University of Alabama

Bama starts to regain NFL draft presence

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Phil Savage watched the Alabama-LSU game a couple of years ago and sensed a resurgence on the way for the Crimson Tide.

On the field? Sure. In the NFL draft, too.

“I turned to some friends and said, ‘Take a good look at LSU because that’s what Alabama’s going to look like in due time,’” said Savage, a former Cleveland Browns general manager. “I think they’re well on their way to looking like that athleticism and size-wise.”

This weekend’s NFL draft might support that contention.

The Tide hasn’t yet regained the kind of prominence in the draft the Tigers have held since current Bama and ex-LSU coach Nick Saban started raking in top prospects. However, “from the University of Alabama” will at least be called out again when selections are announced.

Last year the Tide didn’t have a player chosen in the draft for the first time in three decades.

That won’t be a concern this weekend. Left tackle Andre Smith is projected as a likely Top 10 pick and free safety Rashad Johnson and center Antoine Caldwell are rated high among players at their positions. Tailback Glen Coffee and quarterback John Parker Wilson also are expected to be drafted.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the landscape for Alabama in the NFL draft is getting ready to change, probably starting Saturday,” said Savage. “I would suspect it will stay pretty strong the next few years.”

Saban has brought in two straight recruiting classes widely rated as the nation’s best.

The proud football program hasn’t had a player go in the first round since Chris Samuels (third overall) and Shaun Alexander (19th) in 2000. Mississippi State is the only other Southeastern Conference team with such a long drought.

That absence in recent years doesn’t particularly concern Saban.

“I don’t know what the significance is of how many players you get drafted and where relative to any impact on the program,” Saban said.

He notes that his staff didn’t recruit any of the Tide’s current draft hopefuls to Tuscaloosa.

“You’re assuming in a way that it is sort of a necessary part of the program,” Saban said. “I think that it’s something that does get marketed if you have a lot of guys drafted. You sell that in recruiting but at the same time is it necessary to recruit well? When you don’t have good players, the players looking for opportunities to play may go places where they don’t have a lot of prime time players, so to speak.

“It can work both ways. Our emphasis here is how do we develop the players in the program to get them to play as well as they can.”

The current draft candidates all finished with their best seasons. Smith won the Outland Trophy, while he and Caldwell were both first-team All-Americans. Johnson, a former walk-on, earned second-team honors.

Coffee ranked second in the SEC with 1,383 rushing yards after starting only three games his first two seasons. Like Smith, Coffee opted to skip his senior season to turn pro.

Johnson is projected as a potential second-round pick while Caldwell and Coffee are expected to be taken in the middle rounds. Quarterback John Parker Wilson is regarded as a likely late-round pick.

“We have some guys that performed very well for us as seniors and we’re hopeful that they will get picked in the draft and get great opportunities,” Saban said. “It’s not really where you get picked in the draft, it’s what you do with the opportunity… .”