Former Alabama football players thank retired coach Nick Saban for helping them reach NFL combine

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Some Alabama players saw the signs of Nick Saban's impending departure from college football long before his January retirement announcement.

Others were every bit as surprised as the general public.

Still, the Crimson Tide players attending this week's NFL annual scouting combine shared one sentiment: Without Saban's mentorship, they might not be here — preparing for a pro career.

“It kind of hurt a lot of people’s hearts,” linebacker Dallas Turner said when asked about his reaction to the decision. "A lot of people think you can coach college football forever, but you really can’t. I feel like he opened up a lot of opportunities, touched a lot of hearts and touched a lot of minds, the players he’s coached.”

For Turner, the ties run deep.

He credits Saban with helping him find the self-discipline to transform himself from a highly touted prep prospect into a college star and eventually into a 6-foot-3, 247-ound edge rusher who is projected to be a first-round pick in April's draft.

Turner also sensed there had been changes in his college coach over the past three seasons, and he wasn't alone.

Defensive tackle Justin Eboigbe, who overcame a career-threatening neck injury to receive one of the precious combine invites, also detected a difference when he viewed an image of a rain-drenched Saban walking slowly toward the locker room during a game last fall.

"When I saw that picture of him when we had that rain delay against USF, I kind of knew something was up,” Eboigbe said. “But it’s like anything. If you can’t give it your full go, you’re never going to cheat the game. I feel like once he realized he couldn’t give it his full go, it was time for him to step away.”

The players certainly understood the decision.

At 72, after winning 297 career games and cementing his legacy with seven national championships — six at Alabama, one at LSU — Saban had nothing left to prove.

They just didn't expect the end of the Saban era to come nine days after finishing the season with a rare loss.

“I thought he was going to coach until the wheels fell off, I didn’t think he was going to retire. When I saw it on Twitter, I thought it was like a meme,” defensive end Chris Braswell said. “Just his love and passion for the game, he's always talking about football, he lives, breathes, eats, sleeps, football, so I didn’t think he was going to retire.”

Nor did defensive back Jay Key, who also learned of the decision on social media.

Key said he came to Alabama so he could challenge himself to play at a higher level in the SEC and improve his pro prospects. But he also learned a valuable lesson from Saban — success comes with a price.

Key hopes new coach Kalen DeBoer will be as influential to the next wave of Tide players as Saban was to all those who called him their coach. Mostly, though, Key had a simple parting message for Saban.

“I thought he would coach a couple more years,” Key said. "He's definitely a legend, though he didn't show it. He kept going and doing the same thing for so many years, winning at the level he’s winning, and he didn’t really show it.

"The guy was getting old, he’s a legend, so hey, enjoy retirement, coach.”

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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football