E.J. Junior made his way onto the College Football Hall of Fame ballot this year, a much-deserved honor for the former University of Alabama football star. Hopefully, the electors will elevate him, deservedly, into the Hall itself when the next class is announced in January 2018 from a strong group of nominees.
For those too young to remember, Junior was a standout defensive end (or linebacker, depending on how you choose to describe the alignment) from 1977 through 1980, a great run of Alabama defenses. He played with one teammate who is already in the College Football Hall of Fame (Marty Lyons), another who should be in (Don McNeal) and a third (center Dwight Stephenson) whose omission defies logical explanation.
If Junior makes it, he will be the eighth Paul “Bear” Bryant player from Alabama selected. On the one hand, seven (Lyons, John Hannah, Lee Roy Jordan, Woodrow Lowe, Johnny Musso, Billy Neighbors and Ozzie Newsome) is impressive. On the other hand, one looks at the quarter-century of Bryant’s career in Tuscaloosa and asks “only seven?” That’s the problem – a logjam created by Hall of Fame criteria and probably a dash or two of politics – and it is a problem that’s going to be repeated if not magnified in a couple of decades or so.
First, some of the names that are immediately and unshakably identifiable with Bryant’s early years – Pat Trammell, Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler – aren’t likely to ever be in the College Football Hall of Fame because they didn’t make the required first-team All-America teams required for nomination. That puts a tight squeeze on all quarterbacks, since there is usually only one “consensus” quarterbacks in a given season. Namath was also hampered from that recognition by injuries, and no one is going to complain about Roger Staubach being the All-America quarterback in 1963. But it’s tough to see Namath and Stabler pushed aside by John Huarte and Gary Beban. It’s worse to see Stephenson sidelined because of North Carolina State’s Jim Richter, also a great center, a 16-year pro and a deserving inductee. It’s possible, though, that there were two great centers playing at one time, and both should be in.
Alabama has had two post-Bryant players inducted because of their transcendent talents, but it took an organized effort to get Derrick Thomas – Derrick Thomas! – in. Shaun Alexander and Chris Samuels should make it someday. So should Antonio Langham. David Palmer should get in someday but I am not sure he will. Then will come the wave of Saban players. Saban himself isn’t the issue – he’s an automatic first ballot choice. But Alabama has produced so many qualified players in the past decade that it will be interesting to see what the run of selections will be.
AJ McCarron, for instance, is an automatic. He was an first-team All-American in his senior year on the coaches’ (AFCA) team, a two-time national champion, a Maxwell Award winner and the owner of a plethora of school passing records. That’s as ironclad as a resume gets. Amari Cooper will make it, and Barrett Jones. Heisman winners Derrick Henry and Mark Ingram will get there because they are (deserving) Heisman winners.
But Julio Jones? That’s going to be problematic because he never made first-team All-American, and he’s likely to end up like Namath, Stabler and Stephenson, NFL Hall of Famers who aren’t enshrined in Atlanta.
For today, though, best wishes to E.J. Junior III. He deserves to be in.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.
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