On one hand, there’s no surprise that Alabama is taking top billing at the annual NFL Combine in Indianapolis. Talent in, talent out, after all. Recruit the best and you will likely have the best after three or four years. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Da’Shawn Hand, Calvin Ridley, Rashad Evans and Da’Ron Payne all fit the description.
But if you look deeper, the combine reveals Alabama as something more than a warehouse for highly athletic players. The players, for the most part, look poised and prepared. There’s been no repeat of last year’s Reuben Foster hysteria, where Foster’s admittedly volatile personality led to an argument (or an altercation, depending on the version of events you embrace) with a medical staff member. That provided ample grist for the two-month NFL Mock Draft comments on social media, to the extent that some prognosticators dropped Foster out of the first round — and may have let the 49ers get a valuable asset at a spot that he would not have otherwise reached. (To be fair, Foster does need to get all of his off-the-field peccadilloes under control in order to have the best career possible.)
This year, the worst thing that happened was that Tony Brown said a bad word when he was whistled for a false start in one of his 40-yard dash attempts. Yes, that was picked up as a “character flaw” by some observers, even though it seemed more like a momentary frustration. Brown also turned in a 4.35 40 time, which was impressive.
For the most part, things went smoothly from the drills to the interviews. The performances of Fitzpatrick, Anthony Averett, Brown, Ronnie Harrison (who chose not to run a 40) and Levi Wallace, a walk-on who adds a different dimension to the “great recruits” narrative, sparked an on-line debate between Alabama fans, LSU fans and Florida State fans about which deserves the title of “DBU,” or “Defensive Back University.” Debates are easier to win than actual games, after all. Even Texas A&M tried to get into the act, thanks to Jimbo Fisher’s FSU connection. Florida State’s Derwin James — hyped since the preseason — is a great athlete and a first-round pick. LSU has several outstanding defensive backs in the NFL. Shots were fired via Twitter. Alabama even put out a recruiting-style online poster with its NFL Combine participants and the comment “#DBU. Some hashtag it, others live it.”
Recruiting never stops.
Alabama was well-represented at other positions, of course. Payne, who was without argument the defensive MVP of the College Football Playoff, further secured his first-round status on the defensive line. Bo Scarborough had excellent broad jump and 40-yard-dash performance although he still has to assuage concerns about his durability. Ridley did not do anything to change the consensus opinion that he will be the first wide receiver chosen but Robert Foster, nearly invisible for much of 2017, was impressive as well. Hand, who weighed in at 298 pounds and likely improved his stock.
More and more, Alabama has been erasing the tired cliche that the players that it sends to the league have reached their ceiling in college. This group seems prepared to continue changing that narrative. (It will never go away completely as long as laziness is a thing.) Meanwhile, Alabama and its rivals will continue to use the combine, and then the NFL Draft itself, as another battlefield in the never-ending war for recruits.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.