To better understand how Alabama made it to college football's mountaintop, we need to travel back in time to a 2007 high school track meet.
That was the first time former Alabama recruiting coordinator Curt Cignetti saw his boss, Nick Saban, the reigning 'King of the Recruiting Trail', at work.
“It was back at a time when head coaches could be out on the road,'' Cignetti told Bleacher Report recently. "We had already put a full day in. But we go to this track meet and watch this player run track at 7:30 on a Friday night. I said to myself, ‘Wow, how many coaches are doing this at 7:30 on a Friday night in spring?''
The progress he and the rest of Saban’s coaching staff made on the recruiting trail in 2007 would form the foundation of a college football dynasty.
Saban’s first full recruiting cycle in 2008 resulted in a class that included Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, Mark Barron, Barrett Jones, Marcell Dareus and a host of others who would form the core of the Tide’s national championship teams in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
He’s since reinforced his roster with five more Top 5 classes—including three consecutive '‘Recruiting National Championships,’' according to 247 Sports.
To put it in perspective, Alabama’s average recruiting class rank during the Mike Shula era (2003-06) was 25th. Under Saban, it’s second.
The Tide’s success begins with Saban and his staff’s ability to identify prospects who will make the most of their talent. It is all part of his famously secretive "process" that begins with the development of a player-type model—which establishes the ideal physical traits for particular positions, all the way down to desirable height/weight ranges.
Without a doubt, physical elements are an integral part in Saban’s player evaluation process.
“He (Saban) would take an athlete with size before a natural 5’8” corner,” said Kevin Jackson, a former Tide All-American safety and defensive coordinator at Dothan (Ala.) High School. “If a kid fits their profile, Saban is confident he can teach that bigger athlete to do the things they want him to do in their defense.’'
LaBrian Stewart, the head coach at Northview High School—also in Dothan—said Saban has the evaluation process down pat. "If everyone knew how he was doing it, they would try the same thing. That’s why you won’t ever see his evaluation sheet."
This manuscript is a form that lists selected attributes Saban and his staff use to evaluate athletes at each position. Exactly what is on that form remains cloaked in secrecy. But through conversations with key figures close to the program and extensive empirical research, B/R has uncovered insights into the measurables that make up Saban’s ideal prospect at each position.
''Coach Saban basically has an NFL team playing college football.'' — Coach LaBrian Stewart
Saban constructs his Alabama teams as if they were the NFL’s 33rd franchise. Nowhere is that more evident than in the sheer size and physicality of the players he’s recruited since arriving at The Capstone.
“Saban recruits the type of guys that have NFL-type bodies, or frames that NFL clubs typically want.'' Stewart said.
Alabama is ahead of the curve in that regard, which is illustrated in the table below that compares the average height and weight of Saban’s Alabama signees to the top 50 players at each position from the class of 2014.
|POSITION||AVG. SIZE of ALABAMA RECRUITS||AVG. SIZE of 247SPORTS' TOP 50 2014 RECRUITS|
|Cornerback||6'0"/185 lbs||5'11"/178.2 lbs|
|Safety||6'1"/196 lbs||6'.75"/187.6 lbs|
|Outside Linebacker||6'3"/229 lbs||6'2.25"/215 lbs|
|Inside Linebacker||6'3"/233 lbs||6'1.5"/221.9 lbs|
|Defensive End||6'4"/259 lbs||6'3.75"/241.1 lbs|
|Defensive Tackle||6'3"/296 lbs||6'2.5"/290.1 lbs|
|Offensive Tackle||6'5"/305 lbs||6'5.75"/287 lbs|
|Interior Offensive Linemen||6'3"/296 lbs||6'3.5"/289.5 lbs|
|Tight End||6'5"/236 lbs||6'4.5"/224.5 lbs|
|Wide Receiver||6'1"/185.5 lbs||6'1.75"/186.8 lbs|
|Quarterback||6'3"/198 lbs||6'3"/202.4 lbs|
|All-Purpose Back||6'0"/195 lbs||5'9.5"/176.7 lbs|
|Power Running Back||5'11"/214 lbs||5'11.25"/200.7 lbs|
At positions such as running back, offensive tackle, defensive end and outside and inside linebacker, Alabama recruits are least 10 pounds heavier than the average of the top 50 recruits, and that is before Saban’s mad-dog strength coach Scott Cochran gets his hands on them.
