The quarterbacks came from Hawaii and Texas. The secondary was stocked with players from New Jersey and Arizona. The offense had All-SEC players from as far west as California and as far south as Miami.
But in the middle of it all, Alabama’s 2017 team still had a handful of players who called Tuscaloosa home.
Starting right guard Lester Cotton grew up in Tuscaloosa and starred at Central High School. Linebacker Keith Holcombe and running back Brian Robinson Jr. both attended Hillcrest High School. Running back Bo Scarbrough came from Northport, too.
“I feel like it means a lot more to us,” Robinson said. “I can’t really judge how the rest of the team feels about what goes on, but I can tell it’s a lot more personal for us.”
Each player at Alabama has his own connection to the program, but the connection for those four started long before the first time an assistant coach called with a recruiting pitch. Holcombe’s father played offensive line for Alabama in the early 1980s. He and Robinson played their high school ball about seven miles from Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Like so many in Tuscaloosa, Cotton idolized Alabama players when he was growing up.
“When I was young, my mother worked at the University of Alabama as a cook,” Cotton said. “I used to come in when she cooked, I’d come in and sit around with the other players. I can’t remember who they were because I was so young, but I always said I wanted to come to ‘Bama.”
Now he’s one of those players. Cotton won the starting right guard job this season and started all season before a knee injury sidelined him for the national championship game.
Holcombe also stepped into a bigger role. He made a handful of starts at inside linebacker following injuries to starters and had a career-high 38 tackles, including two tackles for loss and a sack. He was also named special teams player of the week by the coaching staff four times.
Robinson, a 6-1, 218-pound freshman, played an important role on the scout team. He also came off the bench to rush for 165 yards while averaging 6.9 yards per carry. He said his proudest moment was his debut against Vanderbilt, but just being part of the team meant something to him.
“Just putting on the jersey was a proud moment for me,” he said.
This season was also a reunion for Robinson and Holcombe, who were once teammates at Hillcrest. The Patriots are one of only a handful of programs with multiple scholarship players on Alabama’s roster.
“We played a year at Hillcrest together, so it’s pretty cool to watch him have the success that he’s had,” Holcombe said of Robinson. “I know he’s worked his tail off since spring since he’s been here, fall camp. It’s been great to see a little kid in high school grow up and play. He’s going to have a great career here at Alabama.”
Cotton and his family moved away after his childhood before returning to Tuscaloosa for his sophomore year of high school. He said Central High School coach Dennis Conner pushed him to become the player he is now.
Cotton started five games as a sophomore but became a key piece on the offensive line this season.
“It’s been good, being from Tuscaloosa, representing the city, people kind of look up to me. People are watching,” Cotton said. “Anything and everything I do has an effect on other people.”
The biggest stars this season may have come from elsewhere. But the Crimson Tide coaches don’t always have to go around the country to fill out the roster. Sometimes, they don’t even have to leave the county.
“You don’t really hear about your hometown players actually playing that much and helping out the team,” Holcombe said. “You have those guys that walk on and do stuff like that, but actually scholarship guys that are getting to play and making a name for themselves not only in the town, but in the entire state and country, that’s one of those things that’s so great to be a part of.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.