For new Tide Head Coach Mike Price, Friday was his first chance to see the event in person. And he definitely came away impressed. "I thought it was tremendous," Price said. "It was lots of fun. It was a great chance for the fans to see the players in a different light. Especially to see them enjoying themselves and competing. You can really see who the competitors are around here. I think the guys did a great job."
Now in his third year on the job, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Ben Pollard was already convinced. But he was understandably a bit nervous beforehand. "It's been a long winter," Pollard said. "When you think about all the stuff our kids have been through the last three months, I feel good about tonight. I think the kids had fun, and they did really well. There wasn't a player here tonight that didn't perform better than I thought he would."
This year's NOC was scheduled a full two months earlier than in year's past, which meant the athletes weren't as far along in their training as before. But two position records fell, including one program record. Senior receiver Dre Fulgham bettered his own mark in the bench press by lifting 455 pounds. And junior guard Justin Smiley solidified his reputation as possibly the best lifter on the squad, hoisting 440 pounds on the hang clean to the delight of the crowd.
Smiley later came within a hair's breadth of cleaning 450. "I wasn't trying to be a superman," Smiley explained. "I was just playing around when I told everybody that I was going for 450 pounds. I did not have a clue I would get that close. I didn't know I would get 440. But with our crowd and the way our fans get into it, I got an extra boost. When I got the 440 nailed, I thought ‘I'm going to try something crazy and go for 450.'
"I almost got it, but that gives me something to do next time."
Five other athletes tried their luck at the hang clean, a lift where the 300-pound mark is considered very good. Sophomore Mark Anderson lifted 355 pounds. Redshirt freshman Kyle Tatum managed 335. Sophomore Clint Johnston reached the 365 mark. Sophomore Freddie Roach got 355. And junior Antwan Odom powered 405 pounds up, just five pounds away from the position record for D-Linemen.
Besides Fulgham, four other athletes passed the 400-pound mark on bench press. Junior Josh Smith and freshman Jeremy Clark both pressed 455 pounds. Senior Derrick Pope managed 475. And junior offensive lineman Evan Mathis put on a bench-press show, lifting 500 pounds for a personal best. Mathis later managed 29 reps at 225 pounds, while demonstrating the NFL combine test for strength.
Five athletes participated in the squat, a lift in which 500 pounds is considered very good. Redshirt freshman Nic Luke hit the 500-pound mark exactly. Senior Roberto McBride and sophomore Greg McLain managed 515 and 520 pounds respectively. At 181 pounds, that's almost three times McBride's body weight. Sophomore Demeco Ryans impressed with a squat of 575 pounds, just five pounds under Saleem Rasheed's position record for the lift. Junior lineman Wesley Britt squatted 635 pounds, especially impressive for an athlete with his 6-7 frame.
"With the crowd cheering and the adrenaline flowing, the performances were a lot better than in the weight room when there's not much going on," Pollard commented.
Smiley agreed, "Anytime we can get our fans in the house. These people really care about us, not just on the football field. It's an amazing feeling to have people come out and watch you lift. I had a great time."
The shortest athlete on the team, Brooks is listed at 5-4 in the media guide. "I tried to make sure we had an equal representation from the squad, big and small guys," Pollard said. "Seeing Brandon Brooks on the vertical jump and a big ole guy like Anthony Bryant and Wesley Britt. That's great for the fans."
Pollard also was careful to include several newcomers in Friday's lineup, in many cases giving fans their first glimpse of athletes that redshirted last season. Kyle Tatum, Nic Luke and Jeremy Clark were all on display for the first time in their Alabama careers. "It was very exciting, just to be out here in front of the crowd," Clark said afterwards. "Them and my teammates cheering helped me do more than I ever thought I could do. I was ready, though. I had been getting my mind right all day.
"It was a chance for the fans to come down and see us without our football gear on. The fans were pumped, my teammates were pumped, the coaches were pumped--that helped us."
Pollard echoed Clark's point. "It gives people a chance to come see the players in a different setting. Most fans can't identify that many players without their uniforms on with the numbers and names on the back of the shirt. It lets them see a face and know who the players are."
After the "serious" business was done, several players entertained the crowd with a dunk contest. In fact, more than a few members of the squad are serious hoopsters in their spare time. Dre Fulgham, Zach Fletcher, Juwan Garth, Mark Anderson, Antwan Odom and Anthony Bryant all showcased their skills.
(Yes, both Bryant's dunks were successful. And no, the backboard did not shatter.)
Fletcher and Garth really put on a show, with Garth wowing the fans with several high-flying moves.
Besides Pollard, none of the present staff had seen a Night of Champions before. So the players were showing off for their new coaches as much as for the fans. "I don't think this coaching staff knew what to expect," Pollard said. "I think in the future this will be something they'll rally around even more."
Price is looking forward to more progress to come. "As a squad, we haven't peaked yet," he noted. "These guys have really just been working for a couple of months, so I'm sure these numbers will go up even more. But tonight was really exciting and lots of fun."