“They are looking for guys who pass the eye test,” said John Harris, who mentored 2014’s top defensive end prospect and Alabama target Da’Shawn Hand as an assistant coach at Woodbridge High School in Stone Bridge, Va. For the record, Hand definitely passes the eye test.
Size and speed are at the top of Saban’s wish list. Playing in the rugged SEC makes these attributes coveted as a package instead of individually. However, one characteristic undoubtedly takes precedent on the Tide’s recruiting board.
‘“With everything else being equal, size would overrule,” Cignettii, currently the head coach of Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said. “The heavyweight knocks out the lightweight in that league every time.”
Saban also searches for the ability to quickly change direction and move in explosive bursts at every position.
“I’ve heard him (Saban) say it a thousand times…ankle, knee and hip flexibility is extremely important because football is a stop-and-start game,” Cignetti said.
The physical element is undoubtedly paramount in Saban’s hierarchy of player evaluation factors, but evidence of a metric not found on a profile page of 247Sports or any other recruiting site—mental toughness—is almost equally important.
Winning character, fortitude to respond to instruction from an extraordinarily demanding coaching staff and the football smarts necessary to understand the Tide’s complex schemes weigh heavily on Saban’s mind during the recruiting process.
Talent always jumps out, but it must be combined with gritty determination to win championships.
Similar to most NFL rookie minicamps, the Alabama program is a hub for development of mental toughness. It’s an aspect that separates Saban and his program from the pack in college football, and a big part of the reason why the Tide have had 14 first-round draft picks since 2009.
Determining a player’s mindset and willingness to learn and improve on a daily basis gives Saban and his staff the best chance to help him reach his full potential on the college level.
In his evaluation of mental toughness, Saban excels in identifying something that most NFL coaches struggle to find in 21- and 22-year-old men during the draft process—except he is doing it with with 17- and 18-year-old kids.
“What’s crazy is that when I was first getting recruited, we never really talked about football,’’ former Tide linebacker Nico Johnson said. “He was so big on school, and telling me about my degree and making sure I was on top of that stuff. He feels like if you can be mentally strong, then you are able to do anything within his system.”
One of Saban’s key metrics for measuring mental toughness is how a player reacts after a bad play. Does he sulk enough to let it affect him on the next play or beyond? Or can he regain his focus and move on to the next play?
“Guys like Amari Cooper, myself or T.J. (Yeldon) that are able to come in and play early get on the field because we are able to do that,” Johnson said.
Specific Requirements for Specific Positions
To uncover just how Alabama has been able to land a roster stocked with future NFL talent, we researched every recruit the Tide have signed since Saban took over the program in January of 2007.
In our research, we compiled height, weight and scouting reports for every recruit and organized this information by position. The data clearly shows that Saban’s recruits are significantly bigger at every position when compared to the top 50 recruits at each position in the class of 2014.
Additionally, several people familiar with the Tide program and their goals in the recruiting process spoke with us and offered glimpses into what Saban and his staff looks for when recruiting for each position.
While Saban clearly excels at recruiting every position, he sets himself apart in recruiting outside linebackers, nose tackles, offensive tackles, defensive backs and running backs. These positions are likely emphasized because they are of vital importance to the Tide’s particular offensive and defensive schemes.
It’s at these positions where Alabama’s roster most resembles that of an NFL franchise. The size element at those key spots is a particularly vital part of the Tide’s ability to overpower any club in the country and directly tied to the physical image Saban wants all his clubs to have.
