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A Salute to the 2015 Alabama Seniors: D.J. Pettway

A story of redemption, D.J. Pettway's rise is proof that one can recover, even after the most egregious of decisions.

D.J. Pettway makes Ricardo Louis pay in this year's Iron Bowl.
D.J. Pettway makes Ricardo Louis pay in this year's Iron Bowl.
RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

D.J. Pettway's story is reminiscent of the theme of redemption that runs throughout the literature of yore, a tale of the fallen who, by his own grit and determination, reinstated himself among the chosen and, as a result, accomplished great things.

While one can't discuss the college career of the Pensacola native without at least giving passing recognition to the mistake that nearly killed his Capstone dreams, likewise it would be inappropriate to dwell upon it in a negative sense. After all, young men make mistakes...and when they do, one hopes they handle them as well as Pettway handled his as he returned to Alabama following his fall from grace.

Aside from the fantastic story-line, Pettway emerged as one of Alabama's most ferocious defenders in his final two years in Tuscaloosa, combining tenacity with physical play to terrorize opposing defenses. Due to the fact that the Alabama front seven was loaded with talent in 2015, Pettway wasn't able to fully display his unique skill set to the maximum quotient full-time. However, what he did do was establish himself as a role-playing specialist with a unique ability to rush the passer and disrupt opposing rushing attacks. On any other team he would have been a starter, but like many other Tide talents, he played his role well within the Alabama attack.

High School

Pettway was a highly-regarded defensive line prospect coming out of Catholic High School (Pensacola, FL) in 2011, with offers from most of the major southern powers in the SEC and ACC. The 6'2", 270 pound lineman was rated as the number 13 strong-side defensive end by Rivals, as well as the 145th best recruit overall nationally. He was rated the 25th best player in Florida by Rivals, and the 21st best defensive end by ESPNU.

Pettway, as a result of his high school performance, was invited to play in the Offense/ Defense All-American Bowl, where he was impressive enough to be tabbed the third-best prospect in the game. He was number 57 on the Mobile Press-Register's Super Southeast 120, and 96th in the Orlando Sun-Sentinel's Florida Top 100.

As a senior, Pettway had a monster campaign, accruing 78 tackles, four sacks. His numbers were even more impressive as a junior, when he was credited with 85 tackles and a whopping 16 sacks (along with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery), a performance which vaulted him to second-team All-State honors in 2009.

The Early Years

Despite his upside, Pettway redshirted in his first year on campus in Tuscaloosa in 2011. However, when he did get on the field in 2012, he made the most of the opportunity, playing in 13 games for the eventual National Championship winning Tide. Pettway recorded eight tackles, which at first glance isn't that eye-popping...until one realizes four of the eight tackles were for loss, with 2.5 of them coming in the form of sacks. Pettway was so effective as a freshman that he earned Freshman All-SEC honors, and capped the season with a sack against Notre Dame in the National Championship Game.

As the season drew to a close with the victory over Notre Dame, the future appeared promising for the young hybrid linebacker/ defensive end. He'd established himself as a legitimate talent and heir to the Tide's pass rush of the future. He had a National Championship ring as a freshman, and would surely be part of Tide teams that would compete for the title in coming years. Pettway was a blossoming star on the nation's premier defense...but there would be bump in the road.

A mere month after celebrating the title with his teammates, Pettway and three other Tide players were arrested for the most egregious of crimes: strong-arm robbing a fellow student at Alabama. While the details are unknown and unverified, Pettway copped to the fact that he was present when the crime was committed, and that he had knowledge of it. Beyond that, little is known by anyone outside of the Tuscaloosa Police Department, Pettway's attorney and the Tide coaching staff and administration. However, the incident was enough to result in Pettway's suspension from the university, and his immediate removal from the Tide football team.

Anecdotal accounts shared by Saban and Pettway in the time since indicate that Pettway was given a strict set of criteria that would allow him to one day return to the university and the team. Saban was quoted in the aftermath as saying that Pettway was the only one of the four players involved (Eddie Williams, Tyler Hayes and Brent Calloway) who was eligible to return if he did everything correctly.

As a result of his removal from Alabama, Pettway journeyed west to Mississippi, where he joined the junior college football powerhouse East Mississippi Junior College. It was there that he began to rebuild his future, only this time, it would follow a slightly different path than the one he had charted as a Tide freshman.

Pettway quickly became a star defensive end for an EMJC that was a championship contender in its own right. Pettway and fellow future Tide player Jarran Reed formed a formidable defensive duo for EMJC as they stormed their way to a Junior College National Championship. In 2013, Pettway was named an Honorable Mention National Junior College All-American and first-team All-Region member. On his second trip through the recruiting spin-cycle, Pettway was once again highly-regarded. He was rated the number 15 overall juco player available by 24/7 Sports, he was ranked number 22 in the 24/7 Sports Top 247, and he was regarded as the number three available strong side defensive end.

He had 45 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks on the season, and emerged as a four-star juco prospect on the radars of schools like Florida State, Florida, Miami, Clemson and Southern Cal. Everyone who was anyone in the world of college football wanted Pettway, but in his mind, there was never any doubt about where he'd end up. In his own words (after signing with the Crimson Tide a second time)...

