TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If Alabama is to regain its mantle as the top team in college football next season, it will do so without four of its most talented underclassmen.
On Thursday, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard and defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan all announced they would forgo their remaining eligibility and enter the 2014 NFL draft.
After back-to-back losses to end last season and the departure of the team's offensive coordinator, the one solace is that inside linebacker Trey DePriest will return for his senior season.
"They've been a part of winning two national championships and 10-win seasons each and every year that they've been here, always been ranked in the top 10," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, turning to the players seated behind him. "Not only have they done well on the football field, Adrian has already graduated and each one of these other guys who have only been here three years are all on track to graduate.
"I know it's difficult for each and every one of these players to make decisions, they all love the University of Alabama, and they have to make a difficult business decision about what is best for their future."
It was questionable whether Kouandjio would opt to turn pro, saying before the Allstate Sugar Bowl that he was "50-50" on the idea of leaving school early. But even after a poor performance against Oklahoma, in which he was exposed against the speed rush of the Sooners, he still ranks among the top offensive line prospects in the country as the 6-foot-5, 310-pound athlete is listed as the fourth-best offensive tackle available in the draft by ESPN's Scouts Inc.
Kouandjio said that he had "three bad plays" against Oklahoma where "my left foot … was off." And unlike other issues he's faced during his playing career, he said that, "This problem is easier to fix."
The departure of Clinton-Dix, though, seemed inevitable. Even after a multigame suspension for improper benefits, the talented 6-foot-1, 208-pound junior safety played well, showing the closing speed and range coaches so covet. He finished the season fourth on the team in tackles (52) and tied for first in interceptions (two).
Scouts Inc. ranks Clinton-Dix as the No. 1 safety and the No. 2 defensive back among draft-eligible players.
Hubbard, meanwhile, seemed like a strong possibility to go, even though his production this season (33 tackles, three sacks) could be viewed as lacking. But, in fact, all three of his sacks came in the final five games. The season before he did the same thing, finishing strong with three sacks in his final three games. He pondered turning pro early before ultimately deciding one more year of seasoning would be best.
Having already graduated, Hubbard would have had to enroll in graduate school in order to return for his redshirt senior season. Instead he'll take his considerable talent and 6-foot-6, 252-pound frame to the NFL.
Hubbard told reporters that he was projected to go between the second and fourth rounds by the NFL draft advisory board. Rather than shoot for the stars, he said he was willing to earn his stripes in the pros.
"Everyone wants to be the No. 1 pick," Hubbard said. "… but you have to come to a realization."
Pagan, projected to be a second or third-round pick, emphasized the need to take advantage of the opportunity in front of him today, saying how seeing other players draft stock fall upon returning to school influenced his decision.
"Me entering the draft was something I've always wanted to do," Pagan said. "It's right here, so I wanted to take it while I could."
The good news for Tide fans is that Saban isn't lacking replacements. Alabama is the only school in the country to finish in the top three of ESPN's class rankings every year since 2008. The Tide is coming off back-to-back No. 1-ranked recruiting classes and is poised to make that three in a row next month at signing day.
Landon Collins, the former top safety in his class, had risen to the degree of full-time starter as a sophomore this season and could slide over to free safety upon Vinnie Sunseri's return from injury. Collins made the most of a limited time starting, finishing second on the team in tackles (70), tied for first in interceptions (two) and No. 1 outright in total passes defended (eight).
Filling in for Kouandjio and Hubbard, though, isn't as clear cut. Leon Brown was listed as Kouandjio's backup at left tackle, but Cam Robinson, the No. 1-ranked offensive lineman in the 2014 class, could push for immediate playing time. Dillon Lee is the obvious choice to replace Hubbard at "Sam" linebacker, but he'll have plenty of competition in guys like Ryan Anderson, Xzavier Dickson and Tim Williams.
Pagan's departure clears the way for D.J. Pettway to return to the rotation right away at defensive end. The former Freshman All-SEC selection was dismissed from Alabama early last year, attended a junior college and signed with the Tide again on Dec. 18.