The Saban Top 100: Ranking the Best Alabama Players of the Nick Saban Era, No. 61-65

Christopher Walsh

61] Greg McElroy, QB

  • Seventh-round selection in 2011 NFL Draft
  • Team captain
  • Starting quarterback for undefeated 2009 season. Played in title game with rib injury suffered in SEC Championship Game
  • Threw for 5,691 yards and 39 touchdowns over career
  • Was 197-for-325 (60.6 percent) for 2,508 yards, 17 touchdowns and four interceptions as junior
  • During final season was 222-for-313 (70.9 percent) for 2,987 yards, 20 touchdowns, with five picks
  • Had career passer rating of 155.4

The Alabama football team was practicing on the SMU campus in Dallas, just outside of the Mustangs’ football stadium when the skinny kid with freckles walked up and said hello to his future.

Word spread quickly to those looking on, “There may be the next quarterback of the Crimson Tide, the one from nearly Southlake who hadn’t lost a game since eighth grade.” There may have even been a few Opie references as well.

“I just remember being very taken back at the situation,” McElroy later recalled about attending practice for the 2006 Cotton Bowl. “Just wanting to go to Alabama through the entire process but also keeping it close to the vest because being a Texas kid you have to be respectful of the state schools.

“I just remember being so proud being part of that, going to that game and going the practice and being recruited by Alabama was such a great experience.”

A couple of days later, Brodie Croyle led Alabama on a 10-play, 58-yard drive to put the Crimson Tide within field-goal range, and Jamie Christensen booted a knuckleball 45-yard field goal with no time remaining (even he called it “ugly”) to beat Texas Tech 13-10.

“Coming to Alabama, that’s what you dream of: Your last game, in the Cotton Bowl, you got two minutes to go score,” Croyle said before heading off to the National Football League.

Little did he know it, but the quarterback who would blow those dreams away was there watching, with Texas Tech the other school vying for his services. Alabama finally offered a scholarship and after visiting the Capstone he accepted roughly two weeks later when Mike Shula made his official visit.

“I’ve always been a big fan of their school and I’m proud to have the chance to be a part of it,” McElroy said at that time. “I’m looking forward to going there and creating a legacy of our own and adding a couple of more national championships.”

Imagine what McElroy then would have thought if he knew how things would turn out. Shula fired, Nick Saban hired and two years later he would finally take the reigns as the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback. And what a season it was, winning a national title, MVP of the SEC Championship Game (beating Tim Tebow in the process), and playing alongside Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy winner.

“I signed up here to win football games,” McElroy said. “Whether that was to win seven games, thirteen games our first two years here, whether to win the national championship, whether it was to win the SEC Championship, I just wanted to win football games. Really, I signed up with the anticipation of hopefully someday having to play for the national championship, but also realizing that would be a dream come true and also be very difficult to get there.

“The fact that it was able to materialize was such a great experience.”

Although the title helped spark a dynasty, Alabama has yet to duplicate that year’s success in terms of wins and losses and it remains Saban’s lone undefeated season.

McElroy finally took a loss in 2010 after 19 straight wins, three short of Jay Barker’s school-best 22 to start a career, yet his name is still all over the Crimson Tide record book.

In addition to finishing with more than 5,000 yards of total offense, there was the Third Saturday in October at Tennessee, where he helped Julio Jones set the Alabama single-game mark for receiving yards with 221.

“During camp we were roommates and started building our chemistry there, more so than last year,” Jones said at the time. “All the time we communicated. During summer and camp, going out, doing seven-on-seven, just communicating, trying to get on the same page, telling him what I see and what he sees so we’re on the same page.

“If a guy’s on me, and he’s playing on the inside, Greg wants to go back shoulder, but I’m thinking over the top, you can’t be like that. It’s getting a lot better, but we’re never satisfied.”

That also helped explain McElroy’s success in the classroom, where he had just one B in college and was named to some of most prestigious honor societies. He was a finalist for the William Campbell Trophy, considered the academic Heisman, applied to be a Rhodes Scholar and was being considered for Sports Illustrated’s highest honor, the Sportsman of the Year.

No wonder offensive coordinator Jim McElwain joked about studying game film with his quarterback: “Trying to explain something to a Rhodes Scholar? A guy from Montana? Are you kidding me?”

62] Josh Jacobs, RB

  • 24-overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft
  • Versatile athlete who averaged 28.6 yards per kickoff return for his career, ranking third in Alabama history
  • Named MVP of SEC Championship Game
  • Scored 15 touchdowns (11 rushing, three receiving, one kickoff return) his final season. His 30.6 yards per return average led the SEC and was second in the FBS
  • Tied for the 2018 team lead in all-purpose yards with 1,315 to average 87.7 yards per game, and was second in scoring with 90 points

It was an unusual word to come out of his mouth, especially to describe one of his players.

