TUSCALOOSA — Jonah Williams had been planning for this day since before ever putting on a crimson and white jersey.
But for Josh Jacobs, Irv Smith Jr. and Quinnen Williams, Friday’s announcement came about much more recently and with considerable indecision.
Still, the four Alabama players are headed the same direction. They announced Friday morning they will enter this year's NFL draft. Jonah Williams, Quinnen Williams and Jacobs released their decisions at a news conference at the Alabama football building on campus. Smith’s announcement came through social media, because of a commitment involving teammate Hale Hentges’ pending nuptials Saturday.
“This decision has definitely been tough for me,” Jacobs said from the podium, before declining to take questions. “Even on the ride here, I still didn't know exactly what choice I wanted to make. I've decided to go ahead and declare to the 2019 draft.”
The four early entrants Friday gives Alabama 34 total players who have chosen to enter the NFL with collegiate eligibility remaining in Tide head coach Nick Saban's 12 years at the school. Of the previous 30, 17 went in the first round, while seven more went in the second round. The 2019 NFL Draft will run between April 25-27 from Nashville, Tenn.
“I think philosophically, we've talked before about the whole draft, the whole college experience, (and how) it does our program a tremendous amount of positive recognition when we have guys that have tremendous careers here and are going to be top draft picks,” Saban said Friday. “We've always tried to provide our players with the kind of information from NFL teams, from football people, to help them make a good business decision about their future as football players.”
For Jonah Williams, a unanimous All-American who is widely projected to be among the top offensive linemen April 25, the decision to leave after just three years in Tuscaloosa was always part of his grand scheme, one that began with compiling as many college credits as he could at Folsom (Calif.) High School.
“There were a lot of things that I did (to prepare for this) … but I just felt that the time was right,” he said Friday morning. “I feel like I've accomplished quite a bit here and I've put everything (I could) on tape. I've started 44 games I've been here, these last 29 at left tackle, given up one sack in two years, zero this year. There's a lot of things that I can be proud of, and I think now is a good time to move on and try my luck at the next level.”
Along with taking AP classes as a junior and senior in high school, Jonah graduated early and enrolled at Alabama in January 2016 to begin his collegiate course load, which ultimately led to him graduating this past December with his bachelor’s degree in marketing.
For Quinnen Williams, who many are projecting as a certain Top 5 pick, his rapid ascension from rarely-used backup to Outland Trophy winner in just one season as Alabama’s starting nose guard even surprised him to a certain extent. But after seeking guidance from Saban, a former NFL coach with strong connections throughout the league, the 300-pound Birmingham native decided the opportunity ahead of him was too great to pass up.
“It was a very difficult decision in general because I’m young, and I did just one year, and it was a big year for me,” Williams said. “(But I just had to) listen to the guys like coach (Nick) Saban, who helped me out tremendously. … He’s not going to sugarcoat anything to you. He’s not going to persuade you to do anything. He’s going to tell you upfront what you should do and how you should do it and why you should do it.”
Smith chose to leave Alabama following a highly successful one-year run as a starter, during which he reset the standard for receiving production out of the tight end position, breaking the program’s single-season records for a tight end with 710 receiving yards and seven total touchdowns in 2018.
“Reflecting back on my past three years playing for the University of Alabama, I could not be more proud of the trail that my teammates and I have laid,” Smith said in a statement released through social media Friday morning. “I am forever grateful for these memories. All the wins were amazing, trophies will tarnish and rings will rust … but the skills and knowledge I learned during my time at the University of Alabama is something I will take with me for the rest of my life. My time with the Crimson Tide is one for the history books.”
Jacobs started only three games in his Alabama career — once each of his three seasons in Tuscaloosa — but was an integral part of the Tide’s success during that time. Serving as the Tide’s offensive swiss-army knife this season, Jacobs had with a team-high 1,315 total all-purpose yards and 15 combined touchdowns in 2018, including 428 kickoff return yards for a SEC-leading 30.6 average yards on 14 return attempts. Jacobs also ranked third on the team in rushing with 640 yards on 120 attempts, which was second only to senior Damien Harris’ 150 carries this season, but led the team with 11 rushing scores while also finding a niche as Alabama’s Wildcat quarterback in some situations.
The Crimson Tide’s four early entrants this season — underclassmen have until Monday to make final decisions — is one less than a year ago when five players elected to leave early for the NFL, including eventual first-round selections Minkah Fitzpatrick (Miami Dolphins), Daron Payne (Washington Redskins) and Calvin Ridley (Atlanta Falcons), as well as safety Ronnie Harrison (Jacksonville Jaguars) and running back Bo Scarbrough (Dallas Cowboys).
The year before the number was three — cornerback Marlon Humphrey (Baltimore Ravens), offensive tackle Cam Robinson (Jacksonville Jaguars) and receiver ArDarius Stewart (New York Jets) — though only Humphrey went in the first round after Robinson dropped to the second pick of Round 2. In 2016, only Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry and defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson decided to leave early, and both fell to the top of the second round.