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Using former players in practice is latest way Alabama stays ahead of curve

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Saban wrong to use former players on scout team? (1:36)

Mike Golic Jr. and Marcellus Wiley debate if Nick Saban should be allowed to use former players during Alabama practices. (1:36)

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer appeared to be incredulous.

He cocked his head to the side and asked a reporter to repeat her question about whether he'd have former players come back to practice with the team.

"The NCAA says it's OK, for instance, for Alabama to use Trent Richardson ... as a scout-team player," the reporter said.

"In practice?" Meyer said, again cocking his head in disbelief.

"Yes."

"I did not know that." he said, pausing to consider it further. "Like, padded practice? He's running plays? In padded practice? NFL players?"

Someone in the media scrum threw out former Ohio State stars Orlando Pace and Joey Galloway as options, laughing at the thought. But Meyer crossed his arms and thought about it.

Then he pulled a cellphone out of his pocket.

"I'll be right back," he said, acting as if he was ducking away to call in reinforcements.

Whether Meyer was actually aware of the rule or just playing dumb is anyone's guess. He did seem to enjoy the moment.

"I apologize, I did not know that," he told the reporter. "But it's got me thinking."

If Meyer, a meticulous tactician, didn't know he could use former players in practice, then who did?

Nick Saban, of course.

Although Saban wasn't the first to do it -- that honor belongs to Cal coach Sonny Dykes, who had Marshawn Lynch to practice -- he certainly has popularized the idea.

First, it was former 3,000-yard passer Blake Sims playing the part of Texas A&M QB Trevor Knight. Then, a few weeks later, John Parker Wilson came out of retirement to play the role of LSU QB Danny Etling. When Wilson jogged out on the practice field, players were surprised. But they were even more shocked to see former Heisman Trophy finalist Trent Richardson in a helmet and shoulder pads.

"The guys on the defensive side of the ball were not happy about it," Wilson said, laughing. "Regular scout team or walk-on guys aren't going to go square up Reuben Foster and try to run over them. Trent was."

In subsequent weeks, Saban hinted at continuing the practice of utilizing former players, although he wouldn't say who.

Meanwhile, the rest of the college football world has looked on in amazement.

Wilson said the whole setup was simple. One morning, Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran gave him a call and asked him to come out to practice. Then Cochran told him it wasn't just to watch. Wilson hesitated but agreed, so long as he could wear a black no-contact jersey.

No money changed hands. Rather, Wilson got to help his alma mater, spend a couple of days on campus and "relive the glory days."

Wilson was intercepted a few times, but he did well. Alabama beat LSU 10-0, and Wilson's stunt double, Etling, threw an interception and less than 100 yards.


Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly called the idea "absolutely ludicrous."

"It doesn't sound like college football to me," he said when asked about Alabama's souped-up practices.

But the Golden Domers might need to get with the program, because there's nothing prohibiting it.

Just this past week, Clemson called on former All-American Tajh Boyd to work with the scout team. Including the week of the Florida State game, it was the second time Boyd practiced with the team.

"It doesn't sound like college football to me."

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly

Boyd's goal: to give the defense a look that would resemble its next opponent, Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett.

"They tighten their shoelaces a little bit when he's out there for sure, because they have to move a little bit quicker," Swinney said.

Said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who sometimes plays scout team QB himself: "It was good to get Tajh out there. It give us a much better look."

Whether Boyd's presence helps Clemson beat Ohio State remains to be seen, but it does point to what could be the start of a trend.

In fact, if you look at Alabama's recruiting operation or its large (and growing) support staff, following in the footsteps of Saban appears to be the thing to do in college football.

Wilson called it just another example of the five-time title-winning head coach being ahead of the curve.

"To use guys that played at Alabama and played in the NFL, basically he has a starting quarterback going against his starting defense where before you'd have a guy that might not have played since high school," Wilson said. "It's just finding ways to make his team better. He's a fanatical preparer and this is just another way for his defense to get ready."


Saban said he was in a meeting one day when the thought to use former players came to him.

He knew it was legal, he said, but "for a limited time."

Bylaw 14.2.1.6, which resulted from a rule interpretation that was incorporated in the NCAA manual in 2011, is as follows:

"A former student at the certifying institution (e.g., former student-athlete) may participate in an organized practice session on an occasional basis, provided the institution does not publicize the participation of the former student at any time before the practice session."

"I just wish people would quit complaining about what we do that's allowed by the rules."

Alabama coach Nick Saban

According to an NCAA spokesperson, the original interpretation dates back to 1992. The term "occasional" is meant to be "just once in a while, not regular, certainly not every day," the spokesperson said.

Working with the NCAA and SEC offices, Alabama cleared former players such as Sims to practice with the team.

Because of a provision in the rule that precludes programs from "publicizing the participation of the former student at any time before the practice session" it's unclear who might be working with Alabama during its practices before facing No. 4 Washington in the College Football Playoff Semifinal Game at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (Dec. 31, 3 p.m., ESPN).

Wilson said when he worked with the team, he and Richardson had to keep it secret, hiding in the weight room until the media viewing period of practice ended. Wilson had to tell one of the partners at his financial firm why he'd have to leave work early, but he said the only thing the partner wanted to know was whether he could be added to the guest list of people allowed to come down and watch practice.

"It's helped us a lot this year," Saban said. "We don't have a lot of depth at quarterback, especially since Blake [Barnett] left, and we really don't have a lot of depth at running back. So we didn't have a good scout team quarterback and a good scout team running back that really challenges the defense unless we bring one of our good guys down there, and you don't really want to do that because you can't afford to lose another guy at that position."

Said cornerback Marlon Humphrey: "It's also pretty cool just to go against those guys, knowing what they've done for the program. I think it's just a lot of respect for those guys."

While Kelly and others might not be thrilled with the development, many coaches respect the move.

In fact, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said he hated that he didn't think of it first.

"It's just like a lot of things with Nick: He is always a cutting-edge guy that's always looking for ways to not only increase production from his current team, he keeps former players engaged," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said earlier this season. "I think a lot of people first looked at it -- not myself -- but a lot of people looked at it and said, 'Well, can you do that?' He's already been through the 'Can you do that?' phase. It's an example of how he approaches the game -- himself and the creative people he surrounds himself with."

Saban, for his part, doesn't want to hear the criticism.

"We didn't break any rules," he said. "We did what you're allowed to do. If they want to change it, change the rule. I don't care what rules they change, if they're the same for everybody. I just wish people would quit complaining about what we do that's allowed by the rules, and why don't they just do it?"