Alabama Football 2007 Signing Class: 2011 Fifth-Year Seniors

Jonathan Fravel@jfravel135Senior Analyst INovember 18, 2011

Alabama Football 2007 Signing Class: 2011 Fifth-Year Seniors

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    Twenty-five commitments. None of them five-star football athletes. But 10 were four-star, 11 listed as three stars and three more athletes were signed by then first-year head coach, Nick Saban, having only been designated as two-star athletes.

    One three-star, in-state athlete was a verbal commitment, but he never signed. He won't be mentioned here. One highly-recruited quarterback from Plant High School in Tampa, Florida cut off his recruitment by Alabama when he learned Mike Shula was fired. Robert Marve later signed with the University of Miami. He will graduate this year from Purdue University. His college career has been a wreck.

    Many of these young men, like Robert Marve, were initially recruited by Mike Shula. The majority of the 2007 commitments stayed with their choice of Alabama. After all, they wanted to play for the Crimson Tide, no matter who was coaching.

    Most had heard of the former LSU head coach; some knew of his accomplishments and remembered that he had bolted to the NFL when given the opportunity to become a head coach in the pros.

    There were no promises that Nick Saban would be at Alabama for their entire enrollment period. In fact, article after article was written about how much of a journeyman Saban was and how little he cared for the institutions he had worked for in the past.

    Time and time again, ESPN replayed the snip of video where Nick Saban denied any interest in becoming head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide. In fact, he insisted that he would not be the next head coach at the University of Alabama.

    Of course, nothing printed by the media or blasted on the airways could have been further from the truth. But when has the mainstream media ever been concerned with the truth over sensationalism?

    That was the beginning. Let's take a look at the accomplishments of the 2007 signing class and how they will finish at the end of this season.

Three and out

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    Two superstars developed from this signing class. Both were defensive starters as freshman. Rolando McClain and Kareem Jackson lived up to their billing and became All-American selections, enrolling for the NFL draft as juniors. Both had completed their degrees at the time of departure.

    Kareem Jackson started 12 of 13 games as a freshman, had three interceptions and four pass breakups. He also recorded 68 tackles and was named Freshman All-American. He made progress every year under head coach Nick Saban, logging one interception and 13 pass breakups as a junior. He was a first-round selection by the Houston Texans. 

    Rolando McClain started eight of 13 games during his freshman year at middle linebacker. Nick Saban had never started a freshman at that position, as his defense was thought to be too complex for such a young mind to grasp. Little did Saban know that the freshman had a photographic memory and athletic ability way beyond what recruiting junkies had projected.

    As a high school senior, Rolando McClain promised that he would be an All-American linebacker at Alabama. After year one, logging 75 tackles, he was named freshman All-SEC. As a sophomore, he was named first team All-SEC and third team AP All-American.

    In his final season for the Crimson Tide, McClain finished with 105 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss. His contribution helped secure Alabama's 13th national title. Rolando was named first team All-American by Walter Camp, Associated Press and AFCA. His selection for these honors were unanimous.

    Topping off the 2009 performance, Rolando McClain was selected as winner of both the Lambert Award (Touchdown Club of Columbus, Ohio) and the Dick Butkus Award (Butkus Foundation). Both are honors bestowed for selection as the nation's best collegiate linebacker by the respective organizations.

    In addition to Jackson and McClain, 2007 signees Luther Davis and Chavis Williams are currently playing in the NFL.

A Trio of Specialists at Wide Receiver

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    Marquis Maze exploded onto the public scene of Alabama football in the 2008 season opener against Clemson University. As a redshirt freshman, he was one of three rookies to play in the game, along with true freshman Julio Jones and Dont'a Hightower.

    His freshman statistics included 11 catches for 137 yards, averaging 12.5 yards per catch. He played in all 14 games during the 2008 season, including the SEC championship game and the Sugar Bowl.

    As a senior, Marquis Maze is a key component to the Alabama offense and has established himself as a return specialist on punts and kickoffs. He has played in 49 games and has 30 career starts. In 2011, Maze ranks second in punt returns in the SEC and 11th nationally. He ranks 46th nationally and fourth in the SEC in all-purpose yards, averaging 132 yards per game. 

