Recruiting is nothing if not an inexact science. So-called can't-miss stars become busts and no-name recruits turn into quality football players at higher rates that many believe. And for all of the hand-wringing over who signed the best classes, in reality the only way to know for certain regarding the quality of a recruiting class is to let the careers of its members unfold and then analyze it all after the last player plays his last snap. With that in mind, with their collegiate careers all finished, let's take a final look at the 2004 recruiting class:
Justin Britt: One of the most highly-touted in-state prospects in the 2004 class, coming out of Cullman Britt was recruited by all of the SEC powers. To be sure, he was considered a bit of a tweener with no definite position on the collegiate level, but he was thought my nearly all to be a good, pure football player who you couldn't pass on. Ultimately, to the surprise of no one, Justin followed his brothers Wesley and Taylor and signed with the Tide. He played as a true freshman in 2004, and spent his first two seasons as a back-up on the interior defensive line. In 2006, he requested a move to the offensive line, where he started at left guard for the next two seasons. Unfortunately, he was always a bit small for a guard, was not fundamentally sound in pass protection sets, and struggled with a shoulder injury. As a whole, he eventually started a lot of games for the Tide at left guard, but was never a particularly good player.
Keith Brown: A native of Mississippi, Brown transferred to Pensacola to play his senior season, and created a bit of a name for himself. He had a great frame and great speed, but there were some academic concerns and in the end both Scout.com and Rivals had him as a middling three-star. Though Florida State made a late play for Brown, he ultimately picked Alabama mainly over Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Brown started as a true freshman, and always showed flashes of brilliance over his four-year career at Alabama. He was clearly one of the most physically impressive receivers the Tide has ever had, but he struggled with almost constant issues with regard to consistency and injuries. Furthermore, in his senior season, despite some more big plays, his playing time was significantly reduced because he spent most of the year in Coach Saban's doghouse. Perhaps more than anyone else in this class, Brown is thought of as what could have been.
Antoine Caldwell: Consider this one the recruiting "experts" missed. Coming out of Montgomery's Lee High School, Scout.com had Caldwell as a two-star prospect, and Rivals had him just a shade above the cut-off for a two-star prospect. Despite this, Alabama and Auburn fought a fierce in-state recruiting battle for Caldwell's services, and in early January he committed to the Tide. Coming in as a true freshman, Caldwell was on pace to win a starting job before having an injury setback, but he returned for the 2005 season and became a four-year starter. After finally finding a home at center -- Caldwell was forced to play every position on the line during his career thanks to a complete lack of quality depth -- Caldwell turned into a star player and became one of the best centers in the country. A two-time team captain, Caldwell was later drafted in the third round by the Houston Texas. The only mark on his fine career at Alabama was his involvement in the textbook scandal.
Marcus Carter: Rated a middling three-star prospect by both Scout.com and Rivals, Carter, like Caldwell, was the subject of an intense recruiting battle. He could have picked just about any SEC school he wanted, and ultimately it came down to Alabama v. Auburn for the Fort Payne product. He committed to Auburn that May, but Alabama kept recruiting him, and finally late in the process Carter flipped and signed with the Tide. Unfortunately, Carter never lived up to his billing. He played as a true freshman, but the biggest news he generated in his first couple of years on campus stemmed from an alcohol-related arrest. He ended up starting at strong safety his final two years, thanks almost wholly to a complete lack of quality talent at the position, but unfortunately Carter's play was always poor, and he was generally considered a defensive liability when on the field.
Simeon Castille: One of the most highly-regarded signees of the 2003 class -- by fans anyway -- Castille was the son of former Alabama All-American cornerback Jeremiah Castille. Many Alabama fans thought we had another shutdown corner on our hands when we signed Simeon, though in hindsight it's hard to say why. Both Scout.com and Rivals had him as a middling three-star prospect as a safety, and while he loved to talk about his interest in LSU, he was never a priority for them, and ultimately signed with the Tide over Virginia. He played as a true freshman, and was generally a quality nickel and dime corner, but his academic ineligibility for the 2006 Cotton Bowl was disappointing. Castille moved into more of a starting role in his final two years at the Capstone, but he never emerged as a true high-end player, and the lingering memory of his senior season is likely him getting burned by LSU's Demetrius Byrd that started the Tigers' comeback. Five months later, Castille largely showed why he never took the next step as a cornerback, when he ran 4.7+ in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. To the surprise of many (though I don't know why), Castille went undrafted following his senior season.
