Just 48 months ago, the Alabama football team was completely shut out of the NFL draft for the first time in generations.
By tonight, another segment of the Crimson Tide turnabout reaches one more milestone. Five former Alabama players will attend and are expected to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft in New York. That would top the four taken in last year’s opening round and almost erase memories of the 2008 shutout.
Running back Trent Richardson is expected to be the first taken followed by four members of defense joining him in midtown Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall. Linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower are first-round projections along with defensive backs Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick.
Alabama coach Nick Saban plans to join his five former players for the primetime event televised by ESPN.
“It really is a happy time to know these guys probably worked their whole athletic career to this point to have an opportunity like this,” said Saban who took over the program in 2007. “To see them finally sorta get the self-gratification of that being fulfilled with being picked by one of the teams in the first round, I certainly hope and pray these guys do get picked in the first round.”
Since producing zero picks in 2008, Alabama’s had a top-10 selection in each of the last three drafts. Four of those picks were juniors like Richardson. Andre Smith went sixth in 2009, followed by Rolando McClain (eighth in 2010), and Marcell Dareus (third) and Julio Jones (sixth) last April.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said Alabama’s “basically pro coaching” bumps the stock of players the program produces.
Saban credits the structure he patterned after his experience with three NFL teams. He was the Miami Dolphins coach in 2005 and ’06.
“I also think that because of things that are important in terms of being able to make it in the league, in terms of our experience, we sort of try to promote with our players from an attitude standpoint,” Saban said. “Being responsible for your own self-determination, defining the expectations for what we expect from them.”
The process can be dizzying for the first-round prospects. They’ve criss-crossed the country visiting with teams after the two March auditions held in Tuscaloosa.
With millions of dollars and the future of franchises on the line, no detail is skipped in the months leading up to this evening.
“It’s hard work. There’s nothing easy to it,” Upshaw said. “You have to put in more work than you did in high school. You get to sit on the couch and teams mail you letters and stuff. Like everyone’s saying, it’s basically a job interview.”
Most draft experts say Upshaw could be the next Alabama player taken after Richardson goes in the top five. Upshaw and Barron are projected to go in the middle of the 32-pick first round. Kirkpatrick and Hightower are most likely to land somewhere between the middle to late stages of the opening round.
Several more Alabama prospects are expected to go in the final six rounds of the draft Friday and Saturday. Cornerback DeQuan Menzie and nose guard Josh Chapman could be a mid-round picks while receiver Marquis Maze is projected to go in the later stages.