Saturday morning in Tuscaloosa will feature more than just the game against Tennessee-Chattanooga, for Saturday will also bring Senior Day, and for the senior class this will be their final game in Bryant-Denny Stadium. After spending years and years performing at 100 Bryant Drive, this will be the final time that this senior class will strap it up in front of the home crowd.
Given such an occasion, I think it's only fitting that we should pause for a moment and take a bit of reflection on this class and just how they got here. Things haven't always been easy for this group, and far from it in fact it has almost always been difficult. Most of them weren't very highly-touted recruits, and most of them signed with Alabama when our program was struggling. Adversity has really been a constant for them almost throughout their entire time at the Capstone, and what these men overcame to reach this level should not be forgotten.
Eryk Anders was a one-star recruit coming out of San Antonio that played nose guard in high school at a mere 195 pounds. He didn't get a single offer before Alabama swept in late, and was actually planning on being a walk-on at Ole Miss before Alabama came along in late June of 2005. Coach Saban himself didn't think he'd ever be a contributor when he arrived, and Anders actually told his father he was going to transfer in his hotel room the night of the 2007 Independence Bowl. His father encouraged him to stick with his commitment and get his degree, and he died later that night in his sleep with a heart attack. And Anders not only stuck around, but he came out of nowhere to thrive.
Cory Reamer was a two-star safety out of Hoover who drew little interest from most BCS conference schools. He actually grew up an Auburn fan, but the Tigers signed two more highly-touted safety prospects in the previous class -- Tony Bell and Lorenzo Ferguson, both of which eventually became busts -- and never really gave Reamer much of a look. He signed with Alabama, and then proceeded to blow out his left knee as a true freshman, and when Saban arrived he looked to be the epitome of a player that would get caught in the crunch of systems turnover. Yet Reamer turned into a starter at outside linebacker on an elite defense.
Mike Johnson was a two-star offensive lineman out of Pensacola. He participated on the camp circuits, but no one really ended up biting. Alabama offered and he was Tuscaloosa bound, which was just about the only major school recruiting him. He came out of nowhere in 2007, and will finish his career as a three-year starter and an All-SEC player. A lucrative career in the NFL awaits him when his tour of duty in Tuscaloosa comes to an end.
Javier Arenas was a late signee in the 2006 class. His only other offers were from Florida Atlantic and Florida International, and not only was he not a big deal on the national scene, he really wasn't even a big deal in his hometown of Tampa. Then UA special teams coach Dave Ungerer argued vehemently on his behalf for a scholarship as a returner, and after we missed on some other guys like in that class -- Peanut Whitehead, Tim Hawthorne, and others, most of which turned out to be busts -- we signed Arenas. We signed him thinking he'd be a returner, but since he has became arguably the greatest returner in Alabama history, and an All-SEC defensive back who will play on Sunday.
Drew Davis was a two-star recruit in the 2004 class. He played at a tiny private school, and drew really no interest whatsoever on the recruiting trails. Alabama, in fact, only gave him a greyshirt offer, despite a complete lack of depth along the offensive line, and more than a few 'Bama fans questioned his viability as a legitimate SEC caliber player. And in the first four years of his career, he was an afterthought. But in 2008 he burst onto the scene as a starter, and in 2009 he has been an All-SEC caliber player who has kept at least two five-star prospects sitting on the bench. So much for his viability as an SEC player, eh?
Others went through much of the same. Tyrone King was a walk-on transfer from Grambling... we never recruited him, but he decided to chase a dream anyway. Roy Upchurch has fought through no less than three major surgeries including two season-ending ankle injuries that threatened to end his career before it ever began. Mike McCoy turned down both of his home state schools to play at Alabama, had a redshirt year wasted by the previous coaching staff, and then watched arguably the biggest recruit we've ever had take away his role. Lorenzo Washington spurned his in-state Georgia Bulldogs for 'Bama, then endured a tour of duty at Hargrave, a redshirt year in Tuscaloosa, a major injury, played out of position at nose guard, and found himself relegated to the bench when Terrence Cody arrived. And speaking of Cody, he had to overcome poor academics and poor physical care of himself to be a star, but he conquered both obstacles. Marquis Johnson became the pin cushion for the entire fan base after he was forced into a situation that he never should have been in against Florida State in 2007, but he persevered and turned himself into a fine football player. Justin Woodall was put through pure hell when the hometown homers in Oxford realized he wasn't going to sign with the Rebels. Leigh Tiffin has endured more criticism than any kicker ever should. Ali Sharrief lost his role in the coaching turnover, but he remained a valuable contributor nevertheless. Colin Peek spurned 'Bama the first time around, but nevertheless still ended up in Tuscaloosa. Brandon Deaderick passed up on in-state Kentucky out of high school and turned into a starter at 'Bama. And then he got shot. Twice. And he kicked ass in the Georgia Dome four days later.
Obviously a lot of things have changed in Tuscaloosa the past several years. Most of these players actually signed with Mike Shula. When Lorenzo Washington and Drew Davis signed with the Tide, Alabama was coming off a 4-9 season, ineligible to participate in bowl games, and playing in a stadium that held all of 83,000 people. It had been a mere eight months since Mike Price was fired for his actions with Arety's Angels. Nick Saban, fresh off of a national championship, had signed what most LSU fans hoped would effectively be a lifetime contract to stay in Baton Rouge. Most 'Bama fans at the time were just hoping we could show enough improvement in 2004 to get somewhere like Shreveport or Nashville.
Now, though, Alabama finds itself at the opposite end of the spectrum. Nick Saban now resides in Tuscaloosa, and we look to play for a spot in the national championship game for the second year in a row. At the very least, we'll end up with back-to-back BCS game appearances, and we may very well find ourselves back in Pasadena for the first time an SEC team has made the trek since Frank Thomas' War Babies wrapped up an undefeated season by crushing USC in 1945. Recruiting is better than it has been since the glory days of the Bryant years, and shows no real signs of slowing down any time soon. We've got more top-end talent and quality depth in Tuscaloosa right now than we've had since the late 1970's. And Bryant-Denny Stadium? It will hold over 100,000 people this time next year.
Again, the times have changed in Tuscaloosa, and we should all acknowledge the role that all of these young men played in delivering us out of the dark ages. Our newfound recruiting juggernaut has helped tremendously, of course, but realistically recruiting has a very long lag time before it translates into on-field success -- rest assured, even for an elite recruiting class, players like Julio Jones and Dont'a Hightower are very much rarities -- and if you are going to have success in the interim, you are going to need some otherwise unknowns to turn into high-end players in their own right, and that is exactly what many of these young men have done. It has never been easy for them, but they have persevered in the face of adversity and played an immeasurable role in rebuilding our program.
Moving forward, I have no clue where we will go from here. We will thump Tennessee-Chattanooga and these men will walk out of Bryant-Denny for the final time as winners, that much I know, but after that I really haven't the slightest clue. We'll probably beat Auburn, but who knows? Maybe we fall at the hands of Florida in Atlanta again, maybe we pull off the upset. Maybe we beat Texas in Pasadena, maybe we lose to TCU in the Sugar Bowl. Who knows? Only time will tell for certain.
Regardless of how the season ultimately plays out, though, nothing should take away from what this group has done. They have literally played an instrumental role in rebuilding the Alabama football program back as a national powerhouse, and all those who bleed crimson and white ought to be forever indebted to them for that. If we have had a better senior class than this one in my lifetime, I'm not aware of it. And, moving forward, we can only hope that the senior classes to come can legitimately match what this group has done.