Nick Saban may have stated that winning a College Football Playoff National Championship last season was the happiest moment of his life, but as always, the University of Alabama head football coach returns with the self-same message to a new team: “last year is over.”
This spring, the Crimson Tide will begin charting its boat toward national title No. 18 and while it lost some players to the upcoming NFL Draft, more impact stars are ready to emerge.
With the A-Day game expected to draw a massive crowd – especially for the quarterback competition between Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa – Tide fans are relishing the most highly-anticipated offseason since the spring of 2009; the year the school won its first title under Saban.
Listed below are five players that will take leadership roles.
Damien Harris, Running back
Damien Harris is a leader both on and off the field, however, next season serves as his opportunity to prove once and for all on why he was recruited as a five-star in 2015.
Harris is currently chasing history in attempting to become the first Alabama running back to record 1,000 yards rushing in three consecutive years.
He’s coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns, including a 1,000-yard endeavor in 2017 with 11 touchdowns on 135 carries.
With his mixture of explosive and tough runs, the Kentucky native showed that he had more juice than Bo Scarbrough. Regardless of Najee Harris, Josh Jacobs and Brian Robinson behind him, Harris is a critical part of the team’s leadership council and this fall stands as a huge year.
Jerry Jeudy, Wide receiver
Moments occurred where he seemed very frustrated last season, but rising sophomore Jerry Jeudy is putting a ton of work in the Tide’s offseason program via sources. The talented wide receiver from DeerField (Fla.) Beach High School averaged 19 yards per catch on 14 grabs.
His freshman year ended with two touchdowns and 264 yards, with a clutch catch that happened in the second half of the national title game versus Georgia. He’s been tapped as “Calvin Ridley 2.0,” and depending on who starts at quarterback, Jeudy could be in for a breakout performance.
Isaiah Buggs, Defensive end
Despite not having an offer upon graduating high school or finishing Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Isaiah Buggs carved out a productive first year at defensive end for Alabama.
The 6-foot-5, 293-pounder totaled 51 tackles (seventh on team), four tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and seven quarterback hurries (tied for second on team) through 14 games. His decision to forgo the NFL Draft and return for his senior season provides the Tide with experience on its line.
Buggs posted a career-high 10 tackles versus Texas A&M and was a force in the College Football Playoff, affecting both Kelly Bryant of Clemson and Jake Fromm of Georgia.
Saban returns Raekwon Davis, Quinnen Williams and LaBryan Ray from last year’s group at defensive end, but there is a hunger about Buggs that has him singled-out.
Mack Wilson, Linebacker
Mack Wilson talks a lot on social media, but he’s one of few that backs it up.
As good as Dylan Moses can be in the spring, Wilson will anchor the Tide inside and outside at linebacker. After learning from ex-Alabama standout Reuben Foster in 2016, Wilson started carving his own name last season – especially with him leading the team with four interceptions.
He was credited with a marquee pick-six against the Tigers in the Sugar Bowl, aiding the Crimson Tide to a 24-6 win in New Orleans, La. Prior to sustaining a foot injury in the team’s meeting with LSU at home, Wilson was in the midst of having a breakout sophomore campaign.
He eyes a chance at winning the Butkus Award in the fall.
Deionte Thompson, Safety
He was fluctuated between wide receiver and defensive back from 2015 to 2016, but Deionte Thompson became a full-time defender in 2017. He showcased a hard-hitting mentality and according to teammates, the native Texan plays with “much passion for the game.”
Upon losing six guys to the draft – including Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison – Thompson becomes the new leader in the secondary. He finished with 25 tackles and one interception in 14 games, with the majority of his impact plays coming on special teams.