back T.J. Yeldon, at least in terms of being in the spotlight and social media.

Otherwise he was all over the place.

During his third A-Day, the final scrimmage of spring practices, he tallied 95 rushing yards on 11 carries and scored a touchdown to be named the winner of the Dixie Howell Memorial Award as game MVP. He’s the only three-time winner in Crimson Tide history.

Numerous news outlets listed him as a preseason All-American and Yeldon received the second-most votes behind teammate Amari Cooper for All-SEC honors in the conference’s media voting. He was also named to the watch lists for the Maxell and Walter Camp awards for most outstanding player, and the Doak Walker Award for best running back.

Yet a lot of the attention during offseason was on Alabama’s other promising running backs, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, and for a variety of reasons. While that would cause some players to be jealous, or do something to get back into the limelight, Yeldon simply kept plugging along.

“That's his personality,” Nick Saban said. “I think he's sort of a quiet guy who is a hard worker. He sets a really good example in terms of how he goes about his work every day, how he practices. I think the players have a tremendous amount of respect for the example that he sets, the work ethic that he has, the kind of competitor that he is, the toughness that he plays with.

“But (he’s) not a guy who does a lot of talking, and that's okay. I think you want players to be comfortable in what's natural for their personality, because otherwise it would only look contrived. He leads in a way that is effective for him.”

Although Yeldon was the player on Tuscaloosa billboards used to promote this season, and prominently displayed one of the four different media guide covers, he didn’t represent the Crimson Tide at SEC Media Days.

It just wasn’t his thing. Yeldon was not one to do a whole lot of interviews, and when he did his answers were usually short and to the point. When Alabama reached the national championship game at the end of the 2012 season he began the team’s mandatory media day session surrounded by reporters on a sideline, but ended up with a smaller group in a corner at Sun Life Stadium.

“He’s not looking for everybody to praise and just help him out,” senior tight end Brian Vogler explained about the former five-star recruit who was named the state’s 2011 Mr. Football by the Alabama Sports Writers Association.

“I don’t know how to phrase it, but he’s just a guy who’s so humble about everything he’s been given. He’s not really looking for accolades. He lets his playing do the talking.”

Nevertheless, Alabama’s version of speak softly and create big carries has the in-state product from Daphne more than in the running to become the program’s all-time leading rusher.

After setting the program freshman record of 1,108 rushing yards (and tying Mark Ingram’s freshman touchdown record of 12), his 1,235 yards on 207 carries as a sophomore made him just the fifth running back in Crimson Tide history to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He joined Johnny Musso (1970-71), Bobby Humphrey (1986-87), Shaun Alexander (1998-99), and Kenneth Darby (2004-05), but was the first to do so during his first two years in the program.

Meanwhile, Yeldon was the first true freshman running back in Crimson Tide history to notch 100 rushing yards in his debut, when Alabama outgained Michigan on the ground 232-69, while destroying the Wolverines 41-14.

For an encore, Yeldon scored the game-winning touchdown at LSU, notched 100-yard rushing performances in both the Southeastern Conference and BCS national title games, and along with starter Eddie Lacy formed the first 1,000-yard rushing tandem in Crimson Tide history.

“It is great having a running back like that, especially as an offensive lineman,” junior center Ryan Kelly said. “To have a guy like that who can miss defenders, obviously not every play is going to be perfect but with a guy like that back there running the ball some big plays can spring up.”

Alabama had a lot of top-notch athletes at other positions as well, including Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, Christion Jones and O.J. Howard.

New offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin couldn’t help but feel like a kid in candy store. He was surrounded by sweetness, especially with the backfield.

“Drake's more of the speed guy,” Yeldon said. “Derrick's power and speed. And (I’m) both power and speed too.

“We can be very dangerous. Coach just has to equal out our playing time.”

