“In all my coaching career, I don’t believe I ever coached a player so gifted and talented as David…” – Coach Gene Stallings
If Coach Stallings said David Palmer was the most talented player he ever coached, then one can take that to the bank. The former Tide coach speaks with gravitas on many topics, but none more earnestly than when he reflects upon the dynamic career of David “The Deuce” Palmer. A rare talent who could legitimately play any skill position on the field, he was the centerpiece of an Alabama offense that was close to building a dynasty of its own in the early 1990s under the leadership of Stallings himself.
From the time he started playing the game as a youngster, Palmer was gifted with an ability to make plays, to shake defenders, to dip and dart with the best among his peers. He excelled on the football field as an athlete par excellence, so naturally talented that he had no natural positional fit…mostly because he could play almost any position on the offense short of the line.
A key cog in the grinding gear of Stallings’ offense during the championship runs of 1991-1993, it could be argued that the 1992 National Championship wouldn’t be possible without Palmer’s fleet-footed exploits. He ran the ball, he caught the ball…he even threw it with enough success to keep defenses guessing. He was a one-man football freak-show the likes of which Alabama wouldn’t again see before Saban and his recruiting machine arrived on campus.
In recognition of the two remaining days until the kickoff of the 2016 college football season, we take a look back at the career of The Deuce…a local kid who became a man while wearing a crimson jersey.
The Early Years
A native of Birmingham, Palmer displayed an affinity for the gridiron at an early age. Many know of his exploits as a star quarterback/ receiver/ running back at Jackson-Olin High School, but he showed flashes of brilliance as young as 11, when he set the Shug-Bear Bowl Peewee Classic record on the hallowed ground of Legion Field by scoring six touchdowns in a single peewee game.
As a high school athlete, Palmer was a force of nature. It was said that on the same drive, one could routinely see the darting athlete take a snap under center at QB, catch a pass from the arm of a teammate, take a handoff as a running back and kick the extra point to cap a successful drive. So diverse was his athletic talent that he could legitimately be considered the best option at any of the aforementioned four positions on his high school team.
Jackson-Olin head coach Earl Cheatham didn’t let all that talent go to waste, either. He took the opportunity to use unique sets that took advantage of Palmer’s rare gifts. For example, Palmer was wildcat before wildcat was cool, regularly lining up as a running back and receiving a direct snap from the center. He was featured in the unusual (and inadvisable in most circumstances) “polecat” formation, which saw Palmer line up directly behind the center with the guards and tackles on either side spread some 20 yards down the line. The formation had the advantage of creating space for Palmer to work, while limiting the defense to committing a maximum of three players to the middle of the field. Against the average player, three defenders versus a back and a center would be unfair. With Palmer’s speed and agility, however, the advantage decidedly tilted in favor of the Jackson-Olin Mustangs.
With all of his physical ability and production at the high school level (Palmer had 3,000 all-purpose yards as a senior), many schools were courting the services of Alabama’s 1990 Mr. Football. However, it was Stallings who spoke Palmer’s language, recruiting him as a wide receiver but promising to use him as a versatile offensive weapon. Palmer liked what he heard, and inked with the Crimson Tide in the class of 1991.
The 5’9”, 165 pound receiver wasn’t much to look at in crimson…that is, until he started moving. With sub-4.4/ 40 speed and ankle-shattering break-back moves, Palmer was an awful lot of pop in a tiny package. His contributions to Bama’s 1991 11-1 season were not huge in terms of production, but they contained the marked optimism of future potential.
Palmer played in 11 games as a true freshman, grabbing 17 catches for 314 yards and three touchdowns. While those aren’t eye-popping stats in the context of modern offense, considering the conservative offensive approach of Stallings, it was an impressive (if not flamboyant) display of what was to come from the freshman receiver.
As promised, Stallings let Palmer spread his wings, calling his number on 18 rushes for 156 yards and a touchdown through the ’91 season. Palmer also became a weapon in the kicking game, returning three punts for touchdowns, including one that broke open the 1991 Blockbuster Bowl against Colorado.
Palmer’s first season in crimson was a landmark one, as he finished the season tied for second nationally in punt return yards. He ran back a school-record three punt returns for touchdowns as a freshman, and led the nation in that same metric.
Coming off of an excellent season in 1991, the Tide was poised to make a run at a national title in 1992. With a legendary defense and an offense that was cut from the old “three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust” mold, Palmer could be counted on as an athletic spark whenever the traditional offense bogged down. However, due to some off-field missteps involving two DUIs within weeks of one another, Palmer lost playing time in the first three games of the season, even pushing to the brink of suspension from the team. While Stallings drew criticism for not removing Palmer from the team permanently following his antics, he answered them simply by stating that it wasn’t so much that the team needed David that kept him on the squad, but rather, that David needed the team.
''I really think, in David's career right now, he needs us,'' Stallings said. ''He needs me, and I'm not going to turn my back on him.”
Such was the wisdom of the wise sage of Paris, Texas, and that wisdom was repaid in a redoubling of Palmer’s effort and discipline for the remainder of his career.