Nick Saban said Josh Jacobs looked like demon.

He was talking about some of the running back’s carries against Mississippi State, so he meant it as a compliment.

The coach didn’t say it about Damien Harris, Najee Harris or any of the other running backs, and it didn’t appear that he’d previously used it to describe any of their position predecessors since arriving at Alabama. Saban did once use it regarding Landon Collins on special teams in 2013, so that gave a good indication of the Crimson Tide company he kept.

“It’s always big to get praise from Saban in any type of way so I’m cool with it,” Jacobs said after a good laugh.

If you’ve ever met Jacobs away from a football field, it’s probably the last word to come to mind — the guy is laid back, friendly and almost always smiling. But if you saw the game, and the way he would refuse to go down, or the play Jacobs completely ran over a defender, there’s no questioning the coach’s word choice.

Statistically, Jacobs led all players with 136 all-purpose yards, including 97 rushing, and scored two touchdowns to help lead the 24-0 victory over the No. 16 Bulldogs. The first was on a 1-yard run, but the second came on a 14-yard swing pass from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, on his first reception of the season.

“I was really impressed with the way he played,” Saban said.

Not only were the 23 touches a career high for Jacobs, they were the most for any Crimson Tide player through the first 10 games of the season.

Alabama even had him take a snap in the wildcat formation, with Tagovailoa lined up wide as a receiver. The result was a 10-yard gain as it became evident that the Crimson Tide offense had yet another proven playmaker whom the coaches could turn to with confidence.

Alabama had a lot of those in 2018, from wide receivers Jerry Jeudy to Jaylen Waddle, tight ends Hale Hentges and Irv Smith Jr., and of course quarterbacks Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts. Even at running back there was significant depth, with Damien Harris the starter and best every-down option, to Najee Harris, who had both a punishing style and ability to hurdle would-be tacklers.

“Najee’s a freak,” sophomore nose tackle Quinnen Williams said,

Najee Harris was the one to lead the Crimson Tide in rushing for most of the season and had done a lot more than just relieve Damien Harris when necessary. The previous year he was fourth in team rushing with 370 yards on 61 carries, but with less than half of the attempts as Damien Harris, Hurts or Bo Scarbrough.

Jacobs was fifth in team rushing in 2017, with 46 carries 284 yards and one rushing touchdown.

He only needed the 2018 season opener in Orlando to establish that he’d have a much bigger presence with an 18-yard touchdown run and his 77-yard kick return for another score in the 51-14 victory.

Jacobs started to get more carries during the second half of the season, especially against Missouri (nine for 52 yards) and at Tennessee (12 for 68), before his best game to date. Then-No. 16 Mississippi State had yielded just five rushing touchdowns and nine overall during its first nine games.

Led by its running game and offensive line, the Crimson Tide opened with a nine-play touchdown drive, and then topped it with 13-play possession for a 14-0 lead. Jacobs contributed to both. With the defense not even yielding a first down, Alabama had a 180-13 edge in total yards and the ball for 10:43 of the first 15 minutes.

“We wanted to be physical,” Jacobs said.

It certainly was, but Jaocbs eventually took it to a new level.

Overall, the Crimson Tide finished with 142 rushing yards after tallying 83 during the first quarter. Mississippi State adjusted and Alabama had some miscues, but it was Jacobs that eventually got the offense back on track in the fourth quarter.

Specifically, with 7:28 to go, and the ball at its own 45, Alabama wanted to put the game away and called 10 straight runs, the first six by Jacobs. With carries of 8, 12 and 17 yards he had the Crimson Tide on the doorstep of another touchdown. More importantly, the drive ensured that the Bulldogs were out of time.

“Josh was a demon running it on a couple of those runs,” Saban said.

63] Anfernee Jennings, LB

  • 2019 All-SEC
  • Third-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft
  • Three-year starter who sustained a scary knee injury in the 2017 College Football Playoff
  • As a senior notched eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss, third most in the SEC. Was credited with 83 tackles. eight quarterback pressures, five pass breakups and one forced fumble.
  • Team captain

It was a routine play, or so everyone initially thought.

Alabama was finishing off the 24-6 College Football Playoff victory when Clemson made a 6-yard run up the middle in the red zone during the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl. A return to the National Championship Game was at hand for the Crimson Tide when linebacker Anfernee Jennings got accidentally leg-whipped by a teammate, taking the full force on his left knee while in pursuit.

It looked bad, but the injury turned out to be much worse than anyone imagined because his knee had essentially bent backward.

