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Saban rails against the growing culture of underclassmen leaving early for the NFL

April 8, 2019

TUSCALOOSA – Nick Saban is once again railing against the rising number of collegiate underclassmen leaving school early for the NFL, and that includes several of his own now-former players.

Over the last three offseasons, Alabama has had 15 total underclassmen leave for the NFL, including 12 in the last two cycles with five in 2018 and a program-record seven this January.

That contingent represents a small number in a trend nationally after 135 underclassmen chose to forgo their collegiate eligibility this year, surpassing the previous-record 119 a year ago.

“It’s the culture and it’s the trend, and I’ve actually changed how I talk to recruits now,” Saban said Saturday following the team’s second scrimmage of spring practice. “I tell every recruit that I talk to the reason that you’re going to college is to prepare yourself for the day you can’t play football. I think we have a lot of people way back in high school, aight, that look at college as a conduit to get to the NFL. And … we’ve had six or seven guys here that had second- or third-round grades that became top-15 and first-round draft picks and made a significant amount of money doing that, so there’s some really good examples of guys that did it that way. … Not just our players, there’s a significant amount of players that are not making good business decisions about what they do.”

Last season, only three of the five early entrants were taken in the first round – safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (Miami Dolphins), defensive tackle Daron Payne (Washington Redskins) and receiver Calvin Ridley (Atlanta Falcons) – while safety Ronnie Harrison (Jacksonville) and running back Bo Scarbrough (Dallas) went in the third and sixth round, respectively.

In response to a question regarding the significant number of early departures, and how they’re affecting the makeup of Alabama’s roster this spring, Saban went on a 3½-minute diatribe against the growing trend of underclassmen that aren’t projected to be first-round picks leaving early for the NFL.

“Now, we have guys that have no draft grades, seventh-round grades, free-agent grades, fifth-round grades that are going out of the draft. And the person that loses in that is the player,” Saban said. “If you’re a third-round draft pick, and we had one here last year (Ronnie Harrison was Alabama’s lone third-round pick a year ago) – I’m not going to say any names – goes and starts for his team, so he’s making third-round money, which is not that great.

“He’d be the first guy taken at his position this year, probably, and make $15-18 million more (per contract). So, the agent makes out, the club makes out, and now they’ve got a guy that’s going to play for that kind of money for three more years, aight.”

Even though he wasn’t specifically mentioned, Harrison responded to Saban’s comments Sunday morning over social media: “Coaches get so Butt Hurt Now Days About a Kid Making a Decision to live out his dreams and Go Pro. Makes me think do you really care about the success of the kid or how well your program perfoms? #KeepMyNameOutYaMouth #Bama #Saban #GodGotit”

For his part, Saban made it clear Saturday that he’s not being critical of the player, as much as a culture and system that promotes and even encourages younger players to get leave early for the NFL in an effort to get a quick paycheck, rather than potentially waiting a year to improve their draft stock.

“Look, I am 100-percent NFL. I’m 100-percent guys have careers, aight. But people have to be smart about the business decisions they make relative to the NFL because it is all business,” Saban said. “When people make emotional decisions, they’re going to have to suffer some really difficult consequences for themselves in the future because you don’t have to go out for the draft early. You can come back and play.

“And look, I’m all for every one of our guys that went out for the draft. I’m going to do everything I can do to try to get them drafted as high as they can get drafted, aight, because once they say they’re leaving, what benefits our program is that they do great, and I want them all to do great. But … there’s a significant amount of players that are not making good business decisions about what they do.”

It’s yet to be seen if everyone of Alabama’s program-record seven early entrants – running back Josh Jacobs, tight end Irv Smith Jr., cornerback Saivion Smith, safety Deionte Thompson, offensive tackle Jonah Williams, defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, and inside linebacker Mack Wilson – made the right decision, especially for players like Thompson and Wilson who Saban repeatedly tried to persuade to return to school for another year.

Meanwhile, Jacobs, Smith, and both Williamses – Jonah and Quinnen – are widely believed to be among the top two or three players at their respective positions, which will likely mean they’ll end up being first-round selections in the NFL Draft on April 25.

Thompson, once projected to be the No. 1 safety in this year’s class, has seen his stock fall after suffering a wrist injury during pre-Combine workouts and has been unable to do much in front of NFL scouts this spring, while Wilson’s stock has slipped a bit into more of a second-round option after some less-than-ideal workout numbers at Alabama’s Pro Day last month.

Saban’s renewed comments against some players leaving early for the NFL come during a spring when the Crimson Tide’s depth at key positions is seriously depleted, thanks in large part to the early departures of Smith Jr., Thompson, and Wilson. Saban has been especially vocal about the depth concerns at tight end and inside linebacker, where many of the younger players that the team will have to rely on haven’t developed quickly enough to “play winning football” in Saban’s eyes.

Even the loss of likely Top-5 pick Quinnen Williams – who wasn’t even a starter at this point last season, let alone an option to leave early – is showing ramifications as the Tide is currently utilizing freshman early enrollee DJ Dale as its starting nose guard after redshirt sophomore Phidarian Mathis struggled in his opportunity at the position earlier this spring.

Not that Saban is going to allow that to become an excuse this season, or this spring.

“Yeah, it affects our team. Our team turns over more quickly. We just have to have more better young guys that can go out there and learn how to play and provide depth for the team,” Saban said. “And it’s not going to be an excuse for what kind of quality we put on the field. We’ve just got to do a better job of coaching because you’ve got to do a better job of developing young players because they’re going to have to play more quickly.”