TOP OF THE CLASS
Alabama's 2008 signing class already has produced eight NFL draft picks with Chance Warmack, Robert Lester, Barrett Jones and Damion Square projected for 2013:
NT Terrence Cody (2nd round, Baltimore)
DT Marcell Dareus (1st round, Buffalo)
WR Julio Jones (1st round, Atlanta)
RB Mark Ingram (1st round, New Orleans)
S Mark Barron (1st round, Tampa Bay)
LB Dont'a Hightower (1st round, New England)
LB Courtney Upshaw (2nd round, Baltimore)
TE Brad Smelley (7th round, Cleveland)
If the past two NFL drafts didn't reflect the magnificence of Alabama's 2008 signing class, there is further proof this weekend at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Center Barrett Jones, guard Chance Warmack, safety Robert Lester and defensive end Damion Square are the final four from a class that already has produced eight draft selections. Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, receiver Julio Jones and running back Mark Ingram were first-round picks in the 2011 draft, and safety Mark Barron and linebacker Dont'a Hightower went in the first round this past spring.
"It's probably the best recruiting class I've ever been associated with or ever been a part of assembling," Alabama coach Nick Saban said this week. "I think the evaluation was good, and I think the development of the players was really good. Some of the guys weren't as highly recruited, like Dont'a Hightower, but when I saw him practice, I said, 'Wow, this guy is going to be a really good player.'
"We got going on them early. There were a lot of good people in that class, and obviously the success that they've had certainly indicates the competitive character they have and what kind of people they are."
Alabama's '08 class also contained nose tackle Terrence Cody, a second-round pick in 2010, linebacker Courtney Upshaw, a second-round pick this year, and tight end Brad Smelley, who led the Crimson Tide with seven receptions in January's 21-0 win over LSU for the BCS title.
Since that talented crop arrived, Alabama has assembled a 58-7 record entering Saturday's game against Auburn. The Crimson Tide won national championships in 2009 and again last year, and they are No. 2 in this season's BCS race.
"Of course I want to go out with a win," Lester said. "It's sad, but it's exciting at the same time. I know I'm going to miss playing in this stadium. It seems like yesterday I was redshirting and struggling to learn plays."
Said Warmack: "It's an amazing thing to be here and play here and be a part of this program."
Alabama began August workouts with eight scholarship seniors, which tied for the fewest nationally. It became nine a couple of weeks before the opener against Michigan when long-snapper Carson Tinker was awarded one.
The most decorated of the remaining bunch is Jones, who could be the first player in SEC history to earn all-conference election at three different positions -- in his case, guard, tackle and center. The 6-foot-5, 302-pounder from Memphis is a finalist for the Lombardi Award and the Outland Trophy, which he won last season.
"It's been a special place for me with a lot of special moments and a lot of special people, so it's going to be a bittersweet day," Jones said. "Hopefully it will be more sweet than bitter, but it's been a fun ride. It's been awesome, and I think it will be a neat day on senior day."
Alabama's '08 recruiting haul was its first full class under Saban, who was hired in January 2007 and struggled through a 7-6 debut season. Included in that first season was a 17-10 loss at Auburn, which was the Tide's sixth consecutive Iron Bowl loss.
The Tide also suffered a fifth straight loss to LSU in '07, with Saban responsible for the first two of those when he coached the Tigers, but Alabama's '08 class changed the SEC landscape overnight.
"It was a great year in the state, and I think a lot of players probably saw a lot of opportunity for themselves here," Saban said. "It was a new program and a new start, and they could see themselves having a chance to play.
"They sort of believed in the program that we were trying to develop and what we were trying to do, and I think that whole class making the commitments they made to the university at a time when we weren't successful probably was the key to sort of getting things turned around here."