"I love this team (Alabama). I love being here. I love everything about Alabama. All the coaches welcomed me with open arms and it's just been a blessing to be back here."

(And the choir said, "Amen," D.J.)

Coach Nick Saban took substantial heat for the decision to recruit Pettway again, but his defense of the second chance (and Pettway himself) was vehement.

"The university made some things that this particular guy (D.J. Pettway) could do and if he did all those things, they would look at letting him back in school. Based on what he did, based on his punishment and penalty, and based on what was required for him to go through a series of things, the university would make a decision to let him back in school, which he wanted to come back. He did all of those things. The university made a decision that he could come back. We made a decision that we wanted him back. We know D.J. Pettway very well. He certainly made a mistake in terms of what he did. We felt that this one person, because he did the things he was required to do, deserved a second chance...D.J. was never a bad guy when he was here. We never had a lot of problems with him before. He did make a horrible decision to be involved with this incident but his involvement and the severity of his punishment was based on his involvement. Those are the guidelines that were set for him to get an opportunity to come back.

Pettway became the poster child for redemption and the kind of second chance Saban is oft chastised for providing. Saban took a risk on Pettway's reinstatement, but it was a risk that was rewarded with success, not only on the football field, but in the life of the prodigal son defender.

Pettway, the Upperclassman

With a rare second chance to carve a future for himself at the University of Alabama, Pettway made sure the second time around, he did everything right, both on the team and in the classroom.

After rejoining the team in December of 2013, Pettway and fellow EMJC teammate Reed made their presence known. In the 2014 A Day game, both defenders shined, with Pettway being named the Co-Defensive Lineman of the Game after a performance which saw him reel in a pick-6 in addition to consistently ravaging the Tide offensive line.

In 2014, he played in 14 games for a Tide defense that had enough talent to help the team make a College Football Payoffs run in the inaugural year of the system. He made one start in that stint, and was credited with 23 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, three passes broken up and five quarterback hurries. Against Mississippi State, a team that was at the time ranked number one in the AP poll, Pettway was ferocious, making four tackles and earning Defensive Player of the Week honors from the Tide coaching staff.

In the meantime, Pettway focused on the "student" component of the "student-athlete" equation, earning his degree in Health and Environmental Sciences in the winter semester of 2014 after only three-and-a-half years.

In 2015, Pettway's numbers weren't flashy, but they were indicative of the critical role he played on the team as a linebacker/ defensive end hybrid. With size and speed enough to pass rush, seal the edge or run down running backs, Pettway's role in the Alabama defense was limited only by the wealth of talent around him.  Saban at one time called Pettway the "middle reliever" of the Tide defense, a player who even without starting was critical to the team's success.

In that role, Pettway had a respectable 17 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks and one quarterback hurry. He had sacks against Louisiana-Monroe and Tennessee, and he posted three tackles against Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Possibly his biggest play of the season was an easy one to miss: he partially blocked a Clemson field goal attempt in the National Championship Game to help keep the score within reach for the Tide's second half comeback. Pettway made his last game in crimson count, recording two passes batted down and a tackle for loss in addition to the blocked kick.

Beyond Alabama

Pettway's pro prospects are trending upwards after the Tide's victory in the National Championship Game, though concerns about his fit in a pro system still linger. Pettway is considered a "tweener" linebacker/ defensive end, and while hybrid players are all the rage at the college level, NFL teams seem to prefer that players clearly fit a pre-cast physical mold for their respective positions.

That concern is a real one with Pettway, as he is smallish for a defensive end at the NFL level, but may not have the speed to compete as a linebacker as a pro. With solid performances in the Combine and Alabama Pro Days, Pettway may be able to prove himself physical enough to play end, or fast enough at linebacker to remain a viable option in coverage. Pettway runs a 4.9/40, which for a man who weighs 270 pounds, isn't too shabby. However, there are likewise not many 270 pound linebackers at the pro level, so Pettway would like project as a speed-rushing defensive end.

Pettway is considered a third-day draft selection, with his status possibly falling in to the realm of free agency. Given the fact that he most likely projects as a defensive end at the next level, has him listed as the 11th best defensive end (of 219) in the upcoming draft.

Pettway will undoubtedly get a chance on some pro roster, as his physical talents and football acumen are worthy of consideration by any team in need of a speed-rushing defensive end who can also play the run. Regardless of his pro future, Pettway finished what he started at Alabama after a substantial detour, and is proof that one can recover from past mistakes. Sure, Pettway's mistake was an egregious one, but in the end he made good. He earned his degree, walked the line, and won three National Championships in his time at Alabama ('11, '12 and '15).

It's been said the character of a person is defined not in how he or she falls, but how he or she gets up. Pettway's Capstone career is a study in that kind of redemption, as after what could have been a career-ending decision that put his college education in jeopardy, he was able to refine his focus, tune out the clutter and, by all accounts, finish what he sought to accomplish at Alabama. The past is a fixed point that cannot be altered. However, the future is constantly in flux, and Pettway used his second chance to shape the best possible outcome for himself.