The Saban Top 100: Ranking the best Alabama players of the Nick Saban era, No. 96-100

BamaCentral is ranking the top 100 players of the Nick Saban era at Alabama over the course of the 2020 football season
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96] Trey DePriest, LB

  • 2014 All-American
  • 2014 All-SEC
  • Credited with 189 career tackles, including 16 for a loss and two sacks

The game that may have best demonstrated Trey DePriest’s importance to the Alabama defense was the 2014 season opener against West Virginia at the Georgia Dome.

DePriest didn’t play and his absence was noticeable. That’s not anything against interior linebackers Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster, who were both making their first career starts while also being responsible for relaying the play calls in from the sideline, getting everyone lined up correctly, and …

At times the Mountaineers couldn’t snap the ball fast enough.

“I think some of the errors that we made in the first game were first-game jitters and not having Trey DePriest out there, who is the most experienced guy, to sort of control the front seven,” Nick Saban said at the time. “We have made improvement, which is what you want your team to do as a coach, and we'll continue to do it.”

With so many new contributors, improvement was already considered the key to Alabama’s defensive progression, but the learning curve was even more pronounced during the subsequent weeks. 

While Alabama still beat West Virginia 33-23, the Mountaineers tallied 365 passing yards. 

Through October no other opponent managed more than 251.

“He's been leading everybody on the defense,” Ragland said about DePriest. “Everybody responded really great.”

His presence was crucial in the development of the linebacker corps as well. DePriest entered the fall having played in 40 games, with 26 starts for the Crimson Tide, while no one else was close in terms of experience or on-field production of 149 career tackles and 65 in 2013.

The closest was Denzel Devall, who started as the Jack linebacker (the hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end who frequently puts his hand on the ground) and was in on 30 tackles during the 2013 season. Following him were Ragland (17), Dillon Lee (16), Xzavier Dickson (13), Foster (12) and Ryan Anderson (five).

The group was joined by early-enrollee freshman Shaun Dion Hamilton, who as an interior linebacker looked lost at times in the spring yet did better than most in learning the basics of Saban’s defensive system run by coordinator Kirby Smart.

“That’s everybody who comes through here,” said DePriest, who was initially Dont’a Hightower’s understudy after arriving from Springfield, Ohio, as part of the recruiting Class of 2011. “(The defense is) just hard to learn. We learn different stuff every day, so it’s kind of rough to pick it up just like that.”

It was for DePriest during his first eye-opening spring.

“That’s exactly what it was,” said DePriest, who as a freshman played mostly on special teams. “I didn’t know anything. I was lost running around. Didn’t really know much, trying to learn as much as I could from Dont’a. That’s whom I really tried to learn from because Coach Smart can only do so much. But yeah I was lost.

“I’ve come a long way from my freshman year.”

With DePriest leading the way there was comparable improvement amongst his comrades. Ragland became that interior presence that seems to thrive in Saban’s system and was named a semifinalist for the Butkus Award (nation’s best linebacker) in late October. Foster went on to win the honor in 2016.

Outside linebackers Dickson and Anderson made major contributions, especially in pass-rushing situations, and helped the Crimson Tide avoid having to take a step back when Devall was sidelined for three games by an ankle injury.

Similarly, the defense as a whole started to come together despite having just four players who were older than DePriest: defensive linemen Brandon Ivory and Anthony Orr, and safeties Nick Perry and Jarrick Williams.

This was Perry’s first season as a regular starter at free safety, and Williams wasn’t always on the field as the fifth defensive back in the nickel package, known in Saban’s scheme as “star.” Facing so many spread no-huddle, hurry-up offenses made it difficult to regularly use a nose guard like Ivory, and Orr never started.

Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide enjoyed an increase of situational roles and deeper rotations, resulting in more players contributing as coaches continually looked for ways to counter the variety of offenses faced. Thus, the importance of having that veteran in the middle to be sort of the of quarterback of the defense was stressed, especially when facing so many no-huddle, hurry-up spread attacks.

“We’ve been practicing it since January, February, whenever we started spring ball,” DePriest said about spread schemes, which gave Alabama problems against Auburn and Oklahoma at the end of 2103. “So pretty much every day we’ve practiced against it, so that tells me it’s not really a problem.

“We were ready for it a year ago, but we just didn’t play it the way we wanted to play it.”

Perhaps that only contributed to DePriest’s decision to not leave early and enter the NFL draft, while teammates like Adrian Hubbard and Vinnie Sunseri did despite not being considered top-round selections. Regardless, the reins were handed over from Butkus winner C.J. Mosley well before spring practices began.

