At this time last year, when Alabama coach Nick Saban told Denzel Devall he had a chance to play for the defending national champions as a true freshman, the former Bastrop High star thought he was being fed a recruiting line.
Though confident in his ability, Devall was skeptical of his chances of getting on the field right away for a program that had stockpiled defensive talent. Plus, the four-star recruit understood that coaches telling players what they think they want to hear was part of the recruiting process.
“When I was being recruited, coach Saban said if I learned the system fast enough, I would play right away, but I really didn't believe him,” Devall admitted.
Saban, the mastermind behind college football's premier program and the architect of four national championship teams (LSU in 2003; Alabama in 2009, '11 and '12) proved to be a man of his word. Not only did Devall play as a true freshman, he played quite extensively. Seeing action in all 14 games at Jack linebacker, including 24 snaps in the Crimson Tide's 42-14 demolition of Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7, Devall totaled 18 tackles, with two sacks, three tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries en route to being named to The Sporting News Freshman All-America Team.
Devall's dream season wasn't limited to the field as the education major finished the fall semester with a 3.5 grade point average.
“I guess I was used to it in high school,” Devall said of his proficiency in maintaining a high grade point average while meeting the demands of football. “After practice, I would go home to the books. It's really not that hard. You just have to discipline yourself, go to class, go to study hall and do the right things.”
Missing out on Bastrop High's run of three straight Class 4A state championships (2005-07) by a year, Devall has only a class ring to show for his prep career.
“I never got to play for a championship in high school. I was on the team with Rueben my freshman year and we missed out on a ring (Bastrop lost to eventual state champion Belle Chasse 35-34 in the 2008 semifinals),” said Devall, recalling former Bastrop teammate Rueben Randle, who recently completed his rookie season as a wide receiver for the New York Giants. “I've never been through anything like this. It's been a great experience for me.”
Needless to say, the opportunity to play for Saban had a pronounced impact on Devall's choice of colleges. Devall hasn't been disappointed.
“Playing for coach Saban is kind of like playing for Brad,” Devall said, referring to former Bastrop High coach Brad Bradshaw. “It's intense and fun at the same time.”
Page 2 of 3 - Despite the rigors of playing in the Southeastern Conference and being the defending national champion, Devall says the Crimson Tide never felt any pressure to repeat.
“We didn't really use the word repeat,” Devall said. “Basically, the only pressure was to go out there and play to the best of our ability every week.
“The SEC is real intense. It's like the NFL, basically — anything can happen in a given week.”
Throughout the championship season, Devall crossed paths with four former Rams — wide receiver DeAngelo Benton (Auburn), defensive tackle Josh Downs (LSU), defensive tackle D.D. Jones (Arkansas) and athlete Randall Mackey (Ole Miss) — in the SEC West.
“I talked to all of them after the game except Josh. I looked for him, but never found him,” Devall said. “Mackey had a good year. He ran the ball hard against us and LSU.”
Devall says the transition from high school to college wasn't as difficult as one might expect.
“It wasn't really that hard,” Devall said. “June was my transition month as far as getting my feet wet.
Then there was summer conditioning and (preseason) camp. It took me the first week of camp to get used to everything. Then the season came along. Once the season started, it was a cakewalk.”
There was never time to get homesick.
“I didn't get homesick at all because you're always so busy here,” Devall said. “You go to practice, go to study hall and by the end of the night, you're ready to fall asleep. Then you wake up the next morning and do it all again.”
Devall says the Crimson Tide are a close-knit bunch on and off the field.
“It's one big, happy family,” Devall said. “We're there for each other. Everyone is for everyone.”
Alabama's Louisiana players are a family within the family. Wide receiver Kenny Bell of Rayville and Dutchtown product and running back Eddie Lacy befriended Devall upon his arrival in Tuscaloosa.
“Kenny Bell and Lacy were the first ones to take me under their wing,” Devall said. “Kenny and Lacy room together and I room with Lanny (former Dutchtown defensive back Landon Collins).”
On the field, Devall credits linebacker C.J. Mosley for helping him make a seamless transition.
“As far as football, C.J. took me under his wing,” Devall said.
Devall plans to return to Bastrop for the Black Heritage Parade on Jan. 26, where he will serve as
Grand Marshall along with Dr. Curtis Sanders and Dr. George Noflin.
Page 3 of 3 - For now, Devall is enjoying some rare down time.
“We took last week off and we're taking this week off,” Devall said.
Then it's back to pursuing another ring.