Alabama’s unprecedented recruiting run has been well documented, but nothing illustrates the success Nick Saban’s staff has had recently like the current depth of talent on the defensive side of the football. The Tide’s starting eleven will be the most talented bunch in the country this season, illustrated by the fact that four players were named to the watch list for the Nagurski Award, given to the nation’s best defender. Even more rare, however, is the fact that Jeremy Pruitt can conceivably deploy an entire defense consisting of nothing but five-star recruits.
Yes, you read that correctly.
To put this in perspective, in a typical year somewhere between 25 and 35 recruits are rated five-stars by the 247 composite. That’s 30-odd players, including both offense and defense, to go around for the entire country. In the last four recruiting cycles, Alabama has landed 20 of them, meaning that Saban and crew are hogging around 15-20% of the premium recruits. As usual, Saban focuses on his defense first and foremost, resulting in what could be college football’s first five-stars-only unit.
Alabama returns a ton of upperclassman talent at all three levels of the defense, including several who were merely four-star blue chips who have developed into surefire NFL prospects, so this lineup will almost assuredly never see the field in a game. Still, the possibility is such a rare occurrence, perhaps even unprecedented, that it’s worth some offseason discussion.
Let’s take a look at how this unit would break down:
Only Alabama can lose two starting defensive ends to the second round of the NFL Draft and come into the season with a pair of upperclassman starters who were actually more highly regarded coming in. Jonathan Allen and Da’Shawn Hand were the top recruits at SDE in the 2013 and 2014 classes, respectively, and should form the most explosive pair of 3-4 ends in the nation after managing 15 sacks between them in 2015. Both are considerably smaller than their predecessors, A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, but are still stout enough to hold up against the run. At the nose, Da’Ron Payne is a 320-lb. man-child who was able to start on the nation’s top defense as a true freshman. These three will feature prominently this season.
Thanks to returning upperclassman stalwarts in Shaun Dion Hamilton, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson, plus an injury to true freshman Lyndell Wilson that will likely result in a redshirt season for him, the five-star LB corps will probably never play together. Nonetheless, Jeremy Pruitt and OLB coach Tosh Lupoi could conceivably line up with senior leader Reuben Foster and freshman Ben Davis inside while Rashaan Evans and Lyndell Wilson man the outside spots. Junior OLB Christian Miller deserves an honorable mention here as well, as his .9796 rating is about as close to five-star status (.9800) as a player can be.
Alabama had some well-documented issues in the secondary during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, largely caused by unexpected attrition and injuries at the CB position. There should be no such issue this season, as new DB coach Derrick Ansley has four five-star toys in the secondary - and none of them are named Ronnie Harrison or Eddie Jackson who will form one of the best safety tandems in the country. The versatility in this group is amazing, as Minkah Fitzpatrick, Marlon Humphrey, and Harrison routinely show the ability to rotate from outside press corner to slot corner to safety, creating nightmares for opponents.
In order for the five-star secondary to take shape, Pruitt and Ansley would have to place Harrison and Jackson on the bench, in favor of two of the aforementioned versatile CBs, at safety. I chose Tony Brown, who has actually been seen practicing with the safeties, and Fitzpatrick, who has the range to play free safety in the NFL and may well project there as he fills out. This leaves Marlon Humphrey and reserve sophomore Kendall Sheffield starting at CB. Like Miller, FS Deionte Thompson deserves a mention with his .9795 rating. Thompson was actually rated five stars at one time.
Though we will probably never see this unit on the field, the possibility is nothing short of amazing. May Alabama’s dominance on the recruiting trail continue well into the future.