Nick Saban became the head coach at the University of Alabama in 2007. By 2009, he had turned the Crimson Tide into the most unstoppable force in college football. Alabama has played in five of the last eight national championship games, winning four. They've averaged an incredible 12.5 wins per season over that same span.
The Crimson Tide's secret? Excellent recruiting classes and elite facilities certainly help, but it's their unrivaled practice intensity that really sets them apart. The combination of ridiculously good competition, Saban's high standards and the constant expectation of an undefeated season make the practices punishing affairs. Former Alabama running back Trent Richardson once told reporters no team in the country practices harder. While some may believe these practices take a toll on Alabama's players and jeopardize their NFL potential, there's no arguing with the results.
During a recent video produced by ESPN, current Alabama players were asked to describe the intensity of their practices.
"You ever seen two male lions scrap for meat? That's what it's like," senior linebacker Rashaan Evans said. Senior defensive lineman Da'Shawn Hand continued the animal analogies, saying, "You've got to be a dog. And the offensive linemen, they got to be dogs, too. So when you got two alpha males going at it, you can only get better."
New York Giants offensive guard D.J. Fluker once told Tide 99.1 FM that practices at Alabama made life in the NFL seem like a walk in the park. "Playing at Alabama, practice-wise, is probably a lot harder than playing in the NFL," Fluker said. "Being under coach Saban…each and every day was like an NFL game." According to Saturday Down South, Saban often runs full-contact practices on both Wednesdays and Thursdays during the season.
The competition at these practices is the real key to their intensity. Whether you're going up against the starters, the back-ups or the scout team at Alabama, there's a good chance a future NFL player is lining up across from you. The starters, of course, take many of their practice reps against the scout team. Since Alabama recruits so well (Rivals has ranked their recruiting class best in the nation six of the last seven years), the scout team is routinely filled with young, talented players looking to make a name for themselves.
Take Quinnen Williams, for example. Williams came to Alabama as a four-star defensive tackle. He redshirted last season and played like "a monster" on the scout team. He's now being touted as the nextJonathan Allen—you know, the guy who was the 2016 National Defensive Player of the Year shortly before becoming a first-round NFL Draft pick? When there's that type of firepower on the scout team, the starters never get a chance to take it easy. That competition benefits everyone—the starters get a great look and the scout team guys get to compete against the best college football has to offer.
"If I'm lucky enough to get the chance to play in the NFL, it will be because I've been able to face guys like Derrick Henry in practice so much," Reggie Ragland, who went on to become a second-round NFL Draft pick, told Saturday Down South in 2015. "You have to bring it every day."
Last season, Saban ratcheted up the intensity of practices even further when he began supplementing the scout team with former Tide greats. For example, Richardson—who won the Doak Walker Award at Alabama in 2011—spent a week standing in for LSU's Leonard Fournette. Richardson reportedly didn't hold anything back. John Parker Wilson—a former Alabama quarterback, who also served on the scout team to help Alabama prepare for LSU—told ESPN that Richardson was trying to "run over" players such as linebacker Reuben Foster.
If the unparalleled competition isn't enough to bring the best out of Alabama players every single practice, Saban's notorious penchant for perfection will. "He wants everything done perfectly," junior safety Minkah Fitzpatrick told the New York Times. "When you demand perfection, you're not going to get perfect every time, but you're going to get the best out of your players."
Saban's not afraid to rip a player in front of the team for a mistake or a perceived lack of effort. Eddie Jackson, now a safety for the Chicago Bears, remembers almost being reduced to tears by Saban. "One day when I was a freshman in practice and Coach Saban was yelling at me, it almost brought tears to my eyes. I'd never had that feeling before. It was crazy," Jackson told Bleacher Report. "He does it to help you. Like they say, if he doesn't, you should be worried."
Alabama's practices are so physically demanding that there have been rumors in recent years about NFL teams possibly passing on players from the program because they believe similar prospects from other programs have less mileage on their bodies. These concerns are compounded by the fact that Alabama routinely competes in the national championship game, effectively making their season the longest in college football.
"NFL executives believed that having many of the best players in the country squaring off in physically demanding practices and then playing games in the top college football conference took its toll," Adam Schefter wrote of Alabama in a 2013 ESPN article. "A perception exists that it has chewed up some players."
Saban has been predictably upset with these allegations, and rightfully so since the numbers don't necessarily back up the sentiment. One reason why people may feel that many Alabama players don't meet expectations in the NFL is because they already hit their peak in college—that's how good the program is at developing talent. Seattle Seahawks head coach Peter Carroll said as much as at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine.
"I think that Nick and his football program do such an extraordinary job with their players. That's why they're so good when they play there. When (the players) leave (Alabama), they don't have Nick coaching them," Carroll said. "I think he's that good. I think he's that special. They're an all-encompassing program. Their concern for their players is why they consistently perform at such a high level, and when they leave that, they don't have that same system."
Regardless, Alabama will continue to do the same things that've helped them become the juggernaut of college football they are today. After Alabama won the 2016 College Football National Championship, Saban gave a telling quote during his press conference. "Hard practice, easy game. Easy practice, hard game," Saban said. No one makes games look easier than the Crimson Tide.