It was the morning after the CFP National Championship when, on very little sleep, Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban had to attend a press conference to accept the trophies for winning the national championship game and answer questions about what’s next for the program and his players.
That’s when he made the comment about linebacker Reggie Ragland and the NFL draft that has already proved to be literally right on the money.
"Reggie Ragland last year had a second-round grade,” the head coach said. “I'm sure he'll be a top-15 pick this year. If you want to do the math on that, that's like a $12-to-14 million dollar decision."
It’s obviously been a great year for Ragland, who ignored the naysayers who claimed he should leave the Crimson Tide early and accomplished everything he hoped and more in 2015.
He led Alabama to its fourth national championship in seven years as it became the first program to repeat in the SEC since 1997-98. The league’s defensive player of the year even won the “Alabama Media Good Guy Award” from the Crimson Tide’s beat writers.
“I get to keep this, right?” Ragland said after seeing the plaque.
This week, it only took him a day to establish himself as the best linebacker at the Senior Bowl, even though he’s playing out of position at outside linebacker after lining up on the interior for most of his Crimson Tide career.
Actually, make that two days, as Ragland was so anxious to get to work and show his versatility that he showed up in Mobile on Sunday when a lot of players didn’t arrive until Monday. Those are the kinds of things that are getting noticed and helping his draft stock rise.
Reggie Ragland is abusing people out here— Andrew Spivey (@AndrewSpiveyGC) January 27, 2016
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock gave him a glowing review, according to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com:
I'm a Reggie Ragland fan. He's going to step in on Day 1 and run somebody's defense. He's a top-20 pick all day long. He's 260 pounds, so the question is, can he play on third down, can he play the passing game? I think he can. Just because of his leadership skills, his toughness, I think he's going to be a three-down linebacker and a top-20 pick.
About the only thing Ragland didn’t do this past season was win one of the major national awards, although with the benefit of hindsight, one has to wonder what some of those organizations were thinking.
Have you heard anything about Tyler Matakevich this week? He’s at the Senior Bowl too, practicing for the North team, and SI.com's Chris Burke doesn't even have him listed as the best player at his position.
Matakevich is the kind of player fans of blue-collar football can’t help but like. The most decorated athlete in Temple Owls history, he’s the school's all-time leading tackler with 493 and plays with a passion coaches wish everyone had.
He and his team were a great story in 2015. Temple went 10-4, matching the program record for wins. It beat the Penn State Nittany Lions for the first time since 1941, played the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tough and knocked off the No. 21 Memphis Tigers.
He won both the Chuck Bednarik Award and the Bronko Nagurski Award for defensive player of the year but didn’t land the Dick Butkus Award for the top linebacker, which instead went to Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith.
But then you take a second look.
Matakevich helped lead his team to the top of the AAC East, a six-team division with no ranked teams, all of which ended the season with a loss. Temple lost to a good Houston Cougars team in the American Athletic Championship Game, 24-13, and then fell to the Toledo Rockets in the Boca Raton Bowl, 32-17.
Incidentally, it was the first career win for new Toledo head coach Jason Candle, who was promoted from offensive coordinator after Matt Campbell left for the Iowa State Cyclones. Former Alabama quarterback Phillip Ely closed his college career by completing 20 of 28 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns for the Rockets.
If you watched those games, the weaknesses part of Matakevich’s draft evaluation on NFL.com will not be surprising:
Play strength is very average. Can be engulfed by linemen on the second level and might not have the frame to carry more functional mass. Struggles to hold his spot in the grass against a good lead block. Gets in a hurry to flow downhill and runs himself into bad angles on the ball when the play spills outside. Needs to do a more consistent job of breaking down in space before attempting to tackle. Shifty runners turn him into an arm tackler. Had 32 missed tackles over the last three seasons. Gets caught up in trash near the line of scrimmage and can’t get free quickly. Play speed is average.
Who was the best defensive player in college football in 2015?
Smith was considered a much better pro prospect, even after blowing out his knee in the Fiesta Bowl. He had been drawing comparisons to linebacker Derrick Johnson of the Kansas City Chiefs and, along with Matakevich, was a popular All-American selection.
But only Ragland, the leader and captain of what many called the best defense in college football, was a unanimous All-American choice at linebacker.
Nevertheless, the Chuck Bednarik Award, which is voted on by the Maxwell Football Club out of Philadelphia, chose the hometown candidate—and perhaps didn't want a sweep of its major awards after Alabama running back Derrick Henry won its namesake honor—and the Butkus went to the player who had previously won its high school award, as Smith joined former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o as the only players to do so.
Yet Ragland still got what he desired most out of his senior season, both on and off the field.
“[I wanted to] be a student of the game even more,” Ragland explained during his Senior Bowl press conference. “Doing all the things as a kid growing up, you think about going to the college football awards, being a finalist for the Butkus, Bednarik and Nagurski, but if it weren’t for my teammates pushing me and my coaches pushing me to be that leader on the field, I wouldn’t be where I’m at now. They knew I was frustrated from not playing and knew once I got my opportunity, I was going to run with it.”
In a couple of months, he’ll be running and laughing all the way to the bank.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.