In the past couple of years, I’ve seen the occasional rumblings on Twitter about the performance of former Alabama players in the NFL Combine— specifically that they seem to not test as well as expected.
Personally, I’ve also felt the same way, as many of them tended to not test quite what I thought, such as the uber-explosive athlete Rashaan Evans only having a 30-inch vertical.
The talking came back into the top of my Twitter feed a couple of days ago when Josh Jacobs ran a sub-par 4.63 forty yard dash. I’ve seen speculation that Alabama’s dictatorship over players have left their bodies broken by the time they graduate, or that the Tide’s strength and conditioning program isn’t any good.
Regardless of the reason, Alabama obviously gets all the very best athletes and every single one is supposed to be an elite tester compared to other NFL prospects— if they’re not, they’re probably just another Alabama bust.
As such, I decided to take a look at the actual numbers to see what the data tells us. The number of usable data points isn’t as big as I like, as SPARQ numbers and official test numbers weren’t readily available for high school prospects before the 2013 recruiting class. And the 2016 recruiting class are the current juniors that are declaring for the draft. So the 2013 and 2014 classes are the only fully graduated classes, with 2015 and 2016 still filtering out.
Add that to the fact that not every recruit posted their SPARQ test numbers, nor every draft prospect participated (due to injury or whatever other reason) in the Combine or Pro Days, and we have a rather incomplete data set. Despite that, there are still a good chunk of players to look at pre- and post-Alabama time to see if they truly became less athletic during their time at Alabama, or if it’s just a narrative born of unrealistic expectations.
The forty yard dash is generally the most looked at number, no matter how much everyone is determined to say it doesn’t matter as much as some other tests, so I’ll start with that one. In the last four drafts, Alabama has had 30 prospects who ran a verified 40 in high school as well as one in the transition to the pros. 23 of those 30 improved their forty yard dash during their time at Alabama.
Of the 7 that didn’t improve, four of them only slowed by less than 5 tenths of a second (a 4.45 vs a 4.50), and one of those was O.J. Howard, who only dropped from a 4.49 to a 4.51, despite putting on 26 pounds in 3 years so that he could actually hold up as a blocker.
The three players that slowed by more than 0.05s were linebacker Dillon Lee, defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, and linebacker Reggie Ragland. Of the three, Lee is the only one that fell more than a tenth of a second, and he was a full-time backup who added 20 pounds from his high school weight.
In the other direction, 12 of the 23 players who improved their 40 time all improved by more than a tenth of a second. In particular, wide receiver Robert Foster, defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne, cornerback Anthony Averett, and defensive tackle Quinnen Williams were all at least three-tenths of a second better. Quinnen specifically improved by 0.41s while also adding over 40 pounds from his high school playing weight.
Moving on, we have the 20-yard shuttle. Only 25 Alabama players had results for the test in both high school and the Combine, and the results weren’t quite as overwhelmingly positive as the forty yard dash. 16 of the 25 all tested worse in the shuttle, and only 4 of those were less than a tenth of a second worse. Of those twelve significantly worse testers in the shuttle, nine gained between 10 and 38 pounds from their high school weight to be able to stand up to college football players, which explains the diminishing ability to slow down and accelerate in short distances.
Of those that improved, Averett again impressed, bumping up his shuttle time by a full .22s. If you’re counting, the former Tide cornerback added 13 pounds, ran .31s faster in his forty, and .22s faster in his shuttle. That’s a dude that really came into his own after he got out of high school.
The next test that I have overlapping data for is the vertical jump. In this one, Alabama had 31 players who posted numbers both before and after their time in college. Where the 40 was overwhelmingly positive and the shuttle was much more negative for the Tide, the vertical was a lot closer to an even split.
14 players improved their vertical and 17 players saw their jumps falter. Of those, though, 4 of the 14 improved players were by less than an inch, and 4 of the 17 decreased by the same margin. So we’re really looking at a 10/13 split. The two biggest decreases were from Rashaan Evans and Derrick Henry. Evans’ fall from a 38-inch vertical in high school to a 30 inch vertical in the NFL combine is a major mystery, and definitely a point towards the narrative that piqued my interest for writing this article.
Henry dropped from a 42 inch vertical to a 37 inch vertical. Which is a big drop, but a 37-inch jump for a nearly 250 pound running back was still crazy high, so I’m not sure that’s one drop to really hang your hat on.
On the flip side, Bo Scarbrough was the best success story in the vertical jump. He managed to go from a 31 inch vertical to a ridiculous 40 inch vertical, despite adding 13 pounds to his frame.
The fourth test used in Nike's combines is the powerball toss, which is not used in the NFL combines. I've seen Zach Whitman (the guy from 3sigmaathlete.com that I'e referenced a few times around here as the person who put me on to the SPARQ path) created a conversion chart from the powerball toss to the bench press to get a decent conversion, but I don't think it really represents what's being discussed in this article, so I'm going to stop with the three tests mentioned above.
So, conclusion time: In short, I think we can summarize by saying that, in general, players that came to Alabama got both bigger and faster, but sacrificed their ability to stop and start quite as efficiently. Ultimately, their explosiveness stayed about constant relative to their size.
The real question is how does that compare to the rest of the nation, and more specifically, other elite programs? Should we be expecting more improvement from Alabama's players after spending 3-5 years in Scott Cochrane's training program? Honestly, I don't have it in me to pull that kind of extensive data work. This one took long enough to get everything organized, and I already had every Alabama recruit since 2012 organized in the same sheet before I started. But, maybe if I get some free time during the summer doldrums, I could look into it.
For now though, I think it's important to remember not to overreact to single tests. Josh Jacobs and Mack Wilson running 4.6+ forties a few days ago is what kicked this off. Jacobs is being talked about as a potential 1st round running back, so most everyone expected a nice time from him. The thing is, Jacobs has never been all that fast, and we all knew that. He ran a 4.63 in high school, and then just pulled the same time, but with an extra 25 pounds.
Wilson, too, has always been viewed by Alabama fans and national media alike as a highly athletic player, if not always in position on any given play. But what is forgotten is that he ran a 4.85 forty coming out of high school, and jumping up a full two-tenths of a second is pretty impressive.
So, I can confidently say that Alabama's strength and conditioning program isn't actively suppressing it's players' athleticism. Whether or not their fairly neutral results compares favorably or not to other programs in college football is a task for another day.
If you want to see the actual data I used, here's a link. It's not the most organized, but you should be able to figure it out.