Trent Davidson: Coming out of Brewton, Davidson was another middling prospect, as both Scout.com and Rivals had him as a solid three-star tight end prospect. Despite that, he had a pretty decent offer list, because many schools looked at his 6'5 frame and long arms and saw a future offensive tackle prospect with a couple of years in the weight room. Davidson, however, was determined to play tight end, and we apparently offered him the possibility of doing just that. He started as a true freshman in 2004, but in all actuality was an extra offensive tackle. He did not catch a pass all season, and to my knowledge we never even threw one in his direction. The following year he was forced to redshirt after sustaining a foot injury, at which point he was moved to tackle. The year after that, in 2006, Davidson quit the football team with his departure largely being chalked up to an unwillingness to play on the offensive line.
Cody Davis: One of many talented prospects to come out of Tuscaloosa's Hillcrest High School in 2004, Davis was a prototypical tackle prospect with his long reach and 6'7 frame. The recruiting services never thought much of him -- Scout.com had him as a two-star, and Rivals had him as a middling three-star -- but he did have a very impressive offer list, and ultimately picked Alabama over Florida, Clemson, and South Carolina. He was considered a bit of a project who would need some time in the weight room, but the upside was clearly there. Unfortunately, Davis fought a chronic shoulder condition throughout his time at UA, which always limited his abilities, and he ultimately went on medical scholarship prior to the 2008 season.
Drew Davis: Rated a two-star prospect by both Rivals and Scout.com, no one really knew what to think of Drew Davis from the outset. He certainly had the frame to play tackle, no question there, but playing at tiny Sparta Academy in Evergreen, Alabama, no one really knew how to evaluate him properly because he was facing such a low level of competition. Mike Shula and company decided to take a chance on him, and he picked the Tide over MSU and Troy. After taking a greyshirt, he toiled in anonymity his first three years at the Capstone. However, in 2008, he came out of nowhere to lock down the right tackle job, and played at a higher level than any right tackle we've had since Evan Mathis moved to left guard following the 2003 season. That solid play continued in 2009 as Davis started all 14 games in the Tide's 2009 national championship run.
Curtis Dawson: Coming out of Hoover High School, the 6'1 and 260 pound Dawson was a one-man wrecking crew at middle linebacker. Both recruiting services had him as a three-star, but he was highly recruited by all of the conference's top programs, though academic concerns did hinder his recruiting a bit. He ultimately signed with the Tide, qualified academically, and we moved him to the defensive line, where he played some as a true freshman in 2004. Unfortunately, Dawson was plagued by off-field problems. He was kicked off the team the following summer for a violation of team rules, and when later allowed back on the team, he was yet again sent packing after a couple of weeks (presumably for another team rules violation). At that point, he tried to transfer to UAB, but the Blazers wouldn't take him, and he ended up in a community college in Tupelo. Finally he made his way to Troy, where he was arrested on suspicion of theft about four months after his arrival.
Jeffrey Dukes: A late signee in the 2004 class, Dukes came out of nowhere to sign with Alabama out of Northwest Mississippi Community College that July, and had three years of eligibility remaining. After redshirting, somewhat surprisingly, Dukes turned into a solid football player for the Tide, and after providing quality depth in 2005, he started every game of his senior season, where he was arguably the best player in the Tide's defensive backfield. Like Caldwell, it became known later that Dukes was one of the seven football players involved in the textbook scandal.
Brandon Fanney: A three-star prospect coming out of high school, Fanney caught the eyes of many fans with his impressive 6'5 frame and solid athleticism off the edge. And furthermore, despite being only a three-star, Fanney was recruited hard by Alabama, Virginia, and Virginia Tech. A lifelong Alabama fan, despite growing up in Tennessee, Fanney signed with the Tide in 2004, but failed to qualify academically. He spent a year at Hargrave, where his stock really took off (he was largely considered a four-star after his tour of duty there), and he re-signed with Alabama. Despite that, Fanney was largely unimpressive in his first three years at the Capstone, but by his fourth year he did take starting job at Jack linebacker as a redshirt junior in 2008, where he proved to be a capable defender against the run. Unfortunately, Fanney was not the answer for the Tide as an edge rusher at the hybrid end-linebacker position, and after being suspended for much of Spring practice in 2009, he left the program before the Tide embarked on a national championship run. He finished his career at North Alabama.
