With transfer news swirling around Alabama‘s football program since Nick Saban’s retirement, several key players who’ve decided to stay told ESPN on Wednesday there was no panic within the football complex, only optimism for what comes next under new coach Kalen DeBoer.
“We’ve had some guys leave and wish them well, but that doesn’t change the standard at Alabama or our belief that Coach DeBoer is going to lead us where we want to be, winning championships,” said starting inside linebacker Deontae Lawsonwho passed up the NFL draft to return for his redshirt junior season. “We know what we can accomplish and know he’s won everywhere he’s been. We’re going to keep this thing going. It’s going to be a wonderful story, and we’re ready to embrace it.”
DeBoer was named last week to replace Sabanwho won six national championships in a legendary 17-year career at Alabama. The Crimson Tide have had 25 players enter the transfer portal this offseason, including safety Caleb Downs and offensive tackle Lady Proctor on Wednesday. Both players earned Freshman All-America honors this season. Receiver Isaiah Bond transferred to Texas on Sunday.
Junior offensive guard Tyler Bookerwho has started at Alabama since his freshman season, understands that the reality of college football in the transfer portal and NIL era is that players come and go, especially when a coach of Saban’s caliber retires.
“I want to wish them well wherever they go, but just because Coach Saban is gone, that doesn’t mean the standard is gone. He taught us that standard,” Booker said. “It really comes down to, ‘Why did you come to the school?’ I came to Alabama obviously to play for Coach Saban and play to his standard, to be challenged every day and be held accountable by my teammates, the people in this building and the fans.
“No amount of money could buy me away from Alabama and my legacy here.”
Quarterback Jalen Milroewho finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2023, is looking forward to playing in DeBoer’s offense. Michael Penix Jr. blossomed under DeBoer and new Alabama offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb at Washington. Penix passed for 9,544 yards and 67 touchdowns over the past two seasons after transferring from Indiana.
“Coach DeBoer stands out as one of the most successful and accomplished offensive-minded college football coaches,” Milroe said. “His coaching style and approach bring good energy to the team.”
Malachi Moorea permanent team captain and Alabama’s most versatile defensive back, said that energy was one of the things that stood out most to him when DeBoer met with a group of team leaders after the initial meeting with the entire team Friday.
“You could feel that energy, the positive energy, and also how open he was to listening to our opinions, the players’ opinions,” said Moore, a fifth-year senior. “We did our own homework as players. The dude has won everywhere. His standard is the same as ours, to be hoisting that trophy up at the end of the year. He was one win away last year, and that puts a chip on his shoulder. We definitely have one on ours with the way the season ended.
“We’re working toward the same goal, and this time with his vision.”
One of the things DeBoer told the players was “nonnegotiable” was that Alabama’s team would be a family.
“We’re going to win together,” Booker said. “The closer we are, the better we are.”
Lawson, who was second on the team last season with 67 total tackles, said even though it might “seem a little rough right now” with some of the players leaving, this transition has only strengthened the bond between the players who’ve stayed.
“We’ve embraced the change, and as a group, want to finish what we started,” Lawson said. “We’re not running from change. We’re buying in and know we’re in good hands. We have full trust in Coach DeBoer and the coaches he’s bringing in.”
Booker is originally from New Haven, Connecticut, and played at IMG Academy in Florida. He was the No. 10 prospect in the ESPN 300 recruiting rankings in 2022. He understood the microscope he would be under when he signed with Alabama and does so even more now, especially with the 2024 team being the first of the post-Saban era.
“Everybody’s going to be watching. We all know we’re going to be on the first team after Coach Saban, but that’s a chance to only cement our legacy, to go out and win a championship under Coach DeBoer,” Booker said. “Yeah, we’ve lost a few guys, some really good players, but we’ve still got a good young core. And you’ve seen what Coach DeBoer has done with his teams everywhere else. He gets the most out of his players, and he knows the kind of players it takes to win championships.”
“We’ve embraced the change, and as a group, want to finish what we started. We’re not running from change. We’re buying in and know we’re in good hands. We have full trust in Coach DeBoer and the coaches he’s bringing in.”
Alabama LB Deontae Lawson
One of the things that resonated most with the Alabama players was that DeBoer, despite building a Pac-12 championship team at Washington and the Huskies heading to the Big Ten next season, wasn’t afraid to take on a challenge as daunting as following a legend like Saban.
“He’s passionate about it. That’s why he’s here, to win championships, and we still have elite players on our roster to do it,” Lawson said. “I’m sure he will get even more elite players as we go forward, because they’re going to want to play for him.”
Booker joked that following in the footsteps of Saban wasn’t for everybody. Not only did Alabama win six national championships under Saban, but the Crimson Tide won 11 or more games in 15 of the past 16 seasons under him. They’ve won two of the past three SEC championships, both times beating No. 1 Georgiaand have been in the College Football Playoff all but two years of its existence.
“With our fans, and I love our fans, but they’re really tough,” Booker said. “Following the greatest coach of all time is a gutsy thing to do, and it was going to be for whoever they brought in. But Coach DeBoer is wired for it. I’m excited to go out there with him and see what we can do. People counted us out after the Texas game and then the South Florida game this year, and we made it all the way to the playoff. People will count us out again because we lost Coach Saban and some guys to portal.
“We know what they think of us, so let’s go out there and prove ’em wrong again.”
Moore added: “I told Coach DeBoer the night we met that it takes a man to come in here behind Coach Saban and take this job on. And then you sit there and listen to the vision he has for this program, and that says a lot about him and who he is.”