Best of the Saban era

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban changed the culture at the University of Alabama when he arrived here some seven years ago. He has raised the bar on the football field as well as the recruiting trail, bringing in some of the top talent in the country on his way to winning three national championships.

With a 63-13 overall record in six seasons, he's produced 22 first-team All-Americans. To put that number in context, consider this: It took two decades and six head coaches to produce the same number of first-team All-Americans at Alabama before his arrival.

With that in mind, creating an All-Alabama team under Saban was not an easy task. Some deserving players were left off. In some instances, career projections were weighed against career accomplishments. When you're judging position by position, some tough choices are bound to occur.

Here is TideNation's best guess at the top 25 players, by position, during Saban's tenure: 11 on offense, 11 on defense and three on special teams.


QB AJ McCarron: By the time the rising senior wraps up his career, he very well could hold every major passing record in school history. The gunslinger from Mobile, Ala., already holds the record for most touchdown passes in a season (26), most consecutive passes without an interception (291), and he is currently tied for fifth in career victories (24). Armed with one of the best receiving corps in the country in 2013, he has a chance to do what no Alabama quarterback has ever done: win a Heisman Trophy.

RB T.J. Yeldon: Yes, we're doing a fair amount of projecting with the rising sophomore, but when you look at the numbers he was able to put up as a true freshman you have to seriously consider the possibility that Yeldon could wind up having a better career at Alabama than both Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram. No, he hasn't been the No. 1 rusher and, no, he hasn't been invited to a Heisman Trophy ceremony like his predecessors, but how many people would bet against him doing just that? He's the only freshman to ever run for 1,000 yards in Alabama's history. Not Richardson, not Ingram, not even Shaun Alexander can claim that type of start to their careers.

FB/TE Brad Smelley: We could have gone off the deep end and put early enrollee O.J. Howard here, but that would be going over whatever imaginary line we've invented. If Howard does half of what some expect of him, he could be on this list soon. That goes to illustrate the somewhat lackluster return from the fullback and tight end positions under Saban. The best, though, has to be Smelley, who had 54 receptions for 559 yards and four touchdowns in 46 career games.

WR Julio Jones: There are few sure things in college football, but Jones was as close as they come when he arrived in 2008. Arguably the highest-profile signee in school history, the already NFL-built wideout wasted no time making his mark, setting freshman team records in yards and receptions. The future first-round draft pick went on to finish second in career receptions (179) and receiving yards (2,653).

WR Amari Cooper: Cooper isn't just on pace with Jones, he's ahead of him. The rising sophomore broke Jones' freshman records for yards, receptions and touchdowns last season. Cooper finished with 59 receptions for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns. What lies ahead for the Florida native is anyone's guess, but what he's done so far already puts him in rare air.

WR D.J. Hall: Before Jones came along, Hall was near the top of every school receiving record. During Saban's first season in 2007, Hall set UA records for career catches (194) and receiving yards (2,923) and came in second in career touchdowns (17). He has far and away the most 100-yard receiving games in UA history with 13. Jones, who broke the century mark eight times, is the next-closest.

OT Cyrus Kouandjio: Kouandjio became a Freshman All-SEC selection in 2011 despite playing in only eight games. Though he didn't achieve All-American status in 2012, the resounding sentiment is that it's only a matter of time. As NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock told reporters at the combine a few weeks ago, "The left tackle at Alabama, whose name I don't even know, but on tape he's a first-round pick."

OG Chance Warmack: There are few times where a guard is highly valued enough to be taken among the top seven picks of the NFL draft. In fact, it hasn't happened since 1986. But Warmack is poised to reverse that trend after completing one of the most dominant seasons by an offensive lineman in quite some time. On a line that was considered among the best ever, Warmack was arguably the most impressive, prompting ESPN's Todd McShay to call him "the best player in the draft" regardless of position.

C Barrett Jones: While Warmack's accomplishments can be best summed up in a single season, Jones' would take a full four years to explain. UA has a rich history of accomplished linemen, but none can touch the résumé of Jones, who won three national championships at three different positions. Jones blocked for four 1,000-yard rushers and won both the Outland Trophy and Rimington Award in his five years at Alabama.

OG Mike Johnson: Johnson enjoyed one of the more storied careers in Alabama history with a school-record 54 game appearances. He was a two-time All-American and started 41 consecutive games, capping his career by winning the 2009 national championship. He went on become a third-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons.

