Saban's Recruiting Talents on Display

Nick Saban put together two of the best recruiting classes in recent college football history at LSU in 2003 and 2004. Now he must lead Alabama against the powerhouse team he helped build.



Everyone knows Nick Saban has a reputation as a great recruiter. And if you don't know it or believe it, all you need to do is look on LSU's side of the ball on Saturday. Depending upon what set the Tigers begin the game on both offense or defense, they'll feature 16, 17 or 18 first-teamers who were recruited to LSU by Saban.

Saban's 2003 and 2004 recruiting classes at LSU were two of the best in recent Southeastern Conference history, each ranking second nationally to Southern Cal. Those two classes form the backbone of a Tigers' team that is arguably the most talented in the country.

LSU's 2003 class signed after Saban's third year in Baton Rouge, a season that ended in disappointing fashion with late losses to Alabama and Arkansas. But the Tigers had won the SEC championship the season before (2001) and Saban's recruiting network was already firmly in place.

The 27-player class of 2003 included two players rated as 5-star prospects by Scout.com, and an incredible 15 rated as 4-stars. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell and junior-college linebacker Kenny Hollis were the top catches, each rated among the Top 30 players in the country by Scout.com.

The bulk of the top talent from the 2003 class is already in the NFL, including Russell, safety LaRon Landry and wide receivers Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis. All four were first-round draft picks this past April, with Russell going No.1 overall to the Oakland Raiders and Landry going No.6 to the Washington Redskins.

The remaining seven players from the 2003 class are now fifth-year seniors at LSU, and all seven have starting experience. They include quarterback Matt Flynn, offensive tackle Carnell Stewart, defensive end Kirston Pittman and cornerback Jonathan Zenon, in addition to punter Patrick Fisher, tight end Keith Zinger and offensive lineman Will Arnold.

Zinger had started the last two seasons before losing his job to up-and-coming sophomore Richard Dickson, while Arnold is a multi-year starter who has been sidelined all season by a viral infection.

Not included in this group is one-time starting tailback Alley Broussard, who was quit the team in July after a series of knee injuries and has since resurfaced at Missouri Southern.

The 2004 LSU class signed on the heels of the Tigers' BCS national championship team, and was arguably even more talented than the previous year's group. Of the 29 signees, four were rated as 5-star prospects by Scout.com, while nine were rated as 4-stars.

Only two of the four 5-stars remain on the team, as defensive tackle Claude Wroten (a junior-college transfer) has since moved on to the NFL and wide receiver Xavier Carter quit football to concentrate on track in hopes of making the 2008 U.S. Olympic team (he posted the second-fastest 200-meter time ever in a meet in Switzerland last year).

Defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and wide receiver Early Doucet remain with the Tigers, and both are among the best in the country at their positions.

Also members of that 2004 class are 11 other current LSU starters, including safety Craig Steltz, offensive linemen Herman Johnson and Brett Helms, running back Jacob Hester and linebacker Luke Sanders.

Not included among those 11 is defensive tackle Charles Alexander, who began the year as a starter, but was lost to a knee injury earlier this season (fellow class-of-2004 member Marlon Favorite has taken his place).

Two of the biggest recruiting success stories in recent years were also in that class. Defensive end Tyson Jackson was rated a 2-star prospect by Scout.com out of high school, while linebacker Ali Highsmith merited just a 1-star rating. But both are now among the best players in the SEC at their positions, and almost certainly destined to play in the NFL.

Current coach Les Miles has put together three straight solid classes since arriving Baton Rouge, signing groups ranked 19th, tied for 7th and 5th nationally, respectively, by Scout.com.

The 2005 class, Miles' first, was hurt partly by Saban's departure and partly because it contained only 13 signees due to a small senior class the previous season.

Six of those 13 signees from the 2005 class committed to LSU before Saban left for the NFL's Miami Dolphins the day after the Capital One Bowl (he had announced his departure on Christmas Day).

Among those 2005 signees who committed under Saban were three starters: offensive linemen Lyle Hitt and Ciron Black and linebacker Darry Beckwith.

Miles brought in some big-time talent on his own, including back-up quarterback Ryan Perrilloux, who was rated the No. 2 player in the nation coming out of high school. Perrilloux was committed to Texas for several months before switching to LSU on signing day.

Miles also found a gem in pint-sized wide receiver Trindon Holliday, a 2-star prospect when he signed who is now a valuable situational and special-teams weapon. Brandon LaFell, currently the Tigers' leading receiver, also committed after Miles' arrival.

Though Saban probably targeted some of them during his time in Baton Rouge, Miles has to get almost all the credit for the 2006 and 2007 signing classes. Those players are in just their second and first years, respectively, of college football, but some --- most prominently tight end Dickson, running back Keiland Williams and wide receivers Demetrius Byrd and Terrance Toliver --- have already begun to contribute.

Miles has posted a 29-5 record in two-plus seasons in Baton Rouge, including back-to-back 11-win campaigns before this one. He's done it largely with players recruited by Saban, although a lesser coach than Miles would probably have won far fewer games.

Former NFL coach Bum Phillips once said of his longtime buddy Paul "Bear" Bryant, "he could take his'n and beat your'n, and then take your'n and beat his'n."

If Saban leads Alabama past LSU on Saturday, he'll have accomplished something very near to just that.

Creg Stephenson has covered Crimson Tide athletics for numerous print and online publications since 1994, and currently writes for The Anniston Star. Email him at creg_stephenson@hotmail.com

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