    Wide receiver Julio Jones is probably the most well-known receiver in the history of the storied Alabama Football program, bar none. Until this year, all of the accomplishments made by Marquis Maze were performed under the broad shadow cast by the superstar, Jones."

    Concerning his signing class, Marquis Maze said this: “I take a lot of pride in my signing class. We had so much talent in our class, and people don’t really talk about our class all that much. But if you look at a lot of players out of our class, they are stars and play key roles in big games. It’s just something we took pride in; that we wasn’t talked about like the 2008 class and the rest of the classes that followed us. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing that we have accomplished a lot.”

    While Jones' contribution was dominant, Marquis Maze, Brandon Gibson and Darius Hanks have been impact players for the Crimson Tide.

    Senior Brandon Gibson is a leader on and off the field. As a redshirt freshman in 2008, he played in three games but recorded no meaningful statistics. In 2009, Gibson played in four games. He finished the year with two catches for 25 yards. His work ethic and contributions to scout-team preparations have been immense throughout his career.

    In 2010, he appeared in every game, either at wide receiver or on special teams, recording four catches for 39 yards. He returned a blocked punt for a touchdown and was named special teams player of the week twice by the Alabama coaching staff.

    In 2011, Gibson has played in every game and has recorded eight catches for 78 yards. He scored his first career touchdown against Ole Miss on a 10-yard reception. Brandon Gibson will graduate with two degrees when he leaves the capstone at season's end. He has truly taken advantage of the educational opportunity offered to the scholarship athlete.

    Darius Hanks was a highly-recruited prospect out of Norcross, GA after being honored as an Atlanta Journal-Constitution Class 5A All-State selection during his senior year. He was targeted by the Saban staff as soon as they hit the recruiting trail with less than a month to work with before signing day. Alabama was an easy sell for Darius Hanks. He wanted to play for the Crimson Tide.

    As a redshirt freshman in 2008, Hanks emerged as one of the top wide receivers. He had eight receptions on the year for 88 yards. Six of those receptions were for first downs, two coming as third down conversions.

    In 2009, he played in all 14 games, seven times as a starter. He finished the year with 17 receptions, and 11 of those catches were for first downs. In 2010, Hanks had 32 receptions for 456 yards and three touchdowns. Twenty of his 32 receptions were for first downs.

    As a senior, Hanks was hampered by a suspension for the first two games that related to his redshirt freshman year. Since then, he has played in every game. Prior to the LSU game, Hanks had 18 receptions for 230 yards and one touchdown. Against LSU, Hanks had two key receptions for 38 yards; both catches resulted in a first down.

    Hanks' catches are always spectacular! If the ball is thrown his way, he will do whatever is humanly possible to make the reception. The kid has great hands and is fearless over the middle of the field. Against Mississippi State, Hanks had one reception and injured his ankle on the catch. Hopefully he will recover and be ready to play in his last two regular-season opportunities.

Defensive Linemen: Beasts in the Middle

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    Standing 6'1" and weighting 300+ pounds, Josh Chapman came to the university after four years of being the big man on campus at famed Hoover High. He and others in his class, including Kerry Murphy, were already used to the limelight provided by MTV in the Two-A-Days series that aired in 2006 and 2007.

    Josh Chapman played in each of the first three games during his freshman year, but he was later sidelined by injury and received a medical redshirt for the season. In 2008, Saban went JUCO and brought in Terrence Cody to man the nose guard position. Despite Cody's imposition, Chapman still played in 13 games during the 2008 season, starting against Tennessee and Arkansas State, stepping in for the Mount, who suffered from a knee injury against Ole Miss. The 3-4 defense didn't miss a beat with Chapman at the point.

    In 2008, Chapman had 16 tackles, four TFL and two quarterback hurries. In 2009, high school teammate Kerry Murphy (6'4", 323 lbs) finally enrolled at the Capstone after two years at Hargrave Military Academy and was added to the mix at the nose tackle position. With one additional classmate, Nick Gentry, competing for time at the focal point of the defensive front, Chapman held his own and garnered playing time in 13 games of the 2009 season.

    In that championship season, Chapman had 17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and .5 sacks. In the season opener, coming off the bench in support of starter Terrence Cody, Chapman had three tackles and recorded the half-sack against the Hokie quarterback.

