It is the nature of college athletics that athletes move on, many of their careers ended by graduation or early entry into the professional ranks. At Alabama the graduation rate has been exceptional, 86 per cent last year, and as has been the case for a number of years under Coach Nick Saban, Bama will have perhaps the most graduates of any major bowl team.
With the addition of 23 graduates in December, Bama will have 29 men who have at least one degree suited up against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 31. That is the largest group of participating graduates in the Saban era.
Three men – quarterback Jacob Coker, center Ryan Kelly, and offensive lineman Isaac Luatua – earned master’s degrees in December.
Saban is not caught off guard by developments. Along with one of the nation’s best graduation rates in college football ranks, Crimson Tide players are also among the most likely to declare early for the NFL draft, and several members of this season’s team certainly will have that opportunity. This has been going on year-after-year under Saban, and year-after-year he returns with a re-tooled team competing for the national championship.
The exact components of Alabama’s 2016 team won’t be known for several months because of several factors, including players earning degrees and moving on or players with eligibility remaining -- with or without degrees -- taking a chance on the NFL. There also will be additions in recruiting, and, perhaps, attrition of some sort.
The graduates include a number of key players, including seniors Coker and Kelly on offense. They are joined by the starting right side of the offensive line, junior guard Alphonse Taylor and senior tackle Dominick Jackson. Back-up tailback Kenyan Drake is a senior who will be gone, while offensive tackle Korren Kirven, tight end Dakota Ball, and tight end-tackle are juniors with degrees. Senior slot receiver Richard Mullaney transferred to Alabama this season from Oregon State with his degree in hand.
Defensive senior graduates include starting linebackers Reggie Ragland, Denzel Devall, and Dillon Lee; defensive linemen Jarran Reed and Darren Lake; cornerback Cyrus Jones; and safety Geno Matias-Smith; and juniors, Ryan Anderson and defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson.
For those wondering about Bama’s upcoming quarterback competition, it is interesting to note that junior Alec Morris earned his degree in December, making him eligible for immediate transfer and eligibility. That is not to say he is contemplating such a move, only that he could. It has certainly been in vogue among quarterbacks (including Coker, who came from Florida State) since the graduate transfer rule was introduced.
Alabama players are in a brief Christmas break before assembling in Dallas Sunday to resume practice for the Cotton Bowl. Those practices will concentrate on preparing for Michigan State.
Prior to that, though, Saban said he had used some practice time in Tuscaloosa to look at younger players. “We do try to get some reps and quality reps and some quality work for some of the players who haven’t played as much, especially when we start out,” he said. “The more we get into game mode of what we’re working on to get ready for the game, probably we do less of that. So in those first three or four practices we did more of that. The more we start working on Michigan State we probably don’t do quite as much of that. It is an opportunity to develop young players and get them turns and reps. We find they’ll be more ready for next year because of it.”
There are several Alabama juniors without degrees who may elect to try for the NFL. Foremost among those would be tailback Derrick Henry, this season’s Heisman Trophy winner. Others are wide receiver ArDarius Stewart, tight end O.J. Howard. defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen, inside linebacker Reuben Foster, outside linebacker Tim Williams, and safety Eddie Jackson.
Don’t expect either of the junior kicking game specialists, placekicker Adam Griffith or snapper Cole Mazza, to leave early.
Saban and his assistant coaches surely have given the 2016 personnel dynamics plenty of thought. For now it looks like a challenging – perhaps daunting – task. But then, it always does.