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15 for 15: The 15 most impactful players of Nick Saban's Alabama tenure

Amid an embarrassment of trophies, championship rings and NFL dollars, we rank the best of the best.

There are many words that define Nick Saban's tenure at Alabama, but the one that comes most immediately to mind is transformative. Transformative for the SEC, for the University of Alabama, for college football as a whole. Whenever Saban's tenure ends, each of those three institutions will be utterly unrecognizable from when they began the day Saban landed on the Tuscaloosa National Airport's tarmac on Jan. 3, 2007.

And though Saban's crimson reign is not near its end, the 2021 campaign marks Saban's 15th at Alabama. It's been a remarkable run for a coach labeled a nomad and a mercenary the day he took the job. This week, we're marking the occasion by recounting Saban's 15 most impactful assistant coaches, players, wins and quotes during his time as Alabama's head coach. 

If one so desired, you could start a vigorous college football debate at just about any time simply by declaring School X to be Position U. Surely you've seen the designed-to-make-somebody-mad graphics floating around Twitter. If not, one can be found for you quickly.

With a first-rounder in the past two drafts, Alabama can credibly lay claim to QB U. With two of the only three players at the position to win the Heisman this century, Alabama can credibly lay claim to RB U. With three Biletnikoff Award winners in the past seven seasons, Alabama can credibly lay claim to WR U. And with nine national awards and a zillion first round picks, Alabama can lay credible claim to OL U. And with... 

You get the point. 

There are 22 nationally-recognized college football awards. A Crimson Tide player has won every one of them except the Mackey (best tight end), Burlsworth (best walk-on), Lou Groza (best kicker) and Ray Guy (best punter).

Save for the tight end, Alabama's recent history can go star for star, award for award, first-round pick for first-round pick, NFL dollar earned for NFL dollar earned with any program at any position. Name it, and Alabama's is probably better than yours. 

Heisman Trophy (best player)
Mark Ingram, 2009
Derrick Henry, 2015
DeVonta Smith, 2020

Maxwell (best player)
AJ McCarron, 2013
Derrick Henry, 2015
Tua Tagovailoa, 2018
DeVonta Smith, 2020

Walter Camp Award (best player)
Derrick Henry, 2015
Tua Tagovailoa, 2018
DeVonta Smith, 2020

Davey O'Brien Award (best quarterback)
Mac Jones, 2020

Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award (best upperclassman quarterback)
AJ McCarron, 2013
Mac Jones, 2020

Doak Walker Award (best running back)
Trent Richardson, 2011
Derrick Henry, 2015
Najee Harris, 2020

Biletnikoff Award (best wide receiver)
Amari Cooper, 2014
Jerry Jeudy, 2018
DeVonta Smith, 2020

Joe Moore (best offensive line)

Rimington Trophy (best center)
Barrett Jones, 2012
Ryan Kelly, 2015
Landon Dickerson, 2020

Outland Trophy (best lineman)
Andre Smith, 2008
Barrett Jones, 2011
Cam Robinson, 2016
Quinnen Williams, 2018
Alex Leatherwood, 2020

Bednarik Award (best defensive player)
Jonathan Allen, 2016
Minkah Fitzpatrick, 2017

Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player)
Jonathan Allen, 2016

Lombardi Award (best defensive front player)
Jonathan Allen, 2016

Hendricks (best defensive end)
Jonathan Allen, 2016

Butkus Award (best linebacker)
Rolando McClain, 2009
CJ Mosley, 2013
Reuben Foster, 2016

Thorpe Award (best defensive back)
Minkah Fitzpatrick, 2017

Paul Hornung Award (most versatile)
DeVonta Smith, 2020

William V. Campbell Trophy (best scholar-athlete)
Barrett Jones, 2012

Wuerffel Trophy (best community servant)
Barrett Jones, 2011

Disney Spirit Award 
2011 Alabama team

Polynesian Award
Tua Tagovailoa, 2018
Tua Tagovailoa, 2019

And this says nothing of what the NFL thinks of Alabama's players. 

