A reasonable assumption is that the leader of the Alabama football program is the head coach, Nick Saban. Saban, though, believes that leadership from within the team is critical to success, and it’s not difficult to connect the dots.
Saban has coached Alabama to four national championships in the past seven years. To be sure, the Crimson Tide has had very good players to accomplish that feat, but Bama has had to out-perform many, many teams who also had very fine players.
Leaders are not necessarily the best players, and coaches believe that it’s a bonus when they are. If the best player is getting the job done in practice, he is not fighting for a job. He’s trying to get better, which makes the team better, and his effort is not lost on the rest of the team.
Reporters are not on the practice field or in the lockerroom, where leadership frequently is most demonstrated, but covering the team gives some insight into the men who are those leaders. Had sportswriters been polled at any time during last year’s national championship season, it’s a safe bet that all would have said linebacker Reggie Ragland and center Ryan Kelly would be selected captains.
The other captains selected by the team last season were Heisman Trophy winning tailback Derrick Henry and quarterback Jacob Coker.
Prior to the season not many would have picked out Henry, who was subdued with the media, but his work to become that great player was leadership by example.
Coker developed into that leader over the course of the season, and was the type man that any team wants its quarterback to be. Coker, by all accounts, won the team over after he had lost his starting job, and fought back to win the job and all 14 games in which he was the starting QB.
By nature of the job, the quarterback is often the leader of the offense.
This year, there is no clue as to which of three candidates – Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell, or Blake Barnett -- will win the quarterback job, but until that man emerges it would be difficult for him to be a leader.
Alabama certainly has had quarterbacks who were leaders under Saban, notably Greg McElroy and Blake Sims. Sims, like Coker, became that leader during the course of his one year as a starter. AJ McCarron was an excellent player and he was voted a captain of the 2013 team, but outside (again, in meetings – almost confrontations – with reporters), he hardly seemed like the team man one expects a leader to be.
In most years, an educated guess of Alabama football leaders is possible by early in the season, and sometimes earlier based on past performance.
Almost everyone expected men like Javier Arenas, Mike Johnson, Mark Barron, Dont’a Hightower, Trent Richardson, Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, C.J. Mosley, Kevin Norwood, Landon Collins, and Jalston Fowler to be team leaders. But there are surprises. Not until late in his final year was it evident that offensive tackle D.J. Fluker was such a man.
After just one day of spring practice, Saban isn’t ready to name leaders for the 2016 team, certainly, although some likely have shown that trait last season and in the off-season program and – important to Saban – in the classroom.
The Tide coach did share thoughts on what he is looking for. He said, “I think we want everybody that has a get-it-done type of attitude; not only has to have a get-it-done type of attitude, but they also have to take ownership for people who aren’t getting it done because they’re unable to do things to the standard that we want to do it.
“I do think this is a work in progress and I do think that players have to accept roles. So far, these are things that need to continue to develop. This is not something that just happens. The team chemistry last year happened over time. I think we’ll see how this team develops over time.”
There are some who appear to us on the outside to have those qualities, men like tight end O.J. Howard (who was most valuable offensive player in the College Football Playoff national championship game win over Clemson) and sophomore guard Ross Pierschbacher on offense. On defense, look for it to come again from the middle linebacker position, Reuben Foster, and defensive linemen Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson, and safety Eddie Jackson (most valuable defensive player in that national championship game).
But, as Saban said, it remains to be seen who will carry through with the difficult task of being a leader.