The Saban Top 100: Ranking the Best Alabama Players of the Nick Saban Era, No. 71-75

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

71] Mack Wilson, LB

  • 2018 Second-team All-American
  • Fifth-round selection in 2019 NFL Draft
  • Despite making just two starts as a sophomore led the team with four interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown
  • During final season had 71 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss and one sack, seven quarterback pressures, five pass breakups and two interceptions

One was given the responsibility of being quarterback of the defense. The other was seen as another version of Rashaan Evans.

That’s a lot to handle for a pair of linebackers who had both only made two career starts for Alabama prior to the 2018 season. But then again, there was nothing average about Mack Wilson or Dylan Moses.

“Me and Mack, the one thing I tell everyone is that we’re like a 1-2 punch,” Moses said. “We feel like we play off each other’s skills. I feel like he’s a great partner to have on the side because if I do slip up he’ll pick up the slack, and when he tends to slip up I’ll pick up his slack.

“It’s like our chemistry is there already. We don’t have to develop it, it’s there.”

Yet they never played together before that season, at least not in a game.

When the rash of injuries struck the Crimson Tide linebacker corps in 2017, the two were called up on to step up in a big way during the national championship run.

Wilson was already being groomed to eventually step into Sean Dion Hamilton’s role as the primary play-caller only to have a foot injury turn into a full-blown fracture against LSU. Amazingly, he missed just two games after having surgery and still managed to lead Alabama in interceptions as a reserve.

With Wilson out and Hamilton suffering a season-ending injury, Moses was thrust into a starting role first despite being a true freshman. There was a lot of learning under fire, especially considering that like Evans he first learned outside linebacker before sliding over.

But during his first career start, Moses led the Alabama defense with 11 tackles against Mercer, and had 10 against Auburn, only to suffer a similar injury as his future partner.

By then, Wilson was back in the fold. He made his first career start against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl semifinal of the College Football Playoff, and then tallied 12 tackles against Georgia in the National Championship Game.

It was a season high for any Crimson Tide player.

72] ArDarius Stewart, WR

  • 2016 All-SEC
  • Third-round selection in 2017 NFL Draft
  • His final season had a team-high 864 yards on 54 catches and eight touchdowns in 12 games

For a couple of weeks in 2016, he was their ax-wielding teammate, who drew exactly the kind of attention that one would expect at college football games.

When Alabama junior wide receiver ArDarius Stewart suffered a sprained knee late in the first quarter at Ole Miss in September, he could have gone off to the locker room or taken a seat on the bench and no one would have blamed him.

Instead, Stewart stood prominently on the Crimson Tide sideline despite his setback. In addition to helping out, he rolled up his sleeves and carried the ax that had previously spent most of its time behind closed doors. It had been a gift from the coaches to serve as a reminder to something that Stewart had said about the receiving corps during the previous season.

“We’re assassins,” he said. “We’re the ones who come down when you need something clutch, we’re going down there, [getting] the ball, sacrificing our bodies, all that. I consider the receivers assassins, and I tell them that all the time.”

It became more than a motto or nickname, but an attitude, and not just with the way the wide receivers caught passes. It carried over into how they practiced, ran routes and made blocks—something that the group seemed to take particular pride in.

So the ax came out with Stewart when he couldn’t suit up, and although a less-dangerous substitute was tried and other alternatives considered, he stuck with it.

What kind of assassin would have a dull weapon?

Consequently, it was pretty easy to see how Stewart became the leader of the receiving corps. During a season in which Alabama had gotten away from some from the downfield passing attack that made Amari Cooper the program’s first Biletnikoff Award winner in 2014, he’d been the one stressing that every play was important whether a receiver got the ball or not.

“He's a special player,” sophomore running back Damien Harris said. “Whether it's down the field or a simple five-yard route, he can take it 60 or 70 yards like he did against Arkansas [Note: It was 67].