“We obviously knew that we were dealing with a severe knee injury that night at the stadium, but as the night progressed and certainly the next morning we quickly figured out that were dealing almost with an emergency situation with this injury,” head trainer Jeff Allen told the ESPN behind-the-scenes show “Training Days: Rolling with the Tide.”

“He required immediate surgery.”

Specifically, the initial diagnosis was a PCL tear, the posterior cruciate ligament that’s one of the four major ligaments in a knee.

It’s an injury that’s a lot more common in skiing than football.

But there was more to it than initially detected. It took an MRI to reveal that there was artery damage as well in addition to a blood clot. Jennings’ football career wasn’t just at stake, possibly a whole lot more.

“As soon as they saw the MRI they rushed me to the Birmingham hospital for emergency-like surgery to save my leg,” he said.

Following the elaborate procedure, Jennings began the long process of recovery and was able to be on the sideline in a wheelchair for the title game against Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

After Alabama won in overtime, teammate Jamie Mosley made sure to include him in the postgame celebration, and fellow linebacker Terrell Lewis, who had spent a lot of time with Jennings in the trainer’s room while coming back from torn elbow ligament, was one of many players to have an emotional moment with him as the confetti fell.

“Anfernee, he’s a guy who kept me uplifted throughout the whole injury process and he kept me uplifted,” said Lewis, who took Jennings spot in the starting lineup against the Bulldogs. “So to see him step up while I was hurt and then he gets hurt and I’ve got to step up for him, I just took it personal, kind of like ‘It’s my turn to step up for you now.’

“I told him before the game, ‘I got you. I promise we won’t lose this game.’ And the way the game ended, it was just like, ‘Wow, we still did it.’ Even though our kicker missed a field goal, we were still like ‘We’ve got to win this game. There’s no doubt.’”

Although the Clemson game may had been his best yet, with five tackles, a career-high three stops for a loss and a sack, Jennings was also a sort of unheralded cog on the Crimson Tide defense while playing alongside the likes of Rashaan Evans, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Da’Ron Payne, all first-round picks in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Statistically he was credited with 41 tackles including six tackles for a loss and a sack, with two forced fumbles, two passes broken up and four quarterback hurries. That was despite suffering a high ankle sprain in the season opener against Florida State, when Evans sustained a painful groin injury and outside linebackers Christian Miller (torn bicep) and Lewis were thought to be likely done for the season.

Jennings only missed two games and came back to force his first career fumble against Vanderbilt, a ball that was picked up by defensive end Da’Shawn Hand and eventually led to a touchdown in the 59-0 victory.

“He played his tail off for us,” running back Damien Harris said. “It sucks that his season was cut short due to injury, but one thing that’s special about Anfernee is that in the national championship game we were playing Georgia and he was having people push him around so he could encourage people, he could be the voice on the sideline, and kind of give us that boost that we needed as a team.

“Being down 20-7 in the fourth quarter obviously we needed something. He gave us that spark, that energy that we needed.”

Paying the Jack linebacker/defensive end hybrid position in Nick Saban’s scheme, Jennings was the guy who usually set the edge to contain the ball carrier or quarterback, and then go after the passer.

The position wasn’t as glamorous as some others, but the players, coaches and opponents all had a full grasp of his importance. Despite spending all spring and fall rehabbing Jennings was named preseason All-SEC by the media and second team by the coaches.

He finished his final season in 2019 as a first-team selection, and was also named Crimson Tide captain.

“I had to learn the whole process over,” Jennings said. “I had to learn how to walk again. To run.

“I just understand you can’t take anything for granted.”

64] James Carpenter, T

  • 2010 All-SEC
  • 25-overall pick 2011 NFL Draft
  • The junior-college transfer started all 27 games at left tackle during two seasons

Five things to know about James Carpenter:

- The offensive lineman attended Hephzibah High School in Georgia, where he played guard. The only offer he had to play college football was from Iowa State, but he wasn’t academically eligible and instead ended up at Coffeyville Community College. It was there he switched to left tackle and developed into a NJCAA All-American.

- Carpenter was recruited to Alabama to replace left tackle Andre Smith. He started every game for the Crimson Tide at left tackle for the 2009 national champions and the 2010 team.

- Alabama had numerous players at the 2011 NFL Draft, but Carpenter wasn’t among them because he wasn’t invited. He ended up being the 25 overall selection by Seattle

- Carpenter spent part of an offseason attending cooking school.

- Per the Atlanta Falcons, he’s developed quite a collection of tattoos, and Carpenter enjoys them so much he once got three in a week. One of his tattoos has an outline of Alabama and Georgia.