D.J. Hall: Coming out of Fort Walton Beach, the enigmatic Hall produced solid numbers on the prep level and drew interest from his fair share of SEC programs. He took official visits to both LSU and Florida late in the process, but ultimately signed with Alabama after the Gators backed off down the stretch in the aftermath of Ron Zook's demise. Hall wasted little time getting on the field in Tuscaloosa, becoming a meaningful contributor in as a true freshman in 2004 before becoming the team's best receiver in 2005 and 2006. Unfortunately, Hall was beset by off-field issues and was a constant resident in the doghouse of Nick Saban. His senior season was a major disappointment, and he ultimately went unselected in the NFL Draft. No one would argue that Hall did not have elite talent, but his case shows yet again that raw talent isn't everything.
Kevin Hamilton: An athletic defensive lineman coming out of Prattville, Hamilton was recruited by most of the SEC schools, but ultimately chose Alabama over Auburn in a fairly typical in-state recruiting battle. Hamilton impressed observers with his athleticism and his versatility to play inside and out, but unfortunately academics were always a major concern with him, and not surprisingly he did not qualify academically. I believe he initially enrolled in a junior college, but I have no clue whatever became of him. At the least, he never played a snap for the Crimson Tide.
Jeramie Holifield: After transferring to Hoover from Jess Lanier midway through his junior season, Holifield exploded onto the scene as an edge rusher. He followed it up with a strong senior season and a state championship, and always impressed SEC programs with his lanky frame and his athleticism, even if he was always more potential than on-field production. Most SEC programs recruited him pretty heavily -- including Nick Saban at LSU -- but Holifield ultimately couldn't leave the state and signed with the Tide, who he had admittedly followed as a fan his entire life. Unfortunately, as was the case with Hamilton, Holifield had academic concerns and despite his promises to qualify academically it never came to fruition. He ended up at Northwest Mississippi Community College, and to the best of my knowledge never played Division 1-A football.
Aaron Johns: The diminutive Johns was the first commitment of the 2004 recruiting class, and little did everyone know but ultimately he would be the only commitment of the Mike Price era. At around 5'9 and 190, Johns was do-it-all player on the prep level, but really received very little interest from BCS conference programs, choosing Alabama over the likes of Louisville and Southern Miss. He played tailback at Alabama as a true freshman in 2004, and actually was the leading rusher for the Tide in the 2004 Iron Bowl after seeing playing time thanks to a sickening run of injuries to Ray Hudson and Ken Darby. Johns, however, left the program the following spring, spent a couple of years playing JUCO football, and ultimately finished up his career at UAB.
Ezekial Knight: Undoubtedly one of the top signees of the 2004 class, Knight was a star player at Randolph County High School, leading his school to a state championship by beating a Mike Dubose-coached Luverne team with an electrifying touchdown run and an even more impressive punt return for a touchdown. A versatile player, Knight was recruited heavily by most SEC programs, and ultimately settled in at wide receiver for the Crimson Tide. Unfortunately, Knight's hands and route-running abilities never developed, and later he was moved over to defense. Finally, when Nick Saban came to town, Knight thrived as Sam linebacker in the 3-4 defense in 2007, but ultimately his Alabama career ended on a sour note with him having to be put on medical scholarship due to heart problems. Nevertheless, he played out his senior year at Stillman, after graduating from 'Bama, and is currently still trying to pursue a career in the NFL.
Travis McCall: Yet another Prattville product, and yet another in-state recruiting battle between Alabama and Auburn. Much like other players, unfortunately, McCall had academic issues, and did not qualify initially. After delaying his enrollment to 2005, however, the Prattville native finally made the necessary grades. McCall was a versatile product coming out of high school, who could have played either tight end or defensive end, and in Tuscaloosa he settled in at tight end. After slowing working his way up the ranks, McCall developed into a fine run blocker at Alabama and was a key part of the Tide's 2008 team.
