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January 9, 2011Even in an era where it is understood that the best professional prospects are likely to play only three years of college football - unless they are named Andrew Luck - it can still leave an empty feeling when a team's stars depart with remaining eligibility.
In the case of Alabama's three departing seniors, though, it is hard to feel that way. Yes, it would have been monumental if even one of the group - Julio Jones, Mark Ingram and Marcel Dareus - had come back to help a team that looks like it will be right back in BCS Championship contention in 2011.
But, even though they didn't end their careers in championship fashion, there is no real sense that Jones, Ingram and Dareus left anything undone. They all have national championship rings. One has a Heisman Trophy. Another has an MVP Trophy from the BCS title game, a contest in which he scored a defensive touchdown and knocked out the other team's best player with a legal hit.
The third has reconfigured the standards by which future wide receivers will be judged at Alabama, not an easy thing to do at a school that has produced Don Hutson and Ozzie Newsome.
Despite ill-advised agent contact by Dareus over the summer, the three represented Alabama well off the field. Even in suspending Dareus, the NCAA noted that his suspension was reduced due to his honesty and cooperation in the investigation.
Jones, who came to Alabama with the spotlight and potential ego-inflating accolade of being America's No. 1 prep prospect, instead became a quiet leader for Alabama, one who seemed as serious about blocking for a teammate as making a one-handed catch.
Ingram, of course, captured the nation's affection with his heartfelt Heisman Trophy acceptance speech, and was a positive ambassador for UA even if his junior season, marked by nagging injuries, did not measure up statistically to his sophomore season.
To borrow Dave Marsh's line about the break-up of the Beatles: "There was no sense that they left anything undone. They did it all, they did it right and then they went their separate ways."
The question now, of course, is what is left in their wake? Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban says there are still draft-eligible players on the UA roster who are making decisions about an early exit. (He didn't name names, but safety Mark Barron, receiver/returner Marquis Maze and linebacker Courtney Upshaw have all been deemed as possibilities.)
In this season of an uncertain NFL labor situation, none of the three are guaranteed first-rounders like the departing trio, and none would be making a sound decision by leaving. If they follow teammate Dont'a Hightower and stick around, UA will have the makings of a crushing defense, and enough weapons to put around a new quarterback and ease the offensive transition.
That doesn't guarantee anything, of course - how many people thought Alabama would be back in this year's BCS title game, instead of sitting at home and watching Auburn play for the title? But Alabama is likely to start the 2011 season in the Top 10, probably the Top Five. It's possible that even without Ingram, Dareus and Jones, the lessons learned in this year's three defeats will resonate in the same way they did in the Capital One Bowl.
Alabama may never have three such high-impact players in one class again. But it doesn't mean the signing class of 2008 can't accomplish more - or that the foundation Ingram, Jones and Dareus helped to build can't be used to construct future championships.
Cecil Hurt is sports editor of The Tuscaloosa News.