Two More Juniors Headed For NFL

You win some and you lose some. Alabama's football team has won a lot in the last three years, including two national championships, the latest this week. And, as expected, the Crimson Tide will lose some of the key members of the 2011 national title team.

Two juniors and a fourth-year junior announced Thursday that they will enter the NFL draft and forego a final seasons of eligibility at Alabama. Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban was on hand to give his blessing to the decisions of the two players on hand for the announcement.

Tailback Trent Richardson and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick announced Thursday that they will be entering the 2012 NFL draft. In addition, junior linebacker Dont'a Hightower had long ago decided he will also declare for the draft.

It previously had been announced by offensive linemen Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker, and Chance Warmack that they would return for their final season of eligibility. One other player who had been considered as a possibility for the draft, junior safety Robert Lester, was reported by athletics officials as also going to return for the 2012 season. Juniors have until Sunday to declare for the draft.

Both Richardson and Kirkpatrick are projected as first-round draft choices, as are seniors safety Mark Barron and outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw. Hightower, and seniors cornerback DeQuan Menzie, center William Vlachos, wide receiver Maquis Maze, nose tackle Josh Chapman, and H-back Brad Smelley are among others who could be drafted.

Last year, Alabama had three juniors and one senior selected in the first round of the NFL draft -- senior offensive tackle James Carpenter, junior tailback Mark Ingram, junior wide receiver Julio Jones, and junior defensive end Marcell Dareus.

Saban was not disappointed in the decisions of Richardson and Kirkpatrick.

"These young men have done a fabulous job of representing the University of Alabama, their families and themselves with their hard work, their dedication and their commitment to excellence, not only on the football field, but also by the kind of people that they have been," Saban said. "I know it is a difficult decision for these guys. They both love the University of Alabama, but they have worked hard all their lives to create the opportunity to play at a place like this, to have the success they have had at a place like this, and also to create opportunities for themselves and their future. I want you to know that we are 100 percent supportive of both of these young men in terms of what their choice is."

Saban pointed out that the Crimson Tide won two national championships, three bowl games, and had a record of 36-4 in the three seasons Richardson and Kirkpatrick were on the field.

Both players called it a "sad time and a happy time."

Richardson was Alabama's second Heisman Trophy finalist in the last three years, the winner of the Doak Walker Award, and a unanimous first-team All-America in 2011. After backing up former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram in his first two seasons, Richardson set the school single-season record with 1,679 yards rushing and 21 rushing touchdowns. He also tied the school and SEC record with 24 total touchdowns while setting the school mark for all-purpose yards with 2,083. The final carry of his Bama career was a 34-yard touchdown run for the final points in Bama's 21-0 victory over LSU in the BCS National Championship Game at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.

"We love the support that The University, Tuscaloosa, and Coach Saban have given (my family)," said Richardson. "I would never have wanted to play for another college coach. Coach Burton Burns is the best running backs coach I have ever played for or ever seen. The off-the-field stuff he tries to provide for us in being a father figure is big for me. I could never repay Alabama for what it has meant in my life. It has helped raise me from being a teenager to a young man. This is a sad time, and a happy time. I am going to try to represent Alabama in a class way going into the draft this year."

Kirkpatrick leaves after garnering first-team All-America honors in 2011 and was a two-year starter for Alabama at cornerback. He made 30 tackles this season, helping the Tide capture the National Championship. Kirkpatrick also made four tackles for loss, broke up nine passes and forced two fumbles.

"After the game my mom came to talk to me, and said she thought it was time and I felt the same way in my heart, which is what led to my decision," said Kirkpatrick. "It was a family decision that we went back and forth with, but I think we made the right decision and I am going to stand by that decision.

"These past years have meant a lot, just to be able to be around a group of guys that I have learned so much from. We all come from different backgrounds with different stories, and we manage to have fun. Having the guidance of a great coach like Coach Saban who has molded me into a young man has been a great opportunity."

Saban said both juniors are within 20 credit hours of graduation and that both have promised him they will continue their educations and earn their degrees.

Although unable to be present at the press conference on Thursday, Hightower also made his decision known in a written statement. It said:

"After four great years at The University of Alabama, I have decided it is time to make myself eligible for the NFL Draft. The chance to be a key part of our national championship team this year made for the perfect end of my Alabama career. I can't thank Coach Saban, Coach Smart, and the entire coaching staff enough for helping mold me into the player and person I am today. I also want to say thanks to my teammates and everyone at The University of Alabama that helped make this such a special experience."

Hightower, a consensus first-team All-America in 2011, captained the Crimson Tide defense and led the squad with 85 tackles. He recorded 11 tackles for loss (-46 yards), four sacks (-26 yards), with one interception, eight quarterback pressures, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Hightower started 40 games, was a part of two national championship teams. During his four years at The Capstone, the Tide posted a 48-6 record.

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