Roll Tide, roll, right through the first round of tonight's NFL draft.
Alabama could make Southeastern Conference history by having five players selected in the opening round. Tailback Trent Richardson, safety Mark Barron, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are projected as top-25 selections by ESPN analyst Mel Kiper.
"It is special for us to see our guys who have worked so hard have the opportunity now to get a lot of positive, self-gratification from the opportunity of getting to play at the next level," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "They all did it the right way here. They were all good students, and they all have a chance to graduate if they haven't already."
Five first-round picks would supplant the league standard of four set by Auburn in 2005 and equaled by LSU in 2007 and Alabama last year.
The Crimson Tide also could become the first SEC team with four first-round selections on the same side of the ball. The Miami Hurricanes had four first-round defensive picks in 2004, when they set the record for any university with six opening-round draftees.
"Our defensive statistics prove it out that our guys played extremely well," Saban said. "I think the key to defense is being hard to score on, and for the most part, that group was very hard to score on."
In Alabama's nine games last season against league foes, which would include the 21-0 thumping of LSU for the BCS title, the Crimson Tide defense yielded five touchdowns. They led the nation in fewest yards (183.62) and points (8.15) allowed per game.
Richardson is expected to be the first Alabama player picked, going fourth to Cleveland or fifth to Tampa Bay, and Barron is being pegged as the next Tide talent taken, going in the top 15.
"Barron is physical versus the run, and he does all the little things," ESPN analyst Todd McShay said. "He just seems to have that quarterback gene on the defensive side that the great ones seem to have."
While players such as Richardson, Kirkpatrick, Mark Ingram and Julio Jones have given Alabama the label of a three-and-out program, Barron, Hightower and Upshaw played four seasons with the Tide. Hightower played into his fourth game as a sophomore in 2009 before suffering a season-ending injury and receiving a medical redshirt, so he bypassed his redshirt senior year.
"Guys who get drafted in the first round get paid quite a bit of money, but you can enhance your chances by coming back," Saban said. "Just look at Mark Barron. He may have been a late first-round or early second-round draft pick last year, and now he's probably going to get picked in the top 15, which is $10 or $15 million more that he made by coming back to school.
"Plus he graduated, so after football he's got a much better chance to be successful in life."
The most likely scenario in which Alabama doesn't have five first-round picks involves Upshaw sliding into the second round. Kiper has Upshaw being the third Tide player taken, going 16th to the New York Jets, but there has been some last-minute hesitation.
"I think people just don't know where to play him," Kiper said. "You talk to some teams, and they say he's only a defensive end. Then others will say he's 6-1 and a half and has short arms, so he can't be a defensive end and he's going to have to be a linebacker. But he's 280, and he's not that explosive."
Said Saban: "The first thing that makes a player a really good player is that he's hard to block, and Courtney is hard to block."
Tonight could be a four-hour infomercial for Crimson Tide football, as could the rest of the draft. Cornerback DeQuan Menzie, receiver Marquis Maze, defensive lineman Josh Chapman and tight end Brad Smelley are projected to be picked, with center William Vlachos, linebacker Jerrell Harris and receiver Darius Hanks more likely to go the free-agent route.
Alabama's record for players tabbed in a single draft is 10, which was set in 1945.
"Playing for Nick Saban helps these guys in those third through seventh rounds," Kiper said. "It may give them a half-a-round bump up, because people love the fact they're coached up so well. They basically get pro coaching, and they're so much more prepared for what the NFL is going to have to offer."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...