Alabama built the nation’s best recruiting class then added more to it.
With 25 players already signed entering Wednesday’s national signing day, the Crimson Tide received two more letters of intent: from five-star running back Camar Wheaton, who had already committed, and four-star safety Terrion Arnold, who was previously uncommitted.
The result was the highest-rated incoming class in modern history, according to 247 Sports’ grading.
“For the most part, we were able to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish with this recruiting class,” Nick Saban said.
Time will tell whether the class is Saban’s best. On-field performance is all that matters at this point, and the credentials of the school’s 2017 group will be hard to top.
But with 14 members of the class already enrolled and another 13 arriving in the summer, what can we already take away from the 27 total players that make up the 2021 signing class?
1. The rich get richer: Is Alabama’s historically dominant recruiting class a problem for college football as a whole? That is a complicated question in which one’s opinion is shaped largely on whether they are a fan of the school or not. But from a macro perspective, the years-long debate about whether Alabama’s sustained success is good for the sport is sure to be stoked after Wednesday’s signing day.
The topic was center stage a month ago when, outside of the games themselves, much of the national conversation around the College Football Playoff was about the redundancy of the schools competing and the centralization of power at the top. The television audience for Alabama’s national championship win over Ohio State was the smallest of the playoff era, leading to more talk about “Alabama fatigue” and the dominance of a few schools.
The Tide’s incredible recruiting haul might only intensify questions about how, or if, the playing field can to be leveled in college football to prevent a lack of interest among fans outside of a few regions.
During an interview Wednesday with Rivals.com, Saban was asked about a USA Today story last month exploring breaking up Alabama’s monopoly. Presented with the proposed idea of him retiring, Saban smiled, shook his head and chuckled before answering the question of whether winning has become “too easy” for him.
“It’s not easy,” Saban responded. “It’s never easy.”
Saban also insisted that building the nation’s top-rated recruiting class is also not as simple as asking players to come. “We don’t pick guys. There’s a lot of competition in recruiting from people we recruit against — whether it’s USC, Texas, Georgia, Florida, LSU, great programs in our league and around the country — they all have a lot to offer, too.”
The success of LSU in 2019 could be used as evidence that the system is not broken. The Tigers went undefeated, knocked off Alabama and won a national championship with a quarterback, Joe Burrow, who was the 280th-rated player in his recruiting class. Alabama won a title with the 399th-rated player, Mac Jones, from his class. Having a class loaded with five-star talents is no guarantee of success, and year to year different programs are capable of winning.
However, eye-rolling over another gold-plated Alabama recruiting class will persist, and it is in the best interest of the sport for that not to turn into fan apathy.
2. Immediate impact at receiver: Saban made it clear after early signing day that Alabama needed to restock at wide receiver after losing its four top players to the NFL in last year’s and this year’s drafts. The Tide hit their mark in signing three of the top six and four of the top 10 receivers as rated by 247 Sports. Those four wideouts — Jacorey Brooks, Agiye Hall, JoJo Earle and Christian Leary — could all have a chance to play as freshmen, which Saban seemed to emphasize Wednesday.
“I use the example a lot of times when we were playing Georgia in the national championship game,” he said. “[DeVonta Smith] caught the touchdown pass; he was a freshman. [Henry] Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy were both in there. [Alex] Leatherwood was playing left tackle, Najee [Harris] was playing tailback and Tua [Tagovailoa] was playing quarterback. So, there’s gonna be a lot of opportunity at a lot of positions, but especially at wide receiver for these guys to make a contribution.”
3. Quarterback should not be overlooked: All eyes this spring and summer will be on rising sophomore quarterback Bryce Young, a five-star recruit in last year’s class. But four-star early freshman enrollee Jalen Milroe is more than just a throw-in for the 2021 class. “We had Jalen in camp way back when and we really liked his skill set,” Saban said. “He’s really athletic. He’s really accurate as a passer. He’s got a strong arm. He’s got a really good disposition about himself as a leader and a great personality that I think people can sort of follow. And we’re excited to have him here. He was one of the top guys in the country in our opinion, and we were really happy to get him here.”
As you might expect, Saban referenced the competition at quarterback and although Young is the odds-on favorite to start in 2021, Milroe is also capable of seeing the field. Having both Tagovailoa and Jones emerge as high NFL draft picks from the 2017 class is a reminder of that.
4. Basketball aspirations for two: One of the side storylines to watch with the 2021 class will be two of its players, Pinson Valley’s Ga’Quincy McKinstry and newly-signed Tallahassee, Florida safety Terrion Arnold, wanting to also play basketball. McKinstry, an early enrollee, has already joined the basketball team for practice and has been on the bench during games although not uniform. Coach Nate Oats has discussed some of the benefits of him potentially playing next season as well as the challenges to his time because of football. Saban on Wednesday addressed the topic as well.
“I’ve told players that that they can play other sports,” he said. “We kind of what them to do what they have to do in football when they’re freshmen so that they kind of learn the ropes. We’ve had guys run track here, several guys. We don’t have issues with guys playing other sports. [Keith] Holcombe played baseball. And I had several guys at Michigan State that played basketball, tried to play basketball, tried to do both.
“I’m happy with these guys, and Coach Oats and I have a good understanding of how we try to do it. It’s a little bit more difficult to play basketball because the seasons run together a little more, but if guys can contribute to our basketball program here, I’m all for it. And we’re going to do everything to help them develop as football players, and when they don’t have football responsibilities they can certainly go play basketball. If they can contribute to our team, I’ll be happy for them and happy for our basketball program.”
Oats chimed in Wednesday evening about Arnold.
“He’s tough. [Assistant] Coach [Bryan] Hodgson as been recruiting him hard,” Oats said after a win over LSU. “Him and Kool-Aid [McKinstry] are both guys that can play both [sports]. We teamed up with football to recruit him. He’s a tough, gritty point guard type that can get in the ball. We like him. Shoot, I FaceTimed with him this afternoon. Excited to bring him in.”
5. Any weakness in the class? Alabama added two five-star offensive linemen in this class along with a five-star running back, edge rusher, defensive lineman, cornerback and wide receiver. It shored up many other spots with four-star players among the country’s highest-rated at their positions. But the one position where the program has dug deeper in the talent pool in recent cycles has been tight end.
Alabama signed Robbie Ouzts, the 31st-ranked tight end by 247 Sports, in this class. Last year’s class included one tight end, Caden Clark, who was the 20th-rated player at his position. Clark gray-shirted because of an injury and will join the team this year. The pair of three-star prospects could outperform expectations, but the position has the potential to be a thinner group outside of promising junior Jahleel Billingsley.
Part of the issue in recruiting some of the country’s top high school tight ends is presumably that Alabama’s offense has evolved to focus heavily on wide receivers who eat up targets in the passing game. Statistical production at the position has gone down since the days of Irv Smith and O.J. Howard, the latter being a five-star recruit in 2013.
Alabama dipped into the transfer portal last year and added Carl Tucker in an effort to boost the tight end position, but he was a non-factor last season. Instead, the Tide used offensive lineman Kendall Randolph at tight end to provide a blocking presence while leaning on Billingsley and the now-departed Miller Forristall in the passing game.
When new Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien last held that job in 2011 for the New England Patriots, his second- and third-leading receivers during a Super Bowl run were tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. This season, O’Brien figures to lean more on a wide receiver room stacked with some of the country’s best college talent.
Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.