One Last Time: Seniors aim to finish right in final game

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Kelly Ward

PHOENIX — No, it hasn’t hit him yet. It might not hit him until he puts his helmet on in the tunnel or walks out to the sideline. It might not hit him until the confetti comes down – win or lose – after the national championship game.

It might not hit him until a day later or even longer. Eventually it will hit him and every other senior.

Monday is their last game.

It’s also defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s final game at Alabama. After Monday night, he will leave his duties to Jeremy Pruitt and take over as the Georgia head coach. He was announced as the head coach after the SEC Championship in December.

“It’s sort of like you have a son and he’s moving away, and you want to see him do really, really well because we all go through stations of life where things change, so now someone else will have a better – an opportunity,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “Kirby will have an opportunity. Somebody will have an opportunity to do what he does, and hopefully we can provide a little leadership and guidance that will help him along the way have a chance to be successful.”

Besides losing a coach, the team will lose its seniors and several juniors after the game. The underclassmen have rallied around the seniors and leaders on the team in an effort to “finish” it.

“I love playing with these guys and it would mean the world to me to send them out the right way,” sophomore wide receiver ArDarius Stewart said.

Where leadership lacked in previous teams, this season it has honed its skills. The group isn’t afraid to correct younger players or each other in an effort to stay focused on its goal.

“It’s great, being one of the guys to show the younger guys how to get the job done and how we work things in Alabama program,” senior linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “Just building relationships with them is a great feeling.”

Time flies

Saban spoke before the Charleston Southern game in November about time and how fast it goes by when looking at the careers of his seniors.

“You can’t buy it, you can’t stop it, you can’t bottle it, you just have to do the best you can with it, I guess, and try to make every day count,” Saban said. “I look at some of the guys that are seniors on our team and I’m saying ‘I was in that guy’s house, like, two weeks ago,’ and the guy is now graduated, played for four years and is ready to graduate, move on and maybe have a career at the next level. It goes by fast for me, too. 

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for this group of guys. They’ve had a lot of success here. Probably a little different circumstance than some of the other teams. The expectation has always been greater for them, and they haven’t always been able to finish like we wanted to, but they’ve shown a lot of resilience and leadership this year to have a chance to create an opportunity for themselves if they can finish this year.”

With the national championship game a day away, the goal of another title, another ring, is closer than it’s been in years.

The leadership group this team wants to embody is the 2012 team who beat Notre Dame to claim the national title. The seniors were freshmen and learned what it took to finish. After two years of coming up short, the seniors feel like they’ve done the same thing the 2012 seniors did to create a championship atmosphere for them.

“We’re just trying to create another championship-winning legacy so they can continue that legacy throughout the rest of their careers,” senior running back Kenyan Drake said.

But despite the legacy, the fact that it’s their last game hasn’t hit the seniors. They’ve thought about it, but it hasn’t hit them. They’re looking to get one more win. In four years, they’ve only lost six games and are looking to bookend their career with a 50th win, a national title.

It’s one more game, and it just happens to be their last.

“I feel like it kind of has but at the same time, I think it won’t hit me until I see that confetti fall and then I’m on the winning side,” Drake said. “So that’s the ultimate goal.”