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Alabama running back Najee Harris is wrapped up by several defenders during Thursday's practice. [KENT GIDLEY/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]

TUSCALOOSA — The usually prepared Nick Saban was admittedly caught off guard by a question Thursday night.

Who is the best college quarterback he’s ever seen in his four decades as a coach?

And, after contemplating and head shaking, Alabama’s coach thought back to his NFL days and rattled off stories involving legendary quarterbacks like John Elway, Dan Marino and even Tom Brady, whose college career at Michigan has largely been overshadowed by his Hall of Fame resume in the NFL.

“Tom Brady played really good against us when I was (head coach) at Michigan State,” Saban recalled. “We actually won the game, 34-31, … but it was because they played a different quarterback half the game. If they’d have played (Brady) the whole game I don’t know what would have happened.”

In the game, a then-senior Brady replaced Wolverines sophomore Drew Henson and completed 30 of 41 passes for 285 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns to nearly topple Saban’s No. 11-ranked Spartans. The Michigan State victory snapped a three-game win streak in the series and was just the second of Saban’s five-year tenure in East Lansing. 

Eighteen years later, Saban ran into another highly-touted signal caller who many analysts say might be the best quarterback prospect in college football right now: Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.

Lawrence, just a true freshman last season, put on a passing clinic in beating Alabama 44-16 in last year’s College Football Playoff national championship game. He threw for 347 yards on 20 of32 passing and three touchdowns on Jan. 7. The performance certainly caught Saban’s attention.

“I think Trevor Lawrence played about as well against us last year in the championship game as anybody we’ve seen here in recent times,” Saban said. “And so did their quarterback a couple of years ago (Deshaun Watson).”

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Tide improving injury-wise

After experiencing a week that involved losing two likely contributors for an “indefinite” period of time, Alabama could be in for some good news on the injury front.

Saban said previously injured defensive linemen D.J. Dale (knee) would begin practicing “on a limited basis” beginning today while redshirt freshman Stephon Wynn Jr. would be “out for another week” after suffering a high ankle sprain in last Saturday’s scrimmage.

Meanwhile, junior defensive end LaBryan Ray (ankle) returned to practice this week but has been limited while going through the normal acclimation period.

“From an injury standpoint, we don’t really have any new injuries. We’ve got guys that are a little nicked up (or) whatever,” Saban said. 

Last week was particularly difficult after redshirt senior linebacker Joshua McMillon suffered a serious knee injury and freshman running back Trey Sanders was potentially lost for the season after breaking his foot.

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Alabama puts 16 on All-SEC squad

Alabama had a SEC-leading 16 players named to the coaches’ preseason all-conference team Thursday, including a league-best nine first-team selections with a junior quintet of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, running back Najee Harris, receiver Jerry Jeudy and offensive tackles Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills Jr. headlining the first-team offense. Senior defensive end Raekwon Davis, senior cornerback Trevon Diggs, and junior linebacker Dylan Moses were also members of the first-team defense, while sophomore receiver Jaylen Waddle was a dual first-teamer as both a return specialist and all-purpose player.

Senior outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings was a second-team selection, along with junior safety Xavier McKinney and sophomore cornerback Patrick Surtain II, and junior receiver Henry Ruggs III. Waddle made another appearance on the All-SEC team as a third-team receiver, with senior defensive back Shyheim Carter, junior defensive end LaBryan Ray and redshirt senior offensive lineman Matt Womack also third-team picks.

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