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What were the top five recruiting classes for Alabama during the Nick Saban era?

Tua Tagovailoa and DeVonta Smith talk before a play
Mark J. Rebilas - USA Today Sports

The Kalen DeBoer era is underway in recruiting for Alabama football, but people are starting to compile in-depth pieces to honor the exceptional era of Nick Saban.

Spring football is inching closer for the Crimson Tide, and the annual A-Day game is set for April 13. 

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In this series for Touchdown Alabama Magazine, we break down the top five of each aspect for Alabama under Saban.  We first dive into the top five recruiting classes during the Saban era.

5. The 2009 signing class

Nick Saban’s second big recruiting class guided the Crimson Tide to back-to-back BCS National Championships in 2011 and 2012.


The 2009 class produced two elite running backs, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, and the program’s winningest quarterback, AJ McCarron. McCarron was on three national titles teams, including two as the starting quarterback. Alabama’s elite outings on the offensive line came with guys that arrived in the ’09 class, including D.J. Fluker, James Carpenter, Chance Warmack, and Anthony Steen. Kevin Norwood, one of the most clutch performers of the Saban era, came in the 2009 class as a three-star.

He went on to have a great collegiate career, especially in matchups against Louisiana State University. Defensively, Alabama had Dre Kirkpatrick, Nico Johnson, and Ed Stinson. All three pushed Alabama to national championships and played in the pros. 

4. The 2020 signing class

Alabama’s 2020 class came in just before the Coronavirus pandemic took over.

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Bryce Young standing with the Heisman Trophy at the 2021 presentation

12/10/21 MFB Heisman Press Conference
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young (9)
Photo by Kent Gidley

The group could have done more to grab national championships; however, it did present Saban with his first Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. Bryce Young came as a five-star from California and grabbed the Heisman in 2021. He collected 4,872 passing yards, 47 touchdown passes, and 50 total touchdowns. Young led the Tide to a Southeastern Conference Championship and a berth in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Will Anderson Jr., a five-star from Georgia, became an instant star as a true freshman. He started in the 2020 season, pushing the Alabama defense to a CFP National Championship.

Will Anderson points to the sidelines

Photo by Crimson Tide Photo

Anderson would go on to be a decorative defensive player in the Saban era.

He became the only two-time Unanimous All-American (2021-22) in Alabama football history. Anderson was a two-time SEC Defensivee Player of thee Year (2021-22), two-time Bronko Nagurski Award winner (2021-22), Chuck Bednarik Award winner (2022), Rotary Lombardi Award winner (2022), Lott IMPACT Trophy winner (2022), and first-team All-SEC selection in 2022.

Young and Anderson were selected in the top three of the 2023 NFL Draft.

3. The 2013 signing class

Alabama’s most entertaining and opportunistic defense under Saban came in the 2013 class.

The Crimson Tide signed Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster, A’Shawn Robinson, Tim Williams, Eddie Jackson, and Anthony Averett.

Alabama DL Jonathan Allen (#93) superman sacks Texas A&M's QB Trevor Knight in 2016 matchup.

It had the building blocks in place to be tenacious in 2015 for a CFP National Championship and terrorize opposing offenses in 2016 for nearly another national title. Allen and Foster were the biggest stars on defense from the class.

Allen was a three-time first-team All-SEC selection (2014-16), Unanimous All-American (2016), SEC Defensive Player of the Year (2016), Rotary Lombardi Award winner (2016), Ted Hendricks Award winner (2016), Bronko Nagurski Award winner (2016), and Chuck Bednarik Award winner (2016). Foster was an Unanimous All-American (2016), first-team All-SEC selection (2016), and Dick Butkus Award winner (2016). Robinson was a nightmare on the defensive line, earning first-team All-SEC honors (2015) and Consensus All-American honors (2015). Williams was a pass-rushing terror while Jackson and Averett dominated the secondary.

Reuben Foster (#10) leading Alabama's defense to victory over Washington in 2016 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl

Dec 31, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Reuben Foster (10) lines up for a play during the fourth quarter in the 2016 CFP Semifinal against the Washington Huskies at the Georgia Dome. Alabama defeated Washington 24-7. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Derrick Henry was the most successful piece on offense for the class. He came from Florida as a five-star and delivered the Tide its second Heisman winner in 2015. Henry collected 2,219 yards rushing in the 2015 season with 28 rushing touchdowns. 

Alabama RB Derrick Henry wins the 2015 Heisman Memorial Trophy.

