A Trio Of Alabama Juniors Are Headed For The Pros… Who’s Next?

For those of you out there who consider yourselves NFL Draftniks, your job just got a whole lot more exciting on Thursday afternoon. That’s because, in the least surprising news that we’ll likely have all off-season, three Alabama superstar juniors have declared themselves for the NFL Draft. Trent Richardson, Dont’a Hightower and Dre Kirkpatrick, we hardly knew ye. But enjoy the NFL, say hi to Jim Harbaugh for us, and don’t spend your entire first check in one place. OK?

In a story that was first reported by TideSports.com today, and later confirmed by the university itself, the trio are now headed to the pros, where they will likely all be first round picks. Kirkpatrick and Richardson in particular may be Top 10 picks.

Coach Nick Saban released a statement today on Kirkpatrick and Richardson (Hightower was not present at the press conference) which said:

“These young men have done a fabulous job of representing the University of Alabama, their families and themselves with their hard work, their dedication and their commitment to excellence, not only on the football field, but also by the kind of people that they have been,” said Saban. “I know it is a difficult decision for these guys. They both love the University of Alabama, but they have worked hard all their lives to create the opportunity to play at a place like this, to have the success they have had at a place like this and also to create opportunities for themselves and their future. I want you to know that we are 100 percent supportive of both of these young men in terms of what their choice is.”

Again, the decision was about as easy as it gets for three guys who were all All-American’s, seem to be unanimous first round picks, and have won two titles in three years. Not many college football players get a chance to win one title, let alone two, and given injury risk and the short shelf-life of football players, there really wasn’t much left for any of them to accomplish at the collegiate level. Not to mention that each has off-the-field considerations to think about (Richardson for example is the father of two young daughters), meaning that in the end, NFL riches were too much to pass up. What is college football’s loss, will undoubtedly be the NFL’s gain.

Of course here at Crystal Ball Run, we aren’t so much about dwelling in the present, so much as projecting the future. So instead of sitting around, eating a carton of ice cream and sulking that these guys are leaving, let’s instead move forward, and see what Alabama has coming up on the depth chart. Because if there’s one thing Alabama coach Nick Saban can do, it’s recruit (well, actually, he can coach too, but just work with us here, ok?). And if recent memory is any indication, before we know it there will be a new group of guys getting named to All-American teams and leaving Tuscaloosa to collect NFL paychecks. The fun part is figuring out who.

Replacing Richardson at running back seems to be the easiest to project, since his back-up Eddie Lacy got plenty of carries for the Crimson Tide this season. Like Richardson he’s a big back (listed at 6’0, 220 lbs.) and did more than enough to spell Richardson when he needed to catch his breath this past season.

On the year Lacy rushed for 674 yards on 95 carries, to the tune of an impressive 7.5 yards a carry. Granted, some of that production was due to overwhelmed defenses relaxing when Richardson came out, but plenty of credit needs to go to Lacy too. And behind an offensive line that will return four of five starters (juniors Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack, as well a redshirt sophomore D.J. Fluker all announced they were coming back earlier this week), it isn’t inconceivable for Lacy to put up similarly big numbers to Richardson this year. Even if there’s no doubt that he isn’t quite as talented.

On the defensive side of the ball, projecting replacements for Kirkpatrick and Hightower doesn’t appear to be nearly as easy.

Along with Kirkpatrick, Nick Saban and Co. must also replace fellow starting corner DeQuan Menzie, who used up his eligibility at the end of the LSU game. Like at running back though, the team does appear to be in good hands, in this case with sophomores Dee Milliner and John Fulton. Milliner started all 13 games as a true freshman in 2010, but was beaten out by a fully healthy Menzie this past fall. When he did play this year Milliner was effective, and recorded three interceptions in limited action. Fulton isn’t quite as experienced, but has made appearances in nickel and dime situations (as well as on special teams) the last two years.

At linebacker, there is plenty of talent, but the question will be who replaces the leadership of Hightower in the middle. Nico Johnson is likely the Crimson Tide’s most talented player at the position, and C.J. Mosley should be back healthy after being injured late in Monday night’s win. Again though, the bigger question is who will replace Hightower, who along with senior Mark Barron was the heart and soul of this defense. Hightower started for parts of four seasons, including 2009 when he was injured early on.

Still, don’t weep for the Crimson Tide. Remember, Alabama lost three juniors off last year’s team that ended up as first round NFL Draft picks (Julio Jones, Mark Ingram and Marcel Dareus) and as you might’ve noticed, didn’t miss a beat this past fall.

Whether they’ll have the same success going forward is impossible to say.

But one thing is for sure: Nobody is feeling bad for the Tide.

For all his opinion, insight and articles on college football and beyond, please follow Aaron Torres on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.