A version of this story first appeared in a 2014 Alabama game program

53] Ronnie Harrison, S

  • 2017 Second-Team All-American
  • 2017 All-SEC
  • Third-round selection in 2018 NFL Draft
  • Scored two touchdowns as a sophomore, on an interception and fumble recovery, and was credited with 86 tackles
  • Had 74 tackles and three interceptions during final season

Five things to know about Ronnie Harrison:

- Harrison grew up in Tallahassee, Fla., and attended Florida State University School. In addition to playing on defense, he was also the team’s quarterback and threw for 2,076 yards with 13 touchdowns and ran for 1,015 rushing yards and 16 scores.

- Even though he grew up in FSU’s back yard, the Seminoles never offered a scholarship. Harrison was a longtime commitment to North Carolina before making a late switch to Alabama.

- Despite being part of a talented position group, including the likes of Minkah Fitzpatrick and Eddie Jackson, Harrison was a key reserve as a freshman and made an immediate impact on special teams. He landed a regular starting job as a sophomore and ended up as one of 19 Crimson Tide defensive backs drafted since 2010.

- As a sophomore returned an interception 58 yards for a touchdown against Tennessee, and a fumble 55 yards to score against Kentucky.

- Harrison had 10 tackles in the national championship game against Clemson at the end of the 2016 season.

54] Damien Harris, RB

  • Third-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft
  • Team captain
  • Just missed becoming the first Alabama running back to post three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Had 876 yards his senior season
  • Finished with 3,070 career rushing yards
  • Averaged 6.4 yards per carry on 477 carries for his career to set the Alabama all-time career mark (minimum 400 rushes)

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The game was over. Rammer Jammer had been played. The home crowd had already disbursed and nearly all there was left inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium were the remaining Alabama fans who were happily enjoying the afterglow of a 62-7 victory.

So was Alabama senior running back Damien Harris, lingering behind after his teammates had all retreated back into the cramped visiting locker room, taking in a little more of the scene.

The smile on his face couldn’t be ignored. It was almost out-shinning the big video screen looming above the empty Ole Miss student section. He then ran and jumped up into the air while waiving a towel, letting out a loud “Yeah” to the celebrating fans before finally departing himself.

This from a player who had only made five rushing attempts in the game despite being the Crimson Tide’s starting running back. He did catch four short passes, but the carries were his fewest since the national championship game against Clemson at the end of the 2016 season.

Yet Harris was having a ball after coming back for one final season with the Crimson Tide.

“Yeah. I mean, that’s the goal,” he said. “With all the things that go into this game, I think it’s important to remember just to have fun.

“Why are we playing this game? Why do we start playing this game at such a young age? It’s my last year, the last time I get to go through this year with this team, these coaches. I just try to enjoy it as much as I can.”

Perhaps the most overlooked and least talked aspect of the 2018 Crimson Tide was its impressive leadership and everyone’s willingness to contribute even though they may not have be highlighted the way they they’re accustomed, or utilized as much as other places.

Junior quarterback Jalen Hurts was a prime example. There aren’t too many teams that could have a one-time SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a reserve and not have it be a massive distraction.

There’s also senior Ross Pierschbacher, who made the move from guard to center. Sophomore Alex Leatherwood switched to guard even though he’s a better tackle. Defensive back Shyheim Carter was considered more valuable to the Crimson Tide as a jack-of-all-trades player than as a set starter in the base defense.

The same’s been true at running back, where Alabama went into the season with Harris, junior Josh Jacobs, sophomore Najee Harris and sophomore Brian Robinson Jr.

Damien Harris didn’t lead the team in rushing yards through most of the regular season, but if he wasn’t complaining no one else really could.

Unlike many of his predecessors at the position he turned down the opportunity to leave early for the National Football League after tallying 1,037 rushing yards in 2016 and exactly 1,000 a year later.

That made him one of just six players in Alabama history to have back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing season. Johnny Musso was the first in 1970-71, followed by Bobby Humphrey (1986-87), Shaun Alexander (1998-99), Kenneth Darby (2004-05), and T.J. Yeldon (2012-13).

No one has ever done it three straight years.

Sure, Damien Harris would have liked to have been the first, but it’s also wasn’t among his biggest concerns. Topping that list was the team goal of winning another national championship.

