SPANISH FORT, Ala. — Despite six consecutive No. 1 classes, recruits sometimes say no to Nick Saban. But two generations from the same family? Alabama’s defense is counting on that being an impossibility.
Fifteen years ago, Saban was recruiting a two-time All-American at Dodge City Community College for LSU.
Atlas Herrion was his name, and he nearly committed to the up-and-coming head coach.
Fast forward 15 years and Herrion’s son, Spanish Fort High School defensive end Justin Thomas, may end up choosing Saban and the Tide.
“I almost went to LSU because Coach Saban was there at the time,” Herrion told SEC Country. “They had a couple of players in front of me at my position, so I just felt like it wasn’t the place for me at the time. I actually liked Coach Saban a lot. My parents loved him.”
After his time at Alabama, Herrion actually went to play for Alabama before going to the NFL to play for the Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans before a career in the Arena Football League.
For this year’s A-Day game, Herrion returned to Tuscaloosa for the first time since his son’s eighth grade year.
Saban sent handwritten letters to former Crimson Tide players, and Herrion received one of the invitations to come back to Alabama. It just so happened that Justin wanted to take a recruiting trip to Alabama that weekend for A-Day, too.
Because his son is one of Alabama’s top defensive line recruits, Herrion met with Saban once again at A-Day. After not talking to Saban for 15 years, would the five-time national champion remember Herrion?
“That’s the strange part,” Herrion began. “I know he’s seen a bunch of recruits and a bunch of people in general over these years and for him to be like, ‘Yeah, I remember you.’ I was just like, ‘Really with all of these people you’ve met?’ It really took me back to those days for him to remember me.”
Like father, like son
Flashback to Nov. 24, 2015.
The University of Alabama-Birmingham became the first school to offer Justin Thomas a scholarship.
His dad remembers the moment because he rarely saw his son get that excited over something that didn’t involve his personal style.
“The only thing he usually gets excited about is new clothes and shoes,” Herrion said. “But when he got that first offer, I saw a smile twice as big. It was a grin from ear-to-ear. He ran into the room and told me UAB offered him. I was messing around with him and asked him, ‘Are you sure they called the right person?’”
Prior to that call, Thomas thought his future was in basketball, a sport he played for most of his life.
His coach at Spanish Fort, Ben Blackmon, believes Thomas’ athleticism on the hardwood has contributed to his success on the football field.
“There are not a lot of 6-foot-5, 260-pound kids in the country that can do what he can do,” Blackmon said. “He can play basketball and is very athletic. I think that’s what has contributed to his offer count going up.”
Herrion knew his son was destined for a possible career in sports. A 3-year-old Thomas was so big for his age, he already was jumping on and off of the family’s four-wheelers.”
Besides his father playing in the NFL, Thomas’ mother also was an athlete. She played volleyball at West Alabama.
“He was always a big kid. He did some things when he was younger that you’d say, ‘OK, he’s going to be different.’ His mother was a D-I volleyball player. When Justin first played sports, I saw that he was going to be gifted. He would do some things with his natural ability that would amaze you and he was so nonchalant about it.”
Tide first in (SEC) line
Alabama came calling on Feb. 10.
Saban and Tide defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt gave Herrion a special message that day. His son had the opportunity to play for his alma mater.
Thomas was on his way to basketball practice when his father told him in the news. Just like with the UAB offer, when he got home, Herrion remembered the ear-to-ear grin his son displayed.
Before Alabama offered, his only opportunities were to play college football at UAB, Troy, Samford, Iowa State and South Alabama.
“I never thought that Alabama was going to be the first SEC school to offer me,” Thomas said. “I didn’t think that was going to happen. Maybe they decided to offer because I’m in state. It just means a lot to me.”
After Alabama got in the mix, South Carolina, LSU, Tennessee, Missouri, N.C. State, Nebraska and Cincinnati as well.
Though the Crimson Tide are the perceived favorites, Thomas claims there are no leaders in his recruitment and he isn’t focused on choosing a school. He does note that the SEC is the conference he wants to play in, however.
“I’m open to everybody,” Thomas said. “But the SEC, is the closest thing to the NFL, and that’s where I’m trying to get. Right now, I’m just focused on winning another state championship.”
Thomas, who had 55 tackles and 11 sacks last season, was an integral part of Spanish Fort’s state championship win over Clay-Chalkville in 2015, the home of major Alabama wide receiver target Nico Collins.
Blackmon credits his performance in the playoffs and the state championship game as one signifying moment for Thomas’ recruitment to pick up steam.
“I’ve seen him progress so much in the past couple of months,” Blackmon said. “Coming out of the state championship game, he was really a big force for us. In the playoffs, he just continued to get better, better and better.”
When Thomas does choose his school of choice, the relationships with the coaching staff are going to be key.
“Those guys are going to be looking over my son for the next three, four, five years of his life,” Herrion said. “Whichever guy he chooses — Saban or whoever — I would love for that bond to be there and have someone who he could trust. If he chose Nick Saban and Alabama, I think that would be a great thing. If he chose Les Miles and LSU, I also think that would be a great thing.”
Thomas lived in Tuscaloosa as a fifth grader. Saban is hoping Thomas comes back to the city where he once lived and follows in his father’s footsteps as a second-generation Tide player. This time around, Saban would be at the right school.
All rankings are provided by the 247Sports composite unless otherwise noted.
Chris Kirschner covers Alabama football recruiting for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play in Bryant-Denny.