Aaron McDaniel: A lightly-recruited prospect out of Fort Payne, McDaniel was considered a good athlete and a do-it-all player on the prep level, but ultimately he received almost no interest from Division 1-A programs. In came Mike Shula with an offer, which McDaniel quickly jumped on. Many felt that offering McDaniel was really just a thinly-veiled attempt to get his more highly-touted teammate Marcus Carter, but in any event McDaniel signed with Alabama, redshirted as a true freshman, and then didn't play a single snap as a redshirt freshman. In his sophomore campaign in 2006, he finally played a couple of snaps against ULM, but ultimately blew out his knee in practice following the Arkansas game. He ultimately went on medical scholarship after the arrival of Nick Saban in 2007, having played all of four snaps in his collegiate career.
Will Oakley: A track star out of Nease High School, Will Oakley was the favorite target of Tim Tebow, and was widely considered a very good athlete. Even so, though, he wasn't highly-recruited out of high school, and more than a few felt that when Oakley signed with Alabama that it was just a combination of his family's ties to the school and yet another thinly-veiled attempt on the part of Shula to get a more highly-touted teammate to follow him to Tuscaloosa. In any event, Oakley played wide receiver at Alabama, and with 18 catches in 2006 looked to be developing nicely. Unfortunately, hamstring injuries destroyed much of his career, and when he finally seemed to overcome those issues he broke his foot in summer pass skeletons prior to his senior season in 2008. He returned and caught a couple of balls down the stretch -- in particularly a nifty grab against Tennessee in Knoxville -- but in the end it was injuries that dominated his career.
Travis Robinson: A product of Hillcrest High School in Tuscaloosa, Robinson exploded onto the recruiting scene after running a sub-4.30 40-yard dash at a Nike combine. Mixed with solid high school production, that led him to being recruited pretty heavily by most SEC programs as a cornerback, and most 'Bama fans had high hopes at the time of his signing. Unfortunately, injuries too got Robinson. He was limited heavily by a hamstring injury as a true freshman in 2004, though the Shula staff nevertheless wasted his redshirt year. They tried to make up for that the following year by redshirting him in 2005, but bad news struck again when he tore his ACL during bowl practices while trying to prepare for Texas Tech. Robinson left the program of his own volition in June of the following year.
B.J. Stabler: A physical mauler, Stabler was easily one of the most heavily-recruited members of the 2004 recruiting class. Coming out of Clarke County, college coaches loved his lanky frame and raw size, and he could have gone almost anywhere he wanted. Most expected him to be a star lineman for the Tide for years to come, but injuries too got Stabler. He constantly fought through knee injuries, and was forced to undergo surgery after surgery. He filled in admirably in the wake of the textbook suspensions in 2007, but he was clearly fighting wounded. Finally, he decided enough was enough prior to the 2008 season, and went on medical scholarship. At the time of that news, he admitted that at least one more knee surgery would be required.
Marcel Stamps: A late addition to the 2004 recruiting class, Stamps was a lightly-recruited prospect who immediately jumped on an offer from 'Bama. Alabama was desperate for wide receivers and linebackers at the time, and the lifelong 'Bama fan Stamps quickly obliged our need. He started out at wide receiver in 2004, but quickly made his name as a headhunter on special teams, which largely drove a move to the defensive side of the ball. From there, Stamps bounced back and forth between safety and linebacker, but ultimately never really made an impact at either position. Academic issues kept him out of the Independence Bowl in his senior year, and I have no clue whatever became of him.
Nikita Stover: Considered by many to be the top prospect in the state of Alabama, Stover became the first commitment of the Mike Shula era, and 'Bama fans instantly became convinced they had their next star receiver on their hands. Unfortunately, academics got Stover too, as he failed to qualify out of Hartselle. The good news, however, was that Stover got things together and graduated from his JUCO, and reported to Tuscaloosa in 2006 with three years of eligibility remaining. The problem was that he showed up overweight, and unfortunately for whatever reason he just never turned into a consistent producer. He had more than his fair share of big plays during his time at Alabama -- a crucial catch and run to help beat Vandy in 2006, a long touchdown catch against Auburn in 2006, another long touchdown catch against Colorado in the 2007 Independence Bowl, and finally as a senior yet another long touchdown catch against Auburn to really blow the 2008 Iron Bowl open -- but for whatever reason he could never put it all together and produce on a consistent basis. He'd make a big touchdown catch, and then go incognito for the next month. All in all, his career turned out far better than most expected when he initially became an academic casualty, but he never turned into the superstar that many 'Bama fans hoped.
