TUSCALOOSA — In college football recruiting, Alabama head coach Nick Saban ranks as one of the best. For evidence, look at the Rivals.com rankings, which have put Saban’s Crimson Tide incoming classes as No. 1 in the nation four times since 2008.
But getting highly rated players to sign scholarship papers with Alabama is only part of how Saban and his staff have translated must-have recruits into guys who have helped the Tide win 53 of its last 59 games.
Within the recruiting world, the elite recruits get four or five stars on a scale that goes from one to five. Saban has earned a reputation as a top evaluator of which of those four- and five-star recruits he should sign and which ones he shouldn’t, and that might be the key to Alabama winning two of the past three national championships.
“His ability to evaluate and recruit the right kids is at the top,” said Jamie Newberg of FoxSportsNext.com and Scout.com.
“At Alabama, they are phenomenal in the meticulous way they go about recruiting a class.”
Newberg compares Saban’s success at evaluating and recruiting to that of Bobby Bowden’s Florida State program in the 1990s and Pete Carroll’s Southern California teams in the 2000s. Both coaches won a pair of national titles, and Saban has a chance to exceed that at Alabama this year. His current team is ranked No. 1 in the nation.
“As a group, as a coaching staff, from top to bottom, Alabama is so thorough,” Newberg said. “He is good at getting the right kids, who they get into school, develop and turn into good players. It’s all part of a process, and Nick Saban does all those things well.”
Saban doesn’t always hit on every prospect. For example, in 2008, Alabama signed five-star lineman Tyler Love and five-star athlete Burton Scott. Love was never more than a backup before graduating this past spring, and Scott eventually transferred to South Alabama, where he has started at defensive back.
But that class also included five first-round draft choices (safety Mark Barron, defensive lineman Marcell Dareus, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, running back Mark Ingram and receiver Julio Jones), two second-round picks (Terrence Cody and Courtney Upshaw) and a seventh-round choice (Brad Smelley). On the current Alabama roster, center Barrett Jones, safety Robert Lester and tight end Michael Williams could add to that class’ NFL haul.
In 2009, Alabama brought in three more first-round picks: running back Trent Richardson, defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick and offensive lineman James Carpenter. Current offensive linemen D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack were part of that class and are projected as likely first-round picks, too.
But that year, the Tide also landed four-star receiver Kendall Kelly, Kirkpatrick’s high school teammate at Gadsden City and a big catch at the time for Saban. However, Kelly couldn’t overcome health issues and eventually accepted a medical redshirt.
“One of the reasons the Alabama coaching staff is good at evaluating is that Nick Saban isn’t lazy,” said TiderInsider.com owner and operator Rodney Orr, who has followed recruiting closely since 1975 when the Tide signed quarterback Jeff Rutledge and running back Tony Nathan, who helped Bear Bryant win the 1978 national title.
“For example, Nick Saban is one of the ones who’s enthusiastic about going out in the spring, seeing prospects up close and getting to know them,” Orr said. “He does such a good job of evaluating the person as well as the athlete, and spring is a good time to do that.”
Saban said he has three areas in which he evaluates prospective players: physical ability, intelligence and attitude.
“The combination of those three things are what sort of gets us to where we want to be with the player,” Saban said. “In terms of whether we want them in the program or not, there’s plenty of guys we want that we don’t get. We’re always hopeful that the guys we get fit that criteria.”
The physical ability part is broken down even further, based on the position a player might play.
“We have critical factors that we feel are important at every position,” he said. “Those are physical abilities and we try to evaluate those physical abilities and those critical factors to see if a player has those relative to the plan that we would have and the position we would want him to play here. We have a size and speed sort of scale that we look at that we like to get a guy that fits into that criteria.”
Saban said the intelligence and attitude factors are as important to him as physical ability.
“If you don’t have the right character and attitude, and you don’t have the right want-to or intelligence, you can’t really be all you’re capable of being,” he said.
Alabama’s coaches don’t speak with just the coach of a prospect. Saban said they make multiple contacts with multiple people.
“It’s sort of an ongoing evaluation,” Saban said. “I think the high school coaches, the coaches on our staff, people in schools, guidance counselors, principals that have good relationships with all those people are very important to get the right information to make some of those judgments.”
Newberg, who has covered recruiting since 1992, said it amazes him how often Saban can get top players outside Alabama who already were targeted by programs within their own states.
For example, this past year, Alabama signed receivers Chris Black, Amari Cooper and Eddie Williams out of Florida. Williams was a five-star prospect, while Black and Cooper carried four stars.
Cooper has turned into Alabama’s leading receiver. Williams is a backup safety who Saban said has a good future. Black was injured in August and will miss the rest of the season because of shoulder surgery, but he was slated to play as much as Cooper.
“To be able to go into Florida and take the top three receivers, that’s incredible,” Newberg said. “And he got Landon (Collins) out of Louisiana, and he lived 15 minutes from LSU. But Alabama got him.”
Collins, a five-star prospect, is a backup safety for Alabama.
“Probably one of the reasons a lot of these guys have four or five stars,” Orr said, “is that Nick Saban is recruiting them. People see he really wants someone, and because of his reputation, it makes them look at the recruit a little better.”