    And then in 2010, Chapman became the focal point of the defense, starting 12 games and playing in all 13 contests for the year. He finished the season with 31 tackles (18 solo, 3.5 TFL) and one sack. The defense finished the season ranked 10th nationally. He has continued to anchor the defense in 2011, posting 13 tackles in the first eight games.

    In game nine, against the LSU Tigers, Chapman had four tackles. Josh Chapman, barring catastrophic injury, will definitely be playing on Sundays.

    Nick Gentry matriculated to the Capstone from Prattville High, entering the 2007 class as a three-star recruit. He had 54 tackles and 16 sacks during his senior campaign. He earned All-State, All-Metro and All-County honors as a senior and was named Defensive Player of the Year for Autauga County in 2006. Like others who are current seniors at Alabama, he took a reshirt in 2007 and worked on improving his body and defensive skills in preparation for the life of a collegiate defensive lineman.

    He dropped about 25 lbs of excess fat and then added solid muscle in his chest, arms and legs. He entered Alabama at 265 lbs, and then swelled to his current weight of 285 lbs. The man is thick, agile and quick for a nose tackle. He is effective against the run, but he has been used as a specialty player during passing downs in order to pressure the quarterback with his speed off the snap.

    Along with Murphy and Chapman, Gentry had to support the efforts of Terrence Cody before he would ever be considered for a starting position. Each of these four men bonded as a unit and agreed to push each other to the limit. Interestingly, they each were assigned a role by the master teacher, Nick Saban.

    When Saban recruits an athlete and offers a scholarship, he doesn't expect to see that young man on the sidelines week after week. Saban has enjoyed the utility of this group and used each of them as he has seen their individual skills develop over the years.

    In 2008, Gentry saw action during special teams situations. In 2009, his utility during passing downs got him into four games. He made seven tackles on the year. In 2010, he became more valuable as a role player on passing downs, seeing action in all 13 games and recording two quarterback hurries and one sack.

    Gentry has had a good year so far in 2011, splitting time with Chapman and Jesse Williams. Gentry has seen action in every contest this year, recording 13 tackles including 3.5 sacks for -25 yards.

    Alex Watkins signed with the Crimson Tide expecting to compete at defensive end as well. In 2007, Watkins took a redshirt and, like Gentry, worked hard with Scott Cochran to build his body and add weight so that he could play as a lineman in the SEC. Listed at 6'5" and 225 lbs, he must have been weighed with rocks in his pockets. He frame was lean. Now listed at 6'3", someone was stretching tape as well.

    Watkins did not play in 2008, after sitting out in 2007. His prospect as a defensive end was looking bleak standing beside 2008 signees such as Marcell Dareus and Damion Square as well as his own classmates, Luther Davis and others.

    Alex Watkins made the switch to linebacker. It was a good decision for him and the Tide, but it would be a slower transition than he had hoped for when he had decided to switch. In 2009, Watkins appeared in three games, at strong side linebacker and on special teams. He recorded only one tackle on the season, seeing action against North Texas, Kentucky and Ole Miss.

    In 2010, his hard work and perseverance paid dividends. Watkins was listed second on the depth chart behind classmate Chavis Williams at SAM linebacker. He played in 12 games and logged 16 tackles and 2.5 sacks, personally responsible for racking up 22 negative yards on the opposition.

    He was named special teams player of the week by the Alabama staff for his play against Ole Miss in Week 5 and recorded a personal-best three tackles including a sack in Week 6 against the Volunteers, in Neyland Stadium.

    In his first postseason action, against Michigan State, Watkins registered four tackles including a sack that took MSU's starting quarterback out of the game. It was a highlight reel, blindside hit, one that took Kirk Cousins days to recover from. Watkins, much like Courtney Upshaw, has become a pass-rush specialist.

    In 2011, Watkins played in the first eight games, recording 13 tackles. Due to a fractured wrist suffered in the UT game, he had to sit out game nine against the LSU Tigers. But he intends to be ready if there is a rematch. He was able to recover for limited action in Week 10 against the MSU Bulldogs. 

Transition Players: Conversion from Defensive to Offensive Line

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    Chris Underwood, William Vlachos and Alfred McCullough round out the list of linemen from this special group of young men who came to the University of Alabama to make a difference. They, too, have done their part to get Alabama headed back in the direction of a winning tradition.