Chris Turner: A big, dynamic defensive lineman, Turner originally signed with Florida State before going the JUCO route. After a solid career in the JUCO ranks, Turner wasn't quite as highly touted as he was when he came out of Ed White High School, but he had a solid offer list from BCS conference schools, and Alabama fans were excited to bring him on board. The Tide was thin on the defensive line at the time, and Turner had the versatility to play both inside and outside, so Shula and company were more than willing to take on a JUCO product. Unfortunately, while Turner qualified academically, he really didn't make much of an impact in 2004 -- about 10 tackles in 60 snaps while sitting out several games -- and ultimately left the program several weeks after the end of the 2004 season.
Nick Walker: A lightly-recruited tight end / defensive end prospect out of Pike County, Walker didn't receive very much interest from SEC programs -- despite helping lead his team to a state championship and having good production on the prep level -- but ultimately became one of the surprises of the 2004 recruiting class. Walker was never a superstar, but was a solid player who started roughly 40 games in his time at the Capstone, and was a key feature of the Tide's 2008 team. Consider Walker one that both the recruiting "experts" and the SEC coaches largely missed on, many programs would have loved to have had Walker circa 2007 and 2008.
Lorenzo Washington: Widely considered the biggest recruiting coup of the 2004 class, Shula and company nabbed Washington away from his in-state Georgia Bulldogs, who recruited him heavily. Washington was only 16 when he committed, and with his impressive physical build many had star written all over him. Unfortunately, the first few years of Washington's collegiate career was far from kind. A good student, he shocked everyone by having to go to Hargrave after failing an English course his senior year of high school, and after returning to Tuscaloosa in 2005 he was forced to redshirt, battling injuries to boot. Finally, it all seemingly came together for him in 2007, where he excelled as an undersized nose guard in Nick Saban's 3-4 defense. Unfortunately for him, with the arrival of Mount Cody in 2008, he was moved back out to defensive end, but in time he thrived there as well. Finally he developed into a starter at defensive end on the 2009 team, and was a key component in the Tide's 2009 national championship run.
John Parker Wilson: The leader of Rush Probst's offensive juggernaut at Hoover High School, Wilson rewrote much of the Alabama high school passing record book, and in doing so earned a solid offer list of SEC schools. It was clear that Wilson wanted Alabama, but it wasn't clear until late in the process that Alabama would offer Wilson, and finally took him as a greyshirt candidate. When he arrived in 2005, he quickly seized the back-up job, and played well in limited action despite having to deal with an in-season DUI arrest. In 2006 he became the starter, and ultimately led the Tide for three years through many ups and downs. Never a great player by any stretch of the imagination, Wilson nevertheless eventually became a relatively solid quarterback for the Tide as he matured, and in all fairness was better than several others we have fielded in the post-Bryant era.
Jake Wingo: The son of legendary former Alabama linebacker Rich Wingo, Jake Wingo was an undersized and lightly-touted recruit out of Hillcrest High School. Truth be told, Wingo was likely a walk-on player who was just listed as a signee by the recruiting services -- he was open about the fact that his family could afford to pay his college expenses if needed -- and at best was likely headed for the Bryant scholarship. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding his signing, Wingo suffered three concussions in his first year at Alabama, and in September of 2005 he took his doctor's advice and gave up football entirely. Wingo never played a snap for the Crimson Tide.
The 2004 recruiting class was the final class that was limited in size due to the scholarship sanctions imposed on Alabama for the Albert Means scandal, with the Tide being allowed only 19 scholarships. All in all, however, Mike Shula ultimately signed 28 players, with two of those signees coming from the junior college ranks.