Saban’s impressive record on the field as well has his penchant for turning out first-round draft picks undoubtedly gives the Tide an advantage on the recruiting trail and almost always earns them first choice among the nation’s top recruits. However, the reason his process of player evaluation is so impressive is that it consistently identifies diamonds in the rough at key positions.
Let’s kick things off with Saban’s specialty position.
In the Tide’s defense, corners are usually rangy athletes who excel in man coverage yet remain physical in run support. Whether locking down one side of the field on the edges or blitzing and covering slot receivers or tight ends, playing corner in Saban’s defense requires a mix of athleticism, size, versatility and high football IQ.
Size is the unquestioned deal-breaker here. Jackson’s experience coaching 2013 Auburn CB signee Kamryn Melton at Dothan High is a testament to that. Melton was a touted prospect, garnering five SEC offers, but Alabama was always lukewarm in its interest, mainly because of Melton’s 5’11”, 174-pound frame.
“Kam(ryn) was a great football player for us," Jackson said. "He can cover and do all of the things that playing corner in the SEC requires. He just didn’t fit the size of what they (Alabama) wanted.”
As the graph shows, Alabama’s corners average coming into college at 6’0”, 185 pounds—which is an inch taller and seven pounds heavier than the average of the top prep corners in the class of 2014.
Saban’s philosophy of having bigger corners aligns with the movement toward adding size at that position in the NFL.
“If receivers are now coming at a 6’4” or 6’5”, you know that you need defensive backs that are 6’1” or 6’2” to combat that size,” Stewart said.
Other than size, Saban has specific characteristics he covets in his corners.
“He’s grading size, hips and how they break on the ball,” Jackson said. “How well a corner comes out of his backpedal and how he can hold up covering in man-to-man.”
Dee Milliner—the most recent Tide corner to become a first-round NFL draft pick—is a prime example of the big corners Saban targets and a great example of a player Saban and Cochran developed physically. Milliner arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2010 as a rangy 6’2", 180-pound speedster with a frame to support NFL size. He left a 200-pound, NFL-ready monster.
Saban’s player type model gives him a distinct advantage when it comes to recruiting less-heralded talent at positions like cornerback. Rising senior and former 3-star prospect Deion Belue (6’0" 170 pounds when he entered Alabama) is a prime example of a Saban success story. Instead of taking a shorter, more highly ranked corner in the 2010 recruiting cycle, Saban opted for Belue’s size and molded him into a two-year starter.
Safety is another position that Saban has emphasized. He views these players as the quarterbacks of his defense. Both safety positions showcase players who are center fielders with deep responsibility in the passing game but are versatile enough to come down into the box and become solid tacklers in open space.
The 6’1”, 196-pound average for safeties recruited under Saban is roughly eight pounds heavier than that of 2014’s top players at that position, as shown on the graph below. The size and angular frame Alabama prefers at that spot give the Tide’s strength staff the ability to add on good weight.
“The safeties he likes are around 6’2” and about 195 pounds,” Jackson said. “Once he gets you there, he wants you around 205 or 210 by your sophomore season.”
Saban’s safeties typically are physical players with ball-hawking instincts. As a result, Alabama safeties have combined to record at least nine interceptions in four of the last five seasons.
“For defensive backs, he looks at their ability to play the ball in the air, ball judgment and things like that,” Cignetti said.
Notably, Saban took a small inside linebacker named Vinnie Sunseri and turned him into a big, bruising safety who can play multiple positions in the secondary and be effective as a more physical presence on the back end of the Tide’s defense.
Alabama’s 3-4 alignment is predicated on having a bevy of athletic linebackers in the middle level of Saban’s defense.
The two outside linebackers—the SAM (strong side) and JACK (pass rush) spots—are positions that require players to be physical at the point of attack against the run and terrors off the edge in pass-rushing situations. Players who are equally comfortable standing up and putting their hand in the dirt are rare but coveted commodities in Saban’s defense.
The Tide’s outside linebacker signees under Saban average 6’3”, 229 pounds—which is one inch taller and a whopping 14 pounds heavier than the average of the top 50 outside linebackers in the class of 2014.