I translated NFL draft position into a quantifiable formula that precisely measured college football talent, and that metric lists the 2017 Crimson Tide team as the most talented since 2000 and the 2015 outfit as the third-most talented. Three of Alabama's five most recent draft classes are among the six best ever. 

Most coaches -- the mortal ones -- ask their schools to choose between a guy who can recruit elite players or a guy who can polish the diamonds in the rough. Saban is the cheat code who can do both: he signs elite players (58 5-star recruits, nine No. 1 classes) and makes them even better. 

15. Marcell Dareus, defensive lineman -- 2008-10
Arrived: No. 233 player in 2008 class via Birmingham, Ala. | Left: No. 3 pick in 2011 draft

Dareus started just four games in 2009 and only -- only -- made one All-SEC team. He didn't win any national awards, and he was never an All-American. Pro talent evaluators liked him more for what he could do than the college writers and awards voters did. But you can't tell the story of Nick Saban's reign without Dareus, and particularly his first half of the 2010 BCS national title game.

In less than 30 minutes of football, Dareus single-handedly buried Texas by knocking Colt McCoy out of the game, then by intercepting his backup, Garrett Gilbert, and returning it to the house, effectively putting the game out of reach and the first of Saban's six crystal footballs within his grasp.

14. Reuben Foster, inside linebacker -- 2013-16
Arrived: No. 6 player in 2013 class via Auburn, Ala. | Left: No. 31 pick in 2017 draft

There are numerous examples of Nick Saban going onto someone else's home turf and not only stealing a player, but his competition's soul. Beating Urban Meyer for Pensacola product Derrick Henry. Taking Landon Collins out of Louisiana over his mother's obvious objections. Snaring multi-generation Longhorn legacies Tommy and James Brockermeyer out of Texas. Landing Auburn legacy Rashaan Evans. Take your pick as to your favorite, but Foster is objectively the funniest. An Auburn High School product with an Auburn University tattoo played for Bama. "Reuben, he still has that Auburn tattoo, so sometimes we make him cover it up. Sometimes we don't," teammate Reggie Ragland said in 2015.

Foster lands here not only because of what he represented as a recruit, but also because he was the best player of the bunch. A national champion as a junior, Foster was a unanimous All-American and won the Butkus Award in 2016.

13. AJ McCarron, quarterback -- 2009-13
Arrived: No. 87 player in 2009 class via Mobile, Ala. | Left: No. 164 pick in 2014 draft

McCarron started three seasons for the Tide. He won national titles in the first two and was a First Team All-American and a Maxwell Award winner in the third.

In that All-America campaign of 2013, McCarron was the highest-rated quarterback in FBS against ranked foes, going 70-of-108 for 1,177 yards with 12 touchdowns against two picks. One throw I'll always remember: a 99-yard bomb to Amari Cooper to give Alabama a 28-21 lead over Auburn with 10:28 to play. Nothing bad for Bama happened after that.

12. Mark Ingram, running back -- 2008-10
Arrived: No. 112 player in 2008 class via Flint, Mich. | Left: No. 28 pick in 2010 draft

Let's just get this out of the way early: I didn't think Ingram deserved to win the 2009 Heisman and neither did Doak Walker Award winners, who instead opted for Stanford's Toby Gerhart. He touched the ball twice on Alabama's most important drive of the season, a 16-play, 79-yard march to win the Iron Bowl.

And now that I've slandered an innocent man, the positive. In college football's Championship Era (since 1998), seven Heisman winners also won that season's national title. Among those seven are all three of Bama's Heisman winners, and Ingram was the first.

11. Quinnen Williams, defensive tackle -- 2016-18
Arrived: No. 155 player in 2016 class via Birmingham, Ala. | Left: No. 3 pick in 2017 draft

With apologies to Mr. Dareus, no defensive tackle has so dominated an otherwise electrifying offense like Williams did to Oklahoma in the 2018 Orange Bowl since Ndamukong Suh. Williams, the Outland Trophy winner, a unanimous First Team All-American and one of four defensive linemen since 2000 to finish among the top eight Heisman vote getters, single-handedly wrecked OU's Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line.

