**Note: This was a print-only story**
Alabama’s attempt at a third straight national championship fell short last season, but its run off the field continued.
According to Rivals.com, the Crimson Tide finished with the top-ranked recruiting class for the fourth year in a row and its sixth in the past seven years on Feb. 5, National Signing Day, of this year.
Unlike its past No. 1-ranked recruiting classes, though, many experts already consider the 2014 group to be the greatest of all-time. For the first time ever, all four of the top recruiting services – Rivals, 247Sports.com, Scout.com and ESPN.com – unanimously agreed on the Crimson Tide’s class ranking.
“Sixteen years of doing this,” said ESPN recruiting expert Jeremy Crabtree on the “Paul Finebaum Show” on National Signing Day. “Alabama’s class today is the best I’ve ever seen.”
UA landed signatures from 26 recruits from 15 different states, including Colorado, Iowa and Minnesota.
Among those signed, six are rated as five-star prospects, one more than the number of three-stars (five), per 247Sports Composite rankings.
But of that 26-man signing class, it’s the eight competing in practice this spring that will most likely benefit early. For some, the reward is already starting to show.
At least three of the early enrollees – No. 1 overall offensive tackle prospect, Cameron Robinson; No. 2 overall cornerback prospect, Tony Brown; and No. 13 overall wide receiver prospect, Cam Sims – are competing for possible starting jobs this season after left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, cornerback Deion Belue and wide receivers Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell left for the NFL Draft this offseason.
“It’s an interesting dynamic when you have twice as many guys going out for the draft as you had just two years ago,” Saban said. “It may force guys to play a little earlier in their career, which is fine with me as long as they’re ready to do that.”
Joining the aforementioned trio from this high school include safety Laurence “Hootie” Jones inside linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton and quarterback David Cornwell. With the exception of likely Cornwell as no true freshman quarterback has ever played a down under Saban at Alabama, Jones and Hamilton will also likely see the field in some capacity, whether it’s in mop-up duty or on special teams.
From junior college, Alabama added to its plethora of depth on the defensive line with defensive tackle Jarran Reed and defensive end D.J. Pettway, who returns more than a year removed from his involvement in an on-campus robbery in February 2013. Both could also see early playing time at positions that Alabama frequently rotates players in and out of during the course of a game.
Still, for many players, the early transition into college football is not an easy one to make, but one they believe will ultimately work to their advantage.
“It’s real tough,” Hamilton said. “Just getting calls from my friends, missing prom and all that kind of stuff, it’s real, real tough. You just have to go big picture and know that it will all pay off.”
For Saban, the benefits to enrolling early are obvious.
“I don’t think there’s any question about the fact that when you’re a mid-year guy your transition to college is a little smoother transition because you have more time to make the transition,” Saban said.
“When you come in the fall, you start practice, you have school, and you have the first game, all in a month. Now, our [early enrollees] will be able to be here three or four weeks before we do anything at all in football. We lift weights for a couple of weeks, then we start the season program. Then we have spring practice, then they have a month off in May. Then we go through it in the summertime in summer conditioning and then the fall they’re kind of going through things for the second or third time.”
Including this year’s class, Alabama has now had 50 early enrollees since 2008 – Saban’s first true recruiting class at Alabama after being hired late in the recruiting process by UA in January 2007. Out of those 50 early enrollees, a few of the names that stand out include Chance Warmack, Dee Milliner, Vinnie Sunseri, T.J. Yeldon, Amari Cooper and Derrick Henry.
That track record is promising enough to lead some players to believe that several of the 2014 early enrollees could turn out to be household names as well.
“We’re pretty confident just because the coaches, they know how to develop players,” senior linebacker and 2011 early enrollee Trey DePriest said. That’s what they did to everyone who became a star.”
Despite this year’s unanimous class ranking, Saban doesn’t buy that this is his best class ever – yet. To him, that title belongs to his 2008 recruiting class, a group that had 11 players drafted in the NFL, including five first-round picks, and multiple players win three national championships.
The door is still open, however, for that to change possibly in the years to come.
“I’m not making any comparisons to any classes, but I really do feel that the character of this current class, as well as the ability of this class, I think I’m very pleased with,” Saban said. “I will say that.”
6-7, 335 lbs
West Monroe, La. (West Monroe)
6-0, 188 lbs
Beaumont, Texas (Ozen)
Laurence “Hootie” Jones
6-2, 220 lbs
Monroe, La. (Neville)
6-5, 241 lbs
Norman, Okla. (Norman North)
6-4, 199 lbs
Monroe, La. (Ouachita Parish)
6-0, 240 lbs
Montgomery, Ala. (Carver)
6-4, 310 lbs
Scooba, Miss. (East Mississippi Community College)
6-3, 250 lbs
Scooba, Miss. (East Mississippi Community College)
Signed Letter of Intent
6-4, 265 lbs
Woodbridge, Va. (Woodbridge)
6-1, 175 lbs
Birmingham, Ala. (Hoover)
6-3, 220 lbs
Auburn, Ala. (Auburn)
6-2, 225 lbs
Northport, Ala. (IMG Academy)
6-4, 222 lbs
Columbia, S.C. (Spring Valley)
6-2.5, 215 lbs
Calera, Ala. (Calera)
6-4, 290 lbs
Cedar Falls, Iowa (Cedar Falls)
6-3, 325 lbs
Springdale, Ark. (Har-Ber)
6-7, 304 lbs
San Mateo, Calif. (College of San Mateo)
6-2.5, 292 lbs
St. Paul, Minn. (East Ridge)
6-5, 197 lbs
Cincinnati, Ohio (LaSalle)
6-1, 297 lbs
Mobile, Ala. (St. Paul’s Episcopal)
6-4, 210 lbs
Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Hillcrest)
6-2, 320 lbs
Bossier City, La. (Airline)
6-4, 329 lbs
Plant City, Fla. (Plant City)
6-2, 303 lbs
Rochelle, Ga. (Wilcox County)
6-3, 248 lbs
Milledgeville, Ga. (Georgia Military College)
6-4, 185 lbs
Denver, Colo. (J.K. Mullen)