“He's just a great player. You can't really talk enough about what he does for this offense not just on the field, but in the locker room. You can't replace the motivation, the toughness and that mentality he brings to this offense.”

Ask any of the other offensive players who the best blocker among the wide receivers was and they’d say Stewart. He was also the one setting examples and the first to speak up when necessary, even to a lineman or one of the defensive players.

“Oh yeah, I would say he is the leader in the group,” sophomore wide receiver Calvin Ridley said. “He motivates everybody in practice. He motivates everybody in the game. He knows everything. He knows plays. He’s just one of those guys you can go to, talk to, if you don't know what you’re doing and stuff like that. It just pumps everybody up.”

That same intensity even carried over to the way Stewart ran when he had the ball. It’s almost as if he was mad at the opposition for trying to stop him.

It’s hard running, and the wideout listed as 6 foot 1, 204 pounds, had no qualms about dropping his shoulder and trying to run defenders over. Stewart’s physical nature even caused Ridley to say to himself “Gosh, he looks like a running back,” regarding Stewart’s punishing running style. It can make him very tough to tackle.

“He’s a real physical receiver,” defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “He’s probably the most physical receiver I go up against all season. That’s why in games it’s not really a problem when I go against big, physical receivers and even tight ends because we have receivers like him that come in every play and try to head-butt you and get his hands on you.

“Going against him just gets me better.”

That fit with Stewart’s history as a football player as he was known for doing a little bit of everything at Fultondale (Ala.) High School, where the in-state prospect developed into a consensus 4-star recruit. His senior year he was credited with 1,923 rushing yards on offense, to go with had 55 tackles with two interceptions while playing on defense. He finished his career with 138 total touchdowns.

Stewart redshirted his first year at Alabama in 2013, but things started clicking for him the following season, resulting in his first two career starts. Unafraid to deliver some punishing blocks, like the highlight-reel crack block on Arkansas linebacker Brooks Ellis, he became a weapon on screen passes in addition to a receiving target.

In 2015, he finished second on the Crimson Tide with 63 receptions, 31 of which went for a touchdown or first down, and 700 yards.

Even though he missed two games, and most of the one he got hurt, Stewart remained been a regular contributor in 2016. Through October he was second in catches (28) and receiving yards (436), and scored four total touchdowns.

Two came in the season opener against Southern California, including a career-long 71-yard score, and he notched his first rushing touchdown at Tennessee. Throw in his rushing yards and he was just under 500 all-purpose yards in six games.

With Alabama running more horizontal plays, with screens and jet sweeps, he was getting plenty of opportunities to demonstrate his versatility.

“I think what make ArDarius so good is that he not only catches the ball — he has to catch it and make great plays — but he blocks every down,” senior tight end O.J. Howard said. “He plays hard every play. He’s one of the best blocking receivers you can see in the nation. Every time the ball is in somebody else’s hands, he wants to see them score just as bad as he wants to score.”

So it wasn’t just the ax making people a little nervous.

“We gotta be the slashers, man,” he said. “We gotta come in when we need a big play. Sacrifice our bodies, make something happen and make something come through. When we're down and we're struggling, we gotta swing the momentum in our hands.”

73] Deionte Thompson, S

  • 2018 Consensus All-American
  • Fifth-round selection in 2019 NFL Draft
  • During final season had a team-high four fumbles to tie for second all-time at Alabama. Also had 79 tackles, including a team-high 48 solo stops, 3.5 tackles for loss, six pass breakups, two interceptions and a fumble recovery

Five things to know about Deionte Thompson:

- Made his first career start at safety in the 2017 College Football Playoff against Clemson. He notched four tackles and nearly made an interception.

- Had a career-high nine tackles against Arkansas in 2018, to go with one pass breakup and a fumble recovery.