Consistently driving himself into the lap of Heisman winner Kyler Murray, Williams helped the Tide force Oklahoma to go punt, punt, turnover on downs on its first three drives, allowing the Tide to jump out to a 21-0 lead before Murray found his footing. Murray eventually racked up 409 yards and three touchdowns, but the damage had been done; Oklahoma never got within 11 in a 45-34 Alabama win.

10. Cam Robinson, offensive tackle -- 2014-16
Arrived: No. 4 player in 2014 class via West Monroe, La. | Left: No. 34 pick in 2017 draft

As a symbol, Robinson follows in the footsteps of Landon Collins as proof Alabama could go into Louisiana and snare a player LSU desperately wanted. As a player, Robinson is even more important.

Just as Saban turned the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility into a factor of wide receivers, running backs, safeties, defensive linemen and, uh, almost every other position, it is also a factory of franchise left tackles. Robinson, winner of the Outland Trophy and the SEC's Jacobs Blocking Trophy in 2016, was the first of those. Robinson begat Jonah Williams and Jedrick Wills and Alex Leatherwood and Tommy Brockermeyer and....

9. Dont'a Hightower, inside linebacker -- 2008-11
Arrived: No. 303 player in 2008 class via Lewisburg, Tenn. | Left: No. 25 pick in 2012 draft

We'll likely never see a better defense than Alabama's 2011 unit, and Hightower was right in the middle of it. His 85 tackles paced a defense that led FBS in scoring defense (8.2 points per game), yards per play (3.32), yards per game (183.6), rushing defense (72.2 yards per game) and passing efficiency (83.69).

In 720 snaps over 13 games, the Tide surrendered nine touchdowns. And while it doesn't count toward the official rankings here, it certainly doesn't hurt Hightower's standing that this low-4 star recruit later earned a spot on the New England Patriots' All-2010s Team.

8. DeVonta Smith, wide receiver -- 2017-20
Arrived: No. 62 player in 2017 class via Amite City, La. | Left: No. 10 pick in 2021 draft

How's this for impactful? Heading into the second overtime of the 2018 CFP title game, true freshman DeVonta Smith had caught six passes that season, and none since a single 10-yard grab in a 56-0 win over Mercer five games prior. He didn't even play in the 2017 SEC title game. Yet none of that stopped him from hauling in a 41-yard rainbow to win that season's national title, and he closed his year with the best season any college wideout has ever had: 117 catches for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns, a Heisman Trophy and a national championship. He caught 12 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns in his final college game, and did most of that damage in one half.

7. Derrick Henry, running back -- 2013-15
Arrived: No. 12 player in 2013 class via Yulee, Fla. | Left: No. 45 pick in 2016 draft

Alabama didn't quite develop Henry so much as unleash him. Listed on his 247Sports profile at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Henry regularly ran for 300 yards a game in high school, looked like a man among boys at the elite college level and is now doing the same in the NFL, where he is the reigning NFL offensive player of the year fresh off a 2,000-yard season. But, still, it was Saban's success in Tuscaloosa that Henry trucked college defenses in a Crimson Tide helmet rather than an orange T or a black G.

6. Amari Cooper, wide receiver -- 2012-14
Arrived: No. 45 player in 2012 class via Miami, Fla. | Left: No. 4 pick in 2015 draft

The right player at the right time. Cooper sprung open Alabama's South Florida pipeline and, with apologies to Mr. Heisman, he's the best wide receiver to play for Saban. The first wide receiver since 1987 to win the SEC's offensive player of the year award, Cooper caught 124 passes for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns en route to the 2014 Biletnikoff Award, but even the raw numbers fail to tell the full story. With Blake Sims at quarterback, Cooper accounted for 49 percent of Alabama's completions, 49.5 percent of its passing yards and 57 percent of its passing touchdowns in that '14 season.

