Alabama

For Alabama, Do Rewards of JUCO Transfers Outweigh Risks?

May 24, 2016

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The one-line announcement was released via email and got straight to the point.

“Charles Baldwin has been dismissed from the program for a violation of team rules,” read the statement from University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban on May 12.

With that, the Crimson Tide had their first departure from the recruiting class of 2016, before most of the other signed prospects had even arrived on campus. He was the latest boom-or-bust guy who didn’t pan out, as Alabama hasn’t had the greatest luck of late with junior college transfers.

Baldwin was an offensive tackle from ASA College in Brooklyn, New York, the same junior college where Alabama found former offensive lineman Leon Brown. At 6’5″, 297 pounds, Baldwin was said to be a weight-room junkie and was set to be the program’s first scholarship player from Connecticut, having played at Windsor High School.

“Charles Baldwin was probably at least the best junior college offensive tackle type that we could find, which we thought we were a little short in tackle types, especially guys that had experience,” Saban said on national signing day. “We recruit junior college guys because we think he’s going to be good enough to play, because they need to play. So then we need for him to play. So he has a lot of athleticism to him as well and can play with power.”

Baldwin lasted just four months in “the process,” Saban’s self-titled development program, and was dismissed exactly two days after the deadline for all spring-semester grades to be submitted.

He didn’t make the expected splash during spring workouts and did not challenge to be the starting right tackle as hoped. On A-Day, when players were split into two sides to play a game-like exhibition to close spring practices, Baldwin was a reserve for the White Team, which had the second-team offense (and first-team defense). In other words, he never moved up from the bottom of the depth chart.

Overall, Alabama has added one or two junior college players every year under Saban, although some have done little more than provide depth.

The obvious exception to that was Jarran Reed, a defensive lineman who had been D.J. Pettway’s teammate at East Mississippi Community College. A month ago, he was a second-round selection in the NFL draft by the Seattle Seahawks.

In almost any other year, he probably would have been a first-round pick, but Reed and A’Shawn Robinson were in a draft oversaturated with quality defensive linemen.

“[They’re] really, really good players,” Saban said on Alabama’s pro day. “They played on one of the best defenses in the country, and they were both bell cows and great leaders and affected other guys on the team in a positive way, and I think they have tremendous size, tremendous ability. I think whoever gets them, wherever they get picked, they are going to have a great career.”

Last year, of course, Alabama took a controversial chance on former Georgia defensive tackle Jonathan Taylor, only to have it backfire with a public-relations black eye.

Specifically, Taylor had been kicked off the Bulldogs following two arrests, one being domestic violence-related. After Taylor spent a season at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi, Saban decided to give him a second chance, but with some “stipulations,” including that another incident wouldn’t be tolerated.

On March 28, 2015, Taylor was arrested and again faced domestic violence charges. The next day, he was kicked off the team.

The woman who filed the complaint would recant her statement, and Taylor eventually reached an agreement with prosecutors in which he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor criminal mischief.

Although the Southeastern Conference reacted by passing a rule preventing incoming transfers of student-athletes who have been previously disciplined for “serious misconduct” at a different school, Taylor is back in football. He attended Southeastern Louisiana last fall and is on its roster for the 2016 season.

“While we are aware of past controversies, Jonathan has not been found guilty for the incidents he was accused of that led to his dismissal from his prior institutions,” the school said in a release when he enrolled, per ESPN.com’s Nicole Noren.

Taylor was Alabama’s only junior college addition in 2015. The year before, it had four, including Reed and Pettway, who had been kicked out of school in 2013 and worked his way back. All four players earned their degrees, with offensive tackle Dominick Jackson and tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith being the others.

However, prior to Reed, the last ones to be drafted were 2011 additions Quinton Dial and Jesse Williams, both defensive linemen.

In 2008 and 2009, Alabama had success with nose guard Terrence Cody, who became a two-time All-American (although he is currently serving a nine-month prison sentence for starving one of his dogs to death) and offensive tackle James Carpenter, a surprising first-round draft pick in 2011.

Alabama also recently recruited quarterback Chad Kelly, now the starter at Ole Miss, when he was at East Mississippi after Clemson kicked him off the team.

“We thought he was a really, really good player and we’d have loved to have him in the program,” Saban said. “We weren’t sure we were ready to recruit a junior college quarterback right then at that time, but we certainly recruited him and wanted him in our program and thought he was an outstanding player.”

Yet for every success story, there seems to be the opposite due to numerous players who didn’t work out for whatever reason. Sadly, Aaron Douglas has to be mentioned among them. The offensive tackle died from a drug overdose while at a party in Florida after finishing his first semester at the Capstone in 2011. (Numerous school officials and players attended his funeral. The Crimson Tide wore black stickers of his No. 77 on helmets, and his locker was left open that season.)

That year, wide receiver Duron Carter was on the roster for a while, but despite his enormous potential he never played a down for the Crimson Tide. Brandon Lewis, a defensive end who moved to tight end and played in seven games in 2010, walked away from football with a year of eligibility remaining after earning his degree.

In 2012, Alabama was so short-handed at cornerback that it brought in two junior college players. Travell Dixon, from Eastern Arizona College, was the player everyone thought might make an immediate impact. But things didn’t work out in Tuscaloosa, and he instead landed at Washington. The other player was Deion Belue, who became a two-year starter.

In a perfect world, Alabama would almost never recruit a junior college player simply because it wouldn’t need to or wouldn’t have the necessary opening on the roster. But that’s also unrealistic.

Not all prospects work out, junior college transfer or not. Coupled with injuries and attrition, holes in the depth chart develop.

Sometimes a junior college player transfer can be a quick fix or at least a sort of safety net. Other times the player is considered so good that a program like Alabama is willing to offer a second chance despite his previous actions.

Maybe it shouldn’t, or at least think twice about doing so.

That said, every JUCO prospect has a unique story, and the rewards can be worth the risk. Williams, for example, was Australian and needed time to get used to the game.

In addition to Baldwin, Jamar King—a 6’5″, 285-pound defensive lineman who didn’t have it together academically while at Denby High School in Detroit—was in the recruiting class of 2016. He’s the cousin of Tuscaloosa-based boxer Deontay Wilder, used to have a full-time job and at age 26 is the kind of guy one almost can’t help root for as he follows his dream.

Last season, King had nine sacks while playing for Mendocino College in Ukiah, California, and was named the California Community College Athletic Association’s Region II Defensive Player of the Year.

Moreover, according to 247Sports, Dodge City Community College linebacker Gary Johnson has committed for the class of 2017, while Alabama is also after City College of San Francisco offensive tackle Elliot Baker.

Maybe one of them will be the kind of diamond in the rough that makes going after some junior college players worthwhile.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

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