“I didn’t regret my decision, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” DePriest said. “It wasn’t necessarily all for football. I wanted to graduate. I’ll be the first one from my family to graduate from college. That’s something I wanted to do, and play some more college ball.”

Those family ties shouldn’t be overlooked as DePriest was known to write names of loved ones on the fingers of his gloves, and part of his ritual prior to kickoff included a quick phone call.

“I try to call my grandfather before every game, if I can get service, and get a prayer,” he said.

97] Damion Square, DL

  • Played 40 games over four seasons, with 31 starts
  • Registered 93 tackles, 18 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks for his career
  • Won three national championships
  • His final season led the Crimson Tide with nine hurries, to go with 33 tackles (11 solo), four tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, a pass defensed and a fumble recovery
  • Team captain

It seems like only yesterday that defensive end Damion Square was celebrating winning the 2011 BCS national championship in New Orleans with teammates.

Then again, it wasn’t that long ago he was enjoying the Crimson Tide’s title victory over Texas, either. Even though he wasn’t in uniform at the Rose Bowl at the end of the 2009 season due to a knee injury, Square still earned a ring for his efforts.

Like with just about every other student the college years go by quickly for athletes, which the Houston native fully realized even before his senior year kicked off with the season opener against Michigan in AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys.

But while those Texas-related moments were special, the one he really wouldn’t wait for was Alabama’s first conference meeting with Texas A&M at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

“My high school head coach is a part of their coaching staff, so that’s going to be something that I play for,” Square said.” I know he’s watching film before the game, trying to see what I’m doing and I’m sure he’s going to watch film after the game and see what I did. So like I did in high school, I want to play a great game for him.”

Clarence McKinney, who was a member of Kevin Sumlin's first coaching staff at Houston in 2008, and followed him to College Station, was A&M’s running backs coach and recruiting coordinator. While at Jack Yates High School he compiled a 30-8 record over three seasons, and in both 2006 and 2007 was named a coach of the year finalist in Texas.

But even though Square racked up 14 sacks and 97 tackles as a high school senior while helping Yates advance to the second round of the state playoffs, he was still sort of one of the unheralded members of the legendary recruiting Class of 2008, along with Marcel Dareus and Terrence Cody. While he chose Alabama over the likes of Florida, Miami, Michigan and Texas A&M, his initial projections were all over the board in terms of position and potential.

While one major recruiting service had him rated as the No. 9 linebacker in the nation, another listed him as the No. 37 defensive tackle, and a third considered Square the No. 24 defensive end. Alabama didn’t have a problem pinpointing a role for Square, but his versatility helped explain how he became a complete player at his position.

“Square can pretty much do it all,” linebacker Nico Johnson said.

After redshirting and tearing an ACL against Florida International in 2009, Square became a fixture on the defensive line and in 2011 started all 13 games for the Crimson Tide, making 32 tackles including seven for a loss. Yet the way he came on during the stretch run when most defensive linemen drop off, with 18 tackles, 4½ for a lass and one sack over the last four games of the regular season, more than stood out.

Square carried it over into the offseason, when he became the leader of the defensive line and subsequently represented the entire Crimson Tide defense at SEC Media Days.

“That’s something I expected from him, to step up this year and kind of really become that leader,” center Barrett Jones said. “He's done an awesome job of doing that and he's really got those guys going really good, along with Ed Stinson and Quinton Dial and some other guys.”

Jones’ comment turned out to be prophetic as the Alabama defense aimed to avoid any drop-off from the 2011 unit that was considered one of the best in college football history. At midseason, the it led the nation in each of the five major statistical categories – pass, pass efficiency, total, scoring and rushing defense – in addition to turnover margin.

At the time (before the Tennessee game), 17 players had been in on a tackle for a loss, 13 on a sack, and 16 on a turnover.

“It just lets you know that we have a lot of guys playing fast,” Square said. “You don't want three guys to stand out above the rest, because I don't think that's a sign of a great defense. Great defenses spread it out across the board and offense, whatever the statistic is over there. We want everybody to do their assignment and make the plays they're supposed to make.”

A perfect example of that was on passing downs, when the Crimson Tide was able to show a number of different looks and attack with a variety of players. However, in some cases the best way to do that was by sliding Square into the interior, where he has to go through more blockers to reach the quarterback.

“You want to hold down the middle of the field in any situation, running or passing,” Square explained. “You want to protect everything from the inside out. I try to do that to the best of my ability, be a team player and help other guys get great pass-rushing situations and those guys do the same thing for me.

