Just over a year ago, football players from UAB were facing a harsh reality: their program was being shut down and they'd need to find another place to play. With several players aiming higher than just college success, their main goal was finding a new school that would bolster their chances of an NFL roster spot.
"It was just very crazy," running back Jordan Howard said recently after he was selected by the Chicago Bears in the 2016 NFL Draft. "We had been hearing rumors they might shut the program down and then when it actually happened we just couldn't believe it because we finally had a winning season, we were bowl eligible. For all that to happen, we were just crushed."
It was only seven months after the school announced it was dropping football that it reversed the decision and reinstated the sport. Already mid-summer, and with over half the team gone, UAB missed the 2015 season, but started back up this spring and will resume playing games in 2017.
"We had the potential to be great," Shaq Jones, one of the few players who stayed at UAB, told AL.com after spring practice. "It was frustrating because those were guys who were here making big plays, but then they were making big plays for other teams."
All in all, 56 players ended up transferring to new schools last season, some earning scholarships and some trying to make it as walk-ons. Given the circumstances, they were able to play for their new schools right away rather than having to sit out a year, which is typically required of transfer student-athletes who don't change divisions.
UAB doesn't have a rich NFL history -- only 12 players have ever been drafted from the school -- but six alumni were on Week 1 rosters last year, including 2015 draft picks J.J. Nelson (Arizona Cardinals) and Kennard Backman (Green Bay Packers), as well as its most well-known grad, former Falcons receiver Roddy White.
In this year's draft, four players who once sported the Blazers uniform were looking to make their way into the pros. With a final year in college that involved new schemes, coaches and teammates, all four prospects still wound up with NFL teams -- one through the draft (Howard), and three signing as undrafted free agents (Jake Ganus, Rolan Milligan and Jontavious Morris).
Jordan Howard, RB, Chicago Bears
The running back made his way to Indiana University just days after the last brick of the UAB program fell. Howard was a highly recruited transfer after rushing for 2,468 yards and 15 touchdowns in his two seasons in Birmingham, and the Hoosiers needed to add depth to their roster after losing Tevin Coleman to the NFL.
Howard went on to record 1,213 rushing yards on 196 carries for nine touchdowns for Indiana, despite missing four games with ankle and knee injuries. His impact was short but effective, and the Bears drafted him in the fifth round with the No. 150 overall pick.
"Coming out of high school I had one offer -- playing at UAB, Conference USA," Howard said after the draft. "I definitely wanted to prove I could play on a bigger stage. And I was doing it for UAB because they shut the program down so I wore my heart on my sleeve for them."
Howard's time in the Midwest means the Alabama native shouldn't have to adjust to playing in one of the coldest football cities in the country. And since longtime Bears running back Matt Forte signed with the Jets this offseason, Howard should have a good shot at earning playing time in 2016.
Jake Ganus, LB, Minnesota Vikings
In 2013, Ganus was lauded as one of the most potent defensive players for UAB by our friends Anchor of Gold. They described him as a hybrid player who can line up at linebacker or safety. Having earned playing time as a true freshman, he was one of the leading defenders by the time the team disbanded.
He transferred to Georgia, where he quickly became one of the team's top defenders. In his first and only season with the Bulldogs, Ganus racked up a team-leading 102 total tackles, 28 more than 2016 first-round pick Leonard Floyd. He was also voted captain for four different games. The linebacker didn't hear his name called during the draft, but didn't wait long after the final pick was made for his phone to ring, and ended up signing as an undrafted free agent with the Vikings.
Rolan Milligan, DB, Dallas Cowboys
The safety has made a few stops on his way to the league. Milligan started his collegiate career playing JUCO ball in California, before making his way to Birmingham and then winding up at Toledo last season.
Milligan boasted the second-most tackles (54) for UAB in 2014 before the program fell apart. He continued to be a leader at his new school, and recorded 48 tackles, four for loss, along with three passes defended, three forced fumbles and two interceptions in his one year with Toledo. His time up north was short, however. He signed with the Cowboys soon after the NFL Draft.
Jontavious Morris, DL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Morris took some time to finish his finals before looking at his options for playing his last year of college ball. He was another highly recruited Blazer, who put up 20 tackles, two for loss and a blocked kick. He also scored a 43-yard touchdown on a fumble recovery. With offers from Georgia State, UNC-Charlotte and Middle Tennessee State, the defensive lineman took his talents to Conference USA foe Western Kentucky.
The 6'2, 305-pound lineman had a productive senior campaign with the Hilltoppers, finishing with 34 tackles, two sacks and two blocked kicks. His special teams ability alone was enough for the Buccaneers to take a look and eventually sign Morris as an undrafted free agent.
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A year ago, it looked like Nelson might be one of the final Blazers headed to the NFL. Now, he's joined by four former teammates, even if the schools next to their names don't say "UAB."
With the football team returning, though, soon more UAB players will get their shots at the NFL. That comes as a relief for the players who were once part of the team.
"I think it's very exciting that they're giving more people the opportunity to play football at the Division I level, and I think it's the right thing to do," Howard said.