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November 20, 2009TUSCALOOSA _ One more time.
For the senior members of the University of Alabama football team, it's a final chance to dress in the lavish locker room, come out of the tunnel and hear the cheers of a sellout crowd. A year from now, even Bryant-Denny Stadium will be different when another expansion is completed beyond the southern end zone.
"It's going to be pretty emotional," senior guard Mike Johnson said about Saturday, career game No. 51 with the Crimson Tide.
"I love this place. There's nothing like our stadium, I say it every time I drive by it. The only place I haven't been to in the SEC is South Carolina, I didn't get to go when I was a freshman, but every place doesn't compare to me to this place. Obviously I'm biased, but it's been a great place to play. Everything kind of worked itself out while I've been in college and I'm just really thankful to be given a place like this to play college football."
Johnson's one of 27 players who will be honored prior to their last home game, when the No. 2 Crimson Tide faces Chattanooga in an unusual late-season matchup against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent (formerly Division I-AA).
For them, what an experience it's been, especially the signing Class of 2005.
"We came in with a lot of guys, I think signed 27 or 28, and I think there's like 10 or 12 of us left," linebacker Cory Reamer said. "We took some bumps in the road, we had some guys who went on to other places, we changed coaches, I've had two head coaches and three or four individual coaches. But there's a group of us still hanging around.
"It's special to us. We're a pretty tight group."
Although others came along later, like high-profile All-American nose tackle Terrence Cody, and tight end Colin Peek, who transferred from Georgia Tech, most of the seniors were recruited by Mike Shula, experienced the final affects of the NCAA sanctions that could have gutted program, and return to prominence under Nick Saban.
In addition to going from the Independence Bowl to challenging for the national title, in 2006 the Tide lost at home to both Mississippi State and Auburn en route to a 6-7 season while this group is going out without having lost at Bryant-Denny in two years.
"I don't think anybody's vision resulted in this at the end," Johnson said of the dreams and expectations when he arrived.
Meanwhile, the student-athletes grew too.
"Life experiences," cornerback Javier Arenas said. "With Coach Saban the things that he does and implements, not just football-oriented, a lot of it has to do with natural survival like being on time for things. I'm scared to wake up and be late to a meeting because of the thought of what he can do. So when I'm in the real world, they're going to have a meeting and I'm going to be the first one there. I'm going to unlock the door."
"Thirteen of these guys have already graduated, which we are very proud of," Saban said. "I also think this is a special group to me. There are a lot of good football players in this group but there's a lot of guys in this group that really, playing their last game in Bryant-Denny Stadium, all had to make a choice, most of them coming out of their freshman year in that spring to buy into the program, to do the things the way we were going to do them. A lot of those guys have created the example and the leadership to help the program to have any success that we have had. We're pleased about that and we want to sort of encourage everybody to recognize that for them."
Although there are three offensive starters, seven defensive (essentially eight considering how often Marquis Johnson is on the field in nickel and dime formations), and most of the primary special-teams players, the outgoing players could essentially be labeled another way:
The Surprise: Arenas, who would have ended up at Florida Atlantic or Florida International had Alabama not come calling. Not only did he became a standout cornerback but is on the cusp of setting the SEC and NCAA records for career punt-return yards.
The Old Man: Drew Davis, who was actually in the signing Class of 2004.
"He's married now and I'm feeling old," Johnson said. "I used to call him old but now I feel old now too. We've both really come a long way."
The Captain: Johnson. It would be a shock if he wasn't named the permanent offensive team captain next month.
The Veteran: Lorenzo Washington. After first attending Hargrave Military Academy to become academically eligible first won a starting job at defensive tackle and then had to do it all over again at defensive end.
"Definitely it's hit me," Washington said. "It hit me when we played Virginia Tech that this is my last season. It's been a fun ride, but all good things have to end sometime."
The Rock: Long-snapper Brian Selman, along with kicker Leigh Tiffin and punter P.J. Fitzgerald.
The Endowed: Safety Justin Woodall turned down lucrative baseball contract because he wanted to play football for the Tide.
The Survivor: Reamer came in as a defensive back and didn't appear to fit in with Saban's defense, yet found a place as strongside linebacker and played on nearly every special-teams unit.
"We were joking the other day because he gave me a compliment in practice," Reamer said. "He said, 'Good job' or something and it was so awkward for both of us. I can't use what he said to make it un-awkward. He said, 'Would you rather me say this?' I was like, 'Yeah, it makes me feel better.'
"He's definitely grown on all of us. It's definitely different from when he first got here. He's opened up, and he's really built a lot of relationships with us. We appreciate him. He's done a great job. He's a great coach, and we're fortunate to be able to play for him."
The Toughest: Defensive end Brandon Deaderick was back on the field just two days after being shot in a failed carjacking.
Most Improved: When many players were asked this week, they were in almost total agreement over Eryk Anders.
"When he came in, he came as a defensive tackle, then he had to learn a position at linebacker," defensive back Chris Rogers said. "He had speed. He ends up starting right now. Great pass rusher. Gives everything he's got."
Anders wasn't originally part of the Class of 2005 and the San Antonio native was preparing to walk on at Ole Miss, when due to academic issues the Tide had an unexpected opening and Shula offered a scholarship in June.
Still, it wasn't until this season, after Ezekial Knight and Brandon Fanney both left the Capstone, that Anders landed starting job at Jack, the hybrid end/linebacker spot he still appeared to be too small for at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds. He's fourth in team tackles with 48 with eight for a loss and four sacks, and leads the Tide in quarterback hurries with 11.
"I really feel like it's almost custom-built for a person like me, who can rush a passer and drop back and cover," Anders said.
That perseverance is what really sets this group as a whole apart.
"If you like where the program is right now, then you should like these guys," Saban said. "These are the guys that bought in, did the work, changed the work ethic."
Role players who will also be honored include Baron Huber, Tyrone King Jr., Mike McCoy, Rogers, Ali Sharrief and Roy Upchurch, along with Alex Benson, Hampton Gray, Heath Thomas, Jacob Vane and A.J. Walker, who were as much of the program as anyone else.
Medical departures Evan Cardwell and Byron Walton will also participate in the pregame ceremony.
"We're going to try to take care of business just for those guys," junior quarterback Greg McElroy said. "They deserve it. They've given a lot back to this program. It'd be good to go out with a convincing and quality win on Saturday."
A last chance to see Arenas break into open field near the school logo, a potential final Mt. Cody sighting near the goal-line in front of the student section, one last Johnson block to spark an end-zone celebration, maybe by Mark Ingram during his pursuit of Alabama's first Heisman Trophy. Then it's off to Auburn to finish the regular season, Atlanta to face Florida in the SEC Championship Game and then whatever bowl game (either Pasadena or New Orleans).
"I'm going to try to make it one to remember," Arenas said.