The moment when I realized that fortunes were truly about to change for Bama football came in the winter before the 2008 season. Though I had scarcely followed recruiting to that point, while perusing the sports pages of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution one morning I stumbled across their “Super Southern 100” ranking of the best high school senior football players in the south. As I recall, twelve of the 100 stars identified themselves as Bama commits at the time with no other school garnering more than two or three. While many were still undecided, it was clear that Nick Saban was selling the program much more effectively than his predecessor and running proverbial laps around his peers at neighboring schools. Now that the book is officially closed on the class of 2008, a look back reveals that the group managed to serve as a foundation for an impending dynasty but also a reminder that recruiting rankings are, at best, an inexact science.
Starting from the top, future classes will be hard pressed to duplicate the bumper crop of elite producers that showed up on campus in 2008. Terrence Cody, Marcell Dareus, Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron, Dont’a Hightower, Barrett Jones, and Robert Lester all became virtual household names in SEC country. Collectively, that group includes five first-round NFL draft picks (thus far) and two second-round picks, a Heisman trophy winner, an Outland trophy winner, a slew of All-America selections and a couple of BCS Championship Game MVPs. It is difficult to express the impact that these men had on the Alabama program, literally restoring it to levels not seen in Tuscaloosa since the seventies. The sobering reality is that we may never see a collection of top-end contributors like this in a single class again.
Star power notwithstanding, championships simply aren't won in the SEC without a solid supporting cast of role players and quality depth, and to that end the 2008 class did not disappoint. Three-star TE Brad Smelley was a key cog on the 2011 team, finishing his career with 54 catches for 559 yards and four TDs. Four-star DE Michael Williams moved to TE during his redshirt year and finished with 52/503/7 including a TD catch in the BCS Championship dismantling of Notre Dame. Three-star DEs Undra Billingsley and Damion Square became major contributors with Square earning a full-time starting job as a senior and, while arguably considered something of an underachiever, four-star LB Jerrell Harris also logged plenty of playing time with quite a few starts mixed in. Prior to an injury that would cut his career short, four-star DT Kerry Murphy worked his way into the rotation as well. No question that each of these players made significant and much-needed contributions to the national championship effort.
With National Signing Day upon us, the story of this class also offers a cautionary tale for those who still believe championships can be won in February. Five-stars ATH/CB Burton Scott and OL Tyler Love, both highly coveted headliners of the “can’t miss” variety, missed badly. Scott finished his career playing for the South Alabama Jaguars, having transferred due to apparent frustration with his place on the depth chart, and Love was simply never able to live up to the hype sufficiently enough to earn much playing time. Four-star CB Robby Green contributed early then spent a couple of seasons either suspended or deep in Saban’s doghouse and was ultimately dismissed from the team. Four-star QB Star Jackson transferred to the fledgling football program at then-FCS Georgia State upon falling behind AJ McCarron in the pecking order, and quite frankly failed to distinguish himself even at that level. Four-star WRs Melvin Ray and Destin Hood each eschewed scholarship offers in favor of professional baseball contracts. A few other highly rated prospects became academic casualties or, in the case of four-star prospects ATH Chris Jordan and OL John Michael Boswell, managed to qualify but failed to win significant playing time in Tuscaloosa.
All in all, the 2008 Alabama recruiting class will go down as one of the greatest in school history, its legacy defined as The Class That Brought Bama Back. While some players didn’t quite live up to extraordinary expectations, the number of recruits who panned out to become solid contributors on national championship teams and even, in several cases, achieve nothing less than bona fide superstar status stands testament to the sheer talent and character of the individuals involved. Those who love the Crimson Tide will be forever grateful for the efforts and accomplishments of these fine student-athletes. Roll Tide, gentlemen.