June 20, 2016
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Although many mistook it for a breeze, what felt like wind around the University of Alabama campus on Monday was actually the collective exhale of Crimson Tide football fans.
They had pretty much been holding their breath for a month, at least figuratively, so there was a lot of hot air involved. Just how much relief they’ll feel no one’s quite certain yet, only things were suddenly looking a lot better regarding the upcoming 2016 season.
Specifically, it stemmed from the district attorney in Monroe, La., filing paperwork that he had decided to not pursue prosecution of Crimson Tide offensive lineman Cam Robinson and defensive back Hootie Jones following their hometown arrest on May 17.
He cited insufficient evidence but also told KNOE-TV:
“I want to emphasize once again that the main reason I’m doing this is that I refuse to ruin the lives of two young men who have spent their adolescence and teenage years, working and sweating, while we were all in the air conditioning,” Jones said.
According to Greg Hilburn of newsstar.com, Jones is the longest serving Fourth District Attorney in modern history, having been elected to the position five times. He also “has a reputation for a light touch with nonviolent criminals and an iron first with violent ones.”
This was clearly among the former.
Regardless of what anyone thinks of the decision, which will be widely debated and criticized from near and afar, it’s nothing short of a huge break for the Crimson Tide’s playoff chances in 2016.
To backtrack for a moment, both players were arrested in a public park at approximately 2 a.m. Hootie Jones was charged with possession of a controlled substance and illegal carrying of a weapon; Robinson for possession of a controlled substance, illegal possession of a firearm and possession of a stolen gun, which is a felony.
At best, it was a couple of young men making a really stupid decision when home on break. At worst, one was looking at potential jail time and a promising career significantly damaged.
It’s unclear what kind of penalty Robinson could have been facing had he been prosecuted and found guilty—which could have taken months, if not years to complete. He also doesn’t turn 21 until October 9 so probably would have been granted youthful offender status, plus the possibility of a plea bargain.
The DA, however, said that four people were in the car and he could not prove who had the gun and small amount of drugs that were discovered by police. He also had to weigh if prosecuting them was worth the time, effort and money.
Of course, neither Alabama player is completely out of the woods yet. The case could proceed in the future if new evidence is presented, and they still have to face whatever punishment head coach Nick Saban might have in mind, although he’s notorious for doing so behind closed doors and not always with a suspension.
For example, in 2014, defensive lineman Jarran Reed and linebacker Dillon Lee were arrested for a DUI, and last spring Geno Matias-Smith was arrested for a second time. None appeared to miss any playing time due to their alleged transgressions. Smith even started every game of the 2015 season.
Instead, Saban’s punishments usually hinge on what the players and team can learn from the situation.
“If we can change their behavior, based on what we do, that would be the purpose of discipline,” Saban said the PGA Regions Tradition Pro-Am on May 18. “Discipline is not necessarily just punishment, which a lot of people view it that way. It’s how you change somebody’s behavior so they have a better chance to be successful.
“That’s the way that we’ve always done it, that’s the way that we try and do it. That’s the way I’d like to do it with my own children. I think that’s the way that most parents would like to do it with their own children.”
Saban, who is on vacation this week, is not expected to issue a statement on the DA’s decision, and the school had no comment Monday. Even when the head coach returns he probably won’t reveal much other than repeat that Robinson’s never been in trouble before and he considers it an internal matter.
Regardless of what he does Saban’s going to be in the spotlight and criticized, not so much for Jones, a reserve safety, but because of how Robinson can impact this season.
A potential All-American, candidate for the Outland Trophy as college football’s best interior lineman and top pick in the 2017 NFL draft, he’s the kind of player who can single-handedly make a huge difference.
Among preseason predictions, Athlon, Lindy’s, The Sporting News and ESPN have all listed Alabama as favorite to win the national championship, with Phil Steele’s annual magazine, which doesn’t hit stores until June 28, opting for Florida State with the Crimson Tide second.
Steele is predicting, though, that Alabama will be No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press Poll.
That’s assuming Robinson, a two-year starter, plays this season.
Without him Alabama has a huge hole at left tackle, which was on display during the Crimson Tide’s final spring scrimmage, A-Day. The defense was so dominating that the final score was just 7-3.
Could Alabama make a run at the national title without Robinson? Maybe. But it would have a much tougher time getting past LSU and the rest of the talent-rich SEC West. Had this happened a year ago perhaps there’s a different champion and Heisman Trophy winner.
With Robinson, though, the reigning champions still have to be considered the team to beat in college football, and a playoff favorite.
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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