Alabama RB Derrick Henry and Nick Saban holding the Heisman Trophy in 2015: Photo comes via D.A. Graham – Touchdown Alabama Magazine

O.J. Howard was the second-most successful offensive piece. He arrived as a five-star tight end from Prattville, Ala.

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Howard saw good production in 2013 and 2014, but he did not breakout until late in the 2015 season. He recorded 38 receptions that year for 602 yards and two touchdowns. His crowning moment came in the 2016 CFP National Championship Game versus Clemson. Howard caught five passes in the matchup, including two long touchdown receptions to push Alabama to a 45-40 win.

Allen, Foster, Robinson, Williams, Jackson, Averett, Henry, and Howard all made it to the NFL. Robinson and Howard each have a Super Bowl ring. Robinson earned his with the Los Angeles Rams while Howard collected his with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

2. The 2008 signing class

The 2008 recruiting class started Nick Saban’s run of national championships and stamped him as an elite recruiter.

Alabama pulled in several names that became elite in the eyes of fans such as Donta Hightower, Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, Courtney Upshaw, Marcell Dareus, Mark Barron, Barrett Jones, Robert Lester, and Terrence Cody. The ’08 class turned things around rapidly as Alabama won an SEC Championship and a BCS National Championship in the 2009 season. Ingram became the program’s first-ever Heisman Trophy winner. He tallied 1,658 yards rushing and 20 total touchdowns to hoist the honor.

Some members of the ’08 class, including Jones, Barron, Upshaw, and Hightower, guided the Crimson Tide to a second BCS National Championship in the 2011 season. This group believed in Saban even when some were unsure on whether or not he was the right coach for the job at Alabama. The ’08 class set the standard and process in motion for everyone else to follow.

1. The 2017 signing class

The 2017 recruiting class was arguably the most talented, most successful, and has the most player now in the National Football League from the Nick Saban era.

Tua Tagovailoa, a native Hawaiian, came in this class as a five-star quarterback.

Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa (#13) drops back to pass in 2019 matchup against South Carolina.

Sep 14, 2019; Columbia, SC, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) looks to pass against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

He is the school’s all-time career leader for touchdown passes (87). Tagovailoa came off the bench as a freshman in the second half of the 2018 CFP National Championship Game and rescued the Crimson Tide to a comeback victory over Georgia. He changed the way we perceived Alabama football, making the passing game exciting to watch. Najee Harris, a five-star from California, is Alabama’s all-time career leader for rushing yards (3,843) and touchdowns (46). DeVonta Smith, a five-star from Louisiana, is the Crimson Tide’s all-time career leader for receptions (235), receiving yards (3,965), and touchdown catches (46).

Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III came in as five stars at the wide receiver position in 2017 and were highly impactful. 

Alex Leatherwood, a five-star from Florida, was an Unanimous All-American (2020), a Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner (2020), an Outland Trophy winner (2020), and a two-time first-team All-SEC selection (2019, 2020) as an offensive lineman.

Jedrick Wills, a four-star from Kentucky, was a first-team All-SEC selection in 2019 as an offensive lineman. Mac Jones and Brian Robinson became studs later in their careers. Jones arrived as a three-star quarterback from Jacksonville, Fla. He observed Tagovailoa during the 2017 season, but the team was his in 2020. Jones had an incredible year with 4,500 yards passing and 41 touchdowns, propelling the Tide to undefeated CFP National Championship season. Robinson, who came in as a four-star running back from Hillcrest High School in Tuscaloosa, produced his best year in 2021 with 1,343 yards rushing and 14 scores.

Defensively, Alabama had Xavier McKinney, Isaiah Buggs, Dylan Moses, LaBryan Ray, and Christopher Allen in the class.

Injuries limited Ray and kept Moses from becoming what he wanted to be; however, both helped the Tide to a CFP National Championship in 2017 and 2020. Buggs and McKinney became the biggest stars on the defense.

Allen had a successful season in 2020 with 13 tackles for loss, six sacks, five quarterback hurries, and two forced fumbles. 

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Stephen M. Smith is the managing editor and senior writer for Touchdown Alabama Magazine.  You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @CoachingMSmith.

Stephen Smith is a 2015 graduate of the University of Alabama. He is a senior writer and reporter for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. He has covered Alabama football for 10+ years and his knowledge and coverage of the Crimson Tide's program have made him among the most respected journalist in his field. Smith has been featured on ESPN and several other marquee outlets as an analyst.

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