“Offensively, we're putting a lot of points up,” he said. “We're putting up a lot of yards. We're one of the most efficient offenses in the country so it's been a lot of fun. Getting to play with so many guys who play at such a high level, that's what makes this fun game for us. Getting to share the credit and one guy scores a touchdown and then another guy scores a touchdown, we have all these receivers that have however many receiving yards and however many receiving touchdowns, same way with the running backs.

“We have a lot of guys we can rotate in and still uphold the standard of our offense and that's been really fun. We're excited about it because having so much depth.”

Under Nick Saban, Alabama knew it could be very good with one consistent running back that it can count upon. But when the Crimson Tide had two or more is when the team is most dangerous.

Because players get beat up at the position, Saban likes to regularly rotate his players in the backfield and try to keep them fresh. It’s also the best way for them to develop.

Even in 2007, Saban’s first season with the Crimson Tide, Terry Grant was the leading rusher, but Glen Coffee was emerging and Roy Upchurch becoming a strong third-down back. Subsequently, the primary tandem became Coffee and Ingram in 2008. Then Richardson was in the mix …

You get the idea.

"I'd be an idiot to not find ways to get those guys involved in our system," offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said.

Before Mark Ingram Jr. and Derrick Henry came along this used to be a program that took pride in NOT winning the Heisman Trophy because it celebrated the individual over the team concept.

Nowadays they call that kind of thinking “throwback.”

It’s a term that Damien Harris would take as a compliment.

“I want to be the best leader on the team," he said.

55] JK Scott, P

  • 2014 All-American; 2016-17 Second-Team All-American
  • 2014, 2016-17 All-SEC
  • Fifth-round pick in 2018 NFL Draft
  • Holds Alabama records for career punting yards (11,074), attempts (243), and punting average (45.6)
  • Had only five punts returned as a senior. Had 27 of 54 punts inside the 20-yard line, with only four touchbacks
  • Led nation with a 48.0 average as a freshman

Five things to know about JK Scott:

- He posted his best numbers as a freshman, when he was still growing. Scott led the nation in gross punting average with 48.0 yards per attempt, and dropped 31 of 55 kicks inside the 20-yard-line while only allowing five touchbacks. He was named a finalist for the Ray Guy Award for nation’s best punter the first of two times, but didn’t win.

- Even though he was from the thin-air-Denver area, Scott was widely regarded to be one the of the best punting prospects in the nation and rated No. 1 by kicking trainer Chris Sailer. He was ranked as the No. 3 punter nationally and No. 8 place-kicker by KohlsKicking.com and participated in the Semper Fidelis All-American Game.

- As Scott’s career progressed, he did more than punt for Alabama. His senior year, he averaged 63.2 yards per kickoff with 45 touchbacks, and he was also the Crimson Tide’s long field-goal kicker. “JK has done a fabulous job for us,” Nick Saban said at the time. “JK’s a hard worker and a perfectionist in what he does. Consistency has always been a real key for him and he’s done a good job of that this year.”

- In an effort to improve this past season, Scott took advice from an unusual source for a punter, to “to take conservative angles but be aggressive with my swing.” He said: “You know who actually said that was Jordan Spieth. My friend met Jordan Spieth and asked him for some advice playing golf. He said to take conservative angles but aggressive strokes. That’s been my goal and what I did was take an aggressive angle, which I shouldn’t have.”

- Scott turned heads during Alabama’s trip to the White House when after the ceremony to honor the Crimson Tide he asked President Donald Trump if he could pray for him and his staff. Numerous players joined in one of the more poignant moments of the offseason. 

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

Introduction

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 

51] Mike Johnson, G

  • 2009 Consensus All-American
  • 2009 All-SEC
  • Third-round selection in 2010 NFL Draft
  • Team captain
  • Played both guard and tackle

There was Rocky Block. The drive against Auburn. The program’s first Heisman Trophy. The revenge game against Florida in the SEC Championship Game. And, of course, the national championship game in the Rose Bowl, which has its own set of unique memories.

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