The Saban Top 100: Ranking the Best Alabama Players of the Nick Saban Era, No. 66-70
66] Terrell Lewis, LB
- Third-round selection in 2020 NFL Draft
- After having season-ending injuries two straight years tied for fifth among SEC defenders with 11.5 tackles for loss. Had six sacks, 16 pressures, 31 tackles, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery
It took him six games, although that’s a little misleading.
Alabama outside linebacker Terrell Lewis wasn’t healthy for them all. He suffered a hyperextended knee at South Carolina, so the Crimson Tide coaching staff was cautious and had him sit out the following game against Southern Miss. Even so, he wasn’t practicing all the time until the team headed to Texas A&M on Oct. 12, 2019.
Once he did, though, the difference was apparent, to even the most causal of fans. Lewis notched two sacks in College Station, and then a week later had two more against Tennessee. It gave him six for the season and moved him into a tie for the league’s overall lead.
Factor in that he had been sidelined and Lewis had the league’s best average.
"I've been thinking there’s so many I missed,” Lewis said. “So the fact that I'm leading is kinda scary, but kinda a little bit disappointing. “But [it’s] something I definitely know I could build off of even knowing that I missed a game.”
Even though the end of his career with the Crimson Tide was already looming, it felt like Lewis was just getting started.
The freakishly built pass-rusher was exactly the kind of player National Football League teams were looking for off the edge: Tall, fast and solid. At 6-foot-5 with a long wingspan he could use his reach to provide leverage on a lineman or drop back and take away a pass over the middle.
Lewis also had a terrific first step, which could make all the difference at his position.
"Get off is everything as far as pass rush,” he said. “If you don't get off the ball, really the lineman's going to be waiting for you to put his hands on you. So once you get off the ball, then I think everything comes after that, whether what move you want to work or stuff like that."
This was what Alabama fans and coaches — and Lewis too — had been waiting so long for. After being considered a top-tier prospect out of the Washington D.C. area in the signing Class of 2016, he was one of the Crimson Tide’s new freshmen considered too good not to play right away.
He participated in 11 games that season, including the opener against Southern California in Arlington, Texas, and notched his first career sack against Arkansas.
It was a long wait to add to that number.
Against Florida State in the 2017 opener, Lewis suffered an upper-arm injury that sidelined him for 10 games, and then he still was far from 100 percent during his return game against Auburn.
However, in the College Football Playoff a month later it was a different story. Lewis made a pair of tackles and nearly had an interception, only couldn’t hold on to the Kelly Bryant throw to complete the pick. His first career start came in the National Championship Game against Georgia, where in the same stadium he got hurt against the Seminoles, Lewis was in on seven tackles and had a sack in overtime to force a long field goal.
Everyone remembers what happened two snaps later (Tua Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith).
Lewis was widely hailed as a player to watch in 2018, and considered a likely contender for the Butkus Award as college football’s most outstanding linebacker, only it wasn’t meant to be. Due to a torn ACL in July, his expected breakthrough season ended before it began.
Missing out on the playoff run was bad enough, but Lewis sat out nearly all of the subsequent spring as well after having another procedure to clear up his knee.
"It was definitely a lot of dark times, and kind of made me have to sit back and just kind of be patient and really just focusing on, 'OK, how can I get better in this time?' Instead of just moping and looking to complain basically,” Lewis said. “You can't really complain about the cards you're dealt, so I kind of just worked through it because I knew God had something planned on the other side. I just really tried to focus on getting back on the field and taking everything for what it’s worth as far as [building] relationships in football and stuff like that."
Ironically, Lewis’ comeback game was again played at the same place where his injury issues began, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Against Duke, he came off the bench to make three tackles including a sack, and after the game was all smiles.
“Awesome,” said Lewis of the experience. “Just to play the game I love and play against somebody else, get those butterflies and jitters out of the way, and make it off this stage …
“It was good.”
67] Blake Sims, QB
- Broke AJ McCarron’s single-season passing record with 3,487 yards, to go with 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions
- Threw for 445 yards against Florida, second most in a game in Crimson Tide history
- Led Alabama into the inaugural College Football Playoff as the top-seeded team
- Team captain
- Played running back and wide receiver before establishing himself at quarterback.
Despite the doubters, he was arguably the best story in college football during the 2014 season.
They had questioned if he could play quarterback at this level for a program like Alabama.
He responded by winning the starting job.
They didn’t respect his arm strength.
He had touchdown passes on the first offensive play against both Florida and Tennessee, and posted comparable numbers to his predecessor.
They didn’t think he could win on the road.
Blake Sims led a huge last minute-comeback at maybe the toughest venue in college football, LSU.
