Alabama football, Nick Saban sign No. 1 class despite a changing recruiting calendar | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News
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There is college football recruiting and then there is the rarified air of Elite College Football Programs, the upper reaches where the same handful of schools appear year after year. Those few schools sign the majority of the elite five-star prospects and perpetuate their success into the future, which translates into, as you might expect, more recruiting success. 

The rich get richer. Alabama football is the charter member of that club. That didn’t change in 2020, even when everything else did

That brings up a paradoxical question: Could Alabama, which will end up with the No. 1 class ranking from all the recruiting services, have done even better without the coronavirus?

Pinson Valley's Ga'Quincy McKinstry (1), a University of Alabama commit, smiles as Pinson Valley takes possession of the ball. Spanish Fort and Pinson Valley squared off at the AHSAA Class 6A state championship game on Dec. 4, 2020 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. [Photo/Hannah Saad]

“We’ve obviously lost some of the evaluation tools that we’ve used in the past to get young players, even juniors, that you have questions about, to be able to see them in spring recruiting,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said this summer. “Having (prospects) in your camp during the summertime is definitely a very useful evaluation tool.”

Alabama’s basic formula in recruiting is simple: evaluate, impress, sign. The evaluations of the Crimson Tide staff might differ from other staffs, or recruiting gurus, but among the very top players the elements of the formula don’t go away. The power to impress didn’t vanish in 2020, but it was altered.

That power starts with success on the field. Prominence in the NFL Draft is a persuasive tool, and while Alabama doesn’t rely solely on that just check out Alabama’s school-produced recruiting literature every April. Those factors didn’t change. The two main things that Alabama didn’t have for this recruiting cycle are also part of the equation.

First, success has a financial component that translates itself into facilities. Alabama has lavish, state-of-the-art dining halls and training rooms, weight complexes and locker rooms and stadium. You can show that on a video, but for a high school player and his family nothing matches the impact of coming to campus and seeing it for themselves. A few prospects made it to campus for unofficial visits this year but there were no big recruiting weekends, no throngs of prospects standing on a sideline where they might find themselves, depending on the NFL open weeks, next to Mark Ingram or Derrick Henry.

The other factor, of course, is Saban himself. Zoom calls are great, but not as great as having a legend walk through your front door and sit in your living room. Saban’s arrival at a prospect’s high school is a rock-star event.

”I missed being able to go out this year,” Saban said on ESPN earlier this month. “That’s actually one of my favorite things.”

Obviously, all schools operated under the same rules and restrictions this season. Some college coaches felt there was a bit of an equalizing effect for some schools who didn’t have their recruits overwhelmed by the larger crowds and fancier facilities. That still didn’t keep Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson from succeeding. The power of exposure helped, but so did the core values of evaluation and attention. 

Think of it this way: Is it really a surprise when a team with the nation’s best offensive line recruits the nation’s best offensive line class? 

All classes have quirks. Alabama didn’t emphasize running backs this year, which speaks volumes about what Saban and his staff think about the talent currently waiting its turn behind Najee Harris.

What Alabama needed, Alabama got — again. The path was different, perhaps, and more rigorous in some ways. The results seemed to turn out as they usually do, pandemic or not.

Reach Cecil Hurt at or via Twitter @cecilhurt

Cecil Hurt
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