Nick Saban will benefit from the contributions of five veteran players that have excelled throughout their careers without attracting the spotlight.
Every player that comes to Alabama is not a 5-star mega-recruit—even though it seems that way at times because of the depth of quality players that Nick Saban has been able to assemble in Tuscaloosa.
Several players have come through Saban’s program with minimal fanfare, yet worked themselves into quality contributors.
Others have been rated 3-star or 4-star prospects, and have proven their worth enough to become starters—yet they seldom seem to attract the attention that more heralded teammates have received.
Consider that Alabama still has four fifth-year seniors left over from the heralded 2008 recruiting class on the roster—a class that has already produced five first-round draft picks—with each of them expected to play a major role for Saban’s otherwise young team this fall.
Regardless, the Crimson Tide is a team that thrives from players filling roles in a professional, business-like manner—with the overall function of the team being the primary focus.
This fall, Saban must fill the void of a few unheralded leaders—with H-back Brad Smelley and defensive tackles Josh Chapman and Nick Gentry being veteran players that were the glue behind the team’s success in 2011.
Which players on the Tide’s roster can step up and become the backbone of a roster that is as talented as any in the country?
Here are five unsung heroes on the Crimson Tide roster.
Williams has evolved into a complete tight heading into his fifth year at Alabama.
To this point in his career, Williams may be known best for a play he failed to make—a trick play in the fourth quarter of last November’s epic tilt against top-ranked LSU where Tigers safety Eric Reid wrestled a pass away from Williams that helped lead to Alabama’s only loss last season.
However, the fifth-year senior has been a pillar of stability at the tight-end position for Saban—with 27 starts under his belt entering his final season at the Capstone.
He has improved his receiving skills each year (27 career receptions, 320 yards, three touchdown catches) and his blocking has been an undervalued asset that helped the Crimson Tide lead the SEC in rushing offense last season.
Taking into account the relative newness of the Tide’s group of skill players, Williams will be an invaluable resource for quarterback A.J. McCarron to lean on this season.
Square will hold down a starting defensive end spot for the third consecutive season in 2012.
Square was a 3-star import from the state of Texas that was a part of Saban’s decorated 2008 recruiting class that featured stars like Mark Ingram, Marcell Dareus and Julio Jones.
The 6’3”, 285-pound Houston native redshirted in his first college season, and then overcame a torn ACL the following year to become a stalwart on the defensive line for the Tide—starting 19 games and recording 59 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and four sacks over the last two seasons.
While he may not be as dominant as Dareus was, or possess the freakish talent of current nose tackle Jesse Williams, Square has been a technically sound and versatile contributor that will serve as a veteran leader for a defense that must replace four All-Americans.
Warmack has emerged as one of the top offensive guards in the country.
It is hard to call a player that earned first-team preseason All-SEC honors underrated, but the senior offensive guard from Atlanta gets considerably less publicity than fellow linemates (and projected first-round picks) Barrett Jones and D.J. Fluker.
Warmack and junior guard Anthony Steen are the only Tide starters on the offensive line to garner less than a 4-star rating out of high school, but he saw action in five games as a true freshman before locking down the starting spot that he has held down for the last 26 games (two years).
The 6’3”, 320-pounder has worked himself into one of the top guard prospects in the country, and he enters his final season at the Capstone in a good position to become a hot commodity in next April’s NFL draft.
Shelley connected on nearly 80% of his attempts in 2011.
Given that Shelley and fellow place kicker Cade Foster were given a reprieve for their miscues in the first meeting against LSU, it may lead fans to finally realize that Shelley was one of the best kickers in the league last season.
The rising senior converted on 21-of-27 attempts last season—just one less made attempt than SEC-leader Caleb Sturgis of Florida.
Shelley has also been at his best when the Tide have faced ranked opponents over the last two seasons, missing just four of his 18 attempts against Top 25 teams—with his five makes in the BCS national title game rematch against LSU helping the Tide clinch the 14th national title in school history.
Even though Shelley generally handles field-goal tries of less than 45 yards (Saban used Foster for longer distance tries last season), his leg has been a reliable weapon for the Crimson Tide’s special teams unit.
Lester has 10 career INT's in his two full seasons as a starter.
Another fifth-year senior, Lester is one of the best free safeties in the country—yet he has always been a player that rarely gets his just due considering his prep teammates were former 5-star studs Julio Jones and D.J. Fluker.
In his first year as a full-time starter in 2010, the 6’2”, 210-pound Lester led the SEC and finished second in the country with eight interceptions—but his talents have largely flown under the radar thanks to lining up alongside All-American Mark Barron the last two seasons.
With Barron off to the NFL, the rest of the country may finally figure out what most Tide fans have already come to appreciate—that Lester is one the country’s most underrated defensive backs.