Nick Saban on Verge of Reaching an Incredible Alabama Draft Milestone

Christopher Walsh

Although rock musician Tom Petty once said that his song The Waiting was generally about not knowing if your dreams will come true, he could have been specifically singing about the National Football League’s draft.

Yes, the waiting is the hardest part for the players, but in 2011 Julio Jones didn’t seem to mind – probably because he quickly found out that he wouldn’t be moving too far from home. With the Atlanta Falcons looking to add an impact player they traded away five draft picks to the Cleveland Browns, including their first-, second- and fourth-round selections plus their first and fourth in 2012 to move up into the number six slot and take the Alabama wide receiver.

Only one person may have been more thrilled than the person who used to wear No. 8 for the Crimson Tide.

“My mom is very excited,” Jones said. “You know how moms are and I’m the baby. When the baby goes off she gets upset. ‘I want to come see you. I want to cook for you.’ She’s very excited for the whole situation.”

But instead of heading out to celebrate in New York after doing his obligatory media interviews, Jones turned around and went back to the area where the still-undrafted players were waiting to hear their names called, to join former teammate Mark Ingram Jr. With running backs seldom going in the top half of the first round, even if they do have the Heisman Trophy in tow, both got comfortable as the picks went by.

Hours later, things finally began to perk up with New Orleans approaching at No. 24, and many thought the Saints could be just a running back away from returning to the Super Bowl. However, they ended up addressing a bigger need on the other side of the ball with California defensive end Cameron Jordan.

Moments later, in perhaps the surprise of the first round, Seattle selected Crimson Tide tackle James Carpenter as its selection at No. 25. Although a terrific performance at the Senior Bowl had sent Carpenter rising up many draft boards, the NFL didn’t extend an invitation for him to be on-hand with the expected first-rounders in New York.

“I was in Augusta, Georgia, watching it with my family,” Carpenter said.

The wait for Ingram finally came to an end just three picks later when the Saints, as if in direct response to the division-rival Falcons’ move with Jones, traded up to snare Ingram at No. 28. Ironically, that’s exactly when the New York Giants in the 1987 draft had selected his father. More specific to the Saints, it’s where they ranked in league rushing the previous season, 28.

“It’s crazy but God does everything for a reason,” Ingram said. “I have been training down there since January and now I am going to be playing there. I have rolled by the dome a couple of times the past couple of months and it’s crazy. I’m excited about it.”

Thus concluded the first day of the 2011 draft, when Alabama had four selections, beginning with defensive lineman Marcell Dareus at No. 3. While that would gut most teams, the following year the Crimson Tide again had four players selected in the first round, five in the top 35, and the most overall.

“Remarkable,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said about the back-to-back four first-round selections. “It’s up there with one of the more impressive feats from a school that we’ve seen in a long time.”

A few years later, Alabama did it again, with four in both 2017 and 2018, and then just missed the trifecta with three in 2019. 

This year, the Crimson Tide's looking at anywhere from four to six, depending on how things play out. 

The latest SI mock draft by Kevin Hanson projected six:

  1. No. 5 Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Dolphins
  2. No. 8 Jedrick Wills Jr., T, Cardinals
  3. No. 12 Jerry Jeudy, WR, Raiders
  4. No. 18 Xavier McKinney, S, Dolphins
  5. No. 20 Henry Ruggs III, WR, Jaguars
  6. No. 25 Trevon Diggs, CB, Vikings 

[Note: He had linebacker Terrell Lewis in the second round and defensive lineman Raekwon Davis a third-round selection). 

Should it be six, it would tie Miami in 2004 for the most in a single draft (No. 5 Sean Taylor, 6 Kellen Winslow Jr., 12 Jonathan Vilma, 17 D.J. Williams, 19 Vernon Carey and 21 Vince Wilfork Patriots DT). 

But it would also tie a remarkable milestone at Alabama. 

It only took Nick Saban until 2013 to tally 14 first-round selections at Alabama after the Crimson Tide didn't have any between 2000 (Chris Samuels and Shaun Alexander) and 2009 (Andre Smith), and no draft picks at all in 2008. 

The 11 first-round picks from 2011, 2012 and 2013 alone equaled the output of the previous six Alabama coaches and 22 years combined.

Consequently, Saban already had the most first-round selections in Alabama history, topping Paul W. “Bear” Bryant with 13 (Joe Namath was a first-round selection in both the NFL and AFL) -- although it should be noted that after years of growth the NFL currently has more first-round picks than ever (32).

Heading into the 2020 NFL Draft, which will be held April 23-25. Saban has had 29 first-round picks at Alabama. 

He's six shy of matching the total of every other Crimson Tide coach combined (35). 

That includes Bryant. 

That includes supplemental drafts. 

It even includes Joe Namath being a first-round pick in both the NFL and AFL drafts. 

What it doesn't include is Saban's draft success before arriving at Alabama. 

In 2000, mere months after he left, Michigan State had both wide receiver Plaxico Burress and linebacker Julian Peterson selected in the first round. The Spartans subsequently went from having running back T.J. Duckett selected in 2002 and wide receiver Charles Rogers the following year, to not having another first-round pick until 2014. 

