TUSCALOOSA, AL - Alabama junior running back Mark Ingram, junior receiver Julio Jones and junior defensive lineman Marcell Dareus announced Friday that they would enter the 2011 NFL Draft, while redshirt sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower has decided to return to school for the 2011 season.
Before each player informed the media of their decision, head coach Nick Saban addressed room.
"These guys that are here on this stage, regardless of what they choose to do, I want everybody to understand that they have represented the University of Alabama, our football program, themselves and their families as well as any players that I've ever coached," Saban said. "They've probably been a part of as successful of three years of college football as anywhere in the country in terms of what they've been able to achieve with their team, as well as the individual success, and accolades that they've been able to earn.
"We're extremely pleased and proud of everything that all these young men have done, in terms of the contribution to the University of Alabama, their contribution to the Alabama football program, the effect that they've had on other people based on the personal relationships that they've developed, the leadership that they've provided and the example that they've set. At no time have I been more pleased and proud with a group of young men in terms of their accomplishments, their achievements and the class that they've had in terms of how they've represented this institution."
Ingram took time to thank his family, coaches, teammates and the football support staff, and leaves Alabama as the school's first Heisman Trophy winner and the all-time leader in rushing touchdowns. He reflected back on his three years in Tuscaloosa.
"It's been the best experience of my life," Ingram said. "I'll never forget it. Alabama will always have a special place in my heart, and I'll always bleed crimson. To all the fans, you've made this so special for me. Every Saturday running out there and seeing packed stands of 100,000 people, I will miss that. It's something that I will cherish for the rest of my life."
Jones started 40 games in his three-year career and was able to leave his mark on the Alabama record books as well, exiting with the single-season record for yards (1,133) and receptions (78). He finished second in career (2,653) yards and receptions (179).
"I want to tell the University of Alabama thank you for giving me the opportunity to come here and play," Jones said. "It's been the best three years of my life. Alabama is a very historic university. The people around here, the coaching staff, it's home away from home. You can't beat that."
Dareus, a disruptive force on the defensive line in his three years at Alabama, burst onto the national scene when he was selected as the BCS National Championship Game Defensive MVP for his performance in Alabama's 37-21 victory over Texas at the Rose Bowl last season.
"First of all I want to thank coach Saban for giving me the opportunity to come to the University of Alabama," Dareus said. "I want to thank my position coach, Bo Davis. I also want to thank my teammates, who helped me work hard and gave me motivation in the times I needed it. I want to thank the University of Alabama, Mal Moore and Coach Cochran, who is a real close friend of mine and helped me get to the point that I am today. I had a wonderful time here at Alabama. I had no idea I would excel the way I did and have so much fun with my friends. We had a wonderful time together."
Hightower was the last to address the room, and after a 2010 campaign spent coming back from a season-ending knee injury four games into the 2009 season, decided to come back for his redshirt junior year and work towards earning his degree in the fall. The middle linebacker feels that more time rehabbing his knee and another season playing at full speed should benefit him.
"Right now it's time to elevate," Hightower said of his plans heading into the offseason. "A lot of people are just kind of sitting around right now with this being the offseason, but I feel like I have a lot more catching up to do as far as extra rehab on my knee, especially times like this when it's cold outside guys aren't as active.
"I know I can play a lot better than what I was playing. It wasn't that hard to see. Anybody could see that. Plus the fact that I could come back, graduate in the fall and have my degree was something that coach Saban always preached about and it's something that my family, my mom especially, really believes in."