    Each have contributed greatly to the development of the program into a top-tier college football institution once again. Their contribution has been on the offensive side of the ball. Two of these players were high school standouts on the defensive line, but they were coached into a transition by the Saban staff with excellent results.

    Alfred McCullough was initially recruited as a defensive end. At 6'2" and 297 lbs, McCullough was recruited by Saban, who was recruiting beef to stack his offensive and defensive lines. Seeing these young men on the practice field during Saban's first spring game next to the Shula recruits spoke volumes as to how quickly things were changing at Alabama. Things changed pretty quickly for McCullough, as well.

    The 2007 class was stacked with high school defensive linemen, but Saban was going to transform a few of these young men into offensive linemen, and McCullough was one of the first to make the transformation.

    As a senior backup lineman, Alfred McCullough is one of the most valuable players on the offensive line. Seems hard to believe, but consider this: he is available to play any position on the line if one of the starters needs to catch a breath or if someone exits the game due to injury. He and Barrett Jones are the strongest, most versatile and intelligent linemen on the squad.

    Maximum bench 300 lbs. Maximum squat 525. And that was as a senior in high school. His transition occurred during the 2008 season, taking a redshirt as a sophomore. He studied hard and learned how to protect rather than disrupt, and he was a fast learner.

    In 2009, McCullough played in six games, substituting as the left tackle in the SEC championship game against Florida. In 2010, he played in 12 games and logged four starts. In 2011, he has played in every game and has logged significant minutes at multiple positions. During his career he has accumulated two varsity letters and will be awarded his third at the end of this season.

    Against Mississippi State, when Barrett Jones had to sit due to injury, McCullough was right there to fill the void. And against a solid performance by the MSU defense, Trent Richardson was given a career number of carries and rushed for 127 yards behind McCullough, Vlachos and company.

    Chris Underwood was also initially recruited as a defensive lineman but converted to tight end after a freshman redshirt season. Alabama has been stacked at the tight end position, yet Underwood has acquired three varsity letters without a start. In 2008, he played in eight games behind Nick Walker and Travis McCall.

    The 2009 campaign featured Georgia Tech transfer Colin Peek at the tight end position. Underwood played in 10 games in a reserve role and contributed on special teams. Again, in 2010, Underwood played an important role as backup to Brad Smelley and Preston Dial and became a target for quarterback, Greg McElroy. Underwood recorded his first catch against Duke and finished the season with three catches for 36 yards and a touchdown. He played in all 13 games as a backup tight end.

    In 2011, Underwood's utility has been expanded to include kickoff and punt return teams. Against Tennessee, he returned his first punt for seven yards. He will acquire his fourth letter at season's end, yet may finish his career without a single start. That is what you call an effective utility player.

A Masterpiece Body of Work: William Vlachos

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    Much has been written about this young man since his days at Mountain Brook High School in Birmingham.

    William Vlachos was a superstar at Mountain Brook High School, coached by former Alabama standout receiver Joey Jones. In his senior year, Vlachos became an Alabama Class 6A All-State selection and named a Super All-State 2006 team member by The Birmingham News. He was selected as All-Metro by The Birmingham News.

    He was rated as the No. 9 center nationally by Rivals.com and ranked 19th nationally at the center position by Scout.com. He earned the No. 16 ranking in the state of Alabama by Rivals.com and was rated No. 15 by The Mobile (Ala.) Press-Register Elite 18 players in Alabama as a senior.

    Vlachos was a first-team All-Over-the-Mountain selection. He was named most valuable lineman at Mountain Brook High School. selected to play in the 2006 Alabama North-South All-Star game, playing every snap in the contest. If anyone in this class was going to start as a freshman lineman, this was the guy.

    When asked about his recruitment by Saban, Vlachos had this to say, “What was going through my mind was if he wanted me or not,” Vlachos said. “I was a Mike Shula guy. I was already committed, to grayshirt, actually. I committed here because this is where I always wanted to go. I was a fan of Alabama and went to a lot of games growing up in Birmingham.”

    Vlachos added, “He did come to my house, he was just telling me about the program. He was very busy recruiting a lot of guys, trying to get that class shored up in a short amount of time. I was one of his stops along the way.”

    When asked about Saban in a recent interview, Vlachos replied, “At the time, in 2007, I was thinking, well, Coach Saban he came from the NFL, with a chance to get me to where I want to go.”  And then he added, “I felt like he would make me a better man, a better person, on and off the field, which he did.

