One of the defining symbols of the dynasty that Nick Saban has built at Alabama is the time period between the end of the season and national signing day.
While January sees a mass exodus of talent from the Tide’s campus into the NFL draft, February brings the next wave of elite prospects destined to make NFL scouts drool on their subsequent visits to observe the new “NFL U.”
The NFL influence on Alabama’s program is noticeable in every facet of the organization built by Saban—a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed for top recruits aspiring to make it to the next level.
“Just seeing that as a young guy, that’s the main thing we want,” said former Tide linebacker Nico Johnson. “Seeing them do it year after year after year, players want that same feeling and they want to be a part of a program that can develop them for the next level. I think it plays a big role when you see the guys who came before you have that type of success.”
Johnson, a former 5-star recruit who went on to be a fourth-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2013 NFL draft, recalls the success of Tide linebackers such as Rolando McClain, Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower catching his attention during the recruiting process.
Johnson said that competing with those standouts—each of whom landed in the NFL—every day in practice and playing for a noted perfectionist such as Saban helped prepare him for the grind of the NFL.
“Going through a program like Alabama made it so much easier for me because it's almost like ‘Bama was a little bit tougher than it is here (Kansas City),” Johnson said.
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There’s a reason Johnson was a rare rookie already familiar with the way an NFL club operates. As ESPN’s Alex Scarborough notes, Johnson was used to performing in front of NFL scouts and general managers who frequently attended practices.
Crimson Tide radio network analyst Phil Savage explained to Marq Burnett of the Columbus Ledger-Inquirer that Alabama appeals to great recruits because of its team success and Saban’s willingness to play the best player, regardless of age or class.
"That's what the NFL is all about. I think that prepares them from a mental standpoint in terms of knowing what they're going to face at the next level," Savage said.
Saban’s pedigree and philosophies, which are heavily rooted from his time working under Bill Belichick in the Cleveland Browns organization from 1991-94, have helped create an atmosphere that models Alabama more as the NFL’s 33rd franchise rather than a college football program.
Cork Gaines of Business Insider details how the Tide's success in sending players to the next level has become a focal point of the literature passed out to prospective Tide recruits. As Alabama Associate Director of Player Personnel Tyler Siskey illustrates, via Twitter, whatever a recruit's 5-year plan could possibly consist of, Saban has it covered.
On the field and in recruiting, Saban and the coaches on his staff use the business-like approach that’s prevalent in the NFL. As a result, Tide players practice with their jobs on the line every day. The competitive environment has turned into a breeding ground for elite recruits to realize their full potential.
It’s a strategy that has helped Saban turn signing day into his own personal version of the draft.
Six of Alabama’s last seven recruiting classes were rated No. 1 in the country by at least one recruiting service. For recruits, going to Alabama is a business decision that has become the equivalent of enrolling in an NFL apprenticeship.
As ESPN’s stats and information notes, every draft-eligible top-15 recruit Saban has signed has gone on to become a first-round draft choice. It is impossible to argue with that success.
Assuming Cyrus Kouandjio and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, as they are predicted to be in the latest mock draft by B/R’s Matt Miller, two more names will be added to that list.
Johnson said that the approach when hosting recruits wasn’t about persuading them to come to Alabama. Instead, it was about explaining the mentality that Saban expects out of his players. It’s the same mentality that makes the happenings inside the Mal Moore Athletic Facility the closest parallel to an NFL locker room.
“If they (recruits) ask me about Coach Saban, I tell them he made me a better player because he made me elevate my game every day,” Johnson said. “When he saw I had potential, he held me to that standard and then some.”
Sanjay Kirpalani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.