65] Kenyan Drake, RB

  • Third-round selection in 2016 NFL Draft
  • Finished Crimson Tide career with 1,495 rushing yards
  • Suffered broken leg at Ole Miss as a junior, and a broken arm as a senior. Playing behind Derrick Henry, finished his final year with 408 rushing yards plus 29 catches for 276 receiving yards
  • Returned kickoff 95 yards for a crucial touchdown in 2015 national title game

Kickoffs have seemingly always defied time, especially the way they hang in the air as everyone waits for the football to spin through its arc and finally return to earth. There’s a lot going on underneath each, until it finally begins to plummet into the eager hands of a returner who then starts carrying it in the opposite direction.

That’s just with a normal kickoff.

Nobody wanted the one opening the 2015 collegiate season to be struck sooner or land faster than Alabama’s Kenyan Drake.

He fielded it at about the 4-yard line of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, hesitated at about the 20 and was then promptly dropped by two Wisconsin players. Drake had probably dreamed of reaching the end zone, but being tackled had never felt so good.

Not only was it his first play since suffering the gut-wrenching leg fracture and dislocated ankle at Ole Miss 11 months previous, the question of how he would react to taking a hit no longer loomed.

“It was great, obviously,” Drake said. “I haven’t played since October of last year, so it was kind of nerve-wracking initially, but the butterflies kind of went away. It was good to be back out there with my teammates playing.”

As excited as Drake was to be on the field again the Crimson Tide was just as thrilled to have him back. Not only was he arguably Alabama’s most explosive player following the departure of wide receiver Amari Cooper, but a team leader as well.

That role was especially crucial that season, as they were in short supply with the offense. Alabama had nine new starters on that side of the ball for its opener, and even though technically Drake wasn’t among them he was one of the three players to represent the Crimson Tide during SEC Media Days in July.

“Kenyan is a huge part of this team,” center Ryan Kelly said. “If you were at the Ole Miss game, and you see him doing sprints, running and cutting, and all those things in the springtime and it’s just amazing. I think it shows you the kind of man Kenyan is and the kind of guy he’s become.”

Yes, there was something different about Drake in 2015, which is pretty normal for any senior, but there’s no way to go through an experience like his and not be changed as a person. The Alabama coaches and medical/training staffs were all cautious with him physically, just in case, and the extensive rehab arguably made him stronger than ever.

The sense of perspective, though, that was life-altering.

“There was nothing for me to do but grow, physically and mentally,” Drake said. “Other people have told me that they’ve seen it.”

One thing that may be surprising to some was that Drake never had a problem watching the play during which he got hurt. If the visual part of it wasn’t unsettling enough, the sound of him screaming in pain made the entire experience nothing short of horrific.

Yet shortly after it happened Drake asked to relive it all, even the part when his leg and foot were sticking out in odd directions.

“I’m completely comfortable with it,” he said. “I actually wanted to see it. I heard it was pretty crazy. I know they didn’t show it on the scoreboard so I wanted to see how loud I was screaming on national TV.”

It made one wonder what Drake might shy away from, but on the field there wasn’t much he didn’t do for the Crimson Tide. In addition to being the speed option out of the backfield, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin sort of used him like he did Reggie Bush at Southern California, lining No. 17 all over including at wide receiver.

“I really pride myself on being versatile,” Drake said. “I have the ability to play running back, to play receiver, be in the backfield, or line up outside. I try to give coaches the ability to put myself in a position to really help my team out in any way I can.

“With that being said, I always look forward to anything Coach Kiffin comes up with. He’s a mastermind of play calling and puts his players in the best position to be successful so with that I would want to make sure that I can be trustworthy so he can put me in the best position for our team.”

One of the wrinkles that Wisconsin discovered was the way Alabama put Drake into motion, which with his speed teammate Denzel Devall compared to tracking a “little jackrabbit.” Even a perfectly-timed pre-snap step or two could be disruptive and move a defender out of position, like what occurred on one of Derrick Henry’s long touchdown runs against the Badgers.

“You can spread him out, put him in the backfield, throw him a little slant and if that first guy misses he might go all the way,” linebacker Reggie Ragland said.

A perfect example was the first snap against Florida in 2014 as Alabama had noticed in certain situations the Gators almost always put a linebacker on a running back when he shifted out wide. If the defender played off him Kiffin wanted a slant pass, but if he moved up the call was a slant-and-go because there was probably no way the linebacker could keep up with Drake.

When Antonio Morrison gave Drake a 10-yard cushion quarterback Blake Sims couldn’t get the ball out fast enough. The result was an 87-yard touchdown that let the Gators know they were in for a long day.

“It obviously worked to perfection,” Drake said.

What he ended up being best known for at Alabama wasn’t an offensive play, though, but a play on special teams. During the 2015 national title game, his 95-yard kick return for a touchdown was crucial in the 45-40 win.

It also landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated. 

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

Introduction

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 

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