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Ryan Williams’ decision suddenly becomes dramatic and Alabama’s move on Nick Saban’s successor must be quick and right

Alabama coach Nick Saban takes the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium for what proved to be his final Iron Bowl in November. Saban told his players Wednesday he is retiring. (Jimmy Wigfield/Call News)

 

Editor’s note: This column is updated with the hiring of Kalen DeBoer as Alabama’s new coach.

 

While Alabama rolled quickly to name a successor to Nick Saban — as it did when installing Ray Perkins to follow Paul W. Bryant — many Crimson Tide fans are fearful the program will suffer an inevitable decline, as it did when the Bear retired in 1982.

But recruiting was already suffering before Bryant, who was a dying man, finally decided to retreat, saying, “I can’t coach ’em anymore.”

It’s unlikely the decline will be as precipitous as it was in the years after Bryant but Alabama likely won’t be as dominant as it was in the Saban era. NIL money and the transfer portal — which Saban abhorred and which may have been part of his decision — have helped scramble the playing field.

The Tide’s recruiting has not been suffering, at least not until Wednesday night, when Saraland receiver Ryan Williams — the nation’s highest-ranked unsigned prospect — reacted to Saban’s retirement by decommitting from Alabama. The double hammer blow put Tide fans on the floor and under the table.

Saban’s retirement, coming as it did just before February’s National Signing Day, could cost Alabama Williams. In what would be a galling Tide turner for Alabama fans, he could sign with Auburn or Texas.

Since he committed to UA as a sophomore in 2022, Williams has publicly and privately said he was staying with Alabama. But with Saban gone, Williams has the right to change his mind as much as he wants and go where he wants. With his level of maturity, he will make the proper decision and it should be respected. Williams will make a massive difference wherever he plays if he has a quarterback who can get him the ball and, face it, he can get to the NFL from nearly any Power 5 contender.

Former Alabama quarterback and local radio show host Scott Hunter said Tide fans should be concerned.

“He’s a difference maker,” Hunter said. “You lose him to Texas or Auburn, that would be a tough thing to swallow.”

Hunter suggested a change in offensive approach is needed to convince Williams to sign with Alabama and new coach Kalen DeBoer said Saturday his offense will be “explosive, aggressive and attacking, I promise you.”

Hunter said incumbent quarterback Jalen Milroe should have to compete for his job in DeBoer’s offense.

“The new coach should come in and tell Ryan, ‘We’re going back to an open quarterback competition and we’re going to operate out of the pocket and hit receivers short, intermediate and deep and into all areas of the field and give you the ball enough times for you to be a difference maker,’” Hunter said. “Jalen Milroe may not be that quarterback. I don’t think Ryan would want to go to a system where he runs routes and looks back and sees the quarterback consistently tucking the ball and running while he only gets the ball thrown to him one or two times a game.”

Williams planned official visits to Texas A&M, Alabama, Texas and Auburn on the next four weekends. Before Wednesday, those voyages were understood to be well-deserved trips and a way to give the Aggies, Longhorns and Tigers a chance to change his mind. Now, they are so much more than that.

Saban told Williams last summer he would “ be coaching until he croaks over.” No one is suggesting Saban will die within weeks of retiring, as Bryant did, but Williams was shocked by Wednesday’s developments, especially since Saban doesn’t make snap decisions of such gravity.

“I thought he’d go another two or three (years) since he’s healthy and he’s more like 52 than 72,” Hunter said. “But I don’t blame him with NIL and the portal. I was told when they got back from (the Rose Bowl), he told the athletic director, the president and the board that he was strongly considering retiring and that they should start making plans.”

Given what is at stake, Hunter said those plans must be foolproof.

“I remember something coach Bryant said, something he told the team and I overheard,” Hunter said. “He said, ‘A lot of people think I came here and built this program. You don’t realize when I was a freshman, this was already a championship program. It will be that way long after I am gone as long as we’ve got the right coach. It’s engrained here.”

It was once said anybody could succeed at Alabama, that the job made the man. But Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula proved that wrong.

“If we get the right coach, we won’t miss a beat,” Hunter said.

With new coaches at Alabama and Texas A&M, there is early uncertainty. Auburn remains unsettled going into Hugh Freeze’s second year. Texas’ Steve Sarkisian has proven what he is capable of, although the Longhorns lost to DeBoer and Washington in the College Football Playoff.

Williams might like what he sees when he visits Austin and don’t underestimate the fact that Saraland quarterback K.J. Lacey has committed to the Longhorns.

At Auburn, people are already touting the so-called Freeze Five, perhaps the best group of wide receiver recruits in SEC history. Freeze has already signed Cam Coleman, Perry Thompson, Malcolm Simmons and Bryce Cain and is relentlessly pursuing Williams.

When they heard Saban had retired around dinnertime Wednesday, celebrating Auburn fans rolled Toomer’s Corner in a stark example of what has long ailed the program on the Plains — making the state championship, not the national championship, its utopia.

They might roll it again if Williams signs with the Tigers on Feb. 9. He might be the missing piece that makes Auburn an elite program once again.

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