PHOENIX—The University of Alabama football team has numerous goals every year, which often translate into trophies and titles at the end of a season.
But one that often gets overlooked may best explain the Crimson Tide's success under head coach Nick Saban.
Alabama wants to be the toughest team in college football. Not just collectively—but on each unit and at every position.
“There are a lot of tough guys,” senior quarterback Jake Coker said. “I think if we didn’t have the amount of tough guys that we have, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
Coker himself won over a lot of his teammates with his toughness, dropping his shoulder and taking on linebackers and defensive backs at the end of some of his runs. No one questions that aspect of running back and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry’s game, as his pushing carries helped close out games down the stretch.
On the defensive line, A’Shawn Robinson is about as intimidating as can be, and he has a lot of company.
“That defensive line is a pretty nasty group, one of the meanest I’ve ever seen,” Coker said. “Sometimes we’re out there practicing, and we’re listening to them and it’s like ‘Man, that’s a little rough right there. We’re still on the same team.’ We wouldn’t be as good without that mentality.”
If the Crimson Tide took an informal poll to choose the toughest player on the toughest team, one player who would certainly get votes is senior right tackle Dominick Jackson.
Anyone who wants to understand what Saban’s "Process" is all about has only to look at Jackson, who may have advanced as a player more than anyone else on the roster over the past two seasons.
At 6’6,” 315 lbs., Jackson would stand out anywhere, but he does even more in Tuscaloosa because of his appearance. The self-described “city” guy likes big gold chains and sports a ton of ink.
“I love tattoos,” he said. “They’re therapeutic. I just like them. I promised my mom I wouldn’t tat my face or my neck for later on in life. I have a whole [arm] sleeve, my chest and my stomach, the inside of my arm, my leg, my hand and my back.”
His favorite is on the arm. It’s the Alabama script-A logo that begins to spell out his 1-year-old daughter’s name, Aiyana. When he shows it, it’s with pride.
Moreover, Jackson’s from California. He attended Homestead High School in Cupertino, which is just west of San Jose on the edge of the Santa Clara Valley. While he was a good player, his grades were not. So to keep playing, he had to go the junior college route, spending two years at the College of San Mateo.
The Bulldogs ran an option offense that helped him develop a reputation as a mauler in the running game. The flip side to that was Jackson hardly ever pass protected, which is the toughest thing to develop at this level.
“It was a wing-T offense, and I came here and played big-time, NFL, spread, power, big-boy football,” Jackson said. “I’m just thankful to be here.”
So yeah, he stood out. The other Tide players from California, Isaac Luatua, Richard Mullaney, Cole Mazza and Blake Barnett, made it easier for him to fit in. The coaches went to work on his pass-blocking.
Just getting him back on track academically was also a big task. But Alabama’s academic center helped him make progress in the classroom.
“He was like taking a large-mouth bass and throwing in the middle of...a coral reef. This guy was all over the place,” offensive line coach Mario Cristobal said. “But the one thing that always stood out was his motor and a desire to get it done. As long as he had that, we’d find a way.”
Although an injury slowed his initial progress in 2014, it was steady and continual. Jackson played in eight games as a reserve and the jumbo-blocking back in goal-line situations last season, and then won the starting job over the offseason. Every week he got better, and with each game, the line became a little tighter.
Jackson ended up getting beat for a sack only twice this season, while being credited with 43 knockdown blocks that ranked third on the team. Alabama won the inaugural Joe Moore Award for having the best offensive line, and of course, the Heisman went to Henry.
When the coaches handed out team honors after winning the Southeastern Conference title, Jackson was one of four to receive an Up-Front Award (for the outstanding lineman from each unit), along with defensive end Jonathan Allen, center Ryan Kelly and guard Ross Pierschbacher.
He was also named second-team All-SEC by the conference coaches.
“He’s a tremendous competitor with tremendous ability,” Cristobal said. “I really think his best football is still in front of him. He’s now really learning how to play the game. He’s a tough, physical son-of-a-gun who’s really earned the respect of his teammates.
“Alabama isn’t for everybody. Alabama is for people who want to be great, who want to be challenged, pushed, motivated every single day.”
So should Alabama defeat Clemson for the national championship on Monday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), it’ll be because of guys like Jackson, who might be the most overlooked player on the Crimson Tide offense.
It’ll be because of a line that has starters who are as different as can be and hail from California, Ohio, Iowa, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama, yet play together as one.
It’ll be because it again had the toughest team in college football, which has been the key to Saban’s dynasty with the Crimson Tide and might cause Jackson to get another tattoo to match the one celebrating the 2014 SEC championship—although he isn’t ready to say so yet.
“I don’t want to jinx it,” he said with a smile.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.