Alabama's transfer exodus brings harsh new reality to Tuscaloosa after Nick Saban's retirement

New coach Kalen DeBoer is a proven winner, but he'll need to rebuild a roster that's losing pieces by the day

Kalen DeBoer will need to do a lot of roster retooling ahead of his first season at Alabama.

Numerous Alabama players have hit the transfer portal in the days following Nick Saban’s retirement last week. Five-star freshmen Caleb Downs and Kadyn Proctor became some of the latest Crimson Tide players to enter the transfer portal on Wednesday. Downs started right away at safety and led the team in tackles in 2023, and Proctor started at left tackle.

On Friday, ESPN reported that five-star 2024 QB Julian Sayin was planning to enter the transfer portal.

Those three players were seen as building blocks for the first two seasons of DeBoer’s tenure. Instead, they could go play in their home states (Georgia for Downs, Iowa for Proctor) and leave massive holes on the Alabama roster.

Some turnover was inevitable in the wake of Saban’s surprise retirement. The seven-time national champion coach kept the possibility of retirement a secret until word trickled out Jan. 10 that he was stepping down after 17 seasons with the Crimson Tide.

Saban is one of the greatest recruiters of all time. He brought five-star talent to Tuscaloosa in droves after he replaced Mike Shula and sustained top-five recruiting classes throughout his time as coach. Before he retired, Saban secured the No. 3 recruiting class in the country, according to Rivals, as Alabama signed one five-star recruit and 18 four-star recruits in the Class of 2024.

New Alabama head coach Kalen DeBoer gives his introductory speech during an NCAA college football press conference at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. DeBoer is replacing the recently retired Nick Saban. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
New Alabama coach Kalen DeBoer at his introductory news conference. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

DeBoer hasn’t had that recruiting success — yet. Fresno State isn’t exactly a recruiting hotbed, and he spent just two seasons as Washington’s head coach before getting the Alabama job. But DeBoer’s teams almost always win. The Huskies were 25-3 in his two seasons in Seattle, and his teams are 104-12 overall when counting his 67-3 record at NAIA Sioux Falls from 2005 to '09.

It’s fair to believe that it’s easier for a coach who is a consistent winner to become a good recruiter than it is for a strong recruiter to turn that recruiting success into victories. But DeBoer will have to do a lot of recruiting even before he has the chance to win a game at Alabama.

As of Friday, at least 14 Alabama players had entered the transfer portal or announced a new school since Saban’s retirement. In addition to Downs and Proctor, the group includes WR Isaiah Bond and RB Roydell Williams. Bond led the team in catches in 2023, while Williams rushed for 560 yards and five touchdowns. Defensive backs Antonio Kite (Auburn) and Dezz Ricks (Texas A&M) also transferred to SEC schools since Saban retired.

“You absolutely don’t like it,” Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said Wednesday on "The Paul Finebaum Show" about Alabama’s transfer exodus. “You don’t like it for the team.”

Some turnover after Saban left was to be expected. Players have 30 days to put their names in the transfer portal after a coaching change. And what’s happening at Alabama has happened at other schools across the country that have made coaching changes this offseason.

But the moves of Downs and Proctor make Alabama players’ transfer movement feel incredibly significant given the outsized roles they played as freshmen. In their cases, it’s easy to see that Saban’s presence was much more important than Alabama’s appeal.

Saban will still have an office at the Alabama football complex in retirement, but this is DeBoer’s team now. And it’s not an overstatement to say that the March transfer window will be significant for the Crimson Tide.

Make no mistake, there’s still plenty of talent in Tuscaloosa. QB Jalen Milroe is returning, the run game should be strong again, and years of top recruiting classes have filled the program with enough depth to sustain an offseason of significant transfer losses.

But January is also Alabama’s window into the rest of the college football world. And even if DeBoer wins right away in Tuscaloosa, like he has done everywhere else he has been, it’s fair to wonder if this offseason’s roster turnover is the start of Alabama’s new normal.