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Dr. Saturday

Early Exits: Trent Richardson, Dré Kirkpatrick and Don’ta Hightower, Alabama’s band of blue chips

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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Trent Richardson and Dré Kirkpatrick arrived at Alabama as five-star headliners in the most touted recruiting class of 2009, and it's safe to say they justified the billing: Three years later, they're on their way to the NFL along with linebacker Don'ta Hightower as All-Americans, national champions and soon-to-be millionaires, dreadlocked cornerstones of the latest addition to the Crimson Tide canon. The local equivalent of a stained-glass window is already in the works.

Richardson, especially, is a physical absurdity whose production as a junior finally caught up to his Olympian countenance. Dude was always a freak: Even as a freshman, trying to tackle him was like trying to tackle a greased-up refrigerator full of bricks rolling downhill. But it wasn't until this year — with 1,679 yards on the ground and 2,083 all-purpose yards, by far the best in the SEC on both counts — that he emerged from Mark Ingram's shadow as a Heisman-worthy workhorse in his own right, a 225-pound ball of fury who regularly embarrassed defenders and accounted for 36 percent of the team's total offense.

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Quite a few great Alabama backs have run for more yards, but none of them could do to a would-be tackler what Richardson could do. Of the multitude of blue-chip options lining up to take his place in 2012 — Eddie Lacy, Brent Calloway, Dee Hart, T.J. Yeldon — it's hard to imagine any of them will be able to, either.

Kirkpatrick and Hightower, on the other hand, weren't so much freaks or stars as they were highly efficient drones in Nick Saban's finely tuned Death Star of a defense, which thrives on turning first-rate talent into brutal efficiency. No defense has been better in the last 20 years — it's arguable no defense has been better in any single phase of defense, with the exception of takeaways — and it may take another 20 years to match: Including the early exits, 'Bama is losing six starters from Monday night's BCS Championship whitewash of LSU, at least five of whom will be drafted and at least three of whom (including Kirkpatrick) will be coming off the board in the first round.

Of course, there's another wave of blue chips coming right behind them, too. Which should give the reset of the rest of the SEC — at most — a one-year window in which the Crimson Tide are merely "stifling" rather than outright "suffocating." But certainly they know well enough by now not to get their hopes up.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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