“You have a lot of different responsibilities playing the JACK spot in the 3-4,” Harris said. “You have flex receivers or backs that you have to cover on certain plays. Sometimes you have to drop (into coverage). It takes a special type of player to be able to do that.”
Saban has taken versatile athletes such as Courtney Upshaw (6’2”, 220 pounds) and Adrian Hubbard (6’7”, 227 pounds) and helped them transform their bodies into OLB prototypes by adding significant mass without sacrificing athleticism.
Upshaw arrived in Tuscaloosa at 6’2”, 220 pounds. Under Cochran and Saban’s direction, he added 40 pounds of muscle. Upon graduation he measured in at 272 pounds. The scary part is he still runs a 4.65-second 40. In three years, Saban has transformed Hubbard from a lanky defensive end into a huge outside linebacker. He arrived at The Capstone at 6’7”, 227 pounds and now tips the scales with 25 pounds of added muscle while maintaining a 4.64-second 40.
Incoming 260-pound freshman OLB Jonathan Allen—one of the prized jewels of the top-rated 2013 recruiting class—is a pass-rushing specialist with a solid frame suitable for adding good weight, as noted by ESPN. He looks poised for success in Saban’s system.
The middle man in the Tide’s three-man defensive front is typically a wide body who eats up blockers and plugs the running gaps up the middle. Players such as Marcell Dareus, Terrence Cody and Jesse Williams have served as immovable forces in the middle of a unit that has led the country in rush defense in each the last two seasons.
The average defensive tackle signee at Alabama in the last six years has measured in at 6’3”, 296 pounds—which is a half an inch taller and six pounds heavier than the average of the top 50 interior defensive linemen in the 2014 class as seen on the graph above.
That said, a lot of the players Saban signs at DT eventually move to one of the end spots, as Alabama’s 3-4 features only one true tackle. Since 2008, the last three players to start at nose tackle for the Tide have averaged a whopping 6’3”, 328 pounds.
Although he was the lowest-ranked member of the Tide’s 2012 quartet of defensive line signees, 6’4”, 320-pound sophomore Darren Lake found the field as a freshman and is in line to get extended reps at nose guard this fall. His massive frame, athleticism and run-stopping ability is typical of what Saban and his staff look for in potential nose tackles.
One of the most visible differences between Alabama and the rest of the country is the Tide’s size and athleticism in the trenches—specifically on the offensive line.
The Tide typically favor taller and more athletic players at offensive tackle. Quickness and athleticism are particularly valued here, as Alabama’s tackles must slow down the SEC’s speedy, elite edge-rushers. However, this athleticism cannot come at the expense of mass—which is evident in the 6’5”, 305-pound average size of offensive tackles signed by Saban. That is 18 pounds heavier than the average of 2014’s top offensive tackles.
“Once you start getting under 6’3” for an offensive lineman, maybe you are pushing it a little bit,” Cignetti said.
“Everybody can find that 6’3” or 6’4” guy,” Stewart said. “Coach wants to find the guys that are 6’6” or 6’7” that can move. You don’t see a lot of big, sloppy guys at Alabama.”
At 6’7”, 325 pounds without an ounce of bad weight, former 5-star recruit and rising junior left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio fits the bill of Stewart’s description. Kouandjio is a freakishly athletic specimen who runs a five-second 40 and possesses a mean streak necessary for an SEC lineman.
Running back is a position that is somewhat declining in terms of importance around college football and the NFL. Not at Alabama. The Tide are enjoying a renaissance when it comes to producing elite pro-caliber rushers.
Saban has featured the position by using a rotation of two or three big and physical backs who can get the tough yards up the middle, make plays as a receiver and effectively pass block.
The average size of Saban’s power backs at Alabama is 5’11”, 214 pounds—which trumps the average of the top 50 rushers in the 2014 class by 13 pounds. Alabama has also signed a handful of all-purpose backs, but even the average size of these smaller backs (6’0”, 195 pounds) dwarfs the 2014 class average of all-purpose backs by three inches and 18 pounds.
