Welcome to SEC Country’s daily Roll Tide-ings, a rundown of everything happening in Alabama Crimson Tide recruiting with Chris Kirschner. Today, we talk the latest with how Alabama landed some of the team’s key stars in the championship game.
ATLANTA — Alabama wouldn’t have won its 17th national championship without the help of true freshmen Tua Tagovailoa, Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs and Alex Leatherwood.
All five players played key roles in the Crimson Tide’s 26-23 win over Georgia on Monday night. Here’s how they each ended up as part of what could go down as the most successful recruiting class in the Nick Saban era.
How Tua Tagovailoa wound up at Alabama
You can’t begin a story about how Tagovailoa wound up at Alabama without mentioning Jake Fromm and Kirby Smart. Without them, Tagovailoa likely would’ve been at Southern California.
Smart was officially hired by Georgia on Dec. 7, 2016. Exactly one week later, Smart offered Fromm, who was committed to Alabama. Fromm always wanted to play for Georgia, but he never had the opportunity to do so because Mark Richt didn’t offer him.
Richt preferred Florida State quarterback Bailey Hockman, who was committed to Georgia. SEC Country was told that when Hockman was offered by Georgia, he had a 7-day window to commit to the Bulldogs, otherwise Richt was going to move on to Fromm. Hockman committed on the sixth day, so Fromm wasn’t going to have his opportunity to play at Georgia.
Once Smart took over for Richt, he prioritized Fromm immediately. One of the first calls he made was to Alabama’s quarterback commit. Fromm eventually flipped from the Tide to the Bulldogs on March 3, 2016. Five days later, Alabama offered Tagovailoa.
What a game. What a finish.
Alabama does what Alabama does. pic.twitter.com/OITczvp4n1
— ESPN (@espn) January 9, 2018
How realistic of a chance Alabama actually had at pulling Tagovailoa from Hawaii was always a question throughout his recruitment, even after he committed to the Tide. Before Alabama offered, Tagovailoa considered Southern Cal to be his dream school. The Trojans were his leader for more than a year.
A week after the Tide offer, Tagovailoa released his top 8 schools, and Alabama made the cut. He told SEC Country why he included Alabama on his list.
“Coach Saban has talked to us and his beliefs are God first before anything,” Tagovailoa said back in March 2016. “Every school is going to have good academics. Every school is going to have good football. But when you have a coach like Saban, who believes in God and is a defending champion, that makes it even more special.”
A month later, the Tagovailoa family made a visit to three SEC schools: Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss. He spent several days in Tuscaloosa, and that’s when it became a realistic possibility for him to commit to the Tide. Alabama was the behind-the-scenes leader right after that visit.
Some people may wonder how a Samoan kid from Hawaii could fit into the Alabama culture. But he embraced it immediately.
“You can’t really lose yourself if you’re a kid from Hawaii going to Alabama,” Tagovailoa said when he committed. “Things down here in Hawaii are similar to Alabama. We go to church every Sunday. People are treated like family there just like here. There are many similarities there and you want to be somewhere that feels like home, and that’s what Alabama feels like.”
Tagovailoa never visited any school after committing to Alabama in May 2016. He did listen to other schools, though, because there was some reservation on going to a school that had a true freshman quarterback in Jalen Hurts, who led the team to a title game appearance last year.
He talked to LSU some in the final weeks of his recruitment and toyed around with the possibility of visiting Baton Rouge. The family decided that there just wasn’t enough time to seriously consider any other school because he was an early enrollee.
Tagovailoa arrived in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 8, 2017. Exactly one year later, he became an Alabama legend.
How DeVonta Smith wound up at Alabama
Smith caught the game-winning pass from Tagovailoa in overtime. His recruitment story also begins with Georgia and Smart.
Smith committed to the Bulldogs in August of 2015 mainly because of his close relationship to Coach Richt and Sam Petitto, who was Georgia’s director of player personnel. Petitto got his start in coaching at Amite (La.) High School, which is where Smith attended. Smith told SEC Country on multiple occasions throughout his recruitment that he viewed Petitto as a father.
Once Petitto left UGA for Alabama, Smith de-committed from the Bulldogs within the hour after the news broke. In the locker room after the national championship, this is what Smith had to say about why he chose to back off his commitment.
“I committed because Coach Richt was there,” Smith told SEC Country after the game. “When he left, I didn’t know what they were going to do, who would be the wide receivers coach. So I de-committed.”
It was clear once he backed away from Georgia, Alabama was the favorite. Smith was a very quiet recruit. Whenever he’d talk about his recruitment, he would never reveal much.
That was until The Opening in Oregon in July of 2016. Smith revealed plenty that week. He had the opportunity to get to know Tagovailoa that week. Here’s what he had to say about Tagovailoa then:
“He’s a very inspirational person. He’s very uplifting,” Smith said at the time. “I have never heard him be negative. Everything with him is just positive. One day, we were just sitting down and talking about God. We just kept on talking about God. It was really good because it let me know that my possible quarterback is someone that won’t talk down on no one and will always pick them up.”
That was the longest and best quote I ever got from Smith up until that point in covering his recruitment for more than a year. It was clear his relationship with Tagovailoa was going to play a factor in his recruitment.
