When toe meats leather in the Super Bowl tonight, those paying close attention will find some connections to Alabama. Anthony Madison of the Steelers and Charlie Peprah of the Packers -- both members of the 2001 recruiting class and starting defensive backs on the 2006 Cotton Bowl team -- will play extensively, and the game also features three coaches with Alabama ties, namely Thadeus Jackson (former 'Bama S&C coach), John Mitchell (the first African-American to play football at 'Bama), and Bruce Arians (former 'Bama UC under Dubose and he of the infamous swing pass call to Ed Scissum). To be sure, the Super Bowl odds dub Peprah's Packers a slight favorite to edge out Madison's Steelers, but given the relatively equal UA ties on each sideline, it'd be hard for any 'Bama enthusiast to overly complain with the end result one way or the other.
Having said that, while it's nice to see a couple of 'Bama guys playing in the big game, in some ways their presence is a microcosm of the dearth of NFL talent we've produced in the past decade plus. Simply put, we have a decent number of guys in the league, some solid role players building a career and earning good money, but really no true impact players and very few high-profile players that garner any real publicity and attention.
Fortunately, under the leadership of Nick Saban, those fortunes seem primed for a reversal. Andre Smith broke Alabama's long first round draft choice dry spell two years ago, even though unfortunately after two highly unproductive seasons in Cincinnati he looks well on his way to becoming a bust. Rolando McClain went in the top ten a year ago on his way to a good rookie campaign with the Raiders, and Kareem Jackson snuck into the back end of the first round to the Houston Texans. That trend will continue even further this May when Marcell Dareus, Julio Jones, and Mark Ingram will inevitably be selected in the first round, with Dareus being likely to go somewhere in the top ten picks.
Moving forward to 2011, we'll likely see more of the same next year as well. Trent Richardson will be a first round pick so long as he can stay healthy, and Mark Barron and Courtney Upshaw are likely destined for rave reviews from NFL scouts to boot. Dont'a Hightower could be right there with them if he can regain his old form from before his knee injury, and given their raw size and ability, both Dre Kirkpatrick and D.J. Fluker could easily find themselves surging into the first round with standout 2011 campaigns.
Beyond 2011, obviously any specific projections become murky at best, but the upshot is that Nick Saban continues to recruit highly-talented players to Tuscaloosa, with the underlying idea that you want to fill your roster with players legitimately of the ability necessary to one day play on Sunday. We haven't reached this point just yet, but hopefully in the years to come we will be able to look to the NFL and find many high-profile impact players out of Alabama.
For better or for worse, any college program legitimately expecting to retain elite status for any extended period of time will need, among other things, an abundance of highly talented players. Rest assured coaches do not spend countless days on the road courting eighteen year old kids for nothing. And, with that necessity in mind, given how the intermediate term goal of most of those prospects is to reach the NFL and cash big paychecks for playing on Sunday, the desirability of a particular program is judged by many of those prospects less on the quality of the facilities, the location of the campus, or the number of games expected to be won, but rather by the ability of a program and a particular coaching staff to nurture their individual talents and develop them into legitimate NFL caliber players over the course of three years.
For many years that place simply was not Alabama. Players may have came to Alabama for the facilities, the tradition, the location, the personal loyalties, but not because it represented their best chances of reaching the NFL. That trend, however, has reversed in recent years under Nick Saban. Hopefully a growing NFL presence in the coming years will solidify that trend for many more years to come.