Alabama has had its share of game-changers on the outside: Don Hutson, Dennis Homan, David Palmer, Ozzie Newsome, Al Bell, D.J. Hall, Joey Jones, Amari Cooper and many, many others.
But, you’d be hard-pressed to find a player whose recruitment and commitment meant so much to building a signing class, a program, and now a dynasty, than Julio Jones.
Joseph Goodman at AMG spoke with Jones’ primary recruiter, now-South Carolina LB coach, Lance Thompson about the enormity of Jones commitment. Saban and the Alabama staff knew it needed a supremely-gifted player, a difference-maker that had cache with his peers, one guy whose commitment could convince others that Alabama could build something special.
For Nick Saban, that player was Foley High’s Julio Jones, the 6’4”, 215-pound No. 4 player (and No. 1 WR) in the 2008 class.
“If I had a dollar for how many times Nick Saban or Terry Saban asked me if we were going to get Julio, I’d be retired,” Thompson said. “I’m not lying, I’m serious. I’m dead serious.”
The Sabans knew how important Jones was to the future of Alabama football. It is well understood throughout the sport that if a coach receives a commitment from the right player, then other commitments quickly follow.
Jones was that player for Alabama, and Thompson would tell the prep star he was the person to return Alabama football to prominence. Of the 2008 commitments, lineman Tyler Love (Mountain Brook), and cornerback B.J. Scott (Mobile) were also rated as five-star recruits, but none had the cache of Jones, who was identified as a program changer at an early age.
“I told him that it only takes one alpha dog to get everyone in line,” Thompson said, “and he was going to be that guy. I told him that all the time. I would say, ‘Julio, you’re the guy who puts Alabama football back where it’s supposed to be.’”
Thompson’s words would prove to be prophetic. After Jones committed, other stars gave Alabama a closer look and fell in line, with the Tide scoring several signing day coups on podiums throughout the nation.
What makes the commitment so stunning is how close it came to not happening at all. As of morning of his National Signing Day press conference, Jones had no idea where he was going when he took his envelopes to the impromptu rostrum on the basketball court: Florida State, Oklahoma, Auburn, Florida and Alabama were all in the mix.
“I woke that morning. I was like ‘OK.’ I had my five envelopes, just moving them around. I was like ‘I don’t know where I’m going to go,’” Jones told assembled media at his Wednesday availability before Super Bowl LI in Houston, per NFL.com. “But then I just thought why not stay in Alabama. People that were supporting me over the years. If I go somewhere too far, they aren’t going to be able to see me play. You know? So that was one of the big reasons I stayed at Alabama.”
But a decision that helped kick start the Alabama dynasty as we know it today nearly was the polar opposite for the Crimson Tide.
“I was going to go to Auburn,” Jones continued, “but I just didn’t like Auburn. They left a bad taste in my mouth.”
Had Jones not had that bad taste in his mouth, the near-run recruiting win for the Tide could have instead proven to be a crippling blow to the class, and the worst in-state loss in a decade. In a world of counterfactuals, the other stars from the ‘08 class may not have arrived, the ones that would win a national title just a year a later.
One player, one sentence, one spur-of-the-moment decision. That’s what separates a dynasty from uncertainty. It’s a tough gig.
In addition to the recruiting win, Jones backed it up on the field too. That 2008 Freshman All-American campaign saw the emergence of a spooky man-child who was physically ready for the pros: a bull with long arms and stride, incredibly strong hands, a devastating blocker, 4.39 speed, and nearly impossible to cover or tackle with just one man. Coaches found a young man who practiced as hard as he played, who was a workout warrior, a quiet leader, and had the toughness of a linebacker in a wideout --- Jones was not healthy for a full season at Alabama in his career.
Despite playing with sprains, strains, and breaks, his career was phenomenal. Jones was the SEC Freshman of the Year, a two-time all-SEC selection, a two-time Playboy All-American, and an AP All-American. He had 179 catches for 2653 yards and 15 touchdowns. He is still 4th all-time in Alabama history with those 15 TD receptions. He added another 135 yards for two scores while also returning punts and kicks.
Thanks for everything, Julio. When we say we could not have done this without you, we mean all of this, and quite literally.
8 days ‘til Alabama football.