Alabama Football: Leadership and the Necessity of Upperclassmen, Part I

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 01: Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide and head coach Dabo Swinney of the Clemson Tigers greet after the AllState Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 1, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 01: Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide and head coach Dabo Swinney of the Clemson Tigers greet after the AllState Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 1, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that Alabama football specifically needs leadership from its third, fourth and fifth-year players under Coach Nick Saban and 2019’s crew could step up in a way 2018’s couldn’t.

It’s safe to assume that any Alabama football team coached by Nick Saban will have an overabundance of talent on the field with an option for leadership.

In the wake of the Tide’s 28-point loss at the hands of Clemson, postmortems have been written and discussed about the 2018 team. What some viewed as the greatest college football team of all time heading into last year’s postseason became nothing more than an oasis following the drubbing from the Tigers.

Stories arose about Alabama football assistant coaches with one foot out the door (however voluntary or not) and players already planning for the future. If Nick Saban’s “Process” has taught us anything, it’s that even the slightest error can make the entire machine break down.

(Listen to the final episode of the Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody podcast and go all the way to the 02:05:45 mark and hear an interesting anecdote about the team’s arrival in California for the championship. A slight warning – there is profanity.)

So, when we can look at tangible evidence that something was obviously amiss with the Alabama football team that evening, maybe it all comes down to the fact that there was a dearth of on-the-field leadership that made the previous championship teams so successful.

No doubt, if the assistant coaches aren’t staying on their players, it makes things difficult, but we’ve found that with the likes of Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower, Mark Barron, Barrett Jones, Reggie Ragland, Eddie Jackson and Minkah Fitzpatrick, the players respond most to each other.

This is something that the 2019 team will absolutely have to figure out by the time conference play kicks into high gear.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

Take a look at each of the Alabama football teams that have won national titles under Nick Saban and you will see a wide array of talent, but you will also see a healthy portion of leadership from upperclassmen.

If a first or second-year player makes it on the field, that means he’s been trusted to execute his position the way Saban wants it to be executed. This also means that it’s difficult enough for said player to work his way into the first-team rotation. He, also, has to worry about making the other players around him better? Most can’t handle that, nor should they have to.

Stealing from Bud Elliott’s “Blue Chip Ratio,” there’s an “Upperclassmen Ratio” that seems to be important to the success of a Saban-coached Alabama football team. This looks at the number of 3rd-to-5th-year players starting versus the 1st and 2nd-year players.

Let’s first look at this ratio among the championship teams


Offense: Greg McElroy (redshirt junior), Mark Ingram (true sophomore), Julio Jones (true sophomore), Marquis Maze (redshirt sophomore), Colin Peak (true senior), Preston Dial (redshirt junior), James Carpenter (true junior), Mike Johnson (true senior), William Vlachos (redshirt sophomore), Barrett Jones (redshirt freshman), Drew Davis (redshirt senior)

Ratio: 8:3

Defense: Brandon Deaderick (redshirt senior), Terrence Cody (true senior), Lorenzo Washington (redshirt senior), Rolando McClain (true junior), Courtney Upshaw (true sophomore), Cory Reamer (redshirt senior), Eryk Anders (true senior), Javier Arenas (true senior), Kareem Jackson (true junior), Mark Barron (true sophomore), Justin Woodall (true senior)

Ratio: 9:2

Overall 2009 “Upperclassmen Ratio”: 17:5


Offense: A.J. McCarron (redshirt sophomore), Trent Richardson (true junior), Marquis Maze (redshirt senior), Darius Hanks (redshirt senior), Michael Williams (redshirt junior), Brad Smelley (true senior), Barrett Jones (redshirt junior), Chance Warmack (true junior), William Vlachos (redshirt senior), Alfred McCullough (redshirt senior), D.J. Fluker (redshirt sophomore)

Ratio: 11:0

Defense: Damion Square (redshirt junior), Josh Chapman (redshirt senior), Jesse Williams (true junior), Jerrell Harris (true senior), Dont’a Hightower (redshirt junior), Nico Johnson (true junior), Courtney Upshaw (true senior), Dre Kirkpatrick (true junior), DeQuan Menzie (true senior), Mark Barron (true senior), Robert Lester (redshirt junior)