OT Andre Smith: Smith became just the second Alabama offensive lineman to win the Outland Trophy in 2008, joining former great Chris Samuels (1999) on the list of award recipients. Though Smith struggled with his weight, his talent was undeniable. He started as a freshman and improved every year, closing with his best season in 2008, when he was an All-America and All-SEC selection.


DE Marcell Dareus: When Alabama tries to recruit athletic defensive linemen, the name that most often comes up is Dareus. Despite playing in a defensive scheme that limits the ability of linemen to rush the passer, Dareus was able to register 10.5 sacks in two seasons at UA. He went on to become the defensive MVP of the BCS National Championship Game and was the third overall draft pick by the Bills in 2010.

NG Terrence Cody: "Mount Cody" was the run-stuffer Saban's system always required. The nearly 400-pound lineman was named an All-American twice for his play at nose guard. He was a big reason why no tailback ever ran for 100 yards against UA with Cody in the middle.

DE Jesse Williams: The former junior college player and native of Australia took just one spring to make his mark, earning the starting job at defensive end in 2011. Though the tattoos and mohawk often overshadowed his play on the field, it's hard to deny his impact on the defense. He made a transition to nose guard in 2012 and despite nagging injuries, he led UA to its second consecutive season as the No. 1 team in total defense.

LB Courtney Upshaw: Upshaw developed into one of the best pass-rushers in the country in 2011. As a senior, he finished with 9.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. He was an All-American and All-SEC selection and a finalist for the Lombardi Award.

LB Dont'a Hightower: If he hadn't missed most of the 2009 season with a torn ACL, there's no telling where Hightower's numbers would have ranked all-time among UA linebackers. The former Freshman All-American developed into one of the best interior linebackers in the country despite the devastating injury, becoming a finalist for the Lombardi, Butkus, Chuck Bednarik and Lott Trophy awards as a junior in 2011. On a defense that ranks among the best of all time, Hightower was its captain and leading tackler.

LB Rolando McClain: McClain was a captivating athlete from the first day he walked on campus, finishing fourth in total tackles in 2007. He was voted a Freshman All-SEC linebacker by coaches and was a finalist for the Butkus Award the following season. His best year was his last as he racked up 105 tackles on his way to being named the winner of the Butkus Award and an All-American in 2009.

LB C.J. Mosley: Mosley's selection to this list is interesting in one respect -- he's never been a full-time starter. As a junior he shared time with Nico Johnson and Trey DePriest. Still, he led the team with 107 tackles, becoming the first defender to break the century mark in tackles since McClain did it in 2009. With Johnson off to the NFL, Mosley will have his position all to himself and a chance to further his résumé as one of Alabama's best linebackers of all time.

CB Dee Milliner: Milliner was a revelation at cornerback in 2012. Stepping in for the departed Dre Kirkpatrick, Milliner finished fourth in the country in passes defended. His 22 pass breakups were good enough for second in school history. After a strong showing at the NFL combine, Milliner is poised to become the third consecutive Alabama cornerback to be taken in the first round of the draft.

CB Dre Kirkpatrick: The former All-American and All-SEC selection was a shutdown cornerback on the 2011 championship-winning defense that allowed the fewest passing yards and touchdowns in the country. He was drafted with the 17th overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals that April.

S Mark Barron: Barron started three seasons and won two national championships during his time at Alabama. He went on to be voted a first-team All-American and finished tied for first for the most career games played (54).

S Rashad Johnson: Johnson wasn't supposed to become an All-SEC safety when he walked on at Alabama as a running back. Through hard work, he finished his career with 11 interceptions and 215 tackles. The Arizona Cardinals drafted him in the third round in 2009.

Special teams

Specialist Javier Arenas: Arenas was as dynamic an athlete as they come, starring at cornerback and in the return game. He finished 10 yards shy of the NCAA record for career punt return yards (1,752) and his combined career return yards (3,918) were good enough to finish second all-time.

K Leigh Tiffin: Tiffin finished his career with the school record for kicking points (385) and field goals made (85). His 385 career points is good enough for first all-time among Alabama football players, ahead of any position -- player or kicker.

P P.J. Fitzgerald: When you're looking up the school record-holder for certain statistics, you don't expect to find a punter. But under "most career starts" sits Fitzgerald and his 54 consecutive games played at punter. He is currently the record holder for number of punts (238) and punting yards (9,485) as well.