“A lot of teams give us a lot of play-action looks, so you really want to be stout in the middle of the field, just in case it is a run situation on third-and-long. We've been seeing a lot of that this year.”

While the flip side to that was playing inside obviously impacted his individual numbers, and pretty much killed any chance of landing a major postseason award, he considered the assignment a compliment.

“I do, because you have to believe to play the three-technique and be inside around that,” he said. “That's a position that Marcel Darius played, who was a great player, and Terrence Cody, Josh Chapman was down in the middle and all of those guys were great players. I take pride in being in there. It takes a different guy to get in there and play double teams and sacrifice yourself for the team to say the least.”

98] Christion Jones, WR/RS

  • 2013 SEC Special Teams Player of the Year
  • 2013 All-SEC
  • Had 85 career receptions for 1,030 yards including seven touchdowns
  • Returned 66 punts for 719 yards with three touchdowns
  • Returned 68 kickoffs for 1,727 yards and two touchdowns

Five things to know about Christion Jones:

- At 5-11, 175 pounds out of Adamsville, Ala., Jones wasn’t considered a top-end prospect.

- Alabama added him as a cornerback. He switched to wide receiver and ended up playing 40 games.

- Had a career-best nine receptions for 90 yards against Colorado State in 2013.

– Against Virginia Tech in 2013 became the first Alabama player since at least the 1940s to have two returns for touchdowns: a 72-yard punt return less than 2 minutes into the game, and a 94-yard kickoff return. “It’s every kid’s dream to do something like that,” he said.

- Made his professional debut with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League in 2017. Played in ten games that season, returning 45 punts for 645 yards and two touchdowns, plus 18 kickoffs for 423 yards.

99] John Parker Wilson, QB

  • Team captain
  • Played two years under Nick Saban
  • As a junior was 255-for-462 (55.2 percent) for 2,846 yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Had a 114.6 passer rating
  • As a senior was 187-for-323 (57.9 percent) for 2,273 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions

Former Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson doesn’t remember having the realization during a certain meeting or even a specific moment. Just that it didn’t take too long to happen.

“I knew pretty quickly that there was a new sheriff in town,” he said. “There was an old way of doing things, and not that that was wrong, but there was a different way to do it now, and it wasn’t up for a lot of debate.”

It was 2007, and Wilson was coming off his first season as Alabama’s starting quarterback when the university made a change and brought in Nick Saban to head the football program. About the only thing that the players knew about him was his reputation, which even back then was extremely impressive.

Saban had won at every school he coached, collecting two Southeastern Conference titles and a national championship while turning LSU into a monster program from 2000-04. He gave that up to take his shot at the National Football League, only to have Mal Moore change everything.

“There was just so much uncertainly,” Wilson said. “Obviously we didn’t know him or the staff.

“We knew our way around but didn’t now where we were headed. After that there was a lot of anticipation. There was a lot of ‘Ok, this guy knows what he’s doing. He’s obviously won in a bunch of different places. Let’s get in here and see what it’s like.’”

Little did the players know that they were laying the foundation for arguably the sport’s greatest dynasty, which is still going strong.

Their first hint came during Saban’s first press conference in Tuscaloosa when he boldly stated: “We want to be a champion in everything that we do.”

Wilson and the other players were watching to get a feel for what to expect. Driving the point home was the first Fourth Quarter offseason workout program. Compared to what they were used to, it was brutal.

“You’d think they were trying to kill us,” Wilson can now say with a laugh.

But a year later Alabama started to show what the Saban era would be all about with the big 34-10 season-opening win against No. 9 Clemson, the shocking way it dismantled No. 3 Georgia on its home field, and reaching the SEC Championship Game.

“We just didn’t know how to win yet,” Wilson said.

100] Simeon Castille, CB

  • 2007 All-SEC
  • During lone season under Nick Saban had 63 tackles, including 6.5 for a loss and 1.5 sacks, two interceptions and 10 passes broken up

Five things to know about Simeon Castille:

- Was a two-year starter before Nick Saban’s arrival

- Finished career with 12 interceptions

- Was named All-SEC in 206 after having six interceptions

- Played in 48 games for the Crimson Tide and was credited with 162 tackles, including 14 for a loss

- Son of Jeremiah Castille, an All-American defensive back and most valuable player of Coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant’s last game at the Liberty Bowl. Brothers Tim and Caleb also played for Alabama

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

Introduction