- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama coach Nick Saban had plenty to be proud about with the signing class he assembled last Wednesday. It was talented, deep and met every need the Crimson Tide had heading into the 2014 season. It was, according to ESPN and every other major recruiting outlet, the No. 1 class in the country by a wide margin.
But for Alabama, top recruiting classes are nothing new. It was the third consecutive year the Tide finished No. 1 in ESPN’s class rankings. In fact, no class assembled by Saban with the benefit of a full calendar year to recruit (since 2008) has finished lower than No. 3 overall.
There was something special about this class, apart from the record five five-star athletes and 19 ESPN 300 signees. This class of offensive linemen might be the most decorated in the program’s history. It is, at the very least, the best Saban has ever put together since arriving in Tuscaloosa.
According to Saban, solidifying the trenches was the goal.
“I think that was a point of emphasis early on when we started this, is that we needed to get quality people up front on both sides of the ball,” he told reporters at his annual signing day news conference. “We got six offensive linemen, and I think six defensive linemen. Even though three of those guys are junior college guys, we felt that it was important that we get some guys that had a little more maturity about them, a little more veteran experience.”
The defensive linemen could turn out to be just as special. Da’Shawn Hand, a dynamic athlete out of Virginia, was the second-best defensive end in the country, according to ESPN. Jarran Reed, a former Florida commitment, could make an instant impact after transferring from junior college, as could former freshman All-SEC choice D.J. Pettway. Johnny Dwight and Joshua Frazier could develop into solid contributors as well.
But make no mistake, the most impressive group of the class was the O-line, led by No. 1-rated offensive tackle Cameron Robinson of Monroe, La. The 6-foot-6, 325-pound athlete brings back visions of Cyrus Kouandjio, who was the No. 1 offensive tackle recruit when he came to Alabama only a few years ago. With a similar build and similar attributes to Robinson, Kouandjio started eight games as a true freshman before a knee injury caused him to miss the rest of the season.
Robinson isn’t the only impressive tackle, though. Dominick Jackson, the No. 1 junior college offensive tackle in the country, is ready to make a good first impression. At 6-foot-7 and 310 pounds, no one is going to miss the towering product from College of San Mateo in California.
Josh Casher and J.C. Hassenauer offer a similar two-deep at the center position. Casher, from nearby Mobile, Ala., and Hassenauer, of Minnesota, were ranked the No. 1 and No. 2 centers in the ESPN 300, respectively.
Throw in Montel McBride, the No. 28-ranked offensive guard in the country, and Ross Pierschbacher, the No. 3 offensive guard in 2014, and you’ve got an offensive line class with both quality and depth.
In fact, both areas are unmatched in Saban’s tenure with Alabama. The six prospects averaged a scout’s grade of 84.17. Compare that to the previous high of 81.67 in 2011 when Kouandjio and three other offensive linemen signed with Alabama. Four O-line classes (2007-10, 12) had an average scout’s grade of 80 or lower.
At this point it’s important to remember that rankings aren’t everything. As coaches were quick to point out throughout the last week, whatever stars a recruit “earned” in high school vanish upon enrollment. It’s no longer about who you are as much as what you can do.
Case in point: Alabama’s offensive line, circa 2012. That line, featuring All-Americans Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack, was hailed as the best in the country and arguably the best in the history of the program, clearing ground for an offense that took to Tide to the BCS National Championship.
But if you judged that line based on each player’s recruiting rankings, it would have been considered middle-of-the-road at best. Jones was a C+ tackle prospect out of Tennessee (scout’s grade: 78) and Warmack was thought of in much the same way (scout’s grade: 79). Right guard Anthony Steen was a three-star prospect who wound up starting three years at Alabama. Big D.J. Fluker (6-7, 325 pounds) was the most highly regarded recruit of the bunch, the No. 1 tackle prospect in the 2009 class and the No. 12 player overall, according to ESPN.
Saban, for his part, wouldn’t be sad to see recruiting rankings fall off a steep cliff. We can talk about how great Alabama’s O-line class is today, but he’d like to see it judged three years from now when players have developed and have an opportunity to move on to the NFL.
“The challenge for all these young men [who] got recruited [on Wednesday], wherever they're going, is to be able to stay focused on what they need to do to improve as players and do the things that they need to do to become very effective college football players,” Saban said. “Maybe the biggest challenge of all, maybe even more so going from college to the NFL, I think is having the maturity to be able to stay focused on the things they need to do to develop as players and keep a positive attitude toward the goal they have, understand what it takes to accomplish the goals they have and then have the discipline they have to execute it every day.”