As previously stated, it could be argued that the Tide would not have won that 1992 National Championship without David Palmer on the field. At no point was that more obvious than when the Tide met underling Louisiana Tech in Palmer’s first game back with the team after his suspension. With the Tide clinging to a precarious 6-0 lead and in danger of missing out on a chance to run the table, Palmer once again proved his versatility, snagging a punt and returning it 67 yards for a touchdown to seal the win for Alabama and keep the undefeated season alive.
Though his stats in 1992 don’t indicate it, Palmer was a threat to score every single time he touched the ball. That fact wasn’t lost on opposing defensive coordinators, who undoubtedly lost countless hours of sleep trying to figure out how to contain him. Palmer’s play was pivotal in the grinding, scare-a-thon against Mississippi State late in the season, when after gaining a big lead, the Tide had to hold on to beat the Bulldogs back in the final seconds. Just having Palmer on the field made defenses more tentative, les aggressive…in a word, scared. That value cannot be underestimated. Even though his stat line in ’93 would prove more impressive out of context, his presence on the field for Alabama in the last nine games of the ’92 championship season cannot be underestimated.
Though he played in only nine games as a sophomore, Palmer still managed to make quite an impact offensively. As a receiver, he snagged 24 passes for 297 yards and a touchdown for an average of 12.4 yards per catch. As a running back, he rushed 26 times for 164 yards and a 6.3 yard per carry average. As a returner, Palmer accounted for 236 yards and a touchdown fielding punts and 145 yards on six returns.
On the heels of the National Championship campaign in ’92, much was expected of the Crimson Tide in the 1993 season. Alabama once again fielded a great team, though they felt short of their ultimate goal of a repeat trip to the national championship. The Tide ultimately fell to LSU 17-13, ending the nation’s longest win street at 31 and crushing the Tide’s hopes of a return trip to the National Championship Game.
For Palmer, however, 1993 represented his best year at Alabama in terms of production and opportunity. Palmer did everything for Alabama that year: receiving, running, returning and passing. If Alabama hadn’t had Palmer for the game against Ole Miss, the Tide would have very likely ended that winning streak earlier in the season, as Palmer returned a kick for a touchdown, converted third downs as a receiver, and stepped under center after an injury to Jay Barker to lead the Tide to victory on his feet and through the air (including a 50-yard pass to set up a Sherman Williams touchdown run to size the momentum).
By the time the 1993 season came to a close, Palmer was the owner of several Tide receiving records. Palmer played in 12 games, catching a team-record 61 passes for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns. He also accounted for 278 yards on the ground on 42 carries to average 6.6 yards per carry. Palmer returned 31 punts for 7.9 yards, and 20 kickoffs for 439 yards. To add to his incredible stat line, Palmer also completed 15 of 30 passes for 260 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Palmer became the first wide receiver to catch more than 60 passes at Alabama in 1993, but the records didn’t stop there. He was also the first 1,000 yard Tide receiver, and the first Alabama WR to exceed 200 yards receiving in a single game. His 1,000 yards receiving led the SEC, and he was second in the SEC in yards from scrimmage. The performance earned him consensus All-American honors, a third-place finish for the Heisman Trophy and expect early-round selection in the 1994 NFL Draft.
In his career at Alabama, Palmer caught 102 passes for 1,611 yards (15.8 yards per catch) and 11 touchdowns. He rushed 86 times for 598 yards (7.0 yards per carry) and a touchdown. He completed 16 of 30 passes for 260 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. He returned 83 punts for 865 yards and four touchdowns, and he returned 36 kicks for 841 yards. He finished his Alabama career ranked second all-time for all-purpose yards per game, and third in career all-purpose yards per game.
With his junior year behind him, Palmer elected to enter the 1994 NFL Draft, leaving his playing days at Alabama in the past.
The NFL Years
After an electrifying career at Alabama, few teams needed to be sold on Palmer’s explosiveness and ability in space. His size, however, was a bit of a concern in the league of gargantuan pros, as his durability was in question. After all, the diminutive receiver barely weighed 175 pounds soaking wet, and his endurance would be tried mightily by his peers.
Despite the hesitation of some pro teams to draft the undersized Birmingham native, the Minnesota Vikings were convinced he was exactly what they needed. The Vikings drafted Palmer in the second round with the 40th pick.
They were immediately repaid for their confidence in Palmer, as he proved to be a special teams weapon early on. In 1995, Palmer led the league in punt return yardage while returning two punts for touchdowns and one kickoff for a score.
Palmer was used situationally as a receiver, but he never seemed to get the traction to make him a superstar against NFL competition. His best years as a receiver came in 1997 (26 receptions for 193 yards and a touchdown) and 1998 (18 receptions for 183 yards). He was used sparingly as a scat back in Minnesota, as he only scored a single rushing touchdown in his seven year career in the frozen north.
After retiring from the game following the 2000 season, Palmer returned home to Alabama and the familiar confines of his alma mater, Jackson-Olin High School. There he serves as a football coach, bringing his career full-circle.
In an era when dual-threat quarterbacks were an anomaly, when players earned a position and stayed in it, David Palmer was a horse of a different color, to be sure. He was electrifying with the ball in his hands, and his raw ability struck fear in the hearts of defenders tasked with limiting his production. Before this era of five-star athletes on the campus in Tuscaloosa, Palmer was a generational talent the likes of which would be considered phenomenal, event by today’s standards.