“I felt good as a quarterback,” Sims after helping lead the 20-13 overtime victory against the Tigers on Nov. 8. “I knew my team had my back, but that just shows other people why I think the way I think. They played their hearts out.
“When they got on the plane, on the way back to Tuscaloosa, everybody was knocked out from being so tired. When you're in the air and you look back on the plane and everybody's tired, you feel good, because you know everybody gave it their all.”
This from there the guy who first tried safety, wide receiver and running back before finally becoming a quarterback for the Crimson Tide, and as CBS announcer Vern Lundquist would say “Oh my,” made the most of the opportunity.
In the neutral-site opener in Atlanta he set program records for most completions and attempts by a quarterback in his debut as a starter, going 24 of 33 for 250 yards, as Alabama defeated West Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic.
Sims recorded the second-most passing yards in a single game in program history, 445 against Florida, trailing only Scott Hunter’s 484 in 1969. It was also the most ever by at Alabama quarterback at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Against Tennessee, he helped teammate Amari Cooper set the Crimson Tide record for receiving yards in a single game, plus the quarterback’s 43-yard touchdown was at that point the team’s longest rushing play of the season.
“I’m not surprised at all because me and Blake having been working since the spring on our timing and everything like that,” Cooper said about the real secret to Sims’ success.
He put in the time. He put in the effort. When training camp came around in the fall, and Sims was in the midst of a high-profile quarterback competition, things started to really click.
“There has been a chemistry there that Blake’s been around these guys for a long time,” Coach Nick Saban said. “They know him well. He’s performed well. I think their confidence in him has gone up and I think that when the leaders on the team are good people and they play effectively, I think it enhances their ability and capacity to affect other people, which is what leadership was all about.”
“I think he's made a lot of improvement.”
Perhaps the reason why so many people had a hard time believing that Sims would do so well was he hardly took the conventional route to the starting lineup. Yes, he was considered a top-notch prospect out of Gainesville, Ga., but not even the recruiting services knew which position he would end up playing at the collegiate level. They listed him at “athlete.”
For years the only other thing one heard about Sims were the regular comments by his teammates like, “He’s a very good guy,” like wide receiver DeAndrew White said.
But starting quarterback? At Alabama?
The Crimson Tide’s previous quarterbacks had been well established under Saban, with AJ McCarron starting all 40 games over the three years, and before him Greg McElroy started 27. Factor in John Parker Wilson and those three had accounted for every start since the 2006 season opener.
Yet long before Sims started winning over the fans and media, he first had to do so in his own locker room. While those on the outside viewed the pairing as something unlikely, especially after he struggled on A-Day (the final scrimmage of spring), his teammates started to fall in line.
Fueled by the critics Sims kept plugging along, but it wasn’t until Alabama was a couple games into the schedule that the competition was deemed over. Along the way the dual-threat posted some very impressive numbers – especially in passing efficiency and third-down conversions – while Alabama made a run at being part of the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff.
“I think that trust is the big, big thing for us,” he said, while another statement in early November might have best exemplified his rise: “We’re not trying to do things until we do it right. We know it’s going to be that one play that’s going to win us the game. We want to be the ones that win that play, trying to do things until we can’t do it wrong.”
It paid off at LSU, where he almost mimicked what McCarron pulled off two years earlier, lead a clutch drive at Death Valley and then head home with a potentially career-changing win.
With no time outs he completed 4 of 6 passes while leading a 47-second drive down to the 10-yard line, with kicker Adam Griffith making the field goal to send the game into overtime. Sims subsequently threw the game-winning touchdown pass to White.
“It was big,” Sims said. “It let the team know that we're capable of doing anything that we need to do. It showed that we've got the poise to, when times were going rough for us the whole game, when it's time for the clutch time we can pull it through.”
68] Christian Miller, LB
- Fourth-round pick in 2019 NFL Draft
- Team captain
- After suffering an arm injury during opener of junior year came back and played in final three games to help Alabama win national championship
- Had 36 tackles, including 11.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks with a team-high tying 12 quarterback hurries as a senior
He’s a football guy, from a football family, who just liked everything about the game.
That included training camp.
Yes, even when it’s held in the heat of an Alabama summer.
“It just depends on how you look at it,” Christian Miller said. “You got to understand why you play this game. You play it because you love it or you play it for the lifestyle. If you play it because you love it, this should be a fun time of the year. All you’re doing is playing football, and if you look at it like this is the sport you played growing up that you love it shouldn’t be too hard. If it’s a job, it is.
“But as long as you maintain your body, you’re smart about it, you go in there with a good, positive mindset, it should be fun. You’ve got all your brothers around you, you’re in the dorms. It’s just a fun time — for most of us. As long as you love the game it should be fun.”