5. Minkah Fitzpatrick, safety -- 2015-17
Arrived: No. 30 player in 2015 class via Jersey City, N.J. | Left: No. 11 pick in 2018 draft

Alabama has had a seemingly endless number of elite defensive backs during the Saban era, but only Fitzpatrick won the Thorpe Award. Also the Bednarik Award winner, Fitzpatrick started as a freshman, was a two-time consensus All-American and won two national titles. 

Simply put, it's not possible to accomplish more as a 3-year defensive back than what Fitzpatrick did. 

4. Barrett Jones, offensive lineman -- 2008-12
Arrived: No. 161 player in 2008 class via Ridgley, Tenn. | Left: No. 113 pick in 2013 draft

Jones is the prototypical Saban-era player, the portrait hanging on the wall he can perpetually point to and scream, "See! He can do it right, why can't you?!" After redshirting in 2008, Jones started 14 games at right guard on Alabama's 2009 national champion. He won the Outland Trophy at left tackle on Alabama's 2011 national champion. He then won the Rimington Trophy as college football's top center on Alabama's 2012 national champion. 

As if that wasn't enough, he also won the Campbell Trophy as college football's top scholar-athlete as a senior in 2012, the only Alabama player ever to do so.

A player who was a long, long way from Saban's most talented player had the best college career, which in turn makes him the ultimate teacher's pet.

3. Julio Jones, wide receiver -- 2008-10
Arrived: No. 3 player in 2008 class via Foley, Ala. | Left: No. 6 pick in 2011 draft

You can make an argument Jones belongs at No. 1 on this list... even though he's out-ranked in the Saban-era record book by four other wideouts. A Nick Saban team was always going to have great defenders, but Julio made it cool for skill players to don the crimson for the first time... ever? Beyond his 179 catches for 2,653 yards and 15 touchdowns, there's a special level of bad ass reserved for the players who arrive in college as the No. 1 player at their position and leave as the No. 1 player at their position.

"I think he changed the culture of the work ethic of skill players on offense,” Saban said of Jones. "He made players look at what you had to do to be a complete player at that position which was a huge benefit for us."

2. Jonathan Allen, defensive end -- 2013-16
Arrived: No. 15 player in 2013 class via Ashburn, Va. | Left: No. 17 pick in 2017 draft

No defensive lineman has ever won the Heisman and only four in the last 20 years have finished among top eight, but Allen in 2016 pulled off the defender's equivalent of the Heisman. 

After recording an All-SEC season on Alabama's 2015 national champion as a junior, Allen came back and racked up a full house: he won the Nagurski Trophy as the defensive player of the year, the Bednarik Award as the defensive player of the year, and won the Lombardi Trophy as the top interior defensive player. If there was an award a defensive end was eligible to win in 2016, Allen won it. He was also a unanimous All-American, the SEC defensive player of the year, and was a three-time All-SEC first teamer.

1. Tua Tagovailoa, quarterback -- 2017-19
Arrived: No. 32 player in 2017 class via Honolulu, Hawai'i | Left: No. 5 pick in 2020 draft

Tua's lands at No. 1 because of what he did and what he signified. For starters, we're talking about a player talented enough to win the MVP award of the national championship game after not even playing the first half. He won the Maxwell, Walter Camp, Sporting News and SEC player of the year awards as a true sophomore in 2018, a year in which he set the FBS pass efficiency record (since broken by Mac Jones) and probably wins the Heisman if not for a late-season ankle injury. This is a player willing to throw into traffic in the back of the end zone on fourth down and completes it, a guy who shakes off a sack on first down by going deep on second down... as a true freshman... in his first real crunch time action... which happened to come in the national championship game.

He also happened to throw maybe the prettiest ball I've ever seen.

Beyond that, Tua represented Saban dominance in its final form. Imagine, in the winter of 2006, an Alabama coach hopping a plane to recruit a 5-star, mobile quarterback from Honolulu -- and landing him. He unlocked Alabama at its fullest potential. Without Tua, there is no Bryce Young and all that comes after.

If Nick Saban is college football's Thanos, Tua is the stone that completes his Infinity Gauntlet.