TUSCALOOSA — “Seattle” began in the spring.
Earlier than that, actually. The final play of Alabama’s season — when Tua Tagovailoa stared off a Georgia safety and launched the game-winning touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith down the sideline inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium — was a full year in the making.
Coaches entrusted Tagovailoa, just a freshman, with this grand stage after 12 months of invaluable maturation and adjustment.
Classmates Alex Leatherwood, Jerry Jeudy and Najee Harris, too. All were on the field for the Crimson Tide’s national championship-winning play — four of 16 early enrollees in Alabama’s 2017 recruiting class.
Twelve of the 16 — including these four — graduated high school early and arrived in January 2017, afforded the invaluable luxury of acclimating to college football’s most prestigious program while others of their age remained in high school.
Four others arrived in February, part of the university’s spring “mini-mester,” which still allowed them to go through spring practice and compete in A-Day.
“Sixteen is insane, especially to have that many high-level players have their schoolwork done, be ready to enroll early, and make the grades and do all they need to do to be there in January,” BamaOnLine.com recruiting reporter Hank South said. “That’s definitely an outlier situation.”
Now, the Crimson Tide is experiencing another outlier — the opposite of what it enjoyed last spring.
One year after having 16 early enrollees, Alabama is primed to take just four, the program’s fewest since at least 2012.
A fifth was possible, but Princeton quarterback commitment Brevin White spurned the Tide’s late overtures and reaffirmed his pledge to the Tigers on Friday.
White’s decision leaves three-star athlete Slade Bolden, junior college transfer defensive back Saivion Smith, punter Skyler DeLong and defensive end Stephon Wynn as Alabama’s only early arrivals.
“Alabama would like to get anywhere between six to eight guys early,” BamaInsider.com recruiting reporter Andrew Bone said. “This is one of those years that it’s kind of a low number, getting four guys. Last year was a ridiculously high number. That’s not going to be an every-year hope — that’s a dream — and it ended up happening for them last year.”
Since 2012, Alabama has had seven or more early enrollees in each recruiting class — Calvin Ridley, Cam Robinson, Jalen Hurts and Ronnie Harrison among the many who’ve begun their Tide careers early.
While the program pushes for as many early enrollees as it can, especially at thin positions where building depth is required, the decisions are sometimes out of its control. South said seven of Alabama’s signees attend private high schools, which customarily do not allow students to graduate early.
“Jalyn Armour-Davis, Emil Ekiyor, Xavier Williams, those guys can’t graduate early,” SEC Country recruiting reporter Chris Kirschner said. “I don’t think it’s anything that’s going to continue in the future — I don’t think it’s going to be a trend, I should say — just because the guys Alabama got in this 2018 class early, a lot of them just have different circumstances.”
Four-star defensive end Jordan Davis was slated to enroll early, the three analysts said, but he stayed back in Memphis, in part, to help his mother after she was involved in a car accident.
“It’s always a plus to have early enrollees and, if they can get them on campus, they certainly want to, and if the kid has the ability to, they’re certainly going to try to,” South said. “But it’s not always in their control.”
The foursome Alabama does have on campus do fit the program’s ideal early enrollee mold. At least two — DeLong and Smith — are projected as immediate impact players at positions decimated by attrition. DeLong is JK Scott’s heir apparent at punter.
A former five-star prospect who spent his first season at LSU before transferring to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Smith began practicing with the team during Sugar Bowl preparation.
The Tide lost its entire starting secondary to either graduation or early NFL Draft departures, suddenly leaving Smith as one of the secondary’s most veteran members before he takes an official snap.
Reinforcements will soon arrive. Armour-Davis and fellow four-star defensive back Josh Jobe are signed already. Alabama is targeting at least three more defensive backs to sign on Feb. 7, too. If they sign, they’ll arrive in Tuscaloosa using the traditional route, without the luxury of a spring semester to acclimate.
“I think certainly it is a bonus to get a semester under your belt,” South said. “You’re essentially a sophomore going into your freshman year if you get a whole spring practice in, but I don’t think it necessarily hurts.”
Go back to “Seattle” and Tagovailoa’s pass, now among the most iconic scenes in this program’s history.
The man who caught it, DeVonta Smith, didn’t arrive to campus until the summer.
“It is a lot of ground to make up once they get there,” Bone said of non-early enrollees.
“It’s a life-changing moment when they first step foot on campus and realize they’re in college and at the University of Alabama. They’re no longer the only five-star recruit on their team. There’s so much talent and they have to compete with their own team. It’s definitely an eye-opening experience when these kids arrive on campus, but we’ve seen guys that were able to rise to the challenge.”
*Data courtesy 247Sports