TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- National champion Alabama will once again try to keep rolling after losing three underclassmen to the NFL draft.
All-Americans Trent Richardson, Dont'a Hightower and Dre Kirkpatrick said Thursday they're leaving school to start pro careers, three days after helping the Crimson Tide to its second national title of their careers.
"To leave a legacy like me and Dre have left here, to have two national championships in three years, I think that's pretty big for us and our family and for the University of Alabama," said Richardson, a Heisman Trophy finalist and Doak Walker Award winner as the nation's top running back.
Richardson and Kirkpatrick, a cornerback, attended a news conference announcing their decisions, while middle linebacker Hightower issued a statement afterward.
Richardson and Kirkpatrick are both projected as potential top 10 picks and Hightower is also regarded as a potential first-rounder.
Alabama had a school-record four first-round selections last year, including underclassmen Marcell Dareus, Julio Jones and Mark Ingram. The Tide came back and went 12-1, moving to 36-4 over the past three years.
Richardson set school single-season rushing records with 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns in his lone season as a fulltime starter after running behind the 2009 Heisman winner Ingram.
He and Hightower were first-team AP All-America selections while Kirkpatrick was a second-teamer.
Richardson is ranked No. 4 overall by ESPN Scouts Inc. and No. 3 on ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s Big Board. He was a first-team AP All-America selection while Kirkpatrick was a second-teamer.
Kirkpatrick, a cornerback, is rated No. 8 overall by ESPN Scouts Inc. and is No. 22 on Kiper's Big Board.
The Tide beat LSU 21-0 in Monday night's national title game when the nation's top defense yielded only 92 total yards.
Richardson ran for 96 yards and scored the game's only touchdown in the fourth quarter after topping 100 as a freshman in the first title game against Texas.
Richardson said he wanted to be able to take care of his mother -- who he says has Lupus and still works at a seafood restaurant -- and two young daughters.
"It really took a toll on me to make sure my momma doesn't have to work anymore or my grandma," said Richardson, who lost two aunts to cancer in the last year. His grandmother had retired but returned to driving a school bus.
Richardson said he made the decision Wednesday night after sitting down with his uncle and brothers. He went home to Pensacola, Fla., from the national championship game in New Orleans to discuss his future with family.
Richardson said he received motivation from a childhood in a tough neighborhood where he lost "quite a few friends" to early deaths, drugs or prison.
"This place has changed my life," Richardson said. "It really turned me from a teenager to a man, and a grown man at that.
"I never thought I'd be in college playing football, or I never thought I'd be almost done with my degree. In 2½ years, I'm almost done with my college degree. That's big for me."
Hightower, the team leader with 85 tackles, was eligible for a fifth year of eligibility after missing most of the 2009 national championship season with a knee injury. He wasn't present at the news conference, and Saban only talked about Richardson and Kirkpatrick.
"These two young men have done a fabulous job of representing the University of Alabama, their family, themselves," Saban said. He praised "their commitment to excellence, not only on the field but the kind of people they've been, the kind of leadership they've provided.
"Both guys have done a really good job academically."
He said both players pledged to complete their degrees and are about 20 credit hours shy. Hightower, a team captain, graduated in December.
Hightower told ESPN's Joe Schad that he missed the news conference because he was "under the weather."
"I feel like I can bring a lot of physical play to an NFL team," Hightower said. "That's something I take pride in -- being physical and stopping the run."
Kirkpatrick has gotten plenty of personal tutelage from Saban, who works with the defensive backs.
"These are the things that we always dreamed of," he said. "Playing for two national champions is something that's unheard of. Some of the great teams have managed to do that, and fortunately I was on one of them.
"Coach Saban has taught me pretty much everything. I call him my father."
Saban was late to the announcement but with a good excuse -- a congratulatory phone call from President Barack Obama.
"He wanted everybody to know and all of our players to know that he saw the whole game and was very impressed and congratulated us," he said. "He's looking forward to us coming to the White House and we're looking forward to going and having that experience again."
Getting back to the title game next season and getting another White House invite will take more reloading, though Saban is expected to add to his string of highly rated recruiting classes.
Outland Trophy Award-winning left tackle Barrett Jones, right tackle D.J. Fluker and safety Robert Lester are returning for their senior seasons.
Still, the defections mean Alabama will lose six starters on offense and seven on defense.
"They've got a great group of young guys coming up," Kirkpatrick said. "They look like they're ready to be leaders."
Information from ESPN college football reporter Joe Schad and The Associated Press was used in this report.