    Saban wasn't used to playing so many freshmen but certainly saw the need. In a press conference in 2010, Saban expressed regret in burning a redshirt for players such as Luther Davis in the 2007 season but had a need and couldn't avoid using the young men.

    Vlachos appeared in the season opener of the 2007 season against Western Carolina. Antoine Caldwell was solid at the center position, and he was backed by Evan Cardwell. Saban looked into the future, saw the potential for this Vlachos kid had and flagged him with a redshirt. It was one of the best decisions made on behalf of Vlachos and one of Saban's better decisions in the 2007 year.

    In 2008, Vlachos played on the line in a reserve role. He saw action in seven games while starting none.

    In 2009, Vlachos was one of three new starters on the offensive line for first-year quarterback Greg McElroy. With Vlachos anchoring the line at the center position, the offense averaged 403 yards per game. They allowed only 1.4 sacks per game and played the last 9.5 games (38 quarters) without a single enforced holding penalty against the offensive line.

    The storied season ended with a victory against the University of Texas, the first victory against the Longhorns in the history of Alabama football.

    In 2010, Vlachos was named to the Rimington Trophy watch list, ending the season as second-team All-SEC. With Vlachos starting all 13 games, Alabama finished the year averaging 444 yards per game of total offense, ranking 22nd nationally. For the past two years, behind this line, running backs have rushed for more that 100 yards on 16 different occasions and have scored 60 rushing touchdowns, 30 in 2010, 30 thus far in 2011.

    On and off the field, William Vlachos is a leader of men. He is held in highest regard by his head coach. When asked to discuss the contributions of this young man in a recent press conference, Nick Saban paused and reflected for more than six seconds before he spoke. He then said, "This is one of the finest young men I have ever coached in my career, as far back as I can remember." Saban added, "He is a good human being, an excellent leader and an extremely good football player."

Monumental Achievement

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    This unselfish group of student athletes raised the bar for every class that has followed. These young boys matured into men during their five years at the Capstone and have given every bit of energy to the program that they could muster on every given day.

    While the superstars of the 2007 deservedly were cast into the limelight, these men kept their nose to the grind and worked their way into the playing rotation, each becoming a valuable piece to the football team that is now the Alabama Crimson Tide. These men took this program from base camp and assisted in reaching the summit in just two years.

    In five years, they have been an integral part of every campaign and will leave with a record of better than 52-12, having negotiated two undefeated regular seasons and one BCS national championship. With these men on the field, Alabama has rested on the pinnacle of college football's No.1 ranking for the first time since the final poll in 1992.

    The efforts of these men in 2008, and the atmosphere they created for recruits that followed in their steps have been responsible for signing two No. 1-ranked classes and four top-five classes since they arrived on campus. With their help, Nick Saban and his staff gave Alabama their first BCS No.1 ranking and first BCS National Championship after defeating No. 1 Florida in the SEC championship game and No. 2 Texas in the final game of the season.

    And let's not forget, these young men were welcomed onto the campus by the fans in their first spring game. Better than 92,000 fans showed for their debut. Much was expected, and these men lived up to the expectations. In fact, they surpassed them so much quicker than anyone ever expected in their wildest dreams, including their head coach, Nick Saban.

    In 2010, they held onto the No. 1 ranking for five weeks into the season, eventually losing to No.19 South Carolina on the road. It was the first time Alabama was ranked No. 1 during the regular season in the BCS era and the first No. 1 ranking during the regular season since 1980. This group of men have much to be proud of as athletes and friends.

    As the superstar college athletes from each class that followed have come and gone from the Capstone, these fifth-year seniors have contributed to the amazing statistics those athletes amassed as they blazed through their college career on path to the NFL.

    They watched in fear and amazement as their new head coach sifted through the chaff of the Shula recruits. Saban set the bar high for the scholarship athlete, and these men gave everything that he demanded and more. These men have endured the good, the bad and the ugly. They are the ones who have provided stability over time. They are the foundation of the Saban era.

    The 2007 signing class has infused pride back into the Alabama football program, in such a way that it will endure for years beyond their departure. With the leadership of Nick Saban, they have done it with class and dignity. These men have much to be proud of, and this program will be in debt to these fine men for as long as they live.

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