Obviously, those raw numbers don't match. So to speak, it's impossible to stuff 28 pounds into a 19 pound sack, and to that end the talk throughout 2004 was that the class would see several greyshirts to make the numbers work. Unfortunately, that largely didn't materialize, thanks to the academic shortcomings of several signees. Two players never qualified academically (Jeramie Holified and Kevin Hamilton) and four more -- Lorenzo Washington, Brandon Fanney, Travis McCall, and Nikita Stover -- needed to delay their enrollments to 2005 and beyond in order to get their academics in order. In the end, that effectively meant that only John Parker Wilson and Drew Davis were required to greyshirt.
Moving from quantity to quality, the results are now glowing. The 2003 recruiting class may very well have been the worst class in modern Alabama football history -- a particularly brutal blow considering that the in-state crop turned out that year was one of the best ever, as nearly all of it spurned the Tide -- and in that sense the 2004 recruiting class did help stop the bleeding. By no means could this class be considered great, or even good for that matter, but at least it wasn't the complete and total unmitigated disaster that the 2003 class indisputably was. In some ways, consider this class to be the recruiting equivalent of a small plane crash. Oh sure, some property was damaged and a few people were injured, but, hey, at least a few made it out safely and in any event it wasn't the Hindenburg, right?
Now, admittedly, some bright spots in this class clearly stand out. Antoine Caldwell was a high-end player the second he stepped foot on campus, and in time Lorenzo Washington turned into a key piece on a national championship team. Drew Davis was by no means a star, but he was a starter on a national championship team in his own right, and the likes of John Parker Wilson, Nick Walker, Travis McCall, Simeon Castille, Jeffrey Dukes, and Zeke Knight all had solid careers in their own right. And even while Keith Brown and D.J. Hall were always saddled with off-field and character issues, they nevertheless started a great deal of games throughout the years and posted some impressive production numbers.
But the bad part? Well, it was very bad. Seven signees -- Wingo, Robinson, McDaniel, Holified, Hamilton, Dawson, and Cody Davis -- literally never played a single meaningful snap for the Tide, a damning indictment when considering those seven signees constituted one-quarter of the entire recruiting class. Making matters worse, three more -- Davidson, Johns, and Turner -- quickly washed out Tuscaloosa in less than a year after generating practically zero net positive production. Four more signees -- Marcel Stamps, Will Oakley, Marcus Carter, and Justin Britt -- played out their careers in Tuscaloosa, but all were undoubtedly below average players. Combined, it means that half of that signing class ran the gauntlet from never playing a meaningful snap for Alabama to at best being below average players on mediocre-at-best teams.
And the real problem, in many ways, is with the other fourteen signees, i.e. the "good" half of the 2004 recruiting class. The problem, of course, is that even they weren't that good. Antoine Caldwell and Lorenzo Washington were easily the two best players of the class, but even with that in mind there was no true superstar produced. Making matters worse, injuries clipped the careers of two potential star players, Zeke Knight and B.J. Stabler. Keith Brown and D.J. Hall were supremely talented, but character issues kept both from coming close to fulfilling their potential, and likewise while Nikita Stover had his moments the truth remains that he never came close to living up to the recruiting hype. And all of those solid players I mentioned -- Wilson, Walker, McCall, Dukes, etc. -- were all just that, solid players, not great ones and arguably not even good ones per se. Again, in many ways the problem was that the "good" half wasn't really all of that good, a disastrous outcome given how terrible the bottom half of the class was.
In the end, it wasn't a particularly good class, and years later Shula paid dearly for his inability to hit the ground running on the recruiting trails. It is not an improper stretch to say that this class ultimately got Shula fired. By 2006, the third year on campus for these signees, this class had produced several starters -- no great accomplishment given the complete lack of quality depth we had, mind you -- but nearly all of them were well below average players who contributed greatly to the lackluster season (Marcus Carter, anyone?). Some good players would eventually emerge, like Lorenzo Washington and Drew Davis, but they were mere depth chart fodder when Shula made his last stand. Had this class been better, the 2006 season would have been better, and Shula would have lived to fight another year. As it was though, Shula couldn't survive, and with little doubt the 2004 recruiting class must be listed as a cause of death on the autopsy.