TUSCALOOSA _ The irony wasn't lost on University of Alabama redshirt sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower. Friday afternoon he was sitting with three teammates who had been in his same signing class, only for the first time since 2008 they were getting ready to go someplace without him.
Yes, Marcell Dareus, Mark Ingram and Julio Jones all had illustrious collegiate careers and are projected to be first-round selections in the 2011 NFL Draft, but there was a part of Hightower that obviously wanted to be going with them.
Maybe next year ... or the year after that.
"It's kind of weird," said Hightower, who will return for next season to try and improve his draft stock after having major knee surgery in 2009. "Coming in freshman year we all wanted to go three-and-out. It's kind of a big deal. Some guys were blessed to go three-and-out and, some guys will stay an extra year and some guys will go five years. But we're always going to stay close, we're a close-knit group.
"I wish the best of luck for them."
Even though many of them are far from completing their Crimson Tide careers, it's already apparent that Alabama's highly-vaunted Class of 2008 wasn't just as good as expected, but even better.
Consider some of the accolades: National championship, SEC championship, Heisman Trophy, numerous All-Americans, even an academic All-American.
"It was a great class," Coach Nick Saban said. "There was a lot of opportunity for these guys early in their career. These guys took advantage of it and made significant impact on the program immediately. This class had as much to do with what's been accomplished the past three years as any class, and I would say based on their performance and results it's got to be as good as any."
That year Saban's first full recruiting class at Alabama topped the Rivals team rankings ahead of Notre Dame, Florida, Ohio State and Miami. Of the 30 five-star prospects, Saban landed three including Jones, the No. 4 prospect in the nation behind Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, Clemson defensive end DaQuan Bowers and Ohio State lineman Mike Adams, and just ahead of LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson.
The two other five-star prospects have yet to land regular starting roles yet, with offensive tackle Tyler Love and defensive back B.J. Scott still working their way up the depth chart, and Scott missed all practices for the Capital One Bowl after having ankle surgery.
"I think at this point the 2008 group is certainly on its way to being the best class ever in Alabama history if it isn't already. I remember when this group was signed I talked about not just the talent in this group but also how complete the class is," BamaOnLine.com and Rivals.com Senior Recruiting Analyst Tim Watts said. "This year you see a running back, defensive tackle and wide receiver going high in the draft and next year you could see an offensive guard (Barrett Jones), safety (Mark Barron), linebacker (Dont'a Hightower) and defensive end (Courtney Upshaw) drafted relatively high and all our from the same group. Also you can't forget Terrence Cody from last year. So from a talent standpoint this is a spectacular group.
"From an achievement standpoint the numbers are just as impressive, a three-year record of 35-5 with two SEC West titles, an SEC title and a national championship, and next year they are almost a guarantee to be a two-three ranking in the country so that overall record and the accolades could look even more impressive when all is said and done."
No one may have come further in three years than Dareus, who was rated by Rivals to be a three-star recruit out of Huffman High School in Birmingham, as was one of the players who will try and replace him, Damion Sqaure.
"I had no idea I would excel the way I did," Dareus said.
"Marcell, from the day we recruited him has done unbelievable things to make himself what he is," Saban said.
Here's how the Class of 2008 breaks down:
Have gone pro: Terrence Cody, nose tackle; Marcell Dareus, defensive end; Mark Ingram, running back; Julio Jones, wide receiver.
Regular starters: Mark Barron, safety; Dont'a Hightower, linebacker; Barrett Jones, right guard; Robert Lester, defensive back; Damion Square, defensive lineman; Courtney Upshaw, linebacker; Michael Williams, tight end.
Has not played: Glenn Harbin, defensive end/linebacker.
No longer on the team: Chris Jackson, wide receiver (transfer to Georgia Tech); Star Jackson, quarterback (transfer to Georgia State); Alonzo Lawrence, cornerback (transfer to Southern Miss); Ivan Matchett, running back (medical scholarship); Jermaine Preyear, running back (transfer to Alabama State); Corey Smith, kicker (transfer to West Virginia).
For those who helped make up the up the backbone of the Crimson Tide the sense of kinship is as strong as ever, even among those already moving on.
"It's ridiculous," Dareus said. "We love each other like brothers. We'd do anything for each other.
"For us, to end like this, it's overwhelming. We came in and made an impact."
The same holds true for his now-former teammates, who now also start turning their attention to what's next.
"We can be a really good, dominant defense," Hightower said.
Watts reflected more on the 2008 class:
On Dareus: "Marcel sorta slid under the radar because the summer before his senior year his academics were in bad shape. To his credit he did a lot of work that year leading up to and during his senior year to make it academically. Also much credit should go to Alabama who stayed on him the whole time and committed him late in the process. At the time Kevin Steele recruiting Birmingham for Nick Saban but all the defensive coaches pitched in on Dareus.
"2008 was the deepest year in Alabama history. BOL had Marcel ranked seventh that year which was higher than most but still too low. His senior tape didn't go out until after national signing day had passed and the rankings were done for the year but I think he exceeded everyone's expectation but his own."
On Jones: "Julio was easy. I will never forget Foley sent me tape of junior quarterback Roosevelt Byrd and I thought Byrd was a solid prospect but as I watched the tape I kept wondering who this long kid who could fly was that was hauling in all these passes. I called head coach Todd Watson and he asked me how long before I noticed him. I told him I was a little over 3 minutes into the highlight tape. He laughed and said that was too long not to notice him.
"Julio and (Tim) Tebow are the kids I credit with sending recruiting at Alabama to the frenzied level it is currently at but for completely different reasons. Tebow was good with the media and Julio was did not want to be bothered by it. When I first met Julio, before he was everyone's All-American, he was as quiet and media shy as he is now. He never sought that limelight off the field.
"His recruitment was insane in a lot of ways. He took an official visit to Oklahoma our and the Rivals.com Sooner writers got quotes from him on his visit at the airport before he flew home. That was the first time anyone spoke to him in what seemed like forever. To me his commitment in this class put the stamp on in as a great class."
On Ingram: "When you look back at the lack of hoopla surround Ingram's recruitment it's sort of amazing. It wasn't until December that we felt Alabama was a legitimate option for him. Up until that point most had wrote him off as a likely Michigan State commitment. Once Alabama got heavily involved it all happened real fast. It was pretty obvious how serious he was about Alabama in January with the way he talked about getting away from home and seeing a new place.
"The thing that stood out about Mark was what an awesome kid he was. Well spoken, polite and sincere. He didn't mince his words and in a lot of ways he was a lot in high school like he was the night of his Heisman speech. It's just hard not to like a kid like that."
Summary: "I think when you look back at the 2008 group of 32 signees and you see the guys who have made, the guys who are on the verge of living up to the hype, the kids who changed schools or the ones who tried professional sports you have to be impressed with what they have done and there is still a lot more football to be played."