Ratio: 11:0

Overall 2011 “Upperclassmen Ratio”: 22:0


Offense: A.J. McCarron (redshirt junior), Eddie Lacy (redshirt junior), Kevin Norwood (redshirt junior), Amari Cooper (true freshman), Michael Williams (redshirt senior), Kelly Johnson (redshirt senior), Cyrus Kouandjio (true sophomore), Chance Warmack (true senior), Barrett Jones (redshirt senior), Anthony Steen (redshirt junior), D.J. Fluker (redshirt junior)

Ratio: 9:2

Defense: Damion Square (redshirt senior), Jesse Williams (true senior), Ed Stinson (redshirt junior), Xzavier Dickson (true sophomore), Trey DePriest (true sophomore), Nico Johnson (true senior), Adrian Hubbard (redshirt sophomore), Dee Milliner (true junior), Deion Belue (true junior), HaHa Clinton-Dix (true sophomore), Robert Lester (redshirt senior)

Ratio: 8:3

Overall 2012 “Upperclassmen Ratio”: 17:5


Offense: Jake Coker (redshirt senior), Derrick Henry (true junior), Calvin Ridley (true freshman), ArDarius Stewart (redshirt sophomore), Richard Mullaney (redshirt senior), O.J. Howard (true junior), Cam Robinson (true sophomore), Ross Pierschbacher (redshirt freshman), Ryan Kelly (redshirt senior), Alphonse Taylor (redshirt junior), Dominick Jackson (true senior)

Offense: 8:3

Defense: A’Shawn Robinson (true junior), Darren Lake (true senior), Jarran Reed (true senior), Dillon Lee (true senior), Reggie Ragland (true senior), Reuben Foster (true junior), Denzel Devall (true senior), Marlon Humphrey (redshirt freshman), Cyrus Jones (true senior), Geno Matias-Smith (true senior), Eddie Jackson (true junior)

Defense: 10:1

Overall 2015 “Upperclassmen Ratio”: 18:4


Offense: Jalen Hurts (true sophomore), Damien Harris (true junior), Calvin Ridley (true junior), Robert Foster (redshirt senior), Cam Sims (true senior), Irv Smith, Jr. (redshirt freshman), Jonah Williams (true sophomore), Ross Pierschbacher (redshirt junior), Bradley Bozeman (redshirt senior), Lester Cotton (true junior), Matt Womack (redshirt sophomore)

Offense: 8:3

Defense: Raekwon Davis (true sophomore), Da’Ron Payne (true junior), Da’Shawn Hand (true senior), Terrell Lewis (true sophomore), Shaun Dion Hamilton (true senior), Rashaan Evans (true senior), Anfernee Jennings (redshirt sophomore), Levi Wallace (true senior), Anthony Averett (redshirt senior), Minkah Fitzpatrick (true junior), Ronnie Harrison (true junior)

Defense: 9:2

Overall 2017 “Upperclassmen Ratio”: 17:5


As you can see, at the very least, seventeen players on the offense and defense were third-to-fifth-year players. Based on 2011 alone, it’s a wonder they lost the one game (kicking–from a redshirt freshman). That team was filled to the brim with experience.

2017 can be viewed as an outlier given the number of true freshmen, especially on the offense, that contributed down the stretch, most significantly during the second half of the championship game against Georgia. Still, upperclassmen such as Minkah Fitzpatrick, Rashaan Evans, Ronnie Harrison, Bradley Bozeman, Calvin Ridley, Damien Harris and Ross Pierschbacher cemented themselves as irreplaceable yeomen on a perplexing title team.

Next. SEC Trench Warfare. dark

For the next installment, we’ll take a look at some notable Alabama football teams that didn’t “ascend to the top of the football mountain,” as Eli Gold would say, and what the correlation might have or have not been to the “Upperclassmen Ratio”.