Saban, Swinney focus on developing players for life after football

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Kelly Ward

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Freshmen walk on to Alabama’s campus with big eyes and big stomachs. College is a place to grow and blossom.

The freshmen who enter into the Mal Moore Athletic Facility to begin their time on the Alabama football team are no different.

Tuscaloosa wasn’t their only option. These athletes were recruited by the best programs in the country, often promised the world or at the very least to be starting and making an impact immediately.

That isn’t the case at Alabama. Yes, freshmen do play every year and make a difference. Take a look at Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison and Calvin Ridley this year alone. They are true freshmen. Ridley wasn’t an early enrollee either.

They’re an exception, not necessarily the rule.

“I think we try to create and tell everyone that they’re going to get an opportunity to play,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “And I think one of the things that sort of gets created now in recruiting and college football because of all the recruiting services and five-star, four-star and all this, is an expectation that every young man has, which sometimes can be a little bit unrealistic, maybe if you look at football as really a development, mental game.”

Not every freshman will stay in the same position. Not every freshman is ready to play. 

Senior Cyrus Jones was recruited as an athlete and started his career as a receiver. He had four catches for 51 yards in 11 games. He switched to defensive back after his freshman year.

“We try to get our guys to focus on what do I need to do to be a complete player at my position, and focus on the development of what they need to do, and possibly, you know, where can I be the best player three years from now,” Saban said. “I may have more value; where can I develop to be the most successful person, and where do I have the best opportunity to get an education and develop a career off the field, and my development as a player will be evaluated, really if I want to develop a career as a football player, more after three years than after one year.”

Of course, there’s more to coaching than wins and losses. There’s more to it than just getting players to the NFL, believe it or not.

“If it’s not about relationships, if it’s not about building men, then I don’t care what your record is on the scoreboard; you lose,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “That’s just what I tell my staff all the time. If they leave our program and all they know is how to sack a quarterback, cover a wideout or run a ball or throw a ball or catch a ball, then we lose, and we’ve failed at our job.”