- Told reporters that even as an upperclassmen was still nervous around Nick Saban. “It’s just his presence when he walks in the room, he’s all about his business. At first you’re going to be uncomfortable with it, but then you get used to it,” he said. “He’s watching us all the time. Even if he’s not around he’s watching. In the sky, he’s watching, he’s going to be watching the film. He’ll tell you exactly what you’re doing wrong in meetings even before the play pops up.”


- Recruited out of Orange, Texas, he was a two-way impact player at West Orange-Stark High School for head coach Cornel Thompson. He had five interceptions with 120 return yards and two touchdowns, and as a receiver caught 37 passes for 692 yards and four more scores.

- Took only one official visit as a recruit, to Alabama: “It was hard. Some people at my school, like teachers and faculty members were Texas and Texas A&M alumni so I heard from them every day, ‘I feel you should come to our school’ and I was like ‘Nah’ because when I went and visited those schools I just didn’t feel at home, or I didn’t feel the way that I felt here. The way I felt here was just like a feeling that I felt when I was at home with my parents. At the end of the day this was the best choice for me and Texas and Texas A&M didn’t have a chance.”

74] Raekwon Davis, DT

  • 2017 All-SEC
  • Second-round selection in the 2020 NFL draft
  • Best numbers posted as a sophomore, with 69 tackles, 10 for a loss and a team-high 8.5 sacks
  • As a senior, had 47 tackles including three tackles for a loss and half a sack, along with five quarterback hurries

He wanted it. He asked for it. He definitely got it.

Raekwon Davis wanted to be a leader on the Alabama football team for his final season in 2019. He claimed it was one of the primary reasons why he turned down an opportunity to go into the NFL draft early, opting instead for a return to the Crimson Tide.

But you know the old saying about being careful what you ask for? Well, Davis became a defensive leader in spades – and some of it was not by design.

“[Leadership’s] the whole reason I came back, to teach the younger guys and help the team as much as I can to the best of my ability,” he said.

“There’s going to be a younger guy who’s just not going to get it. It’s [my] job to get him to process it in his head. There are rules around here and that’s how it goes. You’re going to see it every day in practice, a younger guy who is going to need your help, he’s going to need your guidance. Your job is to help him.”

There were a lot of guys who have needed help.

Coming into 2019 there was already a lot of concern about Alabama’s defensive line and not just because the two other starters had moved on, including the Outland Trophy winner for best interior lineman in college football.

Depth was also an issue, with only six returning players, including Davis. The unit had a new position coach as well.

Knowing some of the newcomers would need to contribute immediately, Alabama went out and signed six more defensive linemen in the recruiting Class of 2019, giving the unit a perfect split down the middle in terms of experience.

It led to a lot of questioning and speculation that the Crimson Tide defense might have a big problem up front, and on paper the line was initially unsettled as any unit on the team.

“Everything stays the same,” Davis said about the reloading. “Nothing really changes. It’s just part of the process.”

In the spring, however, the line looked like it could be a point of strength. Junior LaBryan Ray stepped into the other defensive end starting role, and between them true freshman D.J. Dale surprised everyone by winning the nose tackle job previously held by Quinnen Williams. At 6-foot-3, 323 pounds, he had a surprising quick step for someone his size, and appeared to be the final piece of the puzzle.

Although Nick Saban hates comparisons, Dale’s teammates claimed he reminded them of the player who held the job before Williams, Da’Ron Payne.

“He plays like Da’Ron Payne,” Davis said in agreement.

As for Dale’s reaction to that talk?

When fall camp rolled around, improvement in Davis’ game and leadership were both noticeable, with Saban even singling him out for praise. During practices he even found his own personal sparring in offensive lineman Landon Dickerson, the graduate transfer who won a starting job.

“He’ll tell you he hates me on the field,” Dickerson said Davis. “It’s awesome because we just go at each other every day.

“We just push each other.”

When asked, Davis, who says he’s having fun on the football field again like he did in 2017, was in total agreement with everything Dickerson said except for the hate part.

