How Nick Saban built a South Florida recruiting pipeline to Alabama football

Jerell Rushin
The Tuscaloosa News

Alabama football coach Nick Saban's first South Florida recruit has not been indicative of what he and the Crimson Tide would find in the Sunshine State during his legendary 15-year tenure.

The continental United States' southernmost location is home to some of Alabama's most important recruits during the Saban era, which has featured six national championships. Those prospects have helped Alabama keep ahead of the competition as college football evolves.

Five South Florida Alabama recruits have played in NFL regular-season games, made six total Pro Bowls and one All-Pro first-team.

"There’s a lot of good players, No. 1," Saban said ahead of next week's opener against Miami. "There’s a lot of good programs, No. 2. It’s an area that we recruited for many, many years, so we had a lot of good relationships with a lot of good people."

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Lake Worth quarterback Star Jackson committed to Alabama in the class of 2008, becoming Saban's first South Florida recruit. Jackson transferred to Georgia State after two seasons.

Alabama only had one other South Florida recruit in Saban's first five years. South Dade's Ed Stinson finished with 105 tackles in four seasons and was drafted in 2014.

But Saban and his staff eventually broke through in Miami-Dade, Broward and surrounding counties. Alabama's next two South Florida recruits became household names — Amari Cooper and defensive back Eddie Jackson.

Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper (9) hauls in a touchdown against Florida's Vernon Hargreaves, III, (1) at Bryant Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala. on Saturday September 20,  2014.

Cooper, a class of 2012 wide receiver commit, was instrumental in Alabama's transition from run-dominant bully-ball to, well, bully-ball via pass.

Before Cooper set ablaze the SEC as a true freshman, no Alabama starting quarterback under Saban threw more than 20 touchdown passes in a season. Since, only one starter, Jalen Hurts in 2017, hasn't reached the mark.

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Cooper made arguably Alabama's biggest play in the Saban era at the time. Trailing Georgia 28-25 in the fourth quarter of the 2012 SEC Championship Game, Cooper got past the defense and caught the go-ahead touchdown.

The long reception sent Alabama to the BCS Championship Game, where it steamrolled Notre Dame at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, just 10 miles from Cooper's Northwestern High School.

Cooper left for the NFL in 2014 as Alabama's career leader in receptions (228), yards (3,463) and touchdowns (31) by wide margins. Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith is the only receiver to top Cooper's records.

Jan 8, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Calvin Ridley (3) celebrates scoring a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Georgia Bulldogs in the 2018 CFP national championship college football game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Calvin Ridley committed to Alabama from Monarch High School along with linebacker Shawn Burgess-Becker in the class of 2015. Monarch assistant coach Russ Swain said Alabama was always calling to secure Ridley's commitment. Alabama needed receivers who could make plays in space.

And like Cooper, Ridley led Alabama in receiving as a true freshman with 1,045 yards, seven touchdowns and 89 receptions. His biggest play at Alabama was the game-tying touchdown in the 2017 national championship to force overtime, where Alabama would beat Georgia.

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"Calvin Ridley was like God to the rest of them, they just followed him there, plus the system was a perfect fit," Swain said.

Alabama's offense was always competent under Saban, usually inside the top 20 in points per game. It flipped to dynamic when Ridley and fellow South Florida receiver Jerry Jeudy were there.

Alabama wide receiver Jerry Jeudy (4) catches a long pass for a touchdown as he beats Michigan Wolverines defensive back Daxton Hill (30) during the first half of the Citrus Bowl Jan. 1, 2020 in Orlando. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa have a lot to do with that. Alabama knew it needed quarterbacks who would excel in the changing game. It had to pair them with receivers who could create separation and be electric after the catch.

Alabama went to South Florida to get them.

"I think the fact that there’s a lot of good players there, a lot of good programs, a lot of good coaches — and we’ve done it for a long time, have a lot of good relationships — is probably the foundation to the whole circumstance," Saban said.

In Saban's first eight seasons, Cooper and Julio Jones were Alabama's only A-list pass-catchers before Ridley helped Alabama reach the national championship three straight seasons from 2015 through 2017.

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Alabama remained a top-20 scoring offense during Ridley's tenure, but has ranked second or third every season since.

The South Florida connection has been a mutually beneficial. Swain said the Monarch staff tells its players to "be bigger than your environment." Ridley could have stayed home and committed to Miami over of Alabama. Instead, three years after enrolling, Ridley became the No. 26 pick in 2018 NFL Draft.

"The program has created a lot of positive outcomes for guys that have come to school here," Saban said. "I think players see that and I think that’s why they’re interested in the culture that we have here in terms of what we do to help players develop personally, academically and athletically."

First-round 2021 NFL Draft selection Patrick Surtain II and defensive backs Josh Jobe, Jordan Battle and Daniel Wright became other South Florida natives to play large roles in UA winning the national championship in Miami Gardens when Alabama defeated Ohio State in January.

St. Thomas Aquinas High has more players, four, at Alabama than any traditional out-of-state high school. Battle didn't start until his junior season at STA.

The behind-the-scenes development Battle and other players' experience at STA, one of the nation's top programs, is similar to what many go through at Alabama before starting, STA assistant coach Twan Russell said. When it was Battle's time to start, he made the unglamorous plays but also took over games.

"I think those are the types of things that Alabama wanted, and I think they like athletes from this school because when they get them they know they're going to be smart," Russell said. "They've played football at a high level. They're going to have those intangibles."

Tim Smith, Thaiu Jones-Bell, Xavier Williams and Braylen Ingraham are other South Florida veterans at Alabama. Freshmen from South Florida are long snapper Kade Wehby and linebackers Dallas Turner and Keanu Koht, the No. 9 and 59 recruits in the nation, respectively, according to the 247Sports Composite.

Contact Jerell Rushin at 205-600-4015 or jrushin@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JerellRushin_.