At LSU, having a first-round player essentially became an annual staple beginning with wide receiver Michael Clayton in 2004 and defensive lineman Marcus Spears in 2005 – just after Saban departed. 

“Obviously it speaks to the coaching staff, how they prepared these guys,” McShay said about Alabama’s pro-style approach. “Talking with guys in that program and coaches who have been around that program, or with that program, I think that’s the thing that may be overlooked. They even have an individual plan for each and every one of these players. We all know where you want to be in three or four years when you leave here, how are we going to get you there and what do you have to do today, tomorrow, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this week, and then Wednesday, Thursday and Friday six months from now in order to get to that point.

“They buy in. They buy in because of the results. If they truly want to be an NFL football player, then they’re going to follow this path. And obviously Alabama recruits well, you have to have the talent to get these guys there, but they get the most out of their talent.

Before he left the NFL Network to become the general manager of the Raiders, who will host this year's draft in Las Vegas, Mark Mayock compared Alabama's draft success to Miami in the 2000s. 

“Every Alabama kid has been coached hard,” Mayock said. "It does help coming out of Alabama today, trust me."

Nick Saban's first-round draft Picks (29)

(Through 2019 NFL Draft)

Year, Overall pick, Player, Team, Position

2019 3 Quinnen Williams, Jets, DT

2019 11 Jonah Williams, Bengals, T

2019 24 Josh Jacobs, Raiders, RB

2018 11 Minkah Fitzpatrick, Dolphins, DB

2018 13 Da'Ron Payne, Redskins, DT

2018 22 Rashaan Evans, Titans, LB

2018 26 Calvin Ridley, Falcons, WR

2017 16 Marlon Humphrey, Ravens, DB

2017 17 Jonathan Allen, Redskins, DE

2017 19 O.J. Howard, Buccaneers, TE

2017 31 Reuben Foster, 49ers, LB

2016 18 Ryan Kelly, Colts, C

2015 4 Amari Cooper, Raiders, WR

2014 17 C.J. Mosley, Ravens, LB

2014 21 Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Packers, DB

2013 9 Dee Milliner, Jets, CB

2013 10 Chance Warmack, Titans, G

2013 11 D.J. Fluker, Chargers, T

2012 3 Trent Richardson, Browns, RB

2012 7 Mark Barron, Buccaneers, DB

2012 17 Dre Kirkpatrick, Bengals, DB

2012 25 Dont'a Hightower, Patriots, LB

2011 3 Marcell Dareus, Bills, DT

2011 6 Julio Jones, Falcons, WR

2011 25 James Carpenter, Seahawks, T

2011 28 Mark Ingram, Saints, RB

2010 8 Rolando McClain, Raiders, LB

2010 20 Kareem Jackson, Texans, DB

2009 6 Andre Smith, Bengals, T

Everyone else's first-round draft picks (35)

Mike DuBose, 1997-2000 (3)

2000 3 Chris Samuels, Redskins, T

2000 19 Shaun Alexander, Seahawks, RB

1999 26 Fernando Bryant, Jaguars, DB

Gene Stallings, 1990-96 (5)

1997 20 Dwayne Rudd, Vikings, LB

1994 9 Antonio Langham, Browns, DB

1993 5 John Copeland, Bengals, DE

1993 6 Eric Curry, Buccaneers, DE

1993 29 George Teague, Packers, DB

Bill Curry (3)

1990 4 Keith McCants, Buccaneers, LB

1989 S Bobby Humphrey, Broncos, RB

1989 4 Derrick Thomas, Chiefs, LB

Ray Perkins (4)

1987 2 Cornelius Bennett, Colts, LB

1986 4 Jon Hand, Colts, DE

1985 25 Emanuel King, Bengals, DE

1984 U Joey Jones, Falcons, WR

Paul W. “Bear” Bryant (14)

1983 16 Mike Pitts, Falcons, DE

1981 5 E.J. Junior, Cardinals, LB

1980 21 Don McNeal, Dolphins, DB

1979 6 Barry Krauss, Colts, LB

1979 14 Marty Lyons, Jets, DE

1978 18 Bob Cryder, Patriots, G

1978 23 Ozzie Newsome, Browns, TE

1976 6 Richard Todd, Jets, QB

1974 9 Wilbur Jackson, 49ers, RB

1973 4 John Hannah, Patriots, G

1968 20 Dennis Homan, Cowboys, WR

1967 26 Leslie Kelly, Saints, RB

1965 1 Joe Namath, Jets, QB-a

1965 12 Joe Namath, Cardinals, QB-a

1963 6 Lee Roy Jordan, Cowboys, LB

Harold Drew, 1947-54 (5)

1953 8 Bobby Marlow, Giants, B

1951 9 Clarence “Butch” Avinger, Steelers, B

1948 1 Harry Gilmer, Redskins, QB

1948 4 Lowell Tew, Redskins, B

1948 5 Vaughn Mancha, Yanks, C

Frank Thomas, 1931-46 (1)

1936 2 Riley Smith, Redskins, B

S-Supplemental draft; U-Special draft of USFL players; A-Namath was selected in both the NFL and AFL drafts

Part of this story first appeared in the book "Nick Saban vs. College Football, published by Triumph Books in 2014

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