“I love him,” he said. “On the field, I can tell him that because he like the best … I’m not saying he’s the best O-lineman on our line, but I’m saying he’s great. He’s the reason why I got better at double-teams. He’s a great guy.

The outlook changed significantly by the time the regular season rolled around. Ray had surgery on his foot and Dale suffered an injury that significantly slowed his progress. Additionally, the incoming player who many thought could contribute the most this season, didn’t, and left the team.

Davis suddenly found himself lining up next to two true freshmen for most of the season, or as part of a two-man front in order to play extra linebackers. It requires him to sacrifice himself a lot so that other teammates can make plays.

Moreover, the players behind Davis had setbacks and issues as well. Junior linebacker Dylan Moses, who was expected to be the sort of defensive captain as the one calling plays and making pre-snap adjustments suffered an ACL tear in practice. The other starting interior linebacker, Joshua McMillon, was also sidelined with a knee injury.

Playing besides two true freshmen, and before two more, Davis became the equivalent of an island. He’s a 6-foot-7 island with a really long reach, but you get the idea.

Davis was already used to being the first player opposing offenses noticed and game-planned against.

As a sophomore in 2017, he had notched a team-high 8.5 sacks to go with 69 tackles and was named All-SEC by league coaches. But as a junior his numbers weren’t as good, 55 tackles with 5.5 for a loss and 1.5 sacks, resulting in his being named second-team All-SEC by the Associated Press.

No one was more aware of his drop in production.

“Yeah, last year, it was pretty much me and stuff I didn’t do, like the little things,” Davis said. “The little things matter. Last year, as a person, I wasn’t doing it.

“[I] just I feel like it wasn’t me last year. I feel like this is my chance to prove myself to everybody like my team that I can do it and I can be that role model, that leader I was supposed to have been. That’s about it.”

75] Jalston Fowler, FB

  • Fourth-round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft
  • Team captain
  • Finished career with 738 rushing yards and 150 receiving, with 12 touchdowns

A Q&A with fullback Jalston Fowler:

By the time he was a junior in 2013, no one gave his nickname a second thought any more.

“Nudie,” Coach Nick Saban called him during more than one press conference.

“Nudie is unbelievable,” senior quarterback AJ McCarron said about his versatile teammate. “I mean he really helps us a bunch. Be able to use him in and do certain things with our offense that you can't do if you don't have him. He does a great job at running back, fullback, tight end. He can play so many positions. He helps us kind of expand the field and create some mismatches.”

More than anything, it seemed to reflect the fun-loving part of Fowler, who had gone by the name since he was a baby. In his words, his father used to walk around and say, 'This is my nudie baby. Can't nobody have him. That's my nudie baby.”

Of course, when you’re 250 pounds and pay football the way that Fowler does, you can pretty much go by whatever nickname you want. Actually, his had only begun to gain momentum.

“I like to truck people, run people over,” Fowler said. “We’ve got this saying. When you hear the train coming across the railroad, hear the little ‘Choo Choo,’

“Nah, that’s no train, that’s the Nudie Bus.”

Q: Nick Saban once said that you’re a prime example of how the process works at Alabama. How have you grown as a person since high school?

“I came a long way -- going through what I went through, coming from Mobile, you've got to grow up. You see a lot of different things growing up in Mobile, and you know you've got to make a change. You just can't be like no ordinary guy coming from Mobile. You've got to stand out, doing stuff like this.”

You talked a lot about how much you enjoy blocking. Has that changed at all?

“I love blocking. I've been doing it all my life, ever since I was a little kid. So it's nothing major for me. Been knockin' helmets off.”

You’ve posted a lot of photos of your son, Jalston Fowler Jr., on social media. How has he changed your life?

“That little guy right there, he makes a big difference in my life. I won't say I struggled, but I don't want to see him mess up where I messed up. I just want him to be better than me.”

Since your nickname is “Nudie,” is he Nudie, Jr.?

“I tried to call him Tootie, but that didn't work. So me and mom just call him Junior.”

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

Introduction

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