Alabama becoming Hurricanes-like NFL pipeline
By JOHN ZENOR
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) Alabama is becoming the kind of NFL draft factory that the Miami Hurricanes were a decade ago.
The national champion Crimson Tide is expected to have five players drafted in the first round Thursday night, which would be only the fifth time that has happened since the common draft began in 1967.
Add in last year's first-round quartet, and only the Hurricanes have had more a prolific stretch in the draft.
Tailback Trent Richardson, linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw and defensive backs Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick are all projected as first-rounders.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. figures "at worst" four of them will go in the first round, and said that playing for the Tide is good for a half-round bump for other draft-eligible players.
"People love the fact they're coached up so well, basically pro coaching," Kiper said. "And they're so much more prepared for what the NFL is going to have to offer."
Still, Alabama will need one more great year to match the Hurricanes. Miami had six first-round picks in 2004, four in 2003 and five in 2002.
The Hurricanes of the early 2000s are the only ones to have at least nine first-rounders in a two-year span, according to STATs LLC.
Ohio State also had five players taken in the opening round in 2006, and Southern California did it in 1968.
Saban said he emphasizes the importance of his players getting degrees and developing personally - and maybe turning into NFL players.
"We want to help them develop as a football player which means have a great career here, win a championship and see if you can play at the next level," he said.
It helps that Saban has been bringing in some of the nation's top recruiting classes. That has translated into two national championships in three years, along with a renewed draft presence.
The Tide didn't have a single player picked in 2008 for the first time in 38 years. The following year, Andre Smith became Alabama's first first-rounder since Shaun Alexander and Chris Samuels in 2000.
The Tide has eight players who are likely to be drafted. Noseguard Josh Chapman, cornerback DeQuan Menzie and wide receiver/return man Marquis Maze are all expected to be picked in the mid-to-late rounds.
At least six players are listed as potential first-rounders in 2013 in various mock drafts.
Agent Pat Dye Jr. represents Hightower and Menzie, along with such former Saban stars and current NFL players as Rolando McClain, Mike Johnson and Julio Jones.
He thinks Saban's background as an NFL assistant and former Miami Dolphins head coach helps, but so does the talent.
"He certainly knows what it takes at that level, and he's demanding of them physically," Dye said. "He's demanding of them mentally. I think all of those things, combined with that talent base, is why those guys have had so much success on draft day and go on to have success in the NFL."
Plus, he adds, "They're not going to settle for anything less than perfection over there, which is a great training ground for getting ready for the next level."
Richardson is a candidate to go to Cleveland at No. 4 or Tampa Bay at No. 5. Barron is also regarded as a potential Top 10 pick, while the other three are projected to go in the middle to late portion of the round.
Hightower feels like playing in the complex defense of Saban and Kirby Smart helps him.
"Wherever he's at, he's always had success," he said. "If you go back and look some of the players he's put out at LSU and Michigan State, that shows a lot. They look at that. And they know that I have the athletic ability and know that I can come in in a week and get the game plan and be ready to go by Sunday. It's definitely something that helped me out."
Updated April 23, 2012