TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- They lined the sidelines three- and four-deep to watch pro day at the University of Alabama. Not scouts, not coaches, not general managers. The players, Alabama's underclassmen, showed up between classes to glimpse an event they hope will define the close of their careers in Tuscaloosa years from now.
Alabama has had arguably the most success in all of college football at putting players in the NFL. Coach Nick Saban has produced 24 draft picks since 2009, 11 of which were in the first round. With guard Chance Warmack, cornerback Dee Milliner and running back Eddie Lacy all first-round possibilities in April, that number will rise.
A total of eight former Alabama players worked out in front of personnel from all 32 NFL teams on Wednesday. Jesse Williams, a 320-pound nose guard who ran an eye-opening 4.9 second 40-yard dash, visited with a member of the Indianapolis Colts organization. Milliner didn't participate in drills because of a shoulder injury but still found time to speak with a representative of the New York Jets. On and on the list went, players working toward a future in the pros.
Underclassmen like defensive end Ryan Anderson and defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson watched the convention of former teammates and NFL personnel unfold from a set of bleachers on the far sideline of the indoor practice facility. Quarterback AJ McCarron was joined by rising sophomore receiver Amari Cooper and early enrollee tailback Derrick Henry on a row of stationary bikes, pedaling aimlessly on the turf as they soaked it all in.
After the pro day wrapped up, it would be their turn to change into shorts and cleats and work through similar drills as part of an annual program for underclassmen. The NFL personnel who wished to stay and watch were welcome, getting a head start on some of Alabama's top pro talent for 2014 and beyond.
"I remember doing the junior day like we're about to do after this," Williams said. The 6-foot-3 Austrailian came to Alabama by way of junior college in Arizona, and after two short years he's positioned himself as one of the top interior defensive linemen prospects in the country. "It's been a long way since then, winning national championships and then coming back to do this all again. It's been good and it will be a good experience to keep going."
Former defensive end Damion Square was part of the 2008 signing class that happened to be the last year Alabama had no players selected in the NFL draft. Since then a lot has changed.
"That’s the progress with the program and what Nick’s doing and how we’re buying into this program," Square explained. "The guys that come here and do what Nick tells them to do and abide by the rules and come get their education, coming to school here in Tuscaloosa you have a higher chance of going and do what you want to do on the next level. And that’s business, that’s in corporate America, that’s here on campus ... the best decision I ever made."
Year after year, recruits have cited Alabama's success putting players in the NFL as a main reason for their signing with the Tide. Not coincidentally, the uptick in draft picks has coincided directly with a rise in recruiting rankings as Alabama has finished in the top three of the ESPN class rankings every year since 2008, racking up its second No. 1 class in a row in February.
"When you have this many players who have this good of a career, it really establishes a credibility that you do a good job developing players just like your graduation rate says you do a good job of graduating players," Saban told ESPN's Tom Hart. "We pride ourselves on being good in both of those."
Both areas speak for themselves, Alabama's success in the classroom and on the football field. Three national championships in four seasons tells only half the story of the program Saban has built under athletic director Mal Moore, who has helped flood the program with resources like the new $9-million strength and conditioning facility employed during the pro day event on Wednesday.
ESPN ranked the top underclassmen in college football in December and two of the top 25 were true freshman from Alabama: Cooper and running back T.J. Yeldon. The third selection from UA was rising junior left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, who many believe would have been a first-round pick in this year's draft if not for eligibility rules set forth by the NFL.
In a short time, all three prospects and a few of their fellow teammates will have their chances to compete in a similar pro day at Alabama. For now, though, the focus is spring practice which begins in haste this weekend, something Saban addressed on the practice field Wednesday afternoon. Like everything Saban says and does, his remarks had a uniquely professional feel.
"You have to reinvent your team every year, in the NFL now because of free agency as well as college because of graduation and guys going out early for the NFL draft," Saban told Hart. "That means roles change for people. Young guys have to assume and prove they have a responsibility and accountability to do that role on a consistent basis."
This year's pro day at Alabama was just a reminder that if history has shown anything, it's that if this year's crop of up-and-comers meet Saban's standards, they're likely to meet the NFL's as well.