When told of Miller’s comments, Nick Saban said, “I really love it when I hear players say something like that.”
The coach more than got where the linebacker was coming from. Saban grew up in a football family as well. Being around everyone and part of something like Alabama football are among the things that he most enjoys. The games are great, but it’s the process that fuels him.
Perhaps that’s why there were so many players on the 2019 Crimson Tide who come from football families, and it may had been the greatest compliment a coach could have. Not only were parents trusting Saban to take care of their sons, but former NFL players like Patrick Surtain and Irv Smith.
At linebacker alone there were numerous players from football families including Miller, whose father Corey played in the NFL from 1992-99 for the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings.
Senior Jamey Mosley was the younger brother of former Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. Sophomore Ben Davis was the son of Crimson Tide legend Wayne Davis, who still holds the Alabama career record for tackles (327). Walk-on Wes Baumhower was the son of former Alabama defensive tackle Bob Baumhower.
“Recruiting is about relationships,” Saban said. “People need to feel comfortable with what you're trying to do, what your philosophy is, the kind of value you're trying to create for them. I think if it's a son of an NFL player, they really appreciate it because they've been through it and they know what it takes.
“But it doesn't really matter where they're from. Not everybody is looking for the same thing when they go to college. So we have a lot of good things here, we create a lot of value for players, we have a lot of players come through here and leave with the ability to be a lot more successful in their life than when they came.”
When Miller arrived he was hailed as being both a prime prospect and Parade Magazine All-American, but also badly in need of putting on some pounds in order to play in the Southeastern Conference. That took time, not just in the weight room, for his body to fill out.
After redshirting he became a regular contributor and started working his way up the depth chart. Miller finally moved into the starting lineup at strong-side linebacker in 2017, only to suffer a torn biceps muscle in the opener against Florida State that sidelined him for most of the season. He returned against Auburn and contributed during the postseason, but it wasn’t until his final season that he started to take his game to another level.
“Christian Miller has always been on the hardest working, best teammates, best guys on the team,” Saban said. “I can’t say enough about the kind of person he is.
“He’s an outstanding young man all the way around.”
69] Irv Smith Jr., TE
- Second-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft
- As a junior had 44 receptions for 710 yards and seven touchdowns. He averaged 16.1 yards per reception
Five things to know about Irv Smith Jr:
- Smith owns the Alabama single-season touchdown receptions mark by a tight end with seven.
- The play he may have be best known for at Alabama was his 76-yard touchdown on Alabama’s first snap against Arkansas in 2018. He finished the game with two catches for a career-high 123 yards.
- Scored a touchdown in four straight games with his 25-yard catch against LSU.
- He was hardly considered a consensus top recruit out of Brother Martin High School in New Orleans. Sith played wide receiver before switching over to tight end, and being undersized for the position made him considered more of a prospect. Initially committed to Texas A&M, but was also heavily recruited by LSU and Texas before choosing Alabama.
- Smith's father, Irv, played in the NFL and finished his career with 183 receptions for 1,788 yards and 15 touchdowns over seven seasons. He was the 20th overall pick of the 1993 NFL Draft by New Orleans, but also had stints with the 49ers and Browns.
70] Tim Williams, LB
- 2016 Second-team All-American
- Third-round selection in 2017 NFL Draft
- Had 10.5 sacks as a junior 9.0 as a senior when 51.6 percent of his tackles came behind the line of scrimmage with 16 tackles for loss.
- Also had 12 quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and a pair of pass breakups and a fumble recovery he returned for a touchdown.
Five things to know about linebacker Tim Williams:
- Was recruited out of Baton Rouge, La., from University Lab High School.
- He was what Alabama coach Nick Saban calls “twitchy,” with first-step explosiveness that could quickly get him into a backfield.
- In 2015, Williams carved a niche as an elite pass rusher, notching 12.5 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks. As a result, ESPN’s Mel Kiper had Williams second overall on his too-early 2017 Big Board, behind Texas A &M defensive end Myles Garrett and just ahead LSU running back Leonard Fournette and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.
- Williams almost single-handedly ruined the 2016 A-Day Game. With left tackle Cam Robinson out following shoulder surgery, there was no one else who could step up into the position and adequately stop the pass-rusher.
- As good as he was off the edge, Williams never really stepped into a full-time role in the base defense. At strongside linebacker, which is usually substituted out for the nickel defensive back known as “Star” in Nick Saban’s scheme, he was mostly a pass-rushing specialist.
The Saban Top 100 will be revealed over the course of the 2020 football season. The series thus far:
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