Fast-forward a few months and there was some doubt on whether Smith was going to end up in Tuscaloosa because wide receivers coach Billy Napier left for Arizona State. That cracked the door open for LSU, which had serious ground to make up after Smith said this about possibly playing for the in-state school:
“I just really want to get away from home,” Smith said. “I don’t really like being in Louisiana that much. I want to get away from home so I can explore other things.”
Smith had a good relationship with then-LSU wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig, but it wasn’t enough to overcome his comfortability in Tuscaloosa and relationship with Tagovailoa.
With the help of Tagovailoa, he, too, became an Alabama legend Monday night.
How Alex Leatherwood wound up at Alabama
Star left tackle Jonah Williams went down with a leg injury in the third quarter. No problem for Alabama because it had Leatherwood, a 5-star tackle on the roster. He stepped right in and didn’t lose a beat.
Here’s what SEC Country commentator Mike Johnson, a former Alabama All-American, had to say about Leatherwood’s performance:
It will be lost in the Tua talk today but Alex Leatherwood played like a grown ass man against an incredible group of pass rushers last night. True freshman left tackle thrown into the fire after the Williams injury and played at an elite level. Bright future.
— Mike Johnson (@MPJohnson79) January 9, 2018
Alabama almost didn’t have Leatherwood on its roster. The Crimson Tide were a couple of hours away from losing him, even though he had been committed to the team for more than a year.
Leatherwood was arguably the most outspoken commitment the team had in the 2017 class. He, along with VanDarius Cowan, were the team’s best peer recruiters. But, behind the scenes, Leatherwood wasn’t as solid to Alabama as he was portraying. He had a legitimate interest in Florida, the school that almost flipped him in the end.
The Pensacola, Fla., native ended up visiting Tampa for the Outback Bowl, a game that featured Florida, in January 2017. Leatherwood’s plan was to drive from Tampa to Gainesville after the game and start the enrollment process at UF. Word got out on social media that Leatherwood was in the stands. The Alabama coaching staff found out he was there because of that. The coaches started to frantically panic over the possibility of losing a potential anchor to the offensive line. They got him to listen to one last recruiting pitch by Saban, and that was that.
He enrolled at Alabama in January and won a national championship ring while Florida was a disaster and fired Jim McElwain.
How Henry Ruggs wound up at Alabama
Ruggs caught the touchdown pass that got Alabama on the board after falling behind 13-0 at halftime. Like Leatherwood, Alabama was just a few hours away from not having him in its class.
Ruggs was originally supposed to commit on Aug. 1, 2016. He ended up delaying his decision. It would have been surprising if he didn’t choose the Tide, if he stuck with his commitment date.
But because he didn’t commit on that day, it allowed Florida State, most notably, to get in the mix. Ruggs decided to wait out his decision until National Signing Day. His decision came down to just a few hours before he announced his decision.
The night before his decision there were several stretches of time where he was going to choose Florida State. He would then go back to Alabama and then back to Florida State. At 1 a.m., Ruggs had his mind made up that he was going to Alabama.
How Najee Harris wound up at Alabama
Harris was unleashed in the fourth quarter and wound up being the Tide’s leading rusher with 64 yards on 6 carries. Harris wore down the Bulldogs defense and was a key reason why ‘Bama drove down the field and tied the game on a pass from Tagovailoa to Calvin Ridley.
Harris had the wildest recruitment out of the group. He also happened to be the team’s longest-tenured commitment by the time he ended up signing. Alabama won this battle by identifying Harris as a potential star before many other powerhouse programs came into the mix. That work was put in by outside linebackers coach Tosh Lupoi.
Lupoi’s relationship with Harris is one of the main reasons why the highly coveted running back decided to stick with his commitment instead of flipping to Michigan at the end of his recruitment.
“Tosh believed in me when I told him about Najee as a freshman that after I was done with Joe Mixon that the next top athlete to come out of the Bay [Area] was Najee Harris,” Mori Suesue, Harris’ mentor, told SEC Country last July.
I have to say, when Harris enrolled at Alabama, I think every recruiting reporter who covered him let out a collective sigh of relief.
It wasn’t that Harris was a bad kid — he’s far from it. It was just that toward the end of his recruitment, it got very silly. I mean, it got to the point where we had to report which flight he was going to be on when he left San Antonio after the Army Bowl.
He started to like Michigan during his senior year. He took a couple of visits to Ann Arbor and Michigan reporters started to write stories about how the Wolverines staff was confident it could flip him. Fast-forward to January and Harris had a room key waiting for him and a student ID with his picture on it.
I was told in December that once Lupoi visited Harris and his mother for Alabama’s in-home visit, it was over at that point. But his recruitment got silly because Harris didn’t like talking about it and couldn’t care any less about what was written about him, and there was so much misinformation out there, mainly from the Michigan side of things. Harris didn’t help out because he declined nearly every interview during the Army Bowl week, and it was unclear what Harris was going to do when the week was over because he was an early enrollee. He was either going to fly to Birmingham or Detroit.
It was funny because during that week, Tagovailoa pretty much became Harris’ public relations rep. Everyone was asking Tagovailoa questions about Harris because the two were rooming together while there. Tagovailoa said throughout the week that he believed Harris was going to be on the same flight with him to Birmingham. It turned out Tagovailoa was right.
The two are now roommates in Tuscaloosa and will likely become the hosts of the most popular room in the city after the title game Monday night.
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