“With running backs, they evaluate whether he runs under his pads and if he can consistently break tackles,” Cignetti said. “They have to have enough bulk to take the pounding in the SEC. That’s probably where the size comes into play at running back. Because there’s a lot of scat backs out there, 170- or 180-pound guys, but teams like (Alabama) are looking for those 205-plus-pound guys that still have the change of direction, speed and explosiveness to break tackles.”
What makes Alabama’s ground game so potent is that it usually has at least two elite backs on hand to wear down opposing defenses. Players such as Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and now T.J. Yeldon all served as talented understudies to the players in front of them before eventually ascending to the feature role.
Saban has brought in smaller backs such as former 4-star all-purpose back Dee Hart. But, Hart has struggled to stay healthy during his time in Tuscaloosa, perhaps due to his size. He has been used sparingly at running back and has even been tried out at corner.
At 6’3”, 240 pounds, incoming freshman back Derrick Henry is a rare physical specimen who possesses an uncommon burst and athleticism for a back his size. If he can overcome a leg injury suffered in spring ball, his measurables make him an ideal candidate to thrive in the Tide’s power running game.
If there’s one position where Saban is looking to redefine his evaluation process, it's on the defensive line. As ESPN’s Alex Scarborough notes, the architect of the Tide’s dynasty is looking to add “fast-twitch, pass-rushing athletic guys to the defensive line category.”
Alabama’s defensive ends typically are big and stout linemen who are trained to generate a push without the constant demand of getting after the quarterback. But due to the proliferation of spread offenses, Saban and his staff are looking to find the answer to stopping faster ball-handlers such as the impossibly elusive Johnny Manziel.
The Tide’s defensive end signees under Saban come in averaging 16 pounds heavier than this year’s crop of top pass-rushing ends, as shown in the graph below.
“They want kids who can fly off the ball at the snap, whether they play at either (defensive) end spot,” Harris said. “They want kids with long arms who can get upfield and be quick laterally as well. A school like Alabama doesn’t want you shorter than 6’3” on the edge. You want a kid that can go toe-to-toe with these SEC offensive tackles but also has the ability to put weight on.”
Rising junior defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan flashed the speed, agility and the ability to win the battle for leverage at the point of attack that Saban has coveted at the defensive end position up to this point, as Barry Every of Rivals.com notes.
“The process never stops. What makes him so good is the fact is that he gets everyone around him to match his level of focus and intensity.” — LaBrian Stewart
Go to school, get your education and play football. That’s Nick Saban’s manuscript for success. Hard work and mental toughness are the ingredients necessary to conquer the trials and tribulations along the way. Saban and his staff are well aware that physical prowess alone will not prepare you to play college football at Alabama. This is where the intangibles and that elusive "it factor" comes into play.
Identifying talent is undoubtedly the most important part of the recruiting process, but consistently targeting the most talented players doesn’t do any good if the staff can’t earn their commitment.
Every year Alabama gains an advantage on the recruiting trail by developing uncommonly strong relationships with prospects, their parents and their coaches early in the recruiting cycle.
This early effort helps Saban consistently draw the best talent to his summer camps and gives the Alabama coaches an invaluable chance to judge a recruit’s work ethic, intangibles and character in person.
“It’s a big plus if you can get a guy to come to camp and feel really good about him,” Cignetti said. “Usually, it’s going to be a good recruit for you, because you got to be hands on with him for a week.”
When it comes down to it, Saban’s focus on specific positions, tireless work ethic and dedication to recruiting make the difference more often than not. When a player signs with Alabama, Saban knows how to get said player to a level of intensity that matches that of the veteran players. And that is saying something.
“He has a way, it’s almost weird when I think about it, of molding you into the mindset he wants you to have,” Johnson said. “It’s that ‘will not be denied’ attitude. I’m not going to lie. It takes time to get there where he wants you to be.”
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Data in all graphs is current as of May 16, 2013. Follow Sanjay @skirp1 on Twitter.
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